Last sight of Jacksonville, the airport window mural It is hard to believe but it was one year ago today that I last set foot on American soil. One of the last things I saw of Jacksonville was the graphic on the airport window shown here and so it seemed a suitable header for this post. I had been over in the USA again to break up the seven months of separation that Tina and I faced before she arrived in the UK, to take over evidence for her visa application, and to help its completion. This final visit was bitter-sweet. It was wonderful to see Tina, the boys, cats and her family again, and good to know that while still a few months away, the next time we saw each other would be over here ready to start a life together. Yet it was sad to say goodbye to an area that had provided great friendships, and had been a happy home for six months in 2009. There was the uncertainty of when I might see Jacksonville Beach again.

The “Shack”, as we called the apartment on 10th Avenue North in Jacksonville Beach, looked a forlorn shadow of its former self, many of Tina’s possessions now packed away ready to travel back with me. During this final visit I took a lot of video footage of that place and made it into a short film, a record of what was our first home together. It was a poignant moment when I set off for the airport from it for the last time. There are times when I miss it, times when I have a flashback, and I hear the breeze through the window blinds, the swish of palms trees swaying outside, and the comforting creak of the front door as it closed behind you. Having the ocean so close was something we never tired of or took for granted, and I certainly benefited from the warm climate and near guaranteed several hours of sunshine throughout the year. In the last few months I have taken up cycling to work. While the weather and environs bear no resemblance to Jacksonville Beach whatsoever, and I don’t envisage ever travelling to work in shorts, t-shirt, and flip flops, I pull up at the bike locker at my workplace and it reminds me so often of locking my bike in the rack behind the Shack having just done a grocery run. I’m transported back there.

Another important thing that six months in the Shack gave me was friendship. Living in that apartment block and having the communal garden at the front introduced me to many great people who shared the residence and became part of my life there. Life is good for Joey and Agent FangI miss them all but the two main characters of the piece were Joey and Michael, and I confess that I haven’t kept in touch as much as I’d have liked or should have done. That’s something I need to work on, and can only apologise for. Joey’s occasional emails are no substitute for the amusing notes under the door and the banter that followed, while Michael’s thoughtfulness and generosity were matched by his fine company up the Ritz bar as we supped $2 beers. I hope one day they might visit here so I can return the hospitality.

But overall I’m not sure I could have taken to life in the USA. Their concept of society is far more individualistic than here, and other than the weather and close proximity to the beach, Tina and I felt we would have a better quality of life in the UK. It was for that reason that on 15th July 2010 Tina and two of her boys arrived at Manchester Airport complete with nine suitcases and the important Fiancee Visa. Hadley and Molly cats had arrived in the UK a couple of weeks before, enduring a transatlantic trip and a near four hour drive from Heathrow. Initially frazzled by this ordeal, by the time Tina and the boys arrived the cats were settling in and seemed happy with their new home. The boys were soon settling in too and making friends in the back streets. We made some day trips to the Lake District, Wales and the east coast, and eventually got them into local schools.

The main event of 2010 though was of course at 4pm on Wednesday 8th September when Tina and I married at Temple Newsam House in Leeds, and had an exceptional reception at the Queens Hotel. I have to say that going drinking the night before with the Best Man, Maid of Honour, and Tina’s nephew Joey was not ideal preparation for the big day. I felt decidedly unwell until around 2pm, and was still writing my speech at midday. The Happy Couple - photo by S Finney Putting on the suit was an epic struggle, and the journey to Temple Newsam was a tad fraught, arriving about 15 minutes before kick off, and only a few minutes before the bride! Still it left little time for nerves, the service went perfectly, and we had such a glorious location for our photographs. We were joined too by wonderful guests; family and friends, including Tina’s Mum, Dad, Step-Dad, eldest son, nephew and best friend Paula. All who attended contributed to an amazing day, one I shall never forget. But there was no rest for the newly married couple as the following day we hired a mini-bus to take the American contingent to my parents’ house to see the area I was raised (cut short by a huge tail backs on the M6), then the next day we took a tour of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District. We squeezed in a trip on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway and an afternoon in Howarth before the last of the American party left these shores, and I returned to work the next day completely knackered and in need of another holiday! (Alas my next decent holiday actually came almost six months later).

