Sunday, 23 August 2009

Where have all the brand new combine harvesters gone?

Isn't it funny. You live somewhere for years and your life assumes a regular pattern. You get up, you go to work, you do the shopping on the same day and at the same place every week. You swear to yourself, when I retire I'm going to break all of my routines. So, here I am, one year and six days after retirement...and blessed if I haven't got into a new kind of routine!

Sunday has become Dump Day. There's barely a week goes by when I don't have a car full of stuff to take to the Cradle Hill Recycling Centre - AKA The Dump. This week it was carpets. I must, of course, praise the generosity of the former occupants of this house in leaving the carpets for us. Sadly, however, those carpets were, shall we say, a little less than perfect, covered as they were in interesting single celled organisms, and languishing in the loft. They were also possessed of an interesting aroma; you could probably use them as an air freshener if you lived at the centre of a sewage farm. I'm hoping that the leaving of the carpets was not an oversight on their part, and that I'm not going to get a visit from the previous owners, asking for them back. I'd have to come clean - something that the carpets would never do, even with a generous dose of napalm - and I would also have to admit to disposing of their interesting collection of damaged house bricks.

That was the dull bit of the Sunday routine. After that was the bit I like best - wandering into town to get the papers. I always go via the beach to see what interesting stuff the tide has thrown up. There wasn't much this morning; some seaweed, a few bits of old rope, some driftwood that wasn't worth taking home to use on the fire...but on the positive side, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sea was sparkling, and I had the place almost to myself. I could quite happily have stayed there all day but, as we have a couple of friends popping in this afternoon, this would have seemed churlish. So, home I went.

As I turned into the road in which I live, I noticed an elderly gentleman, sitting on a low window sill opposite the baker's shop. Nothing remarkable about that, of course. Seaford is full of elderly ladies and gentlemen having A Nice Sit Down; they've got it down to a fine art. But, as I passed this particular elderly gent, he started to sing Where have all the flowers gone? And he sang it in tune with a strongish voice; not in that curious, quavering way that many elderly folk have. He would probably have been around twenty one years old when the song was released. This led me to speculate on what tune, should I be fortunate enough to reach the age of seventy-odd, I myself could sing whilst having A Nice Sit Down on that rather commodious window sill. Mamma Mia, by Abba? Perhaps. Save All Your Kisses For Me, by Brotherhood of Man? Maybe. But, on balance, I think the winner by a short straw has to be Combine Harvester, by the Wurzels.

I love these Old Classics.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Warning No. 2 - Contains nudity, sex and swearing

So if you are easily offended, please look away now.

'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls', it's been said. And it was to Brighton that I betook myself the other day, intending to have a mouch round the shops. And mouch I did, in a very slow and idle manner, rather characteristic of Brighton itself. The short walk from Brighton Station to the North Laine area (one of the more interesting bits of the city) is rather dull, characterised by employment bureaux specialising in the hiring of medical staff, second-hand shops dealing in old banknotes, stamps and model railway bric-a-brac, and rather seedy-looking newsagents selling unpronouncable Polish beers, but the traveller is ultimately rewarded, of which more later.

Just before you arrive at North Laine, and almost opposite the Cuttlefish Organic Hairdressers, you encounter a rather dour-looking building on the way there called The Galeed Strict Baptist Chapel. In what way is it strict, I wonder? Does the minister with his carefully-tonsured chin beard and black stove-pipe hat look daggers at any latecomers as they sneak into the back of the chapel? Or do they take a fierce delight in having the temperature of the baptismal pool close to freezing point? Or does the congregation indulge in an orgy of tutting every time a gaily (without connotation) dressed individual saunters past? In any event, I wasn't about to find out, so I toddled on to the shops.

I suppose North Laine would describe itself as 'trendy'; possibly 'off-beat'. It's certainly that. It contains a myriad of small shops that provide more quirky goods, services and foodstuffs than you can shake a shamanic fortune-telling stick at. Do you want to buy a 'Bananaman' t-shirt? Have yourself tattooed? Get a tarot reading? Toast the fine weather in a glass of wheatgrass with added guarana (I thought that was the stuff seagulls are always depositing on my car...or is that guano)? Or even buy some vegetarian shoes? Then North Laine's your spiritual home. And if you should get the urge to dress as a pirate, a parlour maid, a burlesque starlet, complete with tassels, or even a bumble bee, the necessary items can be found in this small area of Brighton.

At this point, I'm afraid I have to express a rather childish delight in the variety of greetings cards to be found in North Laine. Clearly at some point, a group of tanked up students got together round a table littered with lager cans and empty KFC boxes and said, 'Now, what can we do to offend the maximum number of people?' and came up with a variety of ideas: a doctor, white coated and stethoscoped, exclaims, 'Here's my diagnosis - you're a wanker.'; another card notes, 'You're a genius! Pity you're such an arsehole...'. There were many other cards of an equally diverting nature, but I would blush to repeat them here...

