Monday, December 14, 2009

Raise up cups of Christmas cheer, I just need to catch my breath

How long can you put off the inevitable? It usually takes me most of December to make a list. Then I panic-buy everything from Amazon the day before Christmas Eve, paying six times over the odds for special next-day delivery. It’s a system of sorts, but I can see there are drawbacks.

So this year I tried Late Night Shopping. At first I thought it was marvellous. There was a fine atmosphere, the streets closed to traffic, lots of food stalls and whatnot. But gradually, I realised the reason I kept getting barged into was that other people had annoyingly decided to go shopping too.

This Lewes shopper is used to peace and quiet. I know that commercially speaking, empty-ish stores are a bad thing; but on the other hand, it is rather spiffing to be able to browse freely, then purchase what you want instantly without having to queue. It’s like internet shopping, except you can touch the goods.

Not so on Thursday night. Some places – you know who you are, Bright Ideas – were that mobbed, people just grabbed anything from anywhere, and waited hours to be served in a conga-length line. In this way I bought some extremely odd items very slowly, humming the queuing song all the while, the tune rusty on my lips from disuse. Then Grange Girl appeared, seized me firmly by the elbow and steered me into the street.

‘Late night shopping is not about buying things, you fool’, she chided.

Barcombe Bloke strolled by and said, ‘Harveys Shop has the best ones.’

‘Thanks for the heads up’, Grangey replied, and dragged me down the Cliffe to score mince pies. She explained that the entire point of the evening was to bag edible freebies. She was quite shameless, sticking her head into shops and barking, ‘Any food?’ If they said no, she slammed the door with a clang.

By the time we reached Harvey’s all the pies had been eaten, possibly by the terrifyingly perky Morris dancers outside. So we went back up School Hill, blagging crisps and sherry all the way. We popped into the Needlemakers for a bowl of soup – not free – just as a fashion show was starting. We pretended to be Kate Moss and Anna Wintour sitting in the front row, while some ladies paraded in Needlemaker styles. Though Kate and Anna probably don’t slurp mulligatawny and cram thick slices of buttered bread in their gobs. We lingered longer than we’d intended because there was a male model who looked just like Rupert Everett, and by the time we finally dragged ourselves away, all the shops were shut.

So I still haven’t made much headway with my list. The High Street’s an option again, of course, now everyone else has gone home, but it keeps raining, and the computer is giving me a come-hither look. Lewes or Amazon? I consult my list. I shrug on my coat. I take it off again. I reach for the mouse…

Beth Miller, 8th December 2009. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Do not falter little donkey, there's a star ahead

‘The little baby Jesus’, says Thing Two confidently, ‘was found in a manger in his Daddy’s tummy.’

That DOES sound like the Greatest Story Ever Told. I secretly hope this is the version they’ll be performing at his nursery, but fear I will be disappointed.

This year, for the first time, both Things are in Christmas productions – by coincidence on the same day. Glory be, I’ll need a snifter or two after that little lot. Thing Two, being top of the food chain at preschool by dint of age, and presumably, supreme understanding of the nativity story, is a King. He is the one with the dud gift of myrrh, which no-one knows what to do with. Everyone can always use a bit more gold and Frankenstein.
When quizzed about the actors playing the other two kings, Thing Two sniffily refuses to accept their existence, insisting there is only one king. I guess the others will be kept busy helping Joseph with the birth, anyway.

Thing One, being in a lowly class at school, is part of a faceless production line of angels and stars, who have little to do other than try not to clutter the stage while the big kids hog the limelight. The main character, according to Thing One, is the donkey, so I am also looking forward to seeing this version. It might be directed by Scorsese, and have the donkey realising that he is destined for great things if he can only throw off the shackles of his humble origins. He fights with the sheep to gain supremacy. Then he incites the unimportant angels and shepherds to rebellion, and they leap out of the chorus to overthrow Herod, and get into some decent camcorder footage.

This is a spirit of the blitz time of year, when parents are urged to ignore other, more trifling responsibilities, such as work, and come to the aid of the juggernaut that is the school Christmas season. It’s finding purple things for hampers and buying eye-wateringly-priced Christmas cards and dressing your child in tinsel and making decorations and baking cakes and buying other people’s cakes and, as Hoxton Mum reminds me, doing our bit for the artists and makers fair at the Town Hall this Saturday.

‘I’ve made exquisite little samplers’, says Hoxie. ‘Bringing back the traditional arts, you know.’

I reach out for one and she snaps, ‘Don’t touch it! I’m pricing them at a tenner a throw.’

I wipe my hands on my jeans and she says, ‘What are you selling? Some mums are doing hand-printed silk scarves, and Supermum’s giving us some of her etchings.’

‘A cake’, I improvise.

She rallies quickly. ‘Oh yes, the art fair café is always very popular. The homemade cakes are a particular draw. Well done you!’ and she turns back to her needle-point, like the bitchily patronising sister-in-law in a Jane Austen novel.

Waitrose have nice, homemade-looking cakes. Memo to creative self: remember to remove the packaging.

Beth Miller, 1st December 2009. Published in and as an updated version in Viva Lewes magazine, December 2010. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Blinded by the light

Aging Lad let us into his bachelor pad and clicked a light switch, which did nothing. ‘It’s sort of gloomy in here, isn’t it?’ I said, as I aimed for the kitchen and bumped my nose on the wall. ‘Is this your low light seduction technique?’

‘No’, he said grumpily, feeling around the counters for the kettle, ‘I’ve used my last proper light-bulb and I’ve only got energy-saving ones left.’

‘I think you can still get the normal ones for a while’, I said, as the bulb slowly began doing what it was paid to do, e.g. cast some light. I can remember when tellies warmed up in similarly unhurried fashion. ‘I was planning to stockpile some.’

Lad grabbed my arm and for one horrible minute I thought the dim atmosphere had made him forget himself. But no, he was merely trying to find me in the gloaming. ‘Where?’ he gasped. ‘Where can you get them?’

We abandoned our tea plans and went into town. ‘I’ll leave the lights on’, Lad said. ‘They might just be up to capacity by the time we get back.’

There’s only one place in town for this kind of purchase, so we went to Bunces and immediately got distracted by their fascinating array of goods. Where else can you buy a squashy lemon-shaped egg-timer? Where else can you get a cover for your wheelie bin that makes it look like a wheelie bin shaped conifer hedge? Nowhere, that’s where. Finally we remembered our mission. We grabbed armfuls of the old type of bulbs, thoughtfully leaving a few for anyone else out there who likes to read in the evenings.

We staggered back up the hill under the weight of our illicit booty. ‘Pah to Europe and their attempted stranglehold on all that’s great and British’, said Lad, trying to do a power salute but unable to raise his carrier bag-laden arms.

‘I’ve warned you before about reading the Daily Mail’, I said. ‘And how are bulbs British? Wasn’t Edison American?’

‘That’s right. Us and the Yanks against Brussels.’ He’s sweet, is Lad, but a bit of a dim bulb.

The rest of the way home we discussed whether it’s true that energy bulbs last a lifetime, and if so, whether that spelled the end for light bulb jokes.

‘Although’, I pointed out, ‘the Jewish mother one – “don’t worry about me, I’ll just sit here in the dark” – is quite apt for the eco-bulbs.’

We got back to Lad’s house, which was lit up like something quite dark. He claimed that this made him incandescent with rage, and ran round the house putting in 100 watts until everything was illuminated. He shoved all the energy bulbs to the back of a cupboard, apart from one. ‘I’ll hang on to this for my bedroom’, he said with a leer. A light bulb came on above my head, and I took my leave.

Beth Miller, 25th November 2009. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Monday, November 23, 2009

You gotta fight for your right to party

In your teens and twenties, parties are simple and require no more preparation than an extra spritz of deodorant. ‘I’m going to a party’ means, ‘I’m going to have such a good time that I will weave home in an ambulance at five in the morning, memory banks wiped, underpants on my head.’

