Tuesday, April 28, 2009

That's why they call me Second Hand Rose

Isn’t it lovely when the sun comes out? Instead of scurrying, head down under a plastic rain hat, oblivious to my surroundings, I can indulge in my favourite game: nosing in other people’s recycling.

Southover High Street is the best location for this sport. Every fortnight when the boxes come out, there’s a smile on my lips as I amble along, peering in all the gratifyingly open glass recycling bags. Ooh, that’s a really huge bottle of vodka: did it take them all year to finish or was it downed it in one wild blast of a night? And blimey, look at those cheeky little empty sauvignon blancs. Another party I wasn’t invited to.

Ah yes, Southover residents, you’ll think more carefully about making sure the jam jars are on top of the meths bottles in future, won’t you?

The paper and plastics boxes aren’t so intriguing, as they tend to be covered up and you’re not allowed to open them. That wouldn’t be a fun light-hearted amusement; that would be downright creepy, as the magistrate explained to me the other day. But it’s fair game when the weedy little lids get blown away by a breath of wind, as they so often do. Then you can have a good old squint at who’s been sneakily buying Hello! rather than reading it at the doctor’s like the rest of us.

You can even work out how they’ll react to you sniffing round their recycling boxes by the newspapers they’ve chucked out. Guardian: they’ll be cool about it, though they may blame society under their breath. Telegraph: they’ll tell me to clear orf, and threaten to let the dogs out. Daily Mail: they’ll cut off my hands.

Lewes is a cracking place to make sweeping statements about social demographics, purely on the basis of its recycling. Is it true, for instance, that Lewes disposes of more cardboard containers of Duchy Originals Sicilian Butter Shortbread per capita than anywhere else in the world? Can it be correct that Lewes is at the bottom of the league for recycling Special Brew cans? Or are these statistics I have just invented?

The clearest community indicators are on the wondrous Lewes Freecycle website, a snapshot of the hearts and minds of the town’s inhabitants. ‘Offered: Bugaboo pushchair, as used by Gwynneth! Good condition but rice-cake crumbs will need shaking out.’ Or ‘Wanted: Bonfire Society jumper. Any society! We’re not fussy! We just want to join in!’

When Aging Lad moved in with his on-off girlfriend last month, I told them about Freecycle and they furnished the entire flat with other people’s cast-offs. When he moved out again, three weeks later, citing irreconcilable levels of commitment, his girlfriend put him on Freecycle. ‘Offered: Antiquated gigolo, 43. Thinks he’s 25. Low expectations advised. From a non-smoking pet-free flat’. She was inundated and is still sifting through the replies, hoping to find him a bad home. If not, she says, he’ll have to go to landfill.

Beth Miller, 23rd April 2009. Photo by Alex Leith. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine, March 2010.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Your socks smell of angels, but your life smells of brie

'I've had a lovely time’ trilled Country Mouse, kissing me goodbye, ‘Lewes is such a wonderfully smelly town.’

Did the ill-bred little backwater rodent really consider that an acceptable parting shot?

‘Excuse ME!’ I cried, yanking her back into the house by the belt of her Country Casuals mackintosh and interrogating her with an angle-poise lamp. ‘Whaddya mean, smelly?’

She broke down instantly. ‘I don’t mean anything bad’, she squeaked. ‘It’s all the fascinating scents as you walk round – it’s not sanitised, like Milton Keynes.’

I hurled her, whimpering, onto the path and slammed the door. A whiffy town, eh? It was time for some scientific research.

‘Remind me what we’re doing’, whined Born and Bred Boy, standing unhappily outside Streaks Ahead, a black scarf tied round his eyes. ‘When you said something about blindfolds and smells I had a different image all together.’

I explained again. ‘We’re going to walk around the town centre’, I said, putting on my lab-coat and safety glasses, ‘to see if you can identify where we are by nose alone.’

We began with a minor tripping incident, but as Boy limped, bleeding, past Fur, Feather ‘N’ Fins he reared like a greyhound sniffing a rabbit.

‘It’s that pet shop with all the F’s’ he cried triumphantly. We stopped a moment, and breathed in deeply. As a child I used to inhale at the threshold of our local pet shop for hours. There wasn’t much to do in the 1970s.

A little further, Boy yelped, ‘May’s!’ adding superfluously, ‘Eau de hippy’s bedroom’.

Minutes later, and his eyeless face was smiling. ‘The Best! Smell! Ever!’ he exclaimed. It was the unsurpassable perfume of hops brewing at Harveys. Boy overdid the sniffing, hyperventilated, and had to be assisted with a paper bag.

