Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stand Together in 2012

As 2011 winds down, it is hard not to make comparisons with 1981. Then, as now, the whole country was in the grip of ideologically-driven Tory austerity with attacks on the fundamental pillars of the state and the most vulnerable in society; unemployment was at record levels, as is youth unemployment today; there was also rioting on the streets, although the mass shoplifting of 2011 does have some differences to the eruption of anger at police oppression and hopelessness in England’s major cities thirty years ago.

Back in 1981, the trade union movement was at the forefront of opposing the attacks on working people and, as a young local council worker, I found myself striking to defend jobs and services; in 2011, and now a teacher, I have twice had to take industrial action in protest at the government’s attempts to raise an additional deficit tax from public sector workers under the guise of pension reform. How essential public sector workers ended up being the villains, whilst the bankers who haemorrhaged the economy continue to award themselves bonuses, leaves me feeling sad and angry; but not surprised.

A Tory party that receives 51% of its donations from the financial services sector was only ever going to treat the real villains favourably. Osborne deferred any real reform of the banks for eight years and Cameron went as far as trashing Britain’s role in the EU to, supposedly, protect an industry that only accounts for 10% of the economy. This is set against the fact that manufacturing in this country relies on the EU for 48% of its exports; but at least he has made those swivel-eyed Europhobe back-benchers of his happy.

There has been no support from the Labour Party, of course, for those who are standing up to the Tory bullies and, even now, union leaders have begun to say that the protest was always about “damage limitation”. It seems certain that there is about to be a compromise – in other words, a defeat - on the pensions issue. Our actions in June and November will have been for nothing. All of the public sector workers and trade unionists I have spoken to were not trying to limit damage, they were striking in outright opposition to plans to make us pay more, work longer and get less.

Despite this capitulation by most union leaders, we should continue to oppose this pernicious government of Tories and Liberal Democrats and their class war. With increases in pension contributions and pay still frozen, 2012 will be another difficult year: evermore creative ways to make ends meet; no holiday for the kids; any entertainment carefully rationed. We might be under the yoke but we will get by on what we need; and we should fight back. Major political parties are morally bankrupt and we must support each other through groups and networks that are available. The Brighton Stop the Cuts Coalition and the Hastings Anti-Cuts campaign are both groups of individuals, community campaigns and local trade unionists standing together to fight the cuts. In 2012, get involved and stand together because in 1982 things got even worse. Happy New Year.

Brando in Sussex

The last time I walked the ten mile round trip from my house to the village of Penhurst, high up on the ridge above Battle, I wandered along footpaths skirting golden fields and deep green hedgerows. Under an endless azure canvass, with only a touch of high-blown cirrus clouds, I was lost in the heat of a summer’s day; but that was two years ago. Today, with a light drizzle on a refreshingly chilly morning amidst this year’s unseasonal mildness, it is a different story.

The interregnum between Christmas and New Year is a strange time: joyous idleness easily becomes listlessness; the days are short and the light fades quickly; days of the week become indistinct. After a glut of booze, meat and pickle, a blast of cold air, a cooling rain and some open country are required to restore equilibrium; but after negotiating the public footpath through the fields around Cowden Farm, the ground is so sodden after the recent downpours, that I have to abandon the cross country route and make this a walk along the lanes. The amount of detritus that has been washed onto the road, still lying undisturbed, testifies to the scarcity of vehicles on this route and, as I come out of Prinkle Lane and enter the tunnel of trees that is Bray’s Hill, I have not seen a soul, let alone a car.

At this lowest point of the year, the trees are spectral figures without a sign of life and the landscape is at its most bare and pared back. It is only as I near Brownbread Street and pass the horse sanctuary that I am reminded that this is a Friday and a working day. Brownbread Horse Rescue is a charity that rehabilitates neglected and mistreated horses. There are approximately fifty horses in their care and help from volunteers and donations of old tack are always welcomed; they also have two open days a year - in May and September – when their charges and work can be seen at first hand. That the Ash Tree Inn in Brownbread Street itself is not yet open is a mixed blessing: a pint of Harvey’s would be welcome but this walk is supposed to be clearing away the fug of the festive season. Anyhow, it will be open on the way back.

Making the long climb down the hill from Ponts Green to Ashburnham Forge as the rain develops, I cannot help but think how testing this steep gradient will be on the way home. Ashburnham was the last location in Sussex to have a working blast furnace. When it ceased production in 1813, this saw the end of the Wealden iron industry that dated back to before the Roman invasion but was at its height in the 16th century, supplying much of England’s wrought iron and most of its cannon. When the industrial revolution arrived, the Weald could not compete with the new Ironmasters of the Midlands and the North.

Penhurst too, has its associations with the iron industry: William Relph, a Wealden Ironmaster, built the Elizabethan manor house here. It is a small village and the only other significant building, the 14th century church of St. Michael the Archangel, is the final resting place of the English Marlon Brando. It is hard to see much of that epithet in the actor who played Harold, a Shepherd’s Bush rag and bone man, on the small screen in the sixties and seventies; but Harry H. Corbett’s brooding performances at Joan Littlewoood’s Theatre Workshop at Stratford in the 1950s, in Shakespearean and other classical dramas, drew critical acclaim and comparisons to the American method actor. However, the lure of the small and B-screens eventually led to a Galton and Simpson pilot, The Offer, that became Steptoe and Son, a programme I remember guffawing along to as a child but was too young to really know why at the time. Steptoe and Son ran for twelve glorious years from 1962, during which time Corbett tried to go back to Shakespeare; but by then, his talent for serious drama was unable to transcend his sitcom catchphrase of “you dirty old man!”

Frustrated and disappointed that he had not fulfilled his early promise, when the sitcom ended things got worse: he drifted into cameo roles in bawdy seventies’ films and pantomime appearances. Three years before his death, he suffered a heart attack whilst in panto in Bromley; in 1982, a second attack in Hastings saw his burial in the churchyard here at the ridiculous age of 57. Standing amongst the graves in the now driving rain, I find I have neither the heart nor the legs for the walk back. I need a lift - in more than one sense of the word.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Old School Records

If you head for the most easterly point in Sussex, you will come to Rye. With its steep, cobbled streets lined with pubs, restaurants and hotels it is a town that attracts a considerable number of tourists. There is much to see: Ypres Tower, the surviving part of Rye castle; Lamb House, the home of Henry James at the turn of the 20th century; the view across Romney Marsh to the east and Brede Valley to the west from the tower of St. Mary’s church atop the hill. As one of the Cinque Ports, it has a long association with both high and low born seafarers: providing ships for the royal fleet and the cover of inns with secret tunnels for smugglers, particularly the notorious Hawkhurst Gang; but its greatest attraction can be found in the High Street.

Sitting opposite the junction with Lion Street, the Old Grammar School is a three-storey Jacobean building that dwarfs The Mariners tearoom and Byzantium jewellers either side of it. Its imposing Renaissance facade is impossible to ignore amongst Boots the chemist and the Nat West bank. Dating from the early 17th century, it was built by Sir Thomas Peacocke as a school for boys ‘for the better of education and breeding of youth in good literature’. It ceased to be a school in the early years of the 20th century but the founder’s name lived on at the nearby Thomas Peacocke Community College; until recently. A name change has seen the local comprehensive rebranded as the pithy but bland, Rye College.

However, it is not just the beauty of the building that makes the Old Grammar School such an attraction. For the past twenty years it has been the home of an independent record shop. Rock, jazz, folk, blues and reggae; easy listening, world music, classical, musicals and soundtracks: this vast generic range makes Grammar School Records probably the best independent in East Sussex. Specialising in second-hand vinyl, the massive stock of LPs and 7-inch singles makes stepping through the brick arch doorway into the high-windowed body of the shop a breath-taking experience for any vinyl sentimentalist. On my last visit, my on-going search to replace vinyl that I had lost custody of in the darker recesses of time saw me pick up a copy of The Pogues’ 1984 debut ‘Red Roses For Me’ and The Waterboys’ 1985 album ‘This is the Sea’. But I also came away with a copy of ‘All Good Stuff, Lady!’ by the risqué Brighton music hall comedian Max Miller. I could spend hours flicking through the racks of albums here; the enjoyment is not just finding what you’re looking for but stumbling across what you didn’t know you needed.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Christmas Bowl of Smoking Bishop

In the midst of the serialisation of his mid-period neglected classic, Martin Chuzzlewhit, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was published. A commercial and critical success at Christmas time 1843, its tale of redemption and compassion is arguably the Dickens book that resonates most today. At the close of the novella when Scrooge’s transformation is complete, he tells his clerk Bob Cratchit, “I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss our affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop!"

