Thursday, 20 October 2011

Not painting the banisters

Someone recently asked me if I live on the Forth Bridge. I think the question was prompted by the fact that I always seem to be decorating. Dear friends, I can state quite categorically that I do not inhabit a Scottish railway bridge, but rather an Edwardian house by the Sussex shore that is in need of a lick of paint here and there. And I'm not always decorating. On some days - today, for instance - the sun was shining, so I went for a brief trundle round our local shops.

There often seems to be a kind of contest going on between the shops in Seaford. Earlier in the year many of the traders had circus-themed windows, featuring clowns and the like, and I suspect there must be a prize for the best dressed shop. At the moment, their theme is Hallowe'en, so pumpkins, skeletons, ghoulies (not a misspelling) and ghosties are much in evidence. But I was rather disappointed to see that our local funeral directors seem not to have joined in, however. As I mused upon the kind of display they might usefully have created, I bumped into a couple of programme sellers from the Seaford Bonfire Society.

Today marks the first procession of the newly reformed Seaford Bonfire Society. At around 7pm a motley group of pirates, smugglers (or Seaford Shags) and wreckers will , for the first time since 1977, march with blazing torches from their headquarters, through the town centre and on to a field close to Martello Tower no.74, where there will be a bonfire and firework display. There is a great tradition of bonfire societies in Sussex, most of which march to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the 'Popish Plot'. It is our avowed intention to watch the celebrations tonight, and perhaps partake of a few glasses of ale thereafter. After purchasing my programme and exchanging pleasantries with a medieval lady and a female smuggler with a Jack Russell terrier, I met Mrs H and we betook ourselves to a salvage yard somewhere near Heathfield.

Salvage yards are fascinating places; full of stuff that the likes of you and I (or probably more likely, our parents) ripped out and threw away years ago. As a child of the sixties, I remember the television programmes featuring Barry Bucknell, the first TV DIY star. Mr Bucknell showed his viewers how to cover up an ugly Victorian panelled door with hardboard, and how to rip out those dreadful old fireplaces and install a nice electric fire their place. And now we're spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds to have them put back in. We were quite fortunate; in one of our spare bedrooms, behind a sheet of hardboard, we found an intact Edwardian cast iron fireplace, complete with grate, tiles, and the remains of the last fire.

Anyway, this salvage yard was a veritable treasure trove of old fireplaces, butler sinks, ancient doors, massive oak beams and reclaimed floorboards. One of the most interesting items was what appeared to be the cast iron columns that would originally have held up the glass canopy of a Victorian railway station. We were looking for a fender - one of those metal contraptions that fits around a hearthstone - but sadly none of the size we required were to be found today. There are plenty more salvage yards to go round, so that will be a task for another sunny day when I'm not giving the banisters yet another coat of paint.

After our foray into the world of salvage and reclamation, we drove home via the coast road through Eastbourne. The early autumn sunshine sparkled on the sea as trippers sauntered along the promenade or took the air on the pier, pensioners dozed in the sun-rooms of the seafront hotels, and ice cream sellers made the most of the unexpected warm weather. I'm told that these decent temperatures will be with us for a few days yet. It'll help the paint on my banisters to dry a little faster.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Beer, bells and badges

I like beer. And I like living in Sussex. So I suppose I should regard myself as exceptionally fortunate that I live in the county that is home to a beer to which I am particularly partial. I speak, of course, of Harveys beer. Harveys was founded in 1790 and is still, I'm pleased to say, going strong. And it was to Harveys brewery in Lewes that I and my morris dancing compatriots made our way last Saturday to dance in the Old Ale.

Dancing in the Old Ale has become an annual tradition, and this was my second visit to the festival, having been dancing with Long Man for just under two years. Long Man and other morris sides entertain the crowds, Harveys (by whom we are sponsored, incidentally) lay on a plenteous supply of Old Ale and a buffet lunch, and there is more dancing and general merriment in the afternoon.

