Saturday, 27 November 2010

Why I'm having more fun than anyone else

This post is long overdue. Long, long overdue. Every now and then it occurs to me that I should really knuckle down and get it finished. But something else always seems to get in the way. Just lately it's been yet more building work in the house. We've had a couple of walls knocked out in the kitchen, the ceiling re-plastered, and the bricked-up fireplace in the dining room opened up. Oh, and we've had new windows and doors put in and a shiny new fire escape installed. That's about it really. And in amongst all this I've managed to find myself a part time job, five mornings a week. Quite a lot to be going on with. And I'm still morris dancing.

Apparently, some years ago, someone said, 'Try everything once except incest and morris dancing'. Now, I had always thought that it was conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, until I discovered that he had said 'folk dancing'. After a wander through the halls of cyberspace, it appears that this phrase, or something like it, has (allegedly)been uttered by a good many people over the years. Politicians (Sir Winston Churchill); Writers (Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw); Renaissance men (Stephen Fry); actors (Woody Allen); philosophers (Bertrand Russell); composers (Sir Arnold Bax); all seem to have got in on the act. And even the 'model' Linzi Drew used the phrase as the title of her autobiography. You'll probably be pleased to hear that I've only ignored half of the advice given me by this positive gallimaufry of personalities.

Little did I realise, when I retired from my job back in August 2008, that two years later I'd be kitted out in knee breeches, bells, baldric and rop (that's what they call the spotted neckerchief, apparently), stepping out with Long Man Morris at various venues throughout East Sussex and beyond. And I have to admit, dear bloggy friend, that I find morris dancing curiously addictive. Only yesterday I was dancing Much Wilmington in a freezing car park in Polegate, and next week we'll be in Eastbourne and Alfriston (a pretty little village, and in Hailsham a week after that. So, why, when others are sprawled in front of their TVs, drinking wine and eating chocolate, do I put myself through what is to all intents and purposes a special forces style workout every week? Apart from the sheer enjoyment of the dancing (frustrating though it can be when I can't get the steps right), the motivation is acquisition of The Hat.

The Hat. Many morris sides wear hats. Some have bowlers. Others have bucolic straw numbers, with or without flowers attached. Ours has a black top hat, beribboned in the sides's colours of yellow and two kinds of green. And I'm not allowed to have one. Not yet, at least. Because I have to satisfy the Squire and the Foreman of the side that I am sufficiently proficient a dancer to merit the award of my badges. These badges, worn upon the baldric, are leather, and bear upon them our motif - the chalk hill figure (not to be confused with Tommy Hilfiger, which is something else entirely) known as The Long Man of Wilmington, from which the side takes its name. And until I have earned my badges, I may not acquire The Hat. Every now and then I will glance wistfully at an elderly top hat, sitting forlornly in an antique shop in Lewes or Brighton, and thinking how well it would sit atop my head. Or I might come across one upon the excellent website of the Vintage Shirt Company and think, 'if only...'

But I shall not tempt Providence by purchasing The Hat too soon. So, dear bloggy friend, it shall remain upon that antique shop shelf, gently gathering dust until, wavers (hankies to you) in my hands, I shall Bledington-step it up to the counter, impatient to exchange hard cash for a top hat that has (like me) seen better days.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Not a very happy anniversary

This post was to have been called 'Why I'm having more fun than everyone else'. However, something else has occurred to me and I hope, dear bloggy friends, that it will not prove uninteresting to you.

At around 5.34pm on Sunday the 25th October 1942, sixty eight years ago today, a single German aircraft flew low over the English Channel in order to avoid detection by radar, and approached Seaford, East Sussex, intent on a 'tip and run' raid. With machine guns blazing, it dropped four bombs. The first fell on Broad Street - the town's main shopping street - destroying two shops and flats, killing 85 year old James Gale and his 53 year old daughter Fanny, and wounding eighteen more people. The three bombs that followed exploded in Sutton Road, Sutton Park Road and Vicarage Walk. Bomb number two completely destroyed two houses, killing George Borissow and his daughter Kathleen, Jessie Andrew, George Farnes and Mary Willis. It also caused serious damage to a third house - the house in which I now live - and killed Kate Holcombe, who was sixty eight years old. The third bomb killed sisters Fanny and Mary Buck, Catherine Meeson and Sarah Smith. The fourth caused damage to several properties but fortunately only one injury. The last fatality was a 54 year old air raid warden named William Tomley who, whilst making his way to an ARP control point, was struck in the chest by machine gun bullets and killed instantly. Sadly, this was the third death in the Tomley family; William's two sons, who served with the RAF, had been killed in action earlier in the war.

Altogether, there were thirty seven raids on Seaford during the second world war, resulting in twenty three deaths, sixteen dreadful injuries and 2064 properties destroyed or damaged. Rather strangely, it suffered far more than the port of Newhaven, three miles to the west, which one would have thought to be a more likely target for Germany's bombers.

Eventually, the war ended and life in Seaford returned to something approaching normality. My house, solidly constructed in 1907, was repaired. The two houses next door, being too badly damaged for repair, were replaced by a small block of four flats. Kate Holcombe was laid to rest in Seaford Cemetery. Her name and the names of all Seaford's war dead were inscribed upon the memorial that still stands in Sutton Road...

Today was a beautiful autumn day in Seaford. A gentle breeze rustled the fallen leaves and the sun shone in a cloudless sky, its light glinting on the calm and unruffled sea. On such a day it is hard to imagine the fear and horror suffered by the residents of my home town all those years ago.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Why is everyone having more fun than me?

It's now just over two years since I walked out of my police station for the last time, and into 'retirement'. A good deal of choppy water has passed under the bridge since then, I can tell you. Protracted negotiations to buy the house of our desires, a family bereavement, the death of a close friend, a couple of job interviews that didn't result in a job, a shed load of work on the house to get it shipshape, and the seemingly endless search for a bottle of Briannas blue cheese dressing. The latter was eventually run to ground in Waitrose, Eastbourne, by the way.

One of the most difficult aspects of retirement for me is, potentially, being under Mrs. H's feet all day. When I had a full time job I'd sail off to work, leaving her at home to do whatever it was she did was working. Now, of course, I'm there all day, leaving teacups unwashed next to the sink, messing up the sofas by sitting on them, and basically just getting in the way and making the place look untidy by my mere presence. But I've found a novel way of combating this. I just go out of my way to find things to do around the house. Only small things, mind; a bit of painting here, some wallpapering there, a set of door handles to replace, a new mirror to put up. If there's nothing to do, I'll stride around the house with a purposeful air, toolbox in hand, whistling some tuneless ditty as I pretend to tighten screws or tap recalcitrant nails back into the floorboards. Mrs. H. thinks I'm doing something useful, I get to survey my dominion; we're both happy. Inevitably, however, there are times when even someone as inventive as I can run out of imaginary jobs. On days like these, Mrs. H. will signify that it is her wish to go Shopping. With a capital S. I recently had one such day. And I started it by making a child cry.

Mrs. H. and I had compiled a list of the things we needed. A new roller blind for the breakfast room; a light switch for the living room; a couple of pots of paint to replace the stuff I've been using this week. So, off we wended to Eastbourne, to an emporium of household accoutrements entitled Dunelm Mill. The first couple of aisles were taken up with bed linen - sheets, duvet covers, pillow cases. Curiously, pillow cases are divided into two distinct types; 'Oxford' and 'Housewife'. I have often idly wondered, just before dropping off to sleep at night, why this should be so. Were 'Oxford' pillowcases designed in Oxford? Did they originate in the colleges of that seat of learning in the fourteenth century? Or is there some other, more sinister explanation? And why 'Housewife'? Isn't that rather a pejorative term in these more enlightened days? Shouldn't they be called 'Non-gender Specific Homemaker' pillow cases? I said as much to Mrs. H. She told me to button it.

