Monday, 27 January 2014

The Town Stentor

A couple of weeks back - the date doesn't matter much - I was browsing the books in one of the half dozen or so charity shops in town. It was unusually empty; the only other folk were a shop assistant and an elderly lady with a youngish man in tow. I know assumptions can be wrong, but I took him to be either a carer or solicitous nephew. The two of them were sorting quietly through the quite large selection of music CDs on offer when, without warning, the elderly lady, with a voice like a foghorn, asked the question:


I think the shop assistant was as taken aback as me.

'Erm, not unless it's there on the shelf.'


'I don't know. Only if they're there on the shelf.'

Solicitous nephew, in an attempt perhaps to curtail these stentorian interrogations, said,

'They've got The Batchelors.'


'It's a compilation album.'


This attempt at engagement didn't last long.


But the elderly lady didn't wait for the answer. She had decided to change tack. She asked solicitous nephew,


'Yes, I have.'


'It might not be the same Alvin...I don't remember him being armed.'

I could happily have listened to this all day, but I had things to do.

A couple of days later I was in the bank, and there they were again; elderly lady and solicitous nephew. I arrived to witness the tail end of her transaction.


Solicitous nephew: 'Here it is, look.'

The long suffering counter clerk put on her best smile.

'Thank you, madam,' she said.


I haven't seen either of them since. I'm hoping they're no longer stalking me.


Stop press: I encountered stentorian lady and solicitous nephew again in Sainsbury's on Thursday. Mrs H was with me. Now she knows that this blog post isn't a work of fiction.

Stop stop press: I found a CD of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture in a different charity shop today.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Hamingjusamur Nýtt Ár

A happy new year to you from East Sussex, where it's blowing a gale and the rain is coming down like stair rods. All in all, the weather has been pretty awful all over the holiday period, with high winds and torrential rain, with only a brief respite on Christmas Day. Nothing else for it but to batten down the hatches and open another bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine.

This year sees the end of all the work at Hale Villas. Over the last five years we've had walls and ceilings plastered, the kitchen gutted and refitted, installed new doors, windows and a fire escape, had new fireplaces installed and old fireplaces (circa 1907, found behind some boxing-in) moved. I've decorated twelve rooms, some of them twice or three times, and laid a lawn in what used to be a concrete garden. During the last month the whole place has been oak-floored and carpeted, which has had the effect of making the house feel much warmer and cosier. I've only got a couple of small jobs left to do.

Now the house is just about done, I may well have more time on my hands to indulge in other pursuits. Do a bit of writing, perhaps. Finish the script for the sitcom 'Pardon my Jaguar'. Finally learn to play the melodeon. Teach myself to speak Icelandic. Only time will tell.

Happy new year.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Don't drink and trombone

We cracked open a bottle of co-op wine today. It carried a cautionary note on the label: 'If you drink, do not drive, operate machinery or play sports.' But curiously, there was nothing on the label advising you not to play the trombone. Who writes these warnings?

Life goes on pretty well as normal here at Hale Villas. Walls have been painted, floorboards replaced and redundant garden plants have been uprooted. There seems to be a never-ending round of tasks that need completing. When we viewed the house in 2008, I somehow managed to convince Mrs H that 'it's just cosmetic; a lick of paint here and there will do the trick.' Four years and a twenty gallon lick of paint later, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And this time it's not an oncoming train.

Fatsia Japonica. Sometimes called the false castor oil plant, it has big, glossy leaves not unlike a fig, and a tendency to grow into a monster. And this is what it did, very quietly, in an unregarded bit of the front garden. By the time we decided it ought to go, it had grown almost out of control, with a trunk that would have done justice to a reasonably sized tree. So, I set to work, snipping, sawing and digging. And during the course of these activities, it seems I grazed my leg on the plant. I thought nothing of it until, a couple of days later, I found my leg had started to blister. And over the next couple of weeks, the blisters got bigger and nastier, eventually necessitating a trip to the local 'NHS Walk In Centre'.

Now, I don't know if you've ever been to a Walk In Centre. It does what it says on the tin. You walk in, you give the reception your name, you sit down and you wait. And wait. And wait. And after four and a half hours of waiting I was ushered into the doctor's surgery. The doctor wasn't particularly chatty. I think he'd been probably been planning a day on the golf course, but received a phone call at 7am, telling him to get into work sharpish as his colleague had gone sick. So you can understand his unwillingness to engage with yet another time wasting patient too hopeless to self medicate and too bone idle to look up the symptoms on the internet. He poked and prodded at my leg a couple of times, then said, 'And what do you want to happen?' I was rather surprised by this question. I thought for a minute, then replied, 'Actually, I'd quite like this dodgy leg thing to go away.' Eventually the doc wrote me a prescription and I toddled off. Not the best encounter I've had with the health service.

