Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Think of all the fun I've missed

Country Mouse rings with her usual seasonal barrage of one-upmouseship.
‘Have you finished yet? My dear, isn’t it awful, I’ve barely started.’ [Translation: Everything’s done; relaxing in a tinsel tracksuit.]
‘Now what do you think of my Christmas dinner with a twist? Goose with brandy reduction and cider-glazed pearl onions. Nigella, obv.’
I scrunch the phone against my shoulder in official 1950’s housewife style and scrawl myself a reminder note: ‘Get food for Christmas’. If only I was a 1950s housewife, I might come up a better rejoinder than ‘Pearl onions can be awfully windy.’ [Translation: Shuddup.]
She ignores me, quite rightly. ‘Must dash. So much to do!’ [Translation: Off for my massage, the reward for having (a) done everything and (b) crushed your soul.]
It’s because of this kind of pressure that 1950s housewives were all junked up to the eyeballs in Valium. I do up my pinny and continue my list.
1. Get food. Not turkey. Turkey so over. Rattlesnake?
2. Get drink. Lots. Strong.
3. Inspect unwanted present cupboard. Surely this is the year I can offload that pink tart’s boudoir bubble bath set? Maybe my father-in-law would like it.
4. Start domestic marketing campaign centering on the principle of when I was your age I was thrilled with a walnut and a roll of sellotape.
On the way to town (5. Go to Waitrose, have small and mostly unnoticeable breakdown by the Christmas puddings, buy cheese strings), I bump into Pierced Boy. I assume confidently that his Christmas plans will be less formed than mine.
‘Oh, I’m spending the whole week at Lorenzo’s place in Marrakech, didn’t I say?’[Translation: Ner ner ner ner ner.]
I reel into Neros. The staff are wearing Santa hats but I am prepared to overlook this in the interests of scoring a triple espresso. Then Eco Dad sits down, spills green tea and says, ‘Done all your shopping then?’
‘Yes,’ I lie, brazenly. ‘How about you?’
‘It was a trick question!’ he laughs. ‘We’re not joining the consumerist bun fight. We’re giving each other the gift of love and space.’ [Translation: Ner ner ner ner ner.]
I give Eco Dad the gift of space and trudge to Honesty Girl’s place. Surely she’ll sympathise with my Yuletide ennui? But she’s up a ladder decorating an immense tree.
‘I love this time of year,’ she says.
‘Ha ha!’
‘No, seriously. I try and put my cynicism aside and hear sleigh bells in the snow.’
I burst into tears.
‘What on earth’s the matter you silly old trout?’ she soothes. ‘Here, this’ll make you feel better.’ She hands me a huge Cadbury’s selection box. ‘The kids’ll never know, we’ll just take one or two.’ [Translation: We eat the entire thing.]
The taste of the Crunchy makes me think of chestnuts roasting on a open fire, and how much more I’d rather be eating a Crunchy. Though just for a moment I ponder what it would taste like garnished with some glazed pearl onions.
Beth Miller, 8th December 2010. Published in and Viva Lewes magazine, December 2012

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shout, shout, let it all out

It must be the prospect of the festive season that makes people become abruptly more assertive. Even shy retiring types like myself, when faced with the prospect of hosting elderly relatives at Christmas for the FIFTH YEAR RUNNING, go all Naomi Campbell and start shouting and throwing things. Sure, shouting’s not exactly assertive so much as aggressive but sometimes a calm restatement of one’s position simply doesn’t cut it and you have to smash a few china mugs with pictures of cute terriers on.

I’ve now gracefully extricated myself from the joyous Yuletide that had awaited me, and if the small price to pay is excommunication and another boxed Zen garden for a present, well so be it. Even bring it on. I’m in bullish mood. And it’s not just me. All around are people saying, ‘No-one talks to me like that and gets away with it,’ and ‘I just threw it straight in the bin.’

Take Library Boy. By day a mild-mannered librarian; by night, a mild-mannered librarian. Yet last Saturday when strolling through the Cliffe his attention was caught by that bloke who dresses like an insurance salesman and shouts vigorously about the Bible. Ordinarily L Boy would have simply walked on by, like those geezers who weren’t the Good Samaritan. But something came over him. Call it Festive Assertive Disorder (FAD) if you like. He approached Bible Bloke and said firmly, ‘I do wish you’d be quiet.’

Respect, Library Boy, as the young people say. Bible Bloke was struck dumb for almost a second before he threw his arms wide enough to encompass WH Smiths. ‘SEE THIS YOUNG MAN, THE VOICE OF CONSCIENCE,’ he bellowed in tones borrowed from the Reverend Ian Paisley. Library Boy was quite pleased with this outcome because it’s been a while since he was referred to as a young man.

Over on freegle (the new freecycle), the normally gentle atmosphere of pleases and thank yous has also been infected by FAD. ‘This is a BIG item so don’t bid unless you have an articulated lorry,’ say people huffily, and ‘Don’t leave mobiles I will only respond to landlines between 3 and 4 am.’ Punctuation is not allowed in freegle world, other than the assertively placed triple exclamation mark: ‘AND MOST OF ALL DON'T MESS ME AROUND OR ANYONE ELSE FOR THAT MATTER!!!’

It’s good to practice these skills as December gets into its stride. Now is the time when the list of things you have to do begins to resemble one of those joke Roman scrolls that out-run a roll of Andrex. Say after me. ‘No thank you, I won’t be helping my child do their third sponsored thing of the week.’ Good. Now try this one: ‘Oh how lovely a boxed Zen Garden I will treasure it.’ Excellent. Now open your bin and quietly tip it in. There is no need to burst into tears. Remember, assertive and calm. And if that doesn’t work, shouting and CAPITAL LETTERS.

Beth Miller, 1st December 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You just keep me hangin' on

Grange Girl and I were wandering along the Farmers Market going ‘ooh’ at the raspberries when a pleasant-looking middle-aged lady asked us for directions to the nearest toilet.

‘Of course,’ I said, always keen to offer comfort to strangers, ‘there are some just behind Lloyds in that car-park.’

The woman thanked me and started to move away, but Grange Girl slapped a vice-like hand on her arm and said, ‘Wait a minute! She can’t go in those!’

‘They’re the nearest, Grangey. And they’ve been done up.’
‘That’s as maybe but I still wouldn’t want a visitor to see them. I do have some civic pride. And they have those batty automatic sink things which give you ten seconds of sticky soap, then the water doesn’t work.’

She turned to the woman, who was looking a little worried. ‘The nicest toilets in Lewes are in Shelley’s Hotel, madam. You’ll obviously have to buy a drink or scone but they’re well worth it; gorgeous little ante-room, scents and plush furnishings, entire thing reminiscent of a nineteenth century boudoir…’

‘Grangey, that’s practically a mile up the road!’
‘She can hold on for a bit. Can’t you?’ Grange Girl addressed the woman. ‘You won’t regret it.’
‘Er, no, I…’ the woman began looking round anxiously.
‘Look,’ I said helpfully, ‘there’s some more near the station…’
‘For heaven’s sake!’ cried Grange Girl. ‘You mean those ones opposite Lager Bench? Don’t go there missus. Try the library – very clean. Though the drier makes a dreadful racket, hardly appropriate given the setting.’

The woman thanked us again and tried to back away but Grangey was in full flow.