Smoking bishop was a popular Victorian winter drink made for sharing with friends, warming the soul and keeping winter maladies at bay. If you are keeping open house on Christmas Eve, this is so much more interesting than off-the-shelf mulled wine. It is not too much work but you do need to start preparing it the day before. You will need:

6 oranges
100g sugar
30 Cloves
Large pinch of ground ginger/ground cinnamon/ground mace
2 bottles of red wine
1 bottle of port

*Bake the oranges at 180°C for half an hour until they are pale brown.

*Prick five cloves into each baked orange and place in a warm mixing bowl.

*Pour in the wine, sugar and spices; cover and leave the bowl in a warm place for 24 hours.

*Cut the oranges in half, squeeze them into the wine and sieve it into a saucepan.

*Add the port to the saucepan and gently heat without boiling.

*Keep it on the stove all day for 15 – 20 warming cups of smoking bishop.

On Christmas Eve, our house will be full of light and laughter. Friends will be welcomed, children excited and adults relaxed - everyone will live close enough to walk home. Offerings will be shared: spicy sausage, mincemeat, sloe gin; and aromatic and flavoursome smoking bishop.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

We Wunt Be Druv

Today, Brighton, Hastings and Eastbourne will all host demonstrations by thousands of public sector workers who are refusing to buckle to the will of a Tory government. If the government's determination to carry out a money-grab under the guise of pension reform - and toss it into the bottomless deficit pit caused by bailing out the banks to the tune of £124 billion - has not persuaded every public sector worker that they are being picked on, then Osborne's autumn statement yesterday must have. On the eve of the biggest strike in a generation, the announcement that public sector pay rises will be capped to 1% for two years, after the current two-year pay freeze ends, is tantamount to a government goading the very people who form the backbone of the country: the nurses, teachers and council workers who provide the services that define a civilised nation. Coupled with the announcement, in the same statement, that public sector job losses over the next five years are to increase from 400,000 to 710,000, public sector workers can be in no doubt how valued they are by the current government.

Three-quarters of public sector workers are women and they also form the majority of low paid workers - in any sector – entitled to tax credits. Yesterday’s announcement that the planned increase in child tax credits is to be cut is further proof that the lowest paid and most vulnerable in society are under attack. A bunch of smirking, public school-educated men are taking a sledgehammer to the country on the basis of the votes of 22% of the electorate; and they are being supported by treacherous Liberal Democrats who should hang their heads in shame at being complicit in this Vichy government. Like dogs allowed on the sofa, Clegg and Alexander sat smugly on the front bench yesterday, nodding their heads as the heir to a baronetcy and the Osborne & Little wallpaper fortune declared class war. It's like Thatcher's 'enemy within' all over again...they are spoiling for a fight. So, let's give them one; let's stand up for ourselves and each other by getting out onto the streets of Sussex today - we wunt be druv!

Monday, November 28, 2011

I Told You I Was Ill

Earlier this year, on a sharp spring morning, we walked down the hill from Brede, stepped over the low fence at the side of the road and began following the river eastwards. Our goal was to find, and pay homage at, the grave of Terence Alan Patrick Sean - otherwise Spike - Milligan in the churchyard of St. Thomas the Martyr in Winchelsea. We made our way across the floor of the Brede Valley, the three of us hunched up against the bracing east wind, and talked of the nature of Milligan’s genius, his wartime connection with the area and – most importantly - which pub to lunch in. As we set of, we were unaware of the real feast that St. Thomas’s would provide: the legacy of Robert Douglas Strachan.

We like walking, the three of us – two Andrews and an Austin; and if we can find a pub and the grave of someone heroic or inspiring at the end of it, all the better. The final resting places of Steptoe and Son actor Harry H. Corbett, the writer Malcolm Lowry and the spot on the River Ouse where Virginia Woolf took an unsuccessful paddle have all been the object of walks. But for now, there was a modest six miles in front of us and we only had Milligan on our minds.

That was until we espied the dramatic form of Brede Place, the 14th century stone manor house that entered the literary history of East Sussex when it was rented by the American author of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, in 1899. Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and H.G. Wells were regular guests of Crane until he suffered a massive lung haemorrhage. He did not die at Brede Place but went off instead to spend his final days at a German sanatorium. The legend that his ghost haunts Brede Place rather falls down on this point. Poking out from the still bare trees, however, the house did look forbidding enough for us to pull our coats about us, put our faces to the wind once more and hurry on.

After the long snow-filled winter, to be out on the valley floor was invigorating; the tail-end of the lambing season standing as the perfect metaphor for the first walk of the year. The fields either side of the river were littered with ewes and their offspring and, apart from passing one farmer, we saw no other human beings until we came close to Winchelsea. As our path crossed and re-crossed the River Brede, the scene was positively a pastoral idyll worthy of Clare or Hardy.

At one point, our way crossed the Ashford and Hastings branch line at track level. There was little danger: the line’s 150 year-old, 26 miles survived Beeching but, apart from an hourly fast service between Ashford International and Brighton, only three local trains run each day. We scuttled across all the same.

As we neared Winchelsea, the view of St. Mary’s church tower, atop the hill in Rye, rose splendidly in the distance. This was put into sharp relief by a glimpse of Little Cheyne Court wind farm near Camber, on the other side of Rye. With twenty-six, 380 feet high turbines, National Wind Power’s scheme has been controversial. But the slowly rotating blades and the dumb magnificence of the towers cast an image of terrible beauty across the Sussex spring landscape.

Once in Winchelsea, we climbed Ferry Hill and passed the remains of one of the medieval town gates. We marvelled at the architecture and the tranquillity of the place. Then we went to the pub. The New Inn in German Street afforded us simple food quickly and a restorative pint of Abbot Ale. Tempting as it was to stay in a welcoming bar after a six-mile walk, we needed to complete the business of the day across the road in the churchyard.

Spike Milligan famously wished to have the inscription ‘I told you I was ill’ on his gravestone. This questionably caused the church authorities some consternation and a compromise in Gaelic (duirt me leat go raibh me breoite) means that the immediacy of the joke is lost in the churchyard; but legends are always preferable to the actuality. Austin gave a reading of one of Milligan’s most famous poems, I Must Go Down To The Sea Again. We were suitably moved.

St. Thomas’s has a strange duality of appearance: both preservation and decay. The chancel and side chapels that make up the body of the church are flanked by two ruined transepts. Also visible are the remains of supporting piers of what was thought to be a large central tower; the church was originally the size of a small cathedral. When we stumbled inside from the bright April sunlight our eyes had no need or time to adjust to the gloom. Brilliantly illuminated within, were what our outdoor circuit of the church had given no clue to: the stained glass windows of Douglas Strachan. A Scot, Strachan’s 20th century stained glass windows in St. Thomas’s are memorials to the dead of the Great War and the Rye Harbour lifeboat crew who perished in 1928. Strachan’s work at the church was completed in the twenties and thirties and he was interested in the modernist art of the time. Needless to say, purists are not fans. Shades of his enthusiasm for Futurism and Cubism are apparent, particularly in the disturbing War Memorial triptych. Taking up the windows in the north wall, they represent Land, Air and Fire, and Sea. All of his windows are a marvel and we stood, oscillating wildly, taking in the detail and vibrancy of each one.

This was the crowning glory of the day and, if you are ever anywhere near Winchelsea, I urge you to skive off from what you should be doing and spend half an hour in St. Thomas’s. In fact, make a day of it: walk along the Brede Valley floor; wander past Brede Place; watch Rye rise before you; do it before it snows. Most importantly, spend some time with the legacy of Robert Douglas Strachan.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


“By God the old man could handle a spade/just like his old man.” In his poem, ‘Digging’, Seamus Heaney celebrates his earth-turning lineage but is resigned to his inability to emulate the footsteps of his father and his grandfather: “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them/Between my finger and my thumb/the squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it”. Moving away from his roots and into his writerly existence, Heaney is detached and divorced from the physical and manual essence of life. For him now, his writing is his digging; but Heaney has it wrong – writing and digging are not mutually exclusive, they are both elemental. And if you are a slave to the pen (well, the qwerty keyboard), there is nothing more essential to maintaining equilibrium than moving and breaking up the earth.

Now that the harvest is complete on the allotment (save for the fennel, sprouts and leeks), the waning plants uprooted and composted, the last defiant weeds shaken from the soil, it is time to dig. Each bed is roughly dug, treated to a good covering of muck and then left uncovered to let the winter frost break the soil up even more. I enjoy the digging, turning over the soil in great spade-sized sods and if the weather is against me it is all to the good. Last Saturday, a benign drizzle was whipped into a cold shower by a capricious wind: the mild westerly of the day before had become a stiff north-easterly and, head down and hood up, I dug and dug hunched to the task. Lost in thought, and with the repetitive rhythm of moving up and down each row of the potato beds, I soon passed two hours before I noticed the afternoon light was fading. Breathless but invigorated, I had shaken off the cares of the working week and had set my mind straight on a tricky chapter.