That was a few weeks ago. I'm still taking the tablets, but the scars are still there and I'm pretty sure they will be there for good. But at least I can dance again (albeit some of my fellow dancers might disagree). And I do my level best to keep a healthy distance between me and the nearest Fatsia Japonica.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Bampton Bells

Yesterday was Whit Monday. My generation and older still remember it as Whit Monday. Sadly, this old, traditional name has been quietly shelved, replaced with a corporate-sounding Late May Bank Holiday. Historically, Whitsuntide was a time for celebration, when feasting, ale drinking and games took place on the village green. And, fortunately for all of us, there is a place in the Cotswolds where Whitsuntide still means something.

Bampton is an impossibly pretty Oxfordshire village, just a few miles from Brize Norton RAF station. Lockheed TriStars and VC10s scream overhead, competing with the robins and blackbirds that proclaim their territories in the old churchyard. The houses are of honey coloured stone with neat gardens and stone troughs overflowing with cottage flowers. Business is brisk in the four pubs (there used to be sixteen) in the village centre. And if you listen carefully, you can just hear the jingle of morris bells. For it's Whitsun in Bampton, and Whitsun means The Morris.

By all accounts, they've been dancing in Bampton for four hundred years, albeit the first mention was in 1847, when the Reverend Giles complained that the quality of dancing wasn't what it used to be. Back in those early days there was only one morris 'side'; now there are three, and all of them dance the distinctive 'Bampton' tradition. I got chatting to a couple of local youngsters, who told me there had been a 'falling out' many years ago which resulted in the original side splitting in two and going their separate ways. They likened the event to the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, where a previously homogenous group of freedom fighters split into The Judean People's Front and The People's Front of Judea. Whatever, happened, the (now) three sides happily coexist.

The members of the Traditional Bampton Morris side are scattered to the four corners of the kingdom. But they regroup the night before Whit Monday to practice and revise their dances. On the Monday morning, dancing starts at nine sharp and follows a well worn route through the village, and includes the back gardens of some of the houses. I'm told that the deeds of some of these ancient houses require the owners to give access to the dancers, and, in at least one case, insist that the householder supplies the (always) thirsty dancers with ale. There seemed to be a great deal of support from the locals. In some places, to be dressed as a morris dancer is to attract sideways glances or ridicule. Indeed, to admit to membership of a side in those places would be akin to admitting a spell in a psychiatric hospital. But not so in Bampton. They take their morris dancing seriously. 'We have to do it,' I overheard one dancer say, 'It's the tradition'. And in a world where home grown Tradition is seen as an anachronism by people who would happily travel thousands of miles to watch Russian folk dancing or listen to a Balinese gamelan band, it's a tradition I'm happy to see continuing (judging by the number of young dancers I saw) into the next generation.

Dancing continues until 6pm, at which time other morris sides, which have travelled to Bampton by special invitation, join in the festivities. This year I and my associates of Long Man Morris were one of the sides fortunate to be invited, and we were pleased to dance our own Wilmington Tradition in the village square and outside the aptly-named Morris Clown public house.

Bampton's a long way from Seaford; around a hundred and forty miles and a six hour round trip.  So, why did I go? To be part, if only for a few hours, of a centuries old tradition. The world turns. Generations come and go. But in Bampton, there will always be The Morris.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Nuclear winter comes to Seaford

The woolly hats and scarves have been retrieved from their box on top of the wardrobe. The coal scuttle has been filled and the kindling wood carefully chopped. The hatches have been battened down and additional oil filled radiators bought. And why all the preparation for an apparent trip to the arctic? Sadly, I have to report that the central heating boiler is dead.

To have no central heating is to be plunged back into the middle ages. There's something truly medieval about waking to a freezing house; to go out into the cold streets to run whatever errand, and know you're returning to a fridge. It also puts me in mind of my childhood. Back in the 50s and 60s, no-one except the very wealthy had central heating, and we didn't think it that odd to be able to see our breath condensing indoors, or scrape ice off the inside of our old, wooden-framed, single-glazed windows. Back then the only warm place was under the bedcovers, and somehow we seemed to survive it all. But now we appear to be less able to cope with feeling cold. Modern life is all about control, so we think we should be able to control the temperature of our houses. Not being able to do so makes us feel terribly insecure.

But Christmas is just around the corner. In fact, it seems to have been just round the corner for months now. You can usually tell it's Christmas when the annual John Lewis TV ad appears. This year it features a snowman making a long and difficult trek across a snowy country landscape to a town, and returning with a hat, gloves and scarf for what I assume is supposed to be his snow-wife. The whole thing was shot in New Zealand and apparently cost millions. But I have some problems with it. If I leave aside the obvious issues (ie the fact that a snowman is made of snow and has no functioning body parts or organs that would permit locomotion), how does he manage to negotiate the inside of a department store, and then both choose and purchase a set of accessories? Are we to believe that, in his local town, there are shops that specialise in selling things to snowmen? How are negotiations conducted? How is payment made? Is there a Snow Dollar or Snow Pound somewhere in the economy?

