Posted on | November 18, 2013 | No Comments
Very 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
Posted on | October 3, 2013 | 1 Comment
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.
Posted on | September 1, 2013 | No Comments
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
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.
Posted on | August 17, 2013 | 1 CommentThere 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.
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.
Posted on | August 5, 2013 | No CommentsIt 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.
Posted on | July 21, 2013 | No Comments
[For some weeks I have been thinking about a talk I had been asked to give, with others, at what I thought was to be a Buddhist meeting but turned out to be an interfaith group. Which was all to the good, for I had thought of casting the talk in a spiritual mood – in the widest sense. As you can see, this was the very widest sense, for, somehow, this talk incorporated diverse elements. Let the cow loose and it will find its way home said Graham Greene of essay writing. In giving a talk, I do not write it out – people might as well read an essay – but make a series of headings in some sort of order, and take it from there. I was glad that it brought smiles, laughter – and astonishment (the seagulls). I have now typed it up much as I spoke it on a hot Saturday afternoon in Brighton in a cool Victorian building.]
When I was asked a while ago to talk here about climate change, I readily agreed – and afterwards gulped, for this is world, indeed intergalactic history in five minutes. It’s a lifetime’s study – and quite possibly we do not have a lifetime. But to look at this from another way, it is an education in itself, continual learning is a joy, and I have begun to think of writing something more than this (which is the planet on the back of an envelope).
I was thinking of that moment in Annie Hall where the Woody Allen character has a flashback to a childhood in which he is pole-axed by the thought of a growing universe. He is taken to a psychiatrist and told “but Brooklyn is not expanding”. Well, more recently, with the hurricane, Brooklyn has become aware of its place in somewhere bigger than New York. Meanwhile, the other day, in the Hove Park area, a father told me that his six-year-old daughter was fascinated by the Big Bang origins of the universe from well-nigh imperceptible gas in a void – and she herself then said, “and I want a composter in our new house!”.
She was covering both ends of the spectrum, and, for me, immensely encouraging that a young child should recognise a small thing’s vital place in an overarching subject. Small things accumulate into hope.
I am often struck by the effect – good, bad or indifferent – that the flow of neurons around our planet-shaped heads has upon the world itself. A pulse in the brain is a picture, a piece of music, a building – or a war. Happiness, or at least content, should be our desire. How can anybody be truly happy if others are not? Existence is mutual, a relationship, a returned smile. And so it is between the Sun and the Earth – but the returning of the energy received is now more than hobbled by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (among other things).
Human equality in the West – as far as it has got – has been hard won, and part of that process was industrialisation which has created the products which relieve many of subservient toil – but that very process, unchecked, could so easily lose us that equality. If the current rate of consumption of resources in England were replicated around the world, we should need three planets’ worth (and if the American model were followed, it would be five planets). A comfortable house in Lewes or on Shoreham beach is so vulnerable.
More than ever, to study climate change is to realise how linked are earth, sea and sky – and their inhabitants. Visionaries – in the fullest sense of the word – grasped this in the nineteenth century. They began to extrapolate from such events as the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 which meant that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during one non-existent, overshadowed summer. Since then many a Dr. Frankenstein has foisted upon the world creations which, taken together, are something which we now have to confront while trying not to scream.
Of course, there are those vociferous in that human tendency to denial, some of whom assert that all this is akin to such natural events as the shifting of the tectonic plates into our continents. The rate at which C02 has gathered in the atmosphere is rather faster than that… Now, some people here in Hove and Brighton complain about the noise of the seagulls and if you were to tell them that these are an endangered species, you’d be subject to a stream of insults (a local newspaper is full of them) but the fact is that, globally, the species is threatened. So next time visitors complain about the – to me – glorious noise at dawn, tell them that they are as lucky to have this welcome to the day as they are to look out here at the thousands of elms which have vanished from elsewhere in the country.
There is a phrase in Ecclesiastes “the dead know nothing” but I think, on the contrary, the dead know something. As I look out at say, that building over there, its brickwork, I cannot help but think of those vanished shoulders and hands – now dust – which hefted the bricks upwards and laid them in place. The past is the cause of everything that we now confront but, equally, we can learn from it. That then-pace of life which has inspired the current Slow movement. Such a great opportunity has been missed in England for a new economy based on renewable energy – from those who imagine and create it to those who instal it.
