Saturday, July 11, 2009

Please read installments in order ~ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Blessing Blackburn ~ Installment 5

“And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes.” (Ezekiel 47:9)

Saturday, 7/11/09
11:00 am in Brooklyn, New York

Did I say bye bye Blackburn? But Blackburn has followed us to Brooklyn!

Perhaps most important to all of our frugal Scottish readers (I know what you’re thinking…she’s so redundant), our T-Mobile bill has arrived. For the first four days of sporadic international calling, both incoming and outgoing, the total cost including taxes was about $55.00 for all of our calls. The ultimate redundancy is that I called Del four times, costing $0.99 each on my section of the family plan bill, and when he answered these calls he was charged another $0.99 each on his section of the bill. The basic problem is that Del is only half Scottish. EXHopefieldroad had warned me about this some time ago when he wrote, “Is he only half careful with money?”

The other T-Mobile cost was the $8.00 charge for sixty minutes of wi-fi at Edinburgh Airport, with only half of that actually used. On the other hand, the T-Mobile wi-fi at JFK was free, and the internet connections in the greater Blackburn metropolitan area were free-to-ultra-cheap. We’ll have to return to Scotland just to use up the rest of that $8.00. Can’t let anything go to waste, can we Darling?

Also spanning the globe from Blackburn to Brooklyn were the newspaper articles. We had stopped in at the weekly West Lothian Courier office in Bathgate, and they had sent a photographer and reporter the long distance of a mile or two to interview us at the Happy Valley. When we returned to Brooklyn, we saw the article online and were pleased that it was almost entirely accurate. Then the Daily Record in Glasgow picked up that article and added a few things from this blog , and we gladly spotted their report online as well. The Sunday Mirror of London had also sent a photographer, and the reporter had interviewed us by telephone. Their article was generally positive, and we appreciate their intentions, but we must say that we almost didn’t recognize ourselves in the description – quite a makeover! Ummmm….no, we’re not organizing tours; no, thousands of people didn’t contact us; no, merchandise hasn’t been approved; no, we don’t expect fans to be queuing round the block for tours; no, we never call her SuBo. We’re just two regular people who considered that in our own little way we might see the village, share the experience with fans, encourage other respectful visitors, and try to open a connection for fans to honor Susan by tangibly expressing their generosity toward her home village. We completely funded ourselves, and will always act on a 100 percent voluntary basis, without compensation, in any matters related to blessing Blackburn.

One of our internet fan friends in London went right out and purchased a copy of the Sunday Mirror and generously offered to mail it to us! On Monday, she walked the long distance to her post office, mailed the article, and we received it only two days later in Brooklyn! We can mail something to New Jersey in the same amount of time! The print article has many more pictures (eight) than the online article (one), and the whole effect is really quite cute. The major title is “Wish Su Were Here” and our little picture is perched at the bottom of the collage of photos and text. The Sunday Mirror article generated other reports and inquiries, and I was rather busy addressing those matters for a few days, trusting that the results will be all good for Susan and Blackburn.

Meanwhile, Susan was finishing her BGT tour in grand style, Simon was praising the first song on her CD, and a new sensation was developing as virtual met literal! Back at the Happy Valley in Blackburn, we had told Jackie about the virtual version of her pub, known online as Susan’s Pub on the main YouTube channel with the 70,000,000 views (now almost 71,000,000). Well, on Monday, Jackie, yes that Jackie, literally joined the online conversation! She is the first known celebrity visitor to speak up at the virtual pub! The regular pubsters became hysterically rabid with excitement and occasionally green with envy and were queuing up for virtual rabies shots and empathetic counseling, while also managing to inundate Jackie with welcomes and questions! Poor Jackie! A televised football match between the Rangers and the Celtics would be easier to handle at her pub than the eager bombardment of happy fans at the virtual pub! But – bless her heart – dear Jackie has returned several times to chat and answer questions, and the results are being dutifully reported via the pub pals as well as at least one fan site. To show even more appreciation, fans are also subscribing to Jackie’s YouTube channel – jackieakajake – and she is rising in YouTube’s subscription rankings! Soon people will be sending letters to Susan’s house in Blackburn, hoping they will get to Jackie!

