Browsing Tag



The Grandest Race: England’s Grand National

As a makeshift Cotswoldian, my horse racing sympathies should naturally lie with that region’s biggest race of the year, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But I’ve always been partial to the mayhem that is the Grand National, and not just because I’m married to a Liverpudlian. In honor of the race at Aintree tomorrow, I’m sharing an excerpt from my memoir, Americashire, that helps explain my kinship with it. For context, it takes place immediately after I have been treated for the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis and celebrates long shots of all kinds.

The UK is in love with horse racing, so much so that there are betting tips every day on BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news program, Today, roughly the equivalent of NPR’s Morning Edition. Another regular segment on this show is Thought of the Day, in which a priest or rabbi or imam offers some spiritual insight in the form of a quickie sermon. That these two segments sit alongside each other without any trace of either irony or discomfort is perhaps the best illustration I can offer of the difference between America and the UK.My first outing following the treatment was to the wine bar to watch my favorite horse race of the year, The Grand National. Miles was working behind the bar, and his reliable reply to my inquiry of how he was—“marvelous now that you are here”—made me feel particularly good that day. He just happens to have a bookkeeper who is also a bookmaker, and so the small group that had assembled was able to call in some bets before the race started. (Between this and the wine, free-range eggs, and homemade marmalade on offer, this place was getting dangerously close to supplying all my needs in life.) I broke my cardinal rule of choosing my bets based on horse’s names I like, instead opting for two tips I read in the appropriately named “How to Spend It” supplement in the weekend Financial Times. This is how I came to have Snowy Morning and Butler’s Cabin to win.

At 4:20 PM, the race got underway in a manner befitting of the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of horse racing. There are no starting stalls in The Grand National. Instead the forty competing horses just rushed the starting line like a school of crazed fish. There were two false starts before the official let them get under way on the four-and-a-half-mile course.

The other distinctive feature of The Grand National is the fences, thirty of them to be exact. They look like giant hedgerows, taller than the horses, some with ditches and water features and names like The Chair and Becher’s Brook. Surviving the process of elimination—which is as much what winning this race is about as being fast—starts at the first jump when a handful of horses or their jockeys or both go down. This continues over every jump, and it is a dramatic, sometimes wrenching sight with horses lolling on their backs and jockeys in a protective, head-clutching fetal position as they try to avoid impact from other horses flying over the fences behind them. A handful of jockeyless horses still make their way around the course at any point in the race, oblivious to the fact that they’re disqualified and generally posing a hazard to everyone else. None of my horses won, but it was no small feat that all three finished. Only seventeen of the forty did.

The finish line was not the only milestone reached that afternoon. After three straight weeks of being patient and solemn and an emotional rock, D finally relaxed enough to start introducing some humor into my recent health scare. He joked with Miles about how it would go down in our small rural community if he left me now that I was a “disabled lady.” Miles replied it would depend on how fast and with whom I then took up, a scenario that, judging by D’s expression, he had failed to consider. Both Miles and Roddy had been a comfort since the whole MS scare had begun. Roddy had confided his own daughter had MS, somewhat demystifying the disease in the process, and Miles had sprung into action, tapping into his network to get advice on the best neurologists in the region. And now, right on cue, Miles was also ready with a bit of deadpan humor.

The joking was a relief to me. Ever since the possibility of MS surfaced, I had been concerned about the impact to D’s depression. But instead of sinking him into one, the experience had the opposite effect. He had been calm and devoted throughout. Although he was dealing with the same terrifying thoughts about the potential impact of this disease that I was, it was as if his subconscious wouldn’t allow him to melt down. We were part of a team, and two of us couldn’t be on the bench at the same time.