Having had my fill of North Laine, I took a walk across Old Steine, past the Victoria Fountain and War Memorial with its sadly green and stagnant pool of water, and into St. James' Street, Kemp Town. Now, Kemp Town, the brochures will tell you, is home to Brighton's gay 'community'. I'm afraid I have always felt rather uncomfortable with the notion of splitting the population into separate 'communities' - The Bengali Community, The Chinese Community, and so on - it's something the media does all the time, and creates the assumption that every member of that 'community' thinks/feels/acts in the same way. Clearly not so. Within the 'gay community' (which makes up around a quarter of Brighton's population) there must be Conservative and labour gays, lesbians who like a drink or who have chosen to be teetotal, gay men who collect stamps, spot trains, hate Judy Garland. Anyway, be that as it may...

Kemp Town has a village feel. Most of the shops are small independents; the cafe, the barber, the Bona Foodie grocers. I wasn't sure whether this latter shop was Italian owned, or whether this 'Bona' was Polari for 'good'; Polari was a kind of slang devised and used by gay people in the 1960s, when homosexual acts in private were still a criminal offence and gay people needed a means of communication that excluded 'outsiders' - rather like cockney rhyming slang. A good example of Polari can be heard on Round the Horne, a 1960s radio programme in which comedian Kenneth Horne would converse with two gay men - Julian and Sandy - who dusted their conversation liberally with Polari. In my naivety (be fair...I was only ten years old!) I just though Julian and Sandy were two men who spoke funny. Sadly, I didn't meet either Julian or Sandy in Kemp Town; but I did encounter some curious incidents. I saw a woman carrying an English bull terrier. Then, moments later, I saw another woman carrying an English bull terrier. At this point, I thought 'perhaps it's some kind of fashion statement. Either that or there's a ban on dog leads'. But my latter thought was confounded moments later when I saw a gentleman out for a constitutional with another gentleman...on a lead. I saw a newspaper bill-board with a headline one could only find by the coast: 'Body found near crazy golf course'. And, in a gay greeting card shop, another of those cards that Brighton seems to specialise in: 'It's not homophobia - everyone hates you'. Many of the shops were flying rainbow flags; and this, coupled with the area's quietness after the roaring traffic in Old Steine, meant I felt as if I was in some small independent country; a kind of gay Vatican City within the City of Brighton. But without the Swiss Guard or the nuns.

Nor were there any nuns in Brighton Museum. But there was a pair of breeches (fifty two inch waist) belonging to the Prince Regent (later George the Fourth), worn during his sojourn at the palace better known as the Royal Pavilion. Apparently, 'Prinny' had a hatred of the new-fangled trousers that were becoming fashionable around 1810; so much so that he banned trousers from Court until 1815. It's believed that Prince George's dalliances with sundry ladies was emulated by his hangers-on at the Brighton Court, which led to Brighton becoming a magnet for those intent on affairs, sexual encounters and 'dirty weekends'.

The dirty weekend has become a bit of a standing joke; all rather Max Miller or Carry On. In less enlightened times teenagers would turn up at Brighton B and Bs on a Friday night, claiming to be 'Mr and Mrs Smith', but very rarely fooled the Dragon in the shape of the Seaside Landlady. Back in the 1930s, men who wanted to divorce their wives would rent a room in a Brighton boarding house, and pay a chambermaid to 'discover' them in bed with a prostitute. These days, the dirty weekend is all but defunct. One academic noted that 'people no longer come to Brighton for a dirty weekend; they move to Brighton to have a dirty life'. Interestingly, Brighton Museum also has a small glass case that details the Dirty Weekend. Amongst the treasures it contains are a couple of telephone box 'flyers'. The first features a buxom young woman exhorting us to 'lick my melon's'; clearly a crime against punctuation. The second exclaims, 'Transexual - tits and tackle - twice the fun all in one,' which I'm afraid rather left me lost for words. Not a common occurence.

I was still deep in thought when I arrived at the entrance to The Lanes, Brighton's jewellery and antique corner. But all this changed when I saw an elderly, bearded gent, sitting on the pavement, surrounded by little bits of origami that he was trying to sell for a few pence. I was both pleased and surprised to see him. I thought his business had folded.

