Saturday, June 27, 2009
Blessing Blackburn ~ Installment 1
“Now therefore, our God, we thank You and praise Your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from You, and of Your own we have given You. For we are aliens and pilgrims before You, as were all our fathers…” (1 Chronicles 29:13-15a)
7:20 pm in New York
Here's our first small report on the Blessing Blackburn trip...we're comfortably waiting at JFK airport for a direct overnight flight to Edinburgh. Del forgot to pack his kilts. He neglected ever to buy any, for that matter. Just as well. Thank you to the many who wrote messages of blessing to Blackburn.
11:35 pm in Blackburn
We had a wonderful flight, arriving on time this cloudy morning in the green countryside of Edinburgh Airport. Throughout the terminal were banners announcing Homecoming Scotland. Del, half Scottish, is here for the first time but probably not the last! Our very humorous and considerate internet friend EXHopefieldroad, whom we had virtually met at Susan’s Pub, was waiting for us with his Del & Leslie sign! Walking out to his car, a Ford, I found a coin on the ground – a pound, worth about $1.65! This enabled me to buy a pint of lemonade later, with change to spare! EXH gave me a lovely beaded bracelet with the name Susan spelled out, designed by his daughter. Then he gave me the choice of another, from among a variety of colors, and I chose the violet-glassed strand.
EXH was born and raised in Blackburn, moving later to Bathgate a mile away. You know – Blackburn, near Bathgate, West Lothian. It’s a collection of villages, really. I’m so glad EXH was driving, because not only is the steering wheel on the wrong side, but so are all of the cars themselves. Add to that the many roundabouts, and I would definitely have lost my direction on the stage. Blackburn is a short fifteen or twenty miles from the airport. Along the freeway, in the distance, we could see the flat-topped hills that are the remaining evidence of the mining industry that closed down decades ago. EXH explained that Blackburn had been a mining town, and almost everyone who worked in those earlier years was a miner. The community bonds were very strong and deep, because of the camaraderie and interdependence of the miners in their difficult, risky work. After the mines shut down, some large manufacturers employed many people, but also eventually closed. Yet Blackburn kept growing because of an influx of people from Glasgow. EXH said there was some friction between the old-timers from the village and the newcomers from the city, but eventually people adapted to one another.
Along the M8 freeway, the signs announced Livingston, then Bathgate, then Blackburn! By way of the primary north-south street, Bathgate Road, we entered Susan’s village, located on the pleasantly rolling Almond River plain that has historically hosted military battles but now lends itself to ferocious football contests. If you have seen pictures of Susan’s house, now you know the appearance of almost every home and building in Blackburn! Stucco, light gray or light brown, usually two stories, tile roof, very close to the street. We drove along Hopefield Road, EXH’s former neighborhood, and saw where Susan went to school as a child. Our first stop in Blackburn was the most special – Susan’s house! We ourselves were the only paparazzi in sight! It’s back to being Blackburn. But I’m sure that when the Bonnie Belle of Blackburn returns, so will the flocks of photographers. Yet again the old-timers from the village will have to adapt to the newcomers.
Next stop, the Happy Valley Hotel – with the pub where Susan often sang karaoke and drank lemonade! The four very pleasant guest rooms are on the second floor, accessed by a side door or through the back of the pub. I had been cheerfully prepared for the possibility of a dark, smoke-filled tavern, but was even more delighted to find that the interior, upstairs and down, is completely bright and smoke-free! Our room is small but totally clean and functional with tasteful décor. It is located just across the hall from the common bath, and just down the hall from a common large-screen TV room with plush couches and two small dining tables for the breakfast guests. We have a little flat-screen TV on the wall in our room, and found just four or five channels – some of whose call letters are now familiar because of our internet searches for Susan news during the past two months. Has it only been two months??!!!
Paying for our room downstairs in the pub, we gave lovely, friendly, discreet Jackie several crisp new British twenty-pound notes, which we had purchased at the airport in New York. She explained that Scotland also has its own pounds, which are not accepted in England. EXH had mentioned earlier that Scotland sends members to Parliament in London, but has restored its own Parliament as well. Hmm…is the United Kingdom cracking up?