Considering this whole Susan Boyle phenomenon, now only three months old, and recalling our special time in Blackburn, I am reminded of another scenario that I have been pondering for a couple of months. Someone promised long ago that a river of fresh water would spring up and flow with ever-increasing depth and power, bringing healing and abundant life to what was bitter and dead. Through one example, like a parable for the nations, we have witnessed such a thing happening in the life of a humble Scottish maiden with a heavenly voice – now with more than 425,000,000 internet views. Dear friends, what seems virtual can become literal when we see by faith. I encourage you to lift up your eyes from your screen and say to Him, “For me, too.”

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ Installment 4

"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Note: Please click on image to see slide show with more photos in a larger size at your own pace

Friday, 7/3/09
2:15 pm in Brooklyn, New York

Following our Wednesday visit to the West Lothian Local History Library, we returned to the Happy Valley and to our conversation with Alison, who met us there in a semi-quiet corner of the pub. Refreshed by cold diet Cokes on this warm Blackburn day, we continued to dream a bit with Alison about ways for fans who love Susan to demonstrate their love to her village, too. We showed her some of the concrete ideas that people are willing to offer to Blackburn. Of course, we are all going to buy Susan’s CDs and DVDs and eagerly await her appearances, but because Susan has extraordinarily inspired so many of us, we want to do something extra, too. So Blackburn is a focus of our good will.

We asked Alison if we might attend the evening meeting of the Blackburn Community Council, not to say much but just to be there as visible representatives of these ideas for blessing Blackburn. We did not want to disrupt the agenda, so Alison suggested that we arrive about 45 minutes after the start of the Council meeting. She noted that useful meetings of that sort never need to last more than two hours, and we agreed!

We also asked Alison how she had gotten so involved in Blackburn community issues, to the point of being Chairman of the Blackburn Community Council. She didn’t really know how that had happened! Early on, she had been involved with a tenants’ group, then one issue after another, and often several at once. But of course she gave credit to many other community workers in various organizations that seek to benefit Blackburn residents. We were privileged to meet Alison and to encourage her and the other public servants in the village. Blackburn has had hard times, too many times, but always there has been a community spirit that keeps them together, striving for something better despite the obstacles.

After Alison left, we spent a few more minutes talking with our pubster pals. Jackie telephoned a taxi company that we had seen around town, arranging for our early morning departure to Edinburgh Airport. The cost would be twenty-five pounds, and we realized that we had approximately enough UK money left, but not enough for “just in case” expenses. Del especially dislikes being caught without cash (ewwww, shame!), and although we had exchanged some more dollars for pounds at the Blackburn Post Office earlier in the day (at a better rate than at JFK), we decided also to try the ATM on our way for a bite to eat before the meeting.

In suspense, we wondered if our little debit card would be rejected in the same way that Simon’s credit card had been denied after his expensive meal with Piers recently. “The greatest moment of my life,” Piers had said. “Now what’ll we do,” we might have said – except that the ATM neatly accepted our card and pin number, then quickly dispensed pounds while debiting dollars. And forever in our bank statement will be the record of cash received at an ATM in Blackburn, West Lothian.

Just across the small mall from the ATM was the Scotmid co-operative grocery store, which allows anyone – even Americans – to shop there. We knew that Susan was a lifelong customer, and in addition to finding something for our dinner we thought it would be fun to see what sorts of American products might be on the shelves. In other words, would it be total culture shock for Susan to visit the USA, or would she at least have had the opportunity to get accustomed to some of our products? I’m sure she won’t be in American grocery stores often, not even with Simon’s credit card, but we can dream, can’t we?

