Saturday, March 28, 2009

And you may ask yourself, well… how did I get here?

I’m too old for Twitter, but I’m just about the right age for twittens. They now seem a very good thing: even the cute name is bearable. This wasn’t always how I felt, of course. Twittens are something you come to later in life, like wheely luggage and easy-fit jeans.

When I moved to Sussex back in the last century, I casually dismissed Lewes as just too quaint. From the distant perspective of groovy Kemptown, where I was the only non-gay in the village, Lewes appeared middle-aged, staid and overly reliant on a couple of half-timbered buildings for interest. How young and glib I was. Now it is I who am middle-aged, staid and overly reliant on… I do believe that metaphor’s served its purpose.

Later, we lived in Cooksbridge, and on our first Saturday night headed into Lewes, looking for trouble. The streets were eerily silent, apart from some bustle near the bottle-neck. We raced up the high street to investigate, and arrived out of breath to discover a coach party of old ladies just about to leave. Nowadays I would unashamedly ask them where the action was, and tag along, but back then it seemed a sad indictment of Lewes: the Town that Never Wakes.

Since settling here, though, I find that Lewes is teeming with cosmopolitan excitement and happenings. Well, compared to Cooksbridge anyway. My changed view is mainly thanks to old-style social networking, the face-to-face sort with alcohol included. Stroll the streets with Born-and-Bred Boy and you see ghosts everywhere: down the Cliffe he’s away in a reverie of Wyndham’s shoes and the Granada telly shop; pass Monsoon and he’s back when it was a butchers, watching his mother buy chump steak. Surely that can’t be a tear in his eye?

Grange Girl’s Lewes is an eco-town of nature reserves, communal do-gooding and ladies cycling to communion. Accompany her up the high street and she can instantly source the cafe with the freshest scone. Aging Lad, naturally, is the man to show you the best pubs – ‘best’ meaning those likely to contain women tolerant to his chat-up lines, rather than those serving the most authentic Harveys.

Visitors, too, find their own version of Lewes. When Country Mouse stayed earlier this month she effortlessly located a Lewes awash in Cath Kidston aprons and expensive rustic candlesticks. Yet when Uncle Adultery was here he managed, in just a couple of days, to unveil an unexpected dark under-belly of swingers, Satanists and fleshpots. Played havoc with my bridge night, so it did.

Me, I’m just thankful to be moving gracefully into the twitten stage of my life. I no longer need to seek excitement in clubs and crowds. These days, there is no greater thrill than strapping Thing Two tight into his buggy and pushing him really fast down Church Twitten, from School Hill to All Saints, hearing his joyous cries of ‘YEEEE-HAH’ echoing off the ancient flint walls.

Beth Miller, 17th March 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, September 2009.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters

‘Can’t stop’, gasped Barcombe Baby-Mama, bursting into Nero’s and flinging a potty into my lap - empty, luckily. ‘Got no change and a Blue Meanie’s on the way.’

A chorus went up: ‘You said you’d stop for coffee!’ and ‘We can sort you some change’, but she was already gone, latest victim of the War on Terror.

We leaned back in the stained leather chairs – our pre-schoolers were finger-painting with milk-shakes – and nodded sadly. ‘Remember that time’, said Grange Girl, ‘when my ticket flopped backwards? It was still attached but you had to peer in?’

How could we forget? We it was who had nursed her back to health. We bowed our heads and intoned the solemn mantra, ‘Thirty pounds.’

Pells Boy pulled the Beast off the table where she was performing a Greek crockery routine and said, ‘What about when I got back to the almost empty car-park at five past six, but they were still writing it out?’

Some scars never fade. ‘Thirty pounds’, we chanted gravely.

‘You know what I hate?’ asked Absent Minded Girl, as she vaguely tried to change my nappy. ‘Their little cameras. It’s the only time you ever see anyone taking a photo in an evil kind of way.’

‘I wonder’, said Grange Girl, and we turned respectfully to listen, as she doesn’t have a toddler and therefore often speaks in coherent sentences, ‘I wonder what we talked about before the parking scheme?’

Was there a time before? We scratched our heads. We tried to cast back our minds to those palmy days of peace.

Pells Boy looked blanker than usual. ‘I thought there was always a parking scheme’, he said, then drained his latte and stood up. ‘In fact I’ve only got thirty minutes left on my ticket and it takes me that long to get the Beast’s coat on.’

I gently took the potty from Absent Minded Girl as she was about to drink from it. ‘Grangey’s right’, I said. ‘We used to be able to park for more than two hours at a time. But I can’t imagine what we talked about back then.’

Silent till now, ignoring us and the child sitting on his head, Born-and-Bred Boy slowly lowered his Daily Mail. His default position is that Lewes has got steadily worse since 1974, and his reasoning incorporates the words ‘London’, ‘from’ and ‘down’. Though he’ll hang out with incomers if his old mates aren’t looking.

‘Before parking’, he said, ‘we droned on about house prices and football and last night’s telly and all the things I have to talk about on those rare and depressing occasions when I am forced to go somewhere other than Lewes.’

‘Oh my lord’, cried Absent Minded Girl, ‘Did we really? How deadly! How could anyone have stood the boredom?’

And we all raised our cups in heartfelt toast to the marvellous parking scheme, defender of the town’s cafĂ© conversations.

Beth Miller, 10th March 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, April 2009. Photo by Alex Leith

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy

Ooh ladies, isn’t it beastly when you open your purse and find that the house-keeping will barely cover a large sirloin for the Man of the House and a stale crust for you and the kiddies?