I sat in the chair where Susan always sits, at the table in an alcove beside the door, facing the dartboard and the flashing video game, near the pool table, with a view of a large screen TV at the other end of the room. The walls are a stylish cream color, and the carpet is a deep blue and green Scottish plaid. Everything is spotless and cozily modern. I ordered lemonade. Dear friends, in Scotland the lemonade that Susan drinks is exactly like 7-Up in America! I checked the spigot – yes, Schweppe’s Lemonade – but the clear, bubbly liquid is soft and sweet! Jackie had no idea that her pub is the inspiration for Susan’s Pub on the main YouTube site with the nearly 70,000,000 views! I explained that 2uCalifornia is her counterpart, and pubsters from around the world have imagined the interior with a fireplace, and a picture of Susan and Pebbles on the wall, where people come in to order a virtual beverage of their choice and to talk about Susan! (The Happy Valley has no fireplace. Perhaps we virtual pubsters can chip in and buy a fashionable oak-paneled electric fireplace as a pub-warming gift.) I said that we all know Jackie’s name, too, and we appreciate her consistent kindness to Susan, both in person and in the press. Jackie said she would check YouTube tonight, and I suggested that she use our names, Del and Leslie, as references to prove she is not an imposter!
Del, for the past thirty years, has truly enjoyed his hobby of making lapel buttons of the sort one sees for political or charitable causes. So, naturally, he had produced a nice selection of buttons, magnets, mirrors and key chains with various Susan pictures on them (and some of Pebbles). We presented a handful to Jackie, and have more to spare for the coming days in Blackburn!
Next on our agenda was to find an internet connection for our laptop. Alas, the Happy Valley Hotel is not a wi-fi hotspot. Alex, in the pub, suggested the library in the small covered shopping mall visible a short block away. We didn’t really understand his Scottish brogue without subtitles, so we bypassed the mall the first time around and ended up half a block further, at the open-gated entrance to Susan’s church. We saw no one around the small complex and its modest acreage, but decided anyway to try the door of the church. In we went, like thieves in the night (in the proper Biblical sense)! There were no signs with the church name anywhere inside or out, but we picked up a bulletin and sure enough it was the church mentioned as Susan’s in reports. No mention of Susan in the bulletin for that day, though. The sanctuary has the same semi-modern style as thousands of American churches, and probably seats 300 people in long wooden pews extending from each side of a center aisle. Who among them knew that Susan who sang to them would one day sing to more than 300,000,000 worldwide – all within two months of her televised BGT audition?
On we walked, trying to find something like a business district. So far, in this orderly little village, we still have found nothing of that kind. We stopped at a convenience store and bought a tube of Smarties. Susan had never even heard of YouTube before she seized global control of it. She said the only tube she knew was a tube of Smarties. They look like M & M candies in a six-sided cardboard tube, but their chocolate flavor has a bit of a fruity taste as well. Mmmmm!
Finally – having frequently avoided oncoming traffic brushing by us from the wrong direction (had to think there!) – we returned to the pub for a repeat of Alex’s instructions, ssslllowwwlllyyy. The mall, easily in sight less than three hundred yards away, is probably the most convenient shopping location for Susan. It has a grocery store, a convenience store, a pharmacy, the newly-busy Blackburn Post Office that looks more like a gift shop, a lawyer’s office, a small café, a bookie joint, a couple of other shops, a nice seating area, and the public library called Blackburn Connected. We decided to eat first, so we ordered fish and chips in the café, but they were out of fish. They recognized Susan’s face on the lapel buttons that we were wearing, and said that she ate there sometimes. No fish, so the breakfast special at 1:00 pm was our preference. We didn’t recognize some of the Scottish items on the plate, but were glad for the opportunity to sample them and drink whipped coffee with milk.
Out in the mall and at the library, Blackburn Connected, people that we met were very friendly and helpful, despite the lack of subtitles. No one acted with overt shock when we said we were Americans from New York who love Susan Boyle, but we knew they would later be processing that little added fact of the phenomenon. In the library were many public computers with internet connections, but no wi-fi and no connections available for my laptop. After noting that Susan’s brother was there almost every day, the earnest librarian and a patron suggested the library in the next village for a wi-fi connection, and conscientiously gave detailed bus instructions which we couldn’t understand even though we live in Brooklyn with its countless buses, trains and connections. The patron said he would write it all down and deliver the info to us at the Happy Valley. I also thought I heard the librarian say I could just use the public computers in the library along with my flash drive (by some other name)! Happily, I filed my first brief Blackburn report on the YouTube site of Susan’s Pub, and proceeded on to www.susan-boyle.com and its eagerly-awaited new forum! But before I could update those fan friends, another customer told me I needed to be a member of the library and to register at the desk before using the computer. Apologetically mumbling something about not understanding the rules, I slunk away to the Happy Valley, where I simply pressed the single speed-dial buttons on my T-Mobile cell phone to call dear ones back in America and report our safe arrival! And what about my T-Mobile for a wi-fi connection? I’m afraid I could buy the company for the price per minute of being online at Susan’s Pub or Susan’s Village.