Several major American name brands were represented at the Scotmid, including a particular favorite of my husband’s – Del Monte. We cruised the aisles and took some photos, and finally a manager asked what I was doing. When I explained that we were Susan’s fans from America, looking for American products, he said he thought it was something like that and cheerfully turned away. I was careful to examine the cat food selection, because you know how finicky cats can be, especially when taking private jets to stay in five-star hotels in world-class cities.

For our last meal in Blackburn, we settled on a packaged egg and cress sandwich, potato chips, a heavy malt pastry, a diet Coke, some wrapped chocolate eggs and a small bag of Smarties. It was the American junk food experience, in Scotland. Well, we knew there would be some wholesome meals on the flight the next day, so this was our moment. We ate once more in the small mall, and said final farewells to our new friend, the security guard who was constantly on duty to keep kids and perhaps others in line.

The Council meeting was held in the large community centre in which the Support Our Susan parties took place, a few hundred yards behind the small mall. The man at the desk was expecting us, and guided us to one of the classrooms at the end of a hallway. The Council members had already considered some of what we had discussed with Alison, and graciously gave us an opportunity to explain a bit more and to answer questions. They were very appreciative and properly deliberative. We all wanted to make sure that the people closest to these matters would welcome any next steps that might be taken. We left the Blessing Blackburn portfolio of fan messages with them, and departed hoping they could finish their meeting within the ideal two hours. Again, we were so thankful for the quality of people and leaders in Blackburn, Susan’s home village.

Back in our room for our last night at the Happy Valley Hotel, we mostly packed and then I prepared another batch of photos and a few paragraphs for my blog – anticipating that the next wi-fi availability for thousands of miles would be at Edinburgh Airport. In the morning, the taxi arrived as scheduled and it was bye bye Blackburn – until we meet again.

What did we really learn in Blackburn? What are some of the results? I want to spend a little more time meditating, and even praying, about that. I also want to give a few things an opportunity to develop more fully before saying much more. Please come back for my next Blessing Blackburn blog entry in the next day or two! In the meantime, why not start planning your own trip to Blackburn? May you be blessed and be a blessing!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ Installment 3

"Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear." (Matthew 13:16)

Note: Please click on image to see slide show with more photos in a larger size at your own pace

Wednesday, 7/1/09
10:39 pm in Blackburn

In Bathgate, next door to the internet café, we found a place that served curried lamb and chicken. We also noticed cans of Irn Bru in a refrigerated case, and remembered a picture of an Irn Bru delivery truck driver giving some of this favorite Scottish soft drink to Susan. Waiting for our curry meal, we sipped a can of regular Irn Bru and were amazed to taste something reminiscent of carbonated Bazooka bubble gum. It was delicious, as was the curry dish with rice, which we ate while perched on a low garden wall in the next block.

One thing we need to mention about dining out so far in Blackburn, and at this shop in Bathgate. There were no chairs or tables in most of the establishments that we visited, as apparently people are accustomed to taking their meals elsewhere to eat them. Except for our several lunches at the sit-down café in the small mall, the rest of the meals that we purchased in Blackburn were for take away (that is, to go). So we either sat on chairs in the mall or went back to the Happy Valley to eat. The Happy Valley does not serve food in the pub, although as hotel guests we could have had breakfasts upstairs. The food that we have eaten here in Scotland is very tasty, so we are well pleased.

As I filed my Monday report at the internet café in Bathgate, Del was conversing with the capable young lady who was helping us. It turned out that Emma was born and raised in Blackburn, and still lives there. She boarded the same bus home to Blackburn with us, and alerted us to exit the bus at the right stop. We have had so many wonderful experiences with local people who are extra friendly and considerate.