It’s been a year of other firsts. First family Christmas all together in Leeds. The first time the boys have seen snow. The first Valentine’s Day Tina and have actually spent together. Thankfully another stressful application form and visit to the UK Border Agency in Sheffield ended well, Tina and the boys being granted an “extended leave to remain” residency permit, allowing them another two years in the UK, and permission for Tina to work.

Away from the personal life things have got busy in my political life. Discussions started in October about forming a city wide Leeds Green Party. As someone who had the trust of both Farnley & Wortley and Headingley Green parties I was asked to be Acting Chairperson while these meetings took place. After some deliberation over the new party’s constitution, we eventually held the Inaugural Meeting of the Leeds Green Party on 24th February 2011. I had the honour of being elected to the position Coordinator & Chairperson, a member of the Executive Committee. It’s currently all hands to the pump as local elections approach, aiming to retain one the Green councillors, and add some more if possible. Once the elections are over I am looking forward to helping the Leeds Green Party progress, get involved with campaigning, and recruiting new members to the cause. Caroline Lucas Green Party Leader and IA couple of days before the Inaugural Meeting I attended a photo opportunity arranged by Cllr Ann Blackburn with Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas, as she passed through Leeds on her way to an event in Huddersfield. I was the “photographer”, but had the unexpected privilege of travelling to Huddersfield with Caroline, which included an opportunity to speak to her alone for quite a while before the train arrived. From watching TV appearances I suspected that Caroline would be approachable and without “airs and graces”, but you never know whether a party leader is gong to have a bit of an ego or attitude. I am happy to say Caroline was as friendly and genuinely interested in people as she comes across in the media, and it was a memorable and enjoyable few minutes with her discussing the situation in Leeds and the formation of the new party. I wouldn’t expect Messrs Cameron or Miliband to travel without an entourage, or to engage so comfortably with a complete stranger. The speech she delivered in Huddersfield was also a passionate and articulate piece of reasoning, and seemed to be supported by the majority of the attendees. All in all a day I won’t forget in a hurry, particularly as it was so unexpected. Now it’s back to the bread and butter, the graft of leafleting in Farnley & Wortley ward.

Family, work, and Green Party commitments make time very precious these days. Writing a blog has been pushed down the order of priorities. I don’t expect that I will be able to post with the regularity of past, or as much as I’d like, but I intend to get back into blogging. It is something I enjoy, and I hope others do too. Watch this space for any future noteworthy events and commentaries on life.

After several days of temperatures struggling to reach fahrenheit figures in the 60s, and windchill making them feel lower, the sun has got his hat on today, has come out to play, and it has reached a very pleasant 74′ F (23′ C). Yesterday I was in a fleece and jeans. Yes a fleece in Florida, I ask you. The forecast for the weekend and next week is for similar temperatures in the 70s. I might even make the beach at this rate. This is the first day I have opened the windows of the apartment. I am told Florida suffered the worst winter this year since records began. Ah but no snow like the good people of Leeds had to endure. Well my late lunch has been consumed and so I will venture out into the glorious weather for a relaxing read under the old currant bun as my Grandad used to call it.

Homeless person on Jacksonville Beach

Homeless person on Jacksonville Beach

Many think that life at the beach would be idyllic. For one section of the community in Jacksonville Beach living by the seaside is less about sunbathing and surfing, but more literal – the sands and environs are the closest they have to a home, it is their life. There can be few examples of the wide gulf in wealth within US society as strong as the differing experiences of people who populate “The Beaches” area of Jacksonville.

While a couple of miles down the A1A multi-million dollar homes nestle around the Ponte Vedra Golf Course (a few miles further and you encounter the exclusive and world famous Sawgrass Golf Club), at the other end of the social ladder homeless people sleep on the sands through necessity not choice. There is a mission house on Shetter Avenue which provides daily meals, showers, clothing and some medical assistance, but many homeless people find themselves without a bed for the night and gather on the beach instead.

During my six months in Jacksonville Beach my early morning bike rides would often coincide with small groups of homeless people awaking near the dunes and getting ready to make the journey to the Mission House for a meal. One man (pictured above) was a permanent fixture on the beach, his belongings in tattered plastic bags and a small suitcase that had seen better days. Whenever I saw him he was either asleep or more often indulging in a bizarre ritual of a dance-like shuffle making a small square shape motion in the sand while nodding to some kind of music. Whether it was from a mp3 player or just a tune in his head was difficult to tell. A walk along the beach yesterday once again included passing this dancer moving to to the beat of his own private world.

