Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I'm still standing

After the long, hard winter it’s going to be a bumper spring: flowers and birdies and whatnot bursting out all over. So say the Met Office, and they’re never wrong. You can already see, in the Grange Gardens, the first signs of the sap rising. There are daffs, and cute purple crocuses, and those regimented rows of primroses the poor gardeners are contractually obliged to plant each year by the megalomaniac Primrose Consortium. Young people in their black school uniforms lie snogging on the damp grass. Grange regulars step delicately over them, clutching their thermoses, for the café won’t open for a little while yet. And ladies of all ages roam uncomfortably, for the toilets, too, are not yet unlocked.

Hoxton Mum and I basked on a sunny bench, watching our small boys battling the Forces of Primrose Evil, armed only with destructive urges and large pointed sticks.

‘Where’s the nearest loo?’ I pondered. At present, it was merely an idle enquiry, but would doubtless become less theoretical at some future axis. ‘Kings Head’, I continued, ‘They’d probably let me use theirs if I buy a bag of crisps.’

‘Alternatively’, said Hoxton Mum, rummaging in her bag, ‘You could borrow my shewee.’ She showed me a pink plastic funnel which came in its own velvet bag.


‘It’s a portable device for women so they can stand up and…’

‘Yes, I get it.’ I glanced round. Two women were frowning in our direction, and I felt a surge of embarrassment, but they were just glaring at Thing Two and his flowerbed redesign. That’s all right then. I turned back to Hoxton Mum.

‘Where on earth did you get it?’

‘Lewes Outdoor Shop.’


‘It’s the most marvellous invention. I bought it last year for Goodwood. Frankly, the facilities there… well honestly.’

I looked at Hoxton Mum with new interest. She sat calmly, sipping coffee from her Burberry flask. In her chic outfit and spiky heels, she was the epitome of whatever a shewee woman is not. I confessed my surprise.

‘It’s hygienic and convenient. No more ruined shoes. And it’s totally empowering. Look!’ She opened her Stella McCartney jacket to reveal a t-shirt in suffragette colours of silver and purple, emblazoned with the legend, ‘Stand up and take control’. Then she said, ‘Blast. Chipped a nail.’

I put the lid on my thermos. Too much tea.

‘Are you telling me, Hoxie, that behind the majestic trees of the Grange, women - including you - have taken to micturating in an upright position?’

‘Quiet, the children can hear you.’

The situation was now less hypothetical and more pressing. I stood up, though only as a precursor to perambulation, and not as a, well, stand, against biology. ‘Can you keep an eye on Thing Two?’

I tried the Kings Head, but being only 9.30am, it was shut. I returned to the Grange. Hoxie handed me the little bag, and a disinfectant spray. I chose a suitably broad-trunked tree, and disappeared behind it.

Beth Miller, 24th March 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine, March 2011

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Don't Runaway

Walking past the station the other day I ran smack into Aging Lad holding a placard. You could have knocked me down with a, well, a placard. Lad protesting about something? Never. Other than the lack of presentable totty down the Volly. I picked myself up off the pavement and studied his sign.

‘Don’t Go Runaway’, it read, obliquely.

‘Think there’s something wrong with your grammar, there, old chap’, I said.

Lad explained that National Rail, or whatever they’re called, were thinking of replacing the Runaway Café with some other eaterie.

‘They can’t do that!’ I cried, outraged. ‘Dear lord, please, not a Lemon Tree.’

The Runaway is my most favourite Lewes landmark. In fact, when I started writing a column for Viva all those years ago (I’ve just checked and it was 2009, seems longer), the very first one was a love letter to the Runaway.

‘I’d be gutted’, Lad agreed. ‘Vic’s always good for a spot of romantic advice along with the bacon sarnie.’

‘Why are you the only one protesting?’

‘Got here a bit late. I’m doing the lunch shift while the others have scrambled egg downstairs’.

He shifted the placard awkwardly. ‘It’s quite heavy. Would you mind holding it for a sec while I, uh, tie my lace?’

I fell for it, and was soon protesting by myself. I decided to put more welly into it than Lad, who’d just stood there sheepishly with the placard held dangerously low. I raised it above my head and started shouting, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’, and other snappy chants. The taxi-drivers seemed impressed and joined in, bibbing their horns and yelling, though I couldn’t catch the words. A few passengers asked me what was going on, and were appalled to hear the rumours. I couldn’t help noticing that they were all clutching lattes from Costa Coffee.