I was feeling great but cautious, having made the mistake of spending an hour that morning on WebMD reading up on MS after showing such exquisite restraint with Internet research earlier in my treatment. It was filled with depressing articles called things like “MS and Your Career” or “MS and Intimacy.” The thing that got me most about my prognosis was the uncertainty. Even if I was diagnosed, it didn’t offer much more insight into what happened next. The symptoms I could experience ranged from a little muscle spasticity or feeling like my foot is asleep to loss of bladder control, sudden paralysis, or blindness at intervals of anything from weeks to months to years between episodes. I must have been at that stage in confronting bad news where you try to find meaning in things, because the parallels to the Grand National seemed obvious. First there was the rapid-fire process of elimination that got me to my initial diagnosis: voice-box damage, stroke, and brain tumor knocked out in consecutive days like horses fallen at consecutive gates. And like MS, the odds mean little in The Grand National. The winner, Mon Mome, was one hundred to one, while another favorite, Hear the Echo, collapsed and died in the run in. I took comfort in Butler’s Cabin, one of my bets, who finished in seventh but collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line. He was quickly revived by a dose of oxygen, springing to his feet to the relieved cheers of the crowd.

Christmas Letters England

Letter from the Lake District: Christmas 2013

The Christmas lights on Regent Street in London

I’m writing this year’s Christmas letter in front of a crackling fire in the resident’s lounge of possibly the best pub in Britain, the Britannia Inn in Elterwater, Cumbria. Our trip to England has so far been an embarrassment of rural idyll riches, having started in the Cotswolds where, for the first two weeks, we requisitioned the flat of our dear friends (a.k.a., Rupert and Ralph) and finished out the remaining work weeks of the year. We’ve now embarked on the northern leg of our journey to spend Christmas and Boxing Day with husband’s family, starting with an interlude in the Lake District.

The Britannia Inn, Elterwater, where we nearly divorced while arguing over the answer to Maggie Smith’s Oscar winning film during the pub quiz

Between all the bucolic bliss, we managed to spend 2 nights at the Portobello Hotel in Notting Hill, which I highly recommend if you want to feel like you’re in a Richard Curtis film. The room featured a freestanding bath tub with a view of a private garden (yes, just like the one Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant broke into in that film). Breakfast in the sitting room consisted of the most beautiful heap of scrambled eggs sitting atop a piece of toast with the crusts trimmed off. It arrived, of course, beneath a silver dome. All this pampering didn’t come without its price, but seeing as we were celebrating husband’s 39th birthday for the tenth time, it seemed apropos.

Favorite breakfast ever. Certain it was made by Mary Poppins.

We also managed to indulge in a little shopping, spurred on by the discovery of the charming shop, Stumper & Fielding on the Portobello Road. On a stretch of London that’s been blighted by tat, Stumper & Fielding is a bastion of English sartorial standards, from Tootal scarves to Loakes brogues. Husband got so carried away he purchased a pair of booties of the latter make in a size too big, a fact he failed to notice until he had marched the length of Kengsington Gardens, Hyde Park and Mayfair to deposit ourselves at the Duke of York’s theater for an evening of Jeeves & Wooster (splendid, go see it if you’re in London). Blistered and bruised, he hobbled into Stumper & Fielding in the morning to find that, amazingly, for only a pittance to cover the re-soling, they were willing to exchange the shoes. What could I do but buy myself a velvet-collared Harris Tweed blazer to express my gratitude at their professionalism?

Husband, crippled by his new shoes, leans on his favorite shop

Here I will pause for a moment to acknowledge my self-consciousness at the outpouring of wonderful life-ness I have just directed you to read. I fear you may be finding this year’s Christmas letter devoid of the gleeful Schadenfreude you had hoped for, and I wish to provide comfort. You see, this is a Christmas round-up letter, which means I am practically legally obligated to only write about pleasant events. Rest assured that I, in fact, pay very good money to a very nice lady each week to divulge my life’s tribulations. I think we can all agree that’s the appropriate place for such strife.

I did toy briefly with the idea of telling you about my challenges earlier this year of finding an MS medication that didn’t involve a needle and feeling like I had the flu on a weekly basis. But then I was reminded of the dreaded part of my weekly telephone conversation with my mother in which she debriefs me on the maladies of people I last saw thirty years ago. Terribly dull stuff, so, suffice it to say, I have settled on a twice-daily pill that also happens to be used industrially to make foods taste sour. Its worst side effect is to occasionally give me ruddy cheeks. If it makes you feel better, you can also use the MS narrative to justify the indulgence described above—you know, ‘life’s short, live it while you have your health’ kind of stuff. But, let’s face it, we both know I was a skilled indulger before the arrival of that dratted disease.