Another encounter was more involved. One evening back in July at the Ritz bar I had my camera ready for the space shuttle launch at Kennedy some 150 miles south, having been told the tail of flame could be seen from the beach on a clear day. As I made my way over to the boardwalk with a few other shuttle spotters, I met Rodney and Tammy, a homeless couple trying to earn small change by telling jokes.

Rodney and Tammy

Rodney and Tammy

Spotting the camera Rodney told me to take their photo as it was their second anniversary, and I duly obliged. Three weeks later I bumped into Rodney again one morning as I locked my bike up outside Walgreens. “You do right to lock it up my friend, I had mine stolen a few days ago”, he informed me. We spoke for around five minutes during which time it became obvious he was local celebrity, nearly all those entering the store said hello to him. Rodney offered to take the shirt off his back to clean my bike wheels to earn $2. He got the money without the toil. I told him that I’d taken the photo of Tammy and himself a few weeks before and that I would print him a copy. Rodney was delighted and told me the two regular spots on the beach where they spent the night so I might find them to hand it over. On my rides I always carried the photo in my bag in case I saw Rodney again. In the end probably a couple of months passed before I did, spotting Tammy and Rodney walking along the very road Tina was driving us down to collect her children from their father’s. We pulled over, my initial shout startled and seemed to worry them. As I approached it was clear Rodney did not recognise me, his face wracked with concern, but a swift explanation and offering of the photo brought about huge smile, and a vigorous handshake. As we drove away Tammy and Rodney remained motionless, both holding the photo and peering at it in amazement. In the scheme of things a small gesture and certainly no answer to their problems, but I hoped it made their day and made them realise someone cared something about their situation.

While trying to research homelessness in Jacksonville Beach I came across this video report from First Coast News made in November 2009 just before I left the US. It contained some familiar faces. Police Clean Out Homeless Camp In Jacksonville Beach I have yet to see Rodney or Tammy during my latest visit to Jacksonville Beach so I don’t know if they are still in the area or have been moved on to another county, or worse, sent to jail.

The City Rescue Mission in central Jacksonville says that homelessness has increased 33% in Jacksonville and could increase another 10% to 20% in the near future. Below is a factsheet that City Rescue Mission has produced:

Federal officials say homelessness over all is expected to rise 10 percent to 20 percent in 2009.

Each year, more than 3 million people experience homelessness, including 1.3 million children. One-third of the homeless population is made up of families.

And according to national studies, even more Americans are at risk of homelessness. Millions of low-income American households pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent when estimates say the figure should be no more than 30 percent.

A missed paycheck, a health emergency, or an unpaid bill creates a crisis, pushing them out of their homes and in to homelessness.

While the number of homeless individuals in shelters was about the same as last year, the number of people in families increased by 9% to 516,700, suggesting that family homelessness was on the rise.

Approximately 40% of homeless men are veterans, although veterans comprise only 34% of the general adult male population. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that on any given night, 200,000 veterans are homeless, and 400,000 veterans will experience homelessness during the course of a year.

There were early signs that the economic crisis may have affected trends in homelessness nationally. Notably, a greater share of people accessing the homeless system in 2008 came from stays with friends and family and from places where they had lived a year or more, suggesting that people who had been stably housed were becoming homeless after exhausting their housing options.

The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade. Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In its 2007 survey, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population. These proportions are likely to be higher in rural areas. Research indicates that families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas.

Sources: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/who.html, http://www.nlchp.org/hapia.cfm and http://www.ich.gov/

It has been some considerable time since I added an update to this blog. Back in September 2009 in fact, then still still a couple of months away from ending my Florida adventure. Maybe with a hint of appropriate consistency I am once again sat at the table in the Jacksonville Beach apartment, this time just for a brief two weeks holiday, the very place where the last blog entry took shape.

A great deal has occurred since that last blog post. The arrival of my parents in Florida in July provided a lot of potential material to post, photos to edit, and yet limited the available time to carry out such tasks. I fell behind with the entries and apart from a couple of retrospective postings, lost the drive needed to catch up and continue a regular offering. Furthermore a restructure at work turned my attention to submitting a job application, preparing for a video conference interview via Skype, and the days in the local Beaches Library were dedicated to retaining my own job rather than the observations of Florida life. Once the interview was complete Tina and I then spent ten days in Italy, attending her brother’s wedding in Siena. Those ten days provided more items to write about but little free time, the most notable event was proposing to Tina in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Rome on 23rd October. She accepted by the way!

