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David Hart Writes…

Thoughts, words and pictures from out in the country.

The Thrill of the Old

The man behind the counter at the charity shop was trying, and failing, to look interested.

‘Nothing’s built to last these days,’ said the woman he was serving.

‘A-ha,’ he replied.

‘The young ones don’t know any different,’ she said, ‘but us older folk do.’

‘A-ha.’

‘I keep an eye out for stuff made in my day. It’s so much better. It wasn’t a throwaway society back then.’

‘A-ha.’

‘You know,’ she leaned closer over the counter, ‘most of it’s made in China now.’

*

Hereford’s Market Hall stands in the middle of the pedestrianised town centre – a glorious black and white timber-framed building lost in a sea of late twentieth-century architecture. It looks bizarrely out of time among the glass-fronted facades of Debenhams and Mountain Warehouse.

People say that old buildings like that have ‘character’, as opposed to modern ones, which are ‘soulless’. Ramshackle rows of wonky tudor cottages do something to us that new estates, with their copy-paste boxes fail to manage. I wonder if it’s always been like that. I can imagine the medieval version of my charity-shop complainer:

‘Oh, there’s a new row of houses going up, those timber-framed things. They’re just so soulless – all the same, with their black and white wattle and daub. Not like our mud huts, so full of character. I wouldn’t want to live in one of those new places.’

Maybe in 2615, people will be yearning after the good old days of concrete and glass, when multi-story car parks had character.

But we forget that the ancient buildings that survived are just that – the survivors. For every quaint cottage that looks like it should fall over at any moment, with its sloping floors and weirdly angled windows, there were many more that did topple. For every towering medieval church steeple, there were countless more that collapsed into a pile of dust.

There’s always been a nostalgia for the past, and it’s never more evident than at this time of year. Toys from the 1980s are being re-released, as adults chase after their childhood again. The traditional family Christmas that we try so hard to recreate harks back to Charles Dickens and Victorian sentimentality, where everything was beautiful snowscapes, rose-cheeked children singing carols and families sharing love and peace around the piano while the candle-decked tree sparkled in the corner. Unless you were poor, in which case you’d be in a workhouse or out on the streets.

Things may have been built to last in the past, but old isn’t always better. The Commodore 64 my parents bought me in 1986 still works, but I can’t write on it or go online. I love to write with a dip pen – the lines are exquisite and the feeling of the nib on paper is unrivalled – but when I’m filling in forms for the council, I reach for a biro.

The old and the new don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Why not have the best of both? Enjoy the old-fashioned, candle-lit Christmas with your nearest and dearest, and then stick on Netflix and Skype your friends in Australia.

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Christmas is Coming

‘Peace on the earth, goodwill towards men,’ a full choral ensemble sung over the sound system of the store I was in. Ironic, really. There are few places less peaceful than a high-street store on the run-up to Christmas, and the choir’s well-intentioned festive exhortations drifted unheeded over the heads of screaming children, stony-faced parents using triple-width buggies as battering rams and the usually mild-mannered grannies encouraging people to move out of the way of the chocolate display with the sharp ends of their umbrellas.

The message was the same all around the store. Love! proclaimed the Christmas cards in loopy gold font. Joy! enthused the sign held up by a snowman on a spring. Peace! was written in icing across a gingerbread man’s stomach. These sentiments couldn’t have been further from the truth as grumpy, stressed people barged and shoved their way through crowded shops for fashionable pieces of metal and plastic that will be broken and forgotten by January, bankrupting themselves at the altar of the High Street, buying into its key dogma that seasonal love is measured in sterling.

*

Maybe it’s not surprising that this yearly celebration of peace is one of the most unpeaceful times in the calendar. We’re not very good at peace, we’ve had so much more practice at being angry. According to the Telegraph, the 2015 UK defence budget was $66.5 billion – huge, but a fraction of the United States’ $569 billion. With a Prime Minister who’s finally getting the chance to drop the bombs he’s been itching to drop for years, we’re locked in an unbreakable cycle of blowing up the people who’ve been blowing us up because we blew them up for blowing us up and so on and on and on.

But it’s not just the big stuff. We’re good at being angry on a small scale, too. We’re good at road rage, air rage, shopping rage – we can add ‘rage’ to the end of just about any activity you can think of.

I was waiting at a hotel reception desk in London a while ago, watching as the receptionist was speaking to an American customer.

‘Can I have a Band Aid?’ The customer asked.

In England, we don’t call them Band Aids. We call them plasters, or sticking plasters. The receptionist had clearly never heard of a Band Aid before and the customer, rather than taking the time to explain that he needed something to cover a cut, just kept repeating ‘a BAND AID’ and increasing the volume. Eventually, the receptionist ran off and came back with a linen bandage – the kind you’d make a sling from. At this point, the customer exploded. It was a simple miscommunication, but anger so often seems to be our default setting, lurking just under the surface.