I left Mrs. H. to browse the linen aisles whilst I made a whistle-stop tour of the entire ten acre site that composed the rest of the store. Despite the size of this emporium, I had no fears that I would have any difficulty finding Mrs. H. thereafter. I was confident that I would find her exactly where I had left her, minutely examining the Egyptian cotton valances with the painstaking thoroughness of a forensic scientist. And I was proved right. When I eventually persuaded her away from the Percale duvet covers (whatever they might be) we hied us to the portion of the shop that sells inexpensive art. Now, I'm not sure why this is, but why does inexpensive art these days seem to consist mainly of black and white photographs of the Eiffel Tower and the Manhattan skyline? How relevant would these be if you lived in a house in Eastbourne? I wonder what Parisians and New Yorkers have on their walls? A monochrome picture of Eastbourne Pier, perhaps? Or maybe a print of Beachy Head lighthouse? Somehow I think not.

As I mused this great muse, I found we had wandered into Faux Flower Land. A vast array of pretend petunias, fake foxgloves and imitation irises bloomed all around us and, through the false foliage, I saw a shopping trolley containing a small child. This solemn child was watching me intently, as young children are wont to do, so, dear bloggy friend, I did what I am wont to do, and smiled. A sudden change came over the child. He burst instantly into a flood of bitter tears. His mother rushed to comfort him, wiping away his copious tears and asking him what was wrong. I said, 'I think that might be my fault. I smiled at him.' Well, of course, she laughed politely, and said something about the possibility he was 'coming down' with chickenpox, having recently attended a party with another child who had been subsequently struck down by said affliction. But secretly, I think she would have wanted to snatch up a bunch of those imitation blooms, and beat me about the head with them. I'm fairly sure the child would have laughed at that.

Mrs. H. eventually made a few purchases and we went home. Whilst she was pottering about the garden, I decided to log into the Hey! Everyone Here's Having More Fun Than You! microblogging site, otherwise known as Twitter. Now, we've spoken about Twitter before, so you know how it works. Sometimes, I vouchsafe my innermost thoughts to my 'followers' in 140 characters or less; at other times, I just see what everyone else is saying and doing. And this is when I discover they're having more fun than me. 'They' always seem to have just signed a book deal (every other person on Twitter describes him/herself as an author, artist, illustrator or similar), just that minute arranged a holiday in Tahiti (leaving in two hours!), be hanging out in an exclusive caviar and champagne bar in Knightsbridge, or are trying to get everyone to sign up to some noble cause (Free the Temperance Seven!) when the rest of us non-academic, stop-at-home non-caviar-consuming sans-champagne apolitical herberts just want to play word games involving the deletion of the word 'love' and insertion of the word 'bum' into the titles of as many 1960s songs as we can remember...

I think I need a little lie down. I'm hoping the next post will be entitled 'Why I'm having more fun than everyone else'.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A blatant plug

Don't you get tired of being subjected to a constant stream of advertising? On TV, in the papers, even on the back of your car park ticket or at the petrol pump, you can't get away from someone trying to sell you something. So this post gives me a tiny twinge of guilt. But only a tiny one, mind you, because I'm not selling anything. I'm giving you something for nothing!

There now. I've roused your curiosity, haven't I? Let me explain.

The humble blog you are now reading is called The Middenshire Chronicles. Except that it isn't actually the chronicles of the County of Middenshire. It's the stream of consciousness ramblings of Chris Hale. The 'Middenshire Chronicles' tagline sounded rather good at the time, and reflected, I thought, my continuing interest in the history of that now lost County. But as time has passed and the hairs in my ears have grown ever longer, I have reflected upon my continuing failure to tell you more about Middenshire. So it's now time to address my error.

I have a new blog. It's called 'The diary of William Thuck.' In this new blog I will explain what Middenshire was, where it was, and what happened to it. And, as time passes, I will be handing the blog over to seventeenth century printer, engraver and remembrancer William Thuck, who will guide you through the rich, but not terribly well executed, tapestry that was Middenshire.


Thursday, 15 July 2010

Driving morris men to drink

I know it's not like me to be silent for long. But the fact of the matter is, I've been busy. At long last, our builder ran out of excuses (his words, not mine) and, for the last three weeks, I've been helping him to rip out one of our bathrooms and replace it with a lovely new one. Now, this may sound like a long time to do a bathroom, but we did rather complicate things. We wanted a radiator where a basin used to be, a basin where a radiator used to be, a toilet where a toilet used to be, but at a different angle, and a shower where nothing used to be at all. All of this involved yards of extra pipework, the partial removal of two walls and a considerable dollop of plaster. We now have an extra large shower, shiny tiles, and a posh toilet that I'm loath to use. Regular readers of this column will recall that DIY and I do not lie comfortably together, but nevertheless I have become, if not adept with chop saws, routers and electric planers, at least familiar with their functions and would be able to wield them at a pinch. Were it not for this dodgy back. We start bathroom two on Monday, so there's a couple more weeks of noise, dust, and constant clearing up to look forward to...

You'll probably be glad to hear that my new job as unpaid builder's labourer hasn't kept me away from the morris dancing. Since we last spoke, there have been sessions in Pevensey, Lewes, Eastbourne and a few little villages in the surrounding area. It may not surprise you to learn that most of our performances take place outside pubs -last night it was the Blackboys Inn in the village of Blackboys (named after the men who used to make charcoal in the nearby woods) - indeed, the Long Man Morris Men are sponsored by Harvey's Brewery. Beer and The Morris have a long association. But I wonder for how much longer. Moves are afoot to lower the legal alcohol limit for driving, which would make anyone who drives with more than just a trace of alcohol in their body into a criminal. This is likely to have a considerable impact. Many old and beautiful Sussex pubs are miles from anywhere and accessible only by road transport. If people stop driving to them, they will go out of business very quickly. Of course, would-be customers could go by cab; I did this myself in January when attending a dinner at the Trevor Arms in Glynde. Glynde is nine and a half miles away from my home. A return cab fare cost me forty pounds. How many people are going to spend forty quid (or more) to go out for a couple of drinks? But let's suppose for a moment that a few pubs do remain open, and a few customers decide to stump up the necessary cash for a cab to and from. How are we to get the morris side to them, and still enjoy a drink ourselves? The answer is obvious - we design and build a Morris Support Vehicle, or MSV.

The MSV would be similar to those police vans one often sees at public order events. You know the type - reinforced windows, a metal cage to protect the windscreen, and a stack of equipment on board. The MSV would have a green and yellow stripe down the side (LMM's colours) and sufficient seats on board for all the dancers. At the back would be storage for sticks (for the stick dances), a stock of fresh 'wavers' (as morris handkerchieves are called), a sewing box for running repairs to breeches, shirts, etc, and a comprehensive first aid kit for MRIs (Morris-Related Injuries). There would also be space for a barrel of beer. This would be cleverly mounted on three or more gimbals to counteract any yaw, pitch or roll of the vehicle. In effect, at the van moves in three dimensions, the beer remains still. No one likes cloudy beer.

It is to be hoped that there might be a few pounds left to fit a couple of luxury items to the MSV. A video recording system with slow motion playback, which would be used to film the dances and would act as a valuable training aid during debriefs. And a customised satellite navigation system. This would have a special 'morris route plotter', pre-loaded with the location of every pub in East Sussex. Thus, the Designated MSV Driver Of The Day would simply punch in a start and finish point, and the satnav would calculate a route that takes in the maximum number of pubs on the way. The satnav would also be 'Sussex Intuitive'. Let me explain. Let's say the MSV is parked in the town of Lewes. The driver programmes the satnav to take him to The Wheatsheaf in Willingdon Village. A warning beep sounds and the machine exclaims, 'Ah! If you're going to The Wheatsheaf in Willingdon I wouldn't start from here if I were you!'

