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.