Today, the weather could not have been more different: a warm, low sun meant it was coat off and sleeves up and harder, sweatier work; but there was no less room for thoughtful reflection. Having come from the morning’s Remembrance Day service in Hailsham, where my sons were parading with their Beaver and Cub Scout troops, I was considering whether I would attend regularly if it wasn’t for them. And I’m sure I would, even though I never did before it became something my sons did. Remembrance Day is not only about marking the passing of those who were lost in the senseless slaughter of the First World War - it is also about the loss in all of the conflicts in our name since then; and it is a chance to acknowledge those who fought and have survived and those who survived but are no longer with us.

The wars of the twentieth century still touch so many of us and, as I dug, I thought of my own connections: my dad, orphaned at 18 and in Lancaster bombers as a 22 year old, scared to death over Germany in 1944, an experience he never shook off; his mum, four years earlier, dead from injuries she received when she was blown across the room putting up a blackout curtain during the Blitz. My mum’s brother, also: a prisoner of the Japanese in Burma without having fired a shot and lucky to survive the cruelty and near-starvation. My mum said he was never the same when he came home and I have an early childhood recollection of seeing him before he emigrated to Canada in the late sixties, a stern but quiet man. And my maternal grandfather, who survived the Great War but came home with a leg full of shrapnel that put paid to his pre-war football career with Bury – and certainly to his mooted move to Liverpool that had been interrupted by Franz Ferdinand’s difficulties – and sent him back to the hard life of the railways.

Drifting out of reverie, I am conscious again of the spade - “the curt cuts of an edge” – as it breaks up the roots of the long-dead sweet corn plants; but the digging has caused “living roots [to] awaken in my head”. I never met my father’s mother but she is no less of a “living root” to me than those who survived but were changed forever by their experiences. For Heaney, “the squat pen rests; as snug as a gun” but if I have to choose a weapon it is the spade, “the coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft/against the inside knee”, turning over what has gone before and preparing for what is to come.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Soup Kitsch in Bexhill

About ten years ago, I was standing next to two young men in Tate Modern, on the south bank of the Thames. We were all looking at a stack of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, a replica in silkscreen ink and house paint on plywood of a wholesale brown cardboard box of a banal grocery product. With equal banality one of the men next to me said “I could have done that”. It was a typical remark that I’ve heard many people make about “modern art”. What made me remember this particular occasion was his friend’s reply – “but you didn’t”. I am not sure I understand why artists who can paint and draw eschew this in favour of signing a urinal or making a cardboard box or cutting a cow in half but I don’t really care. The fact that they thought of it - and did it - and I can look at it, think about it and enjoy it is more important than the level of dexterity involved.

If you go down to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, you will be able to see the excellent exhibition Warhol Is Here. You won’t find a Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box but you will see a pile of Brillo Soap Pad Boxes, a 1964 work produced in the same way. When I went to the exhibition recently, I could only admire the painstaking detail with which these had been realistically recreated. Ten years on, I was still no nearer to understanding why but – reassuringly for me at the time of life when convention says I should be getting more narrow-minded – I still didn’t care. You will also be able to see the iconic works from 1962, Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Diptych and other kitsch screenprints of Elizabeth Taylor, Chairman Mao and the electric chair. I could probably say something here about the juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary but I’m not sure what that would be. There is a lot of Warhol’s work on show here - more than I was expecting – including some drawings from early in his career and a collection of posters from his legendarily difficult films such as Lonesome Cowboys, Bad and Flesh. It is a bit of a coup for the De La Warr to have assembled this exhibition so it’s well worth supporting by going along. It runs until 26th February and – the best thing about it – it’s free.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All in it Together

In her book, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education (Verso), Melissa Benn mounts an impassioned defence of universal education, the idea that every child - whatever their background - deserves a serious education with the same high expectations. Along the way, she catalogues the failed opportunities, the obsession with targets and tables and the denigration of comprehensive education meted out by successive governments.

Benn begins by detailing the depressing litany of muddled thinking and ideological idiocy of the current government. The massive expansion of the academies programme and the introduction of free schools – essentially private schools funded from the public purse and accountable only to central government – is a deliberate attempt to phase out local democratic control. If the free schools follow the experience of their Swedish model, Benn warns, it will simply usher in venture capitalists and individuals with dubious motives. The desire of the education secretary, Michael Gove, to impose upon schools the curriculum of a 1950s grammar has resulted in the English Baccalaureate, a narrow set of subjects that excludes Music and Art; and a new preoccupation with prep school Latin, seen as a key feature of the West London Free School of that Tory twerp Toby Young, is a strong indicator of where current thinking on education is coming from. Interestingly, Benn points out, the dominant concern of the traditional education establishment during the debate on the introduction of comprehensive education during the 1960s was to protect the teaching of Latin. Clearly, this is more about social status than being able to read Virgil in the original.

Since the 1944 Education Act created a compulsory and free education system for all, the story of comprehensive education has been one of missed opportunities and the compounding of a system of apartheid. The 1944 act created winners and losers broadly along class lines: grammars for those who passed the 11+ and secondary moderns for those who did not; but class lines were not always reliable and middle class children who failed the 11+ were consigned to the secondary moderns to the horror of their parents. The effect of this was twofold: nearly dead private schools were unwittingly revived – 11+ failures boosted their admissions – and the Tories lost the 1964 General Election on the issue; but this push from the middle classes for a universal education system was not capitalised on. Comprehensive education was introduced in the 60s and 70s but selection was never abolished. In areas where selection still existed, grammar school places became much prized; and they still are today. After private schools, grammars are where the wealthy want to send their children. In places such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, where selection still exists, the middle classes have colonised the grammars. Only they can afford the property prices that spiral in the catchments of these schools and only they can afford to coach and tutor their kids through the 11+; and the continued existence of this system distorts the intake in the comprehensives in these counties: they are in fact old-style secondary moderns. Whereas in the post war years grammar schools provided a limited opportunity for social mobility for bright working class kids, the economic muscle of the middle classes means there is no such opportunity today. What would increase social mobility is a genuinely comprehensive system – truly all in it together – that we have never had.

More recent history has eroded the comprehensive ideal further. Tory education acts of the late 80s and early 90s introduced the National Curriculum, league tables and SATs. League tables pitted selective state schools against those with the broad intake of community schools – this was nonsense and, the fact that they could not compete, began the denigration of comprehensives. New Labour, with Alistair Campbell’s revealing phrase “bog standard comprehensive” and the choice of Blair and Harman to send their children to selective schools across London from their homes, further compounded the demonization of universal education; and when Diane Abbot sent her child to a private school, the message was clear. However, there was investment in buildings and an improvement in results under New Labour. The national rate of students achieving five good GCSEs rose from 45% in 1997 to 60% today; but this slavery to league tables merely meant the focus was all on that 15% in the middle and schools continue to routinely pour all their resources into their borderline students. The ones at the top end will still excel with a standard level of teaching and learning but those at the bottom..? The 40% who don’t get five good GCSEs are written off and these will inevitably be the most deprived and vulnerable; but to those making the decisions this does not matter. Benn quotes the radical academic Danny Dorling’s condemnation of the belief of the powerful “that just a few children are sufficiently able to be fully educated, and only a few of those are then able to govern”. When Benn speaks at the Oxford Union she is seriously asked by an undergraduate why we need to educate everybody when someone needs to sweep the streets. Depressing.

New Labour’s record on education was not progressive: there was no end to selection but instead they began the fragmentation that is the current threat to the system. They ushered religious groups and the private sector into the stew with their faith schools and academies programme. It is they who have brought us to here, to a hotch potch of swivel-eyed crusaders and religious fanatics running free schools; and even Labour’s new shadow education secretary has ruled out total opposition to the free schools programme. The private sector is becoming increasingly involved: for-profit organisations are circling the free school movement and the increase in the academies programme will see an expansion in business sponsors. One academy that Benn visits in Manchester is merely a vocational factory turning out workers for the nearby airport. This is in effect state-subsidised privatisation and an indication of the mindset that has taken hold in recent years: learning for its own sake is wasted on some and they are only fit to be educated for work. In the real education private sector, public schools are keen to preserve the charitable status which gives them annual tax relief to the tune of £100 million - of taxpayer’s money. Much is made of their partnerships with state schools but this is merely window dressing. Private schools do not explicitly bar entry to anyone but as Benn points out “freedom of entry is on a par with the welcome that Harrods or the Island of Mustique extend to your average UK family”. What fee paying parents really want is their children to be educated away from state school kids.

