Book – The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson

Following what I think is excellent advice I’m on a mission to read 10 travel memoirs before writing my own. Not that mine are all travel, but there is fair chunk of voyage talk half way through writing the first draft of the book and it is a memoir.

I’m amazed in all the books that I have read in the last 48 months there has not been one travel memoir. Maybe Stuart Maconie’s Cider with Roadies counts or Kerouac’s On the Road?

In any case, I have heard a lot about Bill Bryson’s work and on more than one occasion have been tempted to pick a book up but alas always when there is a big pile waiting for me on the coffee table.

So now that I’m happily forced to do so, I pick the Thunderbolt Kid first. Strictly not travel, it’s about Bryson growing up in 1950’s middle America and centres on his family and school life. Well that’s all there is as a kid. He writes about his uber-forgetful mother, a terrible cook and not exactly maternal but somehow still doting. He writes about all the kids, the ones he picked on and the ones that picked on him. Then he talks about his father and this for me is the most enthralling part.

It turns out the late Mr Bryson senior was a sports journalist of some note, who stayed with the local paper, The Register, despite offers from the big boys. He also spent chunks of time away from home covering baseball games and I’m not sure if they would do that now. It’s just gorgeous to see how well he was rated by his son and touching for him to quote some phrases.

His mother also worked for the same newspaper as Bryson senior but his recollections are only of her being out for coffee, for lunch or forgetting that he was going to meet her at the office despite them having regular Friday ‘dates’. This in the days where he can stroll into a big office building and right up to her desk,

Inevitably in the American 1950s, despite young Bryson not experiencing that much himself during his tender years, he talks briefly about racism and details some local events of needless deaths.

However, the book is mostly uplifting and amusing starting with the anti communism stance of the counties leaders, a world away (or is it?) from the America of today where permission has been granted to build a mosque near the site of the old Twin Towers.

It’s about the era when everything changed; TV came, cars became a regular fixture, women could work as long as they were home makers too, missiles weapons were being tested without recognising the damage done and money was seemingly in plentiful supply. Anything was possible.

What a fantastic time to grow up.

8/10    Inspiration factor 9½/10

Adventures in Birmingham – introduction

Possibly the first in a series to remind us of what makes Birmingham a great place to be.

Before I begin, if you are new to me, my blog or to planet earth, this is what I’m about.
Originally from Bedford (c45 miles north of London, don’t mention Luton) I moved to Birmingham a year ago but it’s my 3rd stint of living here. This time, I came via a period in New York, my 2nd home of 2 decades standing where I attended writing school (no, I know, you wouldn’t think it). This time round the US immigrations department have taken it upon themselves to believe that I worked there illegally but of course I didn’t. (I think that’s the reason but I’ve never had anything in writing, they don’t have to give me that, it is America). Still I’m locked out of the USA until they change their mind.

Why would I work if I didn’t have to? In any case I was far too busy going to see Martha Stewart’s TV recording in the morning, bumping into Kevin Bacon in the afternoon, waiting in line at Staples whilst they printed 200 ‘no parking – filming’ signs for the latest Angelina Jolie movie being shot, deliberately walking past the school around the corner every day where John McEnroe sent his kids, just in case and manoeuvring around the red carpeted streets where there was a new SJP film premiere. Not all in one day but that’s how it is and I’m far too exhausted to work after all that.

In any case, 4 years as a freelance consultant (really, it’s not that interesting to talk about here) working 18 hour days, pretty much 7 days a week just to keep going, I had a stash of cash, the UK was going to the dogs (#skyfail, #BTfail) and I left.

I’ve been writing for 2 years now (yes I know, you wouldn’t know it) and whilst I was in New York, started a blog where amongst other things, I posted a weekly journal for my friends back home.
I thought it would be fun to do that now, albeit a lot shorter as I do work, blog, write articles for other websites and oh, I’m in the middle of writing my first memoir-based book.

If writing this helps (local) people realise why when I come back from NYC, I feel Birmingham is the place to live and not a little place called London village.

All roads lead to cake.

First adventures in Birmingham post follows

New York v Birmingham

I have been back from New York for almost a year and having resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to be in England for at least another year, or two or three, I’m semi-settled in my favourite English city, Birmingham.
As with many places I go, I have compared the neighbourhoods of Birmingham with those in New York. This is what I have come up with:

Chinatown                                                                Chinatown
Chinatown is almost identical everywhere you go in the world, although in Birmingham, blink and you’ll miss it and in New York it’s impossible to miss it if you are downtown. You cannot get passed it either. Not in a hurry in any case.

Colmore Business District                            Wall Street
Business is business but Wall Street is noticeably faster paced and the crowd starts earlier. I do enjoy being around at 8am when the people on ‘London time’ have already being working for a few hours and the rest are just starting to arrive, coffee and pastry in hand. Although Wall Street is steeped in history in that America was pretty much built from this point, Colmore has class, heritage and charm. And less sky scrapers.

St Paul’s                                                                       Morningside
Morningside Park runs just to the East of Columbia, has a big church close by, is eerily quiet with a few bars, restaurants and one or two coffee shops. St Paul’s is the closest match I can make with a pleasingly lovely, undiscovered part of New York

Jewellery Quarter                                              Diamond District
Just stating the obvious although residentially, JQT is more like East Village.

