Thursday, 26 February 2015

Responsibility and guilt

The concept of 'having responsibilities' was always rammed down my throat when young, and there was no let-up as I got older. The responsibilities were never specified, but it was perfectly clear what they covered:

# Being a credit to one's parents - and indeed listening to them and abiding by their wishes, on the basis that they were older and wiser and had more experience of life. Ultimately to look after them in their old age.
# Behaving well towards other members of society, and respecting all of society's time-honoured institutions.
# Not to be a burden on society, which meant studying hard to get qualifications and, with those, a good job so that one would be at least self-supporting.
# To strive for promotion at work, and achieve senior status with a salary and pension rights to match.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, law-abiding and conforming. Outlandish dress and hippy attitudes were a betrayal of this.
# To actively seek a partner, and make that person very happy - at least as happy as one's own parents had been.
# To laugh at adversity, and make the most of any rare opportunity.
# If possible, to create a wonderful family, and bring them up to be persons any parent (or grandparent) would be proud of.
# To keep away from people who would drag you down. And generally reject ideas and passing fads that weren't soundly-based. Self-discipline and discernment, then.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle were at stake.

It was difficult to argue with a comprehensive list like that. My parents would speak as if they were living examples of people who recognised these responsibilities and faced up to them. For most of my life, I expressed no dissent. I wouldn't have dared.

Thus I endured school and got my three good A-levels, one of them with distinction, and was absorbed into the best-paying government department, then plodded my way through thirty-five conscientious years, and finally took the pension offered at the end of it all. I never vandalised a park bench, never stole, never took drugs, never smoked, never entered a betting shop, never went to a rock festival, and never ended up on the dole, living in a crummy bedsit with a baby on my hands. I paid heed to my responsibilities. My parents were pleased.

But was my life one worth living? Where were the unsafe experiences? What did I know about making really bad mistakes? About risk? What did I know about how it felt to be at the bottom of the pit, to be lost, to want an end?

I've never been depressed. I've never felt suicidal. I've also never known ecstasy. Responsible people can't feel extremes, because they stay away from anything that will risk emotional overload. Thanks, Mum and Dad.

And yet, I should say thanks, and without any irony, because my 'safe' and 'responsible' life has preserved me intact. Where are the scars? I can offer only bags under the eyes.

Where is the street-wisdom and the cynicism? I am still naïve and innocent in many ways. My outlook is too sunny, too simple, too optimistic, and I know it. That's remarkable because all of this has happened to me:

# A secret, solitary childhood with adverse consequences for successful socialisation.
# Occasional bad experiences at work - personality clashes, members of the public being horrible.
# A badly-considered marriage that ended in divorce.
# The violent death of my brother, my only sibling.
# The death of both parents, almost together.
# The loss of a lifetime's capital - £200,000 - which was to be my financial security in old age.
# The loss of the love of my life.

But I can't help it. The optimism persists. I did not give up, I did not crumple. I just picked myself up, dusted myself off, and started all over again. Just as zillions of other people have had to. It's the responsible thing to do.

I can however change my view on what is important now. On what should be my responsibilities in the rest of my life. Having been through a period of profound change, I feel completely free to select what I will consider a responsibility. Let's revisit that first list, at the beginning of the post. Which of those responsibilities are now still relevant, and still worth acknowledging?

# Behaving well towards other members of society. Not just to be a good neighbour.
# Not to be a burden on society. Vital to be self-supporting.
# To be a good citizen, by being alert, well-informed, kind, generous, honest, public-spirited, solvent, and law-abiding.
# To laugh at adversity, and to create opportunities.
# To cultivate self-discipline and discernment.
# To face the darker things in life, such as serious illness, with bravery and fortitude. To never complain without just cause - and yet never give up where a good principle is at stake.

Ha! The list has shortened! And there are nuanced changes here and there. Such as 'creating opportunities' - not merely taking advantage of them if they arise. So I now believe I should be deliberately pro-active. 

