Sunday, December 28, 2008

Not many of them to the pound

So I was with a few friends in a Lewes restaurant the other day, celebrating my birthday. No, I never mind presents being late, it's fine. Chocolates, flowers, anything glittery and expensive. Just send them care of Anyway, the pink champagne was flowing (actually the pink Cava, in these straightened times), and Cricket-Girl said, 'I nearly gave you a Lewes pound as part of your present'.

Oooh, the rest of us said, have you SEEN a Lewes pound? Well knock me down with a chollah if she didn't whip one out of her purse there and then, and it was passed round the table to general amazement.

Blackberry-Man offered to buy it from her for a fiver, but Cricket-Girl is honest to a fault and told him there were now many more pounds in circulation, thus dampening the previous ebay-generated hyper-inflation.

The note got passed to me and I examined it closely, though that was mainly because I could see two of them, a 100% increase caused by too much pink Cava. It looked like real currency if you held it up to the light, and like toy money if you didn't.

'Do you know', and here Cricket-Girl dropped her voice to a whisper, which was awkward as the restaurant had foolishly agreed to play my new birthday CD which was blasting out 'Part Time Punks' at top volume, 'Do you know that I went into X Shop and they had been bullied into accepting the Lewes Pound?'

She didn't say X Shop, obviously, she was more specific, but I'm being discreet, like. 'How do you mean, bullied?' we all gasped.

'The owner had loads of people coming in and being rude about them not taking the Lewes Pound, and people even saying they wouldn't shop there unless it was brought in.'

I was so appalled at the thought of our town, famous for its democratic insistence on democracy, behaving in such a fashion, that I gulped down considerably more Cava in one go than I should have.

'Ordinary punters were saying that?' I spluttered, 'Or was it whoever's in charge of the Lewes Pound?'

I've never been very good at knowing who's in charge of things. I still have no idea what the difference is between the Town Council, District Council and County Council. For all I know, our bin collection is organised by the British Council.

Cricket-Girl put me straight. 'Transition Town Lewes brought in the Pound', she said, 'And there is absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that they have been hassling people into accepting it.'

Well, that's all right then.

'But here's some really good gossip', she said, and lowered her voice still further, though by now the manager had ripped my CD off the deck and reverted to Mantovani, so I could hear just fine, 'Rumour has it that not only were no shopkeepers surveyed about whether they wanted the Lewes Pound, but there wasn't even a vote taken amongst the members of Transition Town.'

'Allegedly!' everyone yelled hurriedly, mindful of the dreadful import of any implication that the proud town of Thomas Paine should be involved in such an un-constitutional business. We all took a slug of Cava to wash the very thought out of our mouths.

Then Cricket-Girl made me give her back the pretty Lewes Pound. I wasn't going to keep it, honestly. Even if it should have been my birthday present.

Beth Miller, December 2008. Published on

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It's another fine mess

Where in Lewes will they be cool if blackcurrant juice is spilled over the table? Twice? Where will they smile if there's more food on the floor than the plates? Where will they simply shrug if the crayon marks on the wall won't come off?
I'm not referring to my own behaviour, by the way. I can usually keep my crayoning on the paper, anyway.
We've been taking our children (Thing One and Thing Two) out to eat since they were babies, in the hope that they will become like those French children one sees in Parisian bistros: hair and clothes unsullied by ketchup, they sit quietly between courses, say "please' and "thank you', and eat snails and brains. So far, the experiment is such a failure I can only assume that those French children are heavily sedated, or are grown-up actors pretending to be children just to mess with my head.
However, we merrily persist in outings to restaurants for one important reason: SOMEONE ELSE HAS TO CLEAR UP. Here's some of the places in Lewes where they do so without complaint (at least till we're out of earshot). This is of course a subjective list, so feel free to shout at your computer screen if you disagree.
Italian waitresses are traditionally supposed to welcome small guests with cries of "Bella! Bambino!', accompanied by cheek-pinching and bosomy cuddles. Stereotype further dictates that the children will then be whisked off to the kitchen, sat on the chef's knee and hand-fed pasta, while the ecstatic parents glug Grappa and read more than one sentence of the paper. While the Lewes Italian eateries are a little more reserved, as befits their British location, they are nonetheless easily the most tolerant of all Lewes venues. Lazatti's positively encourages the little tykes, by offering a time every day when children go free if their parents are eating. The food's lovely, the atmosphere good, and the place clearly washes well as there has been no sign of our previous devastation when we make subsequent visits. The only downside is that the tables are quite close together, which means that if people without children sit next to us during happy hour (though why are they there then?), we spend the entire meal trying to prevent Thing One from engaging them in conversation about carbonated feet and Thing Two from spraying them in tomato sauce.
Of the chains, Pizza Express and Prezzo are mess-friendly. Though they don't go quite as far as Lazatti's freebies, they both have excellent children's menus and, crucially, plenty of space between tables. Pizza Express does very well with its classy desserts for kids ("Mummy, how come we are allowed a Sundae when it's a Friday?') The crayons and paper arrive instantly, balloons are given away at the end, and the food's not bad either. Prezzo isn't quite so quick off the mark with the crayons, but it does have sensibly sized pizzas for children, as well as great entertainment in the form of the enormous oven with its roaring fire and a chap chucking pizza dough about.
Of the non-Italians, Bills is an attractive option but you can't guarantee to get a table, which is deeply traumatic after you've struggled in there with bags, buggy, yelling children, and a migraine the size of the oven at Prezzo. If you can get to Bills on a weekend morning by 8.30am, you can get not only a table but a guaranteed full five minutes silence as your child devours the pancakes and fruit. I know that time in the morning sounds absurd if you don't have kids, but parents of small children will be thinking, as late as that? (Not that I ever do it – Him Indoors is in charge of Ridiculously Early Outings.) There are plenty of staff around to ply you with extra napkins for mission clear-up, and the general camaraderie of sharing tables means the chances are you'll be near relatively relaxed punters. Or if they tut, you can pretend they made all the mess.
Where else? Café Nero wipes clean, it's usually quite noisy so Thing One can talk at her usual excessive volume without shattering wine-glasses, and the window seats and milkshakes are popular.
Wickle looks like it will break into tiny pieces if you so much as let a small child go in there but actually the café bit is great because the grown-up can sip tea out of real china while the children can play with the beautiful toys. They are actively encouraged to do this by the friendly staff, who are clearly mad.
This one may surprise you, but afternoon tea at Shelley's – in the garden, or in their generally deserted lounge – scores quite highly: they do a nice line in fancy biccies, and last time we were there no-one frowned at Thing Two when he almost knocked over one of their bizarrely elongated vases.
Pubs. We've never gone in much for pubs-with-kids, particularly not those ones which say "Well-behaved children welcome'. Show me the parent who reads such a sign and says, "Gosh, we must go in there, my children are impeccably well-behaved', and I'll show you someone suffering from untreatable delusions. Or someone French. The pub might as well put up a sign saying, "Don't even think about it'. Pubs in general, no matter what they claim, don't feel that welcoming to families.
Our worst ever meal out was in a pub (not in Lewes, I hasten to add), one that had a "family area'. It was terrible, from the disgusting food and the filthy carpet, to the total lack of service ("Please can you warm up my baby's milk?' "No.') If you know better, and there are tremendous child-friendly pubs in Lewes, feel free to shout at the screen some more.
Indians, Chinese and Thai restaurants. I'm sure they would be very friendly but we haven't tested them yet, on the grounds that my children would doubtless reject the food as being too spicy or the wrong colour or too unlike baby-bels or something.
Most mess-friendly of all, though it's the wrong time of year, is the café at Grange Gardens. No-one even notices if you spill food and drink, and you're actually doing your bit for the environment, by feeding the birds and watering the grass. And the space between tables is ginormous.