The Designated Driver would also have another function, and an extremely important one; that of Gentleman Surveyor of the Morris. He would be required to attend every proposed dance venue, and carry out a survey of the dance area, reporting back on the type of surface (tarmac, loose gravel, grass, bare earth), terrain (flat, undulating, steeply sloping), and hazards (poor drainage, fixed pub umbrellas, rabbit holes) to the Squire of the side. The Squire would examine the report, and carry out an appropriate risk assessment, allowing the venue if it affords sufficient safety to his dancers. Any venue with an excellent survey result, and where the landlord is particularly well disposed to morris dancing, would be given the option of becoming a DMV - Dedicated Morris Venue. If s/he desires this status, the Squire will cause the dance area to be marked with a large white letter "M" enclosed in a white circle - somewhat in the manner of the helicopter landing sites one sees at hospitals.

All this talk of MSVs and specialist equipment is, of course, a dream, unless one of us wins the lottery. But what will become of the morris? Perhaps sides will become more local, attracting members from within walking distance of a particular pub. I suppose other businesses could start sponsoring dance sides - we might just see The Skinny Latte Morris Men capering outside a coffee shop, ("This next dance is called 'The Caffeine Overdose'")or The Burger Bar Border Boys performing a stick dance in front of a takeaway. But I just hope I'm not around to see it.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Or should it be 'Homer Selmeston'?

We're still waiting for our builder to start work on our two bathrooms. The shower cubicles, basins, taps and all manner of other sanitary accoutrements have been languishing in what used to be our dining room for weeks now. It's the waiting that gets to you. But we haven't been idle. Mrs H and I have been discovering The Joys of Wallpapering - she as chief paster, me as apprentice paperhanger. And, to be fair, the results aren't too bad, but I still have this terrible fear that I'll get up in the morning and find that every single sheet of paper has peeled off and is lying in neat folds on the floor. So far, fortunately, I've been disappointed.

Life hasn't been all work and no play. I've been out dancing with Long Man, and discovering a few beautiful little Sussex villages and their pubs along the way. We recently danced at The Cricketers' Arms in Berwick. It was already approaching dusk when we arrived there - the pub is halfway down an unlit lane - and by the end of the evening we really were dancing in the dark. I'm told that light is normally provided by a nearby phone box, but the bulb seemed to have blown. Perhaps the side's funds will run to a few miner's lamps.

Berwick. It's one of those English place-names that flummoxes overseas visitors and, in the process, provides us with a little amusement. 'Can you tell us how to get to Burr-Wick?' they ask. We chuckle, knowing that it's actually pronounced 'Berrick'. Except that in this case, the visitors are right and we're wrong. It's likely that a good percentage of the village's population are (like me) incomers to the county, and, quite naturally, fall back on the standard pronunciation when telling folk where they live. But I'll bet there are a few older inhabitants who will tell you that the correct pronunciation is, in fact, 'Burrwick'.

There's nothing more calculated to make you look like an outsider than to mispronounce a place name. So I've spent a bit of time looking at some of our towns, villages and landmarks, and noting how these are pronounced. Here's a few for you; place name followed by local pronunciation:

Alciston = Aston

Ardingly = Arding-Lie

Bodiam = Bodge-Em

Burwash = Burrish

Cuckmere = Cookmere

Heathfield = Heffle

Horsham = Hores-Ham

Selmeston = Simpson

Steyning = Stenning

Pevensey = Pemsy

Piddenhoe = Pidd'n-oo

Although we're talking about pronunciation here, not the actual spelling of the place name concerned, it got me thinking about the broader issues of place names in general. I'll give you an example. The Italians have a beautiful city that I was once fortunate enough to visit. It's full of canals and gondolas. They call it Venezia. We call it Venice. The question is, why? Venezia is its Italian name, so why don't we call it that? An orchestra putting on an opera by Giuseppe Verdi wouldn't change his name to Joe Green on the poster, now would they? Mind you, I did once work with a lady called Mrs. Longbottom who, when living in Germany, received a letter addressed to Frau Langenhinten. But that's beside the point. I can think of no good reason why we don't speak of Brugge, or Antwerpen, or Warszawa. They're no harder to pronounce than the names of some of our own towns and villages. Look at Ainderby Quernhow, Heanton Punchardon and Yockenthwaite. In the face of these, how hard can it be to say Roma?

And while we're on the subject, why do we decide to go the other way with some locations, and use the country's own spelling and pronunciation? I'm thinking here of Peking, Bombay and Calcutta, that in the media miraculously mutated into Beijing, Mumbai and Kolkata overnight without so much as a by-your-leave. Who decides? Is there a quango that determines these things? Is it 'political correctness gone mad'? Or something more sinister? Whichever, I'm going to write to the local Council, demanding that the little East Sussex village of Firle be henceforth known as 'Furrel'. If nothing else, it'll assure map makers of a bit of extra cash...

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Conscious incompetence on the Bluebell Line

The morris dance practice season is now at an end, and all over the country morris sides are 'dancing out' at pubs, fetes and festivals. And (if you don't count my impromptu inclusion in The Vandals of Hammerwitch at Eastbourne Library at the tail end of last year) I have recently had the honour of dancing out with my worthy brethren of Long Man Morris for the first time.

My first outing was on the 23rd April at the Wheatsheaf in Willingdon, where we were joined by another local side, the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men, to celebrate St. George's Day with dance, song and, let's not deny it, a few glasses of Harvey's bitter. As a relative 'new boy' I haven't yet made the leap to hanky dances, but managed to give a reasonable performance in a couple of stick dances. Unfortunately, I was in the process of getting over a cold, so my attempts at joining in with the singing afterwards just made me sound like some wheezy old accordion. You can see some footage of us dancing here.

Yesterday was the first of May. And, for the first time for about a year and a half, I was up and out of the house before 5am. Driving through the wet, dark lanes of East Sussex, avoiding rabbits and toads, I soon found myself in a small car park in the village of Wilmington. A few hundred yards away, barely visible through mist, was Windover Hill, and the chalk-white outline of the Long Man of Wilmington, England's largest hill figure. This was my second 'dance out' with the side, who, by tradition, dance in the lane at the foot of the Long Man on the first of May every year. And this year the BBC were there to film us.

The senior members of the side were fully kitted up: corduroy breeches, white shirts and stockings, red spotted kerchiefs, bell pads, top hats, and ribbons and baldrics in the side's colours. Some wore black waistcoats or frock coats, bedecked with dozens of badges - a record of the hundreds of events they had danced at. They put me in mind of seasoned military men; men who have seen just about everything in their long careers, for whom today was just a little gentle exercise. Some have been dancing for more than thirty years, and are still just as keen and eager to dance as if it were their first outing. Some are older than me, but their ability to execute the dances without expending huge amounts of energy - dances that leave me sweating and hungry for oxygen - never fails to amaze me. The BBC crew - a young man and woman - introduced themselves to us. The young woman was on crutches, not (as we supposed) in honour of the Long Man and his two staves, but because of a Dancing Accident. She too was a morris dancer, and had sustained an ankle injury dancing a solo jig. Dancing can be dangerous.

The word was given. We formed up and processed down the lane to the designated spot. Thankfully, the earlier rain had stopped, and we stood ready to dance. A small crowd had gathered, and the BBC crew set their camera rolling. And then we danced, I again being permitted to take part in a number of stick dances. I felt quite honoured when Dave, our Fool, introduced me to the early risers, who had turned out to watch us, as Long Man's new recruit, and when he temporarily renamed one of our dances - Young Collins - as Young Christopher. I especially liked the 'young' bit. But it still seems strange to be the 'new boy' at the age of 55.

At the conclusion of this event, the sticks were packed up and the small crowd melted away, probably to return to bed. The BBC crew told us that their footage was to form part of a BBC4 programme on folk dance, and then bid us goodbye. Most of the experienced dancers set off on a dancing tour of two local railway preservation societies. I went home, and joined them later at Sheffield Park station on the Bluebell line. We danced for twenty minutes or so on the station platform, accompanied by the hiss of steam and the shrill whistles from the locomotives.

