Friday, May 31, 2013

Sheer Folly

Coming toward the end of the Whitsun half-term week, I had had my relaxing and enjoyable fill of reading, family time and working on the allotment; but I needed to get out in the open country, feel the wind on my face and the sun on my back. My plan was to take a dog and walk along the ridge of the Downs from Firle down to Alfriston and back up again.

After the steep climb from Firle village up to the beacon, the panorama was a just reward: at Hastings in the east I could just make out the 16-storey Hollington tower blocks, like four fat white follies perched above the town; in the south, Newhaven harbour and the glacial curves of the infamous incinerator; in the west, nestling primly and properly, the town of Lewes; and to the north, the binary beacon of Crowborough and the land in between: Sussex spread out in the sun, its squares of wheat packed like London postal districts (oh! the glory of a reversed Larkin simile).

It was busy on the South Downs Way and there were too many distractions for Blackjack the dog: not people, but grazing sheep. So I eschewed the pint of Harveys – it was probably better that the solitary crumpled ten pound note stayed in my pocket anyway - and stopped short of Alfriston, slipping down to the safety of the green lanes and holloways, hard in the shade of the Downs, for the return walk. Coming down a steep chalk and flint bridleway we were met at the bottom by a sharp contrast: a boggy field hosting a swathe of flowering yellow flag irises.

The quiet of the byways was disturbed only once: an industrial-sized tractor, no doubt tending to one of the giant agri-business fields becoming more prevalent here, had us pinned into the cow parsley as it passed. As we neared Firle again, the tower kept appearing intermittently through the hedgerow. Unlike the Hollington tower blocks, Firle Tower is a real folly – it was never intended that anyone would have to live in it permanently. Built by the third Viscount Gage in 1819, the three-storey castellated turret was used as a gamekeeper’s lodge and a watchtower. Gage owned a similar building at Isfield to the north, and the two towers were able to signal to each other across the Laughton Levels; just to let each other know they were there, probably.

Back in the village of Firle, a group of decorators were eating their sandwiches, taking a break from re-painting the Reading Room. I tried to catch the conversation of these modern day ragged trousered philanthropists to see who amongst them was Owen, but they seemed to be discussing Britain’s Got Talent. I got Blackjack a drink of water, but resisted the lure of the Ram Inn myself and hung on to the tenner - as the Valentine Brothers sang thirty years ago, money’s too tight to mention.

Going back home through Laughton, I noticed that the Roebuck Inn had closed down. This not drinking is sheer folly.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Beauty and the Beasts

I get a long, and unapologetic, reply from UKIP head office. I had complained about their local candidate in the recent county council elections: his specious claims about levels of immigration into rural areas and, in particular, the line “they seem to be breeding more than the natives” to describe migrants in a letter to me.

The reply is from a man called Challice. It is full of the usual poison - the sort of stuff that you can find every day in the Daily Mail or on the Jeremy Vine show: scare-stories about Eastern European criminal gangs; the same old taproom casuistry and half-baked moans about Polish workers undercutting the indigenous population; no critique of the capitalist system that causes rampant and unchecked exploitation the world over; and no mention of the language his candidate used, which was the basis of my complaint in the first place. It is arrogant in tone: full of boasts about UKIP’s rise in popularity and concludes that if I do not like it, tough. The only point it does concede is that his candidate cannot write a coherent sentence.

I take the dogs for a walk through the local orchards to compose my thoughts and a reply. But it is blossom-time and, try as I might, I cannot focus on the bitter, rancorous notions of these uptight Little Englanders - they are at such a contrast to the beauty of the endless rows of white cherry and pink apple blossom. And, in the noonday sun, the overwhelmingly heady aroma of the blossoms makes any intention to write a lengthy response disappear. If UKIP have the time to write eight-paragraph emails, I do not: I have beetroot to plant.

So, when I get home, I send a short reply telling him to make the most of UKIP’s brief moment in the sun – it will not last. But then I remember that the candidate I complained about is now a councillor. Nearly two thousand people in my area voted for him on 2nd May to put him top of a poll of eight candidates. There is probably an historical precedent for majorities turning on minorities in hard economic times, but I cannot quite bring one to mind at the moment…

Perhaps I should not be so complacent. Perhaps in England we need to start following the example of the Scots in Edinburgh and let the Mosleyite Farage, and this other tribe of public school-educated bankers, know our feelings directly.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Downland: part seven

Striking out for home, the darkness enveloping him, Ridler re-crossed the deserted Lewes Road and immersed himself in the narrow lanes that would lead him back through the village of Ripe, past Deanland Wood and the old airfield, and to the caravan park and home. Second only to being on the Downs, these lanes felt like carefree liberty. The hedgerows, with the tips of hazel and blackthorn stretching overhead silhouetted against the star-studded sky, and the scent of hawthorn and dog rose filling the warm air, were a haven for Ridler, an enclosure of safe passage that would carry him home unmolested. He had rarely met a soul on these lanes and when he had, he was able to melt into thicket and darkness to keep himself concealed. The nearer he came to Ripe the more he felt at ease. He was tolerated in the village - some went out of their way to talk to him queuing in the post office or the village shop – but any voluntary encounters were borne of fascination rather than human decency. When he had first come here, they had sent a reporter and a photographer to the village shop. The picture of the cheery shopkeeper handing a packet of sugar across the counter to Ridler had been on the front page of the local newspaper. That was in stark contrast to the fearful, mute incomprehension he was met with from the grocer’s wife and daughter.

As he came into the village, he could see the lights from the Lamb and, through the windows, the drinkers finishing their last drinks of the night. He had timed his return well; half an hour later and staggering, swaggering farm labourers would be exchanging their final boasts and threats to each other in the street – always a danger. Two years before, returning from the Downs at this time, he had seen the Writer and his wife arguing drunkenly, violently outside the pub, the landlord standing imperiously on the step, the drinkers crowded at the windows. Judged and outnumbered, the Writer had started to run straight at Ridler, it had seemed, standing in the hidden shade of a yew; but he had passed by, only feet away, spitting curses and insults against his wife and the publican, and had staggered off toward Deanland Wood. Ridler recalled seeing the Writer there too, in that time before, creeping about the wood one afternoon with binoculars in one hand and a small book in the other. Ridler had guessed he was bird spotting but the unsteadiness of his demeanour and the noise he made with every twig-snapping step meant that any bird would have flown. The Writer had not even spotted Ridler close at hand among the trees; his powers of observation were surely dulled. He had seemed like a man numbed, in a trance. It was only later that Ridler heard of the nature of the Writer’s treatment and the reason for his stay in Ripe; but still none of this was able to explain the events of a year ago, up there, on the Downs. Ridler, looking back over the village, could just pick out the line of those hills in relief against the midnight blue starlit sky, high above the flat parochial fields the lane now led him through.