Thursday, March 31, 2011

You can't always get what you want

‘I miss Wards,’ said Cycle Girl, squinting in the unfamiliar spring sunshine. ‘Do you?’
‘No, I don’t like hospital dramas. Not even keen on Nurse Jackie really.’
‘Wards the school uniform shop.’
‘Got you. I miss it too. Thing One needs a plain white PE t-shirt, but the closest I can find is pink with “cute cuter cutest” on it.’

Someone tripped over my chair. Yes, we were sitting outside Bill’s, but there was no need for them to call me that. I am not even posh.

‘Blimmin’ heck,’ said Sweary Mary, crossing her legs and kicking over a crate of apples. ‘You’re not banging on again about the flipping gentrification of the high street and the concomitant lack of basic goods and services therein, are you?’
‘I don’t know, I can’t understand what you’re saying.’
‘It’s very simple,’ said Hoxton Mum, swishing papaya juice round her glass. ‘Lewes is perfect for darling little pressies. For everything else, there’s the internet.’
‘But what about people who can’t access the internet?’
‘As they obviously haven’t got the money to shop anyway, it’s hardly a problem.’

With reasoning skills of that calibre, can the role of Big Society Tsar be far from Hoxie’s grasp?

‘Mind you,’ she continued, ‘I struggled to find a mid-price frock for the party Lysander and I are hosting.’

I was about to insist she define ‘mid-price’ for the comic value, when I realised I hadn’t been invited. She warbled heedlessly on: ‘It was either cheap tat or far beyond the absurdly restrictive clothes allowance Lysander deems sufficient.’

‘We used to have Next here, you know,’ said Cycle Girl.
‘I don’t think Next would have been quite right, dear,’ said Hoxie pleasantly. ‘I called in a London favour; Oscar sent me the most gorgeous little taffeta thing.’

The rest of us telepathically exchanged the message: don’t ask who Oscar is.

‘Blokes’ clothes are even trickier,’ said Eco Dad into the silence. ‘Especially if you want fair trade. I have to cycle to Brighton to get my tighty whiteys.’
Cycle Girl mouthed at me, ‘What did he say?’

There were now so many elephants lumbering about Bill’s Pavement - the identity of Oscar, Eco Dad’s smalls, Hoxie’s resemblance to Margot Leadbetter - I decided to launch the distracting ‘shops we used to have’ conversation.

‘Who remembers Roberts Electrical?’
‘I could have done with them last week,’ said Grange Girl, ‘when I wanted a lead to connect my iPod to the stereo.’
‘How have you even heard of an iPod, Grangey?’
‘Or a stereo?’
‘I am large and contain multitudes,’ Grangey said mysteriously. ‘Currys only sell tellies, so I had to shop on the interweb thingy.’
‘Okay,’ said Cycle Girl. ‘Quick list of things we can’t buy in Lewes.’
‘Cheap clothes.’
‘Shoes for the larger-footed lady.’
‘Electrical goods.’
‘Basic underwear.’
‘School uniform.’

‘Don’t worry,’ cried Sweary Mary, biting into a fallen apple. ‘We’ll be able to get almost all those things when the blimmin’ big Tescos comes.’

Beth Miller, 23rd March 2011. Published in Picture by Alex Leith

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Smelled the spring on the smoky wind, dirty old town

I used to be a right old snob about Newhaven, but since having kids I’ve become fond of the place. Its lack of gloss now seems the very opposite of unappealing. Pealing, possibly. And I don’t mean the paintwork.

When I worked in Newhaven ten years ago, there was only one sandwich shop for lunch. If you didn’t like it, and you probably didn’t, tough. Get you to McDonalds you whinging posho. I don’t know if the sandwich situation has improved, but certainly the town retains its bolshy realness. Unlike our own dear Lewes, it doesn’t care what you think. Take it or leave it, that’s Newhaven’s official motto. And plenty of people go for the latter option, such as the French teenagers who pitch up from Dieppe with their Serge Gainsbourg haircuts and leap straight onto the nearest charabanc to Brighton.

Of course, I love Lewes. I’m all for nice cafes and decent sandwiches and unboarded shop fronts. But gritty Newhaven is a great place to entertain kids because it has – implausibly - two major attractions. I’ve mentioned before my beloved Paradise Park. Where else but Newhaven can you find animatronic dinosaurs, a slightly dangerous rifle range, and a large garden centre, all under one roof, and for around half the price of Drusillas? So it doesn’t have ring-tailed lemurs and Thomas the Tank Engine. Pshaw! It has Koi carp and a darling little unbranded train in which you are encouraged to scream when going through tunnels.

This weekend we paid our first visit to the other amazing Newhaven site: the Fort, which has just re-opened. Like Paradise Park, at which you can inadvertently find yourself wandering aisles of watering-cans if you lose concentration, the Fort doesn’t entirely put its best foot forward. The car-park signs are vague; the dozy punter (ahem) can easily wander off in the wrong direction. The entrance to the Fort looks closed and you find yourself trotting up dead-ends and closed-off staircases before entering, as Banksy might name his sequel, through the gift shop. Once in though, the welcome is warm and friendly. The Fort, in short, is a metaphor for Newhaven itself: coyly hiding its charms, but full of surprising pleasures once you’ve penetrated its inner sanctum. I expect Playboy will hire me when they read that sentence.

We had a brilliant day at the Fort, and I learned a great deal about war. I didn’t realise, for instance, that Morrison shelters and Anderson shelters were two different things. I’m keeping hold of this information in case the topic comes up in conversation. Which I’ll make sure it will. I also didn’t realise how terrific the views are from the top of the cliffs, nor how nervous a fake air-raid can make a small child.