The current landscape makes the post war years of grammars and secondary moderns look lean and ordered by comparison. Community schools, grammars, academies, faith schools, free schools, independents – all in the name of the ubiquitous notion of choice; and the truth is they present no choice to most. This bewildering fragmentation will only be navigated by those with the greatest means and the sharpest elbows. Most will settle for a school with little knowledge of how its resources are being drained to support more ideologically-driven areas of the education system. Benn uses the example of Finland, where the achievement gap between social classes is the narrowest in the world. Their system is simple: there is no choice; all children attend their local school which is inevitably, because of equality of resources and a balanced intake, a good school. Their system does not “pit child against child or school against school”. Our education system has constantly sought to segregate children. Even in the community school where I work, the core subjects of English, Maths and Science set children by ability from the age of 11. This results in students with special educational needs and those from the poorest backgrounds being in the lowest ability groups. This is despite evidence that the highest-performing systems delay setting and streaming until later in adolescence and the poorest performing national systems divide their pupils at too young an age. As Benn says, mixed-ability teaching “offers the fairest and overall most effective method of learning, certainly in the early years of secondary education”.

We should all be interested in what Melissa Benn has to say about education; at the close she asks “will we – parents, citizens, taxpayers – stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into hands of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?” The answer has to be emphatically no but, as Benn points out, our state schools have never been held with the same public regard as the NHS and this has not stopped our system of universal healthcare edging towards fragmentation and privatisation. So, we must fight back, and defend and promote the idea of comprehensive education because, as Benn says, “the alternative scenario…is too frightening to contemplate.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

British Sea Power at East Wintergarden

British Sea Power how do I love thee? Let me count the ways: the first song of yours I heard references the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel of fatal attraction across the class divide, The Go-Between – it was love at first sound; you sing of “interstellar clouds on the Sussex Downs” and write sleeve notes about Malcolm Lowry’s death in Ripe; and you play gigs in the strangest places – from the Whitecliffs Promenade Café in Saltdean to the highest pub in the Yorkshire Dales, the Tan Hill Inn. And yesterday’s venue, at the hellish heart of business, was no exception: East Wintergarden is a glass atrium some 80 feet high in the middle of Canary Wharf in London; more used to hosting corporate swilling, somehow BSP had managed to convince Mammon to let them in to its temple. With capacity for only a couple of hundred, seated cabaret style, this intimate early evening semi-acoustic set was a warm up for the band before hot-footing it across London to play at the Barfly in Camden later in the night.

It was standing room only when we arrived and Roy Wilkinson, BSP’s former manager and brother to Yan and Hamilton of the band, was giving a reading from his book Do It For Your Mum, his tale of rock dreams and family farce. This was quickly followed by further support from punk poet Jock Scott, whose ramblings took in backpacks, domesticity - “a poem from when I thought I was happily married” – and John Cooper Clarke. When we spotted the band getting up to prepare to go on stage, we nipped in and grabbed their table. I had never before been to a gig where I was sat at a table, let alone one with a tablecloth; and with a bottle of merlot in front of us I was half expecting some chicken to arrive in a basket.

This was a different experience from when I saw BSP at Leefest in the summer: no foliage and supporting cast of robots, bears and foxes; the band were sedentary, so no antics from Noble; and with Yan on acoustic guitar it was a stripped down, mellower sound which worked beautifully. With the “high-church amplified rock music” reined in, Phil Sumner’s cornet and Abi Fry’s viola and backing vocals shone through. Songs already tender – The Lonely, The Land Beyond, Bear – sounded magical. Bear, inexplicably tucked away on last year’s Zeus EP, was particularly gorgeous. Heartier BSP favourites such as Carrion, Larsen B and It Ended on an Oily Stage were transformed. Even in skeletal form, Waving Flags prompted an outbreak of dancing with one group atop their table, much to the concern of the staff who were more used to corpulent corporate types.

By 9.30 the band were gone and so were most of the audience – probably following the trail to the Barfly. Sadly, we had no tickets for the second gig but, as we seemed to have polished off three bottles of wine, it was probably wise. Feeling thoroughly sated, we stepped out in to the dark canyons of Canary Wharf to make our way out of Hades.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Apple Day

The Herstmonceux Allotment Association’s (HAA) Apple Day has now become a regular event every October. Last weekend, for the fourth year running, allotmenteers banded together to pick juice apples on the fruit farm that houses the allotment site. Being paid the going rate by the farmer for each giant crate filled with Cox’s, it is an opportunity for the HAA to raise some funds and a fantastic way of getting the community together and involved in the harvest. Since the first Apple Day in 2008, when the rain was coming down like stair rods (© my mum) for the duration, this event has been blessed with glorious autumn sunshine and this year was no exception. Meeting up early on Sunday morning, the blue sky and balmy temperature guaranteed a good turnout and the number of pickers was further swollen by a contingent of Canadian students from the study centre at Herstmonceux Castle.

There has been a considerable apple crop this year; the dry hot weather of the early summer balanced with just enough rain later in the summer saw the fruit blossom and swell. Even after the picking of the premium sun-ripened apples on the outside of the trees - bound for the supermarkets - there was still an abundance to be picked. Inner branches and those near the ground were heavy with low-hanging fruit; this made for quite back-breaking work but there were plenty of children on hand more suited to this, literally, low-level work. That’s when they weren’t charging up and down the rows of trees, chasing and hiding from each other, which seemed to them a much more agreeable way to spend the time than getting snagged on a tangle of branches.

It wasn’t just hard work: with the warm October sun on our backs, it was an idyllic way to spend the morning. It was difficult not to romanticise: this is what my grandparents would have travelled from London to Kent to do for their summer holidays each year. Too many of our lives now don’t have the balance between mental and physical work that is essential to wellbeing and it felt good working up a thirst and an appetite. Eating the produce was a difficult temptation to overcome, especially if you came across one of the sporadic Russet trees, planted amongst the Cox’s for cross-pollination. With skin the texture of coarse leather, these burnished ochre apples are the sweetest you can smell or taste. Having eaten three before the sun was at its highest, I was in danger of leaving no room for the barbecued sausages that were promised for lunch.

After a morning of picking, we wandered back through the rows of fruit trees to the barn where the barbecue was smoking and the cider barrel had been tapped. Refuelled with hot dogs, burgers and cake the children formed a water-fighting mob, running free over the allotment site whilst the grown-ups sat around, basking in the glow of the day-star and drinking cider. The decremental pricing of the cider – first glass £1.50 and each subsequent glass 50p cheaper until your fourth and any further glasses would be free – was a dangerous incentive. However, its cloudy stillness and strength was such that it was impossible to make it past a third glass, although it was pleasant enough making a valiant attempt. All things pomaceous - the effort of apple-picking and the effect of sampling them in their fermented form – finally took their toll and in mid-afternoon the congregation wandered home tired and fulfilled for another year.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Self Preservation Society

It’s that time of year when the final flourish of some crops presents a headache. Those extra rows of late-planted beetroot, more than can be eaten by the family, need to be properly stored; but the consistent temperature required and all that mucking around with boxes and sand make it easier to give it away. The glut of suddenly reddened hot and sweet peppers from the greenhouse is more than even the most ardent heat-seeking foodie can stomach. And the apples; oh, the apples… The answer is, of course, preserving. If you’re pushed for space - as we are in our house - pickles, chutneys and relishes are a very easy way of putting any excess to good use. If you can grow it yourself, you can preserve it yourself.

Pickled beetroot
1 kg beetroot, washed
600 ml pickling vinegar
50g caster sugar
Pinch of chilli flakes
Approx. 2 small preserving jars

Roast at 200 C for 50 – 90 minutes, or until soft.
Leave to cool.
Stir the sugar into the vinegar.
Peel away the beetroot skins then slice.
Pack into warm sterilized jars.
Pour in vinegar to cover beetroot..
Add chilli flakes.
Seal and shake jars lightly.
Store in a cool, dark place.
Leave at least a month before using.
Will keep for 6 months but refrigerate after opening.

Apple chutney
1 ½ kg cooking apples, peeled and diced
750g light muscovado sugar
500g raisins or dates
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
700ml cider vinegar
Approx. 4 small sterilised preserving jars

Add all ingredients into a jam pan.
Slowly bring to the boil.
Simmer for 40 minutes or until thick.
Add to jars and seal.
Store in a cool, dark place.
Leave for 3 months before using.
Will keep for a year but refrigerate after opening.

