Christopher Hawtree

the pillowbook of Christopher Hawtree, writer and Green Party councillor for Central Hove

Of Fire, Smoke and Mirrors

Posted on | February 18, 2014 | No Comments

The West Wing. House of Cards. The East Sussex Fire Authority. Borgen. Life itself can sometimes eclipse screenwriters’ view of the world. So it has been in the past few days.

By way of setting the scene. The East Sussex Fire Authority consists of eighteen members. Six of these are drawn from Hove and Brighton; the rest from the County Council. In both cases, the number of councillors from each party is in proportion to its overall showing – and the situation has taken on a new dimension with UKIP’s gaining seats in East Sussex (it has yet to do in Hove and Brighton).

Naturally, this is an Authority with recourse to a team led by the Chief Fire Officer. Many of the public might still picture firefighters as sat in a canteen while awaiting for an alarm to go off, with which they slide down a pole, don boots and take turns in ringing a bell… It is all rather different from that. Fire stations assume various forms. Some are crewed round the clock. Some are day-crewed. Some have “retained” crews (working elsewhere within five minutes’ distance of a station). This system has evolved in parallel with firefighters giving much time to fire-prevention work, including sessions with the vulnerable to alert them to the causes of fire (so many of which are in kitchens). Over the past decade – and this is true of the whole country – there has been a remarkable drop in the number of fires.

Not that there can ever be room for complacency.

Meanwhile, in East Sussex, water has always made the Authority’s financial situation an unusual one. That is to say, not hydrants but the Channel. The Authority’s greatest demand is from the built-up areas along the coast. Elsewhere, in such places as Northamptonshire, fire stations serve areas of a 360-degree radius, but those that do so in East Sussex are inland and have fewer calls.

Recently, savings have been made by purchase of new fire engines which – roughly speaking – combine hoses and ladders (the very sight of which induces vertigo among the rest of us). The technical description is “an impressive bit of kit”.

And now, in recent months, since last May, the Authority has had to contend with the the prospect of the Government’s cutting a swathe of funding – some £7million. This was made clear at the start, and it soon emerged – as officers took soundings – that it would also be the case if there were to be a change of Government in one way or another in 2015.

A strategy had to be devised to see the service through 2020. No easy task. Officers had months of long days to go line by line through budgets by area, crewing system, demand… All of this was done with regular reporting to the Authority.

An impression of local government is that there is something about it of Groundhog Day. Things keep coming round until assuming their final form.

So it was on Valentine’s Day.

EXTERIOR. DAY.
Rain falls at 8a.m.
I go to Portslade, with battered umbrella, to join a man in a Zebra outfit who is part of a day given to an infants’ school’s road-safety lessons, with an emphasis upon a one-time lane now plied by trucks from Shoreham Harbour. While there I am greeted with a “hello, Chris” from somebody I took to be a teacher or parent but was in fact, I later learnt, the Labour candidate for Hove and Portslade. I have a good time in teaching infants – and their parents – to bow in front of the Mayor: she bows back each time, and probably curses me for backache.

That was that, and on to Eastbourne for 10.30, just ahead of the floods.

INTERIOR. DAY. OFFICE.

The main item on the Fire Authority agenda was to put out to Public Consultation the proposed means by which it would cope with this cut in funding.

This was after an item which revealed a curious split in the Tories: the East Sussex batch was happy to approve a rise in the Council Tax of just under 2% – some £1.59 a year – but this was opposed by the Hove and Brighton duo, one of whom is the group’s leader on the authority (expect internal dramas/blood-lettings there).

And now, as we began to address the subject of the Consultation, the Chief (as he is known) appeared surprised at my asking what would happen if the Consultation item were not approved. I said that it was a rhetorical question (the unspoken point being that there is no alternative, a miserable but understood situation).

Around this point the air, and the floor, were punctuated by the arrival on high heels of the prospective Labour MP candidate for Hastings, Sarah Owen.
This was the cue for the East Sussex Labour Councillors to launch into tirades (while their Hove and Brighton comrade Bob Carden sat silently).

One would have thought that this document was new to Councillors Scott and Wincott as they spluttered in fury. Had the room been equipped with sprinklers in the ceiling, these would have doused such heat. Councillor Scott said that the Authority should abandon it and – er – meet Brandon Lewis and ask him for more money. Lewis, though, is a man who does not like meeting people, still less giving them money. What’s more, Labour’s Councillor Scott said that he knew the public reaction to the Consultation as “I’m psychic”. I duly asked, if that is the case, could he please tell us what changes we could expect in funding in this projected period if Mr Miliband took the reins in 2015. Answer came there none.

As we know, Labour has made clear that it will continue this assault upon the public sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not dislike those Hastings councillors. They have a certain humour, they are a bit of a double-act (and, what’s more, the Authority has another species unknown in Hove and Brighton: LibDems). That said, Labour’s objecting to putting this strategy out to Public Consultation was sheer posturing; they knew that if their plea worked, the Authority would be in a worse place: without a Plan upon which to consult.

As for Groundhog Day, we shall see at June’s meeting what the Consultation has yielded.