To the outsider (as I think I have said before) morris dancing just looks like a bit of stick or hanky waving, but there is much more to it than that. Dances must be executed using particular stepping patterns, the rhythm of which can vary from dance to dance. It is also imperative that you start on the correct foot. Get this wrong and your ability to be in the right place at the right time is severely compromised. Speed and agility are also vital, as is an awareness of what the dancers either side of you are doing. Lose sight of these and the whole thing becomes ragged. My own bête noir is a manoeuvre called the 'half gyp', which requires you to throw your weight forward and advance to the other side of the set, then fall back and turn until you resume your original place. I struggled so much with this that the cry 'Keep up, Chris!' was often to be heard during the Friday night practice sessions. I'm convinced the phrase will be written on my tombstone. I've now been dancing for around seven months, and have at least reached the stage where I know when I have made a mistake and can take steps (no pun intended) to rectify it. So, dear bloggy friend, I have reached the stage of conscious incompetence as stated by Howell (1982):

The transition to this state from being unconsciously incompetent can be a shocking and sudden realisation, for example when you meet others who are clearly more competent than you, or when a friend holds up a metaphorical mirror to your real ability.

I couldn't have put it better myself. I know what I don't know.

Some people don't 'get' morris dancing; probably in the way I don't 'get' football. But there's something about the morris that grabs hold of you; that makes you wish you'd started thirty years earlier. Alright, so I do get nervous before dancing, and I do make the odd mistake. But I make that mistake with a smile on my face. And although it would be easy to use such hackneyed phrases as 'The morris makes one feel closer to nature' or 'it is a way of connecting with our forbears', I genuinely feel that Long Man helps to keep alive one of our traditions that would almost certainly have been lost, had it not been for the work of Cecil Sharp at the tail end of the nineteenth century in preserving the details of Cotswold morris dances; those same dances that we performed in a damp, misty lane at the crack of dawn, under the watchful gaze of an ancient hill figure.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Too much porn and not enough goulash

Warning - this blog entry contains sexism, stereotyping and spelling errors.

The last couple of weeks have seen some poor spelling and a seemingly never-ending search for sanitary ware. Idly flicking through the local authority jobs online, I came across one that involved dealing with ‘members of the pubic’. I wondered whether to apply, at the same time pointing out this rather amusing faux pas in the application, but quickly thought better of the idea. Nobody likes a smartarse. However, everybody likes a handy set of three fridge storage boxes, and the co-op were doing a special deal on them last week. Except that the notice described them as ‘fidgde storage’. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce that.

Back to the sanitary ware. The time is fast approaching for our friendly builder to start work on the refurbishment of our bathroom and shower room, and it’s not until you start to make a list of the necessary fixtures and fittings that you realise how much stuff you need to get. Bath, two basins, two toilets, two shower cubicles and trays…then there’s the taps, tiles, floor covering…I have to admit that, when it comes to choosing such things, I’m an amateur from the school of ‘let’s just get something, shall we? This’ll do.’ But my pathetic, half-hearted interest in things ablutionary doesn’t go down well with Mrs. H.

Mrs. H is a porn addict. Perhaps I should qualify that remark. She has no interest (as far as I am aware, dear bloggy friend) in magazines featuring gentlemen dressed (or rather, not dressed) as gladiators, firemen or horny Vikings (I refer to their helmets, which are always incorrectly surmounted by horns). No. Mrs. H. is into something far worse - Home Porn. On the days when she finds time to do so, she can be seen in our breakfast room, surrounded by catalogues; bathroom catalogues, tile catalogues, household gadget catalogues, and magazines featuring home decorating and refurbishment. These publications always seems to feature some thirty-something woman who has turned her bleak 18th century shell of a cottage into something out of Grand Designs for a few hundred quid. They always seem to ‘know someone’ who can build them an entire kitchen out of salvaged ships’ timbers, or who rewired their house for a couple of pots of home-made jam and a bottle of elderflower wine. It is these publications that Mrs. H. will read in preference to the latest novel by Mr. Dickens or Mr. Thackeray, and I have to admit to feeling rather uncomfortable with my bed time book - Three men in a boat - whilst Mrs. H. peruses the most recent update to the John Lewis catalogue.

The Sunday papers really don’t help the cause of those of us who find the whole business of decorating rather less interesting than, um, just about everything else. Their lifestyle supplements often carry articles about a couple who have refurbished their house. Invariably, of course, they are a Perfect Couple. She is often a fabric designer, whom we see engaged either in arranging flowers or baking cup cakes in her kitchen with her unnaturally well-behaved children. He is an IT consultant with that shaven head that seems to be rather popular in certain circles, poring over his laptop whilst a curiously quiet jack russell terrier sits at his feet. Their house, which is usually in Hastings Old Town, looks fabulous, with its shabby chic (or as I like to call it, badly-painted) furniture and little accessories dotted about, and has clearly cost a small fortune to get to that standard. But we have to listen to all this ’we had a really tight budget’ nonsense. Why not just be honest and say, ’it cost us an arm and a leg to do the place up.’ All this false modesty makes them sound like politicians who, having gone to a private school, try to persuade us that it really wasn’t much better than Bash Street. But I digress. I just wish they’d stop parading all this Home Porn before our eyes.

During the course of our bathroom odyssey, we came across one of those discount furniture warehouses. You know the kind - the ones that sell ‘genuine oak furniture’. Yep, it’s genuine, all right. The only problem is that it’s…how shall we say…rather chunky. The coffee tables have legs so thick that they might have been constructed from recycled fence posts or railway sleepers for all I know, and weigh so much that I’m surprised they haven’t collapsed in upon themselves like neutron stars. This particular warehouse only had a few sad, massive pieces dotted about; all the rest of the stock was in huge cardboard boxes, piled higgledy-piggeldy three or four high, either side of a central walkway. As we stood there, an employee was lugging another huge box on a wheeled truck into the bowels of the warehouse, and I was suddenly transported back to the final few moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the crated up Ark of the Covenant is buried deep in some US government warehouse. I said as much to Mrs. H. She said I think too hard for my own good sometimes.

This seemed to be a good time for us to depart and, as we walked through what appeared once to have been a office, I saw some coat hooks on the wall. Or rather, I didn’t; I saw one coat hook, and three sets of screw holes where three further coat hooks must once have hung. Beneath the one good hook was the name Terry. Beneath the screw holes were the names Phil, Andy and Paula. What was going on here? Was this some kind of employee incentive scheme? Was Terry awarded the only coat hook on the basis of his superior sales figures? Were Phil, Andy and Paula new members of staff who, due to their inexperience, had not yet qualified for the coveted hook? Had they previously had hooks, but been relieved of them for some misdemeanour, or for failing to meet their sales targets? Or (which seemed unlikely) had the hooks simply fallen off and not been replaced? I barely had time to ponder this before I saw a sign just outside the warehouse. It said ‘Hand car a £5’. This seemed a rather curious instruction. How do you hand five pounds to a car? If I had taken my car over to the sign, would someone hand me five pounds? No. 1 daughter seemed to think the sign should have said ‘Hand car wash £5’. By then I had already done far too much thinking and headed for home.

As we’d had quite a busy day we thought a takeaway might be in order - Indian, Chinese, or just good old fish and chips. Then No. 1 daughter pointed out the leaflet she’d picked up for a Hungarian takeaway. Now, I don’t know much about Hungarian cuisine, but I do know they’re supposed to be famous for something called goulash, and I thought that might be rather nice for a change. Sadly, I scanned the menu for this piquant item in vain. I did, however, find the following treats:

Fried Camenbert cheese with rice, served with blueberry souce
Hungarian sausage wraped in port fillett
Fried streaked chicken breast with cheese souce
Gipsy stily pork steak
Grilled pork fillett topped with traditionell Hungarian Lecso served with rosted potato
Crepes filled with creamy popeyseed with cherry souce.

