Tuesday, 26 February 2013

When queues no longer form

Tramp and I headed for the village shop as the first port of call on our walk today because I needed to post a parcel – and I remembered that this morning was one of the mornings each week that the travelling post office visits our village.

When it was first rumoured that our old post office might be included in the swathing cuts to be made across the country, some local resistance was mounted. After all, it had been a permanent fixture in the village for close on a hundred years, along with the old post mistress, Mrs. Purton, who had run it for almost as long it seemed. A ‘save our post office’ meeting was called in the church hall. Like so many other villagers, though, Tramp and I didn’t attend.

Shortly after the meeting, I met my neighbour Lawrence struggling with his recycling bin half-way up his drive. I’m not sure which way he was going with it, but he had been to the meeting.

‘Hardly anyone there. Typical of the apathy in this village,’ he pronounced, pointedly. ‘People will soon complain when they realise the post office isn’t there when they want it.’

‘But nobody does want it, Lawrence,’ I said, gently. ‘People would rather drive to town than use the post office in the village.’

What I didn't say was, that it wasn’t so much a matter of people not wanting the post office -- more a matter of not wanting Mrs. Purton running it.

          ‘The shop will suffer without the post office next door! Just you wait and see!’ Lawrence fired a final shot over his shoulder.

People said that in her youth Mrs. Purton was a beauty and at village dances admirers queued for a slot on her dance card throughout the night. While she was called ‘Mrs.’ Purton, no-one remembered who or if she did marry; some said she was engaged but her fiancĂ© died in the war and she never looked at another man.

          I only knew Mrs. Purton in her old age. She still had a mind like a whip, and could add up a column of figures faster than a knife cutting through butter (softened butter, of course). But at a time when the Post Office had to modernise nationally to remain competitive, she refused to. She rejected any moves to install credit card machines or to ‘sell’ the new banking services. She sent back the computerised equipment she was supplied to calculate postage and print out labels, and still insisted on laboriously sticking each stamp on every letter and parcel. She continued to keep all her accounts in the old battered ledger, by hand, and this she entered up slowly, as the queues behind her counter grew longer.

          But it wasn’t so much her refusal to use modern technology that deterred people from using the post office, as Mrs. Purton’s temper.  Like the state of her ledger, this deteriorated with each passing year.
          The post office was housed in an annexe attached to the shop. It was Mrs. Purton’s domain, shared only with her cat, Charles. Charles was generally to be found asleep across the yellowing stationery and greetings cards spread around the window seat, while as she grew older, Mrs. Purton was more often than not asleep behind her tall, wooden counter. Charles would hiss and spit at you if you woke him suddenly; Mrs. Purton would snap her words at you if disturbed.

          ‘You can’t send a parcel wrapped like that! Bring it back when you’ve done it properly.’’

          ‘You…boy! Get your sticky fingers off those cards!’

Everyone has a story to tell about their encounters with Mrs. Purton. She was addicted to the Times crossword, and most of us experienced being forced to wait until she had worked out a particularly testing anagram -- she always refused any help with it, though, if you tried to speed things along. On a sunny day, she could usually be found sipping her afternoon tea on the rickety picnic table outside, her shoes off to ‘air her feet’. However urgent your package might be, and even with the post office collection van on the horizon, she would not take her place behind the counter until she had drained the cup and laced up her shoes.

As time went on, the queues grew shorter.

Mrs. Purton had worked way beyond her retirement age when news of the cuts came, although no-one knew just how old she was, and her health was rapidly deteriorating before our eyes. On the other hand, I wondered if running the post office was something that gave her the vitality she still had, albeit diminished. So I was torn over whether to join the move to save our post office, with Mrs Purton installed, or, by doing nothing, agree to a visiting service that promised so much more convenience and efficiency, despite setting out its stall only three mornings a week. Like most people in our village, I opted for the latter, silently.

Mrs. Purton retired when the post office closed but remained in the village, living in her small cottage with Charles. Charles has taken up residence in her front room window, while she often sits outside in her stocking feet, the Times spread on her lap as she dozes in the sun.

June and George, who run the village shop, recently knocked through to the annexe where the travelling post office now sets up three mornings a week. This has proved an astute business move; post office customers now have to navigate a fairly tortuous route around the grocery shelves, which of course encourages them to buy their shopping on the way.  June and George say business has never been better – for both parties. In fact, queues often stretch from the post office counter right through to the fancy breads.


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A Sporting Chance

Although today was gloriously sunny, Tramp and I still found ourselves sloshing through waterlogged fields saturated by what seems like months of rain. (I’m conscious that, by writing this blog, I am extending my vocabulary of expressions for walking through mud to such an extent that they are set to rival in number those that the Eskimos are said to have for snow.) Nevertheless, I decided on a longer walk than of late, mainly to assuage my guilt for short-changing Tramp with quick jogs around the village during the cold, wet weeks we’ve had. And so, on reaching the woods off the lane, we dove into the trees to cut off the muddiest section of footpath before meeting up with the ancient ‘green lane’, once a thoroughfare for drovers, and possibly smugglers, alike.