When the two real protesters returned from lunch, they suggested I send a concerned email to comments@southernrailway.com, which I promised to do. Then I popped down to Platform 2.

In the Runaway, Classic FM was playing something soothing. Fresh flowers adorned the tables. The usual elderly lady was sipping absinthe in the corner. All, as ever, was calm.

‘Is it true, Vic?’ I asked, trying not to weep. You start dabbing your face with a tissue in that place, you get Trevor Howard leaping over tables to poke you in the eye, and I wasn’t in the mood.

Vic ladled milk into my tea. ‘It’s not over till the fat lady sings’, he said. Classic FM rather annoyingly chose that moment to sample Beth Ditto in the middle of a Beethoven sonata, but Vic switched to Radio 3.

‘I’ve written a poem’, he said, handing me the tea. ‘Let us raise a cup of good cheer/ for the Runaway to still be here!’

Here’s hoping, Vic.

Beth Miller, 16th March 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Everything's a-ok, friendly neighbours there

‘Only in Lewes’, beamed Grange Girl. Last week she had hot-rodded into a neighbour’s car, leaving a small scratch. Lukewarm-rodding, really. She left a written confession, but days later her neighbour popped an answering note through her door. ‘Don’t worry’, it said. ‘Car already very scratched.’

Compare and contrast to my experience a few years ago, in North Wales. When a teenager up the road crashed into my car, her terrifyingly butch mother – a dead ringer for Biffa Bacon’s Mutha – paid me a visit, and strongly recommended I take it no further. As she knew where I lived.

Oh to be in Lewes, now that car pranging’s here.

In Small Pleasures Avenue, good neighbourliness is de rigueur. The night we moved in, some people we’d never met before brought us supper. In return, during the Big Snow, we sledged in supplies for less fleet-footed neighbours. Even the people we didn’t like, Mr and Mrs Very-Cross, had the decency to move away last year. There’s a street party every summer, and we know each others’ names. I couldn’t help but wonder: was this a Lewes thing?

Apparently not, for when I mentioned my theory of The Lovely Neighbours of Lovely Lewes to Absent-Minded Girl, she snorted espresso out of her nose. ‘A scary woman lived next door at our last place’, she reminisced. ‘She’d take her fourteen year-old girl to the pub, and later they’d have loud arguments about the unsuitable man the daughter had brought home.’

‘In Lewes?’ I said, shocked.

‘Yes. And before that was the completely silent family, who lowered their eyes and blushed whenever they saw us. It made me slightly uneasy about what they’d heard. They would shush us through the party wall.’

Cycle Girl chipped in. ‘The woman we bought our house from moved directly across the road. She kept coming over to complain about the changes we were making to her beautiful home. I had to resort to bringing skips in under cover of darkness.’

Even Grange Girl soon lost her warm glow from the scratch being scratched. The chap on her other side, Nosey Neighbour, had pointed out that her bird-feeder was almost empty. In lieu of getting a life of his own, he has taken to providing a running commentary on hers. ‘See you’ve been shopping’, he says, cleverly, when she comes home with Waitrose bags. Or, ‘I notice your geraniums need de-clumping’ after one of his regular over-the-fence surveys.

‘One wants neighbours to be friendly, yet distant’, mused Grange Girl. ‘To feed the cat when you’re away and check you’re not dead if they haven’t seen you for a while. But not to comment on your drinking habits if they see you put out a wine bottle for recycling.’

She pulled the kitchen blind down to obscure his face. ‘I’m going to scratch his car tomorrow, and not leave a note’, she said. ‘He needs something more to occupy him than the state of my guttering’.

Beth Miller, 10th March 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com. Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

For a town with a reputation for resisting development, there’s actually quite a lot of change going on in Lewes. I don’t mean the big attention-grabbing changes, like the railway land improvements or the knocking down of twitten walls, but those little everyday things which inspire nostalgia for a dreamy distant past, when the Harveys was warmer and old ladies cycled to communion, cricket bats under their arms.

Or in fact, the not so distant past. ‘It’s SO annoying’, said Aging Lad, describing how he had to park many metres from his destination. ‘I remember when you could drive down the Cliffe and park right outside the shops.’ Well yes, Lad, I wanted to say. Even you, with your addled brain should be able to recall last year. But all the others started chipping in with their own freshly minted nostalgia. ‘It’s such a shame having to buy school uniform on-line’, said Absent-Minded Mum, ‘do you remember that shop that used to sell it?’ Everyone looked thoughtful. ‘For goodness sake, people’, I cried, ‘Wards! It only closed a few months ago.’

