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.