Monday, December 31, 2012

Pale White Light

For an end-of-year post, I was thinking of writing about the teachers’ nemesis, Michael Gove. But the intention of this blog is to be celebratory; there are plenty of blogs that negatively moan on and on – I know, I used to write one. (The reason I wanted to write about Gove was because I took a group of sixth form students to the cinema to see the new version of Great Expectations at the start of the month, and someone innocently asked me whether I would be able to claim back the money I paid for my ticket. I said I didn’t really know, but why would I expect the public to pay for something that was for my enjoyment? And then, as I and countless other teachers put our hands in our pockets to buy sweets, biscuits and mince pies to celebrate the festive season with our students, my mind turned to MPs' expenses and that culture of claiming for every single one of life’s little outgoings. Gove has spent 2012 turning the word ‘teacher’ into a pejorative term: telling us that we don't work hard enough, we are propping up a corrupt exam system and we are over-rewarded with our gold-plated pensions. So, I thought I would remind myself how he fared in the MPs’ expenses scandal – where he sits in the something-for-nothing culture. Of course, he was as rotten as the rest of them. As well as making a dubious claim for £13,000 in moving expenses, in 2009 he had to pay back £7,000 he had claimed for equipping his second home. These items ranged from luxury furniture from his mother-in-law’s interior design company to a cot mattress from Toys R Us. What shocks me most about this information is the revelation that Michael Gove is married with children…) So, I decided not to write about Gove.

I was also thinking of writing about the incompetence of George Osborne: how he has demonised people on benefits as unemployed layabouts when the welfare bill overwhelmingly supports pensioners and the working poor; how savage cuts in the public sector have stalled the circulation of money that capitalism relies on; how he has missed target after target after target and, despite all the misery, the deficit has not gone down. But I don’t want to write about him, either; John Lanchester’s magnificent essay, Let's Call it Failure, on the London Review of Books website, demolishes him with much more elan than I could ever muster.

And I had thought of writing about the proliferation of technology for its own sake. A year of gigs spent alongside people either watching the band through their phones as they film them, or heads bowed ignoring the band and praying to the pale white light, has made me realise how, for so many people, life is lived vicariously and is only real if it is mediated through a screen. I could have written about the marginalisation of books and the invasion of the classroom by e-readers, tablets and apps; I could have written about the demise of Sussex Sedition as a physical fanzine but its survival as a blog. I had even found quotations from two writers on the subject this year:

“Speed cameras, recording angels on lampposts, our phones, our computers…a nation that could look at everything and see nothing.” - Andrew O’Hagan

“Watching has become mere gaping; open-mouthed and slow-breathing.” - John Banville

But I don’t want to write about any of that; it's all too depressing.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Leeks Midwinter

After a fairly dismal harvest from the allotment this year, the only crop that has made it to the bleak midwinter is the trusty leek. The brassicas were massacred, the carrots and parsnips failed and what little there was of a potato crop has already been eaten. So, on a blustery Christmas Eve morning walk with the dogs, I stopped off at the plot to harvest the last of the leeks, determined that something home-grown would make it to the Christmas dinner table. And there they were, standing upright in splendid isolation: the final four leeks. If the nuclear winter ever arrives, I swear it will be the leek that will be the first to regenerate, condemning generations of survivors ever after to wear leeks in their buttonholes in remembrance. And in the austere spirit of the times, I will make use of the whole vegetable. Here are two recipes: one that uses the traditionally eaten stem, the other the green leafy tops.

Creamy Cheesy Leeks

You will need:
40g butter
4 leeks
1 onion
A few sprigs of thyme
1 glass of white wine
150ml double cream
250g grated cheddar cheese

To cook:
Trim the leeks but set aside the green tops.
Melt the butter in a frying pan.
Thinly slice the leeks and chop the onion.
Gently fry the leeks, onion and thyme until soft.
Add the wine and simmer for 5 minutes to reduce.
Add the cream and warm through.
Put in an oven dish, add the cheese and bake for 25 minutes at 180c.


The green tops of leeks usually end up in the compost; but washed and cooked in butter they are a great addition to the table for the midwinter feast on the 25th.

Leek Tops

To cook:
Wash and finely shred the leek tops.
Melt a couple of ounces of butter in a saucepan.
Add the leeks and cover.
Cook over a medium heat until the butter bubbles.
Stir and turn to a low heat.
Season with salt and pepper and cook for a few minutes more until soft.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas Wassail


From the Middle English greeting ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’, the ceremony of wassailing takes its name. From Kent and Sussex in the east, to Devon and Somerset in the west, the tradition of drinking the health of the apple trees has existed for hundreds of years. A procession moves through the orchards, singing, shouting and banging pots to drive away evil spirits so that trees will be bountiful the following autumn. Toast soaked in wassail - hot mulled cider or beer - is then hung from the branches. The ceremony usually takes place on the eve of twelfth night, 5th January. However, because of the calendar change of 1753 when 11 days were lost, some insist that the ceremony should be on 16th January. It does not really matter when it’s meant to be: it involves so much drinking of wassail that, by the end of the evening, no one knows what day it is anyway.

In more recent centuries, wassail as a drink became associated with the yuletide season. Beginning on Christmas Eve, the wassail bowl would be drunk from all through the twelve days of the holiday. Dickens probably compounded this tradition. In The Pickwick Papers, Mr Pickwick and his entourage arrive at Mr Wardle’s Dingley Dell:

“'This,' said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, 'this is, indeed, comfort.'
'Our invariable custom,' replied Mr. Wardle. 'Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now--servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.'
Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the farthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face.
'Come,' said Wardle, 'a song--a Christmas song! I'll give you one, in default of a better.'
'Bravo!' said Mr. Pickwick.
'Fill up,' cried Wardle. 'It will be two hours, good, before you see the bottom of the bowl through the deep rich colour of the wassail; fill up all round, and now for the song.'
Thus saying, the merry old gentleman, in a good, round, sturdy voice, commenced without more ado-
This song was tumultuously applauded--for friends and dependents make a capital audience--and the poor relations, especially, were in perfect ecstasies of rapture. Again was the fire replenished, and again went the wassail round.”

Outside the home, wassailing became something that moved from the orchard to the street and was bound up with carol singing: those less well-off would visit the homes of the wealthy and sing for food and drink - “oh, bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer”. The cup of good cheer was the wassail.

There are a huge number of variations in modern recipes for wassail. Some use brandy and sherry for the kick while others use rum and beer - some even use lager and vodka. And some use cider instead of apples which seems heretical to me: for a traditional wassail, there must be apples. Dickens again:

“they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.”

This recipe uses brown ale and sherry; and apples that will hiss and bubble when your wassail is simmering on the top of your stove. You will need:

* 8 medium eating apples
* 6 bottles of real or brown ale
* 500ml sherry
* 150g brown sugar
* 2 teaspoons of mixed spice
* Sliced orange
* Lemon peel
* Large cooking pot with lid for oven and hob use

To make:

*Remove one strip of skin from around the middle of each apple.
*Put the apples, brown sugar and one bottle of ale in the cooking pot.
*Cover and cook for 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees.
*Remove the apples and set aside.
*Transfer the pot to the hob and add the remaining ale, sherry, fruit and spice.
*Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5 minutes.
*Return the apples and keep hot on a low heat as you serve.

This should serve six drinks. Waes hael!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Downland: part two

Below him, to his right, Ridler could still make out the bulk of the tithe barn at Alciston and the lights from The Rose that were beginning to flicker through the pervading gloom. The thought of sitting, musing, a pint of Tamplin’s on a rough wooden table in front of him, appealed. To gaze out of the propped bar door into the warm summer evening, exchange a nod – perhaps a word – with others as they arrived would be the simplest of pleasures; but the reality would be far from this fantasy. Glances, stares, suspicion, alarm, hostility, anger, violence: walking into the bar of a public house would guarantee a starting point at any of the increments on this scale of reaction. Further away he could see the village of Ripe; in the pub there he might be begrudgingly tolerated – not that he had ever tried to test the idea. Perhaps even in the inn at Chalvington to its east, the response would not escalate beyond the stares; but away from home, even a few paltry miles, would make all the difference. Ridler walked on; surefooted, upright and bareheaded. The local pubs had embraced the Writer when he first came to Downland but his turmoil inside had begun to show on the outside and – like Ridler - he had become a spectacle to be judged.