*

I think, from now on, I won’t go shopping in December, in case I end up on the giving or receiving end of a tinsel garotte. As I was leaving the store, the choir had moved on to the middle verse of the carol: ‘Beneath the angel strain have rolled/two thousand years of wrong.’ That wasn’t quite true when the carol was written in 1849, but ‘one thousand and forty nine years of wrong’ didn’t scan as well. How sad that we’ve now managed to make it come true. The next lines: ‘And man, at war with man, hears not/the love-song which they bring’, couldn’t be a more fitting epitaph for our times.

Broken

On the darkest days,
my eyes, heavy with midnight
and dulled with the dawn,
look out through
curtained windows:
a paper moon
staring back –
broken, disjointed by
streaks of rain.

With my sleeve
scrunched in my fist,
I rub the glass
as if I could
rub out the fractures,
erase the breaks,
smooth out the lines.

But the harder I try
to fix the fragments,
the more broken
they become.

Five Things I (Don’t) Miss About London

‘Are you here on holiday?’ – this is the first thing I’m asked when a shopkeeper notices that I don’t have a local accent. There is no correct answer to this question. If I tell the truth – ‘no, I moved here a while ago’ – I end up fielding a barrage of questions about why I moved to the country. If I lie and say ‘yes’, the well-meaning local will proceed to list every tourist attraction they can think of within a 50 mile radius.

‘You’ve moved from London?’ an art shop owner asked me, as I went through this process for the fourth time that day. ‘It must be a very different way of life down here.’

‘It is,’ I said.

Later, as I crawled down a country lane behind a herd of sheep, I thought about what it was that made it so different and the things I do, and don’t, miss about London.

The lack of trust

When I lived in London, every street had a light show. Burglar alarms were pinned to every house, with red or blue blinking lights to warn you off. Hair-trigger security lights blinded passers-by. People huddled behind high walls, remote-controlled gates, spear-topped fences and shutters.

In this part of Wales, people don’t lock their doors. You see parked cars, unlocked, with the SatNav still stuck to the window, or left running while their owners nip into the post office. I saw a notice in a shop window the other day: ‘Had to pop out for a bit. If you take anything, can you leave the money in the letterbox? Thanks.’

The opening hours

It’s true that London never sleeps. I lived five minutes away from a 24/7 Starbucks. Anything you wanted was there, immediately. Now, there’s a tourist information centre and a library in our village, but I’d lived here for a month before I managed to get inside. The opening hours here are restricted. There’s a lot of half-day opening. Everything is shut on a Monday, and a lot of places are shut on Thursdays too. The local barber opens when he feels like it. So, if you want something to eat during the week, stock up at the weekend or face the 40 minute drive to the nearest supermarket.

The weather

It’s hard to describe the weather anywhere in the British Isles as ‘good’, but in London it was, at least, reasonably consistent. In Wales, it’s completely vindictive. I know there’s that old saying: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’, but to go walking here you need to take every piece of clothing you own. Last week, it was so hot and sunny at the start of a walk I had to take my coat and fleece off and walk in my t-shirt. Half-an-hour later, I was wrapped in as many layers as I could muster as freezing winds sliced through my legs and horizontal rain battered my head. The Welsh weather is unforgiving and unpredictable and catches a lot of people out. Sometimes fatally.

The anonymity

I had a neighbour in London. At least, I think I did. I never really saw him. He left early in the morning, came home late at night and never seemed to leave the house.

In our little town, everybody knows everybody else, sharing information through some weird hive mind. I was in the newsagents when a young woman walked in with a child in her arms. ‘I haven’t seen you in a while,’ said the owner, ‘how old is the little one now? Eighteen months?’ When the newsagent knows everyone well enough to remember their kids’ ages, it makes me wonder who exactly the brave souls are who are buying the impressively extensive range of adult magazines from the top shelf.

The traffic

I once sat in stationary traffic on the M25 for three hours because a lorry had crashed. I once sat in stationary traffic on the North Circular, and watched an ambulance on blue lights take 20 minutes to get half a mile down the road.
This morning, I drove for an hour and didn’t see another car on the road. I know which I prefer.

Part Two

The church bell is tolling
outside my window,
across the road.

A row of relatives
line the path
beside the graves –
smug reminders of mortality.

There is the widow,
shrouded in sadness,
sharing condolences,
through grief-aged eyes
as her cold hands shake,
which nobody is left to hold.

There’s the photographer –
an aunt with an iPhone –
instagramming the flowers
with a pop-retro filter.