You may also take some comfort in the fact that my first book, Americashire, failed to, ahem, crack any bestseller lists. Somehow, despite this, it was the highlight of my year: a fantastic education marked by some terrific moments. These include meeting my fellow inaugural She Writes Press authors at our joint event in Berkeley in May and collecting the Indie Reader Discovery Award for Travel Writing at Book Expo America in New York in June. Husband was a supportive presence at both, and a big hit with the literary ladies. I also have a debt of gratitude to all of you who so patiently put up with endless self-promoting tweets and Facebook posts. Some of you were even so kind as to buy the thing and write nice stuff on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you. You can’t imagine how much your actions mean.

Me at Book Expo America, prouder than I have any right to be

Back in California there were highlights, too, including our BYO Zen sitting group, seeing husband’s two idols, Shatner and McCartney, on stage together in a benefit for the Los Angeles Shakespeare Center, and our discovery of Ojai, or, as we like to call it, the Cotswolds of California (which I wrote about here). And so, friends, I think this place of gratitude for the year is a good one from which to take my leave. A pint and a packet of Scampi Fries await me in the pub. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


She Writes Press Holiday Sale: Nov 29 – Dec 6

Buy Americashire for Kindle | Nook | Kobo for 99¢

My fab publisher, She Writes Press, is having a 99¢ ebook holiday sale from Friday, November 29 through Friday, December 6, 2013. Pick up my award-winning Cotswold travel memoir based on this blog, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, or gift a copy to a friend for a virtual stocking stuffer. Anyone with an iPad, mobile phone or computer can read a Kindle book with the free Kindle app.

While you’re at it, pick up some books from the other fabulous women that are also part of the She Writes Press 99¢ sale, including:

  • Tasting Home, a fabulous food memoir and recipient of a Publisher’s Weekly starred review, among other honors, by Judith Newton
  • Fire & Water, a novel with a gazillion five-star reviews by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder
  • Our Love Could Light the World, a collection of short stories by Anne Leigh Parrish, who has been compared to this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, Alice Munro
  • Shanghai Love, Layne Wong’s WWII novel set in Shanghai and recipient of a Publisher’s Weekly starred review
  • Duck Pond Epiphany a coming-of-middle-age novel by Tracey Barnes Priestly

And for the writers in your life:

  • What’s Your Book, everything you ever needed to know about writing a book from writing coach and She Writes Press publisher, Brooke Warner
  • Journey of a Memoir, Linda Joy Myer’s how-to for memoir writers

Americashire FREE on Kindle August 29-31st

For your Labor Day weekend reading pleasure, from August 29-31, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, is available as a FREE Kindle download. To download it from the US Amazon store click here. To download it from the UK Amazon store click here. Happy reading!


Ode to Sunday Lunch

My love of travel and marriage to a Brit have meant that, at the age of 41, I have made a home in four countries outside the U.S. Throughout my life as an expat, food has always been my favorite portal to a culture: A country reveals itself in the way it breaks bread. In Singapore, citizens belied their buttoned-up reputation in the raucous aisles of the evening hawker stalls, where my favorite meal was nasi goreng, served up on a plastic plate and washed down with a large bottle of Tiger beer. In Berlin, pragmatic stereotypes prevailed, and I acquired a Teutonic appreciation for the importance of the first meal of the day, Frühstück. And in England, where I have lived the longest, I made a rookie error in assuming the tourist staple of high tea at a fancy hotel was the country’s quintessential meal, prim and proper as the Queen herself. It turns out that Sunday lunch, a far more languorous affair, holds that mantel. In the below excerpt from Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage, my memoir of life in the English Cotswolds, I recount one of my favorite experiences of this most British of meals…Read the rest over on Transitions Abroad, who were kind enough to post the excerpt.


Great British Summer Goodreads Giveaway

Last summer the UK had the Olympics, but this summer isn’t too shabby either. The Stones finally played Glastonbury, Andy Murray won Wimbledon, and, according to Twitter, Kate Middleton is in labour as I type. To celebrate all things great about this Great British summer, there’s a Goodreads giveaway for my book, Americashire, running now through August 8th. Hurry on over and enter now. It’s open to UK residents as well as many of the notable former colonies (by which I mean Australia, Canada and the U.S.).

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Americashire by Jennifer Richardson


by Jennifer Richardson

Giveaway ends August 08, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win