Nearing the Beacon, Ridler felt a sense of relief: he needed to be out on the Downs, needed to be nearer the sky, be able to feel the air, be able to see the world as far as he could, but he always had a sense that no sooner than he felt free, the counter of confinement tugged at him and he had to return to the fetters he had forged for himself. For over twenty years, he had had to live with the limits of his decision to become a spectacle. He had no regret: he and Gladys had lived well during those years – but a price had to be paid. And he had quickly learned that price. Despite all the attention, the gazes of fascination at the World Fair, there was also opprobrium. In Times Square, he had not seen the man as any different from the amused and opened-mouthed throng who parted as he – literally head and shoulders above them - and Gladys, sightseeing, moved through them. Not different until Ridler felt a smart on the side of his face, felt the droplets of blood on his chin and saw the man, flick-knife hanging lazily, mouthing angry words back at him as he melted into the crowd. Never since had he put himself so close to so many people; and never since had he ventured out without scarf and hat to conceal. Except here - the Downs – where the warmth of the summer air, like balm to a wound, caressed and soothed his skin.

Licht und Blindheit

Peter Hook’s decision to trawl through his back catalogue and tour whole albums has seen him fall out with his New Order colleagues. Next month, with his band, the Light, he will perform New Order’s Movement and Power, Corruption and Lies on stage. But for the moment he is still mining the rich seam of Joy Division material. Billed as an Unknown Pleasures gig, his turn at Concorde 2 on Brighton’s chilly Madeira Drive on Wednesday night turned out to contain a lot more.

The one vinyl album I own that has been most worn through continually playing is Joy Division’s debut. I was 17 years old when it was released and it sounded like nothing ever made before. And I’ve never really stopped playing it – these songs are hard-wired into my consciousness – and it still sounds unique despite the scores of bands who have subsequently been inspired by its sound. At the gig, there are countless men of a certain age and Peter Saville’s sleeve design – a diagrammatic representation of the radio waves emitted from a collapsed star - is everywhere: it forms the stage backdrop, it’s on posters and it's on T-shirts, including one worn by one of the support band, Manchester’s Tiny Phillips. But there are a lot of younger people in the audience, testament to Joy Division’s continuing influence.

Expecting the bass line from Disorder when the band take the stage, it’s a surprise when they begin with the patient, swirling build-up of Dead Souls, the B-side of the 1980 Licht und Blindheit single for the French label Sordide Sentimental. After the subtleties of the opener, there are a couple of early songs - No Love Lost and Leaders of Men – from the cusp of Warsaw/Joy Division, and Digital from 1978’s A Factory Sample EP. The sense that Hook was always the most boisterous member of Joy Division/New Order seems to be borne out as he crunches through these early songs. He handles the vocals well, despite the occasional lapse into bellowing; he is sure of the lyrics and delivers them with passion. Perhaps this should not be a shock: it was a toss-up who should take the vocal duties after Curtis’s death and Hook lost out to Bernard Sumner. I love the fragility of Barney’s voice but listen to Hook’s lead vocals on Dreams Never End and Doubts Even Here from New Order’s debut album and consider whether the right decision was made.

The well-replicated rawness of those old Warsaw songs makes me fear for the tender songs on Unknown Pleasures; but his handling of the delicacy of Candidate and Insight allays my fears. The band includes another bassist, enabling Hook to selectively concentrate on the intricate bass melodies that are perhaps the most important element in producer Martin Hannett’s creation of the Joy Divison sound. And with samples of the album’s original production augmenting the songs, the spliced tape intro to New Dawn Fades gives me an emotional catch in the throat.

Once they have finished Unknown Pleasures in its entirety, that’s not it: Atrocity Exhibition, A Means to an End, Isolation, 24 Hours and The Eternal all signal that perhaps Hook’s next project will be playing all of Joy Division’s second album, Closer, live. Finishing with two singles, Transmission and the obligatory Love Will Tear Us Apart, Hook has played for nearly two hours. There has been criticism of his motivation for touring this material but Hook clearly loves these songs and seems lost in the moment on stage. And who could deny someone who was instrumental in creating such iconic music the chance to let it see the light again after so long?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

What's in a Name?

Carter’s Corner Place, near Hellingly, is divided up into three different homes these days; but in the second half of the twentieth century it was the country pile of Lord Hailsham, or Quintin Hogg, most well known as the Tories’ tub-thumping right wing Lord Chancellor during the Thatcherite 1980s. He had inherited it from his father, the first Lord Hailsham. A fairly unremarkable house, it was originally built in 1602, for the Barton family, of red and grey brick with a tiled roof and casement windows with stone mullions and transoms. It was enlarged by the first Lord Hailsham in the 1920s.

By far the most interesting thing about the house is what happened there on Saturday 2nd April 1932. Quintin Hogg shared a mother with his half-brother Edward Marjoribanks. Myssie Marjoribanks had divorced her husband Archibald and remarried to Lord Hailsham. In one of those ubiquitous pieces of nonsense the nobility indulge in, the comically upper class surname Marjoribanks was actually pronounced Marchbanks. Edward was Tory MP for Eastbourne and had come down from London with his half-brother to stay with his mother and stepfather for the weekend.

On Monday 4th April, the Manchester Guardian, a name my dad insisted on using for the paper until the day he died some forty years after they had dropped the ‘Manchester’ (similarly, he never got used to the Home Service becoming Radio 4), carried the following story:

'We regret to announce the death, under tragic circumstances, of Mr. Edward Marjoribanks, M.P., one of the most promising of the younger Conservatives. Mr. Marjoribanks was found by his stepfather, Lord Hailsham (Secretary for War), shot dead in the billiard-room of the latter's house, Carter's Corner Place, near Hailsham, on Saturday night. Lord Hailsham, who was greatly distressed, sent at once for a doctor and the police.

'Mr. Marjoribanks, who was 32 years of age, had recently been suffering from the effects of overwork, and particularly from insomnia.

'Mr. Marjoribanks was found lying partly across a chair with a gunshot wound in his chest.Near the body was a double-barrelled sporting gun. Adjoining the billiard room is a small anteroom, which is used as a gun-room, and it is believed that it was here that the gun was discharged. Marks on the floor and walls indicate that Mr. Marjoribanks was standing in the gunroom when he received the wound.

'He fell to the floor, but apparently, retaining consciousness, staggered or crawled through the open doorway into the billiard-room, collapsed across the chair, and died immediately. Only one barrel of the gun had been discharged. On the floor, it is understood, two live cartridges were found.

'Mr. Marjoribanks was to have passed the weekend at Lord Hailsham's home before returning to Westminster for the resumption of the House of Commons sittings tomorrow. In addition to his duties at Westminster he had been engaged with unremitting energy on the completion of a life of Lord Carson which he was writing, and the strain had been obviously telling on him. He left London on Monday with Mr. Quintin McGarel Hogg (Lord Hailsham's son) to spend a quiet week-end in the country. While at Carter's Corner Place he had been passing the time quietly on the beautiful estate, which lies on a hill off the Battle-Lewes Road outside Hailsham. Mr. Marjoribanks had been seen about the house earlier in the day, and had taken meals with his stepfather.'


The sad truth, of course, was that Marjoribanks had not "received the wound" but had committed suicide. Similarly, he had not been "suffering from the effects of overwork" but had just been jilted by his fiancée. This was something that had happened to him before: an earlier marriage engagement had also been broken off against his wishes.

In the churchyard of All Saints in Herstmonceux, his modest grave is on the far side looking across the Pevensey Levels towards Hailsham. When I came across it during a walk, the relative youth of the occupant prompted me to investigate further; that and the ludicrous surname.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Downland: part one

The Downs. The solemn, swollen hills; the perpetual sward of the south, stretching from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east. Undulating, by turns it slopes and sheers to the sea in the south; the covering of ancient woodland cleared millennia ago, ovine-manicured grassland now dominates. At the eastern edge, its northerly face gazes down onto the villages under its shadow and to the distant settlements of the Weald. The Downs: the grass below, above, the vaulted sky. The Downs. And on a day in June 1958, between its silhouetted escarpment and the orange-tinged archipelago of late evening altocumulus cloud, a tall figure could be seen. Avoiding the main path, occasionally obscured by gorse, it was restlessly heading west, intent on descent before the sun finally set. The open landscape of chalk and grass spread before him, the benign breeze faced him; the intersection of stile-less farmers’ fences his only obstacle. He had seen no others since before he had begun his climb when he crossed the Lewes Road and his form, illuminated in the half-lights of a speeding Morris Oxford, had startled the driver into swerve and skid. More anxious than usual on this day to be off the Downs, Ridler’s object – the Beacon – was still some two miles distant. For the past year, he had avoided the nightwalking that had sustained him during his first seven in Downland. Now, he preferred only the interregnum - dusk and twilight - but the risk of capture in the gaze of others was always present. It had been like this before, but in those years from the summer of 1950 he had found some acceptance and, from it, a freedom. The Writer had changed that a year ago to the day and Ridler had barely understood; but he had resolved to remove the risk of a repetition of the events of that previous June.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Foodbank

Foodbank, a network of emergency food provision, has reported a 100% increase in the number of people it has fed in this country in the last year. This is not surprising considering that 13 million people now live below the poverty line in the UK and the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition wages war on the most vulnerable in society.