After our first dance, I was called forward by the foreman (our 'dance master', if you will), who announced to the assembled public that it was time to present me with my badges. Our Squire (the head of the side) shook my hand and awarded me the much-coveted badges. For a morris dancer, being given your badges is a significant event. It means that the side's 'officers' believe you have reached a satisfactory enough standard to be awarded full membership. So, for the first time on Saturday, I was able to dance with my badges. And The Hat!

Of course, this is just the beginning. I still have a long journey to be anywhere near as good as the long standing members of the side, and there are still many dances from various traditions to learn and retain. But I am extraordinarily proud to be a member of the side and to wear its badges.

Oh, and the beer was pretty good on Saturday, too.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Oh, the Huge Manatee.

Food shopping. I've never quite got used to food shopping. I know it needs to be done and, since we got rid of the manservant, we have to do it ourselves. I'm afraid I find it rather a grim ritual, so, rather unfairly, I tend to leave Mrs. H. to do the useful stuff, like decide on what veg we're having, checking the date on the milk, etc. whilst I eye up the unusual cheeses and cooked meats, and generally get in everyone's way. And it's a curious thing, but I do get in everyone's way. All the time. Because it seems, dear bloggy friend, that wherever I stand whilst I'm waiting for Mrs. H. to determine the appropriate quantity and persuasion of mushrooms that will find their way into the trolley, I'm blocking someone's view of something, or preventing someone from getting to their favourite supermarket item. Last Friday I thought I had the problem licked. I parked myself in front of the Quinoa, whatever the heck that is, and congratulated myself with the thought that no-one was likely to bother me. I could, I thought, stand here, on and off, for days and days. And yet, dear blognator/blognatrix, within a minute a supermarket employee was saying, 'Excuse me, but can I just get to that Quinoa, please?' Next week I'm going to stand in front of the pickled dugong slices. Oh, the Huge Manatee!

But hang on. Perhaps I'm missing a trick here. Maybe I could offer my services to supermarkets to help them shift unpopular items. Let's say they've overbought on lemon puff biscuits. They call me. I stand in front of the lemon puffs for a couple of hours. Sales go through the roof. I'll draft the letter tomorrow.

Although I'm not that partial to the weekly shop, I always enjoy the drive back from the supermarket. As you climb the steep hill just beyond Old Town the last few houses at the edge of Eastbourne are left behind, and then, suddenly, you're on top of the Downs. To your right the rolling, whale-backed hills with views far to the north of the county; to your left, flocks of newly-shorn sheep biting the grass against a backdrop of the shimmering sea and, in the distance, the Belle Tout Lighthouse, famously moved 57 feet back from the edge of a cliff in 1999 to prevent it tumbling into the English Channel. The road rolls eastward through East Dean, Friston, Exceat (with its little bridge over the Cuckmere River) until at last you reach Seaford. And one such recent journey was more fun than usual as a result of something I'd heard on the radio.

The Radio Sussex presenter was talking to a guest; an animal behaviourist, I fancy it was, with specialist knowledge of dogs. And the good people of Sussex were phoning in with their questions and queries about their own animals. One very pleasant-sounding lady was the proud owner of an animal that was a cross between a West Highland Terrier and a poodle - a "Westie-Poo", apparently. This got me thinking. How many other interesting-sounding crossbreeds could I come up with? A Collie crossed with a Lhasa Apso and, hey presto, you have a Collapso. Or a Lhollie. A Pug and a German Shepherd would be a Pugger. And what you'd get if you crossed a Bulldog with a Shih Tzu is nobody's business...