As much as we love the fish and chips, we decided on Monday evening to try something different – Chinese food! Across a short field and narrow road from the small mall is one of the two Chinese food places that we have seen in Blackburn. It seems that both of them have take away service only. We wondered if Susan ate there sometimes, and the answer was: not often. A woman came in to pick up her phoned-in order, and we asked her to recommend something good. She said the chicken chow mein was her favorite, so we tried that along with sweet and sour chicken and special rice. Returning to the Happy Valley, we watched the British favorite (a Scotland native) win a long, difficult Wimbledon match as we munched on our Chinese food. It was really very good – and a slightly different style than what we have eaten in Brooklyn.

The Wimbledon match went on and on – ending at the latest hour in Wimbledon history. The BBC airs many of these matches very prominently during the day. Andy Murray, the great hope for the Brits this year, is from a small city in Scotland, only an hour or so away from Blackburn. He won the match after nearly four hours of strenuous play in the hot, hot London weather. Meanwhile, here in Blackburn – often overcast and misty – temperatures remained mostly in the fifties and sixties, creeping occasionally into the sunny low seventies with humidity that we barely noticed compared to steamy Brooklyn in the summer.

Next on our informal agenda was the Blackburn Community Education Centre on Tuesday morning. This is a fairly large complex, built specifically for that purpose (with a youth emphasis) in the 1960s. Surrounded mostly by fields, it is located a few hundred yards behind the small mall. This centre was the site of both Support Our Susan parties during the BGT semi-finals and finals. It is a well-used building providing for many kinds of activities. Colin gave us a tour and explained that the West Lothian Council (which oversees Blackburn governmentally) has plans to rebuild the centre if funds can be pieced together from various entities.

We dropped by the library, Blackburn Connected, to see if someone from the local Blackburn Community Council might be there. Several people had recommended Alison as the person to contact, and we knew her name as the lady who had organized the Support Our Susan parties. The librarian remarked that she had heard we had managed to ride the bus the other day (news travels fast in small towns), and then phoned Alison for us. Alison was happy to meet with us – and we made an appointment for the next morning. Then I followed the proper procedure for using the Blackburn Connected internet service, and was delighted to find that my twin sister, known online as MarieUrsula, had fixed the slide show on my Blessing Blackburn blog so fans could view our first batch of photos. The librarian kindly extended my computer time for one more segment, but alas many emails and comments remain unanswered – and my twin can only do so much in my stead!

Back at the Happy Valley, we had a brief paparazzi moment – spotting Susan’s brother in the pub and asking for a photo with him. He very kindly obliged, and we also took about a minute to explain our hope, along with other fans, to support Blackburn village. He was so friendly. He had already looked through the Blessing Blackburn fan messages, as had many others.

Two genial fellows, John and later Tony, conversed with us at length as we sipped our diet Cokes. They both absolutely adore Blackburn. John had an endlessly funny sense of humor and Tony provided excellent Blackburn insights and historical information. In the meantime, Jock motioned toward the waiting pool table, and I was happy for his narrow victory. Soon after, Tony suggested that we go with him to the West Lothian Local History Library, located nearby in one end of the primary school that Susan attended. Important books, photos and documents for the whole collection of villages are available at this special little library. We spent half an hour there, and saw the new large file on Susan Boyle – actually a box of clippings that, of course, will be growing larger and larger over time. The librarian, Sybil, had written a history of Blackburn and we eagerly bought a copy.

Following another meal of fish and chips in the small mall, we walked to Susan’s home and determined that it would take her six or seven minutes to walk from the mall and five or six minutes from the Happy Valley. At the mall, and later on our walk, we saw some of the kids that I had spoken with the other night. We had already seen other people at multiple places and times, and several had been relatives of others that we had met, or had known of some of our comings and goings in Blackburn. It seems that Blackburn, with an extended population of just under 5000, is actually much smaller in its nucleus of interconnected people and primary businesses.