Balti Triangle                                                        Hells Kitchen
Hells Kitchen is in the region around 8th and 9th Avenues between 34th and 57th St and I’ve fallen in love with this area in recent years. It’s another obvious comparison as this area has ‘Restaurant Row’ in it. Hells Kitchen is now known as Clinton but locals in HK aren’t really up for that and are keeping the name that reminds them of the violence and riots that rocked this working class neighbourhood in the distant and recent pasts. The difference is that it has every type of restaurant you can think off. Especially popular with in the know theatre-goers from the bordering district.

Birmingham Cathedral (St Phillips)                St Patrick’s Cathedral
Birmingham’s predominant holy building is set on parkland, actually gravestones and enduringly filled with Goths, or whatever they call themselves these days and St Patrick’s is on 5th Avenue, in one the busiest noisiest, tourist filled areas of NYC outside Times Square.

Brindley Place                                                   Tribeca
Like Brindley Place, TriBeCa (Triangle below Canal St) has also been restyled in recent years from a ghost town to lofts, offices, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and higher prices and it’s near the water, Hudson River. Sounds familiar?
Tribeca is in fact one of the oldest parts of New York with cobbled streets still intact, as my many visits to the cobblers of New York will testify.

Edgbaston                                                           Upper East Side
Old money                                                              Old Money

Soho                                                                     Harlem
Soho Birmingham style is unfortunately minus the sultry jazz and blues clubs and of course the Harlem Apollo but also minus the price rising tag ‘up and coming area’. It does have some of the West Indian culture though so close enough but doesn’t make me want to live there, whereas West Harlem is certainly do-able.

Theatreland                                                   Times Square
Although Theatreland also doubles with Chelsea for a true gay comparison.

International Convention Centre         Jacob Javitz Centre
Birmingham’s premier conference centre overlooking the canal.
New York’s premier conference centre overlooks Hudson River towards the Jersey skyline.
OK, New York wins that one.

Moseley                                                             Brooklyn
This is not New York, New York but that’s the thing about Moseley, you can see it from the big city and its only 5 minutes away but it’s a whole different vibe. It’s kind of friendlier and it’s where people go and live if they want more time to be creative and more room to spread out in, particularly as their families grow. However, it still has a sprinkling of students and singles along with a definite creative energy.

I can almost compare Moseley with Upper West with its artistic residency but it can fit in one side street of this, my favourite NYC neighbourhood situated to the west of the top half of Central Park.

Lacking

Although Birmingham has many parks on the outskirts, it is sadly lacking in the uniqueness that is Central Park, proving that man can indeed make land beautiful, if we try just that little bit harder. Not only has New York succeeded in building some precious green land 50 blocks long, it is well used and collectively loved. This vast parkland is for sure one my favourite parts of New York whether it’s for a quick stroll on a white Christmas morning, to see live entertainment on a humid mid-summers day or just using it as scenic west to east walkway as an excuse for retail therapy at the Bath & Body Works on the east side of the city.
Also, I’m unable to do direct comparisons with my two favourite neighbourhoods Columbia and the Upper West Side where I lived. If I could, no doubt I wouldn’t miss New York as much.

And thankfully there’s only one Broad Street.

Finally we cannot compare the NEC to the sacred ground that is Madison Square Gardens. ‘You’re not a New Yorker until you’ve been to the Garden’.

Book – Digging to America, Anne Tyler

It was the last day of the October Montreal trip when this book grabbed my attention but I didn’t purchase as I already had too much to carry. The BF was already on his way back to New York and I had a few hours before I went to catch my plane back to London so wondered into a coffee shop/book shop, one of my favourite combinations. I was upset that we didn’t come here together although we had passed it one day when it was raining bucket loads and we were running for cover back in the shopping centre.

So when we were in Montreal for Christmas, I took him there for coffee and a browse and the book was still in the reduced section, now just $5 so of course I took that as it was meant to be.

Something about the title made me pick it up which shows how important names are. The story is about two families in the US who meet under the most unusual circumstances, both collecting adopted Korean babies at the airport. One family is of Iranian descent, although the young father is American born, the other an all-American older couple waiting for a longed-for daughter.

The book reveals how these two families, although both from a different age bracket and culture, become friends over the years, despite some frustrations at each others customs and lifestyles. I found the culture difference a little far fetched seeing that both couples were bought up in America but that didn’t halt my enjoyment of a delightfully well written book. What made it interesting were the extended families, particularly the widowed Iranian grandmother who the couples were very keen to get together with the newly widowed American grandfather.

The particularly endearing chapter is the one written through the eyes of one of the adopted girls’ voice. The whole book is altogether warming, enlightening and telling if not of the over-told cultural difference, definitely of the issues of adoption, in particular of foreign babies and of being a foreigner in America. Especially as it’s written by a talented American.

Whatever happens in the future, the book will always remind me of those times the BF and spent in Montreal, awaiting my fate, hopefully not as a foreigner, in America. One day.
7½/10 Inspiration factor 8/10
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