Oh, and the chap who said, 'Brighton is still very gay and full of balls'? It was poet Samuel Rogers, speaking in 1829.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Warning - Reading this may produce eye strain

The scaffolders turned up out of the blue yesterday to take down the superstructure that has covered the house for the last three months. Mrs. H and I were just returning from a trip round the shops and a sneaky lunchtime drink, when we noticed scaffolders swarming all over the front of the house. Sadly, they didn't take it all down; there was insufficient room on the lorry to carry it all away. But they've promised to come back later this week and remove the rest of it. I won't hold my breath...

Despite the recession, I would imagine that scaffolding companies probably don't do too badly. Our burgeoning Health and Safety culture means that most traders will refuse to do anything above first floor level without scaffolding. Time was when roofers would scramble up a ricketty ladder, run up the tiles and onto the apex of the roof, whilst eating a cheese sandwich and smoking a roll-up. But all that's changed. Perhaps we should start advertising for native Americans (or, more specifically, Mohawks from the Kahnawake reservation) to do the high stuff. It's said they were employed in the USA to build skyscrapers as they had no fear of heights, although it's more likely that hopping around steel girders hundreds of feet up was just an opportunity to display the same sort of bravery they exhibited at ground level.

In the UK, Health and Safety legislation has more or less put paid to the old-time tradesman's ability to take calculated risks. Way back then, workers like the common or garden roofer knew instinctively what was safe and what wasn't. He wore the right gear for the job; knew how slippery or otherwise the slates or tiles were; and had a good enough notion of his ability to climb or balance. But now, the law decides what is or isn't safe, and ensures that you or I have to stump up huge amounts of money for scaffolding whenever we want so much as a tile replaced. But I'm not complaining.

So, how did Health and Safety take over the world? How have we wound up with a world where bags of nuts display the legend 'contains nuts'? Where a teacher is forbidden from putting an Elastoplast on a child's grazed knee in case the little treasure is allergic to it? And where a police force that shall not be named (oh, alright, Northumbria Police!) is planning to dispose of its £200,000 fleet of motorbikes because the police officers riding them are "particularly vulnerable to collision"? I'm really not sure, but the Health and Safety gurus would probably say that 'It's all about protecting the public'. So, if we are only now living in a world where we are well-protected from hazardous chemicals, poisonous foods and unguarded machinery, how the hell am I still here? Let's look at the evidence...I'm 54 years old. When I was born in 1955, polio and whooping cough were still common. At school I rubbed shoulders with kids who had measles and chickenpox (and managed to catch both simultaneously), and took part in rough playground games. I ate and drank things that were far less strictly quality controlled than foodstuffs are now, and totally failed to wash my hands. I travelled on buses and trains, literally surrounded by 'strangers' who hadn't been checked out by the police. And I'm still alive.

But I'm only joking. I'm grateful for Health and Safety legislation. It means that the water I drink is unpolluted, that my food is mercifully free from rat droppings, that my gas boiler won't gas me. But, watching Seaside Rescue last night, it struck me that we are still unprotected from the biggest danger of all - ourselves. Seaside Rescue regularly shows RNLI lifeboat crews, lifeguards and Royal Navy Air Sea Rescue risking their lives to save members of the public who have put themselves in danger through their own stupidity, be it climbing crumbly cliffs, surfing in dangerous conditions, or putting to sea in imposibly small boats with no lifejackets, navigation equipment or skill in sailing. What amazes me is the professionalism and good humour exhibited by the crews as they rescue the umpteenth moron from a situation in which he has placed himself (or, indeed, herself). Don't they ever get irritated by it, like I do? Do they ever think, 'Oh no. Not another dopey townie who thinks he's Bear Grylls!'?

And another thing...the RNLI is funded entirely by voluntary subscription. Its lifeboat crews are all volunteers, who will put out to sea in all weathers. To the best of my knowledge, they have never refused to turn out, no matter how dangerous the conditions are. So why is it that paid members of the emergency services on land failed to prevent a man from drowning in 18 inches of water? Because the 15 foot embankment he had tumbled down after being hit by a car was deemed 'unsafe'...So, if you witness an incident at your local pond or stream, don't call the fire brigade or police; ask for a lifeboat.

So, what the hell am I on about? Not for the first time, I'm unsure. Perhaps I'm trying to say that I do not subscribe whole-heartedly to Health and Safety culture. After all, I've managed to live through six decades, most of them health and safety free. I've taken (and survived) calculated risks, both at home and at work, and maybe a couple of times I've done things that were stupidly dangerous. But I've never done anything daft enough to warrant a trip on an air sea rescue helicopter. So, how do we promote safety for all without burdening society with yet more laws? It's simple. It's my belief that every child, as soon as it is old enough to read, should be handed a laminated card bearing a single word - 'THINK'.

But I'd make sure the corners were rounded. After all, those laminated cards can be awfully sharp. They'd take your eye out...