‘Course if you fancy something alcoholic to accompany your penny-spending, the loo in the Snowdrop is much improved.’
‘I think the Grange Gardens ones are closed for Winter,’ I contributed. ‘But they’ve got those all-in-one-don’t-work-properly sinks too.’ I reflected on the many hours I had spent there with Thing Two. ‘And they can be very cold. So you ought to give those a miss, really.’
‘I hate it when you get caught short at the Friday market and have to use the Tom Paine toilet,’ said Grangey. ‘Everyone can hear what you’re up to.’
‘The ones at Pelham House are lovely and very sound-proof, you can’t even have cross-cubicle conversations in there.’
‘Ooh and I’ll tell you another good one: at the County Court. Art Nouveau, I believe.’
‘It’s not open to the public though, surely?’
‘No but you can visit every September for the Architectural Open Day.’
‘That’s probably too long to wait, isn’t it?’

I turned to the woman but she had gone.

‘All this talk has made me want to powder my nose,’ said Grange Girl, and started striding up the hill in the direction of the Shelleys. ‘Might as well have a scone and a cup of tea while we’re there.’

Beth Miller, 25th November 2010. Published in Photo by Katie Moorman.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

November has tied me to an old dead tree

Man of the House harvests our November crop: six wizened red apples. They seem smaller than they were two months ago. Meanwhile the Halloween pumpkins silently decompose on the doorstep, dead fireworks litter the herbaceous borders, and the shed falls down.

Winter gardens are no places for wimps, and I’m a wimp. I avert my eyes as I pass Wyevales so as not to see their banner exhorting me to ‘Tidy up ready for Winter!’ They have a Spring banner too, featuring an Easter chick chiselling out of an egg and the slogan, ‘Time to get cracking!’ That one also makes me feel guilty.

Now is doubtless the right time to plant tulip bulbs, scatter forget-me-not seeds, shove old tomato plants into the compost and pick up the pink plastic doll that has been lying across the lawn since July, limbs lewdly akimbo. Every year I convince myself that very soon I will stomp outside wearing waterproofs and a hearty smile, clearing and pruning and generally showing the garden who’s boss. In this mental image I am whistling ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go,’ and waving a rake about smugly.

But it’s always raining when I look outside, or something more interesting is going on. And so every year the garden realises exactly who’s boss and takes advantage, sending underground forces of bindweed to annexe new territories, encouraging strawberry suckers to grow up the washing line, and marshalling battalions of evil slugs to slither about orange-ly.

If only I had the courage to embrace not tidying the garden. I wish I had the balls of the ESCC gardeners, who put up little signs around the Council grounds which say ‘designated biodiversity area’ wherever they can’t be bothered to clear. I might get some of those signs. ‘Do you think we could have some nice daffs here?’ ‘Sorry luv, can’t be done: that’s a designated biodiversity area.’ I only wish I’d thought of it first.

This is the list of actual garden chores I do in November:

1. Wait till it’s not cold or raining and there’s nothing on telly.
2. Run outside wearing coat over pyjamas.
3. Slip on orange slug, fall and bash bottom on plastic doll.
4. Grab bird feeder and run back into house.
5. Make tea and reward self with biccy.
6. Recoil in horror at disgusting state of bird feeder. Shake fist at birds and ask how could they let it go to seed like this, ah ha ha, have they no respect?
7. Clean bird feeder with Marigolds and industrial bleach. Then clean bleach off obsessively to avoid avian poisoning.
8. Refill feeder with fancy selection of seeds.
9. Notice it’s raining and resolve to put feeder out later.
10. Remember bird feeder in April.

I try one of the wrinkly apples. Delicious. Perhaps next year I’ll plant some raspberries. Or maybe I’ll just put in a few more bindweed plants – they always seem to do well.

Beth Miller, 17th November 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I once was lost but now am found

During an ear-bleedingly complex discussion about meeting up, Man of the House casually said, ‘Just use that short-cut from Mountfield Road.’

‘And what short-cut would that be?’

He gave me a spousely look from beneath his bifocals. ‘How long have you lived here?’

He accompanied me to the College, pointed me towards the sign saying ‘footbridge’, and gave me a little push. Then he was gone with a squeal of wheels. Which was odd as he was on foot.

I adjusted my hydration pack and set bravely off into unchartered waters. I’d been on the Sussex Downs campus before, but only as far as the lecture room for my leaf manipulation night class. I clambered over the footbridge, feeling rather as Amundsen must have done when he, uh, went to that unexplored place no-one had been before (memo to self: next evening class must be in basic general knowledge). I fully expected to arrive slap bang in the middle of the railway land, another part of Lewes filed under ‘closed book’ but which I imagine to be like a rainforest, all hanging vines and colourful parrots. Grange Girl is of course a keen railway-land aficionado, forever giving meaningless directions that take in the Linklater Pavilion. I wouldn’t know the Linklater Pavilion if I found it in the pocket of my leaf manipulation apron.

But the footbridge took me not into a teeming jungle but rather the concrete jungle of Court Road. Even I knew (well I did after asking a lady for directions) that this leads to the back of the Riverside. And so in just a few minutes I’d traversed from leisure centre to town centre without having to slog round the station. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

To celebrate, I walked almost back to the station to visit the Charity Christmas Card shop, which is in that charmingly eccentric Light on Life place in Lansdown Place. The CCC shop is lovely. It combines being very modern, in that it appears in an new pop-up location every year, with being sweetly old-fashioned: they are the only people who say, ‘Oh goody, a cheque’ rather than, ‘On yer bike Daddio, we only take plastic.’ I chose pretty cards from worthy causes, and bought traditional unchocolated Advent calendars. Then I entered their guess the number of items in the cracker competition (I put 17 million because previous customers’ estimates were unduly pessimistic).

Then I made my way back to Court Road to recreate my mythical North-West passage across Lewes, and got hopelessly lost. Unlike Amundsen, I had my mobile and could call Man to come and rescue me. Unfortunately the only landmark I could see was the Linklater Pavilion and as only Grangey knows where that is, it took Man hours to find me. On the plus side, it was a good place to write my Christmas cards and manipulate a few leaves.

Beth Miller, 10th November 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tomorrow I'll be glad, cause I've got Friday on my mind

Wordlessly, Grange Girl seized my arm and dragged me from Waitrose, scattering organic carrots and fennel in her wake. I clung to the automatic doors and then to the leg of the Big Issue seller. But Grange Girl has been regular with the pole fitness lately and is strong as a Duchy Originals ox. As she swept me up the hill, not even letting me look in the new shoe shop, I begged her to tell me where we were going. But she was too enraged to speak. Steam snorted from her nostrils.

At the War Memorial she barked, ‘What day is it, young lady?’
I always go blank under pressure. I’d be no good at those old people tests when they ask the name of the prime minister or what year it is. I’d be put on medication and only allowed milky puddings before you could say ‘Is it Ted Heath?’

I tried to sneak a look at the date on my phone but Grangey dashed it to the ground where it was trodden on by a passing Afghan hound.

‘It’s Friday!’ Grange Girl snapped.

‘Oh. Is this something to do with Crackerjack?’

‘On Friday mornings we don’t go to the supermarket, do we?’