I also now have some fresh responsibilities:

# To do nothing that will bring the recognition and social position of trans people into disrepute or disrespect. I must be a very good 'trans ambassador'.
# To respect and champion all groups of people who are being unfairly or unjustly put down by a dominant group. A responsibility then to encourage equality and co-operation, everywhere, with no special exceptions.
# To be aware of what is damaging the planet, and do nothing to compromise its ongoing good health. It may be the only lifeboat we have. Certainly not to give support to governments and organisations intending to over-exploit earth's resources, and drive us all to extinction. I am suspicious of endless 'growth' in world economies. I think it better to limit population, and give everyone a larger and tastier slice of the cake that way.

It's sad to think that Mum and Dad would have dismissed my 'fresh responsibilities' as airy-fairy stuff. And they would have questioned my omission of duties like 'looking after grand-children'. (But then I haven't got any)

Ultimately, where responsibilities are concerned, the chief requirement is to acknowledge that at least some things must be addressed, that no complete escape is possible, and that a distinction must be made between the really important things and the much less important.

I often feel that people drift into doing things - it might be a family role, or regularly looking after a neighbour's pet - because they feel they 'ought to', and not as a positive decision that they took upon themselves to make, and had a responsibility to make. Putting this another way, it may be a bad thing to accept responsibility when the personal time and effort could be better used on something else.

Is it, for example, a better use of time to serve in a charity shop - or write a blog post? The knee-jerk reaction might be 'charity shop service' every time. But why? Shop assistants may not always be easy to get, but they are interchangeable. What extra or unique thing do they bring to a shop, or to the charitable process? And yet an inspiring or comforting post might make a big difference for some reader in doubt, or be at least be 'useful' and 'enlightening' in a way that just taking cash for goods can't be. This is even truer for writing proper books and influential articles that will get a wide circulation.

So I don't feel that I'm evading a social responsibility by not popping into Age UK or British Heart Foundation and covering a Thursday-morning slot. I'd consider charity better-served if I went to such a shop and actually bought something, as a customer. And in fact that is the main way I give money to charity. But buying goods is not a responsibility, nor even a moral imperative, and I think nobody should feel guilty if they never spend money in a charity shop.

It's an interesting thing, that link between responsibility and guilt. So often, where someone (a manipulator) wants something to happen, and dresses it up as a 'responsibility', guilt is then invoked to ensure that it does happen in the way they want. Guilt is the lever. Nobody enjoys feeling guilty. It's easiest to comply. Not so easy, of course, where there are two or more genuine responsibilities, and they compete. I do not envy anyone who has a job, children, and elderly parents on their hands at the same time - not an uncommon situation. What if they can't all be handled simultaneously? Which gets priority? How much guilt for neglect can be borne?

My parents were subtle in their use of guilt. Nothing was said. And yet I knew that I would be made to feel guilty if I walked away from some 'responsibility'. Even if the reason were understandable.

It might be as small as not sticking out the wet weather on a family tenting holiday in Cornwall. In 1971, after a few days of relentlessly bad weather and nothing to do, I announced that I'd had enough, and proposed to take the train home to Southampton. I was nearly nineteen, but I'd never rebelled like that before. I wasn't unpleasant about it. I'd not long left school, I had started work, had some money, and I knew where to buy milk and how to cook up bacon and baked beans. I could get by. Well, my parents made a bit of a scene. Then, when they saw I meant it, they melted and became concerned for my welfare at home, to the point of fussiness. One type of control substituted for another, of course. They drove me to Bodmin Road station (now Bodmin Parkway) and an adventure began for me. Guilt for desertion slipped away. I was travelling alone for almost the first time in my life! It was an eventful journey indeed. Between Exeter and Salisbury, some boys - who had escaped from a young offenders' detention facility - boarded the train and played hide and seek with police and train staff, moving progressively towards the front of the train. At one point, they sat close to my seat, whispering to themselves. Were they going to take a hostage? Gulp. But no, they moved on, and eventually must have been cornered and arrested. We saw them being led off the platform at Tisbury, I think it was.

My survival at home over the next few days was nothing so exciting! The feeling that I'd let Mum and Dad down - embarrassed them, even - returned. But they didn't harp on about it once back. I rather thought that making my own mind up and acting on it, showing spirit in fact, had impressed Mum and Dad, making this something of a high point in my standing with them. I'd been plucky. I'd also been well-organised with train timetables, unafraid to fend for myself, and I'd clearly mastered some cooking skills. And I'd eked out my money sensibly, with some still to spare after several days of unaccustomed food expenditure.