This was certainly not – as I said – the happiest of times, and that indeed it was ironical its being held on Valentine’s Day as “there is not much love in the air”. What’s more, I repeated something I had asked at earlier meeting. This strategy will of course be subject to review in practice. If, Heaven forfend, there are calamities here and elsewhere, then the position of Brandon Lewis, and those above him, will be untenable.

Afterwards, Sarah Owen and myself “exchanged words”. (We know each other of old, she often cheering my Public Questions in Hove and Brighton.) Again, she had no more answer to the situation than the vocal Labour councillors from Hastings and the silent one from Hove and Brighton. She thought that senior officers’ pay could be reduced but that had already been done, and is nowhere near £7 million.

What really stuck in the craw was finding that, later in the day, on a sluggish train back to Hove, her press release to so spurious an effect had been co-signed by that Labour candidate for Hove and Portslade who had greeted me matily in the rain.

All of which prompted me to think of another place noted for its rain: Manchester.

Ah-hem: Greater Manchester’s Fire and Rescue Service has announced the loss of 200 firefighters’ jobs amidst cuts of some £23million.

That Service comprises: 1 Independent, 9 Tory and – 20 Labour members. Entry-level infants can infer the maths of who took that decision.

These things are not easy. The Valentine’s circumstances were even more miserable than the weather,. If one’s own tough decision allowed Labour in Sussex a moment’s posturing, so be it. Their obligation to provide real alternatives becomes all the greater.

If Councillor Scott can do so, then I will treat him to a seat at Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati in Bithe Spirit.

By Way of Elaboration

Posted on | February 6, 2014 | No Comments

I have recently tweeted some remarks about the controversy in Hove and Brighton about the forthcoming Budget and the Notice of Motion which was proposed by the Labour Group which posited a Vote Of No Confidence in the Administration.

It has been drawn to my attention that some of these tweets could have been misconstrued as suggesting that Officers of the Council have preferences in terms of the political composition of the Council or favour one party’s Council Tax proposal over another.

I should like to make it clear that this is of course not the case. When I remarked that Officers had ‘agreed’ with the mooted 4.75% increase in Council Tax, this was to say that they had agreed it was something with which it would be legal to begin the referendum process. I do apologise if this led anybody to infer differently from the brief space of a tweet.

On Bins, Their Collection and 3.5 Hours

Posted on | December 16, 2013 | No Comments

Here is a comment I have added to those beneath today’s Guardian piece by John Harris about – among other things – the spring’s Bins Dispute in Hove and Brighton. I adapted it from a message i sent to some residents at the time.

A decade ago Cityclean – the rubbish collection – was in private hands, SITA, and there was a big dispute then – much worse than this year’s – and that led to the then-Chief Executive deciding to take the service in-house. Which, in theory,
is all to the good: public service and so on.
Meanwhile, Equalities legislation was underway nationally (something which had begin in the mid-Seventies…). This was to equalise pay for similar levels of work. Put simply, over the years, dustmen had accumulated higher pay than
care-workers who, often women, were doing very stressful work for much less (and it is work with a high burn-out rate as it is something very difficult upon which to close the door at the day’s end).
At that time, some authorities, such as Southampton, began to work upon this – and that was in balmier economic times than these.
A huge task of evaluating work, reconciling differences. And absolutely the right thing to do.
A decade ago, the Labour administration in Brighton and Hove, having had the SITA experience, balked at pursuing this. Come 2009, with the Tory administration, the need for equalisation became all the more pressing. To be frank, it was fudged. Part of this – pay – was met by using the one-off £34 million PFI income from the 30-year contract with Veola for the Newhaven incinerator. Money which should have been used for a capital project.
That did not resolve something separate from the pay issue – that is, the question of the multitude of allowances which had grown up over the years.
That is what now had to be addressed (not pay).
If this were not done, then it takes only one case brought to a Court by a lawyer on behalf of – say – a care-worker for an extraordinary situation to arise.
This is not sensationalist talk. In October 2012, Birmingham City Council had a case – the Abdullah case, named after one of the care-workers involved. This won millions for a group of such workers in retrospective pay; what’s more, this meant
that it applied to all – and that Council has to find £800 million. Which was a case of capitalisation, which is no longer available. Furthermore, it has to pay an extra amount year on year, which means it is selling off the Exhibition Centre and other assets.
There was no possibility for delay here. That is the situation we inherited (I boggled during last winter), and it had to be sorted out by September, which was the date for similar cases coming through.
A whole set of compensation offers were the subject of 90-day consultation (a legal requirement which covers all concerned). If this was not sorted out, then 100s of jobs and services would be lost. Of course, in an ideal world the care-worker allowances would rise to that of the dustmen, but
this would cost £30 million every year – and this is at a time when the Government is cutting another £20 million from the Budget every February…
But, if that sounds hairy enough, there is a whole further dimension to it here.
In 2009, the Tories were faced by a wildcat dustmen strike because – with the pay originating with SITA – it did not tally with the Council rate. To get round that, the Tory administration came up with an extraordinary
measure by which the dustmen need not work each week for 3.5 hours but would be paid for those hours.
Which does not solve the Equalities issue but worsens/widens it. Indeed, and this is the crux, which was not reported but all concerned were aware of it: this means that all other Council workers could have brought
a case asking for retrospective pay: their hourly rate x 3.5 x 52 x 4 x 7500.
As you can imagine, I reeled at this.
It was an extraordinary time not at all conveyed in Mr Harris’s glib account.
To use a fitting metaphor, we had to carry the can – and, of course, such a complex matter, with many different rates of pay to tabulate and negotiate, discuss, required people whose profession is negotiation: that is no more a Councillor’s task than it is Mr Harris’s.