There are other Newhaven treats yet to explore: the Lifeboat Station and the Castle Hill Nature Reserve. And perhaps a drink in the extremely un-Lewes Drove Pub before we head happily home to Pleasantville.

Beth Miller, 16th March 2011. Published in Photo by Alex Leith

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

The Linklater Pavilion has become a running gag between Grange Girl and me. When she first described it, I made some admittedly half-hearted attempts to visit. But I could never find it. And each time I returned from a fruitless mission Grange Girl would say, ‘Oh, you were so close! If only you’d just turned around/gone the other way/ascended a small hillock.’

It started to attain the status of a mythical place, like Camelot or Plumpton. Last month I tried again, but was soon hopelessly lost in the Railway Land, squelching in mud. Cursing and slightly frightened, I managed to regain civilisation and an O2 phone signal.

‘Grangey,’ I said firmly, examining my ruined Manolo Blahniks, ‘Why don’t you just tell the truth? It doesn’t exist, does it?’

‘Oh, you were so close! If you’d just climbed a tree…’

I put the phone down on her. Since then, whenever Grangey tells me she’s been to some implausible Linklater event – to look at bees, say – I react as if she’s reporting a visit to Fairyland.

‘Nice, was it? Did the Queen Bee talk to you? Was she wearing a lickle crown?’

Grangey finds this so hilarious she literally grits her teeth with enjoyment.

At Christmas she went too far, buying my children certificates representing theoretical stones to decorate the imaginary Pavilion wall. ‘It’s pretend,’ I wailed. ‘It’s all in her head.’ Man of the House, dressed as Santa, agreed with me.

Last weekend Grange Girl took the joke to its logical conclusion, insisting that today was the day for choosing our stones. I went along with it, packing some Kendal Mint Cake and slipping into my Cath Kidston wellies. Grangey took us an incredibly long stalling way round: through the Convent Field and up Ham Lane, then along the Ouse for a mile or more. She pretended it was a nice walk but was clearly just wondering how to save face. I kept myself and Thing One well away from the river in case Grangey panicked and tried to get rid of witnesses. Then we rounded a corner and there was the Linklater Pavilion, a large imposing building that I couldn’t possibly have missed.

Thing One chose her stone – who knew that basalt was so interesting – and we looked round. It was charming. I was particularly taken by the ground floor, an unfinished area with rubble underfoot. A nice lady explained it would be left like that, ‘in case of flooding.’ At first this seemed simply a clever way of saying they’d run out of money but on reflection I saw the genius in it. I’ve already implemented this strategy at home, refusing to dust or tidy the ground floor ‘in case of flooding.’ Actually I’ve extended it to the second floor too, as you can’t be too careful.

I went back to find the Linklater Pavilion today. I wanted to show Man of the House. But it wasn’t there again. I knew it all along.

Beth Miller, 9th March 2011. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, May 2011. Photo by Alex Leith

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of Spring

I have broken Rule 243 of parenting. (For a copy of the complete rulebook send £14.99 to the usual address.)
‘For the last time, I don’t care what they say, March 1st is NOT the First Day of Spring!’
‘But Mummy! The teacher SAID!’
Rule 243 states: ‘Thou Shalt Not Disagree with Things Primary Teachers Have Told Your Child.’ There’s a clause which lists exceptional circumstances around creationism and sexism and whatnot but we rarely need to invoke this in Lewes.
Thing One’s nearly in tears, for I have brought Doubt and Confusion to her small teeming mind.
I try and restrain myself, force a smile and mutter, ‘We’ll have to agree to disagree won’t we,’ (which I completely don’t agree with), before I break rank and shout, ‘But everyone knows it’s the 21st March.’
Once Crèche Manager has arbitrated, rather poorly in my opinion, by telling me to grow up and by letting Thing One watch four episodes back-to-back of Chop Socky Chooks, I sneak off to confirm that I am correct. But Google is a horrible let-down. Apparently the 1st/21st argument isn’t new; as far back as 2006 Nicholas Winterton, Tory MP for Macclesfield, was taking up the cudgels in this debate. To my chagrin I realise I am on the same side as Winterton, and that it is the Met Office who have designated 1st March as Officially Spring. I frantically search for evidence that Winterton might know more about these matters than the Met. Is he perhaps a secret climatologist or hippy? But in amongst all his jolly activities such as supporting Section 28 and capital punishment, there is no mention that he likes to send up weather balloons, or even that he hangs seaweed from his window.
As penance I offer to take Thing One on a walk so she can be knowledgeable about the Signs of Spring and impress her teacher in a way that my playground ranting might have failed to do. There are many signs: the ducks are back on the Winterbourne Stream, there are purple crocuses most everywhere, and some trees have sprouted brave blossoms. Someone walks past with a plastic daffodil on their lapel and I try and engage them in Welsh but they hasten quickly away. Thing One rolls her eyes at me, a Sign of Teenhood I wasn’t expecting to see for a few years.
We go through the Grange: catkins, green leaves, mating frogs, (‘Come ON, Thing One!’ ‘But Mummy this is interesting.’). Then into town: Priory schoolgirls with bare legs, the road being dug up, Easter eggs in Waitrose.
‘There,’ I say magnanimously. ‘You and your teacher are right. It is Spring after all.’
But Thing One scrunches up her brow, clearly struggling to comprehend the bewildering nature of evidence versus anecdotal report. ‘Mum, if it’s Spring why is it still freezing?’
‘Well sweetie,’ I say, failing to hide my glee, ‘That’s something you’re going to have to ask your teacher.’

Beth Miller, 1st March 2011. Published in and Viva Lewes handbook, March 2012