This was a turning-point, but it wasn't the end of a life built around 'responsibilities', some real, some manufactured for me, and all designed to keep me on a tight lead. I couldn't bear to submit to any of that now. Equally, I couldn't bring myself to impose such a regime on somebody else. The family has gone: I'm the sole survivor. I look outwards now, at my place in the wider world, and how best to conduct myself in it. And not to be gulled into accepting 'duties' and 'responsibilities' so that some political party, or pressure group, or business interest, can get their claws into me and bleed me to death.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Funky Fanfare, Basil Brush, and Pinky and Perky

Now he looks like a chap who likes fast cars, fast women, and a good time. Note the look. A man of action from 1969. But before discussing one of his singles, a real party anthem, let us discuss what constitutes a good sense of humour. A subject I disclaim any knowledge of, even though it's often suggested to me that I'm fibbing. As if.

Well, despite owning a fairly powerful bolide that can definitely outperform most ordinary vehicles on the road - within the speed limit, of course - I am no petrolhead.

I mean, I literally wouldn't be, as Fiona runs on diesel. But I'm saying that while I like nothing better than to cleanly and skilfully pass some slow, dithering, doddering, barely-awake, pathetic, greyheaded, muttering, old-school bigot and blusterer who should have his car taken from him as a kindness to other road users - my blistering overtaking manoeuvre being a genuinely public-spirited gesture, surely - I am no motoring brat, no ranting Queen of the Road. I like to project Reasonable Road Behaviour, and to be the Safety-Conscious Soul of Volvo.

It's not my fault if certain other road users take issue when they see me at the wheel. Let them self-ignite in their anger, I say. And if it's a boy racer, panting for a contest, then again I'm not playing. Sophisticated women in pearls - especially Volvo drivers - do not parley with pimply little boys in noisy red toys.

All this said, I do enjoy watching Top Gear on BBC2. I know, it's utterly childish. But the mixed studio audience in that hangar at Dunsfold Airport look sensible enough. They want to see and hear the three presenters Clarkson, May and Hammond chaff each other, interview celebrities, and test exotic dream cars. Add in some amazing filming in amazing locations, and a whacky project or two, and it's the sort of entertainment that even a super-careful Volvo driver can enjoy. I don't care much for the Stig, but that's a minor quibble.

The Top Gear team do however have some strange prejudices. One is caravanning. I simply can't see what they find laughable about owning, towing, and holidaying in a caravan. Am I lacking a sense of humour? Is there something wrong with me? Can it be that, after all, I am mad, and just can't see what a joke it is to be so keen on a major national pastime. As if, say, fishing, keeping hamsters and solving sudoku puzzles were a matter for smirking. No, I just don't get it.

Then there is their opinion of Peugeot cars. Why the prejudice? I owned a Peugeot 306 from 1999 to 2002. Here it is in 2002:

It was a revelation after my previous car, a 1988 Nissan Micra. I liked driving it, once overtaking no less than eight cars in one go on a straight stretch of the A15 south of Lincoln. Its only fault was an occasional reluctance to start on damp mornings. That was annoying, but my memory of its good service is hardly tarnished. And yet Clarkson, May and Hammond have consistently sneered at Peugeots. Obviously their acceptance of double-lobotomies as part of their BBC salary package was a mistake with lasting effects. I wonder if they regret it. (Can you regret anything if you've had a double-lobotomy?)

Anyway, on this week's Top Gear they paid 'homage' to Peugeot's output in the last ten years. Two of them filmed themselves driving around in a couple of frankly unexciting and characterless family saloons from the Peugeot stable, and not only showing off the plasticky cheapness and nastiness of the cars themselves, but aping how 'typical' owners might behave on the road - including examples of indecision, vaccilation, procrastination, flatulence, blindness, and a complete inability to control their cars. It seems as if the Lion has no longer been going from Strength to Strength. As a Volvo driver I found it all hilarious. But if I were still a Peugeot driver I might not.