Is Lewes not fragrant? I was starting to think we were truly blessed, when Boy grabbed my arm.‘Oh’, he said anxiously, ‘If we’ve gone past Harveys, we must be about to… Aaaargh!’ He began weaving about, hands cupped over his mouth, bumping into benches. Like Jonathan Ross, that weird cheesy fragrance from Forfars divides people. Some, like Boy, generally avoid it with a circuitous route via the carpark. Yet my dear Man of the House claims it’s so yummy he wants to rush in and fill his pockets with buns.

As we moved up the hill, Born and Bred Boy got into his stride. Dry-cleaners (interesting chemicals); Flint (bizarre perfume); several estate agents (fear). I promised Boy there was just one more, and knew he’d got it when he clutched his throat and fell to his knees.

'School dinner cabbage', he gasped, 'warmed up and piped through extractor fan for all to share.’ I ticked the White Hart off my list, and treated Boy to a good long inhalation of the coffee aroma outside Nero’s.

Later, I rang Country Mouse to apologise. Lewes is indeed a heady town. More so, possibly, than Milton Keynes. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

Beth Miller, 15th April 2009. Published in VivaLewes.com. Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

And I'm feeling very sick and ill today

I met Cycle Girl downstairs at the Riverside, so I could have a nice whinge about the state of my health. To lend emphasis I coughed over her fresh salmon-and-dill baguette.

‘Honestly’, she berated me, pushing her plate away, ‘Lewes is the best place in the country to be ill. Apart from Brighton.’ She whipped the Viva Lewes handbook out of her bag, and said impatiently, ‘Haven’t you tried any of these?’

Stone the crows, there was a whole section at the back called ‘Health & Wellbeing’. I’d always skipped past it as though it was the sports pages.

‘I don’t know where to start’, I wheezed, finishing her baguette.

‘Acupuncture does it for me every time’, she replied, which was how, two days later, I came to be lying on a jumped-up trestle table in a Lewes back-street, as covered in needles as a Fred Goodwin voodoo doll. It wasn’t particularly painful, apart from, ow! those ones in my feet, but the coughing fit I had on the way home was so intense I briefly blacked out and suddenly remembered an episode of Marine Boy from 1974.

When I rang Cycle Girl she said it would get worse before it got better, what with the toxins pouring out of my chakras. I might have got that bit wrong as I was browsing for Marine Boy DVDs on Amazon.

Next day Decaf Man put the case for Reiki. I’d barely brewed the Nescafe (not decaffeinated, as I like to mess with his head), when he too produced the Viva handbook and circled three ads for Reiki practitioners. ‘Swear by it’, he said, bouncing off the walls as the drug kicked in.

So next day I was once again prone on a trestle table, as a charming young man silently moved his hands a few inches above my body. ‘I don’t mind you touching me’, I said hopefully, I mean helpfully, but he replied, ‘I use the non-touching technique’, and smiled enigmatically. ‘You may feel a warm tingling sensation in the area I am treating’, he added softly, his hands hovering over my bosom, and do you know, I did?

I was hitting my stride now in alternative land, so that when Absent-Minded Girl mentioned Bowen Technique I was already dialling the number. She’d forgotten to carry the Viva handbook at all times, but no matter – I’d stapled the crucial pages to my sleeve.

The Bowen therapist touched me – if only she’d looked like Reiki man - and it was a nice, gentle kind of massage, though the subsequent coughing fit took me right back to Andy Pandy, the one where Teddy locks Looby-Loo in a cupboard.

I met Grange Girl this morning, joining her on day three of her sleeping-bag vigil waiting for the Grange Café to open. She whacked me about the head with her handbook, and said, ‘Did you not think of going to a doctor?’

‘In Lewes?’ I retorted. ‘When there are so many other choices?’

Beth Miller, 7th April 2009. Published in VivaLewes.com

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I know where it's at, if you wanna have a good time

We were gathered in the school playground in friendly manner round Hoxton Mum, newly arrived in town.

‘I’m looking for a music group for Django’, she said, indicating the suckling toddler half-hidden under a discreetly arranged hemp scarf, ‘He really responds to jazz.’

‘The All Saints Centre’, I told her, ‘Wednesday mornings.’ I decided not to mention that it’s more Humpty Dumpty than Humphrey Littleton.

‘Thanks!’ she smiled. ‘And toddler groups?’

‘There’s a good one at the All Saints on Fridays’, answered Pells Boy, dropping his coat over the Beast’s head to stop her drawing blood again.

‘Right’ she said, frowning a little. ‘And once Lysander and I have sorted a nanny, where’s the cinema?’

The resounding chorus of ‘All Saints’ was so loud, I was surprised not to see Nicole and Natalie Appleton waving from the top of the climbing frame.