Chilli relish
100g long fresh red chillies; deseeded and finely chopped
100g red peppers; cored, deseeded and finely chopped
630g jam sugar
400ml cider vinegar
Approx. 4 small sterilised preserving jars

Stir the sugar into the vinegar in a jam pan over a low heat.
Add the chillis and peppers.
Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes
Allow to cool for 45 minutes or until jelly-like
Add to jars and seal.
Leave for 3 months before using.
Will keep for a year but refrigerate after opening.

Friday, September 30, 2011

¿Le gusta este jardín?

In the lazy, late autumn sunshine, I walked down from Firle Beacon – ignoring a restorative pint in the Ram Inn in the village of Firle – and crossed the A27. I had some unfinished business in the village of Ripe. Nearly two years ago, on a stark, cold day early in the New Year, three of us had walked from Berwick to Ripe to blow away the Christmas cobwebs. Another of our intentions that day was to pay homage at the grave of the English writer Malcolm Lowry but, I am ashamed to say, the bitter weather and the lure of lunch in the Lamb Inn at Ripe caused us to abandon our search of the churchyard and head for the pub with his grave unfound. We didn’t even walk down the lane behind the Lamb and look at the blue plaque on White Cottage, Lowry’s final home, because we had tarried too long at the fireside and had a train to catch; for shame!

Malcolm Lowry’s finest work, Under the Volcano, is a semi-autobiographical story of the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British Consul in a town in Mexico. Published in 1947 but set in the late thirties, the novel has a fractured temporal structure: flashbacks, digressions and the interiority of the characters mean that the whole picture is only gradually revealed. But it is a stunning book: the volcano is a constant metaphorical presence and the tension between Firmin, his ex-wife and his half-brother is palpable throughout. And the politics of the time – the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of nationalist ideology – provides a constant threat. A notice in a public garden -¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! (Do you like this garden, which is yours? Make sure your children don't destroy it!) – is a recurring motif for the destructive force of facism and is repeated again at the novel’s close.

Lowry himself, although born in the north-west of England, spent much of his life as an expatriate. By 1936, at the age of 27, he was living in Mexico having already lived in Spain, France and America. In New York, he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital following a breakdown caused by excess of alcohol. In Mexico, he began to write Under the Volcano but his wife left him because of his behaviour. By 1938 he was living in a shack in British Columbia, Canada with his second wife, Margerie. Despite them both being heavy drinkers, this was a productive and successful time for Lowry: Under the Volcano was published and most of his other work was written there; but they left Canada in 1954 and spent a nomadic period taking in New York, Europe and London. Bizarrely, they settled in Ripe.

Whilst being treated for his chronic alcoholism in London, his doctor recommended a furnished rental in East Sussex that would provide the quiet and relative isolation required for his abstinence and recovery. This was White Cottage in Ripe and the Lowrys took up residency in early 1956. They enjoyed life in Ripe: walking the quiet lanes, birdwatching in Deanland Wood and trips to the coast; but Margerie had never stopped drinking and by the end of May Lowry started drinking again and they managed to get themselves barred from the Lamb Inn. Following a drunken row over a bottle of gin, Lowry threatened Margerie and the publican and then spent the night roaming the countryside in a drunken stupor. For the next year, life alternated between periods of writing and bouts of catastrophic drinking. At one point Lowry’s Alfriston GP was so alarmed by his condition that he signed an order for him to be admitted to the mental observation ward at Brighton Hospital.

Finally, on the night of 26th June 1957, after an evening of rowing and drinking at the Yew Tree in nearby Chalvington, Margerie spent the night at a neighbour’s leaving Lowry alone at White Cottage. The next morning he was dead. With alcohol and barbiturates the cause, a verdict of death by misadventure was recorded by the coroner, although Margerie told some at the time that it was suicide. Despite his idealising of the Canadian shack and his strong connection with Mexico, Lowry was buried in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist in Ripe.

Having read of the modesty of Lowry’s grave, I found it easily enough this time. Overgrown with grass and a wild rose bush, I did a quick bit of tidying up; and it was then that I found a pleasant surprise. Beneath the headstone, laid flat on the grave, was a glazed tile with the image of a sunlit volcano and the final words of his most memorable novel. Lowry is feted in Canada and Mexico – sadly, more so than here – and I am sure it must have been some pilgrims from this latter country who had enlivened this corner of a Sussex churchyard with a flavour of Lowry’s real and fictionalised lives.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


There was a time when competition was confined to that truly contentious area of life: sport. Now, ambition and achievement are ubiquitous words in the world of work, entertainment and leisure. Every sphere of service is required to trumpet its “achievements” against a set of targets; budding entertainers are made to elbow aside their peers on television shows to realise their “ambitions”; shoppers are whooped and applauded because they are the first to “achieve” their “ambition” to buy the latest i-product.

In some cultures, ambition is an entirely pejorative term, considered to be a sign of disequilibrium, discontent, an overreaching, grasping self. It is a word I have never tended to trouble myself with. Achievement is equally tainted: it smacks of success and triumph for their own sakes. Interestingly, the modern antonyms of these words are apathy and failure, not satisfaction and contentment. They are about reaching as high as possible; there is no place for the modest notion of the ambition and achievement of happiness. The language of a competitive culture has stripped these words of any of their context. As the air of competition has bled into other areas of life, the sporting Corinthian spirit has not. The idea that we do not all need to be winners because we enjoy taking part anyway, seems incapable of being transferred to the way we live. There is no room for heroic Joe Gargery - who has “a place that he is competent to fill, and fills well and with respect” – but plenty of space for the sharp-elbowed Pips of this world.

I decided to locate my place in a culture of ambition by identifying one defining achievement of my own. Could it be that time I spent three days holed up at home reading a biography of The Clash and listening to their five albums on heavy rotation? Or having read all of Dickens’ novels, including the unedifying Edwin Drood? In the interests of wider research, I sent messages to everyone I have ever known asking if they can recall me doing anything that might be described as an achievement, something that scaled the heights. It took a while to sift through both replies, but it was worth it, because they were both achievements of a modest sporting hue. This is what the messages said:

You once scored 180 in a proper darts match.

You headed some great goals for the Sunday football team.

You may think that I’m just being flippant and self-deprecating but you’d be wrong. Have you done either of those things? Possibly. Both of those things? Maybe. But there are a lot of people that have done neither. And do you know why? Because they’re difficult, that’s why.

I used to be in an office darts team and we played in a league against other companies. I was particularly bad at darts but around the three pint mark I would be relaxed enough, but alert enough, to get the odd treble twenty; and one night in a pub in Aldgate, I got three on the trot. When the first treble chunked in, mildly pleased, I thought “if I can keep in the twenties I might score a hundred here”. But when my second dart also landed in the little red rectangle I was overwhelmed with the pressure of expectation. I didn’t want to move my arm. I thought “if I can just follow my previous aim”, but the effort of concentration was crushing me. There is a narrow road across a causeway in Wales that is dead straight for a mile and a half. On one side there is a stone wall, on the other side oncoming traffic. When I drove across, I found concentrating so intense that halfway I was tempted to slump over the wheel and crash into the wall sobbing “I can’t go on!” So I stopped concentrating and threw the third dart. One hundred and eighty! The pub erupted and everyone bought me a drink. And I thought, “that was easy”. But I never managed it again. But I did head more than one goal.

Sunday morning football is unpleasant. The season never gets going until late September and most other teams in the division fold after Christmas. It is always cold and muddy. The opposition are always psychopathic; they veer from being creepily friendly one moment, to screaming sexual swear words in your ear the next. Amidst all this you have to try and play football. But it is real football; with goals and nets on a full size pitch. Proper kit, a referee and sometimes even linesmen; and always with supporters of the other team - the ones from their pub who are too mad to be allowed to play. And it is aggressive and it is physical; and it is nowhere more intimidating than in the penalty area waiting for a corner. As a centre-back, if we ever won a corner, I would trot up field and take my place in the box; and it would shock me every time. The physical presence of their defenders, lumps every one. The smell of their breath, the steam rising from their heads. The shock of their hard bodies as they backed into me, the sharpness of their elbows, and their weight as they trod on my toes; and in the midst of all this, I used to score goals. With my head.