Once you have kids, the meaning changes slightly. ‘I’m going to a party’ now translates as, ‘I will accompany a toddler to the draughty hall at the leisure centre, where she will eat two thousand hula-hoops and leap on the bouncy castle till she goes right over the Puking Plimsoll Line. Meanwhile I will drink extra-dilute orange squash and, via the power of mime, help the host ensure that every child has their turn in a game of Push the Immensely Heavy Parcel Because There’s a Gift in Every Layer Not Like When I was a Child Just Opening the Wrapping Was Fun Enough For Us.’

There are years of this to look forward to, but gradually, parents start finding baby-sitters and learn how to stay awake long enough to contemplate going to grown-up parties. Now is the time to brush up your student party skills, because the ones you’ve developed more recently won’t do. You’ll have to kick such habits as cramming eight chocolate fingers into your mouth so the kids can’t get them. Your dancing needs to be more sophisticated than the moves which brought down the house during Musical Statues.

However, there are some pre-child party tactics which you don't need to re-visit. For instance, you won’t need to stand at the door brandishing a bottle of Blue Nun, muttering, ‘Friends of Dave. No, hang on, Steve.’ At a grown-up party, the hosts will have invited you, and will let you in. Unless you’ve brought Blue Nun, obviously.

And once in, you won’t need to lean enticingly against the wall saying things like, ‘Oh god yes the White Stripes are awesome’ because you’re not trying to get off with anyone. Unless you get invited to different sorts of parties to me, in which case, go and swing smugly somewhere else.

Cycle Girl had a party last week. It was going to be perfect: within walking distance, proper cocktails, cheesy music, loads of drunk friendly people. For the first time in ages, Man of the House and I were ready to PARD-EEEE! We dressed up. We practised talking about something other than our children. We swapped the Blue Nun for Piat D'Or. In short, we were fired up. Amped. Buzzing.

Then our baby-sitter arrived, and said she was going out clubbing later, so could we be home by 11.30? This was a blow. Most of our partying comrades stayed till three o’clock, claiming to remember nothing after they’d put their pants on their heads. Yet in fact it was the perfect grown-up party compromise. We went out and had a great time, but were still fresh enough to stagger downstairs at seven next morning and turn on CBeebies.

Beth Miller, 17th November 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, December 2009. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can't get used to losing you no matter what I try to do

I don’t know what it is about me and Bonfire, but the phrase which springs to mind concerns my inability to arrange a jolly good session in Harvey’s brewery. Every year I am fully armed with all the programmes; yet every year I’m on Grange Road when the procession’s on Southover, or hanging about at Boots when everyone else is at the War Memorial. I feel the heat of the flames, but by the time I arrive, there’s nothing left but a smouldering torch in the gutter.

On the plus side, I’ve never taken a rookie in the face, and I do get an awfully good view. Of boarded up shop-fronts, admittedly.

This year, I hoped it would be different. We mustered promptly outside the Kings Head, and to the sound of the band and the lights of cars coming straight at us, we followed the Southover procession up Priory Street.

‘Going at quite a clip, aren’t they?’ puffed Grangey, as we broke into a run to try and keep up. It was like the London Marathon. When Thing One objected to being yanked along between us, her feet off the ground, we slowed down and watched the parade disappear round the corner.

On the way into town we got distracted by the guy selling light-up toys – at least this year we got the laser home before it broke, so it was well worth FOUR QUID - and could find no sign of Southover when we reached the Cliffe. Then we heard, far away, a series of splashes indicating they’d thrown the crosses in the Ouse without us. We looked unsuccessfully for another Society to chase, then milled aimlessly about, following groups of people at random. In this manner we were swept against our will, first into the Volunteer, then into a group of Japanese teenagers chucking rookies, and finally into someone’s house when they popped home to get another sweater.

Then a woman said confidently, ‘Down the Cliffe now’, and we turned to see a DFL-FB family, in matching Barbours. We followed closely. ‘Jonty reckoned this would be the best place’, she said, stationing her group outside Spectrum Opticians. ‘Five minutes till the next procession’.

She handed out sparklers, snacks and drinks to her brood. When the littlest child asked for the toilet, he was told, ‘Pop across the road to number 10, Gilly said it would be fine.’ Thing One watched in awe, clearly planning to swap mothers immediately.

Exactly as the woman had predicted, the parade went past. We got to see everything, for the first time ever. In the ensuing silence, we turned to our guru to see what we were going to do next.

‘Hot chocolate at number 17’, she said, consulting her list, ‘before relocating for the next procession.’

Off they went, to their lovely pit-stop, and then it was just us, standing in the cold.

‘Might as well go home’, said Grangey, ‘We’ll never find the damn thing by ourselves.’

Beth Miller, 10th November 2009. Published in Photo by Carly Moorman

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nobody, no, nobody, is gonna rain on my parade!

'A pirate?’
‘A squaw?’
‘Do you see feathers?’
‘Um, a Tudor lady?’
‘For goodness sake!’

‘Hang on, it’s on the tip of my tongue’, I said unconvincingly.

Hoxton Mum, looking cross, stood before me draped in a long hooded brown cloak. ‘I’m obviously a monk’, she harrumphed.

I gestured wordlessly to the scarlet corset and purple bordello skirt she wore under the open cloak, which had thrown me off the scent somewhat.

‘A tad late in the day getting to Ann’s Attic’, she said airily. ‘There wasn’t much left.’ Then she sniffed. ‘Anyway, on its own, the monk’s costume is just too brown. And brown is very last season.’

Hoxton Mum was dead excited about her first procession. ‘Last year, of course, we went away. Django was too little for all the bangy noises. And the year before…’ she sighed, ‘we were still in dear old Shoreditch, the world’s art, culture and food on our doorstep.’

‘Still’, she shook herself, ‘Bonfire’s the thing, eh? Got to get in the spirit. Corset’s a bit bally tight, though.’

It struck me on the way home that Hoxton Mum hadn’t even been to Bonfire as an observer. I gave Born-and-Bred Boy a call. He’s not been keen on fireworks since he was six and his uncle shoved a sparkler down his trousers, but he always participates out of family duty. And a chance to return the favour to his uncle.

‘It’s Hoxie’s first time. She thinks it’s going to be like the Notting Hill Carnival.’

‘It will be like that’, he said, ‘Except with less William Hagues and more flaming torches.’

‘Will you keep an eye on her?’ I asked.

‘Sure’, he said, with an evil chuckle. ‘There’ll be a few rookies with her name on.’

Clearly, Boy had been permanently scarred by his youthful experience. I rang off and called Supermum and Therapy Lass to an emergency summit in The Patisserie.

‘Been making torches in our back garden with the Society’, said Supermum, who was liberally doused in Eau de Paraffin. ‘Lovely community feel, the babies rolling around on the grass whilst all around people make incendiary devices.’

‘Hoxie’ll be all right if she looks like an old hand’, Therapy Lass soothed. ‘There’s always someone – not Society – who likes to startle new recruits.’

‘Rookie the rookies, you mean’, said Supermum thoughtfully, stirring her latte. ‘Still, you say she’s keeping it simple with a monk’s costume. Long as she doesn’t add anything, she’ll pass unnoticed.’

I ran back to Wallands at speed. Hoxton Mum answered the door, still in her corset. ‘Lysander rather likes it’, she said bashfully. ‘He’s suggested I wear it to cook dinner.’

I brushed her domestic peccadilloes to one side. ‘Listen Hoxie, about your costume…’

Then I noticed she was brandishing a small blue flashlight.

‘What’s that for?’

‘I’m so prepared’, she laughed, ‘I know everyone carries torches so I’ve put fresh batteries in my Maglite.’

