Thursday, February 24, 2011

You say bananas and I say banahnahs

It’s another rainy day in Baltica – the rain’s outside, to be fair – and we’re discussing greengrocers, and how they’ve almost disappeared.

'When I were a lass,’ says Cycle Girl, ‘there were greengrocers everywhere. They had little signs stuck into the fruit which said ‘apples’ or ‘bananas’ for their slower customers.’

Born and Bred Boy says, ‘I remember before The Flood, when Bills was just a large scruffy greengrocers.’

‘The Flood starring Noah?’ asks Absent-Minded Girl, the sort of person who would benefit from those ‘apples’ signs.

‘Greengrocers used to bag up your fruit themselves,’ says Aging Lad. ‘None of this self-service malarkey.’ Lad, as his full name suggests, is getting on a bit. Probably used to date Mrs Noah back in the day.

‘The greengrocers at the top end of town still bags up your fruit,’ says Grange Girl.

‘Where?’ asks Absent-Minded Girl.

We all point up the road.

'You mean up at St. Annes,’ says Sweary Mary.

‘St Annes is just the church.’

‘No, it’s the whole blinkin’ area.’

‘I call it that bit where the butchers is,’ says Cycle Girl.

‘I call it Western Road, ’ says Aging Lad.

‘But that’ll never catch on, Lad,’ I say. ‘Because there’s a school called Western Road that isn’t in Western Road. So if you say you’re going to Western Road, no-one knows if you mean the school or the top end of town.’

‘To be honest, no-one cares where you’re going,’ says Aging Lad.

I hit him with one of Baltica’s fine painted teapots.

‘Born and Bred Boy should decide,’ says Grangey magnanimously. ‘After all, he does live up there.’

‘Top end of town,’ he says.

We huddle round a piece of paper to draw the boundaries. A small fight breaks out over whether it should begin at the Shelleys or Lewes Grammar, but after some rough work with the teapot we compromise on the bottleneck. It’s clearer where it finishes: at Morris Road Garage (which isn’t in Morris Road).

‘Not at the prison?’

‘The prison is in the next area along.’

‘Which is called?’

‘That bit with Baron’s Down Road in.’

‘That’s not a very slick name.’

‘You know what’s interesting about the top end of town?’ asks Grange Girl. ‘It’s small, but has everything a person needs. Pubs, churches, school. A greengrocers, chemists, butchers, takeaway, sandwich shop and an undertakers.’

‘And a paint-your-own-pottery place.’

‘Oh yes, that too.’

‘I’ve often thought I’d be fine if Lewes flooded again, but you know, much worse,’ says Born and Bred Boy. ‘I’d grab supplies from the shops and climb to the top of the Council tower. They’ve probably got water coolers, so I’d survive for weeks.’

We all think about that.

‘I wonder how I’d go if the Grange Road area flooded,’ says Cycle Girl.

‘That’s part of blimmin’ Southover,’ says Mary.

‘It’s clearly in Winterbourne,’ says Grange Girl.

‘You’d be stuffed, whatever you call it,’ says Born and Bred Boy happily, pouring another cup of tea.

Beth Miller, 16th Feb 2011. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, April 2011. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And I love you till my fountain pen runs dry

Last weekend I bumped into Honesty Girl, and asked if she too was going to Seedy Saturday.

She looked down her nose at me in a manner reminiscent of the great Edith Evans dismissing the very idea of a handbag (or for a more modern reference, the look on a Mexican’s face when discussing Jeremy Clarkson).

‘Good gracious no. It’s bad enough when the weather’s nice, but today…’ she gestured to the windy rain swirling round us. ‘No, today I’m going to buy up the remaining stock in Sussex Stationers.’

‘It’s such a shame, isn’t it?’

‘I’m gutted. It’s another blow; I was in a state for weeks when Pen to Paper closed. It’s a conspiracy, you know.’

‘Is it?’

She pulled me into a huddle and hissed, ‘They don’t want us to have the means of communication. Slowly they’re removing all pens, paper and chalk from the town.’


‘Then they’ll have us just where they want us.’

‘But we’ll still have email and texts and the internet, won’t we? Who are “they” anyway?’

‘Ssssh!’ She looked round wildly, and I thought significantly, in the direction of the parking shop.

‘The NCP? But why would they…’

‘Not them. Heavens! Say no more. Walls have ears.’

She straightened up and said in her normal voice, ‘Well, better go. I want twenty tubes of Pritt. Enjoy your… seeds.’ You sad little person, she didn’t quite add.

I never worry too much about the state of my friends’ emotional wellbeing. It’s their little foibles that make them interesting. So off I went in the rain to be seedy. But after a few swaps and some merry banter in the Grange my mind started to wander, becoming preoccupied with thoughts of nice crisp pastel-coloured card, fresh packs of Berol felt-tips and multi-coloured drawing pins.

Stationery unites people. You’ll find that if you confess a deep love of paper-based items, many others will reveal the same passion. My first job was in a stationery shop, applied for as a foot fetish might seek work in Russell & Bromley. I was not only allowed but positively encouraged to rifle through rainbow post-it pads and align packs of envelopes by size. I became something of an expert on posh pens, and once sold a solid gold Mont Blanc to a rich gentleman with no taste. I had to take it out of the safe, which remains the highlight of my working life.

News that WH Smiths have bought up Sussex Stationers brings some cheer, though we don’t yet know if they’re going to Smith it up, close it, or turn it into something un-stationery. Just in case it becomes a boutique, I went to the sale and bought a pile of notepads and a packet of chalk.