When I first started playing Sunday football I wasn’t too keen on heading the ball. I played in midfield then and could usually avoid it; but once I started playing at centre-half it was unavoidable. Up against a lot of route one football, heading a ball dropping from the sky felt like a blow from a hammer at first; but I got used to it and quite good at it; and I became quite adept at scoring headed goals from corners. As a corner kick comes curling over, the defender’s main aim is to physically stop you running and jumping to meet the ball. This is fair enough - in Sunday football only the clearest cut fouls receive a penalty. To avoid this, I would back off as the ball came over and loop round to the back of the box. Invariably, our corners were over-hit and just as everyone had measured the kick as a bad one, I would arrive at the back post and catch the ball squarely and sweetly with my forehead to send it across the face of the goal into the far corner of the net. From kick to goal, about three seconds, and when you see a headed goal from a corner on television it looks dull, ordinary, easy. You try it; it’s quite an achievement.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fret-Free Foraging

Autumn is the time of year when hedgerows, byways and woodlands have plenty of food for foraging. All of the free fruit detailed here I have found within walking distance of home every autumn. There are certain woodland spots where I have come across intrepid wild mushroom hunters but I lack the confidence to differentiate between wild mushrooms and poisonous fungi. A relative swears by the rule of thumb that if you can peel the outer skin from the cap with your finger, then it’s edible. She is probably right as she eats them every year and has been around for seventy summers; or she might just be lucky. There are a few things I would lay my life on the line for; a tasty mushroom is not one of them. Therefore, I have no advice to impart on mushrooms. Instead, here is a modest guide to fret-free foraging:

The blackberry - to the more ambitious this word now only means a mobile communication device – is the most commonly foraged fruit; brambles grow everywhere. Last year, we spent an afternoon gathering blackberries in woods near Herstmonceux Castle only to realise on returning home that there was a huge bramble cascading out of the motor mechanic’s yard opposite rich with plump, ripe blackberries. Blackberries are usually ripe in September but I have long seen berries turning from red to black this year. The earlier fruit are much sweeter so make delicious puddings and pies; later fruit is less sweet and ideal for sugar-rich jam recipes. Once you are unable to wash the fruit without it disintegrating, you will know the season is over.

Early autumn is also usually the time to forage for elderberries. I have seen the elder tree in woods and on footpaths with large bunches of berries hanging from the branches. They are the size of a blackcurrant and are deep purple, almost black in colour when ripe; the tree can grow quite tall so some clambering can be required to get at them. Patience is needed to remove the fiddly stalks but it is well worth it. Elderberries can be used to make wine and jam but we used ours to make muffins last year.

The beautiful dusty, bluish-purple fruit of the blackthorn tree, the sloe is a bit bigger than a blueberry. They are ripe from September onwards but it is said that a less bitter fruit will be harvested after the first frost. This can vary, but October is the most likely time for sloe foraging. The blackthorn is common in hedgerows, verges and woodlands and must only be used, of course, to make sloe gin. We made three litres last year and dished it out to friends and family as Christmas presents; it was so sweet and strong that what we kept back for ourselves was first tasted on Christmas Eve and all gone by New Year. This is the recipe:

450g sloes
225g caster sugar
4 almonds
1 litre gin

Prick sloes several times with a needle and put in a large sterilised storage/Kilner jar. Add the sugar, almonds and pour in the gin. Seal it, shake well and store in a cool, dark cupboard.

Shake every other day for one week and then shake once a week for two months. It can be strained through a muslin lined colander after three months and can be drunk immediately, just in time for Christmas. But will improve with age if you can bear to leave it for longer.

A variation of this recipe is to replace the sloes with blackberries and the gin with brandy.

The dense, fine needle spikes of the sweet chestnut case can be found on woodland floors from October. The cases will usually be split to reveal the nuts but, if not, it can be painful on the fingers getting at them. If you want to make stuffing for Christmas it is best to blanch, peel and freeze the chestnuts. That is if you can resist simply roasting and eating them in front of late autumn’s first fires. We roast ours in the ashpan of the wood burner: it gives them that straight from the brazier, cor blimey it's taters, Dickensian street-seller taste.

I have seen a lot of these in hedgerows lately but cannot overcome a long-held aversion built up in childhood having had rosehip syrup spooned down me regularly as a ‘tonic’. Have they any other use?

Monday, September 12, 2011

British Sea Power at Leefest

There’s not much that makes me want to travel any distance outside of Sussex these days: the odd march against the cuts; the occasional football match; some walking in the Mendip Hills. But Sussex’s finest, British Sea Power, are a band that I’m prepared to make sacrifices for - even to the extent of forcing my family to go to a two day festival on the border of Kent and Surrey. That meant camping. With small children. Three of them. I don’t know who was more apprehensive, me or my wife. We are not natural music festival goers; she had never been to a festival and my solitary experience was at Glastonbury in 1981 (yes, 1981) and I still have the crooked nose to prove it.
I’ve always preferred live music indoors in as small a place as possible but when the nascent New Order were slated to play second fiddle to Hawkwind (Glastonbury was still very hippy in 1981; not the fixture of the mainstream summer social calendar it is today), a few of us travelled down to Somerset in our post-punk raincoats to soak up the gloom. Despite some pleasant diversions - Roy Harper and Ginger Baker having a fist fight on stage; the Comsat Angels’ set – we were only really interested in New Order. And they were hugely entertaining: Bernard Sumner doing an impression of Norman Wisdom doing an impression of someone off their face throughout the set. The only problem was a hippy in front of me who kept jumping up and down and shouting for Hawkwind. I reasoned with him; he ignored me. I hit him on the head with a plastic scrumpy flagon; he headbutted me in the nose. So much for peace and love; good job I had as much sense and feeling as Barney that night.
Leefest is an annual festival held in August on a farm between Biggin Hill in Kent and Warlingham in Surrey. It’s organised by a bloke called Lee and any profits go to the charity Kids Company. It started in Lee’s back garden six years ago and has since grown to the 2,000 capacity event it was this year. Commercial festivals are huge and expensive so finding out that British Sea Power were headlining on the second night of a small and relatively inexpensive festival (£55 each for us and free for the kids) meant that our summer holiday plans were sealed.
When we arrived at the site it was clear that it was a real home grown festival: hand-painted signs, Lee’s friends and family acting as the staff, even the few security people were ridiculously cheerful. The kids were delighted to have orange bands fixed to their wrists that they couldn’t take off, not even to wash. We pitched our tent in the small family camping area, along with about six other families, and then cast our gaze across the main camping field only to realise that 95% of festival goers were closer in age to our children than us. Not to worry; as we found out over the next two days, everyone was very friendly and mostly considerate, and the organisers were keen to find out what families thought of, and wanted from, LeeFest. People on the staff stopped and spoke to us many times asking our views.
We sort of forgot that young people don’t go to bed if they don’t have to. As a result, we didn’t get too much sleep while we were there, although our children slept through all of the music, singing and shouts of “Alan!” (evidently funny if you knew the reference – we didn’t) coming from the main campsite all through the night.Our kids had a great time: watching bands, eating fast food and ice cream and staying up late. The highlight for the boys was being around the midnight camp fire, organised by Lee’s dad Colin, watching the flames and sitting next to real teenagers.
We saw lots of acts: new rave dominated on the Friday night with The Whip and Fenech Soler but some of the best bands were lesser-known: the lively electro-crooning of Miss Scarlett, the punky pop of Bordeauxx (bit of a red theme there) and the retro swing of Frankie and the Jacks all impressed. On the Saturday night, at the same time that British Sea Power were playing, the dance tent was headlined by DJ Fresh. The name meant nothing to me but he was evidently number one in the singles chart (they still do that?) in July, guaranteeing that the young people were all watching/ dancing to him. Seeing British Sea Power with only a couple of hundred people right in front of the stage was a real treat; not as intimate, I imagine, as the gigs back in May that I failed to get tickets for at the tiny Berwick Village Hall in East Sussex, though.
Despite having played in Budapest the day before, British Sea Power took to the Leefest stage – customarily bedecked with foliage - with all their usual energy, blasting through their call to protest ‘Who’s in Control?’ from the recent Valhalla Dancehall long player. Their set took in a variety of songs from the frantic hooks of ‘Remember Me’ to the stately instrumental magnificence of ‘The Great Skua’. When I last saw British Sea Power, I suddenly heard the song ‘Atom’ with fresh ears and realised the greatness of its two chord punk sensibility. At Leefest, it was ‘Georgie Ray’ from the latest album that revealed itself as a work of staggering genius. At once both fierce and tender, its plaintive refrain of “won’t you say something?” built to a stunning climax that volleyed through the warm August night like a prayer. By this point, much to my kids’ delight, the stage had long been filled with a cast of additional characters: Mr Fox, having appeared after the first number drinking, looking menacing and semaphoring with two wooden pigeons, was quickly joined by two robots - one called Titan. By the time of the ‘Rock In A’ finale, Ursine Ultra the 10ft bear was also part of the wildly dancing throng. Guitarist Noble, perhaps to escape the onstage melee, then perilously climbed the stage rigging as the strobe lighting turned my children into whirling dervishes.
The next day, the children were exhausted and lolled about on the grass as we tried to pack away our camping gear; we looked across to the main camping field at the young people just walking away from their one-person, pop-up, disposable tents. Oh, to be young, free and without responsibility…