Beth Miller, 4th November 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, November 2010. Photo by Alex Leith

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Needlewriters Fine Writing, Thursday December 10th

Listen to readings, accompanied by delicious food and drink, at the Needlemakers Café, West Street, Lewes


Beth Miller, like Orson Welles, had a strong early career, with many story and poetry prizes. She was a burnt-out case by the age of ten. Now, after long fallow years of pointless academic publications and a lager commercial, she is working on the final draft of a novel. She writes a column for Viva Lewes.

Paul Matthews is the author of two books on the creative process, Sing Me the Creation and Words in Place (both Hawthorn Press) and a poetry collection,The Ground that Love Seeks (Five Seasons Press). Paul was the founder of Poetry OtherWise at Emerson College. He travels widely, offering workshops in creative writing, and reading his poetry.

Robyn Young is the author of the bestselling Brethren Trilogy, set during the Crusades, which has been translated into nineteen languages. In 2007, Robyn was named as one of Waterstone's 25 authors of the future. She has a Masters in creative writing from the University of Sussex and lives in Brighton.



If you plan to have supper at the Café, it’s probably a good idea to arrive in time to order and eat before the readings start.
- TICKETS: £5 (£3 unwaged and claiming benefit)
in advance from Skylark (Needlemakers) or at the door on the night.

(for details and map see

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The ghouls all came from their humble abodes

Every October, newspapers re-hash articles about how shocking or something is our wholesale adoption of American Halloween customs. Frankly, my mind always tends to wander while reading these yawn-some stories, distracted by the much more interesting accompanying photos of spooky skeleton masks. I love Halloween and all its devilish works, especially the way it annoys the sort of people who want to ban Harry Potter.

When I was a kid Halloween was a complete non-event, but now there are lots of brilliant things to buy, thanks to those crazy Yanks on their merchandise-lovin’ broomsticks. And I really enjoy all the new traditions, such as bombing down the A27 to Asda on 30th October, praying they haven’t run out of black and orange tat; or swearing as your carved pumpkin, despite every effort, still looks like John Prescott.

Things One and Two adore what they call ‘trickle treating’. This being Lewes, of course, treats tend more towards an organic satsuma than a fun-sized mars bar, but the Things are still young enough to say thank you anyway, given a prompt from the parent hiding in the hydrangea. It hasn’t yet occurred to them to squirt the fruit-offerer with purple ink.

Last year, most houses in our street put a lantern in their windows, with its traditional meaning of yes you can knock on my door and demand chocolate with menaces, but only tonight, right? Tonight I will laugh and pretend to be scared. Tomorrow I really will be scared and will call the police. Thing One wore a wizard costume, cobbled together from my extensive Goth phase. Thing Two had a crisis of confidence about the ghost costume I’d lovingly run up for him by cutting two holes in a sheet, and opted instead to dress as well-known fright-meister, Batman.

They found it a complete thrill, trotting about the darkened street, meeting neighbours they rarely see by day, and they were welcomed generously with satsumas. Only one house gave them the sort of sweets that, two or three decades ago, directly caused my seventeen fillings; and I had to confiscate them on the grounds of wanting to see if they tasted the same, err, I mean not wanting my children to experience the misery of cavities.

They were scared just once: when they started towards one particular house and I screamed ‘NO!’ Thing One recoiled, her complexion green with more than just face-paint. ‘Is that the witch’s house?’ she whispered.

The job description of every childhood includes being terrified of (or tormenting of, depending on numbers), a witch’s house in the neighbourhood. I’ve only lately realised that these houses are simply occupied by people who don’t like children and shout frighteningly at them for sport. When the Things saw a curtain twitch they bolted, as though chased by ghouls.

We’re all set for trickle-treating this weekend. Bag of teeth-rot for callers, check. Parliamentarian pumpkin, check. Random superhero costumes, check. Garlic and crosses for the witch’s house – you betcha.

Beth Miller, 27th October 2009. Published in in Viva Lewes magazine, October 2012.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's not easy being green

Now there’s a nip in the air, it isn’t much fun round Grange Girl’s house. ‘Put the heating on?!’ she shrieked, as though I’d suggested she perform the dance of the seven woolly scarves. ‘You just need a couple more layers.’

Grangey, I noted, was wearing enough clothes to win a Michelin Man lookey-likey competition. She also had one of those Tibetan ear-flap hats that don’t suit anyone from Wickle.

Pells Boy, sporting a donkey jacket and balaclava, rolled his eyes like an exasperated IRA man when I asked him what was going on. ‘10:10’, he said.

‘Oh, 10:10’, I replied, cluelessly. Was that when you could see really well? No, that was 20:20. No, wait, wasn’t 10:10 what those motorbike cops in Chips used to say to each other?

We drank lukewarm tea made from tap water. Apparently boiling kettles is definitely not 10:10.

‘My consciousness was raised’, said Grangey, ‘at a meeting last week at Lewes Werks’.

She explained that 10:10 was a pledge to cut your carbon emissions by 10% during 2010. There were so many tens in this explanation I was forced to have a biscuit. Meanwhile, Grangey demonstrated a gadget which showed her electricity usage. It was fascinating. When she put on a light, the meter jumped a tiny amount, but when she boiled the kettle (taken briefly out of its cupboard exile), the numbers went into orbit and an air raid siren went off. Pells Boy dived under the table and Grangey unplugged the kettle with a satisfied smile.

‘Lots of people and organisations are taking part’, she said, putting her hands in the fridge to warm them. ‘Waitrose, even.’

‘It must be all right’, I said, ‘if Waitrose are doing it.’

Pells Boy dusted himself down. ‘So what did they say at this meeting about local initiatives?’

‘Ooh, lots of things’, Grangey said, showing off her 10:10 metal tag wristband. ‘Um. We’re going to see if the Sussex Express will dedicate an issue to it.’

Pells Boy examined the tag covetously. ‘That would look good with my “Make Poverty History” wristband’.

‘I’m doing well’, Grangey said, ‘apart from driving to work. I’m car-sharing but of course that doesn’t count because I’m still using my car.’

‘Hang on’, I said, ‘aren’t you reducing overall emissions by giving someone a lift who would otherwise drive?’

‘Exactly’, she said, ‘he’s reducing his, but I’m not reducing mine.’

The cold must have addled my brain as I felt something was wrong with this but couldn’t say what, exactly.

Pells Boy stood up. ‘Better get going. Got to pack for our half-term trip to Disney World. God knows how we’ll keep the kids amused on a nine hour flight.’

There was a frosty silence after he’d gone.

‘I walked here’, I said to Grangey, hoping to cheer her up, but she was frowning.

‘It is quite parky, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Perhaps I will put the heating on after all.’

Beth Miller, 20th October 2009. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now

I like a faceless multiple as much as the next girl. Shop, I mean, not anything more Erica Jong. But I also appreciate Lewes’s independent stores. Alas, one of the most eccentric is sounding the last post.

Once, I thought I saw a light on in The Treasury and dashed perilously across the road, but it was just the reflection from a bus. A faded handwritten note on the door acknowledges its unconventional opening hours, which are, in fact, non-existent. Over the years, I developed a small Treasury obsession. I didn’t, quite, sleep on the doorstep, but always checked to see if it was open whenever I passed. It never was.

I guess it’s not that surprising it’s closing down. Most small shopkeepers will tell you it’s hard to scrape a living, but they do at least open occasionally to allow people the opportunity to give them money. Brilliant, I thought. Well, obviously not brilliant it was closing, but brilliant that at last I could get in there and see what I’d been missing.

But the opening hours remained merely theoretical. I began to fear that one day the shop would simply disappear, and a fully formed chi-chi boutique would spring in its place, an artfully arranged silk cushion in the window. Then last Friday, a new note: ‘Final sale, starts Friday 11am.’ It was ten o’clock. I had things to do. But still… this could be my only chance. I spent the waiting hour going into other shops that were promiscuously open any old time. How brazen they seemed.

