Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Among you taking notes, as ever, I did find it extraordinary the effect that last week's winter weather had upon the general populace. It was interesting, for one thing, because of the news which we didn't get. The climate change doom-mongers were oddly quiet. Nobody, so far as I know, wrote in to say that various botanical species were blooming far too early, or that the birds were already laying eggs. Flu scares abated too, the folk wisdom being that a good winter will 'kill off all the bugs'. We've just had a very good example of a season doing exactly what it says on the tin.
The spectacle of people inching cautiously along the town pavements as if they'd just undergone some particularly embarrassing surgery was a common one. The pavements were indeed tricky to negotiate. One sentiment expressed was that this was the council's fault for not gritting them. The gritting teams, in my area at least, actually did very well under the circumstances, as did our bus-drivers. To have kept the main roads as clear as they did and to have run a bus service too was pretty impressive. Even the local trains, mostly, seemed to work. But the pavements were a problem. So, with snow having set in by Wednesday morning and having a bit of spare time, I decided to do an experiment. I went out with spade and yard broom and cleared most of the pavement on one side of my street. A helpful council worker said that I could go and get a bucket of grit from a pile behind the council offices if I wished. So, after I'd cleared, I gritted. A couple of hours work left me glowing, limbered-up and, as with gardening, I found the work strangely satsifying, since I could see where I'd been.
In Germany, it is not the government's job to clear the pavements, it falls to the citizens. They are required by law if it snows, to clear the pavement outside their house and that of their neighbour's too – if the neighbour is elderly or infirm. The responses of passers-by while I was sweepng and shovelling, varied. The most common reactions were: “Thank you.” or “You're doing a grand job.” Often, too, people stopped to talk. Two or three people said that I was taking a risk, since I could: 'be liable if someone fell over'. I'm pretty sure that this is nonsense, and anyway, it would be interesting to be prosecuted for clearing snow, because in such an unlikely event, I would probably appeal and then, drown my opponents in all the circumfluences of a European court.
My snow-clearing, which continued for four consecutive mornings, was to maybe plant the idea in other's heads that they, too could be doing such a thing. If this were to happen, and everybody just cleared the area in front of their house and perhaps, one of their neighbour's, our pavements would all be traversible. I later heard the distant sound of shovels, though, usually, it was only people trying to dig cars out of their drives. One heroic neighbour, though, off his own bat, took a wheelbarrow and gritted a large part of our sidestreet – which is on a hill. The pavements, however, mostly stayed snowbound with fresh snow mounting up on hard-packed ice. The same people who would probably complain about Nanny State's interference were now miffed that Nanny hadn't personally turned up outside their house with a shovel. With so many people off work, my point, I suppose, is that if you're not doing anything else, you could probably give it twenty minutes or so outside with a brush each morning. You soon warm up, it's not hard work and it's cheaper than using Wii-Fit .
In my local Co-op store, meanwhile, which did its valiant best, despite late-running supply lorries, I stood for some time behind a woman in the queue who'd just bought three loaves and what I estimated to be about a gallon of milk. She laughed: “Well, that's my bit of panic-buying done, I can go home and watch telly now.” Now I waited while she had six Lottery tickets processed and all those of her neighbour's too. Naturally, despite regular if late-running deliveries, the shop's shelves were regularly stripped of milk, bread, eggs and vegetables soon after being refilled again. I allowed for those townsfolk who didn't feel able to drive to Tesco but there did seem to be an element of unneccessary stocking-up going on. A friend of mine said she'd sat with some other people on the bus home from Colchester, all twittering excitedly: “We managed to get some food!” She also learned that those hardier souls prepared to walk a couple of miles up the track had found that the local farm shop was as well-stocked as usual.
Now look, it wasn't a crisis as such, it wasn't climate change, it wasn't the council's fault and nor did Gordon Brown mastermind the whole thing in order to draw fire away from his own predicament. Essex just had a bit of old-fashioned, old money January weather, that's all. In 1963, an older local recalled, the Army had to use explosives in order to blast holes in an iced-up River Colne, just so that the ships could get moving. Now that's an extreme weather event. Can we all do a bit better next time, please?
Light the coals of long-lost Christmas
Warm the place for heaven's sake
Morning frost will starch the willows
Freeze the broken-reeded lake
Dust the fields like coffee cake
Stud the orange sun with cloves
Hang it in the mulling sky
Heat the pan of days, and slowly
Let the hours liquify
Lest their flavours pass you by
Call the fleet of clouds to harbour
From the tattered sails of night
Admiral Sun to look them over
Pale Midshipman Moon in sight
Lashed to wheel in milky light
Flag the mallards down the river
Now the wild-eyed storm has gone
And the herons wait like pages
With a winter fly-past on
Heralding a whooper swan
In the woods in wintry weather
Sipping at the season's lees
Ivy-flower, mud and feather
Ancient drays in spindly trees
Seen on dwindling days like these
Scrawling cards, in some spare minute
Foxed address-book on the chair
All the standard shipwrecks in it
Unmarked changes lurking there
Nothing though, to warn you where
Kitchen cooking up a blizzard
Spattered radio cranked to ten
Nat King Cole, Ronettes and Wizzard
Chestnuts loved from way back when
Carols for the working men
Get the chef a lunchtime noggin
Don't just hang about the place
Spice the washer-upper's cider
Brandy, cinnamon and mace
Puts a grin upon his face.