By this time – mid-afternoon – we were hearing more customers in the pub directly below our room. So we went downstairs and ordered diet Cokes and gave Jackie the portfolio entitled Blessing Blackburn which is full of fans’ messages to Blackburn, Susan and even Jackie herself. We watched as she read through the dozens of pages in between serving customers, and we were happy that other people also began to read the messages. Various genial pubsters came over to talk to us, and one lady, Annette, said that if Susan were there she would normally have done the same thing – she would have come over to us and struck up a nice conversation even with people she didn’t know. Bless Susan’s heart!
And bless Annette’s heart! She learned that we planned to visit Del’s clan’s castle west of Glasgow on Sunday. With some perhaps well-founded concern for our ability to travel by bus despite her instructions, Annette went over and asked her brother-in-law, David, if he would drive us himself! He kindly agreed to the 130-mile round-trip, but tomorrow – Saturday – leaving at 10:00 am sharp. He and his coworker drive grocery trucks regionally for a living, so why not haul a couple of tourists on his day off? We had a wonderful conversation with David, his wife Bridget and his coworker whose name we didn’t catch but surely will before we leave next week! David had known Susan all his life, and often ran the karaoke at the Happy Valley. On the night of her televised audition, all of the young guys were around the pub, waiting for their turn at karaoke – which would be delayed until after Susan sang. None of the young guys had heard Susan sing before, and they were as shocked and touched as the rest of the world when they watched her perform that night.
Meanwhile, here at the pub, we watched the guys, old and young, playing pool on the single table. Del nudged me, that I should put a half-pound coin on the edge of the table to challenge the winner. At this point, the reigning player was Jackie’s good-natured husband, Alistair. I had earned a Philosophy degree at the university thirty years ago, but had gained the more valuable skill of playing a little pool back in those heathen days. Well, here I was in Blackburn among the natives in the pub, so what else could I do besides drinking diet Coke and lemonade? I chalked up the cue, but lost a close game to Alistair, then watched two other regulars compete. I told Del those guys would just kill me if I played them. But, somehow, I beat each of them as the whole growing crowd watched and cheered. I thought I heard someone say something about a shark, but probably it was that brogue issue again. I know nothing, I know nothing. Thankfully for the mission of Blessing Blackburn, I then lost to another guy who wanted to defend the honor of Blackburn against the American. (He politely never referred to the fact that I am a woman.) He had never played against an American before, and I made his victory even sweeter by telling him that I was also a New Yorker!
It was again time to search for fish and chips. One young lady – herself an excellent pool player – gave us directions to the fish and chips shop just on the other side of the small mall. Of course we didn’t fully understand, and had quite a nice walking tour of the fences behind some Blackburn houses, and the fog-shrouded football field and playground, before finally arriving at the fish and chips shop. Yes, this is the place where Susan buys her take-out fish and chips – including, quite possibly, on her way home alone from Glasgow after the audition! There is no seating, so we brought our fish and chips home to the Happy Valley breakfast table next to our room. They were absolutely delicious, and WELL worth it!
The crowd was growing larger and louder below, and we decided to see if we could get some coffee. Susan’s Pub on the internet serves Starbucks, Susan Boyle Blend, but alas not a drop of java could be found in the literal pub in Blackburn. We settled for lemonade and watched the pool players as we sipped away. One of the guys from this afternoon was still there (actually, a lot of the same guys were still there), and he thoughtfully offered to play me again. What would you have done? We were among friends, were we not? So I played and, well, somehow beat him again. Should I tell him about thefloggingparson in Susan’s Pub? Thank God I lost the next game to another guy, and Del and I retired to our room for the night.
But it’s not really night. For one thing, the northern lights keep the sky rather bright until the wee hours. For another thing, by New York time it was still early. So, testing my power adaptor, I recharged the camera battery and wrote this entry on my fully-powered laptop! In the morning – perhaps at the 600-year-old family castle west of Glasgow – I hope to find a wi-fi connection by which to file this blog post!