A Voyage To A New Future

Posted on | December 8, 2013 | 3 Comments

“All of mankind’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” To voice a paradox, Pascal’s observation is sound, but it needs the caveat that, for many, even a room is now but a dream.

What with spending a night sleeping out in the cold and, upon another, walking throughout the early hours with the rough-sleepers team in Brighton -, recent weeks have found the subject of homelessness much on my mind. And now, there opens – off the London Road in Brighton – an assemblage of Container Housing.

When the Brighton Housing Trust proposed this earlier in the year, there were the usual doubters and worse (appalling, hateful stuff in the local paper). Although this re-use of metal hulks which have travelled the world has been done to good effect elsewhere, some feared that it might look like a shanty town and (understandably) wondered about the state of a country in which people are offered the chance to live in a container (something in which people have died while traversing borders).

In due course, however, the Application was unanimously passed at the Planning Committee. As Chair of this, I could feel myself choking while reading out the formal result. This was something which – after many pertinent questions – it was generally thought would clearly provide people with hope, and more.

This was a five-year Permission, and the Trust set to work immediately. There were some hitches, one of which was in bringing the containers across the North Sea. As it happened, this was serendipitous, for at the edge of this former scrapyard there was a pub, The Cobbler’s Thumb which, closed down, turned out to have such subsidence problems that it required demolition. (Some might say that, in its time, many of the clientele also found it hard to stay upright, and certainly everybody else had consciously to pull their feet from the sticky carpet while traversing the room.) With that building gone, the site is more navigable.

The Trust, chaired by the genially redoubtable Andy Winter, was working in partnership with QED, whose Ross Gilbert had the initial idea of transforming this nook of land beside the viaduct, close to the perilous junction that is Preston Circus but also beside the greenway from Brighton station.

In the event, the ex-containers – @ £1800 (plus VAT) each in the current market – arrived in Brighton on October 21st. They open to residents on December 9th. Such swift work might make the doubters assume all this simply amounts to kipping down in a metal hulk with the rain an aquaticat upon a cold tin roof.

Far from it. At a total cost of £900,000, the kitting out of these containers – winched into place upon one another and linked by a series of metal steps akin to a fire-escape – has brought admiration, even surprise from everybody who has visited them. Last Friday afternoon, both Andy Winter and Ross Gilbert were palpably startled – I should say, rightly chuffed – by being able to sit in something which, long in preparation, had then materialised so quickly, so well.

Although a container is not that golden rectangle which somehow suits the human condition, these have been configured with double-glazing at each end (Preston Circus becomes uncommonly silent), and the one room is partly divided by a pod-like bathroom not unlike the layout of a permanent Lower Manhattan building lauded by the New York Times earlier this year.

Insulated on all sides, and fitted out with furniture donated by Sainsbury’s Homebase, these Brighton containers cost only 7p an hour to heat.

Necessarily modest, they are undoubtedly comfortable – and one of the delights for those finding their way back from utter homelessness will surely be kitting out each home some more during their stay (which is thought to be up to two years). You never know what delights can be found in the London Road shops – an under-rated neighbourhood, which will be all the better when the road system is reconfigured to alleviate the atmosphere.

Also there on Friday afternoon was Councillor Bill Randall who, with long experience of Housing matters, remarked that people should realise this is a great improvement upon those times, not so long ago, when – across the country – there were only dismal wards for the homeless.

Such places could hardly inspire the hope, the momentum, which these containers could do. What’s more, they are palpably better than some of the premises let by rapacious landlords. (In Hove, one of them has ripped out the central heating and installed electric heaters which cost tenants a fiver a day to run, with the result that they keep them switched off, and virulent mould is growing.) Life is so often paradoxical. Some of the neighbours objected to this Planning application, with (on public record) rampant sneers about the future tenants.

One can only hope that such objectors do not suffer those reversals of fortune – marriage breakdown, loss of job – which are but a few of the factors which can so terrifyingly, so swiftly rent asunder a “safe” existence.

This has been a difficult piece to write. One is mindful of a desire to be encouraging without the risk of appearing patronising. Suffice to say: I am thankful no longer to be living in a horrible place which was perhaps the very one described by Anthony Burgess which – beside the District Line – commingled in that remarkable mind with his Hove sojourn fifteen years later to create A Clockwork Orange.

If that sounds apocalyptic, let us remember that if in the South East all those who have been granted Planning permission to build homes then did so, there would be no shortage. Dismayingly, such permission makes the land more valuable the longer it remains empty – and so, down the chain, there is a huddle against the cold in a shop doorway.