Beth Miller, December 2008. Published on

Monday, December 15, 2008

So good they named it once

It's not often, walking round town, that you start to ponder the many ways in which Lewes is actually a lot like New York. In fact, it's never happened to me before. It probably hasn't happened to anyone before.

But suddenly, on Saturday, there I was, thinking, hmm, yes, Grange Gardens is just like a very small, clean, safe Central Park. If you squint a bit. And the twittens are kind of laid out in a grid, really, aren't they? Just not a very conventional grid.

What, I hear you plead, led to this Manhattan-obsessed train of thought? I'm glad you asked. It was a small thing, really. I was trundling along the High Street, and I'd like to say I was minding my own business, but that's not true, because not only was I peering nosily into every shop window and smiling randomly at old ladies, but I'd also just caused a minor fracas in the bank, the details of which needn't detain us here.

Anyway, in the midst of this not minding my own business, I was suddenly brought up short by an unfamiliar and extremely unexpected sight: a chollah in the window of that cheesy shop (as in, they sell cheese, not that they are naff and like Val Doonican).

A what? I hear you gentiles cry. A chollah: it's a plaited loaf, traditional in Jewish homes on a Friday night. Well you could have knocked me down with a chollah, as the old saying I've just made up goes. I haven't seen one of those since the last century when my dear old East End mum would mutter an ancient blessing over such a loaf on Sabbath evenings (and would be ably supported by my brother and I saying 'Get on with it, we want to watch 'Winner Takes All').

I bustled in to the cheesy shop and was about to seize a chollah, possibly two, for who knew when these times would roll round again, when a horrible thought struck me. This was Lewes, right? Not Manhattan, or Ilford, or Hove, even. Probably - and here I let out a disappointed sigh - almost certainly, this chollah was nothing but brioche in rabbi's clothing.

'Is this brioche?' I asked the sales assistant, putting the full force of my disdain into the word so that it sounded as if I was swearing.

'No', she replied, 'It's chollah'. She pronounced it perfectly.

Strolling away with the bag under my arm (I only bought one in the end - it's just a loaf of bread for god's sake, nothing to make a song and dance about), suddenly Lewes was lit with a more cosmopolitan light. My overdraft-related fracas in the bank now seemed like a vibrant and forthright exchange between two colourful and busy city-types, rather than an overheated scene of public humiliation.

And that wasn't all. Why yes! Like New York, we have an amazing array of shops, some of which even sell things you want to buy. We have restaurants with food from many nations, although mainly Italy. We have a melting-pot of people, from all over Sussex and the south-east, and if we don't have a mayor who preaches a zero tolerance regime, we do at least have a parking system which operates on the same principle.

So ran my thoughts, as I wandered home, imagining that the lone Big Issue seller was in fact a large number of witty pan-handlers, and that if I popped into Beckworths they could sort me out with salami on rye to go.The chollah tasted of brioche, by the way. But it was very nice brioche.

Beth Miller December 2008. Published on