I took a look at their website. Sadly, some of the food looked as if it had already been eaten by someone else. Food porn it wasn’t.

I opened a tin of baked beans.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

I should cocoa...

Easter is here and, predictably, the shops are busy. The busiest seem to be those selling chocolate because, as everybody knows, Easter and chocolate are synonymous. Whatever synonymous means. Although I’m not one to follow the crowd generally, I thought it proper that an impending visit to my mother in London should, perhaps, be accompanied by some chocolates. This being decided upon, I trundled into Thornton’s on Thursday to see what item might take my fancy. I eventually hit upon a milk chocolate assortment, and joined the end of a queue to make my purchase.

The queue was moving very slowly; much slower than usual. Not that I’d know how fast a queue in Thornton’s generally moves, of course. I hardly ever frequent such places. But it eventually became apparent that the slowness of the queue was due to each Easter egg purchaser (or should it be ‘egg donor’?) availing themselves of the opportunity to have the name of the recipient piped onto the egg in what appeared to be white icing. Each donor had more than one egg, and the shop had not thought it appropriate to designate a single egg-calligrapher for the day. So each transaction was brought to a halt as the relevant chocolatier laboriously wrote ‘Sid’ or ‘Penelope’ or some such on the convex surface of the egg with all the deliberation of a Benedictine monk in a medieval scriptorium. By now I was bored. I looked at the box of chocolates; it contained around twenty separate morsels, and for a moment I toyed with the idea of getting my calligrapher of confection to pipe the word ‘Mum’ onto every single chocolate. I said as much to Mrs. H, but she didn’t think much of the idea, explaining that it might make me and, more importantly, her, look foolish. The idea was quietly dropped. As I handed over my money, I idly wondered how long it would take to reproduce a page from the Book of Kells, using a slab of Dairy Milk and different coloured icings. Quite a while, I thought.

Today saw me shopping yet again, this time for the everyday necessaries of life; chicken, cheese, chives, and, of course, chocolate. I shop alliteratively, you see. Rather like the QI programme that designates every series with a different letter of the alphabet, I purchase foods that start with the same letter and advance through the alphabet as the weeks progress. (Next week it’ll be duck, doughnuts and Danish pastries). As I was scanning the wine aisle for chianti, I saw a curious sign. It advised that, if I looked as if I were under 25 years of age, I’d be asked to prove I was old enough to buy alcohol. I found this a bit confusing, since I’d always understood that the minimum age for the purchase of alcohol was 18. I guessed there must be a very good reason for this, and determined to look it up on the internet when I arrived home, which I duly did. The result made rather less sense than I had hoped. The scheme is called ‘Challenge 25’. Its posters say, ‘If you are lucky enough to look under 21, you will be asked to prove that you are over 18 when you buy alcohol or tobacco.’ But the scheme is actually aimed at the under 25 age group (hence the ‘Challenge 25’ name). So the reality is that, if you’re under 25, and look as if you’re under 21, you’ll be asked to prove you’re 18. Call me stupid, but isn’t the whole thing far too complex? How about ‘if you appear to be under 18 when purchasing alcohol or tobacco, we will require proof of age’? Or, even simpler, ‘ID to be produced if requested’.

As we unloaded the shopping at home and consigned the chocolate to its designated place, I started to wonder why the resurrection of Christ should lead to children consuming an average of two and a half kilograms of this particular confection over the holiday period, so, having exhausted the whole ’Challenge 25’ thing, I spent a bit of time looking for answers. The consensus seems to be that chocolate, being a luxury, is given as a gift to celebrate the end of Lent, a period of fasting and austerity in the Christian calendar. I’m afraid I found this to be a very lazy explanation. Since when was chocolate a luxury? One dictionary defines luxury as ‘something inessential but conducive to pleasure and comfort’. Ask around and I’m fairly sure most people will tell you that they regard chocolate as essential - in a similar category to water and oxygen. The Concise Oxford speaks of ‘choice or costly surroundings, possessions, food, etc.’ Choice? Costly? Isn’t Aldi selling chocolate bunnies for 99 pence each? The Roman Emperor Augustus railed against excessive luxuria in the Empire, but I’m sure even he wouldn’t have stuck a senator’s head on a pole for buying a 99p bunny. No. the time has come to supplant chocolate as the alleged ‘luxury’ Easter gift. But what to replace it with? Some kind of food would seem to be appropriate. Almas caviar springs to mind; weight for weight, it’s more expensive than gold. And it fulfils the whole ‘egg thing’ surrounding Easter. There are even cheaper alternatives around - lumpfish caviar, available from most good supermarkets, is a fraction of the price. Or we could go for truffles. The chocolate shops seem to shift a lot of Belgian truffles, so people might go for an Italian white truffle (tuber magnatum). One drawback is that it doesn’t smell (or taste) like a Belgian chocolate truffle, but on the other hand, it is reassuringly expensive at around £3125 per ounce. But if you wanted to move away from the whole chocolate substitute idea, precious metal is always an acceptable gift. And just about the most precious metal you can get is Plutonium. At around £6,600 per ounce, a pendant made from weapons-grade plutonium is sure to give your loved one a warm glow.

Happy Easter.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Coat tales

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the World was round, goes the popular ditty. I'm not surprised. He should, of course, have said 'spherical', or, more properly, 'an oblate spheroid' in order to avoid becoming an object of ridicule. And I'm fairly sure that they (whoever 'they' might be) laughed at Prince Charles when he said that the British Library looked like the assembly hall of an academy for secret policemen. And it was to that same library I betook myself on Wednesday last in order to renew my reader's pass for another three years.

I've held a reader's pass for some years now. When I first started using the library it was still a part of the British Museum at Bloomsbury; the old round reading room was opened in 1857, and researching there amongst the polished wooden desks, leather chairs and gold-tooled books made you feel for all the world like some old Victorian scholar, or the member of some exclusive club. Most of the 'members' seemed to be elderly, or at the very least middle-aged, and tweed clothing was much in evidence. In some ways, the round reading room felt a bit like a church where the written word was god, and the librarians were the priests and acolytes, working from a central, round pulpit. You could no more think of raising your voice there than of singing a comic song in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

Sadly, things move on. The old library wasn't big enough to house the ever-growing collection; it took hours for your book order to arrive; and many of the books were stored at outstations around the UK, making them even less accessible. So it was that the present incarnation of the British Library at St. Pancras came into being, and that's where I found myself on Wednesday.

Brimming with confidence and armed with my new pass, I entered the Humanities Reading Room and flashed said pass at the security guard.

'I'm sorry, sir,' he said, 'but you can't come in with your coat.'

I was momentarily taken aback.

'No coats are allowed in the reading rooms,' he said. 'You'll have to leave it in the cloakroom.'

I presumed it was some kind of security initiative. Perhaps someone had once tried to smuggle the Lindisfarne Gospels out of the place beneath an Inverness cape. For a moment I toyed with the idea of questioning this directive. It wasn't a particularly warm day and I didn't want to catch a chill. However, I adopted the standard response to a seemingly pointless rule and decided I'd best obey it, otherwise I'd get nowhere. I took myself off to the cloakroom. It was the biggest cloakroom I'd ever seen. I wasn't overly worried that my coat would be stolen, or sold, or mistakenly given back to someone else, but I was concerned about what to do with my 'stuff'. I had two wallets (one large, one small), a bunch of keys, a mobile phone, and a camera. Too much stuff to cram into my trouser pockets. I needn't have worried, though. The library helpfully provides its readers with clear plastic carrier bags in which to put their things. I picked up a bag and studied it. It less like something you might find in a library, but more like an item to be found at an international airport in these days of heightened security. No coats, bags or umbrellas, it warned. No pens, highlighters or sharp implements (did my keys count as sharp implements, I wondered). No food, drink, bottled water (how is bottled water different from 'drink'?), sweets or gum. And lastly, No Cameras. This was beginning to feel less like a place of study, more like Prince Charles' Secret Police Academy. I dumped all my stuff into the bag, with just a slight concern that I had a camera on me. What would happen when I tried to enter the reading room? Would the camera be noticed and confiscated? Would they take it and hang on to it until I was about to leave, as teachers do when kiddies take banned items into school?