While they were clumsily steering onto verges at 10 mph, or casually bumping into parked cars, suitable background music was being played, all to suggest that despite appearances the 'typical' owner was actually cool and hip. Thus I heard a trumpet fanfare that I immediately associated with a pop song from the late 1960s - not recalled for decades - called House of Jack. A little Internet research established that the lively background hit was Funky Fanfare, an instrumental composed by Keith Mansfield, and that I'd been thinking of the 1969 vocal version sung by James Royal. You can hear a snatch of the instrumental version here on Amazon ( - you don't have to buy it - and here's the James Royal song itself ( Now isn't that one of the funkiest numbers you ever heard? It was still being played at the first parties I went to, after leaving school and starting work in 1970.

Ah, to be young in the late 1960s! Well, actually it wasn't so hot. The Swinging Sixties had happened up in London. I was in Southampton. Southampton wasn't London in any shape or form.

Even so, travel with me now, back to a time when Dad's Army was on TV (was there ever not such a time?). We'll do it through the medium of two handbooks I purchased during that epoch and still have on my shelves. One is the BBC Handbook for 1969, which reviewed what the Beeb had achieved in 1968, and the other is the ITV Handbook of 1970, which examined the successes of Independent Television in 1969:

Opening these up reveals a mass of text. It's the photos that are interesting. The best-quality ones are in the ITV handbook. The ITV was strong on entertainment, comedy and popular escapist drama. Liberace and Anita Harris:

Doctor in the House, On the Buses and Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width:

And for fantasy adventure, Department S, starring Peter Wyngarde as sex symbol Jason King.

Jason King: his poster adorned many a girl's bedroom wall. I have proof. One of my 1970s girlfriends, Jenny, had him near her bedside, clad in a silken blue kaftan open over the chest:

Dream on, girl.

The BBC then as now had a much wider broadcasting remit, and its handbook was not so slick. In fact it was a stuffy affair. Still, there were some evocative photos. Chart-topping Esther and Abi Ofarim, and Eurovision Song contest winner for Spain, Massiel:

Children's TV, represented by Rodney Bewes and Basil Brush...boom boom!...and silly old Hector:

The Beeb was also cutting-edge on the Pop Scene! Some DJs: Jimmy Savile, Tony Brandon and David Symonds (talking to another Eurovision Song Contest winner, Mireille Matthieu):

Did anyone who mattered in the BBC see beyond Savile's cheerfulness and big cigar at the time? And did Rolf Harris (below) seem in any obvious way dodgy to programming bosses? Why were there so many blind eyes?

Perhaps everyone's attention was on Morecambe and Wise. And lulled into nostalgia with Dad's Army, even then, forty-seven years ago, a national institution:

I'm thinking that nobody suspected a thing. The betrayed victims would themselves hardly believe it possible, and may not have had the words to label their experience, wrap it up, screw it into a a hard little ball of horror, and then throw it into to deepest recess of their mind. The BBC bosses would pay attention only to the audience viewing figures:

Look at that! The Rolf Harris Show and Top of the Pops (a vehicle for Jimmy Savile) right up there among the most-viewed light entertainment programmes, among the most-viewed of any kind of programme, certainly on par with the best-loved programmes of the day, such as the crime dramas Softly, Softly, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars; homely Scottish hokum like Dr Finlay's Casebook; and (ironically) comedy shows like Not In Front Of The Children. And even beating Dr Who for popularity:

This was a pre-computer age, of course, and before the time when there were many other competing entertainment gadgets in the home. People fixated on the TV. Some were prepared to watch anything, which explains why Pinky and Perky was so much watched:

I could never make my mind up about Pinky and Perky. Were they lovable, or just irritating? It's a funny thing, but the BBC dropped them - after a long eleven-year run - in 1968, the year The Beatles' White Album came out, which featured a George Harrison composition called Piggies, made infamous by the deranged Californian killer Charles Manson's liking it so much. Although the Beeb hadn't lifted a finger over Saville, they clearly saw a disturbing connection between Pinky and Perky and Charles Manson, and passed the poisoned chalice to ITV.

I understand that the piglets themselves are now in pleasant retirement. A bit like me.

Ah, what fresh trips down Memory Lane will next week's Top Gear encourage?