This is not how it need be – and all honour to Andy Winter and Ross Gilbert for leading where the free market fails to go.

A NIGHT ON THE TILES

Posted on | November 18, 2013 | No Comments

Sleep-OutVery much a part of Marilyn Monroe’s attraction was her natural wit. When asked what she slept in, she replied “Chanel No. 5”. This came to mind as I went on a long walk around Hove and Brighton beneath an unseasonally glaring sun – a sky which, cloudless, would be surely the harbinger of a cold night. By which time I hoped that my industrious feet would bring ready sleep. And, as I walked, I found myself humming (after a fashion) Paul McCartney’s “Fixing A Hole”: the section in which he mentions that the “the rain gets in /And stops my mind from wandering / Where it will go”.

Along the way, my mind wandered in various directions. How many people know that, amongst so much else, Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “as snug as a bug in a rug”? Meanwhile, the Norwegian ecological philosopher Arne Naess (whose nephew was married to Diana Ross) spent much of his life in a mountain hut where he asserted that one can stay warm at fifteen degrees by jumping up and down for five minutes every hour (his second wife disagreed, and it is not known whether Ms Ross visited it). Talking of The Beatles, one thinks of Ringo Starr’s frequent recollections of their Van, a vehicle which regularly plied the A5 – and, at one time, the group was so cold that they took it in turns to lie on top of one another so that the middle one thawed out. And then, there is a magical Thirties movie My Man Godfrey, from a novel by Eric Hatch, in which the ever-droll William Powell is rescued from a gathering of down-and-outs…

And then such kaleidoscopic imagery was brought to earth.

If indeed that is the correct adjective, for its first syllables mean “beautiful”.

Earlier in the week, I had agreed, at short notice, to take part in something for which the only term was grim.

That is, to sleep out in the open – a whole new take on Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

This was for a charity based in Hove called Off the Fence, which is one of several which seek to help the homeless find a way back on track.

Without revealing much more of my sleeping habits, I can certainly say that this would not be a night to find me clad in any scent to which Chanel could put a number.

I had, in the meantime, been so very much heartened by the willingness of people to pledge their support of this.

Come the end of my day’s walk, it was time to assemble the stuff of a night on the tiles from which I would be protected by a layer of cardboard. I mentioned this to a fellow in the Mind charity shop on George Street, Hove, and he said that he had a couple of suitable boxes upstairs. One of these turned out to be a large one from Amazon, upon which was printed, “rate this packaging”.

I said, “I’ll do so at dawn!”

Somehow, I fitted these boxes below my armpits, while from my hands dangled bags which contained other items: for the first time in my life I bought long johns (not the stuff of a Beckham ad, as yet); new gloves; and a LED torch which would provide ten minutes’ light for every minute’s winding by hand (and, who knows, act as a de facto clock).

And so it was that I added this haul to a sleeping bag, blanket, motley newspapers, thick socks, and a circular item knitted by a friend, Viv Caisey, for cyclists to fit around their necks – the body’s thermostat – in place of those scarves which risk one meeting an end akin to Isadora Duncan’s.

Naturally, I also had a book, and took with me a cellphone while vowing not to allow the latter to make its usual intrusion upon the small hours.

This equipment was augmented, as I set off, by two more cardboard, banana boxes from the greengrocer’s now run by those who continue the tradition of Tony Magdi, that wonderful man who was killed three years ago.

As I encumbered upon a bus, there was a perturbed look from the driver, who – after my explanation – said, “you’ve chosen quite a night for it! Well done, mate.”

I was as chuffed at that as I had been by comments during the afternoon. There is a great spirit out there.

At the school playground I met several participants from the Hove Business Association, who, I sensed, shared both my trepidation at what we had agreed to do and the pervasive sense that misfortune could strike anybody. I remarked that Hilary Mantel had once told me that she owed part of a novelist’s sensibility to an early career in Law: those cases in which the billiard balls of life had so swiftly knocked into one another, taking somebody from a good place to a terrible one.

Homelessness is a huge subject, its complexities manifold, with many agencies seeking to alleviate these. Those who fall into it include former soldiers who cannot adjust to the ease of life back home. Others who are saved from frozen destitution prefer – such is human habit – a hostel’s floor to the bed alongside it.

We talked of some of this as we were joined by my fellow-Councillor, the ever-spry Geoffrey Bowden, and then, by some collective instinct, we agreed that it was time to kip down.

To invert Proust: for a long time I have gone to bed late, but now, as I wriggled into a sleeping-bag upon dismantled Amazon cardboard, I found myself in a strange state. My hands in thick gloves, I pulled down a loose-knit woolly hat so that it met Viv’s neck item. A sleeping-bag makes every natural turn a conscious effort: the splayed, scissored feet beneath a duvet are now constricted, the body an endless spiral in quest of a somnolence which, fitfully gained, is interrupted by a light pollution against which one’s hand is no match for a thick curtain. As for Franklin’s bug, it would surely be complaining to the Manager at the less than four-star snugness of my twisting body.

At this point, at home, I might be reaching for “Through the Night” on Radio Three – often an array of Estonian composers – but I had vowed not to bring any such device.