I decided to forget about this particular concern, and went to hand in my coat. This biggest cloakroom I'd ever seem also had the smallest number of staff I'd ever seen; just two men. Now, in some circumstances, it is possible for two men to do the work of ten. It just needs enthusiasm, drive and determination. These two cloakroom attendants seemed to be doing the work of less than one man. It appeared that neither really wanted to be there, and the whole business of giving and receiving coats was, to be quite honest, a bit of an inconvenience. I bet they couldn't wait till summer. Not many coats then. I handed in my coat and received a token, the entire transaction being carried out in silence, apart from my 'thank you' to the Trappist Collector of Coats.

Now coatless and armed with my clear plastic carrier bag, I was granted unfettered entry to the reading room. I found myself a desk and had a quick look around. To be sure, it has the polished wooden desks, the leather, the brass fittings; but it still feels so new, as though it hasn't had time to develop a soul. And the clientele seems to have changed. Gone are the tweedy scholars with their leather-bound notebooks, replaced by young women with impossibly short skirts, young men with impossibly asymmetric haircuts, and all of them armed with Apple laptops. I idly wondered what on earth they were all studying. I doubt very much that they wondered the same about me.

It was, by now, too late in the day to order any book and hope to get it before closing time. I resolved to get there earlier on my next visit with a clear plan of action. I thought I might go there on a warm day so I wouldn't need a coat.

I wandered back down to the cloakroom. They seemed to be having a bit of a rush on. There was a queue of around forty people in front of me, waiting either to deposit or collect. I noted that this sudden surge in business had not resulted in any attendant increase in the speed of the cloakroom brethren. They went about their work slowly and deliberately. I wondered about their lives. Were they always this morose? Or were they the life and soul of the party outside working hours, regaling friends with tales of the interesting coats and bags they had encountered that day? I decided the question probably wasn't worthy of an answer.

I caught the Lewes train at Victoria. As it left the capital, I watched as a tableau of events beyond the carriage window presented themselves and then winked out of sight. A man walking slowly along a footpath. A queue of traffic at a junction. The backs of nondescript industrial units on a trading estate. Smoke from a bonfire. Trackside detritus - gravel, sleepers, bits of plastic cable trunking. Suddenly, built up areas were left behind and we entered the chalky, undulating ploughlands of East Sussex. In the distance, the whalebacked Downs. As dusk crept over the land a light mist had appeared and I found myself, apparently, inside a watercolour painting by Eric Ravilious. This is an ancient landscape...

I was suddenly transported back to the here and now. A young man opposite me with a hands free kit was talking very loudly to a friend. 'Yeah,' he said, 'he takes that corner really tight every morning. Then, last week, he hit the bank. Now it's a perfect shape and he can really zoom round it.' I sighed to myself. I thought I'd left these kind of boy racers behind when I emigrated from London. But as the one-sided conversation progressed it became clear that he was talking not about some high-performance car, but a Massey-Ferguson tractor. This young man was a Sussex farm worker. During the course of the journey I also discovered that the John Deere is his favourite tractor, and that it is difficult, but possible, to steer with the knees whilst talking on one's mobile and drinking a cup of tea. I had hoped to hear some dialect words tripping off his tongue, but the closest he came to archaisms was 'bollocks' and 'pissed'.

It was just about night when I arrived in Seaford. As I made the short walk home, I could smell wood smoke. I could hear the suck of the pebbles dragged down the beach by the tide. I could see shadows on the curtains as the people of the town went about their lives. And I was glad of my coat. It was bloody freezing.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

A terrible case of mistaken identity

This is a very unusual post; unusual in the sense that it is all about me. I won’t hold it against you if you decide, after a paragraph or so, to wander off to put the kettle on and grab some chocolate biscuits.

I think I may already have mentioned to you, somewhere in this humble blog, that the good people of my little town are a friendly and pleasant bunch. Not long after I arrived here I noticed that people would smile and nod as I passed by, so I would, of course, return the compliment. On one occasion I was even waved to by the occupant of a passing car and, once again, felt bound to reciprocate. It seemed to make all those years of working in a potentially dangerous job - where people, although they did not perhaps actively seek to kill you, wanted you dead through some unspecified but effective means - worthwhile.

But then something happened. I was mooching about the town - Church Street, I fancy it was - when a middle-aged chap walking towards me smiled and said, ‘Hello, Pete.’ I did my usual brief nod and smile in return, and then suddenly realised what had happened. He had called me Pete. Why? Was he a theatrical mind-reader who had decided to take a stab at guessing my first name? Did I perhaps look more like a Pete than a Chris? Had I simply misheard? Anyway, the moment passed, and I though no more about it.

Then it happened a couple more times. And a lady flashed me a smile of rather greater warmth than one might expect of a stranger passing another stranger in the street.

Then one day, quite by chance, I came across my doppelganger. It was in my local pub. We’d popped in for a drink and something to eat, and there, propping up the bar, was Pete. His hair was about the same length as mine, he had a similar beard and similar glasses (or ‘spartacles’ in Sussex dialect), but his skin was a little darker in complexion than mine. Probably something to do with a lifetime of living on the coast. I could understand why people had confused us upon seeing us separately, but put us together and the differences would be blindingly obvious. For a brief moment we glanced in each others’ direction and exchanged the usual nod. I suspected that one or other of his companions had advised him that there was a stranger in town and that the stranger bore a passing resemblance to himself.

Sadly, my similarity in appearance to Pete has not resulted in any benefit to me. No-one has offered me a drink when I walk into the pub. No-one has pressed a note into my hand, saying, ‘here’s that fifty quid I owe you, Pete’. But equally, nobody has said, ‘when are you going to repay that money you owe me, Pete?’ so I suppose I should be grateful.

Only last week I was standing at the counter of the local bathroom tile emporium, waiting, not surprisingly, for a quote on some bathroom tiles. There was one other person in the place - a builder, I suspected. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but has anyone ever told you that you look like Pete? Only I saw you outside Morrison’s last week and nearly tapped you on the shoulder. It’s the hair, you see.’

It’s The Hair. Yes. The Hair. Another potential source of embarassment. No; I’m lying. An actual source of embarassment. Around a month ago, I was wandering around Morrisons (I do plenty of wandering; early retirement and a desire to escape the decorating that needs doing) and paused to peruse a shelf laden with pickles, chutneys and spices of the East. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was mildly jostled by a gentleman shelf-filler.

‘Oops! Sorry, madam!’ he said, then hastily corrected himself. ‘I mean sir!’ and that was it. Not only was I someone else; I was apparently someone else and a woman as well. With a beard. I went home and regaled Mrs. H with this tale, and she professed herself much amused by this case of mistaken gender, then she boxed my ears and told me to get on with the decorating. It has also just come to mind that, last December, I was sitting in a restaurant in Ruislip with Mrs. H and my mother (also Mrs. H, but I didn’t want to cause confusion) when the waitress popped her head round the corner of the booth and said, ‘Have you ladies decided what you’re having yet?’

It happened again yesterday. I live in an area where water is metered. The little meter sits at the bottom of a hobbit-hole just outside my front gate and, being a ‘retentive’ sort, it is my habit to lift up the inspection cover from time to time and check, with a torch, how much water I have used. As I was hunched over the hole, trying to read the tiny figures on the display, a female voice said:

‘What a clever young lady you are, to be able to do that.’

I looked up and found that the remark had been made by a pleasant-looking middle-aged lady. Seeing that I was, in fact, a man, she lost nothing of her composure. She merely stated:

‘Oh. You’re a man. I thought you were a girl. It’s the hair.’