It would be interesting to have the view of this from one economist, John Maynard Keynes. He was a man who enjoyed so much of life but also noted that “in the long run we are all dead”; and, indeed, some while from now, the Sun will go out. As Keynes’s friend Virginia Woolf put it in To The Lighthouse, “the stone one kicks with one’s foot will outlast Shakespeare” but to dwell on that takes one into Woody Allen territory. I prefer to think in terms of the George Harrison song, it’s got a rather jolly rhythm, which says “we gotta save the world, / somebody else may want to use it”.
And so it’s with some of these thoughts in mind that I have found myself sitting through many hours of Council meetings. You discover, in any authority, that to make change can be rather like turning a tanker round out there in the Channel. And it’s encouraging that some people expect us to be able to make rapid changes on many fronts. If that is sometimes naïve, it is certainly much more heartening than the dismal chorus of gainsayers who greet even something such as the prospect of a useful new mini-roundabout as a disaster (I kid you not).
Looking back over just two years, I feel glad that people are seeing the point of a 20 mph (a million people are killed each year on roads); cycle lanes are gaining favour; the changes to the Lewes Road will improve flow (which is better for the mind than bursts of speed and halt); communal recycling has begun to improve the recycling rate; there is the prospect of a low-emission zone round here in the middle of Brighton (and you cannot sense some of the dangerous particulates); plans are underway to make the Steine and the Level more conducive to the strolling which was their nineteenth-century distinction; we have won prizes for encouraging food-growing in new-build housing; this has been the first city to win One-Planet Living accreditation; houses small and large are waking up to the sense in fitting with outside insulation; it’s not yet finished but already Seven Dials roundabout is being praised for its more seemly flow of vehicles; you might not know it from outside but the Brighton Centre – no thing of beauty – is now self-sufficient in many ways; and I have found that many people are eager for a systematic collection of food waste. One small broccoli stem, one giant step for mankind… and we are just about to submit to UNESCO a bid to be one of the world’s 600 Biospheres. Some decry this, they even assume it’s a giant polytunnel, but it’s part of a growing recognition of the way in which there is an inherent connection between the Downland, the urban centres of Newhaven, Brighton, Hove and Shoreham, and the sea to our south. As many a nature writer such as W H Hudson has chronicled these past two hundred years, it’s what, sometimes without realising it, has drawn us to this small stretch, this corner of an expanding Universe which will find room for a composter in the garden of a new house near Hove Park.
Posted on | July 12, 2013 | No Comments
Cool jazz plays as graphic shapes descend, traverse the screen and form themselves into titles and names while the camera homes in on a long glass window. Etched upon it is the instruction that “pants must be worn at all times”, for this is “Middleton Interactive Learning Centre”; blu-tacked below this there is a piece of paper with the translation “Library”. What’s more the camera lifts from “Quiet Please” to evidence that the premises are below a flight path.
Scarcely a pause, and the scene cuts to a harassed woman, at work on making sandwiches in her kitchen, a process from which she breaks off to blow into a brown paper bag. This is Frances O’Brien, a sexually frustrated Catholic librarian prone to panic attacks (hence the refreshing bag) played by Robyn Butler, co-writer of this series – The Librarians – which was first shown on Australian television in 2007.
Every so often one enjoys a chance discovery – a moment that so easily may not have occurred again in this lifetime. An old Penguin of Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon led to my spending a day with that quintessential New York chronicler in snowy Manhattan; for ten pence outside a charity shop there was a lurid-covered Panther paperback of Katherine Topkins’s elegantly erotic novel All the Tea In China – a title shared with a lesser work by Kyril Bonfiglioni who also wrote a masterly trilogy in perfect bad taste which I have urged upon others with resounding joy.
