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