Leaving Tina and Florida in mid November and returning to the cold, bleak Leeds streets, and a workplace where staff morale was the lowest I have ever encountered, was as hard as it was painful. I had obtained a position in the restructure, a promotion in fact, but no joy could be taken from it when colleagues and friends were unsuccessful and in danger of losing their jobs. Most shocking was the tragic news that during the six months I was away two colleagues took their own lives. The mood at work was sombre at best, sometimes mutinous, motivation absent, and the feeling towards management close to outright fury. This atmosphere, the cold weather, and the returning to an empty house every night left my mood very dark, and the last thing on my mind was writing a blog.

But there are positives. Tina and I have, with her ex-husband’s co-operation and support (in fact he suggested it), decided to live in the UK. Tina came over for Christmas which was a happy time, and we looked for wedding venues, settling on Temple Newsam House in Leeds. We now are embroiled with the frustrating and complex task of sorting out the application for settlement in the UK for Tina and two of her boys, so they can be over in time for a September wedding. Having been used to having Tina, her boys, and the cats around for six months, not to mention being in a location where mid November still allowed cycling after dark in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, it was remarkably hard to go back to Britain to the solitary life. Furthermore the need to save money has necessitated a frugal life of simple pastimes, staying home reading, watching TV, or browsing the internet. I have so far failed to see a Stoke City match at the Britannia this season, my football fix obtained from a few trips to the now defunct Farsley Celtic FC.

One distraction I have embraced enthusiastically is a greater involvement with the Green Party as the General and local Council Elections loom. I helped during the unsuccessful campaign in the Leeds ward of Hyde Park & Woodhouse byelection in February, and have been leafleting around the Farnley & Wortley ward with the aim of getting Cllr Andy Parnham re-elected and helping Cllr David Blackburn’s Parliamentary campaign for the Leeds West Constituency. Leafleting has a rather soothing and stress-busting effect. When striding up an unknown driveway, one’s concentration is locked on folding the leaflet correctly, the potential awkward letterbox that makes insertion a chore, and the possibility of some slavering beast waiting on the other side to remove any straying fingers. All worries of the day at work, or the months ahead are gone, the mind is cleared and focused on the simple task of getting the paper through the slot without incident, and the exercise is also good for body and soul. While this blog as suffered, I have been busy updating the Farnley & Wortley Green Party website and have also assisted with the Headingley Green Party’s new site too. I have also agreed to be David Blackburn’s election agent during the General Election campaign.

While this latest holiday in Jacksonville Beach affords me the time to restart blogging, I must give credit to another source of inspiration. A contractor called David has been working in our office since my return to Leeds. Stoke born and bred, a similar age to myself, and a great fan of Stoke City during my favourite era – the Lou Macari Years in the early 1990s – so no wonder we have stuck up a rapport and shared plenty of laughs. David discovered my blog by accident, and has apparently been working his way through past entries. It was his compliments about the stories and enjoyment of them that gave me the impetus to write something new. Sometimes the thought of “what’s the point” flits across one’s mind, but if other people do appreciate the efforts made, it is flattering and galvanises the resolve to continue. I find writing fulfilling, people seem to enjoy reading my observations, and if I can provoke thought and positive action from just one person then the whole exercise is worthwhile. So thanks David, and we must keep in touch when you move to your next contract.

In the meantime I think I should make the most of the sunshine and head outside. Who knows what things are going on out there that are just asking to be written about!

Three of a kindToday is election day here at the beaches, and indeed throughout the Florida Senate District 8 area. The special election was caused by the death of Republican Senator Jim King in July from pancreatic cancer. So staunchly Republican is District 8, that the Democrats haven’t bothered to field a candidate. As a result four Republicans have been battling it out for the privilege of representing this area in the State Senate in Florida’s capital Tallahassee.

As a graduate with a degree in Politics and Sociology, this sort of stuff usually interests and entertains me. But even more so round here. It has bordered on a comedy. A neighbour, who is a registered Republican, has been shoving a plethora of election mail shots under our door. This is part of our ongoing game of winding each other up in jest. In return he gets left-wing postcards stuck to his door but that’s a different story. Receiving these pieces of mail has given me an insight into the contest, as too has watching the television adverts between plays in American Football games. There’s not many positive messages, not many ideas about how to improve matters, just a volley of abuse, charges and counter charges. Marvellous.