At five past eleven, I pushed the door, and with an Edgar Allen Poe kind of creeeeeeaaak, it actually opened. At last!

It was choc-full of stuff, like a parlour owned by a granny who never throws anything away. There was in fact a granny in attendance, strangely unimpressed to see me considering I was the first customer since 1972. I looked round, and realised with a clang that I don’t like knick-knacks. Never have. I’d hoped to buy something – anything – but did I really want a Smurf figurine costing four quid? (Actually, not at four pence, to be honest.)

Even with the sale, everything was breathtakingly, bizarrely expensive. The shop was like something from the past, but the prices were set some unimaginable time in the future, like the twenty-sixth century.

I found a passable brooch and choked when the lady said, ‘Twenty pounds.’ As this was likely to be her only transaction this millennium, I proposed a spot of light haggling, thinking to reach a fair compromise – say 75p. But she just gave a little sigh, and began pencilling implausible prices onto old postcards.

I asked when she was next open.

‘What’s today?’ she said vaguely, and I said ‘Friday’, adding, ‘October, 2009’, for clarity.

‘I’ll open again on Monday’.

‘Really?’ I said. It seemed a trifle hasty.

‘Monday’, she confirmed, and as I opened the door, said unapologetically, ‘From one to two o’clock.’

Beth Miller, 13th October 2009. Published in

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shock Horror Non-Lewes Blog Alert (makes noise of emergency sirens)

If you like trashy tv, you oughta have a look at a marvellous blog called pauselive action. Particularly as they have just asked me to contribute to it.

To see my ramblings on episode 1 of True Blood, which is posted under my pen-name of Qwerty, or read some of the other writers' splendid posts on Masterchef, Corrie, X Factor etc, follow this here link.

And to see my summary of the splatter-fest that is episode 2, click here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You had one eye on the mirror, as you watched yourself gavotte

I was talking to two hip young things in Brighton when the subject of Lewes came up, as I find it so often does when I’m around. Immediately they both cried, ‘Oh, lovely Lewes’, and began comparing notes about the perfect day-trips they’d taken here when their parents came to stay.

Because of Bonfire, plus a slightly wacky art scene, an alternative approach to pound coins, and, er, Bonfire, Lewes sees itself as the town equivalent of a streetwise hoodie-wearing young shaver. Whereas everyone outside thinks it’s a terrific place to bring aging relatives for tea and a potter round the antique shops.

Whether you usually swan about in a black turtle-neck pretending you’re off to meet Jack Kerouac for an aubergine smoothie in Bill’s; or wear your jeans half-way down your thighs and rattle on about what a bare nang time you had getting hamstered down the Volly, innit, even you must have noticed that when your parents pay a visit, they think Lewes is NICE. They cluck at the dear little shops and pretty views. They drag you the length of the High Street, clutching a copy of Pevsner, insisting you show them the town walls. They will not believe you when you say you have never heard of any town walls. They will find those walls and they will insist that you accompany them.

‘Come along’, they boom, fortified by a nice cuppa in Shelleys, and the chance to inform you that the porch dates from 1577. ‘There are other interesting buildings down the Cliffe. Pevsner says one of them has unmistakeable ammonite capitals to the giant pilasters.’

‘Uh huh?’ you say flatly, trudging ten paces behind. Be you turtle-neck or knee-jeans, you will mutate into a sullen adolescent with unmistakeable flattened slouch to your giant shoulders.

In the same way that I have finally come to accept that no glossy magazine is ever going to ask me for my beauty secrets (‘clear boot polish keeps my skin looking fresh’), it’s about time Lewes stopped deluding itself. Hey Lewes? No-one thinks you’re edgy, okay? You are not about to be dubbed Brighton-on-the-Ouse. Deal with it.

The other day I was chatting to Waitrose Wench about how our mothers like to inspect the boutiques, for the sheer pleasure of gasping, ‘that’s four million shillings in real money!’ My Mum once did Flint and Flint At Home in one go, and had to spend the next day lying down.

‘Last time my parents were here’, she said, ‘I did try to show them the real Lewes.’

I was intrigued. ‘What IS the real Lewes?’

‘I don’t know, but I was sick of the Keere-Street-Anne-of-Cleves-Fifteenth-Century-Bookshop stuff they always want to do. So I took them to a warehouse all-nighter down at the Phoenix Quarter.’

‘And did this convince them there was more to the place than twittens and teacakes?’

‘Not really. They said it was a sweet party, but the music could do with being a little louder.’

Beth Miller, 7th October 2009. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest

It’s so pleasurable to watch someone at the height of their professional powers, one who can command a room with their charisma. In public life, Barak Obama and Bruce Forsythe spring to mind.

In Lewes, of course, we have the Scottish guy in the parking shop. I feel bad that my shoddy research didn’t extend to finding out his name. Last time I was there I intended to conduct an incisive interview, but Scottish guy (let’s call him Glen, after Glenfiddich, another fine Scottish export), overwhelmed me with his easy manner. The only question I managed to ask was ‘Please can I have a totally unnecessary pack of Zone E visitor’s permits?’

Minutes later I found myself outside, a tenner down, smiling inanely. Well, it’s so good to see a virtuoso at work. And how tremendous to find that the universally reviled parking scheme, with its Cold War approach to customer relations, has such a genial and urbane public face. It gives you faith.

Ahead of me in the queue was a very angry man. He’d bought a ticket, but being printed on the sort of paper that makes tissue look hard, it had fluttered to the floor. The Blue Meanies love those. They code them as ‘blow-downs’, did you know that? Well, you should have seen Glen handle the situation.

If you want a good old-fashioned shout at your bank or phone provider, you’ll get some sap who’s been ‘taught’ how to handle you (eg they went on a two-hour training session run by Jeanette from Personnel, and spent half that time trying to operate the tea urn). You rant on, even though they keep looking at their watch; or if on the phone, you know they’re holding the receiver in the air, making ‘I’ve got a live one here’ faces at colleagues. They won’t take any responsibility even though they work for the company, and their voice is so emotionless you get even crosser, which Jeanette might have told them had she not been so busy playing them hilarious calls which had been recorded for training purposes.

How different with Glen. He listened properly to the thrilling ticket-on-floor saga, nodding, tutting and sympathising. Then he gently explained the options for an appeal. A good man in a bad world, maintaining standards while civilizations tumble. Mr Angry left, if not exactly happy, then satisfied he had truly been heard.

It had been a while since I’d enjoyed one of Glen’s master classes in people management. So imagine my anguish when I discovered he had moved on. Head-hunted by Northern Rock, presumably, or the Labour Party, or other organisation desperate for a decent front man. Poor you, if you’ve never been to the parking shop, or only been there in the grip of murderous ticket-related rage, rendering you less susceptible to fulsome appreciation. You have missed out.

Mind you, the woman who told me the sad news was smiley and helpful, so perhaps she’s a worthy successor. I’ll go in for more unwanted permits and find out.

Beth Miller, 30th September 2009. Published in

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Competition Answers

I haven't been inundated by entries. But those of you who did manage to send in your answers will be hearing from me shortly, she said ominously.

The answers:

1. So let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie - 'Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee' (meant to be an easy one to start you off. I don't know who sang it but it was written by Irving Berlin.)

2. I've been to Paradise, but I've never been to me - 'I've Never Been to Me' by Charlene. Where is she now, eh? Still being undressed by kings, no doubt.

3. The only women makin' it are women who are shakin' it - 'You've Got To Be A Hustler If You Want To Get On' by Sue Wilkinson. A classic. I still have the vinyl single, daddio.

4. Save it til' the morning after - 'Save A Prayer' by Duran Duran

5. We can't rewind we've gone too far - 'Video Killed the Radio Star' by Buggles

6. So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you'll wait for me - 'Leaving On A Jet Plane' by lots of people. Peter Paul & Mary? John Denver (oh dear).