And it was cold. My fingers might have been able to wind up the LED torch but my be-gloved fingers were in no mood to reach out from the sleeping-bag to turn the pages of a novel.

As for the long johns, these rose up my calfs, and I coined a phrase, “the smalls hours”. A little earlier, a supporter had e-mailed, urging me to “keep warm”, and I’d replied that these long johns were “very Ziggy Stardust”.

Where, at home, I would have read, I now found myself thinking, the mind wandering where it would go, falling asleep, wriggling awake, sleeping, burrowing, ever conscious of my shoulders, a view of the stars preferable to rain…

Until, goddam it, the cellphone repeatedly pinged. I’d turned it to silent but forgot to switch off the six o’clock alarm. “Sorry, everyone,” I said to the other eight while fumbling to silence it, after which there came that strangely brief but protracted slumber in which dreams occur. And, as I woke finally, it was to find myself again humming. Not “Fixing A Hole” but an organ piece by Bach, with which came together the elements of a ghost story which has been on my mind.

That is matter for another day, but, as for this Sunday morning, I eased myself up, blinking as much as Kenneth Grahame’s Mole did on a spring day by the river of life, on its way to “the insatiable sea”, and I saw the others do so.

We were startled to find that among our company was the Mayor, Denise Cobb. She had arrived late at night, after an earlier engagement, and kipped down with us – and was due at something else come 9.30am.

Happily, along came a food wagon run by Crossover Brighton. One of its staff was somebody who had, not so long ago, himself been a rough sleeper. This job was a part of – literally – a journey back.

And a reminder to those of us who had taken part in the Sleep-Out that, for those out there, in a doorway, it is not simply one night, but night upon night, with no immediate offer of breakfast – and the very real danger of being peed upon, assaulted, set on fire, murdered.

My great hope is that, in England now, with so many people’s heartfelt support, we can recognise that to be able to provide somebody with a room, however modest, is that mainspring of hope from which all of society – our brief span on Earth – can gain.

As for Amazon, it is of course controversial, but, as I am still here, I’ll give its packaging *****.

And would rate marvellous and more any reader who could offer something to help such work at: www.JustGiving.com/ChristopherHawtree

The Brighton Waves

Posted on | October 3, 2013 | 1 Comment

Unexploded

Alison Macleod

Hamish Hamilton £16.99

T. S. Eliot was a master of seduction. No, this is not a biographical revelation but something of which one is reminded by a novel which Alison Macleod has set in wartime Brighton. During his many years as a publisher at Faber and Faber, Eliot perfected the art of the blurb (an edition of them has been rumoured): succinct, these suggested the subject of the book – whatever it might be – in such a way that a browser felt an urge to look further.

Eliot would certainly have shortened the blurb on the flap of Unexploded. If one reads too far down this, one has been told an outline of the plot as far as page 200 – some two-thirds of the novel.

This is unfortunate as, scene by scene, working from varying points of view, Alison Macleod, by building some suspense, fashions an adroit view of a town wrought asunder physically and emotionally.

Its roots lie in a perennial controversy: “Along Brighton’s seafront the five-mile ribbon of the promenade ran east towards the ravelled line of the coastal cliffs and west to the elegant mansions of Hove – among them, Evelyn’s childhood home on Brunswick Square. Twelve years before, her parents had disapproved of her move from Hove to Brighton. It had been another measure of Geoffrey’s unsuitability. Her new husband was not a man of independent means. Her parents did not know of his family. His mother, they’d learned from local sources, had not been ‘of sound mind’. Geoffrey did not drink enough to pass muster in her father’s club. Even the very comfortable townhouse on Park Crescent had failed to impress them.”

The scene is set, words (“ravelled”) judiciously chosen, for this stage in the marriage of a banker and a woman – Evelyn – whose several failed pregnancies have duly resulted in a son – Philip – and the advice that any more attempts would mean her risking death. There is something of Brief Encounter in their evenings together, Geoffrey reading the local newspaper while she has discovered Virginia Woolf. The Years – that least typical work by Mrs Woolf – and The Waves echo through these pages. Alison Macleod is not given to the stream of consciousness as such but hers is very much a meditative novel. Its characters muse, deliberate upon a fate which has brought them to this place, this time, when – as did Virginia Woolf – they live in palpable fear that the Germans will land on the shoreline and Hitler will set up his headquarters in the Pavilion (one cannot imagine Wagner in the Music Room).

That building is but a short walk from a slaughterhouse which is now the Open Market. Bloodied gutters are among the many closely-observed details which make this a novel through which one almost walks filmically. The heat of a trudge up Elm Grove is palpable – Evelyn’s destination being the Racecourse given over to aliens and internees, a place at which Geoffrey becomes Superintendent, which is ironic in view of his more than latent views of the ideal world order.

Time past continually merges with time present as the future is palpably uncertain. At any moment the force of an explosion can pull a building’s walls a foot inwards before sending fragments of them a mile away. The destinies of one and all can be, literally, undermined at any moment. A familiar building – such as a cinema – can vanish from the urban landscape on a returning bomber’s whim. “… a leather comb case, a family photo album, a baby’s rattle, a vegetable peeler, a tin of boot polish, a smeared letter, a bicycle tyre and a woman’s muddied hand. It still wears a wedding band. The hand upsets you more than the bodies you have passed.”