The original favourite is John Thrasher, a former member of the Florida legislature, who is endorsed by former Governor Jeb Bush (brother of George W Bush), the National Rifle Association, and the Right to Life PAC. So three good reasons not to vote for him then. Thrasher, 65, claims to have three fundamental principles: government reform, government efficiency, and government scale, believing government ought not to grow faster than the ability of its citizens to pay for it. Sounds like that nasty ogre of “Big Government” rearing its head eh John? Meanwhile his opponents have accused Thrasher of spending millions of taxpayers’ money, including to redecorate his office and the state house chamber—even using a state plane to fly to Texas to shop for desks! The source of these claims are a group called Stop Tax Waste, Inc. Lovely.

A Federal judge’s recent ruling dismissing Florida electioneering laws has allowed special-interest groups like Stop Tax Waste, Inc to freely spend in this race without disclosing who they represent or who contributed to their cause. Another, Conservative Citizens for Justice, is running an advert called, “Enough,” that compares John Thrasher to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who lied when he traveled to Argentina to meet his mistress, and ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. But it isn’t just Thrasher who has faced this negative campaigning.

Thrasher’s principal opponent is 40 year old “New Conservative” Dan Quiggle. In 1989 Quiggle worked for President Ronald Reagan in his post Presidential office and now claims he intends to stay true to Reagan’s conservative principles of personal freedom, economic opportunity and undying optimism that America’s best days are ahead. Behind this would be lowering taxes, and being a proven job creator having started three businesses. Don’t call us Dan, we’ll call you. Quiggle has been accused by his opponents of being an opportunist hurting conservative causes for personal gain, using First Coast Tea Party video footage and logo without permission, and using donations from “liberal personal injury lawyers” to attack rival Thrasher. A group called Truth Matters, a Tallahassee-based organisation, also accused him of hiding behind trial lawyers. A conservative mingling with dastardly liberal lawyers for electoral gain? Surely not. Imagine that. In reply, Quiggle has accused Thrasher of spying on his family and filming his home, the footage appearing on You Tube. Cripes.

Apparently Thrasher and Quiggle are neck and neck in the polls. Gawd help us. But there are two more candidates. Most amusing electoral leaflet goes to 71 year old Stan Jordan. Jordan owns a 40 year old pickup truck which was pictured on a leaflet about saying no to the Obama “cash for clunkers” scheme, and demonstrating that “Stan’s your man” knows the value of thrift. If it wasn’t such a gas guzzler I’d salute his green credentials! A former US Army Colonel, Jordan claims he represents tax cutting, rooting out wasteful spending, creating jobs (as a owner of three beach diners) and traditional Christian family values. Jordan also believes education is important, something that has been rarely discussed on the campaign, probably as it might involve spending some money if my experiences at a recent school parents’ night are anything to go by.

Finally former Jacksonville City Councilman Art Graham suggests himself as something of a compromise candidate – neither a lackey of the state Capitol nor a political novice. “Vote Smart, Vote Art” is the 45 year old’s slogan, confusingly using the colours of the British Liberal Democrats on his banners. There’s an irony – someone ought to tell him. Graham’s experience includes being on Jacksonville Beaches City Council from 1998-2002 and, from 2003, two terms on the Jacksonville City Council. A president of an environmental consulting business, Graham portrays himself as a self-made man from a military family who paid for college with scholarships and work. As well as championing low taxes, small government and economic growth, he sees the need to re-examine the way public schools are run and stresses improvement to transportation and other infrastructure at the Port of Jacksonville as more international carriers look to bring goods through Northeast Florida. Graham also supports the introduction of a commuter rail system, and was the man behind the Beaches Trolley system which provides cheap transport around the beaches area during weekends. But just when I was warming to him slightly, an updated website message blows him out of the water. Pro life, a supporter of off shore drilling for oil, NRA card carrying member, and doesn’t not support “Obama Care”. No thank you Art, I’ll pass.

