Saturday, June 13, 2015

An Odd Day Out


There is a splendid museum in a place called Amberley that contains an eclectic collection centred around Britain's industrial and rural heritage. If you're interested in Edwardian light bulbs, brick making or 1930s fire engines, I can thoroughly recommend it.

I'm not, but I still loved it.

On busy days, dozens of odd-looking families visit the museum, all armed with tupperware packed lunches and SLR cameras. Sometimes I hear snatches of conversations, usually conducted in a slightly nasal accent: "Of course these were the last D759s to be manufactured in Northampton, but the D80 was basically the same engine..."

Many of the exhibits are really quite boring, but in a sense that is part of their appeal.

The machines that operated the hidden infrastructure of daily life - telephone exchanges and power station control panels - have an unexpected beauty about them and it's hard not to feel impressed by their complexity and elegance.

Artists have paid homage to the machine age, but in the end it is the machines themselves that have ended up becoming works of art in their own right.

I may be a philistine, but I would rather look at a display of antique telephones than a gallery of Greco-Roman sculptures, with their uniform blank expressions and unfeasibly small genitalia.

However, I'm not just there for the knobs and dials. On quieter days, the place becomes more like a post-apocalyptic theme park, almost completely deserted, full of rusting, abandoned machines and makeshift settlements:


This is a camp for itenerant bodgers, making chair parts from unseasoned wood, usually for a pittance. The last bodger bodged over 50 years ago, but the craft is being revived by a small group of devotees.

The shelter looks as if it could belong to the future as much as the past.


With a little tweaking, the whole place could be relaunched as a Walking Dead-related theme park. It would be more exciting than the current exhibition devoted to electricity substations (although I suspect that the school visits would dry up).

I was rather taken with the makeshift camps and imagined making a rabbit stew on a chilly autumn day, listening out for the ominous crack of a twig, but my post-apocalyptic fantasies were bought to an abrupt end by the appearance of some beautiful damsel flies.

I think some of them may have been mating. It's hard to tell.


Amberley Museum is set in some beautiful surroundings, but the idyllic setting belies the fact that the place once looked like a poor man's Mordor, with smoke bellowing out of the local lime kilns. Limestone was quarried from these cliffs and burned with coal to make lime, which was then used to make the acidic soil of other counties more fertile.


The traces of a railway line next to the kilns can still be seen, compounding the sense of dereliction.

However, I'd be doing Amberley Museum a disservice if I over-egged the post-apocalyptic pudding.

The museum should appeal to anyone who is even vaguely interested in social history and although some of its galleries are a bit on the 'specialist' side, there are others that are remarkably evocative.

I loved this reconstruction of an early 20th century office, where nobody would have been required to be a "team player" or feel "enthusiastic" (whatever happened to diligence, honesty and punctuality?).

I also enjoyed being alone in this Southdown Buses booking office, below, trying to picture myself in the 1930s. If I'd been 10 years old, I would have had no problem losing myself in a fantasy about being a gentleman detective, but sadly I've lost the imagination I once took for granted.

Amberley Museum has a particularly good Science Museum-esque electricity gallery, with hands-on displays to entertain younger visitors and a collection of household appliances to jog the memories of older ones: 

This prewar electric bar fire is remarkably versatile. Not only can you use it to make toast, but it also heats up a copper kettle for a nice cup of tea. It never caught on. I suppose some health and safety killjoy pointed out that electricity and water weren't a good combination. Either that, or someone came a cropper as they were preparing their afternoon tea.

I recognised several things from my past: a spin dryer, a television with three channel buttons, an old radio with evocative names like Athlone, Moscow and Paris on the dial and, more suprisingly, a late 90s Nokia mobile phone. Each one transported me back to a particular time and place.

One day, 18 years ago, I left work and got in my car, placing a carrier bag in the passenger seat. After a minute of seraching for the right tape to listen to on the journey home, I became aware of a tiny voice emanating from the carrier bag. It was saying "Hello? Hello?"

I tried to reconcile the reality of the voice with the impossibility of anyone or anything being inside the bag. Was I going mad? I didn't feel mad, but I suppose the truly insane rarely do. The voice continued: "Can you hear me?"

It was my wife's voice. Somehow, she had been shrunk down to the size of a toy soldier. There was no other explanation.

At no point did I ever consider that I might have accidentally phoned my wife on my new Nokia phone. I'd never owned a mobile phone before and was unaware that it could do this. I felt very silly afterwards and forgot all about it until I saw the phone again. It looked so big.

But I digress.

To return to the point, Amberley is a gem of a museum, thoroughly eccentric and quite unlike anywhere else I have been, with the added bonus of being set in beautiful surroundings. Even the dullest displays had their own strange appeal and I enjoyed the feeling of being immersed in a quieter, bygone world.

In an age when so many places have been fully 'monetized', with overpriced chi chi cafes and movie franchise-related displays, it's a pleasant surprise to find somewhere that isn't afraid to be boring. Long may it remain that way.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Heaven in a Wild Flower

I seem to be exiled in Sussex at the moment, but I can think of worse places to be. Like the main character in the Stanley Middleton novel I've just read, I'm finding pleasure in small things: a hedgerow in blossom, a hatched bird's egg, a flint wall covered in lichen, a Victorian letter box, a fish-shaped weather vane...

I hadn't read Stanley Middleton before. I first knew him as the author whose name I didn't recognise on a list of Booker Prize winners (he shared the prize with Nadine Gordimer in 1973). His novels were usually conspicuous by their absence from bookshop shelves.