I rather like local radio. In recent years it's suffered at the hands of the likes of Steve Coogan via his portrayal of the tacky, oleaginous Alan Partridge ('Who is the best Lord? Lord of the Flies, Lord of the Rings or Lord of the Dance?'). But on the whole, I like the fact that the presenters are rather more laid back than their counterparts on national radio, or indeed those who work on London stations. Comments and opinions that would result in your call being terminated within seconds on Radio London or LBC are aired on local radio, untramelled by the 'dump' button so often used to deal with callers to stations in the capital. And how refreshing it is to hear news bulletins about truly 'local' issues: the South Downs National Park, the effect of the recession on the rural economy, and items concerning the day to day minutiae of country life. In London, the stations appeared to be incapable of covering 'local' news; they seemed to be obsessed with international issues, government, and the latest edicts from the Mayor of London. And although local radio has its fair share of 'hang 'em and flog 'em' correspondents, the anger and bitterness one encounters on the Big City media seems to be absent. Ok, so they might question immigration policy, disagree with the mores of a percentage of Brighton's community, and spit feathers if a neighbour plays Radio 3 on their wireless after four in the afternoon, but you still feel you'd probably quite like them if you met them propping up the bar in a local pub, or out rambling with their Westie-poos on a Sunday morning...

Sunday morning just gone saw us taking a slow walk along the beach, soaking up the warm July sun and watching a procession of small sailing vessels tripping lightly across the shimmering sea. To our left, the chalky heights of Seaford Head with its colony of wheeling, squalling kittiwakes. To our right, the broad sweep of Seaford Bay, with the port of Newhaven, nestling in the shadow of the Victorian fort, its defensive guns forever silent. And, as the sound of children playing at the water's edge mingled with the lap of the sea and the distant bells of St Leonard's Church, I thanked my lucky stars, for the umpteenth time, that I live in this place.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

If you're looking for serious or intelligent content...

...then you've probably come to the wrong place. Because, try as I might, I don't seem able to comment on some of the weightier issues that now regularly feature on Twitter. Every other day, I log on and find someone or other blowing a virtual gasket about rising sea levels, the royal wedding, foreign unrest or the Alternative Vote system. Twitterati urge me to display a logo in support of this; a ribbon against that; or to bang a drum on their behalf about the other, whatever the other is. And I'm beginning to wonder whether my inability to engage with these weighty matters makes me a Bad Person. I'll give you an example.

The other day, amongst the usual crop of supermarket flyers and half price roller blind offers in the paper, I found a pamphlet from WWF, urging me to 'adopt a tiger'. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't adoption usually involve assuming the role of a parent? I thought to myself, 'if I agree to adopt one, how would I cope with the bottle feeding, the nocturnal roaring and the housetraining?' But then I read on, and realised that all they actually wanted was three pounds a month, not for me to act in loco tigris. In exchange, apparently, I would get a cuddly tiger, and updates about my chosen animal three times a year. What would these 'updates' be, I wondered. Would it be 'January the ninth: wandered about the jungle for a bit. Scared a couple of people. Ate a monkey'? Or would it just be some bland corporate statement about the importance of engaging with authorities in the subcontinent to ensure the continued existence of this particular species? Douglas Adams was of the opinion that the best way to save an animal from extinction is to start eating it. I disagree. I think the best way to save tigers for future generations is to give them names. I think we should try it. I guarantee that poachers would find it much harder to kill a tiger if they knew the Bengal in the cross hairs of their rifle was called Colin. Or Doreen.

See? I must be a bad person. I can't even take endangered wildlife seriously. It's always seemed strange to me that conservationists spend so much time and effort saving creatures that, given half a chance, would kill and eat them. That's probably why I couldn't be a vet, being pecked to pieces by a raptor when all you're trying to do is mend its broken leg. It'd be like a doctor having to fight every patient s/he tried to treat.