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Seaford Head, Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Last Sunday turned out to be a very sunny day, and I went off to the Sussex coast. I really am very lucky to live in a county that has coastal scenery worth visiting. It isn't all like the photo above, not by any means: all of West Sussex, for instance, is a low-lying series of shingle and sandy beaches, backed up by sand dunes and - in places - an awful lot of urban development. East Sussex has urban development too, but it also has cliffs. I went to the nearest bit of coastline that offered a view worth shooting with the camera.

I parked on the eastern edge of Seaford, a town that was once something of a minor holiday resort, but is now mainly an amenity for its commuting residents. Its beach has been buried beneath accumulated shingle, and the requirements of tidal surge defence mean that it must stay that way. But at the eastern end of the promenade, the ground rises dramatically to form high chalk cliffs, haunted by kittiwakes and topped by bumpy turf full of rabbits. Here's a map:

Seaford is top left. The blue 'P' at South Hill Barn indicates where I parked Fiona. The orange arrows indicate access points where you can get on or off the foreshore - important if the tide is rising and you are walking at the foot of the cliffs, either from Seaford or Birling Gap. You need to know where the escape-points are. I first walked south-west (through the blue figure '98'), then struck south to the cliff edge. Already the views were wide.

Before I got near the cliff, this intriguing flying saucer shaped object came into view:

It was of course one of those beacons that help aircraft to navigate, but if you'd never seen one before, its purpose would be unfathomable.

On to the cliff edge. This showed many signs of rainwater and frost erosion, and I wondered, close to the very edge as I was, whether I was unwittingly standing on an overhang that might give way at any moment! Certainly, it would have been very easy to stumble and slide over the edge onto the foreshore far below:

The rabbits cannot be helping. Their burrows are everywhere, and all their underground holes and tunnels must weaken the cliff edge. Not the chalk itself, but the important cap of soil, so that the elements can gnaw away at it all the more easily. I dare say that no thought of a sudden cliff catastrophe fills their little heads. What indeed do rabbits think about anyway? Sex and grass, I'm guessing. Rather like sheep and cows and horses. And the occasional superannuated hippy.

I now walked eastwards down to Hope Gap, a little notch in the line of cliffs before one reaches Cuckmere Haven proper. The view eastwards was spectacular, the distant line of bright white chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters becoming ever more impressive:

The foreshore at Hope Gap was littered with old chalk falls. They had become discoloured with green algae.

An often-found feature of the shore beneath chalk cliffs is a smoothed-off area of level chalk, as if it has been ground down by abrasive stones. Indeed it has. The nodules of hard, sharp flint embedded within the chalk form cannonball-shaped rocks that the waves move to and fro over the much softer chalk shelf, smashing it smooth:

I walked on into Cuckmere Haven, clambered off the beach, and contemplated the two sets of buildings that are known as the 'old coastguard cottages'. The more picturesque are the wooden clapperboard cottages lower down, closer to the beach, though they still command a wonderful prospect. Two ladies, Wendy and Sarah, owned one of these, and were clearly keen on growing food the natural way. In fact they were offering courses, and had sown beds in progress:

Yes, I'm a right Nosey Parker, even when it comes to things that I'd never do myself! And would you credit it, having only just taken these shots, one of the ladies came into view, carefully driving down the gravel track from South Hill Barn. I don't think she'd seen me leaning over her fence and blitzing her front garden. We exchanged smiles.

On the way back to Fiona, I kept looking back to admire the position of the cottages, and wondering how one might feel about life, waking up to such a view every day:

And yet it would be a home full of drawbacks. Look at that uneven track. The exposed position that would make the cottage expensive to heat, and prone to storm damage. The constant stream of walkers and tourists leaning over your fence, or taking photographs, every day throughout the year. What a mission it would be, just to get some milk or bread. Or to visit the doctor. Or for people to visit you. Guess how hard the wind can blow:

But one always comes back to the view. It's not just seaward, or across the Haven. There's an inspiring vista inland, up the Cuckmere valley to Exceat:

As if the sheep could care! Sex and grass, all they think about. Call to them and they look up, startled, as if you had disturbed them from a dream. They move off and resume their endless munch, munch, munch of the clearly delicious salty green turf. I'm all for a simple life, but that's a bit too simple. And yet it would do them no favours to make them intelligent. Because then they would realise what's in store for them, not very far ahead. Back in 2007, I saw these poor sheep on an inter-island ferry from Picton to Wellington, stuck in a lorry, shorn for slaughter. And I think, in one or two cases, dimly aware that their days were numbered, that Auschwitz or Belsen lay ahead:

They trust us so much. Like children do.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Hyundai Man

Yesterday I spent the day with my friend Emma, who lives in a part of Tunbridge Wells where the local residential roads are rather narrow, even the ones intended for two lanes of traffic to pass each other. And yet street parking is allowed, which creates bottlenecks.

