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