7. These little town blues, are melting away - 'New York New York' by Frank Sinatra

8. Cos you left me, just when I needed you most - 'You Left Me Just When I Needed You Most' by Randy Vanwarmer. See, another one with the answer in the question.

9. That's why they call me Second Hand Rose - 'Second Hand Rose' by Barbra Streisand. Gosh, I was just giving 'em away.

10. Your socks smell of angels, but your life smells of brie - 'Don't Marry Her' by the Beautiful South

11. And I'm feeling very sick and ill today - 'What Difference Does it Make?' by the Smiths

12. I know where it's at, if you wanna have a good time - 'I Know Where It's At' by the All Saints

13. And you may ask yourself, well... how did I get here? - 'Once in a Lifetime' by Talking Heads

14. Don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters - 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' by Rockin' Bobby D

15. Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can't buy - 'Can't Buy Me Love' by the Beatles

16. Bang, bang, the mighty fall - 'Bang Bang' by BA Robertson.

17. That's the old stream that I long to cross - 'Old Man River'

18. Love that's only slightly soiled - 'Love for Sale'

19. Anything is possible when you're sowing the seeds of love - 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' by Tears for Fears (when I was a girl we called them TfF for short)

20. I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop - 'Jilted John' by Jilted John

Monday, September 28, 2009

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?

I had a free morning and was planning to do something I’d never done before, but I ran headlong into an angry mob. I assumed from the Lewes Pound badges that it was a protest about our town not transitioning quickly enough, but a belligerent woman in a Stella McCartney boiler suit prevented me passing through the picket line. So I stood back to read their banners.

‘Support small shops!’ said one. ‘High Street Assassin!’ said another. ‘Kinnock must go!’ said a third, confusingly. I think it was held the wrong way round.

‘Are you objecting to the encroaching hegemony of Tescos?’ I asked a man clutching a Tom Paine bag. I was so blown away by my use of big words that it took me a while to understand what he was saying.

‘We’re fighting a far greater menace’, he said, pointing to the building behind us. ‘It’s devoured swathes of local businesses.’

‘The library?’ I asked, with some surprise.

‘Whatddawewant?’ yelled a man with a loudhailer.

‘A freeze on library tickets!’ replied the crowd.


‘Pretty soon, please, if possible’, they chorused.

‘Look at the facts!’ said boiler-suit woman, thrusting a pamphlet at me. ‘The library starts lending DVDs, next minute, all the video stores have closed.’

Tom Paine bag man nodded and said, ‘Yes, and there’s no internet café in Lewes, because the library brazenly offers free access.’

There was a brief kerfuffle as one of the group quietly tried to post an overdue DVD in the library letterbox and was ejected as a scab; they rolled her down the ramp.

‘Worst of all is this ridiculous business of lending books for free’, said loudhailer man. ‘The Lewes book-selling industry has collapsed. Bags of Books is on borrowed time.’

When the picketers settled down for elevenses, I snuck into the empty library. The staff were sitting around, smoking and giggling.

The thing I had never done before was enter any part of the building other than the children’s section. Always I am dragged there and forced to read out such stories as ‘Timmy Tiger Jumps into a Box’ (plot twist, he jumps out again). I wanted to see the rest of the place, even if it was a cultural oppressor throttling the life out of the High Street. To my surprise, there was an upstairs, and I went to have a look.

Straight away I realised the protestors had a point. Free newspapers and a coffee machine - surely it was only a matter of time before even WH Smiths and Café Nero went to the wall?

I returned a pile of overdue books borrowed by Man of the House. To my horror, the chuckling staff extracted a five-pound fine.

‘You needn’t worry’, I told the protestors, who looked bemused when I appeared from the wrong side of the cordon. ‘It’s not free in there at all. It’ll never catch on.’

Beth Miller. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

But my words like silent raindrops fell

We took advantage of the open day thingy to nose round the Friends Meeting House. It was a lofty chamber of tranquillity, in which even the children spoke in hushed whispers. We imagined the building in use, echoing with silence. But a nice lady who gave us tea and some rather good Victoria Sponge said, ‘Ooh no, we have tons of kids in the side-room on Sundays and it’s really noisy’.

Just an hour after visiting the Friends, we encountered two women in the Grange Gardens, Not Friends, who brusquely told Things One and Two to be seen and not heard. They said they had come to the Grange for peace and quiet.

‘Well why sit right next to the café at lunch-time on a Saturday then?’ is what I should have said, but instead suggested they might prefer the Knot Garden, a space specifically set aside for meditation and repose. ‘No, we want to sit here’, they replied, giving me no other option than to attack them with Thing Two’s Power Ranger.

Clearly, if I want somewhere relaxing for the Things to play I should take them to hang out with the Quakers.

So where in a small town can you go for a bit of p and q?

When I were a lass, it was libraries that were silent chapels of contemplation. No sitcom was complete without a secret being loudly blurted out amongst the bookstacks. Then a bunch of elderly extras in mackintoshes, one of whom was contractually obliged to have a fussy little moustache, would chorus ‘Shush!’

In fact I believe it was this tiresome cultural stereotype which caused libraries to re-think their noise policy. Now you go into, say, Lewes library, and the place is awash with people talking at a normal pitch. Parents read out loud in the children’s area, and often there are music groups, with toddlers bellowing, ‘The Children on the Bus Make Too Much Noise’. People do their shopping on the library computers and yell, ‘HOW MUCH?’ just as if they were at home. Say ‘shush’ in a library nowadays and everyone will look at you like you’re an out-of-touch weirdo, which you are, and may suggest you move along to the Grange Gardens.

Oddly, the quietest place I have encountered lately is Monkey Bizness. Their spelling. For those of you who’ve never been (oh lucky people), it’s a windowless warehouse filled with slides, massive cushions and screaming children. Usually, the decibel level is what Phil Spector was aiming for with his wall of sound, except much, much louder.

But the other morning, after being bullied into taking him there by my child’s freakish mastery of maternal guilt, we found we were the only visitors. Thing Two swiftly scaled a twenty-foot climbing frame and disappeared, as though into a black hole, and I sank into a leather sofa. It was exactly like being in a huge, silent padded cell. I must tell the Grange Garden ladies. I think they’d like it.

Beth Miller. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, October 2009. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oh, Sussex, Sussex by the sea

I returned from two weeks holiday in pensive mood. How different Lewes looked to my fresh eye. How quaint the half-timber, how steep the hills, how expensive the shops. How weird not to see chunky men in crackling nylon football shirts guzzling fish and chips at all hours.

But most noticeably, how odd not to have the beach at the centre of everything. For a fortnight, life began and ended with the beach. Budgens is to the left of the beach; the chip-eating contest to the right. Having an argument? No better place for it than standing precariously on the sea-wall. Feeling romantic? Get you down to the seaside, young lovers. No, not there, where I can see you, for heaven’s sake.

Back in Lewes, was it any wonder I’d lost my centre of gravity? Turning into Southover from the station, I sniffed in vain for that pervasive smell of brine, fried doughnuts and bulky chip-eater; was disappointed not to see sparkling blue on the horizon, nor hear distant cries of ‘You little tyke, you’ve got sand in me eyes again’, and the resulting slaps so dear to my seafaring self. The cliffs and the squall of seagulls just added to the confusion.

Absent-Minded Girl suggested we meet, but was a tad puzzled by my chosen venue, the Bell Lane playground. We took off our shoes and socks and sat in the sand-pit.

‘I was just the same when I came back from the Isle of Wight’, she said sympathetically. ‘Every morning, I’d put on my wet-suit and goggles. They were very understanding at work.’ I worried that I was becoming as a.m. as A.M. Girl, but the very next moment she tried to lie back in the sand and banged her head on the climbing frame.