This doesn't matter too much when the traffic is light, but at busy times - at for instance just past 6.00pm - the traffic is relentless, full of tired commuters wanting to get home, and at these pinch-points one long line of cars generally has to hold back so that a long line coming the other way can get through. This does normally work, after a fashion, if there is daylight and if all drivers are prepared to be patient. But it doesn't work well in the dark, when one can't see far ahead, can't see to reverse, can't see drivers' expressions and their (hopefully) polite gestures and acknowledgements, and headlights are right in your eye.

I got caught up in exactly that kind of after-dark nightmare.

I'd said goodbye to Emma, and was now sitting in Fiona, engine running and indicating that I wished to pull out, but wondering when that might be possible. I was parked half in the road, half over the pavement, just to give passing traffic more room to manoeuvre - and incidentally to save Fiona suffering such things as a scraped or smashed door mirror. I witnessed a harassed-looking woman, coming from one direction (slightly uphill, so some awkward clutch-and-gear-work needed), confronted by a chap coming from the other direction (slightly downhill). She couldn't see to reverse. The man didn't budge. He sat there po-faced. I was looking at him. They resolved this by creeping past each other with an inch to spare. Her face was a picture of end-of-tether annoyance, possibly despair.

I was so glad that I'd parked so much off the roadway. But as she got by, I now moved out - just as a car (that I hadn't been able to see approaching) swept around the corner. He had to brake for me, but we stayed cool, and he politely let me through, as did a couple of other male drivers a little further on. However, I gave way just as much as anybody else. Clearly no-one was going anywhere unless there were lots of give and take. But it wasn't easy to judge, in the dark, whether one should move forward or hang back. Some pushy drivers were being more than cheeky. Some were letting the prospect of getting home have absolute priority, and were prepared to adopt a 'let me through, curse you' attitude. Nobody in their right mind would want to mess with someone like that. Better to stay calm and let them go.

Most of the cars were smaller than mine. And it struck me that Fiona really wasn't at all suitable as a town car. She was just a bit too big for this stuff. I hadn't really understood this when driving around Brighton. But Tunbridge Wells brought it home to me. Thank goodness I lived out of town!

And then I got caught out.

The road was straight, but there was a line of parked cars on my side of it. This constricted the road width so that two cars wouldn't be able to ease past each other. Short convoys were going through while drivers on the other side of the road waited until they had passed; then it would be their turn.

I joined the tail end of one such convoy, but before I had passed all of the parked cars, the driver at the front of the oncoming queue decided to move forward. This blocked my way. He was driving a quite new, white, 14-registration car - a Hyundai, I think. I didn't want to argue about who had the right of way. I decided to back up, if that were possible. But in the dark, with all those dazzling headlights, reversing wasn't a simple matter. I managed to slowly move back two car's-lengths, then realised that I had nowhere to reverse into, because the traffic coming up behind me had filled the spot where I might have gone. I had no escape route, and was stuck. Hyundai Man could be as annoyed as he pleased: I couldn't get out of his way.

Then I noticed that Hyundai Man had a great option available to him. There was a wide stretch of pavement he could mount, and pass me that way. The kerb was low, and would be kind to his tyres. No pedestrians were around. No lamp-posts were in the way. I wondered why he hadn't already seen this obvious solution.

In daylight, my plight would have been obvious, and I could have given him a pantomime of conciliatory gestures, conveying this message: 'Whoops! Sorry I misjudged your intentions! As you can see, I can't go back. But look, what if you pass me using that convenient bit of pavement? It seems almost made for the purpose!'