Republican candidate postersWhile Jordan and Graham have escaped the negative campaigning, one mysterious leaflet slipped under our door had racial undertones. It neither supported nor attacked any of the candidates, but showed photos of President Barack Obama, Black Panther radicals from the 1960s, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the liberal activist groups ACORN and moveon.org encouraging people to vote. It was distributed by the Conservative Voters’ Coalition. “Armed thugs may try to scare you away from the voting booth. Do not let intimidation and threats of violence against you keep you from exercising your constitutional right to vote.”, it advised. Bizarre.

The cost of the campaign is enormous. According to state records the four candidates had already raised nearly $774,000 by 28th August, with more than $400,000 of that heading to Thrasher. It is estimated the special election will cost between $550,000 and $600,000, although some of that cost will be reimbursed by the state, while voter turn out is expected to be no more than 12%. This is the price of democracy. It’s obviously only an academic exercise as I’d be unable to vote at all given I’m neither a US citizen nor a registered Republican. But faced with this bunch I really despair. There’s much posturing but little substance, little in the way of policy initiatives. All favour lowering taxes in a state where there is no income tax. In a separate election for the City Council District 13, the favourite, a Republican called John Meserve stands accused of accepting $105,000 he’d “forgotten about” for acting as an “unpaid agent” for a development company looking to build in Mayport, the area he represented. No wonder that mistrust of politicians and government is so great here. If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny. It’s kept me smirking and fuming in equal measure. Whatever the result the public won’t be the winner that’s for sure.

Shuttle launch 28th August 2009

I could kick myself. Of all the moments for my batteries to run out in my camera this was not a good one. I am a stickler for carrying spares with me or changing to freshly charged batteries before setting off for an important event. But maybe the time of night or excitement affected my judgment and off I went to the beach to view the space shuttle launch without a backup. What makes it more galling is that it was a perfect night for it. The sky was clear of cloud, stars and moon shone brightly in a black sky. Small groups of people gathered on the beach at each broadwalk. One hundred and fifty miles south at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center the conditions were considered “good to go” and the space shuttle Discovery mission STS-128 lifted off at 11:59pm on Friday 28th August.

This photo was my first, a tester using the night settings. It turned out to be the last too as the batteries gave up. Usually I would not consider this of merit for display but while imperfect it does show the magnitude of the power involved when it lights up the sky despite being 150 miles away. The shuttle and its fiery snake of a tail were clearly visible until the solid rocket boosters fell away. After that the shuttle’s main engines produced a bright speck which moved quickly across the sky, seemingly in a northerly direction. It was an incredible thing to witness and I’m still annoyed that I don’t have a better photographic record of the event. There are six more shuttle missions. Hopefully I’ll be around to witness at least one more.

Here’s how it should have looked

Jacksonville Beach City Hall
It’s a bit of a quiet news week so here’s a photo for my colleagues. This is Jacksonville Beach City Hall, home of the local city council. It looks a tad better than the accommodation I’m used to at work back in the UK, and I might add, it’s just a block and a half from the beach.

Meanwhile back at the shack we’ve finally made use of the US government’s kind gift of a $40 coupon towards a digital converter box – America has turned off the analogue TV signals, and those who cannot afford cable cannot be allowed to go without TV over here. The boxes are like the Freeview ones in the UK, and have proved difficult to track down, fresh deliveries are immediately snapped up. The unit we “bought” was exactly $40 so we expected just to pay sales tax of around $2. But apparently so many people complained about paying the sales tax that it’s been removed on these items! Only in America.

Another “only in America” moment came when the box was finally set up (a new antenna is still required to get the full offerings). Tuning to one of the local news channels unearthed an astonishing story about a truck dealership in Missouri offering a free AK-47 assault rifle with every new vehicle purchased. Apparently Mark Muller had experienced an upturn in sales after a previous promotion offered a free hand gun, so he’s decided to offer a voucher worth $450 which customers can exchange at gun stores for a AK-47 or the weapon of their choosing. Unbelievable but true – here’s the evidence. I think I will stick with TV vouchers and supermarket coupons. Much safer.