‘You know what Lewes needs?’ I said to Aging Lad next day. I was wearing a purple sarong that had been à la mode in Swanage. Aging Lad never notices the physical appearance of women over twenty-three, but he looked perplexed when I suggested the missing factor in Lewes’ fabulousness was the sea.

‘I thought you were going to say a Spearmint Rhino club’, he said. We bought ice-cream and sat on the Cliffe bridge. Without my contact lenses, the Ouse looked a mighty and boundless body of water.

Inevitably, Grange Girl brought me to my senses. We were in the Knot Garden, next to the sign that says no children playing in the fountain, watching children playing in the fountain.

‘Everyone loves being by water’, I mused. ‘All this joyful scene lacks is a dappled path leading from Eastport Lane down to the sand dunes.’

‘I wonder’, said Grangey thoughtfully, ‘what Lewes would be like if it had a beach?’

‘Like Swanage’, I said, hopefully.

‘No’, she said firmly. ‘It would be like’ – she spat the word – ‘Brighton’.

We both shuddered. After a moment, I removed my sarong, and dropped it in the bin.

‘It’s good to be home’, I said.

Published in, and in Viva Lewes magazine September 2013. Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

But the days grow short, when you reach September

It’s obvious TS Eliot didn’t have kids.

April is the cruellest month?

‘Cripes, what utter rot’, Viv would have cried, on hearing the first draft. If they’d had children, and if she wasn’t too incapacitated by her straitjacket for such forceful literary criticism, that is.

‘Listen love’, she’d have said, sweeping up rice crispies with a besom broom, ‘try again, but with the right month’, and to his blank, smoke-fugged face, would have snapped, ‘September, you rattle-brained rhymester. Now make yourself useful; take the damn rug rats to school.’

Ah, September. To the child-free, it’s merely a good month for a cheap holiday. To parents of school-age children, it’s the seasonal equivalent of a hearty clip round the ear.

I’m speaking in particular of that first morning back to school after what the pupils of Lewes Grammar might call the long summer vac. Well, OMG, as those pupils doubtless never say, unless extremely pressed by some tricky prep.

Even the least poetically minded parent will intone the modern blank verse of despair on that first day:

Oh bejesus I have quite forgotten
How to exit the house before midday
So what precisely is that festering
Greenly at the bottom of the school-bag
And hells teeth we didn’t buy new shoes she’ll
Just have to wear Crocs and tell me how did
We do this last year without a breakdown.

Of course, the first couple of weeks of August are also a shock, but for the reverse reason: the cold turkey withdrawal of school throws our quiet routines into chaos. At first, we attempt to impose order on the holidays with outings and structured activities and, okay, quite a lot of telly. Then, gradually, imperceptibly, we begin to go as native as our feral offspring. Meals only happen if someone can be bothered to nip down to Chaulas. Children scamper up trees you’re not allowed to climb in the Grange Gardens and won’t come down; they commit Lord of the Flies atrocities without reprimand; and bedtime is when they pass out on the floor after mainlining CBBC.

So by the time September comes creeping out of the dead land, we’re just not ready, frankly. We’ve finally worked out how to dance the ain’t got no childcare boogie, and settled hippy-like into our new random lifestyle. One minute we’re costing campervans on ebay, the next, we’re suddenly expected to spend whole days in Eliza Brown, helping a small savage shove their woodland-roughened Hobbit toes into fifteen variations of black lace-ups. Suddenly we’re expected to be inventive about making the first of that year’s 190 packed lunches (that’s per child and no, squeezy yoghurts are so last term).

Thing One’s school, thankfully, kicks off slowly this September with a couple of inset days, giving us one final straggly week of back to nature before shrugging on Viv’s straitjacket of disciplined life.

So excuse me for now: I see it’s three in the morning, and high time I got the dinner on.

Published in Photo taken from

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Somebody’s tears are in this onion, and the market is in our blood

First Saturday of each month, Pells Boy gets up early and goes into town, wicker basket on his arm. Decked out in his finest shabby-chic gear, he walks purposefully, heading towards the bustling Farmers Market. It’s become something of a tradition.

Then, abruptly, at the very last moment, he veers ostentatiously to the left in front of Boots, and goes to Tescos. He buys a few trifling items there, puts the carriers in the basket - Tescos logo uppermost - and returns to the Cliffe to parade up and down, swinging the basket for all to see. If he doesn't quite chant, 'Ner ner ner ner', it's only because he hasn't thought of it.

It’s hard to pinpoint what troubles him about the Farmers Market, because he’s incoherent on the subject.

‘It’s just, so, you know!’ he rants.


‘So, so, so, so!’ he splutters, then resorts to specific abuse of the customers:

People buying gluten- and dairy-free cakes (‘Pointless. Chipboard tastes better’)

People eating courgette pakoras messily on the street

People queuing to buy cherries (‘When there are perfectly nice cherries in Tescos’)

People saying, ‘You can’t beat the quality of Boathouse pork’

People buying chutney (‘Why, Pells Boy?’ ‘Because chutney is completely smug’)

People saying ‘Ooh look’ at the Pretend Parmesan stall

People buying produce purely because it’s seasonal (‘Even chard, and no-one likes that’)

People doing all this in the cold and rain because of the warm, dry, virtuous glow they get from not shopping in a supermarket

Grange Girl is appalled. ‘I love the Farmers Market’, she cries, trugulently swinging her trug.

This is why I keep my friends separate.

‘It’s perfect for catching up with people’, Grangey says. ‘I just stand in the middle of the Cliffe, and sooner or later everyone I know passes by. I can do all my socialising in one morning, then I don’t have to do any for the rest of the month.’

Aging Lad is also pro-market, because his second-favourite past-time is chatting. ‘That’s fascinating’, you can hear him say to the attractive young hippy at the Transition Town stall, as he leans in a little closer. ‘So buying Colombian coffee with Lewes Pounds cuts right down on carbon emissions? Tell me more.’

But Born-and-Bred Boy is anti. ‘Lewes is too crowded nowadays’, he says. ‘When I were a lad, it were always nice and quiet on a Saturday in’t town centre. You could hear the tumbleweed blowing across t’street, and that’s how I like it. Ay-oop.’

Boy holds the belief that a cod-Yorkshire accent strengthens his argument.

The other night when Pells Boy dropped in unexpectedly at supper time, all I had in the freezer was a splendid spinach and lamb pie from the Farmers Market. He scoffed it down happily. Once I’d cooked it, obviously.

‘Is this a Tescos Finest?’ he asked indistinctly, mouth full of pastry. To avoid a terrible scene, I told him it was. He nodded.

‘Thought so’, he said, ‘Excellent. Is there any more?’

Beth Miller, 14th August 2009. Published in

Friday, August 14, 2009

Everybody makes a row, down on Jollity Farm

Last week, I described my failure to farm out the children. Today, I turn instead to farms.

Did you know that farms are no longer smelly places where Eddie Grundy swigs a magnum of cider, vaguely tries to milk a pig, then gets mown down by Tony Archer in a Massey Ferguson?

No, most of them have transmogrified into high-gloss activity centres of childish joy and screaming. Far from requiring subsidies, these places are now, well, cash cows I guess is the most apposite phrase. All right Farmer Giles, put down your rifle, I’m just kidding.

Many a happy family scene can be enjoyed at these new kinds of farms, including ‘stop the child eating the sheep pellet’, ‘handle the monster tantrum caused by giving the farm their Shetland pony back’, and ‘say no no no no oh bloody hell all right then’ to ice-lollies, plastic snakes, Dora Explorer beanie-babies and other excessively marked-up bits of tat which offer final proof that modern life has gone to hell in a hay-wain. What? Yes, sorry, doctor. Just taking the meds now.

Here, then, is my handy cut out and keep (or download and ditch) guide to home-tested summer farm fun for kids! Exclamation marks free of charge! At least something is!