There are 250 Foodbanks nationwide and here in East Sussex there are centres in Eastbourne, Hailsham and Hastings, with two more planned in Bexhill and Heathfield. The scheme is run by the Trussell Trust, an organisation working to combat poverty and exclusion. That they are a Christian charity should not put anyone off: in a climate of aggressive government policy against the needy, where there is a deliberate will to remove the safety net of the welfare state from millions, Foodbanks are providing an important lifeline for people in crisis.

Where a Foodbank is established, food is donated by individuals, businesses and local organisations. Collections are also made at supermarkets where shoppers are asked to buy an extra item or two. Volunteers then check that food is in date and pack it into boxes ready for people in need. Professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers and Citizens’ Advice Bureau staff identify people in crisis and issue them with a voucher that can be redeemed for three days emergency food. Some Foodbanks also run a rural delivery service, which takes emergency foodboxes to clients living in rural areas who cannot afford to get to a centre.

Mostly, Foodbanks are being used by the working poor, the unemployed and the elderly who need to bridge the gap until the next payday, benefit or pension payment. And it’s not just about food: if Foodbanks keep people away from the clutches of so called ‘payday loan’ companies and their ensnaring rates of interest, they must be a good thing.

If you want to donate or volunteer, or are in need of help yourself, local Foodbanks can be found through www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-projects or at the following locations in East Sussex:

Sheriff Place
Rear of Link Shop
1 George Street
Hailsham
BN27 1AD
01323 844428

Albury House
1 Cornfield Lane
Eastbourne
BN21 4NE
01323 409925

The Hastings Centre
The Ridge
Hastings
TN34 2SA
07970 810008

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Roadblock

The long running saga of the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR) looks to be coming to a sorry end as construction of this pointless road is now due to begin, cutting a swathe through Combe Haven Valley.

Following the process of local consultation in 2004 and a public enquiry in 2009, the current government is now making the scheme happen with approval of the compulsory purchase of the land and George Osborne's decision to contribute £56m towards the project. The Hastings Alliance, the campaign group formed to oppose the BHLR, failed earlier this month in its High Court application for a judicial review of the government's funding decision, and now construction is due to start in January of next year.

Building a meandering road through the countryside to link two towns that sit next to each other on the coast would appear to be utter folly. East Sussex County Council, however, is insistent that the road is essential for the regeneration of the towns as it would open up greenfield areas around North Bexhill and Hastings for new housing and business developments and would relieve the congested and polluted A259.

Improving existing housing in the two towns is a more worthwhile and job-creating investment, and any new business parks would struggle to be viable without greater stimulus to the wider local economy. And the Council should be aiming to create less traffic through improved public transport, not simply spreading it around and probably creating more.

The Hastings Alliance is supported by a range of well-known charities such as Friends of the Earth, the RSPB and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Future opposition to the scheme would seem to lie outside of the formal process and these genteel campaigners; it will now fall to pressure groups the Combe Haven Defenders and Bexhill Link Road Resistance to toughen up opposition. Such crass road building is sending a chill wind from the recent past blowing through the Combe Haven Valley and also with it, perhaps, the spirit of the eco-warriors of the 1990s. Come January, direct action may be the only way to block this road.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

National Poetry Day


Sussex

GOD gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.

So one shall Baltic pines content,
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn—
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
And, through the gaps revealed,
Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,
Blue goodness of the Weald.

Clean of officious fence or hedge,
Half-wild and wholly tame,
The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge
As when the Romans came.
What sign of those that fought and died
At shift of sword and sword?
The barrow and the camp abide,
The sunlight and the sward.

Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west
All heavy-winged with brine,
Here lies above the folded crest
The Channel’s leaden line;
And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
And here, each warning each,
The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring
Along the hidden beach.

We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails—
Whereby no tattered herbage tells
Which way the season flies—
Only our close-bit thyme that smells
Like dawn in Paradise.

Here through the strong and shadeless days
The tinkling silence thrills;
Or little, lost, Down churches praise
The Lord who made the hills:
But here the Old Gods guard their round,
And, in her secret heart,
The heathen kingdom Wilfrid found
Dreams, as she dwells, apart.

Though all the rest were all my share,
With equal soul I’d see
Her nine-and-thirty sisters fair,
Yet none more fair than she.
Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,
And I will choose instead
Such lands as lie ’twixt Rake and Rye,
Black Down and Beachy Head.

I will go out against the sun
Where the rolled scarp retires,
And the Long Man of Wilmington
Looks naked toward the shires;
And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea-forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.

I will go north about the shaws
And the deep ghylls that breed
Huge oaks and old, the which we hold
No more than Sussex weed;
Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s
Begilded dolphin veers
And red beside wide-bankèd Ouse
Lie down our Sussex steers.

So to the land our hearts we give
Till the sure magic strike,
And Memory, Use, and Love make live
Us and our fields alike—
That deeper than our speech and thought,
Beyond our reason’s sway,
Clay of the pit whence we were wrought
Yearns to its fellow-clay.

God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

Rudyard Kipling (1902)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Seashore out of Season

The last day of September. A strong westerly wind and a darkening sky mean that I have the beach to myself. Up above, I can see a solitary figure trying to light a cigarette outside the hotel. He could be the thin man; if he begins to assemble a telescopic rifle I am in trouble. I can never walk on a deserted seashore out of season without thinking of the closing scene of ‘Get Carter’. Michael Caine, black mac and shotgun, laid low by the sniper’s bullet and the incoming tide engulfing his prone form. But this is genteel, well-heeled Cooden and not the black sands of Blackhall Beach, shifting slag into the sea from the Durham coalfields. As I get closer, the smoker is wrapping himself up in a coat retrieved from a car with a “Love Europe, Hate the EU” sticker. I need not have worried, only my sensibilities were at risk; the biggest threat here is from latent xenophobia.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Best of Times

When Kevin Rowland was living in Sussex in the 1990s, it was perhaps not the best of times for him. To say it was the worst of times is to make a judgement on recreational cross-dressing and cocaine use; but if we judge Rowland purely on the genius of his musical output then his barren sojourn in Brighton must rank as a low. Returning to the city this week with Dexys, now shorn of their nocturnal athleticism, to treat an audience at the Dome to new album, ‘One Day I‘m Going To Soar’, must have been anticipated by him with something of a bitter sweetness.

Dexys Midnight Runners’ three albums from the first half of the 1980s are the stuff of legend: the brassy stomp of ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’, the Celtic soul of ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ and the complex and misunderstood ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’. To release an album 27 years after your last, that is of such boldness, beauty and brilliance only adds to the legend. Stax and Philly-tinged, with Rowland’s strong, stylised voice same as it ever was, and complete with the usual curious vocal tics (“Now, now, now, now, now), the album is incredible. With Pete Williams and Mick Talbot back from the very first album and ever-present Big Jim Paterson, the band is tight and soulful with the drums high up in the mix of an uncluttered “live” sound. With plenty of spoken-word sections and call and response vocals between Rowland and Williams and Madeleine Hyland, the album drifts to the very brink of musical theatre. One of my mates thinks that ‘One Day I‘m Going To Soar’ is “possibly the greatest album ever made”. Strong stuff, but he knows a thing or two about music. What makes it great, he says, is that they mean it despite the fact that they perhaps should not. Failure to make the recent Mercury prize shortlist seems puzzling.