Who needs Battersea Arts Centre Barbican South Bank malarkey when you have a central town venue with such versatility? I go there so often, I’m thinking of moving in.

My favourite All Saints activity is the toy library. Thing Two and I go every Wednesday. He eats jaffa cakes and insists on wearing a Buzz Lightyear outfit so small he looks like a squashed sperm, while I gratefully accept a cup of something hot from the saints who run the place: could be tea, could be Bovril, who knows, and who cares, someone else has made it. Then I sit and chat to the regulars: Scary, Posh, Ginger, and Decaf Man, who are sipping their own drinks with appreciative winces.

And what’s not to love about a cinema where the mix of pathos and violence is played out more vividly in the grimly determined fight for gallery seats than on the screen? I’ve often been trampled underfoot by tiny old ladies who batter up the stairs and leap decisively into a comfy velvet banquette, flinging any coats or bags already there over the balcony with a celebratory whoop.

The All Saints also hosts some great gigs. A couple of years ago, Crèche-Manager and I managed to break out of the house at the same time, and pitched into an unrecognisable venue. We’d been there only four hours earlier at a children’s party: celery, humus and sobbing.

Now it was a dark dangerous scene of pulsing music and hot sweaty bodies. We threw ourselves into the melee with abandon, following the parental maxim of, ‘We’re paying for a baby-sitter, we haven’t time to wait for the third drink to kick in before we’re uninhibited enough to boogie.’

It needs some work before it will fit on a t-shirt but as a philosophy it’s unbeatable. We shimmied, we grooved, we cut a rug; and when the night was over (10.30pm or it’s another six quid), we were near enough to walk happily home.

We’re hoping to be there for a similar bacchanal this Saturday at the psycho thing: we’ll be the ones already dancing when you arrive.

Beth Miller, 1st April 2009. Published in VivaLewes and in Viva Lewes magazine, May 2009. Photo by Alex Leith

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The beauty that is Spring's, these foolish things

First cuckoos, hosts of golden daffodils, yeah whatever. For me there’s only one truly reliable sign of spring: Uncle Adultery’s annual attempt at reconciliation with Emmanuelle, his on-off lover. Every year it’s the same. The clocks go forwards, the sap rises, and Uncle A dusts off his courting jacket and whisks Emmanuelle away for a romantic mini-break. She steps out in sky-scraper stilettos, her tiny Chihuahua tucked in a Fendi bag; he floats in her wake decked out in foolish optimism and an ill-advised Panama hat. A mere weekend later they’ve fallen out spectacularly enough to vow never to meet again. It’s part of the cycle of life.

Last year Uncle Adultery rang for ideas on new locations for the latest détente. I said there was no love song finer than Lewes in the Spring, and when he quibbled, suggested that as he’d tried everywhere else, it was worth a go. I helped plan the itinerary: stay at Shelleys, cocktails at Pelham House, dinner at Shanaz (Emmanuelle is oddly susceptible to dark curry houses).

I met them at the station and accompanied them to the hotel, because I knew they’d need help getting past the charming bewilderment of the staff (‘You want to check in? Here? Er, hang on a sec’). Once the turtledoves were safely ensconced, unpacking their toiletries and small dogs, I discreetly took myself home, to await the inevitable bloodbath.

Poor Uncle A. The next morning, Emmanuelle took the fast train back to London, and it was a broken man who met me for a restorative smoothie at Bills. It was now definitely Spring as there were non-smokers at the outside tables, but Uncle A was in no mood for poetic musings. Lewes received the full force of his wrath and it wasn’t until he finished his second juice - garnished with a pineapple and six tulips - that I discovered everything had gone well until they’d left the restaurant. Uncle A admitted he had sunk a few Cobras, and had fallen in with some local lads who’d persuaded him to come on a bender. Ever the gentleman, he’d escorted Emanuelle back to the hotel, but it wasn’t the romantic weekend she’d been anticipating when he rolled back again at four in the morning, covered in chilli sauce and singing ‘I know I am, I’m sure I am, I'm Lewes til I die’.

He was hazy on the details but I filled them in for him. ‘You went to the Charkie, didn’t you?’ I asked him sadly.

‘The last thing I remember, dear Niecey, till Emmanuelle poured a bottle of Evian over my head, was ordering the biggest donner in town. The rest is a blank.’ A few stray bits of lettuce still clung to his beard.

Spring’s here again. The first barefoot toddler’s been spotted in the Grange. The grass has riz, the birdie’s on the wing, and Uncle Adultery just called to say he’s planned a terrific weekend in Venice. This time, he reckons, it might just work.

Beth Miller, 24th March 2009. Published in VivaLewes. Photo by Alex Leith