Light dawned. Grange Girl has been banging on about the marvellousness of the Friday market since it began, possibly even before it began, but I never remember it’s on until Friday evenings.
When she saw my contrite expression Grangey softened, and handed me a Waitrose Bag For Life. ‘Less picturesque, but more capacious than a wicker basket,’ she confided.

Hitherto known to me only as the cut-through with the waving Tom Paine, the markety thing was now full of stalls and busy shoppers. I stopped to inspect some cheese but Grange Girl said firmly, ‘There is a particular order in which one does the market.’

Under her despotic guidance, I discovered the brilliant fruit stall where you can buy a mix of different apples because they all cost the same. You can taste them too, but I didn’t get the chance before I was yanked off to the excellent bread stall. There were stalls selling jam, meat, cakes and vegetables, all terrific stuff, and much more homely than the Farmer’s Market. Normally shy, unless terrorising her friends, Grange Girl was on fine bantering form, swapping century-old badinage of the ‘squeeze me and I’m yours’ variety with the merchants.

On the way out we inspected a cute map with pins showing the locality of the produce. Three pins were just outside the magic circle of however many kilometres you’re allowed to stray from Lewes before being shot. I made a mental note to buy whatever those rebellious items were next week. Long as I remembered the damn thing was on.

I waited till Grangey toiled up the road and disappeared. Then I went to Tescos. I needed cheese strings and rice crispies, and she was much less likely to find me there than in Waitrose.

Beth Miller, 2nd November 2010. Published in

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

You're not singing anymore

Try as you might. But if a thing’s truly ubiquitous, it will eventually break through your highly developed ignoring force field. Over the last few months I’ve wafted through numerous conversations like this:

Sweary Mary (or Cycle Girl): ‘Off to the blinkin’ Pan on Saturday. You going?’
Me: ‘No.’

And like this:

Pells Boy (or Hoxton Mum): ‘Oh go on it’s great. The kids play, we have chips, occasionally look at the game, you’ll love it.’
Me: ‘No.’

They don’t realise they’re inviting me to do something quite bizarre.
Them: ‘Let’s go naked bungee jumping!’
Them: ‘Let’s pretend to be mice!’
Them: ‘Let’s go to the football!’

It’s like that test for dementia invented by the writer Linda Grant: alarm bells ring when you suddenly suggest something completely out of character. For her it would be, ‘I fancy a long muddy hike.’ For Aging Lad it would be, ‘Let’s just hold hands and talk.’ For me it would be, ‘I need to see some footie now.’ It’s weird really because I loved playing football as a child (my dad was a trained referee who taught me the basics). But back then, when I was young and ice covered the planet, girls at my school weren’t allowed on the playing field: blatant discrimination that would nowadays result in prosecutions but back then resulted in, well, girls not playing football I guess. So my interest waned, and I put away childish things such as my collection of Kellogg’s cards featuring Johan Cruyff (for some reason he was on all the cards).

As an adult, football’s just not in my purview, innit? And so I floated on, past all talk of FA cups and league form and Patrick Marber. Finally though, my force field was dented by those Kitchener pictures all over town. I always read posters (and planning notices, and lost cat signs, and graffiti).

‘You seen that poster of Ibbo?’ I asked Man of the House.
‘Who’s Ibbo?’ he replied. See, it’s not just me.
‘Ibbo! Steve Ibbitson! He’s, er, something to do with the football.’

Man looked impressed I knew so much. I reminded him that I have actually met Ibbo. He was really nice. We talked about our kids. He didn’t mention football.

‘Everyone’s very excited,’ Man said, suddenly finding his inner bloke, ‘because only nine matches stand between Lewes and the FA Cup. Admittedly, nine matches that probably take in Man United and Chelsea.’

‘Could Lewes win then?’ I asked, my interest suddenly piqued, though lord knows why: I wouldn’t know the FA Cup if I found it in my knicker drawer.

Man started droning on about minnows and giant-killers and Yeovil, and my interest un-piqued. I pointed at him, Kitchener style and said, ‘I need you to stop.’

‘Why don’t we go to the next game,’ he said, ‘and see what all the fuss is about?’

And as if from far away, in some alternative universe of lost marbles, I heard myself say, ‘All righty.’

Beth Miller, 19th October 2010. Published in Author's note: shortly after writing this, Lewes FC were knocked out of the FA Cup.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

And I tell you it don't mean jack, no it don't mean jack

'Blimmin’ heck,’ muttered Sweary Mary as we laboured up Keere Street. ‘This blasted hill gets steeper every dang day.’

For purposes of pre-watershed publication I have replaced Sweary Mary’s usual epithets with quaint alternatives.

‘It better be jolly well worth it,’ she said threateningly, twisting her ankle on a cobble.

‘It will, don’t you worry,’ I gasped, grabbing onto a passing Sherpa.

I’ve long been singing the praises of Shelleys to my chums in the face of general scepticism and indeed, entreaties to shove it. I’ve endorsed the terrific afternoon teas; applauded the charmingly vague staff; waxed lyrical about the invariable emptiness of the cosy lounge, which is probably not on Shelley’s tick box list but is a positive thing for the tired person who’s trundled from the bottom of town. And every time I mention these delights, my friends say, ‘Yeah whatever. Baltica then?’ I know I probably need some other friends, but in the current economic climate it seems profligate to acquire a batch of glossy new mates when the old ones could be good as new with a bit of patching. Reuse, Repair, Recycle, that’s my motto. Except when it comes to afternoon tea. Cake, Scones, Tea makes more sense there.

Anyway I had pretty much given up trying to persuade anyone into Shelleys, or The Shelleys as it has renamed itself, when Sweary Mary suddenly lurched over and said ‘Flipping heck Tucker’, no she didn’t, my name’s not Tucker, ‘Flipping heck,’ she said, ‘If I go into Baltica once more this week they’ll be erecting a blinking plaque to me. I need a new top town venue pronto. What’s that damn one you’re always blathering about?’ Yes, I know it’s not very polite but it’s a step on from ‘Yeah whatever’. And lo it came to pass that Mary and I toil-ethed up the steep hill-eth to partake of The Shelleys cup of good cheer.

‘Jumping jellybeans, I’ve never been here before,’ Mary said as we arrived at the pretty peach-coloured building. ‘Will they let me in with my dratted trainers?’

‘They’ll let you in wearing flippers,’ I said, explaining again how the amiable staff always seem surprised, though pleasantly so, to find they have a large hotel on their hands.

We went into the homely sitting room which was nicely void of other tea-takers. There was then a lacuna of some goodly while, during which Mary muttered nervously, ‘Jiminy Cricket! They’re taking their time,’ and ‘Swipe me, I could use a cuppa.’ However I relaxed into the squashy sofa, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later or perhaps later than that, someone would find us and maybe even bring a menu.

Finally, the reward: a proper tea with melty chocolate cake, moist fruit slices and fluffy scones.

‘Crumbs,’ said Mary, brushing crumbs off her trainers, ‘This is a confounded bit of all right. Why the deuce have you been keeping it to yourself?’

‘Gee willikins,’ I cried exasperatedly, and poured myself a soothing Assam.