It was well trailed that Dexys’ performance on their current tour would consist of the new album played in its entirety, and in order, followed by a set of classics. This does not prevent a little restlessness from a tiny minority in the audience who have come to hear the hits. But mostly there is a hushed respect and restrained applause as the band go through the album. The songs sound even better live: the vocals soar and the band is inspired. Lucy Morgan’s viola and Big Jim’s trombone combine perfectly to create the wistful power of Dexys’ sound. The conceptual nature of the album comes across with even greater clarity live as Rowland sings to images of Hyland projected on a screen in the build up to their duets on ‘I’m Always Going To Love You’ And ‘Incapable of Love’. When Hyland appears on stage to deliver her powerful vocal performance, her dress alone should walk away with the Mercury prize. And the rest of the band are all sartorial elegance with their Speakeasy/On the Waterfront retro stylings. Rowland starts off in a chalk-stripe zoot suit and fedora, later shedding the jacket to reveal a shirt, the likes of which have not been seen on stage since Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

When the reprise of ‘Free’ finishes off the album and the first set, the audience explodes from its reverence into a wild standing ovation. Rowland is visibly moved, thumping his heart with his fist and declaring over and over “this means a lot” and adding “especially in Brighton”. The band then run through a selection of earlier songs containing only one hit single, a reworking of ‘Come On Eileen’. I think this is a beautiful song but it is almost impossible to extricate critically from its status as wedding reception floor-filler in succession to ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. What made the second set so pleasurable, apart from the bizarre role play with Williams as a policeman, was the selection of less well known songs that were clearly strong audience favourites. Tracks such as ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, ‘Liars A to E’ – my personal favourite – and the mighty ‘This Is What She’s Like’ were met with waves of approval and, when Dexys left the stage after more than two hours, the audience were emotionally spent. Whether this was the greatest gig I have ever been to, I am not sure, but what I do know is, it was amongst the very best of times.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Curiosity Shop


A white-coated grocer smiles indulgently and hands provisions across the shop counter to a tall be-hatted figure. The customer is dark-coated and his smile is less easy to read: not full enough, and obscured by the broad ebony striations of his face, he has a look of hesitancy at this scene choreographed by a Brownie-wielding photographer. It is the early 1950s and the keeper of the Ripe village shop and Horace Ridler are illustrating a story on the villagers’ acceptance of a curiosity in their midst.

I saw that photograph and article a few years ago in a local newspaper’s archive. Quite why the most famous tattooed man of the twentieth century – or of all time – chose to live in East Sussex, it did not say; many of the details of Ridler’s life are vague or lost. But what is known is that Horace Ridler, better known as the Great Omi or the Zebra Man, retired at the height of his fame in 1950 to a caravan park in Deanland, between Golden Cross and Ripe. Only 10 years earlier he had been touring America with the Barnum and Bailey circus and was reputed to be the world’s highest paid showman.

Ridler was born into a wealthy family in 1892 and, as a young man, was commissioned as an officer in the army. He had inherited, but quickly frittered away, his father’s wealth before the age of 22, when he left Britain for active service in the First World War. Despite experiencing some of the horrors of the Mesopotamia campaign, Ridler survived and was demobbed at the end of the war with a small pension and the problem of how to earn a living.

Acquiring some crude pictorial tattoos, Ridler found work exhibiting himself at travelling fairs throughout the 1920s; but this was never enough to support him and his wife, Gladys. In 1934 he decided to take drastic action. Subjecting himself to 150 hours of tattooing at the hands of George Burchett of Waterloo Road, London, Horace and Gladys travelled from their suburban home in Mitcham, Surrey three times a week for six months. At the end, Ridler had transformed himself with broad, black stripes over his entire body, face and skull. Augmented with piercings to his ears and septum, filed teeth and native costumes, Ridler became the Great Omi – after Omai, the Tahitian native Captain Cook brought to London in 1774.

The effect was instant: Ridler became one of the biggest attractions in England and France, exhibiting himself to thousands. But it was when the Ridlers sailed across the Atlantic in 1939 that his career as the world’s most tattooed man really began. The Great Omi was the star of that year’s World Fair in New York and he spent the next three years touring America and Canada. Wanting to help with the war effort - an unsuccessful attempt to re-enlist with the British Consul in New York had already been made - Ridler returned to Britain in 1942 to entertain the troops and promote government war bonds.

After the war, Ridler returned to performance with Gladys as his compere, Omette, and became even more popular in Britain than he had been before. And then at the height of it all, the Golden Cross Caravan Park beckoned. At 6’ 4” tall, and with his alabaster skin accentuated by the thick, black lines of his tattoos, Ridler was an imposing sight; but by the time of his death in 1969 he was a benign and familiar figure in the country lanes around Ripe, heading off to the village store with his shopping bag.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Idiot


There are many decisions this idiot government has made that have affected the lives of the young. The housing benefit cap and the reduction in child tax credits have undermined the stability of children and families; the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme and the sell-off of playing fields have reined in opportunities available to schoolchildren; and the raising of university tuition fees has restricted access to higher education. All of these have impacted on the start in life of countless young people; but the latest stupid move by the government has probably had the most immediate and pernicious effect of all.

This week’s GCSE results have revealed that the exam boards, under instruction from the regulator Ofqual, moved the grade boundaries for students sitting English between the January and May exams, without notifying schools. The result of this is that across the country, there are countless students who scored the same marks in May as their contemporaries did in January, but they have received a lower grade. The most marked effect of this has been on students who were expected to get a C grade and have now been awarded a D grade. Entry to sixth forms and colleges is dependent on at least a C grade in English and Maths. At the school in East Sussex where I teach English there are ten students who have been awarded a D grade when their marks were well within the grade boundary that would have secured a C grade in January. I understand that the position in some other schools across the county is a lot worse; this means that there are hundreds of young people in East Sussex whose immediate next steps in life have been severely affected at a stroke.

This has been done in the name of curbing grade inflation because it is widely accepted that GCSE students cannot continue to improve year after year. But why not? Why cannot success be extended to as many as possible? Because this is the nasty party and for people like Michael Gove equality of opportunity is anathema. And he can plead innocence as much as he likes but there has undoubtedly been government pressure brought to bear; I saw him on the news and he closed his eyes at the point he said he had not instructed Ofqual - sure sign of a lie. Years of improving state education and increasing numbers going to university have to be rolled back by the Tories. As Gore Vidal said, “it is not enough to succeed, others must fail”. Or, in other words, the lower orders must know their place.

Slugging It Out


This year has been the worst year for vegetables since I began growing my own. The persistent rain throughout the early part of the summer had a catastrophic effect on the crops. The result was twofold: many plants struggled to establish themselves and those that did, fell victim to a rampant slug population. The vegetable patch at the end of the garden seemed to be slug-free but at the allotment, it was like a black slug version of Hitchcock’s, The Birds. I have never seen so many big, fat Arionidae.

My usual method, the beer trap, was hopeless. I caught more of the slugs’ predators – the beetle – than I did black or brown slugs. For a very fleeting moment I considered slug pellets, but if you are taking the trouble to grow your own produce it seems pointless to then shower the soil with chemicals. I might as well jog off to Lidl and buy my veg cheap and pesticide-packed. So I tackled the slugs by hand: hunting them down and drowning them. Not able to get on the allotment every single day, however, they won.

The brassicas suffered most: my new large tunnel cloche, constructed from water pipe and a pond net to protect against pigeons and cabbage whites, was pointless. The slugs annihilated cauliflower, kale and cabbage plants before the birds and the butterflies had even noticed them. The slugs also destroyed the courgette crop (although a summer without a glut of courgettes felt strangely liberating) and stripped the potato plants. I do still have a potato crop – although it is a greatly reduced as a result - and beetroot, garlic and sweet corn seem to have escaped unscathed. But so great is the slug population, and so little is there left to feed on, that they are now on the brink of a crisis. Just this week, as I was harvesting the rest of my crops, I found slugs reduced to trying to eat the onion scapes. I enjoyed some petty revenge with the strimmer.

The produce in the garden has been relatively successful. Peas, broad beans and runner beans have been late but eventually abundant. And despite the wet weather, the tomatoes have not fallen to blight and have been heroically prolific. But, apart from gooseberries, soft fruit has been a disaster; I cannot recall a single strawberry managing to ripen in the June monsoon.

Back up at the allotment, I am already looking forward to the next growing season - it cannot possibly be as bad as this year. But if it is, I will be ready with bigger beer traps, a barrier of oyster shell and, my trump card, a pond. Freshly dug with child labour, a liner and a filling of winter rain will help to attract those pond-life predators. Come the spring, I will be slugging it out again.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trouble in Paradise


Rushlake Green, a small village to the south-east of Heathfield , has a number of features that make it stand out from other similar places in East Sussex in these days of long distance commuting and second homes. It has a village hall and a pub, the Horse and Groom, things which even the most gentrified villages have managed to hang on to; but it also has – and these are those less typical aspects – a separate village shop and post office. Even more unusually, it has some genuine social housing: a supported scheme of homes for rent for older people right in the middle of the village. And obviously all of these rarities are interdependent; and that’s what makes a real community: people who need and patronise services that meet the demands of those who live there. (In another larger village near me an art and design shop opened; nothing against art and design but it wasn’t quite what car-less people needed to assist them in the daily struggle to access basic services.)

So, Rushlake Green is a real place as well as being delightfully picturesque; but there is trouble in paradise - of course it would be stupid to assume that such a good state of affairs would be allowed to exist unhindered. There was first a threat to the village shop when the owner, whose family had run the business for 90 years, retired in 2008. A campaign to establish a community shop in its place gathered support but eventually new owners came forward and took over the post office and village store as they were. Now, to keep both services viable, the owners want to sell part of the premises as residential accommodation and subsume the post office into the shop; except this is not that straightforward. Post Office Limited has set down a number of requirements that would adversely affect the cost of moving and the ability to provide a service from within the shop.