Spring Barn Farm Park, Lewes
Entry fee: HOW MUCH??
Pros: Rather good pedal go-karts, and the popular bouncy pillow. Indoor stuff to do if it rains. Nice café. Other purchasing opportunities mainly limited to packets of chicken-feed, which cost, well, chicken-feed.
Cons: Too many words in its name, becomes Spring Fark Parm. Grown-ups humiliating themselves on the bouncy pillow. Children wearing fleeces should keep away from the hay-bales, unless you want to pick straw out of your house, car and hair for the rest of your life.

Heaven Farm, North Chailey
Entry fee: Cheap as chips.
Pros: When Thing Two dropped his ice-cream, they replaced it for free. Hokey corn-dolly craft shop. Heaven Farm allows immense scope for imaginative outdoor play, because…
Cons: There’s not much to do there.

Washbrooks Farm, Hurstpierpoint
Entry fee: Somewhere between Spring Sparn Bark and Heaven Farm.
Pros: Tractor rides and trampolines. Ain’t nowhere better to see painted plastic cows.
Cons: The alien-painted plastic cow produces terror in small children, and horror in adults who think plastic cows should have the decency to look realistic.

Middle Farm, Firle
Entry fee: None (usually).
Pros: Suitably Lewes-ish organic food shop. Shed where parents can sample Eddie Grundy’s cider.
Cons: Becoming increasingly bewildered and losing the children after too much time in the cider shed.

Seven Sisters Sheep Centre, East Dean
Entry fee: Not as cheap as you were imagining.
Pros: Good for explaining trajectory from cute fluffy baby lamb to Irish stew.
Cons: Full of sheep.

Blackberry Farm, Whitesmith
Entry fee: Almost as bracing as Spring Spark Farg.
Pros: Haven’t been there yet so it’s probably the farm I’ve been waiting for.
Cons: Their website ominously boasts of ‘high quality toys’ in the gift shop, which is asking for trouble.

Beth Miller, 11th August 2009. Published in Photo by John McGowan

Friday, August 7, 2009

School's been blown to pieces

Country Mouse rang last week.

Country Mouse: ‘Aaaargh!’

Me: ‘Aaaargh!’

CM: ‘I’ve smoked a whole pack of cigs and it’s only nine thirty.’

Me: ‘Since when did you smoke?’

CM: ‘Desperate times, love. So, what are we going to do?’

Me: ‘I have no strategies. None. What. So. Ever.’

CM: ‘Okay, here’s mine so far. [Sound of cigarette lighter flaring; lengthy list being unravelled.] Tennis club, three days. Scuba-diving club, two days. Ju-jitsu club, only one day but that’s better than a slap round the face with a haddock.’

Me: ‘Or karate chop with a haddock?’

CM: [Ignoring me] ‘Drama club, five days, total result that one, but I did book in February. Patisserie club, three days. Phew!’

Me: ‘It does seem quite a busy schedule for a five year old.’

CM: ‘So go on then, really, no messing, what have you booked for Thing One? I’ve still got a week to fill and I was going to pinch some ideas.’

Me: [Rustling Boden catalogue to sound like impressively big list.] ‘Okay. Playground at Neville, one hour. Playground at Bell Lane, one hour. Playground at Paddock, one hour. Playground at bottom of Cliffe, thirty minutes. Well that one hasn’t got much equipment. Let’s see, that’s three and a half hours, so now I’ve only got six weeks minus three and a half hours to fill.’

CM: [Long pause] ‘Actually you’ll have to go with her, so the three and a half hours don’t count as time you can work.’

Me: ‘Fair point. Though I could probably answer a couple of emails while I’m there. The ones telling me I’ve been sacked, for instance.’

CM: ‘Must go, got to ring Hoxton Mum. She knows a pony-trekking club which still has places. Costs a bomb but it’s gold-dust – five days.’

I survey my empty calendar and try to remember what my parents did when I was off school for six weeks. Hot damn! They were teachers. Belatedly I give them credit for cleverness. Too late for me to be a teacher. Will have to employ low cunning instead.

Low cunning entails typing ‘Holiday clubs Lewes dear god help me’ into Google. It works – escis’s brilliant site has loads of ideas and I book Thing One onto everything.

I find her making her own holiday entertainment by sitting on Thing Two’s head, forcing him to sing every verse of ‘Leader of the Pack.’ When I give her the great news she informs me, to the muffled backing of ‘I can't hide the tears but I don't care’, that she is too young for holiday clubs. ‘I want to go to Spring Barn Farm every day. With you.’

I do the costings and it works out roughly the same as all the clubs. If you don’t factor in my loss of earnings. But hey, as I said to Country Mouse when she rang to offer me the final pony-trekking place, what price quality time with one’s child, eh?

She’s right, you know. Smoking really helps.

Beth Miller, 3rd August 2009. Published in

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call

One hot day a couple of weeks ago, Born and Bred Boy was lounging in the Gardeners Arms appraising the Racing Post when he began to feel sleepy. All of a sudden, a white rabbit boinged past, staring intently at an iPhone and muttering, ‘I’m late for the 16.51’, as it dashed out the door.

Intrigued, Boy gave chase, and they both tumbled down a huge hole in the Cliffe roadworks. When Boy straightened himself out, he was astonished to find himself in London, on the Finchley Road. There was no sign of the rabbit. A strange fellow, who was perched on a bollard smoking a dodgy-looking pipe, said abruptly, ‘Who are YOU?’

When Boy politely replied, ‘I hardly know sir, just at present’, the man called out, ‘Good lord everyone, it’s another wretched UFL’.

A crowd of strangers thronged round poor Boy, who only managed to say, ‘Unidentified Flying what?’, before a florid matron holding a pig-like baby tutted scornfully, ‘Typical. They always have too much to say, these Lewes people.’

‘Too right’, added a ginger-haired man with a huge grin, who faded in and out of view. ‘What makes them think they can move up here and start complaining about our Primarks and our Tesco Metros?’

‘Before you can say no to a planning application, they’re letting off rookies and insisting they won’t be druv, whatever that is’, said an old man with a white beard, unaccountably doing a handstand.

‘But’, said Boy indignantly, ‘Just because people come from the same town doesn’t mean their views are identical.’

‘Have a nibble of this, mate’, said the pipe-smoking guy, rummaging in his bag. ‘See if it don’t make you feel better.’

Feeling discombobulated, Boy ate some of the mushrooms the guy handed him. At once, the scene dissolved and he was sat at a table in a pub, a bit like the Gardeners except women were allowed. A toff in a top hat immediately cried, ‘There’s no room!’

As Boy began to protest that there was in fact, plenty of room, a girl wearing bunny ears said lazily, ‘No room for any more Lewesians with your cerr-azy striped jumpers and your misguided persecution complexes.’ Her head then fell forward into a teapot.

To steady his nerves, Boy took a sip of an unspecified brown liquid which tasted rather like Harvey’s Best. Instantly he shrank to the size of a dormouse, at which point everyone in the pub started throwing darts at each other. Terrified, Boy cowered under the table, the noise of darts hammering against the wood like a machine gun, and wished he was back home.

When he opened his eyes he was back to his usual size and sitting in the real Gardeners, pint and paper where he’d left them, but there was still a persistent thudding noise. He went outside, and found the street filled with dozens of people dancing wildly, nails fitted to the soles of their boots.

Thank goodness – back to sanity.

Beth Miller, 14th July 2009. Picture by Suzie Fox. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, August 2009.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When I go swimmin' with the wimmin' , ee I do have a real good time

'Totally up for it, Lad', I heard Man of the House say, as I staggered in with the shopping. 'I'll tell the missus we're just going for a drink.'

Intrigued, I silently put down the bags.

'I know! Barenaked ladies as far as the eye can see', Man continued, and I readied myself to jump aboard the Conclusion Train to Obvious.