That was almost exactly my situation last weekend, except for the 1940s setting, and the fact that actually my purse was full: of crackling green local tender. This was the inevitable result of all those times I’d felt obliged to say yes to a Lewes Pound in my change; saying no gets you into a lengthy explanation which is bound to make you miss the bus.

I bumped into Grange Girl en route to Tescos to see if they accepted the Pound, but she whacked me with a rolled-up Guardian and told me it was my chance to Shop Local. I protested that Tescos was jolly near, but she hit me again.

‘Here’s a challenge, you apolitical ostrich’, she flattered. ‘Can a family survive a weekend only on items bought with the Lewes Pound?’

‘I don’t know, can they?’ I said, not realising it was an order. She turned me firmly towards Cliffe High Street.

‘Keep calm’, she said, giving me a shove that rattled my teeth, ‘and carry on.’

I’m scared of Grangey so I dutifully edged crab-like down the Cliffe, the roadworks having expanded like a hefty Yank about to win an eating competition. Many windows displayed a friendly ‘We accept the Pound’ sign. I popped into Landsown Health Shop and although they did have lots of nice-looking food, something about my mission turned me into Felicity Kendal, except without the pert bottom, and I bought a bag of spelt flour. They happily took my Pounds and gave me change in real money.

Emboldened, I visited May’s, Ben’s Butchers, Harveys and Bills. Then, laden with hessian bags, I staggered into the Lewes Arms, thinking I could cobble together the price of a gin with my change. But lo! They take Pounds here too. Marvellous. I used nearly all my wedge, and much later weaved into Catlins to spend the rest. Well, someone’s got to buy our way out of this recession.

The Man of the House’s upper lip stiffened as I emptied out the bags. He smoothed on more Brylcreem and asked what we were meant to do with a hatching alien and a pair of pink lurex gloves. I explained that despite all the food in May’s, I’d got distracted by the fascinating section at the back. He harrumphed.

‘I got some fruit in Bills’, I said, ‘Two Rambutans for a tenner.’

He went pale. ‘What are they made of, gold?’

I sat him down before revealing that the rest of my purchases were wine from Harveys and Revels from Catlins.

‘Did you’, he said, trying to control his emotions, ‘actually buy anything proper to eat?’

‘Of course’, I slurred, proudly waving the sirloin I’d got at Ben’s. Forgetting, of course, that my dear Man is a vegetarian.

That’, he said grumpily, as he fried some spelt flour pancakes, ‘is the last time I let you do the shopping’.

And that, ladies, is what we call a result.

Beth Miller, 3rd March 2009. Published in

Monday, March 2, 2009

Bang, bang, the mighty fall

The rumours spread like flaming torches, and Lewes was ablaze with gossip. Was this guy for real? No-one knew anything. Then Grange Girl rang and said a friend of a friend knew this man, and he’d asked to speak to me. Why? No-one could say.

The arrangements were cloak and dagger. Grange Girl and her contact blindfolded me and drove in disorientating circles, though the swerve of the one-way system past Chaulas was unmistakable. The precautions seemed slightly superfluous when we finally stopped and I was pushed out of the car into a central Lewes street.

They wished me luck, and screeched off (Grangey must fix that fan-belt), and I rapped the knocker for the basement flat. A middle-aged man wearing a spotty jumper cautiously opened the door, and I blurted, ‘Catesby?’ He let me in.

The basement was ill-lit, the walls papered with maps and charts. He gave me a cup of noxious gunpowder tea. ‘Fire away’, he said, ‘I’m ready to talk.’

I jumped right in, like Paxman. ‘Is it true’, I stammered, ‘that you are the ring-leader of an Anti-Bonfire Society?’

‘No!’ he yelled, making me spill my tea, a happy accident. ‘We’re not anti-bonfire at all. We love it, in fact. The heat, the effigies, the toasty marshmallows…’

‘Oh!’ The rumours were wrong.

‘It’s the noise’, he explained, ‘We’re anti-fireworks.’

‘Rockets?’ I probed, like Trisha.

‘Oh no, I like rockets. They’re a bit loud, but very pretty. Whoosh!’ he made missile-like movements with his arms, under cover of which I dispersed the rest of my tea.

‘No’, he continued, his brow darkening, ‘My comrades and I are seeking the wholesale embargo of’ and he hissed the word, ‘bangers!’

He outlined the group’s plans: a uniform of spotty jumpers, to allow easy identification of sympathisers. A catchy name, the Ban-Bangs (they’d decided against the Gang-Bangs). And a meticulous campaign leading to shock and awe on Bonfire Night, when Ban members would approach young people letting off bangers and politely ask them to stop.

He swept his arm round the room as though it were a military base, and strode amongst the maps moving red and black pins about. But whenever he spoke of his group he said, ‘I’ then hastily corrected it to ‘we’. His spotty jumper had a hole in the elbow. The group’s logo was from ClipArt.

‘Can I ask’, I said, as he sidestepped an unfurled banner with its symbol of someone sleeping peacefully in bed, ‘Why you wanted to speak to me?’

‘You write for the national papers’ he whispered. ‘You can give me, I mean us, the oxygen of publicity.’

‘I think there’s been a mistake’, I said.

‘You’re not from the Times?’ he said, aghast.

‘Don’t worry’, I said, ‘I write for something better.’

The car was waiting, and I stepped in. Kobayashi was at the wheel.

‘Put the blindfold back on’, I instructed him. ‘I don’t want to see anything for a while.’

Beth Miller, 25th February 2008. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, November 2009.