As a result, there is again a threat to a service that is well-used by both those who depend on it because they are unable to go elsewhere, and those who have mobility but find the service convenient. It is likely that the intransigence of Post Office Limited can be explained by their current pre-privatisation state. In April of this year it became independent of Royal Mail – a nicely self- contained service ripe for a sell-off as a thrusting business with little time for elderly supported housing residents. It is currently unclear how this situation will be resolved but perhaps it is time to dust off those plans for a community shop.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cylinder Sound


The only energy a hand-powered cylinder mower uses is your own; and if you have an area of grass to cut that is not too extensive it would be madness to use anything that relies on unsustainable sources. We bought one for about £20 a few years ago but it was pretty cheaply made and, after using it to mow uneven allotment paths as well as in the garden, it started to fall apart.

Having learnt that you have to use them regularly and on fairly even grass, we upped our investment to the forty quid mark and went for one made by a well-known lawnmower manufacturer. By happy accident, when I was researching this particular model, I realised that a previous version of it, dating from as early as the 1930s, was the mower that my granddad used to let me ride precariously on the front of as a kid – this was before the invention of modern parental anxiety - as he pushed it up and down to create that bowling green effect in his back garden.

The current version is sturdy but light and provides an excellent opportunity for regular exercise; but the best thing about it is there is no more delightful sound on a summer’s day than the gentle whirr of a push-mower - much more pleasing than the insistent whine of electric or the deafening thrum of petrol.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...


It would be churlish in the extreme to complain about the hot summer weather that has finally arrived now the Gulf Stream has buggered off to where it belongs. Its perfect timing in coinciding with the start of the school holidays has meant that the fear of having a houseful of demob happy children, rained in with nowhere to go, has not been realised. But it is bloomin’ hot; and when 8 a.m. starts, a full paddling pool and plenty of ice cream are still not enough to keep the kids cool, there is only one place to go: the woods.

Sussex abounds with woodland and, in stifling heat at the height of summer, the dense canopy of trees never allows the air to warm up. Enter a forest and its benign earthiness will calm the most fevered brow. Even if sprogs and dogs insist on tearing about, nature will provide shade and still, cool air to stop them overheating.

According to the latest figures, 13% of Britain’s landscape is forest and woodland. After years of decline, this is the highest it has been since the 1930s and is despite the best efforts of the coalition government and their plans to privatise the public forests of England and Wales. This policy succeeded in uniting the forces of Conservatism – the Daily Telegraph and members of genteel charities such as the National Trust and the RSPB – with more traditionally radical campaigners like the Socialist Workers Party and the Ramblers. Its hasty scrapping last year was precipitated by how many Conservatives opposed this idiot idea; but the Tories in the government had every right to be caught out by the strength of feeling from its own supporters for there has long been a contradiction in Conservatism that did not prevent the erosion of the fabric of Britain last time they were in power.

The fundamental dichotomy at the heart of Conservatism – the free market and tradition – is something that has puzzled me for a long time. Slavery to the free market and deregulation means that the look of Britain has been transformed in the last thirty years: gone are the traditional liveries of our national and local public services and in their stead are the logos of a thousand faceless contractors. The free market idea that the cheapest price is best, with no regard for quality or aesthetics, delivers a world where the appearance of ‘phone boxes and buses is no longer consistent, the postman doesn’t deliver twice and water and electricity is supplied by the French (a situation, I would have thought, that fills your average Tory Europhobe with horror). If the consistency of public services has been lost, the opposite has occurred in private sector services.

Business is now dominated by a limited number of huge global concerns that have ensured the virtual end of the independent sector. This has changed the face of the High Street from the variety and range of retailers thirty years ago, to the proliferation of multiples such as McDonalds and Starbucks that we have today. In her book ‘Eating Air’, Pauline Melville notes that “all the things that people feared from communism: bland uniformity, cloned cities and omnipresent surveillance have been brought about by capitalism and nobody recognises it”. It was the policies of Thatcher, Major and Blair that sacrificed the service landscape of Britain in the name of competition but perhaps the prospect of being greeted by the words “This forest is managed by Capita and sponsored by Coca Cola” has finally woken Conservatives up to their duty to conserve.

Whether it is Ashdown Forest or Abbots Wood, Friston Forest or Darwell Wood, or any of the hundred smaller woods, there are plenty of dark, shady havens to choose from. There was a time when there was a lot more forest and woodland in Sussex. 1500 years ago, before clearance for agriculture and settlement, the huge wild wood forest of Anderida covered an area greater than what remains of it now, Ashdown Forest. This woodland is often cited as the reason that Sussex was the last county in England to convert to Christianity – it was cut off from the rest of England by its expanse and density. I like to think that this reluctance to give up Paganism was more down to the ‘we wunt be druv’ nature of the Sussex spirit, in existence even then; but if it’s not, shame there were not more trees.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hang On A Minute...


This coming weekend sees the start of the artist Richard Wilson’s ‘Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea’ at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Following Anthony Gormley’s ‘Critical Mass’ in 2010, there is now the chance to experience more rooftop art. This time, in homage to the conclusion of the 1969 film ‘The Italian Job’, you get to see a full sized-replica of a coach balanced precariously on the edge of the building’s roof. The title of the exhibition is the film’s final line, delivered as the camera zooms out to the panorama of the Italian Alps leaving the Mini-driving heisters balanced on the fulcrum of a dilemma against a pile of gold bullion. Wilson’s obsession with the film, and its iconic use of Mini Coopers, Michael Caine and football supporters abroad, has led to the work being commissioned as part of the British Cultural Olympiad; the exhibition runs until September and is free.

There is also an open invitation to Friday evening’s launch party, with music throughout the building from DJ Stephen Mallinder. When I saw that name I also thought “hang on a minute”; then it came to me: Stephen ‘Mal’ Mallinder, founder member of Sheffield Dada-inspired electronic industrialists, Caberet Voltaire. It also sent me scurrying to a box of 7” singles where I found their ‘Extended Play’ EP, their first release on Rough Trade from 1978. Including ‘Do the Mussolini (Headkick)’ and an esoteric cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’, this EP, together with another 7” in my box - the first Mute Records release from the same year, The Normal’s ‘TVOD/Warm Leatherette’ - signalled independent music’s move away from the rama lama of landfill punk. I’m sure Mallinder - now relocated to Brighton from Sheffield, via Australia - will be playing equally adventurous music on Friday; and it’s good to see that there is room for avant-garde musical experimentation in the British cultural landscape as well as your run of the mill coach hanging from the side of a building.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Honeyed Taste


Apple, Orange, the Blackberry: the world of consumer technology loves a bit of fruit. Using the name of clean and fresh natural produce, these corporate giants are hoping for a little piece of nature’s reflected glory. Some fruit, I assume, is off limits. Nobody with any sanity is going to condemn their product from the off by naming it after a farting sound or laying it open to accusations that things have gone pear-shaped. But I expect that in some silicon valley, plans for the Strawberry and the Cherry are well advanced.

I am not sure where the gooseberry – or “goosegogs” as my Dad called them - would fit into all this but its slang definition as an unwanted third party could damn any product as surplus to requirements; the one that takes a back seat when the Microsoft Peach and the Sony Ericsson Pineapple are getting together; hanging around when it’s not wanted. At the moment, however, the gooseberry is anything but unwanted. After a windy, soggy spring that seems to be turning into an equally damp and squally summer, I have hardly any produce to show for my labours in the veg patch and allotment. There has been the rhubarb and the usual crop for the salad bowl but this has been greatly diminished by stunted lettuce, rocket and spinach leaves and diminutive radishes. This time last year we had already been cooking with our own broad beans, peas and courgettes. This year, the winds have battered these plants and the lack of sunshine has prevented them from coming on; which is why I am grateful to the gooseberry.