Beth Miller, 13th October 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

And a soldier boy is the ladies’ joy in Sussex by the sea

‘It’s high time I got in touch with my Sussex roots, Niecey,’ said Uncle Adultery, sipping a peach bellini in the front bar of Pelham House.
I scrutinised him in vain for signs of merriment. ‘And what roots would those be, exactly?’ I asked. Uncle Adultery could pass for many different things: his East European heritage and childhood elocution lessons lend him the air of a suave diplomat; his jaunty panamas and perfectly sculpted goatee offers a hint of a playboy nearing retirement; and his founding of a dating agency for married people seeking affairs suggests a high-class procurer. But you’d be looking at him a long time before a stout Sussex Yeoman would come to mind.
‘Ah, those lovely sunsets at Worthing,’ he said, waving his empty glass in a manner which brings them running in Monaco. ‘The smell of the Hastings sea air. Sussex is in my blood, Niecey. One more of these, if I can just get this chap’s attention – oh thank you! – then you must hie me to the costumier.’
I goggled at him. I do a lot of goggling around Uncle Adultery. Goggling, and saying, ‘What are you talking about?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘My costume, dear heart. For Bonfire, of course.’
My heart sank, and I ordered another bottle of ginger beer. I would need staunch back-up from good old Mr Alcohol if I was to make it through the afternoon.
Soon we were in Sublime to the Ridiculous in Barcombe. The name seemed strikingly apt as I watched my urban sophisticate Uncle disappear into the changing room and reappear in full Native American garb. I will pass over his pitiful and probably racist attempt to accompany the costume with what he fondly imagined to be an appropriate accent, but luckily he became allergic to the feathers and went to change.
When he turned up as a Zulu I couldn’t stop myself asking if he now felt more in touch with his Sussex-ness, but he ignored me. Thank heavens for my hip flask as I watched numerous versions of Uncle A parading round the shop: Viking, civil war soldier, monk and cavalier. I was idly trying on a pair of extremely long purple eye-lashes when he stepped out in a brocaded jacket and a funny plant-pot type hat.
‘This is the one, Niecey’, he cried. ‘What do you think?’
I goggled again.
‘What are you meant to be?’
‘A Gay Hussar, of course!’ He clicked his heels and did an extraordinary hand gesture that made me tremble for his chances of surviving Bonfire.
There was no talking him out of it, so we paid up and left, Uncle clutching his costume and humming ‘Sussex by the Sea.’ I dropped him at the station, and he promised to return on the fifth for great revelry.
‘By the way Niecey,’ he said, leaning in through the car window, ‘You might want to take those eye-lashes off. They make you look a bit daft.’

Beth Miller, 6th October 2010. Published in, and Viva Lewes magazine November 2013

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I can see all obstacles in my way

There’s a fine novel called The Missing Postman, in which the eponymous Royal Mail absconder (and who can blame him, given those unflattering shorts they have to wear?) takes refuge in a series of optician stores. He feels safe in opticians, you see, having visited them for years man and boy. This book is very resonant, for I too am a long-term optician-botherer, since my blind-as-a-batness was discovered at age six and my parents were warned that without my new bottle-top glasses I would likely be struck by a bus. Since then I have patronised numerous opticians (‘Ooh lookit der cutie little glassy-wasses, aren’t they just the sweetums’), including a sadistic one who laughed at every pair of specs I tried; one who spoke only Welsh (‘bod mor ddall â’r garreg’ - ‘you’re blind as a bat’); and one who fobbed me off with rhinestone horn-rims previously rejected by Edna Everage.

Have just done some in-depth Google research and bats aren’t really blind. Well, bully for them.

Lewes is well endowed with opticians: five at least. I go to Spectrum, though I’m sure the others are just as lovely. It’s definitely the best I’ve tried in my Missing Postman levels of experience: friendly, thorough, and no-one sniggers ‘Bessie Bunter’ when one tries on a round frame. In fact, they sit for hours patiently searching for your perfect glasses. Mine have lenses made of a wafer-thin plastic otherwise used in space missions, and frames of bendy titanium (might not have got this quite right), of such high resistance that even a small child cannot break them. Wearing them, I look like one of those cool glasses models, apart from my face.

Anyway, all this is leading to a disturbing conversation I had recently with Honesty Girl. Knowing she is similarly short-sighted – we have shared stories of tumbling over unseen sofas and failing to recognise loved ones – I was stunned to find she’d just had The Op. ‘I can see my feet in the shower!’ she gasped, revelling in the newness of it all. I retorted quite sharply that I personally knew my feet were there even if I couldn’t see them. She stared, starry-eyed, round my kitchen. ‘Blimey, your windows are a bit mucky’, she said. ‘You want to give them a good wipe.’

I definitely won’t be having laser surgery. It’s partly that there’s something wonderful about taking one’s contacts out at the end of the day and entering Blur-World, in which one relies on non-visual senses (‘OW! Yes, that’s definitely the door’). And it’s partly that I don’t want some quack sticking lasers in my eyeballs. But it’s also because going to the opticians is such a part of who I am. I sit in that up-and-down chair wearing the heavy testing frames that make one resemble Jerry Lewis in the Nutty Professor. The lights are dimmed, random letters appear on the screen, the optician says gently, ‘Can you read the top line?’ and I completely and utterly relax.

Beth Miller, 29th September 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Looking at you I'm filled with the essence of, the quintessence of joy

What a strange League of Gentleman place Lewes seems when you read about it in the papers. All right, there’s no need for that. A town awash with burning crosses and people looking at you sideways if you run out of Lewes Pounds: it don’t seem like the Lewes I know. But when I pondered how else to sum up the place in a sound-bitey way, all was blank. So I undertook a small survey of what residents consider to be the very essence of Lewes.

‘Easy’, said Cycle Girl. ‘Only this week I went to a disused foundry to look at some chairs. Not Chippendale or anything. Just ordinary stacking chairs. One of them’, she went on, ‘had brown clay splodged onto the seat. It looked exactly like our chair at home after Cycle Kid’s happened to the playdough. But we all admired it anyway.’

‘Quintessential Lewes?’ said DJ Mama. ‘Crossing the Bell Lane rec and meeting that woman who walks a ferret on a lead.’

‘The window of Crumbs’, grumbled Maximum Diner, ‘with “cakes” made of cloth. Sums up the whole blinking place – twee, useless and pretending to be creative.’ This was, it must be said, one of his better days.

‘Taking the Beast to the cinema to watch a Buster Keaton movie’, said Pells Boy. ‘She kept asking when the colour and sound and action were coming in, but otherwise she enjoyed it. Course she did. She’s a Lewes kid.’

‘Seeing Hoxton Mum in the window of a cafe, mouthing “I’m very busy”’, said Born and Bred Boy.

‘My essential Lewes’, said Honesty Girl, ‘is watching the Rooks lose at home.’

‘The smell of hops and Arthur Brown in Neros’, offered Viva Girl, and I was just about to ask what Arthur smelled like when Grange Girl said, ‘I had a long conversation in the parking shop today about what happens to recycled batteries.’ This was quintessentially Grange Girl for sure, but was it typically Lewes?

‘I was able to tell them about batteries in great detail, plus recycled milk bottles.’

It’s not often I feel sorry for the people in the Parking Shop. Grangey is well-informed because she reads the council’s Waste & Recycling Link avidly. That is very Lewes: the fact that everyone (except Grange Girl) dutifully recycles their Recycling Link without reading it.