Whether it be a pub, a hotel, the beach, a ball, the crumpet factory on Bennet Road, Alison Macleod catches these in a an instant. Oh, and, of course, the Technical College, at which a guest speaker, a well-known novelist, “sat in a straight-backed chair in front of a vast chart of the Periodic Table”. As the novelist arranges her papers and gets ready to speak, the audience “used the opportunity to observe unobserved this woman who already seemed to them less a literary spectacle than a person they had a collectively dreamed”.

It is the success of Unexploded that somehow, unforced, its myriad delights, the way in which its words land on the page, present so convincingly what was a collective nightmare.

Starts And Bars

Posted on | September 1, 2013 | No Comments

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Adelle Waldman
William Heinemann £14.99

“Ooh, kale. I never could find kale in Baltimore.”

The place is Brooklyn, the time is now, and Adelle Waldman’s sassy first novel definitely takes place among the kale-eating classes. And what’s wrong with that. There is no need of a question mark, for it is an assertion. Ms Waldman is steeped in the nineteenth-century novel, which so often confined itself to a particular stratum. If Jane Austen is often thought to chronicle the quest for a suitable man, it is always as well to recall the stanzas about her in Auden’s “Letter To Lord Byron”, in particular:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Meanwhile, two-hundred years on, in Brooklyn, Nathaniel Piven’s luck has turned. Born in hickland, he has defied the parental injunction to study something practical at university, duly swung from cheque to cheque through his twenties and now landed a good deal for the book with which he had been concurrently so preoccupied that his love life was of the distracted ilk.

Many a discussion takes place in bars among those who are tacitly vying for a perch in what remains of a writing and reviewing world wrought asunder by the internet while they pass mutual commentary upon the suitability and progress of one another’s latest flames.

Much of the narrative is seen from Nate’s point of view, so much so that it can sometimes feel as if a woman has made over an early Martin Amis novel. Yes, there is familiar reference to stark fridge shelves and, what’s more, before that is broached, “his socks stuck on the hardwood floor. Coffee droplets, dating from the days before he’d sworn off the coffeemaker, had congealed, turning his hallway into a strip of of flypaper for dust and balled-up receipts and the tiny paper disks spewed by his hole puncher.”

This is a rare sighting of a hole-puncher in contemporary fiction, perhaps any fiction, but then Nate is the last man in the Borough not to have a smartphone although he does stab at those tiny keyboards which gave rise to textspeak (a language which he evidently eschews). And so it is that lascivious anticipation is “distracted by an ominous crack in his wall, inching downward from the molding above his bed. Arrow-shaped, it seemed to point accusingly at the squalor below. Parts of his black futon mattress were exposed because the ugly black-and-white sheets, purchased at one of those ‘department stores’ that sell irregular goods in not-quite-gentrified urban neighbourhoods, were too small for the mattress and nightly slipped from its corners, tangling themselves like nooses around his ankles”.

Rapid attempts to tidy before a new date’s deferred arrival have a habit of only emphasising the shortcomings of the place but these do not deflect one and all from the talk which is the novel’s stock-in-trade. Very New York, the participants are almost honour-bound to give a commentary upon events as they unfold in a relationship where any chance remark or wayward glance might be deemed a defining moment, so much so that its potential vicissitudes occupy the rest of the evening’s talk.

Such is the evolving life shared by Nate and Hannah, whose comments pierce the carapace which is his point of view, that corner of the metropolis which the narrative sees through his eyes.

No need to spoil the plot by saying much about the way that all this goes. Rancour never becomes ponderous to behold, for Ms Waldman has a perennially sharp eye. Observation is buoyed by unexpected metaphor.

“The waitress scowled and walked away. Aurit’s nostril’s flared. Bad service was a source of great frustration for her, an irritant that might at any moment set her off, like science was for the medieval church. ‘When she comes back, I’m going to tell her there was too much arugula on my pizza.’”

Here is that delight, a novel from which one could quote endlessly as it shades and telescopes from that summer to a future which picks up a situation briefly glimpsed near the outset – and overturns preconceptions about the economic basis of society. Ms Waldman’s steady control of this first novel is such that she can deploy the phrase “some minor recalibration” and make it land on its feet in a situation that certainly does not appear in any work by Jane Austen.

If anybody asks why you are blushing when engrossed in these pages, you could claim that perfect prose always has that effect.

On The Wish Hills

Posted on | August 17, 2013 | 1 Comment

Wish Park, 17 August 2013

There has of course long been controversy over the relationship between Hove and Brighton. Its love-hate nature has been depicted as a forced marriage by some – and others go further, saying that it is in fact a ménage à trois, citing the fact that Portslade was subsumed into Hove by the Tories’ re-organisation of local government four decades ago.

‘Twas ever thus, for – centuries ago – heated words were had about the amalgamation of the various parishes which comprised the area between Sackville Road in the east and Boundary Road in the west. Such brouhaha is all the more remarkable because in some quarters of it the population was recorded as zero. The ownership of the land, and its use, is an epic tangle which included among its players the Duke of Portland.