Seemingly unnoticed, my gooseberry bushes – which I only planted last autumn - suddenly appeared to be heaving with fruit. They have timed it perfectly to take the place of the rhubarb in the Sunday crumble and their sour taste, offset by the sugar, has been delicious – the kids loved it. The reason why gooseberries have done so well this year is simple: they do well every year but I just haven’t noticed. The gooseberry bush is indigenous to the cool northern European climate and they will thrive in pretty much any conditions in this country. When I was a child, I remember that my Dad used to grow them in the shade of the apple tree – proof that they can thrive with little or no direct sunlight. I also remember that any fruit that were still on the bush by the time the summer holidays started were not sour but deliciously sweet to eat raw. All I hope is that I can keep the birds away from them long enough for my kids to share the honeyed taste of goosegogs straight from the bush.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sitting at the Sky's Edge


The last time Richard Hawley came to Sussex was in 2009. He played a sublime set - pretty much the whole of the recently released Truelove’s Gutter - to a full house at the De La Warr pavilion and was genuinely taken aback by the rapturous reception afforded a man who makes music completely on his own terms and looks and sounds like he just stepped out of 1960. With a new album - Standing at the Sky’s Edge - just released, Hawley is on the road again and due to play in Sussex, at the Dome in Brighton; but not until September. Not being able to wait that long, I took a trip to London on Friday night to see the start of his tour at the Kentish Town Forum. The last time I left Sussex for a gig was in March, just over the border into Kent, to see Nick Lowe at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells. The musical trajectories of these singer/songwriters seem to have been converging in recent years, both turning out aching, melancholic rock ‘n’ roll/alt. country ballads.

My heart sinks when I go to London now: every possible money-making opportunity seems to be being squeezed until the pips squeak. London has always been the heart of the capitalist machine but it seems that flimsy apartment blocks are springing up in every available space to sell the idea of “London living” and you cannot move for food concessions that will let you eat anything you want as long as it is expensive and poor. And the last time I went to the Forum it had no sponsor (who I won’t benefit by naming) incorporated into the name of the venue. However, my feeling of being exploited evaporated quickly when I realised that the support band were the magnificent Y Niwl.

Y Niwl (The Fog) are surf-rockers from North Wales. The spirits of Hank Marvin, Duane Eddy and Dick Dale are summoned up (even though none of these are dead) for a really loud set of reverb, tremolo and Farfisa. They, of course, played the magnificent Undegpedwar (Fourteen); this is a piece better known as the theme to Football Focus and a track that has one of the best accompanying videos you are likely to see. If John Peel were still alive, you just know he would adore Y Niwl. And throughout the whole set they did not sing nor say a word; unlike Richard Hawley.

Apart from the joy of hearing his music, going to a Richard Hawley gig will always reward you with some funny stories. Tonight is no exception: Hawley comes on stage in a wheelchair. He has broken his leg, he explains, and would love to say that it happened as a result of wild, excessive abandon. The prosaic truth is that he slipped on a marble staircase in leather-soled shoes - the high price of style. He is helped on to a stool – “sitting at the sky’s edge” – where he stays for the whole set.

Hawley’s new album is something of a departure. The carefully crafted minimalism has been replaced by psychedelic guitar rock that reflects the harder-edged socio-politics of some of the songs. The opening title track – of course Sky’s Edge is an area of Sheffield - catalogues the harsh economic realities for a cast of hometown characters in these coalition times. Many songs on the new album build towards blissed-out finales and the gorgeously mellow Don’t Stare at the Sun is no exception. But that voice - with its warm, faultless timbre - remains the same.

If the stage set of British Sea Power-style potted trees reflects the album’s cover shot looking up through branches to something higher, there is still plenty of room for Hawley’s back catalogue. Truelove’s Gutter – perhaps his high watermark album – is extensively trawled for Soldier On, For Your Lover Give Some Time and the peerless Remorse Code. Before he plays Tonight the Streets Are Ours, from Lady’s Bridge, he tells an anecdote about getting a phone call from Banksy asking permission to use the song in his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Hanging out the washing as penance for having one too many at lunchtime, the pissed and uncomprehending Hawley thinks he is talking to one of his mates who shares the same name. As always when I go to a gig, there is a song that suddenly leaps out at me. Tonight, The Ocean from Coles Corner strikes me as a work of staggering beauty that I feel ashamed for neglecting this long.

Hawley’s new material has probably broadened his appeal. There were a lot more young people in the audience than I have seen at previous gigs and, when my mate was in the toilet, a bloke complained to him that he wasn’t too keen on “all the slow stuff”. I did notice some attention spans shrinking and faces lit up by smart ‘phones during the more meditative songs, tweeting that they had seen Lauren Laverne in the bar, no doubt; but when it came to choosing the encore - we were given a choice between two quiet songs or one rock-out number – discretion won the day.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Putting Honesty on the Table


The weeks of wet weather during April and May were welcome respite for the dry, parched soil and a change from the previous two springs when planting time also meant an arduous watering time. However, the lack of sunshine meant that, although allotments and vegetable gardens were well irrigated, plants were not moving on in their growth. Lettuces that I planted out in mid-April were barely any bigger in mid-May; but that has all changed now. Over a week of continuous sunshine has meant that the watering cans are out again, early crops can be harvested and ‘honesty tables’ are being stocked again.

For the uninitiated, an honesty table - or honesty box - is a way of selling surplus fruit and vegetables by leaving them unattended outside your house at the roadside and relying on the integrity of passing customers to leave money for what they have taken. The honesty system is ubiquitous where I live, ranging from farms and smallholdings selling their produce direct to the public, to householders with a glut of seasonal vegetables, jams or pickles. Sometimes actually a table, more often than not they are a covered shelf that looks a little like an open fronted rabbit hutch. Invariably, there will be a small hand written price list and a pot to put the money in. There are few abuses of the system but there have been some thefts of the takings; one honesty table near me has a metal moneybox clamped and padlocked to the shelf, and at another you have to put your money in an angled length of pipe that is then sent down through a hedge and securely into the cottage garden.

All the year round, some honesty tables sell eggs that you can guarantee will be fresher than any in the supermarket; but it is as Spring matures - and the primavera appear - that I get very excited when I approach an honesty table as I barrel around the lanes of the Sussex countryside. For two weeks now, we have been able to get asparagus - cut that morning - from a local table, as well as lettuces and giant radishes; and the first broad beans, courgettes and carrots will be appearing soon. As Summer draws on, tables will be laden with runner beans and tomatoes - a dish in itself - and in the Autumn it will be fruit and squashes. If you cannot grow your own, or do not have the space to grow as much as you need, honesty tables are an essential part of a life of sufficiency. They exist outside of the system, they are a way of ensuring that food is not wasted and they put the freshest fruit and vegetables on your own table. Mind you, you could just give your surplus away for free.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Byng's Sussex Pub Guide


At 7am on Friday 15th August 1788, the Honourable John Byng set out on his horse, Poney, from Westminster Bridge. He rode south through “long, lazy, Lewisham” before arriving a few hours later at the Bell Inn, Bromley, where he met a friend of twenty five years, Mr D. From here they were to embark - Byng on horseback, Mr D on foot - on a tour of Sussex.

Having been in royal service and then the Army, in middle age John Byng was a civil servant in the tax office, a position that enabled him to go off for six weeks each summer touring different parts of England. Part of a Georgian vogue for exploring and celebrating landscape, churches and country houses, three of Byng’s trips are recorded in Byng's Tours: The Journals of The Hon. John Byng 1781-1792. First discovered and published in the 1920s, I recently stumbled across an edition put out by the National Trust in 1991. What makes the journals so readable is their irascible and Pooterish quality. He spends most of his time bemoaning poor inns and the deficiencies of the people and places he encounters, and there are clearly problems in his relationships, both with Mr D and his own wife, that Byng is comically oblivious to.

Byng and Mr D - or I.D.as he is sometimes referred to - constantly leapfrog past each other on the journey. Byng invariably gives his companion a head start, overtakes him but then stops at an inn for a lunch which Mr D spurns and keeps walking. They are rarely together. After travelling through Kent, Byng arrives in Sussex at Rye and notes that it “smells of fish and punch”. He makes for the George – these days a plush hotel and wedding favourite but here described as “a dirty sea-port inn with a wretched stable” – where he finds Mr D “hardly glad to see me, so discontented was he with his treatment at this house”. Quitting Rye for Winchelsea, they find an inn where they have a “noble meal” of cold beef and roasted fowl; but the evening ends early: “we never sit late; for I.D. is very hasty for bed”. But it is not all humour at his own expense: Byng can turn a phrase to invoke something of the Sussex landscape. As he looks back at the first two towns he observes, “the one, Rye, upon a bare rock, the other Winchelsea, on a wooded point, both springing out of the flat and looking like two cities in Chinese paintings”.

Hastings and Battle fare no better than Rye. Hastings is “narrow streeted and ill-paved” and Byng is disappointed at the lack of fish for lunch. He complains that “there is always some excuse of wind, or idleness, to prevent the fishermen”. At Battle, they stay in a “miserable alehouse” where they have lamb chops for supper “and then having said little to each other, we mounted to our sleeping apartments”. Clearly, it is the company that is colouring the hospitality. When Byng has lunch alone in a public house at Boreham – presumably what is now the Bull’s Head at Boreham Street – his report of its excellence to his companion causes Mr D to double back a mile and eat the same lunch, also alone.