‘Walking to the Friday market and buying mud-covered vegetables’, Decaf Man contributed, ‘and lugging them home in a used plastic bag with spindly handles.’ Despite only having been there five minutes, the Friday market is already very Lewes. ‘Then having to go to Waitrose by car to get a proper amount of vegetables.’

I was writing up my findings in Costa when Hoxton Mum sat next to me with a big phew and ordered an almond Americano. ‘Just a quick one’, she said, ‘I’m very busy. What? What’s so funny?’

Beth Miller, 22nd September 2010. Published in

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Summer has ceased abruptly, reminding me of that Peanuts cartoon where all the leaves fall off the trees in one mighty ‘whump.’ As the mercury sinks so the mind turns to quintessentially autumnal questions: is it environmentally wrong to pop the heating on yet? Must I wear a jumper instead? Where in fact are the jumpers anyway? Oh please can I put the heating on? When then? All right, can you pass me the duvet?

September’s metaphorical back-to-school vibe is compounded this week by Thing Two’s actual start at school, a fortnight after everyone else for doubtless excellent reasons known only to reception teachers. So from Friday all my little chicks will have flown, and with a whump my seven years of the pre-school round will end. Gone, the familiar weekday routines: hanging out in an empty Grange, watching Thing Two make mud pies amongst the primroses; performing resistance tests on playground equipment; wiping apple juice off our seats in Neros; trotting round the shops when they are quiet.

I think we might have outstayed our welcome in some of the shops though. This week Thing Two and I were told off in both Wickle and Bright Ideas. I like an independent shop as much as the next person (unless the next person is from Transition Town, in which case they win), but I do wonder if shouting ‘We love kids coming in here BUT…’ is exemplary commercial policy? Whereas boo hiss chain Costa has always greeted Thing Two and I with great warmth during the innumerable times we have repaired there for his favourite chocolate milkshake (till I discovered that a Frescato was essentially an enormous coffee with a hint of chocolate. Which might explain the bouncing around in Bright Ideas.)

‘What will you do with yourself when both Things are at school?’ is a question I have been asked a lot lately.

Grange Girl suggested I consider the small ads of Lewes News for day-filling ideas. I noticed she’d already ringed some: dolls house club, embroidery workshop, and singing for larks.

I thanked her, put Lewes News in the recycling and turned on the heating (the one cancels the other out, you see). To put a dampener on any further talk of embroidery, I then started to draw up a timetable of things to do.

Day One. Have bit of a cry, then get a grip. Go into Bright Ideas without incident.
Day Two. Fold his little clothes and have bit of a cry. Then get a grip. Go into Neros and spill own drink on seat to make self feel at home.
Day Three. Watch something on telly other than Ben 10. Then watch Ben 10 for old times’ sake. Have bit of a cry, then get a grip.
Day Four. Make mud pies in the Grange. Fail to cry.
Day Five. Forget I have children and arrive late for school pick-up.

Personally, I think the time will fly by.

Beth Miller, 15th September 2010. Published in and in Viva Lewes October 2010 magazine. Photo iStockphoto

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world

In lieu of a social life, Grange Girl has hobbies. She’s always embroidering cushions, or pasting faded Record Mirror articles into her scrapbook, or whittling toothbrushes. There’s never any tempting her out to a pub or party: she likes to keep a seemly distance from what she refers to as ‘the Majority of People’. She is interested in others, though. She’s even able to have a good gossip about her neighbours, based of necessity on pure speculation. I was round last week, sipping camomile while Grangey twitched the nets.

‘Here’s the Estate Agent’, she muttered, watching her neighbour go into his house. ‘Back early I see.’

I noticed an invitation on her mantelpiece. ‘Street party! Are you going?’

‘Good heavens, no. There will probably be people there. Ooh’, she raised her binoculars once more. ‘The Pashmina Woman’s going into the wrong house again. She’s having an affair with the Estate Agent. She’s always round there.’

I gave Grangey a brief lecture on the importance of human connections, of getting out and making an effort. She protested that she had plenty of friends (‘two is two too many’). But I spoke from the heart and felt I had impressed her.

Yesterday she summoned me in a state of distress, and I found her distractedly dusting her musical snowglobes collection, always a bad sign.

‘It’s all your fault’, she said, but as this is a normal Grange Girl greeting I just nodded and put the kettle on. After some fortifying sips of chicory – desperate times, desperate measures – she told me my homily had indeed induced her (‘against my better judgement’), to attend the street party, and thus enter a vortex of confusion.

‘He really looks like an estate agent’, she moaned. ‘And there was once a Lewes Estates van outside his house. But he was playing the guitar, and when I complimented him, he turned out to be a professional musician. I asked how that fitted in with selling over-priced houses, and he thought I was mad.’

I choked slightly on my chicory. Grangey said, ‘The Pashmina Woman kissed him in front of everyone! The brass front! Then I heard they’d just celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. They weren’t having an affair at all, and I’d got her house wrong.’

The most amazing thing about the story was such a long-term couple still kissing, but Grangey continued, ‘the woman with the baby is a single mum, though I was sure she was married to number 15; turns out he’s gay and lives at 28; and the policewoman is actually an aromatherapist but I saw her the night she went to a fancy dress party…’

Poor Grange Girl. She doesn’t like change. It takes her three months to adjust to Greenwich Mean Time.

‘They were all surprised to see me’, she said. ‘They thought I was a hermit.’

She drew the curtains, and took up her candle-making kit. ‘That was the only thing anyone said all night that made any sense.’

Beth Miller, 8th September 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wake you up in the middle of the night, just to hear them say...

The survivors lay scattered across the Pelham Arms, sleep-deprived, and dazed. Most wore visible scars of their tours of duty: bandaged wrists, bruised shins, plasters on foreheads. All were grateful for the company of others who understood what they’d been through. After a silent period of reflection, the recounting of war stories began.

‘You simply wouldn’t believe the people next to us’, cried Absent Minded Girl, knocking over her Crabbies ginger beer. ‘I said politely, would you not play any more Chris Rea, enough’s enough, it’s one in the morning. And they just laughed and turned it up!’

A collective shudder went through the troops.

‘Same at our site, only it was the Eagles till dawn’, winced DJ Mama. ‘I still have Hotel California in my head on a loop.’

‘You should have seen the so-called toilets’, said Eco Dad, taking a large gulp of babycham. ‘Like the Somme, they were.’ Eco Dad has a composting loo at home and his children were raised without benefit of nappies. For him to balk at a facility was really something.

‘Every damn year the same’, said Honesty Girl. ‘Smelly tents, crap food, joke showers, and worst of all, feral children up till midnight. To paraphrase Alan Bennett, camping means late nights, early mornings, and naff-all in between.’

Everyone nodded.

‘As Sartre said after a nasty experience under canvas with Simone de Beauvoir, hell is other people on a campsite’, agreed Pierced Boy. He had just returned from Shambala, and wore his bandages ostentatiously. ‘From banging the tent peg into my hand, to tripping over someone’s absurdly extended guy rope in the pitch dark, the whole thing was a non-stop ghastly cabaret.’

For Pierced Boy to resist a pun about extended guy ropes showed just how broken was his spirit. How different from his bravado a week earlier, when he’d set off with his pink dayglo rucksack chanting, ‘I’m gonna put the camp in camping.’