And another thing. Is the bonfemme de neige meant to be his wife? Their facial expressions (if they can be thus termed) certainly seem to suggest it. But what if they were fashioned from snow from the same drift? Would that not mean that they were, if fact, blood (or water) relatives; more brother and sister than husband and wife? Y'see? A simple TV ad about a couple of anthropomorphic snowballs opens up a whole can of worms. Frozen ones.

I write this on Monday evening. A log is blazing cheerfully in the grate. There are two as yet unopened sacks of coal outside. The central heating engineer can't come until Wednesday. For the first time this week, for some reason, I'm not overly concerned...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Twelve months of giving. Give me strength...

It's Movember. And no, that isn't a spelling error. Movember is a registered charity, dedicated to raising awareness of male cancers (testicular and the like). Participants are expected to start the month of November clean shaven, and then spend the entire month growing and grooming a moustache. No beards or goatees allowed! The 'Mo' (for that is the correct nomenclature of the putative moustache grower) collects sponsorship money from willing donors, all of which helps to support research into testicular and prostate cancer. And a very worthy cause it is, too.

But perhaps November shouldn't be the only month to be renamed in support of a charity. Another eleven months are going begging, just gagging for a suitable group to adopt them. Now, let me see...

Jamuary - when the Women's Institute encourages the making and selling of preserves as a means of fundraising.

Phlebruary - the month for giving blood.

Marchpain - in aid of depressed dyslexics who are apt to confuse marzipan with diazepam.

Aperil - dress as a monkey to raise cash for animal charities.

Maybe - a time when the terminally indecisive think about charitable giving. Or perhaps not.

Jooon! - in aid of those damaged by excessive watching of sitcoms starring Terry Scott.

Julycanthropy - to support people who think they might be werewolves.

Smorgast - providing cold snacks for those poor unfortunates that live nowhere near an Ikea store.

Syruptember - wearing a badly made bright red wig (with a chin strap) to highlight the plight of those who cannot afford a decent hairpiece.

Socktober - reuniting socks separated at birth with their siblings.

Distemper - funding the whitewashing of dogs. For some reason best known to the organisers of the charity concerned.

Perhaps I should mention that there is a premium rate phoneline for those affected by this blog post. Oh, and a translation service for our American cousins who haven't the faintest idea who Terry Scott is. Or what a Syrup might be.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like...rubbish

Today's good news: the breakfast room is finished. The hundred and five year old cupboard doors have been dipped, stripped, undercoated and glossed. The rotten old skirting boards have been chucked out and replaced with shiny new ones. And the walls have been plastered, sized and papered to within an inch of their lives. Needless to say, Mrs H (chief paster of wallpaper) is quite pleased with Mr H (paper-hanger-in-chief). Tomorrow the pictures go back up, then that's the lot for this year. We wind down (or possibly up) towards Christmas.

Those of you who have (sort of) followed this blog for a while will have noticed the less than subtle changes that have overcome it as time has rolled on. The first Director General of the BBC, Lord Reith, famously stated that the purpose of the organization was to educate, inform and entertain. Whilst not seeking to make any kind of comparison between a part time council employee cum morris dancer and the First Baron Reith, I started blogging around four years ago in the (I now realise) mistaken belief that I could, perhaps, aspire to some of those lofty Reithian precepts. How dare I presume attempt to educate you, my dear, but admittedly very small, audience! You, who, I am sure, already knew the recipe for recreating Roman fish sauce. You, who have probably written more poems in emulation of Sir John Betjeman than I have had hot dinners. You, who have been made far sicker than I by far worse repasts than a tub of jellied eels.

But at least, at the outset, the blog had a sense of purpose. Over the intervening months and years, I have to say, sadly, that this sense of purpose has fallen away, to be replaced by what I can only describe as stream of consciousness drivel. It is the equivalent of an inebriated tramp, weighed down by supermarket shopping bags filled with old newspapers, muttering softly to himself as he shuffles along a poorly lit alleyway in a corner of a sink estate in south east London. In the rain. And I'm not going to do it any more. Well, not much.

 Perhaps, now I have some extra time on my hands, I should find something useful to do. Like learning Anglo Saxon. Or drinking wine. Or perhaps doing both together. Perhaps I could finish my partially completed sitcom, 'Pardon my Jaguar', or even 'Postman Pat's Bloody Day', a post-apocalyptic (geddit?) view of a Royal Mail employee in Cumbria...