It’s The Hair. Later that evening I told Mrs. H of my encounter. She likened the incident to the conclusion of the 1973 film Don’t Look Now, where Donald Sutherland confronts what he believes to be a child in a red duffle-coat, only to discover that it is a grotesque dwarf who stabs him to death.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Sussex mud and fornication

The weather has been quite pleasant this week, if a little cold. Last week was a different story. We had rain. Lots of rain. More than our fair share, if the overflowing gutters and temporary lakes were anything to go by. And with the rain came the mud. I had thought that Middenshire was the muddiest place on this earth; but no - I think the prize (last week, at any rate) should have gone to East Sussex.

The South Saxons had their own word for mud - àdela; and the word for ‘muddy’ was gyru. That would appear to be it. Not exactly up there with the number of Inuit words for snow - allegedly somewhere between seven and a hundred. But more recent Sussex residents had some interesting dialect words to describe soggy conditions brought about by wet weather, the resulting mud, and where it ended up. Ground made swampy by wet weather was flushy; indeed, it could be said to be sabbed, or saturated with water. Any wetter and it would become a swank - a bog. Down on the farm, the cattle would be stoaching - trampling the ground into stodge or slub, both terms for thick mud. Walk through this slab gubber (wet and slippery black mud to you) and, depending on your term of preference, you would be grom, grabby or stoachy. And woe betide you if you trod this into the house. You’d be stabbling or spanneling, both of which would make you rather unpopular, especially if the floor had been newly swept or washed.

All the above dialect words were collected in the nineteenth century by the Reverend W D Parish or his acquaintances. I introduced you to the good Reverend here just under a year ago, but his Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect is so interesting that I felt he deserved another airing. Once can just imagine this Selmeston vicar, notebook and pencil in hand, passing the time of day with some old Gaffer or Gammer, hastily jotting down an interesting word or phrase. But one can’t help wondering whether his parishioners were having a bit of a giggle at his expense, as he dutifully wrote down their innocent-sounding definitions of the following words: Fornicate, Hard-Dick, Crap, Jack-Up, Nonce, Pimps and Shag. And I’ll leave it to you to research these and get back to me.

Joking aside for a moment, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the Rev. Parish and his ilk. In most villages the vicar or parson was the only man to have undergone a university education, and many such men of the cloth made extensive notes of the world they inhabited - take a look at the diary of Francis Kilvert, or the Natural History of Selborne, compiled by Gilbert White. Their notes and diaries give us a fascinating insight into the people, places and events from an age that is now almost entirely lost to us. Equally, if William Douglas Parish had not taken the trouble to note down these old words and sayings, so much would now be lost to us, and our language (and this blog!) would be much the poorer for it.

Anyway, I think I’ve fornicated for long enough now. I shall bid you adieu.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Port whine?

Newhaven. It's quite a pleasant name, isn't it? I can imagine Newhaven as a cosy little seaside town in New England; all white painted, weatherboarded houses with paling fences; a couple of bearded old salts mending their nets on the quay, spinning yarns for the tourists; sand dunes sloping lazily down to the sea; the smell of freshly cooked lobsters...

But the Newhaven close to where I live is a very different place. It's a port town at the mouth of the River Ouse in East Sussex, handling passengers and goods bound for Dieppe, and port towns always seem to have a rather scruffy air about them. Our Newhaven is no exception. It has a hinterland of industrial estates, scrap yards, sewage treatment plants and empty factories, one of which, the Parker Pen company (remember them?) has recently laid off all its workers and moved operations to France. That's nice of them, isn't it? The town centre isn't much better. Many of the shops are empty and some of those still operating seem to be in two minds about it. As I walked down the High Street a herring gull was pecking at an empty pizza box, trying desperately to turn it over in order to reach whatever residue was left inside. Every time someone passed, the gull would wander off, feigning a lack of interest in the box. You could almost hear it whistling and staring vacantly into space. But when the passer-by had gone it renewed its assault on the box. A child coughed without putting its hand over its mouth. Outside a nearby pub a heavily tattooed employee was enjoying a doorstep cigarette, whilst at the bus stop, someone had helpfully written the word "ARSE" four times on the red plastic bench beneath the shelter.

All of this might lead you to think that I've got a bit of a downer on Newhaven. Curiously, I haven't. There's something about the place; something that gives it special character that one only finds in marine towns. Alright, so the pubs might look a bit scruffy, but they have a kind of faded grandeur; a sense of having been buffeted by the weather for a couple of centuries, a bit like some weather-beaten old sea captain. And, what's more, they're still open and offering bed and breakfast to the traveller. The street lamps in the High Street have canopies that are reminiscent of the sails from some old square-rigger. There are no less than three war memorials placed in a tiny but beautifully kept garden at the edge of the town. The smart marina, set about with pastel-coloured apartment blocks, is home to a large number of expensive-looking yachts, their halyards slapping against their masts in the stiff breeze. And there is a special quality to the light; a brightness that is not seen in an inland town; a brightness that makes you want to take up a paintbrush and commit something to canvas...

Just occasionally, I look out of my bedroom window at night and see a ferry steaming out to sea, its bright lights reflected in the inky blackness of the English Channel. Sailors have been putting to sea from Newhaven and other Sussex towns for centuries, rowing, sailing or under power; many have failed to return, due to war, weather or shipwreck. But watching these great vessels gliding silently to goodness knows where brings a sense of continuity to an ordinary event. Newhaven has seen better days, but it battles on regardless, like a tramp steamer chugging on in the teeth of a westerly gale. Long may it do so, I say.

Blimey. I got all poetic there for a moment.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Why I don't follow Stephen Fry

My knees and ankles are playing up today. I put this down to one of two things; it’s either the boot camp style training regime I was put through at last Friday’s morris dancing session; or it could be a result of all the bending and stretching I’ve been doing over the weekend in putting together some IKEA furniture. Either way, the pain’s the same. I wonder if they have morris dancers, or something similar, in Sweden? They could do the Hemnes dance, which involves complex machinations with allen keys and cross-head screwdrivers as they put together a jolly nice set of drawers; or perhaps the Ektorp, where the dancers sit on a sofa for hours at a time, sloshing aquavit and eating Lant Chips…but I digress. Having set aside my Ikea-ing, I sat down at my computer to read my emails, do a bit of writing, and check to see if anyone new was following me on Twitter.

I’ve spoken at length about Twitter before, so I’m not going to bore you with explanations as to how it works; suffice it to say that one aspect of this micro-blogging site is that it allows you to ‘follow’ (ie read comments made by) fellow Twitterati. Amongst us ordinary folk there are a good many ‘celebrities’, including US President Barack Obama, comedian Bill Bailey, Phill Jupitus (he of Never mind the Buzzcocks), the wife of PM Gordon Brown, and a fair old smattering of singers, writers, broadcasters and actors. One of the most popular tweeters is Stephen Fry.

I don’t follow Stephen Fry. And, by this, I don’t mean “I don’t know what people see in Stephen Fry”. Mr. F. is an exceptionally witty, talented, well-read and urbane gentleman. I thoroughly enjoyed the Fry and Laurie programmes a few years ago. I still laugh at his appearances in Blackadder, particularly in his incarnation as General Melchett. And, if I can help it, I never miss QI. What I mean is, “I don’t follow Stephen Fry on Twitter”. And before you accuse me of being churlish, let me assure you that I have nothing but Mr. Fry’s best interests at heart. Allow me to explain.

On the 14th of January 2010 at around 5pm, I logged into Twitter to see how many followers Mr. Fry and I had. My total stood at 336. Three hundred and thirty six individuals had, at some point, decided that they were interested enough in what I had to say (whatever that might be) to click on the little 'follow’ button on my Twitter page. And Mr. Fry? Oh…he had 1,244,658 followers.