‘I’d high hopes for glamping’, muttered Hoxton Mum from behind dark glasses. ‘Posh tipi and proper beds.’ She shook her head in dismay. ‘You wouldn’t think yobbos with didgeridoos could afford to stay there.’

I was at the war council in an honorary capacity, as I don’t do tents, having had a sanity-shattering experience in a non-waterproof steel-framed monstrosity on the Pennine Way in 1991. But I’d spent this year’s holiday in a flat above a live-music pub, so I too had known suffering.

‘You’re going camping’, said Absent Minded Girl, ‘so why do you need an enormous electric guitar? Why? WHY?’ Shell shock was clearly setting in, so we gave her some prawn cocktail crisps and she calmed down.

The barman put on music, but everyone flapped their hands and shouted till he turned it off.

‘Good to be home’, said Eco Dad. ‘It’s so nice and quiet here.’

A barrage of fireworks went off close by, and we all ducked under the table.

‘End of summer’, sighed Cycle Girl. ‘Start of Bonfire Season.’

Beth Miller, 1st September 2010. Published in

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Won’t be long till summer time is through

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had panicking about not having enough polo shirts, and tomorrow
We shall have realising that the second-hand plimsolls are too small and
We will return to Happy Feet yet again. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. The summer holidays glisten like a long ago memory,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the packet of labels I ordered from Easy 2 Name. And this
Is the dusty sewing box from under the bed. This is the needle and this is the thread
And this is the Mummy who is good at sewing,
Which in your case you have not got. It is too late now to discover that
Easy 2 Name also sell iron-on labels,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the pile of little grey trousers and here are the tiny navy jumpers
And surely anyone who fits into these is too small for school. Please do not let
Anyone see me having a snivel as my fingers stumble over the needle.
It should be quite easy to walk them to the gates and watch them fly. The children
Already at school are strong and brave, never letting anyone see
Any of them having a snivel.

And this you can see is the lunch-box. The purpose of this
Is to house nutritious homemade food which will be swapped for crisps. The lunch-box
Has its own label because like everyone else we bought the Bart Simpson one:
We call this doing our best. And rapidly backwards and forwards
All the other parents wash and sew and name and label.
They call it doing our best.

They should improve the shoe labels for it is not easy to press them
Inside the stiff black leather. The labels stick to fingers and table and everything
Except the insole, and we decide like our mothers before us to use an indelible pen
Which in our case we have not got; but a biro will do well enough and anyway
By the end of the day all the children will know whose is whose and what is what,
For today we have naming of parts.

Beth Miller, 19th August 2010. With apologies to Henry Reed. Published in and Viva Lewes magazine, September 2011

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I see your true colours shining through

‘Typical’, huffed Hoxton Mum, sipping her skinny macchiato. ‘The one time something exciting happens in Lewes, and I was stuck in bloody Tuscany.’

‘Good holiday was it?’ I asked, idly watching as Things One and Two carefully emptied hundreds of sugar sachets into Hoxie’s handbag. So nice to see them working on a project together without bickering.

‘Rotten. The coffee wasn’t even as good as here.’ Hoxie waved her hand round Costa’s, her boycott of Bills having been extended to Café Nero and Baltica. Nero’s due to people with laptops hogging the best tables, and Baltica because ‘the mirror in the loo makes me look like my mother’.

‘And I couldn’t relax by the pool because every two minutes someone sent me a tweet or text about this Sunday Times business. Maddening, it was.’

‘Maddening to be accused of unthinking racism?’

‘No, maddening to be so far away from the action. Anyway, the article specifically excluded DFLs from any such accusation. Which is only right. After all, back in Hoxton I won plaudits for my sensitive direction of Hox-Dram’s culturally diverse production of My Night with Reg.’

‘Hard for the children’, I said, thinking of the youngsters mentioned in the article.

‘Yes, indeed. Poor Django: he had nightmares that everyone would be talking about it on his return and him quite clueless. Thank heavens I had my Blackberry so he could Facebook his friends and keep up.’ She smiled, basking in the glow of her superb parenting.

Django and Lysander joined us. Lysander had been charged with supervising his son’s hair-cut in Avant Garde, but had clearly drifted off, for rather too much of Django’s pink scalp was revealed.

Hoxie squealed in horror. ‘Lysander, what have you done? He looks like a Black Shirt.’

‘It’s not that short’, Lysander blustered. ‘I didn’t notice them getting the clippers out.’

‘Just pop into Brats why don’t you, get him a Ben Sherman and some Doctor Martens and your job’s done’, Hoxie said hysterically.

Thing Two looked up from his sugar work and said rudely but accurately, ‘Django’s ears stick out.’

I hastily apologised to Django and reminded Thing Two of our rule that all personal comments must be run quietly past me before being relayed to a third party. This rule has been enforced since the time Thing One asked a very large gentleman if he was pregnant.

But Django leaped to his own defence. ‘You can’t say that about my ears, it’s racist.’

This gave us all pause.

‘How so, darling?’ Hoxie asked her earnest little chap.

‘If you say anything about someone’s appearance it’s racist. It said so in that newspaper.’

‘Hmm’, said Lysander. ‘There’s going to have to be a certain amount of education all round in the wake of this business.’

Hoxie picked up her bag. ‘Lord, this is heavier than I remember’, she sighed. ‘How apposite: as with the burden of kids, one’s load never seems to lighten.’ And off she went to her yoga class.

Beth Miller, 18th August 2010. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, September 2010.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You must realise, smoke gets in your eyes

Turning the corner of Church Twitten, I came upon a sinister figure huddled against the wall, hiding something with their arm. ‘Glue sniffer’, I thought immediately. You can take the girl out of Essex but I didn’t spend all those years dahn the Bitter End in Romford without knowing an Evostick abuser when I see one.

Then the hoodie-wearing yobbo turned round and I realised it was my good friend, Village Postmistress, sneaking a crafty cigarette.

‘Blimey, there really is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide in this godforsaken town’, she cried, and made to grind her gasper underfoot.

I stopped her, and soothed: ‘No need to conceal your addiction from me, particularly given your commendable ability to quote Martha Reeves and the Vandellas under pressure.’

Village P sank gratefully against the wall, and we sat together companionably while she did that sunken-cheeks deep inhaling thing that desperado smokers do.

‘Everywhere I go’, she rasped between drags, ‘there’s some accursed goody-two-shoes who knows me. “Ooh” they say, all smug, “still smoking are we?”’

Trouble was, VP had given up very publicly last year, accessorising her entire body with visible nicotine patches.

‘Obviously I can’t even think about smoking in the small outlying village in which I reside and serve the community in my capacity as postmistresses’, she said, all on the outbreath of a plume of smoke. ‘I have to drive to Lewes and skulk in alleyways like a criminal. Even so, you’re the sixth person who’s caught me today.’

It’s tough being a lung-hacker in the crowded south-east at a time of high moral disapproval. VP would have enjoyed hanging out at the Bitter End during the late eighties. You weren’t allowed in unless you had a cigarette permanently dangling from your lips. Alex Higgins, god rest him, and Hilda Ogden were our role models. Hilda still is, really: I don’t smoke any more but I like to wear my curlers in public.

I asked VP if she’d noticed the recent smokers’ backlash. In the last week alone, Marco Pierre White had been seen rakishly puffing a cigarette in his new Maresfield pub, while militant ash-fan David Hockney smoked openly at Glyndebourne.