Fourth fireworksFriday 3rd July gave me a taster of what was to come. The neighbourhood was alive with fireworks of a volume I have never experienced, and these salvos carried on into the early hours keeping me awake until at least 2am. So I was not in the best of moods when I eventually rose, which added to my general dread about the 4th July. Patriotic banners and decorations had long appeared outside houses, (someone had even spray-painted the US flag on their lawn) while cookies with red, white and blue icing adorned the “specials” displays in supermarkets. There’s normally a large number of “Stars and Stripes” flags around the neighbourhood on any normal day, in fact if I saw those many Union Flags back in the UK I’d think I’d wandered unwittingly into a BNP convention. But as the 4th July approaches even more are unfurled. America tends to be far too self-congratulatory at the best of times in my view, so I was expecting an über expression of fervent patriotism. Thankfully Tina is open-minded enough to believe that America is far from perfect, there is much room for improvement, and shares my view that the outpouring of a pride bordering on arrogance in many cases on the 4th July is fairly over the top.

So therefore you might expect that our 4th was fairly low key and you’d be right. Fourth fireworksThe day was dissected by a trip over to Tina’s employers’ to let their dog out for some exercise as they are away on holiday. There was fear that this trip towards downtown would mean crazy traffic and no parking when we returned to the beaches, the most popular gathering spot for the celebrations. But it did give some cause for some celebration of our own. During a visit to an Arlington thrift store, Tina unearthed a brand new dress with store tickets still attached (showing $140) for only $10. Meanwhile I found a shirt, again brand new with store stickers in place for just $4. Plus we found several CDs at $1 each. I was warming to the 4th July. Another bonus was that many of the shops were nearly empty of shoppers, so it was a good time to stock up on weekly food goods. (But not patriotic cookies!)

Back at the beach we had a traditional American meal of burgers and hot dogs (both vegetarian of course) in honour of the great day. But in an unpatriotic move we selected a bottle of Australian Merlot rather than a Californian red, and adjourned to the table in the apartment garden area. Fouth fireworksIt was a sultry evening with no breeze, but enjoyable out there talking to some of our neighbours, and watching the increasing number of revellers staggering by on their way to the beach for the firework display. I enjoyed proffering the opinion that America might be a better place if Britain had actually held on to it. It was all taken in good heart. Just before the fireworks were due to start at 9:30pm we wandered down to the boardwalk to watch the spectacle through the waving sea oats in the dunes. It seemed most of the apartment block residents were there, joining somewhere around 100,000 other people. I left the “oohing” and “aahing” to the natives, I’m not overly fond of fireworks. I think they are in the main a waste of money, scare the animals, and if I wanted to be kept awake all night by loud bangs and flashes I’d have holidayed in Baghdad. However they do make an interesting and challenging subject to photograph. The majority of the photos I took were disappointing but here are the acceptable wheat from the chaff. Back at the garden seat we watched the traffic jam crawl southwards until well past midnight, and I stayed out further into the early hours drinking with the neighbours. An uneasy truce? Nah, good friends and willing parties to banter.

Fourth fireworks Fourth fireworks

Lifeguard seat sign…not from above but from the local neighbourhood. Early morning bike rides along the beach often turn up something unusual or eye-catching so the camera is always packed in my rucksack. This post’s photo collection initially started as a practical moment, an attempt to record the warning flags that fly at the beach and advice about rip currents so I could avoid any dangers lurking in the ocean. But as I rode around the beaches area I spotted other signage that would be unusual to the British readers of this blog, despite being just part of ordinary daily life over here. It’s a chance to practice photograph composition too. Hope you enjoy the images of just another day around Jacksonville Beach.

Beach warning sign
How it all started – beach warning sign

Rip currents
Rip currents – if in doubt do nowt, stay on the beach!

Sea Oats sign
People of North Staffordshire appreciate the importance of their oats too

Welcoming sign
Strict. Makes a change from “No ball games by order”

Wrong way
There doesn’t look much wrong with this way at all. Rather pleasant in fact

Ragtime Neptune Beach
Ragtime Tavern Neptune Beach

Sign overload
A plethora of signs – including the Florida Times-Union newspaper known to some around here as the “Jacksonville Joke”

Bike signs
Don’t worry I always do

Sofa so good

I’ve been here a month now and so far so good. The last week or so I’ve been mainly in the house doing DIY chores and spending a lot of time riding to hardware stores. It’s not all beach life you know. In fact since the day I was crab spotting I have not been back for a sunbathe mainly due to letting the sunburn recover! There are a few photos to upload from a few hikes and trips downtown, plus some more from around the beach. There’s no time for that now so I’ll just leave you all with this typical sofa scene – a good book and two doting cats.