Back in our room, I made the tactical decision to open Sybil’s Blackburn history, knowing that I would forego many hours of sleep. Published in 2006, the book summarizes the history of Blackburn from the late 1700s to the present. It had been a feudal agricultural community, and in 1772 the Blackburn House was built by a new owner of the large estate. Textile production soon became the main economic activity in Blackburn, but drastically declined in the mid-1800s, at which point mining was on the rise, only to dwindle and then end abruptly by the mid-1900s, just in time for a major auto manufacturer to relocate here, before moving out within a couple of decades, leaving vandalized shells of empty apartment buildings hurriedly built to house workers who couldn’t remain. For centuries, the people of Blackburn had been hard working and hopeful, but ever subject to the few in authority whose decisions radically affected the many in the village. Though finishing on a positive note of potential Blackburn renewal and growth, Sybil’s history ended without a mention of the Belle of Blackburn who would soon put her tiny village on the map, with all the world as her stage.

Thursday, 7/2/09
12:07 pm/7:07 am on Delta 97 EDI/JFK

Yesterday morning in Blackburn was the warmest and sunniest to date. We met Alison at the library, Blackburn Connected, and were delighted to become acquainted with this wise, experienced and dedicated public servant who has volunteered many years and perhaps some tears toward the betterment of Blackburn. Of course she knew that there are fans of Susan numbering in the millions, but still she was glad to learn from us in person that the love of so many fans is real and overflowing. We conveyed the message expressed by several internet friends who want to honor Susan in extra ways, by voluntarily supporting the village that had helped to nurture her for 48 years. We discussed concrete examples that some fans were already exploring, and worthy means that could widely benefit Blackburn residents. We understood that small beginnings and baby steps are good, and proper foundations are important. Alison was happy to speak with us, but had to rush off to another meeting, so we agreed to talk further in the afternoon.

In Sybil’s history of Blackburn, we had read about Blackburn House, the manor built in 1772 by the new owner of the feudal estate. Unlike Finlaystone, with its three resident family lines over 600 years, Blackburn House has had many tenants over two centuries, most often renters not owners. In recent decades, its condition had seriously deteriorated despite its historical significance. Sybil in her book had written about new plans soon underway, to renovate Blackburn House and develop it as a gathering place for artists who could be inspired by its gorgeous view of a fertile valley.

We decided to walk to Blackburn House and see how the work was progressing. About a mile eastward, we found the estate in beautiful condition, obviously the result of a major investment. Prominent on the grounds is an equestrian centre with horses pastured and boarded. Tony told us later that the equestrian centre had been there for several years, and that the renovations to the main buildings of Blackburn House were a separate enterprise, publicly funded. Still, having spent time at a Wyoming dude ranch years ago, Del and I wondered how a Scottish dude ranch with draft horses might fare.

We walked back to the village, gazing at green fields that may not have changed much in two centuries, and sat down for chicken noodle soup and a cheese sandwich at the Mill Café in the small mall. As usual, we received back coins in change for the ten-pound Scottish note with which we paid for the meal. At this or other places, the coins returned included denominations of two pounds, one pound, half pound, twenty pence, ten pence, five pence, two pence or one pence, in diameters, shapes, thicknesses and substances more varied than US coins. Bills less than five pounds are almost never used – meaning only coins are used in denominations of under the equivalent of about eight dollars. No equivalents to fives, nor ones, for example. Pocket change really adds up quickly to a valuable amount.

After lunch, we strolled back to the Happy Valley and then to the West Lothian Local History Library to follow up on Tuesday’s introduction. Sybil answered questions about the kinds of housing in Blackburn. In her book, she had noted that in the early 1970s about 96 percent of homes were council houses and apartments, owned by the government and rented to the residents. This is the kind of home in which Susan has lived all her life. Sybil had also written that due to policy changes a couple of decades ago, people were allowed to buy their council homes from the government. We remembered that this was also Susan’s dream. And, as of seven years ago, it had been the dream of almost 50 percent of Blackburn residents who had finally purchased their homes. Now, Sybil clarified, the number of private home owners in Blackburn is in the neighborhood of 70 percent. Castle sweet castle.