‘It’s all very well for bad boy chefs and painters’, she sighed, stubbing the butt against the ancient flint wall and lighting another. ‘Pillars of the community like me don’t have that option.’

A man walked past and said, ‘Hello Postie. Still on the coffin nails are we?’

VP made a most un-pillar like gesture at his retreating back. ‘I’m too well-known here. I’m going to have to start commuting to London for nicotine relief.’

‘Apparently’, I said conversationally, ‘you can still smoke in the pubs in Alderney.’

She looked eagerly at me. ‘Is that the town near Chichester?’

I didn’t like to tell her it was even further than the Big Smoke.

Beth Miller, 7th August 2010. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine January 2011.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Oh I want the truth to be said

Sometimes the quotidian round gets you down.

‘How are you?’
‘Looking forward to the hols?’
‘Oh yes, can’t wait!’
‘Isn’t the last week of term fun?’
‘Absolutely! So many super school events requiring my presence!’

At such times, it’s refreshing to have an encounter with Lewes’s own superhero, Honesty Girl. She doesn’t wear a cape or mask - at least, not in public - but she does fearlessly hunt down chirpy small-talk and bring it to its knees.

‘How goes it, Honesty Girl?’
‘Bloody awful.’
‘How was sports day?’
‘Appalling. In the mummy’s race I Zola Budd-ed some woman to save face. Then I puked at the finish line.’

At the end of term, when one stares horrified into the six-weeks abyss, Honesty Girl’s bracing pessimism can be just what one needs. However bad you have it, she has it worse.

‘Got plans for the holidays, Honesty Girl?’
‘Hell yeah. Case of Smirnoff for me and wall-to-wall CBeebies for the kids. Sorted.’

Occasionally, though, one wishes to be surrounded by what Hoxton Mum calls ‘positive energy.’ At the school fair last weekend, Thing One was riding a horse – a new innovation, both for her and the school – and her cries of terror gave way to cautious smiles. Incidentally, have you noticed the one-upmanship of school fair attractions? We had quadrupeds, another school had a homemade bread stall. What’ll it be next summer, helicopter rides and Sumo displays? Anyway, Thing Two was also happy, researching how many chocolate crispie cakes you can cram in at once (answer: five). I was wafting round in a broad-brimmed hat and suddenly felt quite Stepford-Wives-ish. In a good way. You know, like everything was perfect and organised and clean. Well, not Thing Two’s chin, but everything else. Trying to savour this unfamiliar feeling, I chatted to Hoxton Mum, who’s always channelling Nanette Newman, and we were throwing back our heads and laughing, when Hoxie hissed, ‘Look out! Job’s Comforter approaching, three o’clock.’

We dived behind the white elephant stall, which will doubtless feature real elephants next year, but too late: Honesty Girl stomped towards us, dust cloud above her head.

‘Isn’t this a nightmare?’ she said. Our smiles faltered, but we attempted to keep aloft the illusion of marvellousness.
‘It’s simply lovely’, I cried.
Honesty Girl stared. ‘I need some of whatever you’re on’, she said. ‘I’ve had sponges chucked at me because the headteacher’s refused to go in the stocks. My brats have taken my last twenty quid to buy sackloads more plastic tat. I’ve eaten a fairy cake with icing so virulent it’s taken out my filling. And I just stepped in some manure.’

There was a wail from the playground, and with a sense of inevitability I watched Thing One fall off the horse with a thud. My hat blew away in the wind, and Thing Two wiped gooey rice crispies into my hair.

‘It IS ghastly, isn’t it?’ I said, and Honesty Girl nodded happily.

Beth Miller, 21st July 2010. Published in

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chirpy chirpy tweet tweet

Is it commendably laid-back or annoyingly affected to be a late adopter of technology? It’s well known that, while people under ten can work any gadget instantly, most adults judder to a techno-halt around their mid-forties. Except Stephen Fry.

The sticking point for my mother’s generation was the video-recorder. I don’t even mean programming it, but rather, the entire concept of watching something that’s not on telly right now. I have older friends who have managed to move onto DVDs without realising you can pause and re-play bits in True Blood featuring Eric.

When I replaced my Mum’s stereo recently, it had to be a deleted model with a tape-deck and buttons big as side-plates. But even so it remains unused, other than as an interesting new object to dust. ‘I don’t want to break it’, was her defence. ‘If I have to listen to music, I’ve got this’. She wound the gramophone handle and I listened to Our Gracie banging on about aspidistras, while Mum caught up on some light dusting.

I fondly imagine I am up on newfangledness, but suspect I resemble those sad dads with south-facing hair who pretend to like Dizzee Rascal. Just today I had the following conversation, which shows what a modern hipster I am:

Pells Boy: ‘So I got a dondle. I don’t suppose you know what that is.’
Me: ‘Why, yes I do, fine sir. It’s a portable thing you put in the thing and then you don’t need to bother with the other thing.’
PB: Speechless with admiration.

I understand Facebook, iPhones, podcasts and blogs. Compared to Grange Girl, who persists in referring to the ‘interweb’ and thinks Blu ray is a type of fish, I am like Maggie Philbin from Tomorrow’s World.

However, and this is where I am heading, and I’m sure you’re only too pleased to be offered a signpost, even at this late stage: till now I have considered Twitter to be my video-recorder. Twitter is where I veer away from the fast-moving information highway, muttering about how pointless it is when one has email and texts and feather quills. And Viva Lewes, bless it, has been right there with me, a fellow journeyman on that dark and overgrown one-track lane to social network exclusion.

Then last week, I discovered that Viva was ‘on Twitter’. In addition to a sense of betrayal, my overwhelming emotion was irritation. Now I would have to put my glib prejudices to one side. As no-one likes to give up their glib prejudices without a fight, I essayed a last few: Who cares what I had for dinner? Who gives a fig what colour shirt John Cleese is wearing? Isn’t the name Twitter super-annoying, and aren’t the people who use it just Trying Too Hard?

Then I gave in, and got tweeting. It was easy. I keep a six year old child about the house for this kind of eventuality, and she showed me how to use it.

Beth Miller, 14th July 2010. Published in

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oh, it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you

We were crouched grumpily behind a bush.

‘I can see Tony Benn’s elbow’, said Grange Girl, squinting up at the library. ‘Ooh no, hang on, it’s someone else’s.’

We’d been prevented from closer proximity to the statue-unveiling action, on the grounds of not being important enough.

‘Hardly in keeping with Tom Paine’s equality for all, is it?’ muttered Pells Boy.

Feeling disenfranchised – if only a radical pamphleteer would come and mobilise us! – we repaired to Laporte’s and sat in the glorious sunshine, sipping cordial.

‘Nearly missed making my own elderflower cordial this year’, Grange Girl said, laughing at her own craziness. ‘There was a run on citric acid. Got the last tub in town from that little chemists up the road. The pharmacist recommended I add orange zest to my usual recipe.’

Photographer Girl laughed. ‘I love Lewes.’ She’d not long moved here. ‘When we lived in Brighton and I tried to buy citric acid, everyone assumed I was a junkie and sent me away.’

‘What do junkies want with elderflower cordial?’ Grange Girl asked.