But he probably couldn't see that I was stuck. It was too dark, and Fiona's bulk was hiding what was happening behind me. Although Hyundai Man wasn't actually hooting me, you could tell by the way he edged forward that he was impatient, and close to losing his temper. I wondered if he would be getting out of his car - never mind the other traffic - and then stalking up to my own, bent on giving me a piece of his mind with a limited but vile vocabulary.

Why didn't he use that lovely stretch of prime pavement? Anyone on the ball would be up on it in a flash. Certainly any resourceful man of action. Indiana Jones would have done it. But really he didn't need to be Indiana Jones to turn his steering wheel just a little, and get up there. I had to do things like this all the time, so that all those Unstoppable Important Men coming towards me could pass. Why not him?

I felt sure it was useless making any in-car signs, shrugs or other gestures. He just wouldn't see them.

And yet the impasse had to be resolved. Too many people were being held up. So I opened my door window, stuck out my arm (which I hope he could see) and pointed to the pavement. I didn't stab the air - I just waved the hand to indicate what might be done.

Well, he roared forward, and did get by using the pavement - as if he'd seen that solution all the time - but he shouted at me as he did so. I didn't quite catch it, but it sounded like 'You Cocksure Bitch!!' - which doesn't make sense to me, since I did reverse as far as I could, and had generally given way to him.

It must have been my hand gesture. Perhaps he found it too imperious - as if I considered myself lofty, and was giving him an order. So he took umbrage. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, imagining his having one hell of a bad day at work, including a humiliating ticking off from his boss. He wouldn't have liked a woman (in a car bigger than his) making gestures at him, however well-intentioned. The last straw, in fact.

Fortunately the cars behind him had somehow seen the drama unfolding, and had hung back, so that I was able to drive on without another Considerate Gentleman swearing at me. I gratefully flashed my thanks to them.

I now remember that I ran into another example of male driver impatience when going home last year, in Tonbridge, and I'm now thinking that Kent abounds with short-fused abusive men of this type.

I really wouldn't like to be Hyundai Man's wife or girlfriend. How horrible that would be.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Mud, mud, mud, mud

It was no accident that in ancient times all the main trackways in Sussex kept to the high chalk ridges, and avoided the lower ground. Even the Romans kept away from the worst that the Weald (that vast clay-filled bowl that lies between the North and South Downs) had to offer.

The land between the Downs was in fact for the most part a dense forest of holly and oak. The oak provided stout timbers for wooden ships, and fuel for ironworks here and there (assisted by water cascading from a series of artificial little lakes called hammer-ponds that are still to be seen). The clay was good for brick-making. But carting iron and bricks any distance would have been a problem until the roads improved, which did not happen until the turnpike era. Until the early nineteenth century, roads were notoriously bad in Sussex, mainly because of the clay soils that turned to swampy mud in the winter. That's why even today most roads meander awkwardly from place to place, connecting the haphazard patches of firmer ground, and rarely go in a direct line. The pull of London has ensured that there are a handful of decent north-south roads, but there are few good ways to travel east-west unless you stick to the coast.

So for centuries the more rural parts of Sussex remained rather isolated, backward, and a refuge for alternative ways of thought and custom. A strange thing so near to London. Subject to the prejudices of landowners and the Anglican Church, it was possible for obscure sects rooted in the agricultural world to thrive in cut-off villages, and old chapels and meeting-places (usually small, some very utilitarian with tin roofs) used to be seen in some abundance. But by the 1980s these sects (such as the Society of Dependants - the Cokelers - see had mostly died out, as they have died out elsewhere, to become just part of Sussex history.

All because of the Sussex mud, that made even local movement slow and messy, and sometimes impossible. In his 1951 sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids, the author John Wyndham has the hero Bill Masen look out one evening from Shirning, the stoutly-fenced-in farm he had taken over, on a hillside near what was once Pulborough:

I looked across the valley, remembering the well-drained and tended meadows that had been there. Now it was far on the way back to the wild. The neglected fields were dotted with thickets, beds of reeds, and stagnant pools. The bigger trees were slowly drowning in the sodden soil. 

