On the artistic temperament

I was in Lewes earlier, checking out an arty shop with my Mum and brother. Some of the stuff was lovely – delicate sheets of copper with elegant fish and bird shapes carved out and standing proud like leaves, cuff necklaces and bracelets made of woven silk yarn, and amazing Lino prints of poppy fields, starlings and gardens, which reminded me of old Sunlight soap posters, and had me regretting the fact that I don’t earn a little more. The shop was staffed by an intensely arty, and on this occasion, unsmiling, assistant. She had a long skirt, long hair, neck-skimming dangly earrings, and an expression which revealed a certain distaste for customers. She was the kind of assistant who sits threading beads onto a children’s applique of a a boat at sea with Radio 3 playing close to her ear whilst customers struggle to attract her attention. But today, her peace was to be shattered. A couple in the next room had been browsing the few items of small furniture, which included Bauhaus-style coffee tables and chairs. They had selected a table, and they wanted to buy it. I first noticed the man as he guided the miffed-looking assistant through the shop towards the potential purchase. He was intensely English, and made my heart leap in mingled recognition and nostalgia for my own kind. In his mid-forties, with a Bean-like posture, balding head and bad polo-shirt -and-shorts combination, he revealed an educated and faintly humorous voice when he spoke. And he turned out to be a hero. ‘Bit further’ he said to her as they walked through the shop in single file, she flouncing ahead of him. ‘Stop!’ he advised as they come level with his wife (who was called Sue), and who had been guarding the table like a good ‘un. The assistant drew her face into a scowl.

‘Well, I’m not sure if I can let you have this.’

‘It says £70’ said the man. ‘I thought the general idea was that the things in this shop were for sale’.

‘I’ll have to ring the artist’ said the snooty one. ‘It could be his last one’.

‘Might I suggest that if that turns out to be the case, he could make another one?’ countered my hero, with a Cleese-ian patience-in-the-face-of-the-ridiculous tone which was both perfectly measured and punishingly to the point.

Stumped, the assistant permitted the couple to carry the table to the cash desk, and allowed them to pay. I could imagine the note she left for her manager when she closed up today: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I was forced to sell something on Saturday. Hope Glynn won’t be too upset. They didn’t seem like the right sort of people, but the man was simply dreadful to me, and besides, the Monteverdi Prom was about to start.’

As I pondered the service industry we know and love in this country, I toyed with the idea of asking the assistant to unlock various jewellery cabinets for me with fiddly keys, or of making an obscure request for an outsized crocheted waistcoat in puce. But I didn’t. Instead, I picked my favourite Lino print up once more, sighed, and resolved to save my pennies, and to come back.


On Hove Seafront

Yesterday’s rain meant that Hove seafront was utterly deserted for a change; the promenade devoid of joggers, kids with scooters, families and couples. The only other person I spotted was a tramp spread out on a bench, rummaging through a collection of creased shopping bags in search of some oddment, or of nothing. Cleared of people, the beach chalets and handrails to the sea gave the impression of a colourful lido, as still and undisturbed as if at first light on an October morning. Huge, disc-shaped puddles glittered on the pathway, sparkling under a pale grey sky and failing light. Despite being wet and cold, it took a while before I could tear myself away from just watching and feeling the enormous silence. Like walking into an empty church and hearing your footsteps ring on the flagged floor, for a moment I felt like the only person on earth.

On the Booth museum

I’ve been past Brighton’s Booth museum many, many times, and have often meant to have a look inside. So yesterday I finally went, and was seemingly the only person in the city to have had the same idea of how to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. Part natural history museum, part petting zoo with disappointingly dead exhibits, and part *League of Gentleman* set, the Booth museum has an unloved and unlovable feeling that is hard to shake. A large, one-storey building, the museum is essentially filled with case after case of dead birds, preserved by taxidermy, labelled and categorised. Perhaps once their feathers were still bright, and their yellow eyes still vivid, but the years have served to make them dull and murky. It reminded me of one of my favourite Alan Bennett jokes; he remembers a primary school friend of his declaring that nature was boring, ‘and besides, all birds are brown’.

As I walked around, I realised that it wasn’t just birds that had fallen under the taxidermist’s scalpel. In one ghoulish display case, a collection of toads of various sizes sat astride seesaws and hung on to doll-sized swings with webbed hands. The note at the side of the cabinet explained straight-facedly that toads were one of the most difficult animals to stuff. Later on I saw a tiny stuffed vole, prone and in the talons of a pouncing Peregrine Falcon.

The museum’s centrepiece consisted of a mocked-up colonial gentleman’s drawing room, which featured a dead cheetah rug on the ground, a monkey’s face attached to the wall, and a stuffed tortoise with a hollowed out shell in which a pipe and some cigars were stored. It was grotesque and horrible, but strangely interesting – like imagining a Roman feast at which people actually ate mice and eels, and cooked live birds into pies. The gentleman’s room had so many dead animals in it – from butterflies and stick insects pinned onto the wall in a display case, to monkey-hand ashtrays, that you could begin to imagine what the Colonel would have been wearing too – maybe a tiger skin smoking jacket, a flamingo-feather shirt, and a pair of hollowed-out anteaters as shoes.

Towards the back of the museum, things got a bit more normal, and there was an interesting collection of animal skeletons. I particularly liked the bat, which seemed to have a bone structure as slight as a balsa-wood aeroplane. But overall it was an odd sort of tourist attraction; rather Victorian and austere. Almost like a horror movie, it served to unsettle, and after the dubious fun of feeling its chill, I raced back out into the sunshine, relieved to have left.

On silver-collar and shovel-face

On Chinglish

On Devil’s Dyke

So I was on my way to the supermarket yesterday lunchtime, marveling slightly at the sudden spot of good weather, when I saw the summer season open-top bus to Devil’s Dyke pull up at the stop just in front of me. Reasoning that I had a drink in my hand, and a sandwich in my bag, I jumped on, and was soon having my head not unpleasantly buffeted by stiff breezes as the bus hurtled up through Seven Dials and out of Brighton for the Downs. Riding on an open top bus is the kind of simple, happy treat my paternal Grandma would have loved, and I thought of her immediately. She would have been grinning as the wind whistled by her, in the way that she used to hoot with pleasure at the sight of simple things like a jam doughnut in a box, a squirrel racing up a tree, or the tiered stacks of twenty pence pieces at end of pier amusement arcade machines.

Once I arrived, I lay on the grass watching cricketers in the village below Devils’ Dyke make muffled appeals to the umpire, and spotted distant motorcycle convoys race down empty roads like flicked, tin beetles. I felt pleased that I could be there to enjoy it, even now that my Nan can’t. If there is any continuity in life, it could be in these moments of remembering someone and knowing not just what they would have said, but feeling how they would have felt too.

On birthday cakes

It was my birthday yesterday, and I celebrated by eating like a king all day long. I had croissants for breakfast, smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch, and beef wellington for dinner at my mum’s. I was also lucky enough to receive two different birthday cakes this year – thanks to Ant and my mum. They both produced delicious cakes that would certainly have come first in this competition.