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Through A Class, Darkly

It goes like this: thirty-odd years of conservative (yes, small c) governments succeed in convincing half of the working class that they are middle-class, and the other half that they are an underclass. The former look down on the latter, the latter feel resentful and adrift. Result: divide and rule. The decimation of manufacturing means the former now work in non-unionised service jobs, the latter have no work at all. Result: any power base is gone. Meanwhile, the left’s agenda diversifies into race, gender and sexuality issues, forgetting that class underpins everything. Result: the emasculation of the working class.
Owen Jones’ book, ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, reminded me that the class war is still being played out in the “classless society” and it is the privileged that are waging war on those at the bottom. It also reminded me that the Labour Party has played its shameful part in this betrayal and neglect of the people that it was born to represent. Whether post-New Labour, the courage to defend ordinary people will be found, rather than being in hock to some mythical middle England demographic, is yet to be seen. But as Jones points out, there is a crisis in affordable housing and secure jobs that goes all the way back to Thatcher's revolution in home ownership and industry. These must be Labour's priorities if they are to fight back against working class inequality.
Much of that inequality sets in early: the obsession with results and league tables in the education system has compounded the idea that only the best has value; anything less is a guarantee of disillusionment. This is an excellent book that crystallises many of the arguments against the almost silent inequities in Tory-led Britain. It should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that “we are all middle class now”.

Never Mind The Ballots

It's that time of year when the form to renew your entry on the Register of Electors drops through your letterbox. You might just be wondering whether it's anything worth registering for. At the General Election in May 2010, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t vote. My sixteen year-old self would be pleased with me. That sixteen year-old used to hand write labels bearing slogans such as “Whoever you vote for the government will get in”; and, in a corruption of a Bertrand Russell quotation, “If voting changed anything it would be illegal”. He used to stick them on buses and trains as part of a sketchy grasp of anarchism derived from a Sex Pistols song – disobedience and anti-authority were the order of the day. If he wasn’t eligible to vote in 1979, he had long been by the time of the following General Election; he duly put his ‘X’ against the longest suicide note in history, Thatcher having convinced him that she must be voted out. At any point in the following years, my adult self would have been appalled at the idea of not voting. That adult dismissed non-voters as having disallowed themselves from a point of view - he even advocated compulsory voting.
In recent years, I have voted with a heavy heart until, in May last year, I finally decided that there was no-one I could vote for: a collection of centre ground parties with each other’s policies or single issue fringe parties peopled by splenetic weirdos. Not a real radical vision to be seen anywhere; not an idea that might close the widening gap between rich and poor; not an aspiration beyond the narrow life of ‘choice’ for ‘hard-working families’; the leaders, a collection of career showroom dummies. (How dare the hapless Gordon Brown be awkward and grey, have a strange grin and poor eye-sight!) Since then, Ed Milliband has completed the line-up of forty-something Oxbridge educated, career politicians with thick hair and winning smiles. And if they all look like salesmen and accountants in their ubiquitous navy suits, they kind of are. Voting is presented like a Which? magazine consumer test of vacuum cleaners; not for the common good but what is right for you. Every idea or policy is subject to a cost benefit analysis: if it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t work. The bean counters have truly taken over.
It’s not just me, the whole country could not make a decisive choice from what was on offer; which is why we have the coalition government, the very embodiment of the insincerity of career politicians. Two parties, supposedly ideologically opposed, turn out to be indistinguishable from each other and prepared to sacrifice anything to sniff the mantle of power. The Tories, pleading austerity to cloak their good old-fashioned ideology of hatred of the weak, dragging along a willing hostage to fortune; the Smilesian self-help of the ‘big society’ as a cover for the abdication of responsibility to provide the cornerstones of the Beveridge/Atlee model of the civilised state. Meanwhile from the sidelines, Labour heckles the sort of Blairite policies of the new government (creeping NHS privatisation, fixed-term council tenancies) that it wished it had had the brass neck to go through with in the previous thirteen years. And the price the Liberals are being paid for their complicity in this Vichy government? Some ministerial positions and a referendum on the Alternative Vote system – not even the Single Transferable Vote! If we voters struggle to make a first choice, what good is a second choice? AV was proven to be an alternative that neither pro nor anti electoral reformists desire. Whatever the system, voting now merely props up the privileged MPs, who in turn prop up the bankers that none dare turn out of the temple. When 17 of the 23 cabinet members are millionaires, it is clear that elected power is the desired gift of the man who has everything. Socrates’ idea, that those who seek power should be the very people prevented from acquiring it, spurs me onwards in my rediscovered, nascent anarchism: we should seek no dominion over others, but instead have responsibility for, and co-operation with, each other. Party politics and voting do nothing to alleviate the random and absurd nature of modern life; taking an existential approach, realising that we can shape our own lives despite a context that we have no control over, emancipates us from the ballot box. There is nothing wrong in not voting when there is nothing to vote for. Elections are a farce, be free, don’t vote.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Almost Free Things To Do With The Kids

Living a life of sufficiency is tough when you have children: they want stuff, attention and what their peers have got. Here are a few suggested places for almost free days out.

When the weather is: Dry

Norman’s Bay – this is a pebble beach between Pevensey Bay and Cooden beach at Bexhill. It is never busy and is good for tiring the kids out with a long walk; it is also usually good for kite flying. The best thing about it, though, is there are no shops. Once the children know that, they realise that their pester-power is worthless and they just get on with having fun.

Fairlight – east of Hastings, the coast here has boulders fallen from the cliff at Pett Level and huge imported rocks to form sea defences at Fairlight Cove. These are great for clambering over and there are fossil hunting and rock-pooling opportunities. Again, there are no shops but be aware that Fairlight Cove does have a tradition of naturism.

Ashdown Forest – home to the original Hundred Acre Wood. Plenty of free parking and you can wander for miles. Take an old white sheet, spread it under a tree and give the branches a shake. Investigating what falls out will keep the kids busy. No shops but usually a few ice cream vans.

When the weather is: Wet

Towner Art Gallery – next to the Congress Theatre in Eastbourne, the big gallery spaces are very exciting for young kids; best of all is the Art Box room upstairs where children can draw, paint, shape and stick depending on the theme for that day.

Saturday morning pictures – not strictly free, but Cineworld at Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne shows mostly major feature-length animated films a couple of months after release for £1. Adults and kids pay the same and there is usually a choice of three films. As long as you take your own snacks, it’s a cheap morning out.

De La Warr Pavilion – the dominance of installation art here makes this an interesting place for kids. Mine loved Anthony Gormley’s Critical Mass of 60 life-size sculptures, especially imitating the poses for photos; but they got into trouble for trying to rummage through Tamoko Takahashi’s collection of skip-found, everyday objects.

That's Your Allotment!

In 2006, a group of friends who would become the nucleus of the Herstmonceux Allotment Association (HAA), wanted to be able to grow vegetables beyond the limits of their back gardens. The one significant problem they were faced with was that the village had no allotments. When it became clear that there was no publicly-owned land available, the HAA enlisted the support of Herstmonceux Parish Council in trying to find some local land that would fit the purpose. They also contacted the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens (NSALG) for advice and guidance.
The parish council approached local landowners to see if any would be willing to lease land for use as allotments. Several possibilities were explored but poor soil, public access or potential legal difficulties meant these opportunities did not come to fruition.
Then a local fruit farmer came forward; he was keen to support local people involving themselves in food production, he had a two acre orchard of apple trees coming to the end of their natural life and was willing to make the site available. The parish council entered into a lease of the site and in July 2008, the HAA held an open day at the site to begin recruiting members and potential plot-holders.
In February 2009, after the trees had been removed and the parish council had provided fencing to enclose the site, Root Collecting Day was held when HAA members carried out a ‘forensic sweep’ to remove the last traces of apple production. Fifty-two plots were subsequently marked out and allotmenteers took possession the following month. All-important water tanks were also installed at key points on the site. In the summer, there was an official opening on a gloriously sunny day with allotment-holders, parish councillors, the NSALG, a barbecue and a barrel of cider all present.
Plots are rented from the parish council at a cost of £25 a year, with some allotmenteers renting double plots. The site was fully occupied for the first growing season; a lot of digging was taking place but everybody got some food out of the ground. According to the NSALG, 30% of new allotment-holders give in after the first year; at Herstmonceux, only one person hung up their trowel. Two years on, some double plot-holders have downsized to single plots but the site is still fully occupied and there is a waiting list.
Although the parish council manages the site, the HAA takes responsibility on the ground. The site needs to be tidy and plots need to be within the terms of tenancy agreements. But it’s not all about regulation: there is an Apple Day every October where members pick juice apples elsewhere on the fruit farm to raise funds for the HAA and the barbecue and cider barrel appear again. Membership of the HAA is not compulsory for plot-holders but £5 a year provides discounts with local nurseries and seed merchants and involvement in the way the site is run.
What is most impressive about the Herstmonceux allotments is the sense of togetherness. There are no competitions to intimidate you over the size of your carrots and cucumbers. And the variety is incredible, in terms of people, plots and produce: mature, experienced growers to young families and everyone in between; symmetrical order to ramshackle chaos; spuds to salsify and onions to okra.
An allotment requires a bit of hard work, though. When I was there one freezing cold Sunday morning in late February, there were quite a few hardy souls bent to the soil, like peasants on the Russian steppes, in a chill east wind; but such dedicated preparation brings rewards in abundance later on. So, if you wish you had an allotment but there is not even a site where you live, don’t be put off. It might take a bit of time but remember: growing veg is not just a one-off, it’s for life.