Byng does visit some interesting places, though. At the Ashburnham estate, he is shown the family church and a chest of relics, including some mementoes of Charles I given to John Ashburnham in the King’s last moments. As well as a watch with an enamelled dial plate he sees “the shirt worn by that unfortunate monarch at the block…one sleeve much stained with blood”. But even here, Byng finds cause for complaint as he unsuccessfully tries to cadge some Morello cherries from the kitchen gardener. At Herstmonceux – “a name pronounced with such variety of wrong by the natives” – he sees the castle and decries its parlous state. “Mr Hare Naylor, the owner…has stripped, destroyed and pulled down all the interior parts of this grand old mansion…which was one of the largest habitable seats of antiquity in this kingdom”. Naylor had built what is now Herstmonceux Place - a building Byng describes as “a paltry citizen-looking house at the edge of the park” - and plundered the interior of the castle, leaving it a picturesque ruin until it was restored at the start of the twentieth century.

After staying overnight at the King’s Head in Horsebridge, a hostelry that gets rare approval from Byng, they travel to Lewes where he is to meet his wife and son, travelled down from London. Byng and Mr D do some rare sightseeing together here but, even as Byng explores “every old corner” of Lewes Priory, Mr D “laved his feet in the brook”. They stay at the White Hart but “the only good thing…was some brill fish”. This causes Byng to reflect on Sussex hospitality: “the beer everywhere has been very indifferent” (Harvey’s brewery was two years away from being founded) and “I do not believe in the county of Sussex there are any such excellent inns”. Paranoia creeping in, he also thinks the best bread has been kept from him: “I have sometimes seen wholesome comfortable-looking brown bread under a cottager’s arm, yet I have been obliged to eat of tough, white, tasteless bread.”

Hilariously, with the final part of the tour yet to be completed with Mrs Byng and son Henry, Mr D “expresses a wish to return instantly to London”. When he is gone, Byng reflects that “I.D. did not appear, during our being together, to be in right health, for he neither ate nor drank”; well, not with you John, certainly. When his wife Bridget and son Henry arrive, they are accompanied “to my great surprise, by my late companion in touring, Mr Windham”. William Windham II was married to Bridget’s sister Cecilia, was something of a philanderer and known to have been in love with his sister-in-law. Innocent of this, Byng can only be thankful that Windham “kindly came as escort”. When they go to Brighton, Mrs Byng and Windham travel together by carriage – “at Windham’s desire” – while Byng rides on horseback. Unsurprisingly, he is dismissive of Brighton: “Brighton appeared in a fashionable, unhappy bustle, with such a harpy set of painted harlots as to appear to me as bad as Bond Street in the spring.” Quite.

Byng’s journals are clearly not as celebrated as William Cobbett’s Rural Rides, or have the same significance as the diaries of Pepys and Kilvert, but they do provide a funny and revealing glimpse of the Georgian English landscape at a time when it was on the verge of revolutionary, industrial change. For a large part of his life, Byng was estranged from his older brother George because of his sibling’s profligacy with the family name and fortune. In December 1812, George died and John finally became the 5th Viscount Torrington. Sadly, it was a title he held for only a fortnight as he too died on New Year’s Day, 1813.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Winds of Change


Travelling into Lewes these days, the journey is not complete without a fierce struggle amongst my children to be the first to spot the Glynde wind turbine. This causes great excitement and, even after the first spot, there is intense competition to rack up as many subsequent sightings as possible as the blades slip in and out of view between hedges and houses. The turbine appeared at the end of last year and, as well as being the largest energy source for Glyndebourne opera house, it has quickly become a landmark in the Sussex countryside. It was not established, of course, without controversy: local views were divided for and against the turbine.

Now, six or seven miles to the east, a renewable energy company, Galliford Try Renewables, has submitted a planning application to Wealden District Council for a five turbine wind farm at Shepham Lane in Polegate; and again, opinion is polarised. Posters depicting a turbine overlaid with images of Big Ben and the London Eye – at 415 feet the turbines will be similar in height to these London landmarks -have appeared in the area since the application was made in October last year and a protest group, Stop Shepham Wind Farm, has been formed to object on grounds of height and visual impact, effect on the environment and wildlife, and noise and light strobing. In order not to appear to be just NIMBYs, opponents of turbines routinely belittle the energy generating capacity of wind power and the campaign against the Polegate plan is no exception. This is a shame as dismissing new energy sources seems to be a lazy excuse to do nothing until the oil runs out.

However, support for the proposal has been growing: Friends of the Earth have backed the scheme and a local group – Yes to Polegate Wind Farm – has been active in the community. From stalls in Hailsham and Polegate town centres, the group have been spreading the message that wind is a key part of renewable energy sources for the future and the Shepham wind farm will generate electricity for 6,000 homes. The turbines will be connected to the national grid but this would be more than sufficient to power all the homes in Polegate. Wealden are due to announce their decision soon and I hope it is one that recognises their obligation to tackle climate change and allows the presence of these structures of delicate, towering magnificence to add to the beauty of the countryside.

Whether it is wind turbines, landfill sites, incinerators or poly tunnels there will always be a ready army of naysayers who are good at objecting but poor at proposing alternatives. All the while there is demand for cheap food out of season, not enough waste is recycled and the consumption of energy increases, proposals to deal with these shortcomings will be opposed from behind the high hedges by those who feel a threat to their lives in aspic. As ever, the answer lies in the way we live now; but expecting Orwell’s “deep, deep sleep of England” to wake up to change and start consuming less and growing more seems unlikely at a time when even reading a book seems to be increasingly incomplete without the aid of energy- consuming electronic equipment.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Cloudy Thinking


After the hot, dry springs of the last few years, we currently seem to be experiencing the right weather for the season. High winds, a mixture of sunshine and bursts of pouring rain - even hailstorms - are typically what make April ‘the cruellest month’; but this rapidly changing weather offers us not only the sunshine and soaking that we need for the fruit and vegetable crop to come on, but a feast of visual entertainment above our heads every day.

Lucky enough to live on a hill and have a ‘big sky’ above my garden, I stood at my back door yesterday evening for half an hour and watched rolls of harmless, fluffy white cumulus clouds on the distant horizon quickly obscured by waves of fast moving cumulus gongestus, sailing eastwards whipped along by the westerly wind and showering rain on the landscape. Ahead of them to the east, I could see the ridge at Netherfield still bathed in brilliant sunlight and behind them to the west, a blanket of low hanging stratus clouds tinged strawberry-orange by the setting sun. Directly above me, towering charcoal-grey cumulonimbus clouds had dramatically formed, darkening the sky and depositing ten minutes of heavy stormy rain that I was grateful for on behalf of my vegetable garden and allotment in this time of drought. This variety performance ended when the wind dropped and the skyscape returned to the benign scene of cotton wool clouds in the distance with the odd harmless cumulus humilis whizzing by to remind of the stronger currents higher up.

Clear, blue skies are thought of as perfection – “there wasn’t a cloud in the sky” – and the cloud is much maligned. This country has a rich and varied cloudscape and we should embrace this ever-changing canvas rather than treat clouds as a blot on our lives. This is a view shared by Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his 2006 book The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which is a lot more humorous than it sounds. Pretor-Pinney also set up the Cloud Appreciation Society, an organisation dedicated to fighting ‘blue-sky thinking’. As you would expect from the co-founder of The Idler magazine, his book is a paean to gazing upwards at ‘nature’s poetry’ and an antidote to the dynamism of the modern go-getting world.

I do like to watch clear evening skies sometimes in summer, but if it wasn’t for the jet planes gliding towards Gatwick with their lights winking there would be nothing to look at. I would much rather be trying to spot which cloud looks like a dog or a dinosaur with the kids, or taking inspiration from the beautiful wispy patterns of a high-blown cirrus sky. There is an unfolding drama above our heads and it’s free; watch the skies and enjoy some cloudy thinking.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Protest and Survive


At the end of the nineties, I went to a Nick Cave gig at the Royal Festival Hall that turned out not to be a gig at all but rather a sort of musical academic lecture on the nature of the love song. My mate, bemoaning loudly the pretension of it all, was shushed by the person in front but his reply – “come off it, he’s only a pop singer” – raised a laugh of wry recognition from others around. Bearing in mind this example of the intellectualising of pop music, I approached a talk in my local pub last night with some trepidation.

