David Bouchier

David Bouchier


Award-winning essayist David Bouchier's observations.More from David Bouchier »

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David Bouchier: Head for the Hills

Back in the 1960s and 1970s when we were all anticipating a nuclear war, a few exceptionally prudent or nervous people became what were called "survivalists." They headed out to some unimaginably remote part of the country – Montana seems to have been a favorite – found a suitably inaccessible location, and built houses with en suite nuclear bunkers, stocked with generators, food, board games, and videotaped episodes of The Survivors TV series. They were hoping, presumably, to emerge from their rural bunkers when the rest of us were dead, when they could enjoy the ultimate sensation of schadenfreude. No doubt they looked forward to saying "We told you so," if they could find anyone left to say it to.How they hoped to survive in a post-nuclear wasteland without strip malls is a mystery to me, but obviously they thought that any kind of survival was better than the alternative. I thought that this whole survivalist fad had died out long ago, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in

David Bouchier: Big Brother Is Still Watching

The other day I received a surprise message from the British police, informing me that I was being fined £30 for a traffic violation. It seems that two months ago in the provincial town of Colchester I had strayed into a bus lane, and the proof was enclosed with the police letter: three photographs taken from different angles showing my rental car crossing a completely empty bus lane on a completely empty road. I can even remember the moment when this happened. I had swerved right into the bus lane to get into position for an awkward turn that I almost missed. The car was probably in the forbidden lane for half a minute or less and, as there was no other traffic in sight, I felt it was perfectly safe to indulge in this piece of automotive wickedness. But I had forgotten the eyes in the sky, the closed circuit television cameras that seem to watch our every move. Britain has more of these spying devices than any other nation. One estimate is that there are almost six million of them,

David Bouchier: Travelling Light

Inspired by the example of Christopher Columbus, many of us travel great distances for reasons that are not always well thought out. We don't travel by sea any more of course: we fly. It is one of the many paradoxes of the modern age that, while long distance travel has grown infinitely faster and more convenient, short distances are much harder than they used to be. No conveyance in 1492 took as much time to cover three miles as the 57th Street crosstown bus in Manhattan, or moved as slowly as the Belt Parkway near Kennedy Airport. That's why we need long weekends – not to fly to Europe or the Bahamas, which is easy, but to get to and through the airport, which is not. We also need the extra time to pack. We travel fast, but we have fallen woefully behind our ancestors in the matter of traveling light. Ordinary sailors on the Santa Maria, setting out on a voyage of months or years into the unknown, were allowed only the most minimal carry-on baggage – one set of canvas work clothes.

David Bouchier: Goodbye To All That

Back in the long forgotten pre-Amazon era, I spent some happy years working in a big university bookstore opposite Trinity College in Cambridge – the old Cambridge, not the new one by the Charles River. The bookstore was a kind of warren of knowledge, with sections for Greek and Latin books, mathematics, art, literature, the sciences, philosophy, and an enormous history department. It was a happy hunting ground for professors, and for the more dedicated students, and we liked to think that it was in some sense the intellectual heart of the university. It has to be said that our stock, though huge, was limited. We didn't sell T-shirts, gifts, greeting cards, CDs, magazines, mugs, or stuffed toys, but only books. Although the store was in a prime retail location it never occurred to the owners to sell anything else. It certainly never occurred to them to sell absolutely everything else, and to get rid of the books. But the wheel of history has taken another turn, and the bookstore at

David Bouchier: Persuasion

Jane Austen died in 1817. She wrote brilliantly about a world that was psychologically and socially a million miles away from present-day America, in the kind of stately, exact English that nobody speaks or writes any more. She seems an unlikely candidate for media celebrity in the twittering age, yet her works are still enormously popular. Some people have even read the books, but the real boost to her celebrity has come from a flood of movies and TV specials. Austen's characters and plots have been all over our screens in the past few years, with nice costumes, beautiful settings, simplified plots, and lots of soft-focus photography. There have also been pastiches and parodies like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and if you can believe it, Pride and Prejudice goes to Bollywood. It has been suggested that some people feel starved for romance, and they find it in Jane Austen's stories. This is an extraordinary notion. Jane Austen had little time for romance, and satirized it