Suffice to say that, 120 years ago, when Hove and Aldrington were at last made one (along with with its other parishes), a condition was made that substantial space should be allotted for a recreation ground. At this time much of the area contained scant housing, the land being used as orchards. (Look upwards at the first house on the west side of Westbourne Gardens and you can still see, faded, much of the painted words “Westbourne Nurseries” – that is plants, while nowadays the area contains numerous nurseries of the pre-school hue.) Ten acres were bought to the west of what would become Wish Road, and it is with fitting bemusement that I found in Judy Middleton’s wonderful, many-part Encyclopedia of Hove And Portslade that its opening had been delayed time and again until Empire Day 1900.

This chimed with my visit 113 years later. That Victorian delay had been caused by repeated problems in making good, and planting grass upon, the former brickfield site. To ease that task, everything had to be put on hold while large quantities of mould were bought and spread if things were to grow.

It was a similar interest in its terrain that took me there. Residents had been so long rueful that, in contrast with its multifarious early days, the area had become simply a series of boggy football pitches which contrasted with the glorious surrounding walls of elm trees. It was officially known as Aldrington Recreation Ground, which had indeed seemed more fitting than the more fanciful one of Wish Park by which it was known to many.

That name is in fact from the Old English for soggy meadow, but in recent years wishes have come true.

It now has a café, a popular playground, some communal composting, and recently an area has been enclosed for communal vegetable growing. Plus ça change: during both world wars part of the Ground was requisitioned for vegetable growing. And now, of a Saturday morning, there was the opening of Wish Hills. Again, this echoes the past, for soil had to be brought in to create the Park’s sole lumps which are, truth to say, more mounds than hills, and becoming festooned with wild flowers – somewhere for children to climb and watch bees gambol alongside butterflies.

A small thing, some might say, but one which has required much diligent work by the Council’s enthusiastic park rangers – Peter, Gerald and Steve – with support from residents and local businesses.

“We won’t let these hills be fracked!” remarked one resident, and another said that their creation had not been without problems: one crabby resident had objected to the vegetable garden as it blocked the view from “his” bench; he was told that in fact the bench had been put there after the garden.

Delight, humour was the tone of the morning with a spate of “seed bombing” for future growth. Time past and time present again melded, people relishing their neighbourhood as much as they had ever done beneath those acres, cannily acquired in the Victorian era and catching all of the Sun’s arc every day. In those days, as the elms grew on the south side, there was also a view of the sea, for the houses thereabouts (a pleasing jumble of styles) only began construction some years after the opening of – yes, let’s dispense with the dull tag of recreation ground, it’s Wish Park.

Hemingway, Hove And Portslade: On Being Chosen As MP Candidate

Posted on | August 15, 2013 | No Comments

It is surprising where books can lead.

A decade ago, I found myself impelled to spend a long winter on the pavement outside Hove Library, which had been donated to the town almost a century earlier by Andrew Carnegie. There was then the extraordinary plan to close down his building, at the very heart of the place, and to bundle the books into a so-called Banqueting Suite at the less-than-appetising Hove Town Hall.

No need to rehearse here all of that campaign, which took in my Times piece and an appearance on The Politics Show. For me, the enduringly heartening part of it all was to have hundreds of conversations outside the Library. This meant that Councillors received more e-mails and calls than they had ever known. There was no stock way of talking, it all had a life of its own – and led to 5000 black-on-yellow SAVE HOVE LIBRARY posters appearing in house and shop windows. These bred at a rate which inspired children to make an educative sport of counting them. And a treasured moment was yet another speech I made from the Public Gallery at a Council meeting when, on my signal, another resident unfurled the three x two foot poster I had made of Carnegie from a photograph in a book I had serendipitously found and which, surreally, contained over a hundred of them.

There were probably not many takers for such a book now, but it had found its destiny, a part in ensuring that the hideous plan was dropped. What’s more, money was found to renovate and decorate the Library – indeed to install a lift in time to celebrate the centenary, when the splendid staff dressed in Edwardian costumes.

Some years later, I found myself as a Councillor and now I have been chosen as the Green Party’s MP candidate for Hove and Portslade in 2015. At which point another book comes to mind: W. H. Auden’s The Orators which is prefaced by the lines “Private faces in public faces / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places”.

What I had found during the Library campaign is that one simply cannot trot out a line, life is not like that. Many were the conversations that I had, brief, long, and sometimes longer than one would have wished, but I like to think that all were genuine, all were interesting (and indeed a motorist screeched to a halt to ask for two posters).

Without quite realising it – despite all the effort I brought to campaigning for Caroline Lucas -, I brought a similar spirit to a campaign to gain a seat on the Council. Without fanfare, I set about it, and, indeed, I signed the official form in Brighton Town Hall with scant time to spare – a nerve-wracking moment which, I came to realise, took the other parties by surprise. They assumed I was a “paper” candidate rather than one who would give it his all, and top the poll, ousting a top Tory.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen you speechless, Chris,” said newly-elected Councillor Jarrett at the Town Hall count. A few days later, a Council official told me that the staff had discussed the various possible results of the Election, adding good-naturedly, “but none of us reckoned on you getting in”. ‘That was the idea,” I replied.