Middleton's 'Necessary Ends' is a novel about an old man by an old man and deals with death, regret and loneliness in a way that is never mawkish or sentimental, eschewing melodrama in favour of an almost forensic realism.

A hostile critic might complain that the end result of this realism is a novel in which nothing happens. That would be unfair. In one scene a pub lunch is arranged, in another chocolate biscuits are served on a small plate. There is even an episode that involves the misuse of a front lawn.

But I'm being flippant about what is actually an exquisite, beautifully observed novel, written with great warmth and humanity. And once you realise that the author isn't going to resort to any of the predictable plot devices for a novel about an octogenarian - the heart attack, the violent burglary, the estranged child - you're left with a story in which even the most trivial events are loaded with significance.

In its quiet, understated way, 'Necessary Ends' has the same dramatic and redemptive qualities as any novel I could mention, but they are more subtle and nebulous. A pub lunch that might seem mundane to most of us becomes a transfigurative event and is quietly uplifting, suggesting that we can be surprised by joy at any age.

Which brings me back to the theme of finding pleasure in the familiar, or as Blake put it, heaven in a wild flower. Here are a few photos from the last week:


 

But for me, the best picture is the one below: my older son, running along the local beach for the first time in two years, laughing and playing with his brother. Thanks to a number of people, things are at last changing for the better.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Ruminations

A few weeks ago I went to a reunion of ex-Ottakar's booksellers and met people I hadn't seen for nine years. For a few hours, it felt as if I'd woken up from a bad dream and that we were all back together again. 

To add to the feeling of discombobulation, nobody appeared to have aged, even slightly.

It was a bittersweet evening. It was lovely to see people that I'd once felt a genuine affection for, but it also made me sad that I'd lost an enjoyable and rewarding career. Working alone in a remote barn, for a slowly diminishing income, isn't what I envisaged I'd be doing at this age.

However, I'm not alone. Most of my contemporaries have either experienced 'burn-out' or been made redundant. The world of work is becoming increasingly cut-throat and it's hard to compete with someone who is half your age, full of enthusiasm and willing to accept a lower salary.

Of course, male employees can always crack open the Just For Men, go to a gym and try and seem a little bit crazy, but they'll still come across as embarrasing dads having a midlife crisis. It's an unforgiving world out there.

A friend of mine complains that there is nobody in her office over the age of 35. Where have all the middle aged people gone? I suspect that like me, quite a few of them are eking out an existence, some more comfortably than others, trying to juggle the demands of young children and/or elderly parents.

Next September, my son will hopefully be starting at a new, specialist school, which could be the making of him. I will be taking and collecting him by car every schoolday for the best part of two years, so any work I do will have to fit around that schedule.

At the end of it, my son will hopefully be independent enough to make his own way to appointments and lessons. Legally, he will be an adult and in theory, I'll be free to find a proper job. But what will I do?

Men of my age aren't exactly hot property in the jobs market.

Self-employment can be a godsend if you have a child with 'special needs'. I've lost count of the number of meetings I've had to drive to, or the hours that have been spent coaxing my son back into the outside world. But the erratic income and social isolation can be debilitating.

After sitting alone in a shed for a whole day, I don't come home brimming with energy and my limited repertoire of work-related anecdotes usually involve birds, rodents or invertebrates. I feel bored by myself.

For my own sanity, I need to find something else, even if it's just a succession of temporary or part-time jobs. I can't imagine never working with anyone again.

But, of course, there are also positives to being self-employed. The other afternoon, when I ran out of work, I was able to come home early and go for a walk with my younger son. We stopped here and for the first time in years, I lay on the grass and watched the clouds merging into each other:

The whole afternoon cost nothing and gave us both more pleasure than a visit to any tourist attraction. My son started to tell me about all of the things that were on his mind (most of them involved Lego) and for a while, I felt like a half-decent father.

So I think that answer is to carry on as I am for two years, then look for a part-time job that doesn't involve wearing a green uniform or short trousers. But what, how and where? That is the question.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Man the Decks

It's been a disappointingly cool May, but I've grown to like the soft, pastel colours and muted shadows that grey skies produce. Even mundane objects like this Victorian flint and brick wall can seem a thing of beauty.

I'd probably feel differently if I lived in somewhere like Croydon, where overcast skies only serve to accentuate the drabness of concrete office blocks and municipal car parks. But in the South Downs, a grey sky looks like an Eric Ravilious watercolour.


My book business is going through a rather quiet period at the moment, so I've taken the opportunity to transform our garden from a toxic, post-apocalyptic wasteland into something that looks vaguely respectable, with decking, pot plants and freshly-painted walls.

The decking was done by a retired man, who proudly told us that he'd learned his carpentry skills at a borstal. According to his son, he should be dead, having been electrocuted twice, surviving a heart attack in his 50s and falling off a number of buildings.

He also has a metal plate in his leg.

"It's his own fault," the son explained. "He's never been one to worry about health and safety. He's got this daft idea that it's safer to walk on a roof barefoot."

On one occasion, the son was working with his father on a roofing job when he heard him crying out and sliding down the tiles. Suddenly, the sliding stopped.

"It's all right," the father yelled, "My foot got stopped by the top of the ladder. I'm okay now...wooaahhh..."

At this point, the ladder began to fall backwards and the father was catapulted through the air.

He escaped with barely a scratch.

Fortunately, the cavalier attitude had clearly mellowed over the years and he worked carefully and conscientiously, producing a wonderful result. It was inspiring to watch a man who was 20 years older make light work of such a demanding job. What was his secret?

I decided to be brave and ask him how he kept so young: "So what's your secret then?"

His face lit up. He slowly turned to me and said "That would be lovely. White, no sugar please."