'See you there, Lad, dress code casual.' Sniggering, he put down the phone, then delivered a classic double-take when he saw me posing coolly in the doorway, smoking a cheroot. The impact was only slightly marred by me coughing my guts out, and ten minutes passed before the interrogation could begin.

Man stopped hovering solicitously with water and tissues and said, 'It's a right-on political cause.'

'The nude swimming party at the Pells, presumably?'

'It's to support, er', he looked quickly at the flier, 'naked bike riding. It's about sustainability and stuff.'

'Yes, the message about the vulnerability of cyclists is clearly stated by a load of starkers old goats going swimming and leering.'

Man sulked. 'I'll call Lad and cancel.'

'I think you should go', I said.

Man did another double-take. It's good to retain an element of surprise in a long-term relationship, isn't it? And it had occurred to me that if he went, I could write about it without actually having to go. I only venture into a swimming pool if I've brought my Victorian bathing machine, from which I slowly emerge, clad from neck to ankle in a baggy knitted suit.

Everyone loves the Pells though. If I'm not swimming I sit under a tree, tartan rug round my knees, watching the jollification. Teenagers snog on the table-tennis table, then leap into the hormone-freezing water. Toddlers excavate the paddling pool for treasure: Thing Two recently brought me a dead spider. Adults sunbathe and, depending on temperament, tut at noisy children, frown at petting adolescents, or scream at deceased arachnids.

On Saturday, Man of the House sloped off for a riotous evening of au naturel splashing, while I enjoyed a nice solitary time of macrame and absinthe. When he returned he was grumpy, complaining that Lad had ditched him, no-one had talked to him, and that he'd spent most of the time having to think about Ann Widdecombe.

Lad came round next day with a different tale. 'It was brilliant! Best night ever. Loads of lovely ladies.' He started to unbutton his trousers. 'That bird I really liked wrote her phone number across my derriere', he said cheerily to Man, as I backed hastily out of the room, 'can you copy it down?'

Moments later Man laughed so loudly, I had to come back in. Across the wobbly pink canvas, Lad's new friend had written, 'Seen enough thanks', in waterproof marker pen.

We took the kids to the Pells next day. Man brought a rug and sat under the tree with me. It was nice to have the company.

Beth Miller, 6th July 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, July 2010. Photo by Alex Leith

Friday, July 3, 2009

So let's have another cup of coffee, and let's have another piece of pie

In need of a splunge sprocket for my bike (yes, I had definitely understood the Cliffe free bike repairman), I ambled off to Court Mowers. On the way, I reflected that no matter what strange commerce has lately come to Lewes, Court Mowers’ unlit cavern of scraps of metal is eternal. It’s run by kindly gentlemen who don’t mind how many bits your bike is in; they will happily spend hours pottering with spanners and other manly accoutrements, then hand you an itemised bill as long as this sentence, ending with a gloriously specific and tiny sum such as £2.48.

But, as Sidney Sheldon reminds us, nothing lasts for ever, and to my consternation, I discovered that Court Mowers had burned down. Now I would never again watch the staff shrug on leather jackets and break into a rendition of Greased Lightning. And who would fit my flange spracket now?*

* Well, Court Mowers’ mobile service would, but such easy resolution does not fit this narrative.

As I reeled from the senseless cruelty of the universe, I noticed a new shop next door. Called the Homelycake, it was not just another victoria sponge vendor: it was the last straw, the critical mass, the tipping point. Lewes had entered a Café Event Horizon, where it’s impossible to open anything other than a café, and no-one outside can see the town for the steam emitted by espresso machines.

I began an urgent survey of Lewes refreshment rooms. It took a long time, because, not wanting to be mistaken for a snooper, I forced myself to have a steadying cuppa and an iced bun in each one. First up, Buttercup Café, newly inserted into an antiques shop, iced bun, rather good. Oh look, this isn’t a review – take it as read that the iced buns were good everywhere, through they did seem to get less appetising the further I went.

Next, Le Magasin, a newsagent/furniture shop/bakery, where I listened to Hoxton Mum telling me how ‘vair, vair, busy’ she was, until someone bought the table we were sitting at. Onwards, to Doorsteps Café, then Bills, where iced buns are garnished with loganberries, and where I saw Hoxton Mum across the room, wiping cappuccino froth from her lip and mouthing, ‘so vair busy’.

The Riverside – upstairs and down; Costa Coffee, followed by a little breather in Boots, sniffing shampoo. Steamer Trading and Wickle (both contain cafes, you pedant); Robsons, Artisans (is it café or restaurant? I don’t know but I took a pleasant iced bun there, as did Hoxton Mum, who waved merrily from a chaise longue); Needlemakers, Lewes Patisserie (hi Hoxie!), Fillers, Neros, and finally, the CasBah.

By now I was sick with anger, and rang our MP to complain.

‘I know a good place to meet and discuss it’, Mr Baker said, ‘Laporte’s Café – have you tried it?’

I was going to cycle there, but considering my broken flunge spricket, and broken spirit, stayed at home to read the latest Sidney Sheldon instead.

Beth Miller, 30th June 2009. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Sunday, June 28, 2009

I've been to Paradise, but I've never been to me

‘I know what you can write for your column’, said Thing One this morning, startling me twice over. Firstly (causing me to mis-chop a carrot), because, spookily, at that very moment I’d been wondering what to write. And secondly (causing me to drop the knife on my toe), because I didn’t know she knew I wrote a column. Now she’ll find out I’ve called her Thing One, rather than, say, Princess Fluffy Tinsel, and she’ll lose all respect. Must stop helping her learn to read.
‘What’s your idea darling?’ I asked, as graciously as someone can when they’re wiping blood and carrot juice off their foot.
‘You should write about something in Lewes, like the London Eye’, she replied.
Well, out of the mouths of minors, but I’d been thinking I might have to branch out from the sacred enclosure of Lewes Town into the heady wilderness of Lewes District, particularly in my quest for Activities For Small Children That Don’t Involve Watching Telly. So, at the risk of this column eating itself, here is Thing One’s idea, though we didn’t go quite as far as the South Bank (apparently London isn’t in the Lewes District). Instead we went to the Anti-Lewes.
I worked in Newhaven ten years ago and still have a soft spot for the place. I know you’re snorting into your weetabix, Midwife Girl, but we had some laughs there didn’t we? No? Oh. Everything that Lewes is, Newhaven isn’t. Lewes is soft and squashy; Newhaven is hardcore. Lewes is Wickle; Newhaven is Peacocks. Lewes is a leisurely spliff by the river; Newhaven is a hasty snort of Evostick round the back of Somerfield. Metaphorically speaking.
I like Newhaven’s gritty realism. I used to enjoy watching the expressions of squeaky clean French teenagers off the Dieppe ferry when they first saw the High Street. And I absolutely love Paradise Park. Today, my kids spent the happiest five minutes of their little lives in the Park’s arcade, spraying water from high-pressure hoses at some plastic figures that didn’t do anything, 20p a go. You can’t put a value on memories like that.
Paradise Park is great for kids because they can be scared witless by the unconvincing animatronic dinosaurs. Adults like the astonishingly huge landscaped garden, where it’s possible to get properly lost. You just keep going further away from the café until you start to hear real jungle noises and get a bit freaked out. Aaargh! And then, when you’ve clawed your way back to civilization, there’s a huge garden centre, and plastic toys, and jam in little oblong packets still for tea. What’s not to like?
Disclaimer: The Park’s management has not paid me for this cornucopia of praise. Though they can if they like.
After today’s Newhaven visit, Thing One said, ‘If we lived here, we could go to Paradise Park every day and have fun all the time.’
It’s encouraging that, despite being called Princess Fluffy Tinsel, she appreciates a bit of the old urban grit too.
Beth Miller, 22nd June 2009. Published in