That's how it would indeed be in Sussex, if ever a global disaster killed off most humans, brought civilisation to an end, and the survivors observed nature taking over once more beyond their enclaves of scientifically-cultivated land. Me? I'd have raided a gun shop, taught myself to shoot well (not primarily against humans), and would be ensconced in a large well-defended, well-equipped, and self-sufficient survivor community - one that suited me, and myself them, and had a role for me. No doubt as historian, photographer and archivist, just as Miss Elspeth Cary in The Day of the Triffids chronicled the growth and fightback of the post-disaster community on the Isle of Wight.

I set the scene in this way because yesterday (having mentioned the telephone box at Ebernoe in West Sussex in a recent post) I decided to go for a country walk on Ebernoe Common, which is an extensive tract of woodland and clearings managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. I have their leaflet before me now. It says:

Ebernoe Common is a superb example of a habitat almost completely lost from Sussex - a wood pasture, where cattle are allowed to roam freely within the woodland, feeding in the glades and under the trees...[it is] one of the most important areas of woodland in Britain...a National Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. 

And it goes on to mention the Furnace Pond (local ironworks in the 16th century), the old brickworks (a scheduled ancient monument); the ancient trees, wild flowers, rare fungi and lichens; the sixteen species of tree-roosting bats; the buzzards, butterflies, and beetles. Well, I just wanted a nice walk. And in particular to test out my new black padded coat on a bright but chilly day.

Here is that very coat at home, with my other chosen walking clobber:

The ensemble. Ready to go!

At Ebernoe, I parked close to the telephone box, and walked through to the church, which lies hidden in woods. So the church sign has only a gravel track leading away...

...which you follow until the church appears. There's actually plenty of space to park here, if just wanting a walk on the Common. The church itself dates from 1868, and, far from being rustic, is built of multicoloured brick. It's surrounded by a low brick wall, to exclude small forms of wildlife from the graveyard. Inside it's rather attractive, not exactly the over-ornate interior I expected:

There were no distinctive monuments or tombs in the churchyard, but I noticed, almost hidden in the leaves, this little grave:

Scruffy. A beloved cat, or a small dog? Not very many pets are remembered like this, with a churchyard burial.

I walked on, down to the Furnace Pond. The sun was about to go behind a cloud, but for now it was still glinting on the water:

Almost a secret place in winter. There was nobody about, and I met no-one on my walk. Just as well - soon after, I felt in need of a pee, and had no qualms treading off the path, hanging up my bag on a branch, and squatting bare-bottomed in the woods, with only the wind for company. (No picture this time)

I continued, past a field barricaded against walkers bent on assisting or rescuing the horses within. A vets' notice warned them off. I thought it sounded rather defensive in tone:

In Sussex, horses are of course ubiquitous, and just as important as humans. They drink at the same pubs, and speak in exactly the same way as modern country folk. The vets clearly did not want anyone offering these fine beasts their freedom or a Sunday roast. Hence the barricade. And yet further on the public footpath crossed that very field. The entrance looked very wet and muddy:

But this was nothing. Although the grass inside was, to begin with, firm enough, it degenerated as I approached the far side of the field. I needed to pick my way very carefully. I hoped I could make the far gate before the horses came over. Oh dear! I was seen!

But the horses did not come over, for which I was thankful, because I had problems. The wet ground was becoming a swamp. A real test for my trusty Dubarry boots.

It got worse. How on earth was I going to get out of this field? My poor boots!

When you sink like this, mud suction makes walking very difficult, and without a 'third leg' - a stick or pole - you might lose your balance, stagger, and take a header into the mire. I nearly did, more than once! I seriously thought I'd be ruining my new coat on its first outing. More than that, I had visions of hurting an ankle or getting both feet stuck, and then what? Eventually I did make it to the fence, and, clinging to that, I slowly worked my way towards the gate. I was so glad to gain firm ground on the other side! It felt like a narrow escape from a ghastly death.

My poor, poor Dubarry boots! Surely they were now going to be spoiled for evermore? I was glum. Not a happy lady.

But it was all right. Dipping each foot in the clear water of a ditch easily washed the mud off:

And the boots were genuinely watertight. My feet had stayed warm and dry throughout. I recovered all composure. Here I am, about to drive home, and to follow, the boots once I'd cleaned them with warm water and a cloth at home:

Next time: I'll take a stick along!