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 - √†dela; 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.