The dead man’s best friend’s there –
childhood pals,
the last in their class now,
feeling his age
and eyeing the pub.

There’s the widow’s sister –
crying too hard
as they carry away
the man who she loves.

There is the vicar –
shaking tear-sodden hands
of people he never sees,
or only at Christmas;
wishing they’d move on
so that he could go home.

There is the driver –
black limo (brand new);
an epitaph in polish.
He thinks of his dead dad
and how his mum’s coping.

And there are some children –
cousins, twice removed;
running through the grass,
without a care.
 

Part One is here.

Wapley Hill Fort

It was the day before Hallowe’en and I was scrambling through thick undergrowth and thick fog to the top of Wapley hill fort. It’s atmospheric, I told myself, trying to imagine my Iron Age ancestors making this same journey, their woollen cloaks wet with mist, their leather shoes leaving footprints in the damp grass. It’s not atmospheric, my mind insisted, it’s terrifying – and then began imagining those ancestors inches away from my face on the other side of the foggy veil.

Wapley hill fort lies south of Coombes Moore on the English side of the Welsh-English border, surrounded by Forestry Commission woodland. Following the little brown tourist sign from the main road, a single track lane takes care of half the climb for you. I drove along it for so long that I thought I’d missed the fort, when the Forestry Commission sign suddenly appeared out of the haze. The car park is modest, with a small picnic area and a handful of wooden benches and tables. It was deserted – nobody else was stupid enough to be there at 9am on a cold, foggy weekday morning.

 *

From the car, there’s a straightforward hike along the main path to the hill fort or a longer, circular waymarked trail through the forest. The trail is marked on a map in the car park, but where you start is anybody’s guess – I scrambled up an embankment and headed in what felt like the right direction, happily picking up a marker post a few minutes later. Soon, the path left the road and ducks into the trees – dark and silent in the fog.

IMG_0501

Wapley forest is weird. For a start, it isn’t natural: it’s managed as a logging plantation. There’s no tangle of competing life here, but endless rows of vastly tall, identical trees. Nature doesn’t make straight lines, and it’s unnerving to see things growing that way, particularly when swirling mist fills the spaces between them.

IMG_0472

The Forestry Commission does great work looking after our wooded heritage, but it’s not so hot on providing visitor information (like the National Trust, but without the painful entrance fees). The waymarked walk needed a fair bit of guesswork (one three-way junction had no signs at all), and the single information board at the fort itself was more diagram than information. In the interests of history, I’ve paraphrased it here – filling in the blanks with my powers of deductive reasoning.

IMG_0497

 “Wapley hill fort was constructed in the Iron Age, 2,500 years ago [because sabre-toothed tigers cannot climb slopes of over 45 degrees]. Hill forts were often used as community centres for surrounding farms [and archaeologists discovered a Neolithic tombola here in 2009, as well as several bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale]. However, the earthworks at Wapley do suggest that the fort had a defensive capability [which is unusual, as the Wales-England border has historically been a very peaceful place to live].

[Absolutely nothing happened here for 1,800 years until] the medieval period, 700 years ago, when the Normans built mounds on top of the hill to breed rabbits imported from Spain [there were no rabbits in England at this time, due to the Great Carrot Blight].

[Nothing else happened until] 1725, when the land was enclosed [to keep the peasants out] and a wall built around the site to keep deer.

[More nothing happened] until the 1930s, when the site was heavily planted to provide timber for the war effort [for the making of wooden planes and such].”

 *

Perhaps nothing ever happened there, but I was disappointed by the lack of stories of warring tribes and artistic reconstructions of brooches and swords (archaeologists always find brooches and swords. And pots – but you can keep those). Other hill forts, such as Danebury in Hampshire, get much more attention, but Wapley sits almost forgotten among the forests of later generations. But this is the march of time – at some point the fort would have been abandoned as its inhabitants moved into more comfortable and practical towns, and the place where people first trod that fine line between surviving and living would have become just another hill. Today, it’s a nice place to walk the dog or have a picnic – or just take in the views, when you can see them.

Part One

The church bells are ringing
outside my window,
across the road.
A row of relatives
line the path
beside the graves –
forgotten reminders of mortality.

There is the bride,
wrapped in congratulations,
sharing honeymoon chatter;
paper horseshoes stuck
to her long white train
that the bridesmaid’s forgotten
to hold.

There’s the photographer –
a bobbing professional
drowning
in a sea of iPhones.

There’s the best man –
a childhood friend,
the last bachelor in their class,
feeling his age
and eyeing the pub.

There’s the bride’s sister –
false lashes, forced smile,
as her sibling weds
the man who she loves.

There is the vicar –
pressing the flesh
with people he never sees,
or only at Christmas;
wishing they’d move on
so that he could go home.