‘Look!’ I showed Honesty Girl at the checkout. ‘Now they won’t be able to stop me communicating.’

She gave me that Evans/Clarkson look again. ‘It wouldn’t hurt you, actually, to communicate a bit less,’ she said.

Beth Miller, 9th February 2011. Published in

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chill will wake you, high and dry

The second thing I saw after swishing intro Waitrose (the first was a special offer on turnips), was Hoxton Mum. Or rather, Hoxton Mum’s hairline: the rest of her was obscured behind a comically overloaded trolley. I immediately assumed she was having a party to which I wasn’t invited, and decided to ignore her. But she spotted me lurking near the leeks and yelled ‘COOOO-EEEE’ at volume. You could see a few old ladies wondering if they were allowed to hiss ‘shush’ here or only in the library.

‘Hoxie! Wow, that’s a lot of shopping. What you up to this weekend?’
‘Nothing much. Derek’s coming over for my lymphatic drainage massage, but otherwise there’s no point making plans.’
‘Isn’t there?’
‘Not if it snows, no.’
‘Is it going to?’
‘It might. It’s cold enough. Brrr!’ She did that rubbing arms thing that no-one cold really does. ‘Caught me on the hop last time. Won’t happen again.’

There were eight tubs of star anise in her trolley. Either she was making Vietnamese pho bo for thirty close friends or…

‘Hoxie, are you panic buying?’
‘Certainly not! Keep your voice down. I’m merely laying in a sensible array of provisions should we once again be marooned in our isolated shack for weeks on end.’

I don’t think Lewes Estates would recognise this description of Hoxie’s detached Wallands house, but I could hear the anxiety in her voice. Back in December she’d rung in a flap to tell me that Ocado couldn’t get up their street and how was she going to manage? I gave her my store-cupboard recipes (baked bean surprise; digestive biscuit surprise), but she was clearly shaken by the drying up of her usual supply lines of aduki beans and pomegranate molasses. I wasn’t about to judge her. I was the source of much ridicule in 1999 when instead of dancing to Prince I was obsessively rearranging the jars in my Millennium cupboard and wondering whether twenty-seven tins of tuna was enough to get me through the approaching apocalypse.

Panic-buying is one of those irregular verbs: I am laying in a sensible array of provisions; you are overdoing it somewhat at the checkout; they are panic buying. And indeed, a few people were clocking Hoxie’s trolley, picking up the words ‘snow,’ ‘panic,’ and ‘marooned,’ and exchanging glances with their loved ones.

‘We really should get some dried milk,’ I heard a woman say to her husband, and that seemed to be the signal. Dried milk is a code-phrase from Protect and Survive. Everyone started barging round, snatching things randomly off shelves and arguing politely with other shoppers.

‘Excuse me, I do believe I had the last Camembert.’
‘I don’t think so. Anyway, this Port Salut is just as nice.’
‘No it bloody isn’t.’

I turned to my friend. ‘Oh dear Hoxie, what have you done?’
‘Heavens,’ she gasped, dashing off with her precariously wobbling trolley, ‘I’ve forgotten to lay down some stocks of passata.’

Beth Miller, 2nd February 2011. Published in Photo by Alex Leith.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pretty in pink isn't she?

I’m enjoying the little bit of Essex glamour the new Nail Bar has brought to the High Street. It’s a shame the vibrant neon sign’s been removed, but I still get a frisson of old Romford Town whenever I walk past. I’ve walked past rather a lot, puzzling over the services on offer. ‘Pink and white?’ What is that? I can’t decide if it sounds charming, like marshmallows, or dodgy, an optional extra at a Hugh Hefner party (before he becomes married and respectable, obviously). But despite my vigilance I’ve not seen any Nail Bar customers yet. Probably the staff are rushed off their feet when I’m not looking, but whenever I peek in hoping to see Lorraine Chase having a French polish, there’s just the young man and woman who work there, desultorily doing each others’ nails.

I couldn’t help but wonder: if I’m not really a nail bar person, with my white stiletto pedigree, then who is? Is Lewes a nail bar sort of town? This is not to say that the women here don’t have fancy manicures, for they clearly do. Just look at their hands! No, not mine; mine look like they belong to a ninety-year-old fishwife. But look at the hands of those nicely groomed women over there. Clearly they’ve been tended to with more than a half-hearted scrub from a nailbrush shaped like a turtle. The well turned-out of Lewes get their nails done at the Still Room or one of the other beauty salons, while officially there for some other, less Chigwell treatment. Even Viva’s editor has had his nails done, though he pretended it was for journalistic purposes.

The Nail Bar joins the list of Shops I Haven’t Been In. Without naming any more names, there are certain places selling clothes, knick-knacks, antiques and books that have never emitted a loud enough siren call to entice me over the threshold. Some shops have a very explicit siren call incidentally, such as that one with the sign that says rather sweetly, ‘Have you been in here? It’s very interesting.’ I always want to reply, well, letme be the judge of that.

Everyone has their own set of shops that they use, and another set of shops they don’t, and often the reasons behind the not-going-in list are rather spurious. There’s an antique shop I don’t go in, for instance, not because I don’t need any more antiques (though I don’t – I can barely type this for all the Chippendale), but because there was once a scary tiger statue in its window. It’s long gone but I still think of it as the scary tiger shop. Hmm. Now I’ve written this down I realise I sound about six, but that’s the thing about shop allegiance. It’s kind of primal. I’m determined to fight these basic instincts though, and will shortly push open the Nail Bar door and demand a pink and white. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.