One million, two hundred and forty four thousand, six hundred and fifty eight people have pushed Stephen’s button, if you’ll pardon the expression. Take the population of Birmingham, add the good people of Brighton, and you’d still have to find another four thousand people (twice the population of St. David’s, the smallest city in Wales) to equal the number of Mr. Fry’s followers. On a world scale, his followers outrank the population of seventy countries, including Swaziland, Bahrain and Luxembourg, and represent 0.0183 percent of the world’s population. Assume that this number consists roughly of half men and half women of average height; if you laid them end to end, not only would they be quite comfortable, but they would also stretch in an unbroken line from Lisbon in Portugal to Haasdonk (pop: 4000, twice that of the city of St. David's aforementioned), a little village about 7 miles south-west of Antwerp, a distance of 1315 miles. If Stephen decided to stand for the Fry Party in the next general election, he would, using the stats from the last general election, be the fourth most popular “party” behind the LibDems with 4.59 percent of the votes, outgunning UKIP and the Scottish National Party combined. Perhaps we could persuade him to stand for Parliament…

Can you imagine what it would be like if every single one of those individuals decided to send a “tweet” to Stephen in response to some erudite remark he had just made? A “tweet”, if you didn’t already know, is a Twitter message, and can be up to 140 characters long. I calculated that it would take about six seconds to read a single tweet. For Stephen to read the tweets of every single one of his followers would take a solid eighty six and a half days. If, intelligent chap that he is, he decided to spend only eight hours a day reading them, then it would employ him for nearly 260 days. I think I’m beginning to understand why ‘celebrities’ rarely reply to tweets from us mortals. One and a quarter million messages in one’s like being shouted at by a major conurbation.

I know what you’re thinking. Not all of Stephen’s followers would be online at the same time. Some would probably be working; others watching TV or listening to the radio. Still others might be digging a hole, putting on makeup, having sex, eating a banana or playing a trombone. (That’s what I call multi-tasking). This being a likely scenario, I decided to carry out an experiment. I sent a tweet, asking those of my followers who read it to reply to me. Of my 336 followers, I received twenty replies; around six percent of the total. Apply this to Stephen’s followers and you arrive at a figure of around 74,680. That’s still more than twice the population of Liechtenstein, and equates to being yelled at by every inhabitant of the town of Carlisle in Cumbria. This 74,000-odd are a heavy lot, too. Heavy, but quite useful. Using rough averages, their total weight would be around 11,855,767 lbs, or 5293 tons, if you prefer. If we decided to break these 74,680 into their component elements for recycling (something I’m sure Mr. Fry would heartily approve of), we would have enough phosphorus to make 164,296,000 match heads (that‘s 1,932,894 boxes of Swan Vestas); carbon to make 67,212,000 pencils; sufficient fat for 522,760 bars of soap or 5,601,000 candles; and iron enough for 75,000 3 inch nails. Of course, we mustn‘t forget water; from these lucky people we could extract 746,800 gallons of water; far more than the 660,253.09 gallons it would take to fill an average Olympic-sized swimming pool. If we decided of dessicate every one of Stephen’s followers, we could collect 55,687 tons of water - a weight equivalent to eight fully-loaded Saturn V rockets.

If Mr. Fry is reading this (and I hope some day he may do so), I trust he will begin to understand why I don’t follow him. For one thing, there are already one and a quarter million people tugging at his virtual sleeve; I’m astonished that he ever finds time to make polite replies to any of his followers. For another, he probably doesn’t need another 2200 matches, 900 pencils, 7 bars of soap or 75 candles, a single three inch nail or ten gallons of water that an additional individual could provide. And, since I’m not very tall, I wouldn’t bring his unbroken line of followers that much closer to Haasdonk.

I logged on to Twitter a moment ago. I see I’m down to 333 followers - The Number of Half a Beast. Stephen, on the other hand, has 1,267,172; 22,514 more than last time which, curiously is very close to the population of a small town in East Sussex. It’s called Seaford. It’s where I live…

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The politics of snow

In common with just about everyone else, we've had large amounts of snow dumped on us over the last week or so. I haven't been able to get my car out, as it is garaged on a road with a very steep and, I might point out, ungritted, gradient. The upshot of this is that we've done our shopping locally (something which is fairly easy, as we live in a proper little town with all the day to day shops you might need), and I've spent more time indoors than I might otherwise have done. This has given me time to potter about, drink coffee, and think.

The climatologists are busy berating us ordinary folk at the moment, accusing us of confusing "weather" with "climate". Every time some newspaper columnist pops up and says, "what's happened to this global warming, then? I'm under six feet of snow!", s/he is accused of being a climate change denier, and the point is re-iterated that these cold blips have nothing to do with global warming, which is progressing nicely thanks to the use of fossil fuel that we are currently using to keep ourselves warm.

Okay. So this cold weather has nowt to do with climate change. But what if there is some other force at work? They say that 100% of statistics can be used to prove 75% of things 88% of the time, so perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that this current cold snap is due, not to cold fronts and all that stuff, but the the people we currently have in government. It's Labour's fault that we've had so much snow.

You don't believe me, do you? I don't blame you; I quite often wrong about things (so Mrs. H tells me). But I've done the maths, and I'm perfectly willing to share my findings with you.

Since January 1900, we've had fourteen political administrations. Of these, seven have been conservative, six labour and only one Liberal. The Tories have been in government for about 60 years and ten months since January 1900. During their terms of office, there have been fifteen winters described by the Met Office as "snowy", one winter "very snowy", and six White Christmases in London. So under the Conservatives we're likely to have a snowy winter every four years or so, a very snowy winter only once every sixty years, and a White Christmas every ten years or so. But thinking about it, the only really bad Conservative winter (1962/3) was under PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was MP for Kinross and Western Perthshire in Scotland. The weather's pretty awful up there at the best of times. Perhaps he brought it with him.

How about Labour? What do they do to our winter weather? Well, they've been in office for about 31 years and 5 months, during which time there were eight "snowy" winters, two "very snowy" winters, and four White Christmases. So, with Labour you're looking at a snowy winter every 3.9 years (very similar to the Tories), a very snowy one every 15.75 years, and a White Christmas about every eight years. So perhaps Gordon Brown could stand for re-elction on the basis that you're more likely to get a White Christmas under his administration than under David Cameron's. But this year is likely to go down in history as "very snowy", which skews the figures somewhat, and means that under Labour we're likely to suffer a very snowy winter every ten and a half years!

But I'm forgetting the poor old Liberals. They were last in office in October 1922, having been in power for around 16 years and 10 months. During their era, there were four "snowy" winters, one "very snowy" winter, and two White Christmases. Curiously, this is close to a snowy winter every four years (just like the other parties), a very snowy one every 16 years, and a White Christmas about every eight years.

Now, I'm probably the least political person I know, and I realise that politics is about more than having to stock up with de-icer and firelighters. It's not for me to tell you who to vote for this year; I'm simply quoting the facts. If it's a White Christmas you're wanting (and don't we all love those, dear bloggy friend?) then there's nothing to choose between Labour and LibDem. Likewise, "snowy" winters are fairly evenly distributed amongst the parties (anyone would think there was some kind of conspiracy, wouldn't they? A bit like "paired voting" in the Commons!). The big difference comes when we look at the "very snowy" winters. Under Labour, we'd get one every ten years or so. The LibDems would see to it that, if they came to power this year, our next major snow fall would be in November 2026. But the safest party would seem to be the Conservatives, with a really bad winter only every sixty years.

So, not for the first time, I ask, "what am I on about?" This is the bottom line, I'm afraid: Every time we get a really bad winter, we whack up the central heating and produce more of those greenhouse gases. Statistics show that, under a Labour administration, we're six times more likely to get snowed in and, therefore, six times more likely to burn more of those naughty fossil fuels. If we want to cut down on our production of CO2 - vote Conservative! You know it makes sense. Possibly...