‘They mix citric acid with heroin to make it more injectable’, said Pells Boy. Adding, into our raised eyebrow silence, ‘so I’ve heard.’

‘And there you have the difference between Lewes and Brighton in a nutshell’, said Photographer Girl.

‘Or in a dessert spoon’, said Pells Boy.

‘Every morning I give thanks I’m here, not there’, Grange Girl said, remembering her own, rather implausible Brighton stretch with a shudder.

From down the street came the sound of distant clapping: presumably the statue being revealed.

‘Brighton of a weekend is crammed with marauding hen and stag parties’, said Photographer Girl. ‘And fifteen year old Goths being sick on the pavement.’

‘Lewes of a weekend is speckled with elderly gentlemen in Glyndebourne cummerbunds, and middle-aged couples gasping at the prices in Lewes Estates’ window’, I contributed.

‘Don’t you sometimes worry though…’ Pells Boy stopped.

‘If the sentence you have wisely self-censored includes the words dull or complacent, feel free to borrow my spare citric acid and start an exciting new life in the big city’, said Grange Girl.

Pells Boy became very interested in the ice cubes in his glass.

‘I know what Pells Boy means’, I said, ‘were he allowed to have finished his thought.’ I’m not scared of Grangey. Okay, I am, but I was inspired to speak up by almost having seen the elbow of that old tea-drinking firebrand.

‘Don’t you ever miss the thrill of Brighton?’ I asked Photographer Girl.

‘Lewes is just as exciting’, she smiled. ‘In a lower-key kind of way.’

Tony Benn walked past. I thought I heard him say to an aide, ‘Get me on the first train to Holland Park, lad; can’t handle the pace here.’

‘Crowds will have gone’, Grange Girl said, standing up. ‘Let’s check out the statue.’

‘Ooh yes’, we cried delightedly, and hastened to finish our drinks.

Beth Miller, 7th July 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oo-hoo, everybody’s talking ’bout the new kid in town

‘I’m really liking this hip new Lewes’, said Hoxton Mum, raising a blue and white patterned cup to her lips. ‘This Lewes 2.0’.

‘What are you on about?’ I looked round to try and pinpoint the source of this newness. Sure, we were in Baltica, which had only been open a few weeks, but I couldn’t see what was so 2.0 about it. We were there because Hoxton Mum had put a temporary veto on Bills, her habitual hangout, owing to a recent skirmish over the amount of tapenade in a goats cheese and sunblushed tomato panini.

Hoxie waved the July issue of Viva at me. ‘Have you not seen this?’ She flicked through the pages. ‘Hush-hush cinema? Can’t believe that’s come here. We used to go to Secret Cinema in Shoreditch.’ She sighed. ‘Happy days. Even though we saw rather a lot of Andy Warhol films. And lookie here: this Hollywood red carpet thing with cabaret and burlesque.’

I scanned the magazine. ‘It seems to be taking place in the bus station, Hoxie.’

‘Yeah, totally edgy. And then there are all those parties down at the Zu Studios.’

‘What parties?'

Hoxton Mum, Cycle Girl and Absent-Minded Girl exchanged little smiles.

‘I tell you’, Hoxie went on, delicately slurping her Polish soup, ‘Lewes wasn’t gritty and cool like this when I first moved here.’

‘That was less than two years ago’, Cycle Girl pointed out.

‘So? That’s a lot longer than plenty of people who think they own the place. Why, there’s a mum at Django’s school who’s still unpacking, and she keeps banging on about the creeping gentrification of the High Street. There’s another family who have yet to sign the contract on their Wallands house, and they’re already big in Transition Town.’

I asked Cycle Girl how long she’d lived in Lewes. ‘Ten years. Practically a native.’

Absent-Minded Girl spilled tea onto her shoes but didn’t notice. ‘We’ve been here six years but of course, we’ve got cousins in Brighton so we’re as good as indigenous.’ She might be a bit vague but she knows some big words.

‘I’ve been here since 2005’, I joined in, ‘But we were in Barcombe before that for seven years and that counts double. And we used to come to Brighton on holiday when I was a kid, so I’ve basically always lived here. Apart from twenty years in Essex.’

There was a silence.

‘How long’, asked Hoxton Mum quietly, ‘do you have to live here before you’re accepted as a Lewesian?’

‘Ten years’, said Cycle Girl.

‘Six years’, said Absent-Minded Girl.

‘Three generations’, I said.

‘Anyway’, said Cycle Girl, ‘the correct term is Rook, not Lewesian.’

‘I knew that’, Hoxton Mum said quickly.

Then Born and Bred Boy walked past, saw us sitting at the window table and came to join us.
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked.

‘Nothing’, we chorused, in agreement for once.

Beth Miller, 29th June 2010. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, August 2010.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The people on the bus go up and down

‘Trouble is, car parks cost a fortune’, he said. ‘Especially that North Street one. Hell, last time I was there, I went, “Mister, I don’t want to buy the building, just pay for a couple hours parking”. And do you know what he said?’

‘We don’t have to go in a car, we can get the bus’, I replied.

‘Well I won’t tell you what he said, you being a lady. And don’t get me started on the train.’

‘I wasn’t. I was talking about getting the…’

‘Because Brighton station is nowhere near where we are going. No. Where. Near. And if you think I’m walking more than twenty yards in these shoes, fuggedaboutit.’

‘Whereas the bus stops almost right outside…’

‘So how the hell will we get to the theatre, hmm?’

‘I don’t know. Hey! What about the bus?’

‘Never heard such a crazy idea.’

Planning a theatre trip to the Big City with my dear friend, Pierced Boy, is fraught with complications. He won’t see anything too experimental, or too staid, nor, in defiance of the stereotypes, anything with music (‘unless Bette’s appearing.’). Then it has to be a matinee, as his evenings are fully booked. At last, he agreed to Oscar Wilde’s Salome at the Theatre Royal, largely because of the publicity material: ‘Contains strong scenes that may offend’.

I hadn’t thought our mode of transport would also be contentious. I love the good old 28/29 bus. I used to catch it every day, amusing myself en route by watching the old man conducting an imaginary orchestra at the front, and by eavesdropping on baffling conversations (‘Barcelona is another one.’ ‘Oh, absolutely; appalling vertigo.’) And by running a private sweepstake regarding the length of the journey. The bus timetable makes stick-a-pin-in guesses as to arrival at Churchill Square, not factoring in (a) the random time the bus departed from Lewes (b) the award-winning roadworks outside B&Q and (c) how long the driver takes to pop in for a pee at the depot.

Pierced Boy was unconvinced. ‘Don’t you remember Margaret Thatcher? “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”’

‘Surely that would encourage you to take a bus? Anyway, you don’t look a day over 25.’

Flattery works. We were soon on the top deck of a 28. P-Boy was enthralled. ‘It’s so cheap! And you can look out the window and see who’s got a bald spot.’

We had a terrific time at the show, being enjoyably offended by the strong scenes, but got separated in the crush on the way out. P-Boy sent me a text to say he had, bravely, got on a bus by himself. I caught one shortly afterwards.

Two hours later, my phone rang.

‘Fell asleep. Did you know, the 28 goes all the way to Tunbridge Wells? Think I’ll take in a little light shopping while I’m here. Then get a cab home.’

Beth Miller, 16th June 2010. Published in Photo by Alex Leith