Careful with nostalgia's liquor
Melancholia of a sort
Drunk too deep it gets you quicker
Sediment of sentient thought
Sweeter than the cheapest port
Don't return to dull or dreary
Fearful dregs of dead Decembers
Faces raddled, spirits weary
These are only blackballed members
Best consign them to the embers
Shut the shop and lock the office
Time to elbow all of that
Grab the glitter and the baubles
Deck the maisonette and flat
Tinsel collar for the cat.
Mute the babbling television
Trying to mesmerise its quarry
Freeze the frame and shame a shaman
Stall its vast container lorry
Make the advertisers sorry.
Let the ghosts slip by you slowly
Like a well-loved play – the cast,
Kindly, well-remembered faces
Spirits of old Christmas past
Now the credits roll too fast
Here's the guvnor, his young brother,
Flashbacks from a long-closed pub
Beery counsel, one to other
And a tenner loaned – a sub
From a wolf to hard-up cub:
“Not too bad, boy – barring lateness
Carry on like this, I fear
You may yet go on to greatness
If we're all around next year,
Now – d'you want a Christmas beer?”
Spike the guns and quit the quarrel
Bring the soldiers home again
Where the windswept wives are waiting
By the wire to meet the plane
In the needles of the rain
Stifle all the whining sirens
Mute the city's drunken yells
Throng the street with laughing spirits
Light the square with carousels
Fill the air with wildheart bells
Couple kissing by the kettle
Briefly framed by window pane
For an elongated second
Glimpsed in streaks of sleety rain
From a late commuter train
Dark the churchyard yew, the berries
Dot the bottle-green with red
As the blackbirds and the thrushes
Mobbing down at dusk are fed
Bickering, put themselves to bed
Father Christmas and the missus.
Loading up the spectral sleigh
While the log-look gas fire hisses
Now the kids are tucked away
Final business of the day
Spin the yarn and sing the carol
Book the brass band in advance
Pull the spile from the barrel
Tell the joke, unleash the dance
Knees-up, Mother– now's your chance
Raise the golden Saturnalia
Fetch the tankards in on trays
Riddle out the ash of failure
From the cinders of the days
Stoke it up and watch it blaze
As you peer into the darkness
Listening for the midnight chime
Know there's no time like the present
Yet no present like the time
When the season's in its prime
Rooftops bathed in neon splinters
Where the shattered moonlight fell
Silence of a thousand winters
Broken by a silver bell
Merry Christmas, keep it well.
"Strange times we do live in." said Terry the Okapi, as he cantered up the garden path, urinating copiously over my probation officer and holding up the winter edition of the quarterly village news. It's a very attractive little organ, which used to be called The Village Ponderer. Now rechristened, Well Done, You!! it allows all the village artists and writers a chance to review each other's work whilst giving each other a well-earned pat on the back for, well, just being rather super, I suppose.
I'd been sitting idly in our new local cafe earlier. The Idle Bastard. The IB as well as serving excellent nutritious snacks, knocks up the best cup of Nescafe I think I've ever drunk. There's none of this hanging around waiting for the brown sauce, while some daft, rainbow-cardiganned middle-aged hippy dollop witters on about her gluten allergy and stares balefully at the white bread, If Mick the Mod doesn't like the look of her, out the daft cow goes, on her ear. A man after my own wallet, Mick will tolerate only so much art. "If it's a fat bird in a tin bath, a nice landscape, or a deer standing in a glen, it's alright by me." growls Mick. "Anything a bif wafty, or woolly is only gonna drag the posh c***'s in here, innit? And I'm lookin for an altogether more select clientele. I don't want those f***in middle-class b******s taking up valuable space, when my chip monkeys come in. " With that, he punched a chartered surveyor in the face and poured himself a double wazza. "What's a double wazza, Mick?" I asked. He explained to me that a double wazza was a morning-after cure for the particularly hungover turps-nudger. It's a big tablespoonful of Nescafe containing two shots of Toilet Duck instead of just the one. "You won't believe how long it takes some of my staff to get it right," say Mick. " We have to send them for a special one-day course at the factory in Billericay. Costs a f***in fortune!"
"Doing anything for Christmas?" he asked. " Usual stuff." I replied "A Julie Andrews mask, pair of welders' gauntlets, ice bucket, three boxes of executive delay-cream, couple of Thai ladyboys and a barrel of Tozer's Dog-Botherer. That should do me." I said. "I've already booked the shed. But let's face it. If it wasn't for the kids, you wouldn't bother, would you?" How we laughed.
I notice that Well Done, You!! magazine has a new front page feature. It's called All The Little People. Every edition features a portrait and interview with somebody in the village who does a proper job, unconnected with the arts. This edition's interview was with Ron Storey, a local baker, whose job it is to wake up Mr Shut, who runs the empty shop over the road. I thought the text was so illuminating, I've reproduced some of it here for you.
"First, I ring the slack-jawed c*** up, to tell him I'll be making a delivery. I don't arrive too early, cos that just provokes him into takin' even longer. When I first get there, I hoot me horn really loudly and turn the stereo up. If that don't do it, I usually have to throw a stick up at his window. Twenty minutes of that, and he might appear at the curtains I point to the van, which says "Baker" on it and sort of mime rubbing me stomach, while going " Yum Yum." at him. Sometimes he gets it. Sometimes, he don't. If I'm lucky, I'll be on me way by early afternoon. Once, I got so hacked off with waiting, I just backed the van into his window, smashed the f***** and threw the loaves in there. Most days, though, I don't have to do that. He'll generally appear in his underpants, yawning, open the door...then, I suppose he must go back to bed again. Funny old game, innit?"