There is the driver –
with a Silver Ghost (vintage);
a miracle in polish.
He thinks of his wedding,
wonders what his wife’s doing.

And there are some children –
cousins, twice removed;
running through the grass,
without a care.

The Secret of Eternal Life

Just beyond my house, a low, 18th century bridge carries a road that goes nowhere over a fast-flowing river. I cross it when I go for a walk and often bump into a man, who appears to be the same age as the bridge, coming the other way.

‘Good morning,’ he calls, gamely plodding along with a zimmer frame that must weigh more than he does. Then he flashes a smile that says, my body might be 315-years-old, but my mind is in its 30s. Being in my 30s and feeling like I’m in my 300s, I wonder what his secret is.

‘Good morning,’ I replied the other day, returning the kind of smile you can only smile if your day has not yet been ruined by some kind of customer support team. I’ve noticed this recently; customer services no longer exist to provide services to the customer. You – the fantastic, living, breathing human bit of you – are, at best, an annoying obstacle between the company and your wallet, and customer services are the last line of defense around Scrooge McDuck’s money-filled ball pit.

*

After we moved, we desperately needed a washing machine. Washing your underwear in the river brings disapproving stares. Luckily, although we’re in Wales, most of the locals are English and therefore too polite to say anything. Still, we headed off to our local Currys – the UK’s leading provider of the boring kind of technology, which must be why somebody stole their apostrophe.

What Currys are not very good at, apart from grammar, is delivering stuff. Twice, they tried to deliver the machine. Twice, they damaged it beyond use. ‘It’s got a big dent in it,’ said the first driver, mastering understatement. A call to Customer Support followed, and never in the history of the world has a department been more inappropriately named. It can only be a direct line to the deepest reaches of hell, where angry demons wait by the phone with the words: ‘The Customer is Never Right’ tattooed on their knuckles in Latin.

‘I could really use that machine tomorrow,’ I told the customer support imp after the second washer had been dropped on its head. ‘I have nothing left to wear and it is all down to you.’

‘We don’t come your way on Mondays,’ he replied, ‘it’s quite impossible. The Computer will not allow it.’

‘It’s not impossible,’ I said, ‘you use lorries – they have wheels. They can come here, I’ve seen them.’

‘Yes, but not on a Monday,’ he repeated, ‘it’s on The Computer.’

*

After successfully trashing a second machine and delivering the third late, I was told to call an even deeper level of hell to ‘discuss compensation’ for three days off work and hours on the phone. Imagine, if you will, that scene from Ghostbusters where an angry Janine snatches up the phone and barks: ‘Ghostbusters, whaddya want?’ It was like that, but with less service.

‘Yeah, we can give you £30,’ said the goblin on the other end, alternating between bored sighs and chewing gum. Take it or leave it, he explained as he masticated into my ear canal, it was the best I was going to get.

‘Could I speak to a manager?’ I asked. No, I was told. Mere customers may not approach the Sacred Management, they aren’t there for the likes of me.

*

A few days later, following an email to head office, a customer relations demon called. She had the tone of someone with something more important to do, who’s waiting for you to go away so that they can do it. She also had that endearing habit of only allowing me to finish about 25 per cent of my sentences.

‘I don’t think £30 really covers the time I’ve taken off work,’ I said, ‘and all the stress and inconvenience you’ve caused.’

‘We don’t place a value on our customers’ time,’ she replied, and I promise this is true.

‘I can see that,’ I said.

In the end, I extracted an extra £10 from their sulphurous clutches and made a lifelong vow to never shop with Currys again. If having customers is too much effort, I will gladly save them from some of it.

*

I bumped into the old man on the bridge again yesterday. We exchanged greetings and smiles and I suddenly realised the secret of his longevity and happiness. That lucky bastard has never had to call customer support in his life.

In Mourning

The fog arrived, uninvited,
on All Saint’s evening  –
while pumpkin lanterns
flickered away their second night,
and everyone was home from work or school
and sitting down for dinner or the news.
It settled down across the town,
mourning over gravestones and low stone walls;
moping over cars and wheelie bins.

In the morning,
it had soaked the trees in tears
and left the washing on the line
thick with misery.
The townsfolk
drifted through the mist
with funerary airs,
going about their day
in solemn slo-mo.

At six-thirty pm,
summoned by the service bell,
the fog sighed into the parish church
and drifted to the back
(so as not to cause a scene),
while the priest whispered a requiem
for those we’d lost this year
and those we still remembered from before.

At eight pm, or thereabouts,
this year’s service done
this year’s souls redeemed,
it slipped unnoticed out –
it did not care to stay
for tea and cake
served in the parish hall.

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