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.