‘I never bought uniform there, anyway’, said DJ Mama. ‘Not when you could get cheap knock-offs from, oh, what was that place called…?’ How quickly they forget. ‘I think you’re talking about Woolworths’, I said, thin-lipped. This, of course, precipitated the inevitable discussion about how much everyone missed the pick-and-mix and how they’d bought their first seven-inch single at Woolies, so I went away to bang my head against a wall for a brief yet reviving period. When I returned, they’d moved onto the next stage of the debate: how there’s no longer anywhere to buy plastic toys. ‘There used to be another toy shop, you know’, Pells Boy was saying, to incredulity all round. ‘No, really. Where Oakleys is now.’

I left them to it and walked down to Waitrose (‘remember when it was Safeway?’). I bumped into Cycle Girl and had a little moan to her about reminiscence-mongers, but she started doing it too. ‘It’s restaurants for me. I really miss Thackerays; and though I had a nice meal in Shanaz last night, I did hanker after that plastic foliage they used to have that dangled in your dhansak.’

She then moved on to bemoaning the demise of the guitar festival. I legged it before she could tell me about Richard Thompson’s last great set.

Then, in the chilled aisle of Waitrose, it happened to me. I asked an assistant where the little Innocent smoothie cartons had gone – smoothies being as essential to the well-running of a middle-class Lewes family as unleaded is to their Renault Espace. She informed me they were no longing stocking them. I swayed slightly in front of the cabinet, and found myself saying, ‘But I remember when you used to have them, just here, in four different flavours.’ It made me long for a nice sit-down and a cuppa in Artisan, but of course, it’s not there anymore.

Beth Miller, 3rd March 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine, April 2010.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Television man is crazy saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks

What’s the matter with young people today, eh? Well, if it’s a good enough opening sentence for the Daily Mail it’s good enough for me. On Saturday I encountered three different buskers along the Cliffe. Outside Forfars a boy no older than thirteen accompanied himself on guitar as he sang surprisingly accomplished Beatles covers. They weren’t copies so much as interpretations, which as a purist I normally can’t condone, though obviously I make an exception for Brian Sewell’s masterly version of ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ (or rather, ‘I Want To Be’; Brian would never use lazy colloquialisms). Yet as the lad re-imagined ‘She Loves You’ as a melancholy torch song, I found myself clapping my hands on the off-beat, as once did Princess Margaret at a Beatles Royal Command Performance.
On Cliffe Bridge sat two young women, aged about fifteen perhaps, though I’m lousy at guessing ages, they could have been fifty. In careful harmony they sang ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone’, which even the X Factor would reject as too uncool. Then at English Passage another young man played olde Irishe annoyinge jigs on a violin.
Surely these young people should be off being menacing instead? If you believe what you read on the internet – and I do, faithfully - you’d think Lewes was overrun by marauding hoodies, who shove old ladies into the Ouse or run them over with souped-up Ford Escorts. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but whenever I patter along the pavement, clapping in time to some inner beat and doing my best impression of a gin-soaked raddled old royal, young people scurry to get out of my way. I’ve always found them to be very polite whenever I’ve approached them for a favour, such as to get something down from a high shelf, or remind me who the Prime Minister is again.
When I returned from an appointment an hour later, all the buskers had all gone. Swept off to reformatories I imagine. The only musicians still playing were an elderly jazz trio. I tried to clap on the off-beat but they threatened me with the sharp end of a double bass, on the spurious grounds of distracting them. So rude, these older people.
The young builders, currently bashing the ceiling over the room I’m writing in, are also unflaggingly respectful. I don’t know what they’re teaching in building school these days. Shouldn’t they be sticking Nuts pin-ups over the house and saying ‘It’s gonna cost you’, if I so much as offer to make them a cup of tea?
The worst thing that’s happened so far is having to listen to them singing along to the radio. I don’t think Brian Sewell would approve of their listening choices. Only a minute ago one of them warbled, ‘Your sex is on fire’. I tapped on the ceiling with a broom and said, ‘Long as it’s not my flue, young man.’
They’ve gone pretty quiet since then.

Beth Miller, 23rd February 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine, March 2013