Near Pavilions

Built in the first half of the twentieth century, reclaimed from physical decline at the start of the twenty-first and providing independent entertainment in an inspiring setting today. That opening sentence perfectly describes both the Hailsham and De La Warr Pavilions: two venues, 10 miles apart in East Sussex, that are worth visiting for the buildings, let alone the high standard of art, live music and film they make locally available.

The Hailsham Pavilion was built as a cinema in 1921 and opened with a packed performance of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’. It was a cinema until 1965, when it began twenty dismal bingo years that were ended with purchase by developers (oh, how very 1980s) who left the building empty and decaying. Rescued by determined campaigners and councillors, it reopened as a cinema in 2000. Ninety years on from that Chaplin picture, it is a joy to watch a film here today.
The elaborate classical façade gives way to a plush, warm interior that transports you back to the days of the music hall and the picture palace. Staffed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers, the 200-seat capacity is small enough to be intimate but large enough to provide the communal experience very often missing in the ‘viewing booths’ that good films are relegated to in multi-screen cinemas. New releases are a couple of weeks behind the greedy, soulless multiplexes but with cheaper seats and better ethics and aesthetics, this local independent cinema is the one to support.
Its regular music performances have made the Hailsham Pavilion something of a staple of the folk music diet. Folk royalty such as Peggy Seeger, Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy have performed in recent years, as have the Oysterband and Fairport Convention; and Sussex legends the Copper family gave a memorable performance in the run-up to last Christmas that left me warm, festive and fuzzy.

The De La Warr (pronounced Delaware) Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea was built in 1935 to a design by leading modernist architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. Commissioned by Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr and socialist Mayor of Bexhill (sounds very incongruous), the building is a stunning beacon of sweeping art deco lines and industrial concrete, steel and glass. A major regeneration project in 2005 rescued the building from neglect and inappropriate alterations and established it as a contemporary arts centre.
The large gallery spaces have attracted exhibitions by high profile artists such as Grayson Perry, Joseph Beuys and Anthony Gormley, as well as lesser lights and emerging talents. Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s 2009 film installation was a particular highlight: a 12-screen musing on another south coast slice of art deco 5 miles east along the coast at St. Leonards, ‘Marine Court Rendezvous’ was a dream-like surveillance of life in a modernist behemoth.
The highlight of the De La Warr though, is the 1,000+ capacity performance space that is increasingly attracting popular and/or leftfield musical acts. I have been to excellent gigs by Band of Horses, Richard Hawley and The Fall (twice) here; what makes it so good is the sound and size of the auditorium and also the enthusiastic response of the performers and the audience to the quality of the venue. Any venue that brings the mighty Fall to my doorstep must be good; for Mark E. Smith to come back, it must be incredible. Don’t go to gigs in Brighton or London, just go here.

Rural Rebellion

It is a late summer afternoon, the dog days of August; I am cycling up to Cade Street to pay homage at the monument to Jack Cade. It is a windless day and the earth is baking beneath a raging sun. I have half a mind to turn back; my water is already low and I still have the steepness of the road after Marklye. I fleetingly consider Flitterbrook Lane - a more graduated climb – but stay with my course. When I begin the steep climb, I know I have chosen wisely. The trees forming a dense canopy over the road, the sunlight penetrates only enough for the lightest dappling; and, of course, the air is cool. Halfway up, the canopy becomes sparser, so before I emerge into the heat again, I dismount and drag the bike up onto the bank. I sit in the shade and look back down the tunnel of trees, as occasional stray vehicles materialise, camouflaged by sun and shade, to disturb the drowsy, hazy hum of the afternoon. They don’t see me, in the hazel and blackthorn; Jack Cade should have hidden here. Cade had raised a rebel army that attacked London and the reign of Henry VI; double-crossed by the King, his fatal wounding as a fugitive near Heathfield inspired the revolts of Sussex men. The monument, looking down from the Weald to the sea, stands as a reminder: the city is the seat of authority, the rural landscape is where the spirit of rebellion resides.

Now Grow Some Food

When ‘Sideburns’ fanzine famously drew three guitar chords and then exhorted their readers to “now form a band”, they were part of a mindset that launched a movement that saw music made independently. It might not have overthrown the music industry but it did make many realise that you don’t have to accept what big business offers, you can do it yourself. I’m not going to claim that growing vegetables is the new rock ‘n’ roll, but it is the most punk thing that I do these days. Rejecting the food industry and doing it yourself is a radical act.
If my Dad was alive today and came to our house, he would think rationing had returned. Our small back garden has a modest vegetable patch brimming with beans, courgettes, lettuces and radishes. The greenhouse squashed into one corner houses tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. In the small chicken run in the other corner, three hens peck around in the dirt. If I took him up to our allotment, he would see more beans, peas, rows of potatoes and onions, cabbages and cauliflowers, carrots, turnips, parsnips, swedes and sweet corn (I should really stop now because even I’m bored but I can’t leave out the marrows, squashes, pumpkins, artichokes and fennel). By the time we got back home to the smell of baking bread he would be convinced it was life during wartime.
When I was young, I tired of my dad’s stories of how the back garden of his 1930s and 40s south London terrace where he grew up was an arcadia of fruit and veg for the table and chickens for eggs and/or the pot. I tired of his tales of resourcefulness and thrift, how nothing was wasted and everything was re-used. And now? And now I take it all back.
We don’t do all this as some sort of nostalgia trip, a nod to my dad’s generation that they were right. We do all this because we want to and we need to: our family wants to eat well and healthily, but we need to because we can’t afford to do that if we don’t grow some good food ourselves. We could buy the cheapest supermarket food but that would be a false economy: ‘value’ food is the lowest quality. We eat what is available from our own production and we buy fruit and veg from local honesty tables or farm shops – that is real value food – before we resort to supermarkets. We don’t claim to be holier than thou or self sufficient; we just want to do this for ourselves. We want to take some responsibility for how we live, and live in a way that has a low impact.
I have also gone back to my dad’s model of resourcefulness. If there is any uneaten food, it becomes another meal or the dog/cat/ chickens will get a look in; food never gets thrown away. And we throw away little else to landfill: if it can’t be recycled or passed on, it can be re-used. If there isn’t an obvious use for it immediately, it can stay in the shed until a use makes itself apparent. Bits of old fencing become a wood store roof; an old vacuum cleaner becomes a scarecrow (you have to imagine).
Before we got an allotment from the Herstmonceux Allotment Association we devoted more space in our garden to veg. That still wasn’t enough for our needs, so we were considering renting part of a relative’s garden to cultivate for vegetables. I still think this is a good idea if you don’t have space or an allotment. Getting the allotment meant that we could then use some space at home to keep chickens.
Over the last few years we have learnt quite a bit about growing fruit and veg, mostly from talking to the more experienced allotmenteers. We still make mistakes but these things, if a little obvious, might be worth passing on:
• If space is limited, grow the veg that is more expensive to buy
• Grow from seed where possible – we buy brassica and squash plants though, because we have not had much luck with these from seed.
• Don’t buy plants from chain stores; go to independents like Flowers Green in Herstmonceux or Wallace Plants in Laughton – cheaper and better.
• Dig well before planting.
• Water sparingly – plants get used to lots of water and it can become laborious.
• Don’t be suckered into buying loads of useless and expensive accessories. Even growing your own is becoming commodified – you can buy a nice seed chest for £40(!) in one chain.
• Enjoy it!