Rather less charming was the current, narrow-margin Tory MP for Hove and Portslade, a man who goes by the name of Mike Weatherley. Scarcely had I been elected than he issued a bizarre press release which called me, wait for it, “the Dr Beeching of libraries” when in fact this Council has kept all its libraries open and increased the stock, unlike much of the country (such as Lincolnshire, which proposes to close down two-thirds of them).

Not that one should dwell upon the unfortunate Mr Weatherley. Negative energy is a waste of life, especially in a close-run constituency.

And now, I do not of course intend to write here about the months ahead. They will take their course, steered by the doorsteps. The figures are very encouraging. One must not, however, tempt Fate, but one can give it a run for its money – damn good rule of life, to use a phrase favoured by Hemingway.

Our Land Is Not For Shale

Posted on | August 5, 2013 | No Comments

Caroline Lucas pioneers bin-liner style

It is not every day that you see Caroline Lucas dressed in a bin liner. The Speaker would deem it even more out of order than the T-shirt which she recently sported. Both were perhaps a little more discreet than the carrier bag I had draped upon my head.

This was not an ecological fancy-dress party but some swift lateral thinking at sleepy Balcombe railway station in the Sussex countryside. We were on our way – with Councillors Buckley, Phillips, Powell and two willing infants – to the nearby encampment either side of the road outside the land upon which the first stage of fracking has begun.

No sooner had we got off the train than rain fell. Such rapidly switching weather is quite probably a feature of climate change. Some improvisation was certainly needed before we set off, along a road where a truck came round a bend at a speed which was almost a harbinger of that dual ritual of a minute’s silence in the Council Chamber and fervent calls of “by-election!”

Alive, we reached the encampment, and within a few minutes, amidst close discussion with some of the village residents, the rain eased. Glorious sun returned above a parade of canvas redolent of the human spirit. (Not that this should appear too lyrical: there are also portaloos generously supplied by Greenpeace.) In one tent there was a sofa; another had an array of bongo drums, a child’s delight; another was serving food, much of it brought by those visiting; music played, reggae of a piece with the summer; and, above all, there was talk, people breaking into conversation, exchanging news, opinion: of course, nobody wanted to have to be there, but this had the spirit of enjoyment which is a mark of successful protest.

Protest and jive, one might say.

It was soon apparent that the villagers had, without their knowing it, attracted support from all over. Some were there for a few hours, others for a day or two, whatever they could spare. It all added to a pastoral, cosmopolitan buzz: energy.

Shared by automobiles which, perforce, found that the stretch of road was now a 10-mph zone. Many were the parps of support from those that drove by, through.

Policemen regularly stepped into the road to ensure that people kept safely out of it, and one sensed that they appreciated what had brought us to this spot. A treasured moment was when, behind a line of policemen, Councillor Buckley’s two infants climbed the rungs of the metal gate to the land. “You’re failing in your duty, officer,” I said to one burly policeman, “arrest these protestors!” He had the grace to laugh: “I don’t think they’re protestors, sir.”

And all of them listened while Caroline Lucas gave an impromptu speech which emphasised the fact that we should not be extracting fossil fuels – least of all in this chemical-driven fashion – , adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere and all our woes.

“We’re all water,” once sang another fracking objector, Yoko Ono. If it goes ahead, the water for the area – including Hove and Brighton – is in peril.

In my time as a Councillor, I have not had so many messages about a subject as I have had about fracking. Residents grasp that this is the hottest political, social, geological issue of recent times – a precious landscape sundered for a modicum of energy. Spurious government claims of a fall in gas bills are belied by the tax breaks offered to conglomerates who are set upon – to use the words of one Hove trader – “going against Nature”.

I cannot put it better than his casual phrase the other day. He got it exactly right. He talks with people, and understanding is growing.

It was a terrific afternoon in Balcombe – talk with people from Southease and Burgess Hill – and the amazing paradox is that this uproar is happening in what many take to be Tory heartland – or, should one say, heartlessland. This government, more than any other, has lost all grasp of England’s diverse spirit. Something emphasised by the huge trucks which, at one point, left the land to resounding boos.

And so it was that we then strolled back to quiet Balcombe station, where I alluded to Adelstrop and whichever one it was upon which Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound” (either Widnes or Ditton). A journey back south, much enthused talk along the way, a spirit sustained through the maelstrom of Brighton station. And now, here in Hove, I think of those camped out beside the road. They are doing terrific work.

This will continue. It is, palpably, a campaign with staying power.

Nicholas Soames MP could find his seat go up in the flames of a drilling tower.

I remarked to Caroline Lucas on the train that I had thought of the phrase “our land is not for shale”. On getting back, I checked. Such are these google-driven times, you can find that inspiration has been pre-empted. The latter bit turns out to be a website but – I would say that – I think my first, Seeger-inspired bit makes it resonate: our land is not for shale.

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    Christopher Hawtree is the Green Party Councillor for Central Hove but items are posted here in a personal capacity as an individual.

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