David Bouchier: Plumbing The Depths

There's no emergency like a water emergency. It brings out our most primitive fears. We inevitably think about Noah's flood and the final deluge. When water runs out of control indoors, we have the worst kind of domestic crisis. When the plumbing fails, we panic. The typical suburban house provides plenty of opportunities to panic. Basements flood, cesspools collapse, valves, pipes and faucets disintegrate without warning, and drains block up for no reason at all. For those accustomed to French plumbing, this is business as usual. But, in America, our whole lives depend on the assumption that plumbing is perfect. In Manhattan, people who suffer from bad plumbing simply call the janitor and go straight to their therapist. Here in the suburbs, we must take responsibility for our own plumbing disasters. Plumbers are a kind of suburban aristocracy, like firefighters. They are heroic, almost mythical figures, with their elusive habits and their vast estates in the Hamptons. People whisper

David Bouchier: Uneasy Rider

It was 60 years ago that I bought my first motorcycle, and it felt like a liberation. For many years after that I rode a series of unsteady and unreliable machines all over Europe, and somehow survived. In the end I bowed to family pressure and common sense and bought a car. But my last motorcycle, a splendid and powerful machine called Triumph Trophy, lingered in my mind. Sometimes I imagined that it was still lurking in the back of the garage under a tarpaulin, and that I could bring it out for one last ride. Motorcycles have that effect on some people. The experience of riding one has often been compared to flying, and that's not entirely wrong except that flying is safer. So I was more than interested when our local cultural center on Long Island put on a show of vintage motorcycles. They may be a dangerous form of transportation, but these machines have a strange beauty. It was a nice little show. The majority of exhibits were inevitably the big, shiny Harley Davidsons that were

David Bouchier: In Praise of Idleness

Summers used to last forever. It's a cliché, so it must be true. People of a certain age can actually remember those endless summers, which were abolished sometime in the early 1960s. Our modern summers are much shorter, and much busier. Labor Day seems to arrive almost immediately after Memorial Day, and most of us are exhausted by the time we get here. It may be only a matter of perception, but perception is all we have. Time moves more slowly when we have nothing do. Now we always have something to do. We've lost the gift of idleness, if we ever had it. Americans, and many Europeans too, have re-invented summer as a kind of second job that we have to do in addition to our regular job. Whatever idle moments we might have enjoyed in the past are snatched away by the demands of long distance travel and outdoor activities, to say nothing of lawn care, incendiary barbecue parties, and daunting lists of "Summer Reading" promoted by the newspapers. Idleness is not an option, although at

David Bouchier: The Pharmacy Has Everything

One of our first stops when we arrive back in the United States is always the local pharmacy. We want to be prepared for anything. We have been in France, which is rich in pharmacies of a sort. There are some 22,000 of them, each one marked with an illuminated green sign, and they have a virtual monopoly on the sale of medicines, all the way down to aspirin. If you are familiar with American pharmacies, the French version looks and feels like an entirely different kind of business. A few personal care products are up front, where you can examine them, but everything else is hidden behind the barricade of the counter, manned by pharmacists who claim to have the answer to your medical problem, whatever that may be. Foreigners have two issues with the French pharmacy system. One is that you have to know what you want before you want it, which means that you have to diagnose yourself and prescribe yourself a cure, and translate all this into French before you even step through the door of

David Bouchier: A Time Not To Relax

Our long vacation in Europe is coming to an end, and it has been a luxury and a treat. A luxury because, having retired from almost everything except life itself, we can sometimes afford to be away for several weeks at a time, and a treat because the only real vacation is a long one. Most working Americans are seriously short-changed on vacation time. If you travel away from home for only a one or two-week break you are heading back again before you fully realize where you were. It frees you from the hamster wheel of working life just long enough for you to realize that you are – well – a hamster. If you stay at home, you are likely to spend the time doing little jobs around the house. There is nothing more mortifying to the human spirit than doing little jobs around the house. It is the very essence of purgatory, which is a place of laborious, meaningless and endless tasks. Our culture was founded on the Puritan values of self-control, obedience, hard work, and humility. Puritans don

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