To their credit, the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle has launched a series of ‘Castle Talks in the Community’; the first was given by Nick Baxter-Moore, a lecturer in politics and popular culture, and posed the question ‘Where Have all the Protest Songs Gone?’ I need not have worried about pretension: in the packed function room of the Woolpack Inn, an audience of all ages was treated to an engaging meditation on the protest song from post-war American folk singers to contemporary popular music. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Baxter-Moore illustrated his chronology with snatches of songs.

Starting with Pete Seeger’s anti-war ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, there was a clear sense that singers such as Seeger, Bob Dylan and their socialist contemporary Phil Ochs were galvanised by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the general mood of change in the 1960s. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ prompted some audience participation from dewy-eyed children of the revolution, as did Country Joe McDonald’s humorously ironic ‘Vietnam Song’. Baxter-Moore put forward the idea that protest songs that express a generic sentiment have greater longevity. Citing the example of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ - a song that outlines a communist utopia – being played as Thatcher took the stage at a Tory party conference in the 1980s, he also held that these songs are open to wild misappropriation.

Tracing developments into the seventies and eighties with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, Baxter-Moore acknowledged the contribution of punk and hip hop to the music of protest. Beginning with a rendition of Billy Bragg’s ‘There is Power in a Union’ – a joyously surreal moment in an East Sussex village pub - things took a leftward step as he focused on the links between protest music and the labour/trade union movement. Bringing things up to date, last year’s public sector strike in Madison, Wisconsin produced ‘Union Town’ by The Nightwatchman, aka Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, a song of defiance that reminded me of the Strawbs’ 1973 hit ‘Part of the Union’.

Taking questions at the end, a member of the audience rhetorically asked if a protest song had ever changed anything. Making the point that protest songs are best at making people aware and think, more than effecting change itself, Baxter-Moore never actually answered the question. I would say that, arguably, 1984’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by Jerry Dammers’ Special AKA is the most successful of modern times. Protest songs do need to be popular to be powerful and Dammers’ was upbeat, danceable and it was a huge hit. It raised consciousness of Mandela and the struggle against apartheid and, ultimately, its sentiment was realised.

In answer to his original question, Baxter-Moore concluded that protest songs have not gone anywhere, they are alive and well; and he pointed to Ben Drew – better known as Plan B – and his upcoming song of rage against a government of rich boys and their demonization of council estates, ‘Ill Manors’. If post-riots, inner-city London is the natural fertile ground for protest, there is also the music of protest closer to home. Sussex’s finest, British Sea Power, recently asked the question ‘Who’s in Control?’ while rousing the apathetic – “did you not know everything around you is being sold” – and wishing “that protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”. And big-voiced Derek Meins, aka The Agitator (above), and his rabble rousing songs fired up the strikers before the big public sector march through Brighton last summer. But the best proof of the legacy of politics and popular music exists further along the south coast: any serious critic’s album of last year was Dorset-based PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, which uses imagery and experiences from the battlefields of the 20th century in its songs to question the priorities and moralities we hold dear in England today. We need protest songs; as Baxter-Moore said, they makes us think.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

At the Dripping Pan


Following the example of my dad, I have never tried to impose any of my tastes on my own children. He worked on the basis that you can lead a horse to culture but you can’t make it think (apologies to Dorothy Parker). His maxim was leave them alone and they will eventually come around to your way of thinking. I came around to some things slower than others: I was an adult before I realised how good all those thirties and forties songs he played were, but I was only six when I asked him if I could come too when he disappeared off to football every fortnight. And so it was that, just after my seventh birthday, I experienced the thrill of that first walk through the turnstiles of a football ground and the first sight of the lush, verdant pitch. It has been the same with my own sons: glimpses of televised matches, player sticker albums and my occasional trips to matches have all roused their curiosity and, aged seven and eight, for a while now they have been asking to go to a game. I could have taken them to an all-seated, multi-tiered amphitheatre of dreams named after a global corporation but I could not afford to and I did not want to; so instead, I took them to the Dripping Pan.

In the centre of town, a short stroll from the railway station, the Dripping Pan has been the home of Lewes Football Club – the Rooks - since its foundation in 1885. The name of the ground is believed to refer to the practice of extracting salt from River Ouse water by Cluniac monks on the site. However, behind the west terrace is the Mount, the possible site of a fortress built prior to Lewes castle, and it may be that the shape of the Dripping Pan – steep banks to all sides and the pitch below ground level – is simply because this was the excavation for the Mount. Whatever its origins, it is a natural stadium and has steep terraces at either end - one of them covered – and a stand on the south side. Only the north side has an undeveloped grass bank remaining but you can watch the match from the path at the top for that classic, ‘televised’ vantage point. We stood in the covered home end to take in the view of the Downs in the distance and best soak up the atmosphere of a Ryman Premier League clash against Hendon.

Having paid only £10 for me to get in - kids under 16 go free at Lewes - we had enough cash for the boys to enjoy pre-match sausages in a bap and chips from the food stall. I had a cup of tea – “help yourself to milk and sugar on the table” – before I had the obligatory pint of Harvey’s. The small knot of Hendon supporters were enjoying the local brew as well and were in full voice when they took the lead after 15 minutes; but the atmosphere was never unpleasant and when Lewes scored three goals in five minutes straight after half-time it was the home fans who were making all the noise. As well as standing up on a terrace, there was another aspect of the day that was a reminder of my earliest days of watching professional football: at half-time quite a few supporters swapped ends to be behind the goal their team was kicking into. There was an incredibly friendly atmosphere: supporters all seemed to know each other and I had no concerns that the boys were at pitch-level at the front of the terrace and I was standing at the back. They got particularly excited every time Lewes scored and came racing back up to dance around at the back in celebration. Despite Hendon pulling a goal back to make it 3-2 as four minutes of added time started, Lewes held on for the win and moved level on points with Hendon one place outside the play-off places. Lewes played some good football with Harry Harding and Peter Gregory standing out for the Rooks.

Lewes has been a community football club since 2010. As a not-for-profit, mutual organisation the club is owned and run by its shareholders, none of whom can own more than one share. Shares cost a minimum of £30 per annum or £1,000 for life. Shareholders can all stand and vote in elections to the seven-strong Board of Directors. The attendance of 648 at today’s game would indicate that pretty much everyone who is a member watches the matches. My £30 quid is in the post and I will be back with the boys on Easter Monday for a Sussex derby with Hastings United.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Swing Out Sisters and Brothers


Protests without leaders - the Arab spring, the Spanish Indignants, the Occupy movement – are a product of the digital era. With no single person or group having ownership or rights to the name, it is a franchise of rebellion that can be used by anybody, anywhere and at anytime, allowing protests to grow in size and spread to other areas; a truly modern phenomenon that gives voice to the voiceless against the forces of wealth and power and one that could never have taken place without the proliferation of social networks in the internet age. Except that the Swing Riots that took place in rural Sussex in the autumn of 1830 were just that: a rapidly spreading outbreak of dissent that united poor farm labourers, under the banner of the mythical figure of Captain Swing, against the oppression of the landed class.

Farm labourers at that time would earn very little money but would receive a large part of their wages in kind as food and accommodation. Threshing – literally separating the wheat from the chaff – was work that took place on the farm between November and January and was the bridge between harvest-time and sowing that meant secure, year round employment. There was nothing idyllic about this life: it was a subsistence existence of hard, physical work and little pleasure.

And then along came the threshing machine. The mechanisation of the labourers’ winter work provided an opportunity for further rationalisation, leading farmers to offer lower wages for the human element of the process of threshing and laying off workers in the harshest months of the year. The machines represented a dire threat to already low wages and job security.

The uprising began in Kent. Mobs would break into farms, search for the threshing machines and destroy them. This spread panic amongst landowners who soon began to receive letters, signed ‘Captain Swing’, demanding that the machines be destroyed else barns, houses and haystacks would be fired. Many acquiesced, those that did not found out that the threat was not an empty one.

The rebellion quickly spread into Sussex as more acted under the name of Captain Swing; he did not exist, of course, but became a figure of fear and his name was taken up and widely used to give power to the worker’s campaign against reduced wages and seasonal employment.

As rioting spread westwards, the military were called in and stationed at Uckfield. Hundreds of rioters were prosecuted and a few were hanged; most received long prison sentences or were transported to Australia.

The rioters were not revolutionaries but simply wanted to protect their existing conditions of employment against creeping capitalism. Captain Swing gave a voice to the very weakest - the rural poor – and in many cases he was able to ensure that landowners did negotiate with the workers. Agricultural wages rose in the southern counties of England as a result of the protests and many of the destroyed machines were not replaced. The Captain Swing riots of 1830 represented the last major revolt of agricultural workers in England but his spirit lives on in those leaderless expressions of protest that we see spreading through the digital world today.