So it is with the DVD The Librarians – found in a Hove charity shop but never issued over here. Frances O’Brien, the more-than-chivying head librarian in the small town of Middleton, is but one of many leading a life of not-so-quiet desperation. Among those on her staff, all of them beset by her flip-chart hell, is a dyslexic intern, a postman on probation, a putative poet in residence – and a woman in a wheelchair, whose misfortune is explained in one of several rapidly adroit flashbacks: another of these moments from time past includes Christine Grimwood (played by Roz Hammond), a floozie who pulls up in a low-slung sports-car and dress (some zeugma there), with an even louder ringtone on her cellphone (“Feelin’ hot, hot… hot”): a good-time gal with previous, she has ulterior motives in angling for the post of children’s librarian – and brings a smile from both an earnest Muslim librarian and well-meaning vicar.
Studded with salty asides and rebarbative confrontations five weeks ahead of populist Book Week, it is sometimes as though the premises are run by Basilina Fawlty but there is an undertow of compassion without ever being, er, Dewey-eyed. The postman amends the youth-wooing idea of a picture of a latte to one of an ecstasy tablet above the phrase “would you like a book with that?” Meanwhile, as the staff discussion continues along these lines, the public is deflected from the entrance despite their gesticulations that the out-of-hours return chute is choked by human excrement.
The six episodes have one hooting aloud, even when watching it again after urging it upon visitors. And now, a friend has brought from Australia series two and three – something for which one is awaiting the right moment to watch. Then again, any time could be that. Put the disc in the player – and transportation to Australia takes on a whole new meaning. Anybody would steal a sheep if the punishment were being able to watch these series which, mysteriously, have not been shown over here.
Meanwhile, of course, for all this spirited satire of quotidian existence at the issue desk, it should not be forgotten that Australia is investing in its libraries – unlike, say, Lincolnshire which, beyond satire, proposes to close down thirty of its forty-five libraries. Middleton, on the contrary, might be crazy but its passion for books is heartfelt – even hot, hot… hot.
Posted on | July 4, 2013 | No Comments
Once again, life might seem rather a galling procedure if one were to steer it by the hoardings and headlines of the local newspaper. This morning it turned yet another variation on the dream is over – the precipice of apparently plummeting recycling figures and worsening air quality.
Naturally, it is all different from that dismal depiction. Recycling is being improved, and there is a drop in waste overall (which is to be desired). Indeed, under previous administrations, Hove and Brighton were slow off the mark with establishing recycling, behind the rest of the country, and entangled the place in a big burner at Newhaven for several decades rather than aim for renewables – and the opposition parties have derided food-waste as a fad. What’s more, today’s quoted figures for air quality are two years out of date – the situation has in fact been improving…
One could brood upon so inept a portrayal of the place but so much more cheering was to be out and about in Hove. At one point I was stopped by a resident, and we discussed the situation about the teaching and care of autistic children – the extent, logistics and cost of which are perhaps unknown to people at large but vital to those in such a difficult situation.
A little further on, I lingered to hear – from outside – somebody practising the cello in a basement flat and then happened to meet Robert Cohen, whose one-man play , performed by himself, The Trials of Harvey Matusow – the McCarthy era and its aftermath – continues to take him about the country, as does his recent one High Vis, which – about training sessions for traffic wardens – returns to Hove later in the year.
And, as I returned home, ready to set off for the City Sustainability Partnership, it again occurred to me that these encounters – these vignettes – are so much more the stuff of life in all its variety than the perennially miserablist take on existence perpetrated by the local paper.
Go out and about – rather than sit behind a screen – and life becomes so much more fascinating than it appears to those who perpetrate the local press.
Posted on | June 19, 2013 | No Comments
Today is World Sauntering Day, something which brings to mind another of the spectacular mistakes (“ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance”) which are one of the many charms of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.
He defines it as “to wander about idly; to loiter; to linger”. What’s more, the examples that he quotes of the word use it in a pejorative sense rather than of the mind-expanding nature that is a good stroll – a far cry from the dubious rigours of jogging, to counter which World Sauntering Day was created in, of all places, Michigan.
All of this pales besides Johnson’s assertion of the word’s etymology. The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates it in this sense to the seventeenth century, says that its origins are obscure. Johnson, however, made the bizarre but beguiling wrong claim that it is from the French phrase “aller a la sainte terre”: the Holy Land, to which – he said – idle walkers claimed to be going and begged funds from passers-by for the purported journey.keep looking »