I seemed to have strayed from the point a bit. Nothing unusual there. Anyway, when, in an idle moment, I decide to browse through Twitter's timeline, I get the distinct impression that I'm out of step with the rest of the human race. In fact, I'm even beginning to wonder whether I should be on Twitter at all. Let's look at the evidence. I don't hate the Royal Family, or, come to that, Margaret Thatcher, the Daily Mail or the United States. I'm not a 'single issue' tweeter, be it about childcare, or crochet work or science fiction. And I don't feel the need to curse and swear about things that don't impact upon me and that I cannot change. In fact, I can't think of a single issue that would get me up early to carry a placard in a march to 10 Downing Street. But perhaps my fellow tweeters are the same. Maybe they wouldn't be happy marching on government to demand the banning of something or the saving of something else. Perhaps they feel it's enough to eff and blind about it online in a sort of cyber-tourette's outburst. A very good example of this occurs when BBC airs Question Time on a Thursday night. The panel is usually fairly balanced - a tory, a labour politician, a libdem, a right wing thinker and a left wing journalist, or vice versa for the last two. Once the programme gets under way, Twitter's timeline is full of venom and vitriol for the right-wingers, whilst at the same time pointing out how statesmanlike, cogent, intelligent and fair the left leaning panel members are. The programme's live audience are also, I suspect, tweeters on a night out, as almost to a man (or woman) they boo the tories and applaud the socialists. And that's when I start do right wing parties get voted into office when everyone seems to hate them so much? Why did the UK vote so overwhelmingly against AV when everyone on Twitter seemed for it? And why is it that the Daily Mail has the second highest circulation in the UK when it is, apparently, hated with a fierce intensity? And that's also when I long for a return to Twitter's halcyon days. The days when tweeters were content to list their favourite love songs, replacing the word 'love' with 'knob'. Or selecting a species of fish and inserting it into the title of a film or play (example - A midsummer night's bream).

Hmm. I'm in danger of straying into the realms of serious discussion here. Time for a lie down, I think. In the next post it'll be back to morris dancing and Middenshire. Far less controversial...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ale and Fare Well

It occurred to me today that it's rather a long time since I last wrote anything in this humble blog. Let me assure you that I haven't been entirely idle. I'm getting to grips with the part-time job; working twenty hours a week gives me a good reason for getting out of bed in the morning, and helps keep my brain active. I've also started working on a new Middenshire-based project - Old Thuck's Book of Middenshire Days - detailing the history, customs, folklore and people of the long-vanished shire in the style of Chambers' Book of Days. I've written some new material and have jotted down a few ideas for later, and hope to get the thing finished some time this year.

The dancing continues. I've learnt a number of stick dances and can execute them with a fair degree of proficiency. And so, a couple of weeks ago, it was decided that it was time to start me on some hanky dances. Hanky dances, dear reader, are the morris equivalent of flying a helicopter. Whilst listening to the music and counting your dance steps, you need at the same time to be moving your arms and hands in a manner determined by the 'tradition' you are dancing. So, you might be moving your right foot whilst flourishing right hanky, using both hankies to describe a circle in front of you, sidestepping to the left or right whilst flicking out with the hanky...the variations are many. And last night I had the chance to see how much I had absorbed.

The Kennet Morris Men, who hail from Reading in Berkshire, extended an invitation to Long Man to join them at their Kennet Ale. In morris-speak, an 'Ale' is a gathering of morris sides to dance, sing, enjoy a meal together and (let's not deny it) drink small quantities of beer. I and three vastly more experienced dancers than I took them up on their kind invitation, and last night saw us in Bracknell with Kennet, Bathampton Morris from Somerset, Victory Morris from Portsmouth, and Icknield Way Morris from Oxfordshire. There was an interesting start to the evening. It's apparently traditional for the Kennet men to serve pickles to their guests on arrival by way of an aperitif. Last night, as well as offering pickled onions and eggs, they presented us with some rather less common items, including garlic and brussels sprouts. Never being one to shrink from a challenge, I partook of a pickled sprout, and found it piquant, tasty and rather moreish. I might have a bash at making some myself.

The pickles being polished off and tankards filled, the dancing started. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are involved with The Morris; not just dancers, many of whom are much older than me and considerably lighter on their feet; but also the musicians. Violinists, concertina, melodica and banjo players and a smattering of accordionists deftly played their way through a plethora of traditional morris tunes. Now, it's a rule at the Ale that, if you turn up, you have to display one of your side's dances. And this presented us with a bit of a problem. Most morris dances are performed by either six or eight men, and our own dances, unique to Long Man and called the Wilmington Tradition, all require eight men. 'Chris,' said our Foreman (morris-speak for dance master), 'what's the last dance you did on Friday?' I thought for a moment. 'Alfriston Tye,' I said truthfully, and added 'but that was the first and only time I've danced it.' The Foreman smiled. 'Alfriston Tye it is, then!'

Thus it was that I performed a brand new (to me) hanky dance, hastily adapted to cater for four dancers instead of eight, in front of an audience of dancers with a combined experience of around a thousand years. And it worked.

After much massed dancing, we sat down to a meal, washed down with copious amounts of beer. Then, the plates being cleared away and cheese and biscuits produced, a representative of each morris side sang a traditional song to the assembled company. This was the prelude to the night's main sing-along. The tables were moved, our chairs were placed in a wide circle, and the floor was given to any man who chose to rise to his feet and sing. It was traditional fare - mostly sea-shanties, which seemed curious as we were so far from the sea - but this didn't matter. The port was passed round, and then round again and again as we joined in the choruses of these old songs. And it didn't matter if you didn't know them; you joined in with gusto and no-one minded.

Under normal circumstances, a male only function with (seemingly) an endless supply of alcohol would be a recipe for disaster. At the very least, one could expect raised voices, anti-social behaviour, possibly even violence. But this was nothing of the sort. There was no swearing, no voices raised in anger, no smashing of glasses or incivility of any kind. Just a group of men, happy with each others' company and brought together by a shared love of traditional dance. I can't remember when I enjoyed such a convivial evening among a group of people I'd never met before.

The scout hut in which our bash had been held also served as our hotel for the night. As might be expected, there were a few bleary eyes the next morning and an atmosphere that could, perhaps, be described as 'subdued'. But those of us who had met as strangers parted as friends.

And will I go again next year, if I'm invited? Let me see...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year Greetings

Greetings one and all, and a happy new year to you. It seems like an awfully long time since we last spoke - November, I fancy - for which I apologise. But there always seemed to be something else that needed doing. A bit of decorating here; a bit of morris dancing there; and a new job to get to grips with.

I'm not much of a one for new year resolutions. I've always believed that, if you want to do something like give up smoking or lose a few pounds, you should do it when the fancy takes you, and not wait until the 'new year'. In truth, the first of January is probably a very bad time to think about changing your lifestyle in any appreciable way. I mean, let's face it. Christmas has only just gone, so there's still most of the Christmas cake left and a freezer full of the little snacks that seemed such a good idea when you did that Big Shop on Christmas Eve. The drinks cabinet is still bulging with a stack of half empty bottles of port, sherry and those weird liqueurs left over from your last holiday abroad. And you haven't even started on the Advocaat. Apart from all of these very good reasons for delaying your metamorphosis, we haven't even hit Twelfth Night (the traditional end of the yuletide festivities), and the time of wassailing to ensure a decent crop of apples for the year is still a long way off on January the 17th (old Twelfth Night in the Julian Calendar). Nope. Not a good time to give things up.

Allow me to make a suggestion. Why not start your personal reformation on the 25th of March? Otherwise known as 'Lady Day', this was regarded as the start of the year prior to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Beginning your resolutions in March will have two advantages. Firstly, you should just about be getting to the end of all that overbought food and drink. Secondly, Lady Day falls around the same time as the start of British Summer Time. The longer, lighter days bring with them a sense of optimism and a feeling that anything is possible; even losing a bit of weight or getting fitter. Lady Day. March. Spring time. New year resolutions. You know it makes sense.

Happy new year.