In the woods, I was heartened to see the bright green blades of bluebell leaves poking through the leaf litter, bringing the reassurance that Spring will soon be upon us – for in recent years I seem to have joined the chorus of those who insist on pointing out the first snowdrops… primroses… crocuses, or whatever, with some sense of disbelief that Spring will reoccur this year after all, when the fact that one season will, by and large, follow another is probably one of the strongest certainties we can all depend on.

As I tried not to step on the green shoots, I noticed a feeder drum for pheasants, presumably left in the woods from last season. I hadn’t realised that the landowner here had gone the way of so many others in the area, in raising pheasants for the shoot. Further on I came across more tell-tale signs of shooting activity, as I spotted notices nailed to tree trunks which instructed: vermin traps – keep your dog on a lead.

Our village has a large ‘huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’’ fraternity; ‘shootin’’ especially. Indeed the walls of the pub’s lower bar are lined with faded and damp stained photographs of groups of grinning beaters ready for the off, and of returning groups wearing even wider grins as they brandish their braces of pheasants, earned as payment in kind. While their names are long forgotten, similar images grace the walls of many a country pub – just as the same, regular Friday night drinkers can be found leaning against almost any country bar, locked into a debate that runs its increasingly predictable course.

          ‘You enjoy pheasant well enough when it’s on the menu. We didn’t used to be able to afford it. Had to bribe the old gamekeeper to get a brace of pheasants, or go beating on the shoot.’ Old Norm gazes into the distance as he recollects his youth.

          ‘But that’s not the same as now, when Londoners are shipped in to massacre 500 or more in a day up at the Old Manor’s woods. The sky is black with them if the beaters do their work. And a day’s shoot can cost thousands. It’s big business, now, Norm.’ Young Sally states her case to grunts of agreement all round.

          ‘It’s traditional for the big houses to hold shoots. All the big estates do it; they always have. And think of all the work it brings to the country. ‘Specially now we don’t have fox hunting no more.’

          ‘Norm, millions of hand reared pheasants are released into the woods every year, right across Britain. That’s not so traditional, surely?’

          ‘They have a good life – they wouldn’t even be born if it wasn’t for the shoot!’

‘You’ve got to admit they overrun the place these days, Norm,’ Peg-toothed Jill now joins the verbal fray, draining her bottle of tonic that has lasted her through three gins. ’I reckon most of them get run-over, mind, the way they swarm across the road, darting in all directions.’

‘Think of the impact on other wildlife, competing for food,’ Sally continues.

          ‘That’s why they have the feeders, Sally.’

          ‘Yes, and that’s why there’s vermin notices – because of all the rats the feeders attract, don’t you think?’

          ‘Or it’s more to do with keeping your dog on a lead so they don’t chase the birds when they’re trying to fatten them up.’

          ‘Oh, to make them an easy target, you mean?’ says Sally.

‘My Maisie got shouted at last year, when she tore through Fiddlers’ Copse and sent the birds up.’ Peg-toothed Jill carries on. ‘I thought the gamekeeper was going to have a fit! I said to him, it’ll give them flying practice ready for the big day. He wasn’t having it, of course.’

‘Well, if you’ve got a shoot organised the next day, and you’ve been raising the birds for weeks, you want to be able to find them,’ says Old Norm, with exasperation in his voice. He goes behind the bar to pull himself another pint and leaves his money on the side.

          ‘But isn’t that the point of hunting?’ asks Sally. ‘Whatever happened to the idea of giving the prey a sporting chance?’

          Her question hangs in the air unanswered.



Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Old houses good; new houses bad

(with apologies to George Orwell!)

We were in a dilemma with the bins all last week in our village. While the snow lingered, the postman managed to deliver from his little red van (still wearing his shorts), and the intrepid milkman skated his milk float of chattering bottles across the ice, the bin men were nowhere to be seen. Lawrence and Geraldine’s recycling bin remained halted half way up their drive, as if it didn’t know whether to go in our out. Then the bin men made an unscheduled collection last weekend, and we all flew down to the roadside dragging our bins behinds us, as soon as we heard the lorry coming. Of course now we don’t know which bin is next due for emptying.

          ‘What bin are they going to collect this week, do you know?’ asked Jim as I passed him today on my walk with Tramp.

          ‘Who knows?’ I replied, ‘I’m leaving both mine out, just in case.’

          My eye was drawn to yet more planning application notices pasted to Jim’s fence; they seemed to be reproducing at an alarming rate.

          ‘You won’t have to creosote this fence this year, Jim; you’ve got enough of these to wallpaper it!’

          ‘Humph,’ was all I heard as he turned on his heel.

Jim’s house extends around the corner where the foot of Lawrence and Geraldine’s drive meets Main Road; indeed it is called ‘Corner Cottage’, rather unimaginatively. From the roofline, it looks as through it may have been two cottages at one time, so the ‘s’ on ‘cottages’ must have been dropped when they were knocked through.

As an inveterate DIYer – he would say ‘property restorer’, Jim’s declared aim is to restore his property to its original state, using all traditional materials and techniques of course. Nevertheless, I see no moves afoot re-instate it as two small houses and so restrict his living space.

          Jim has been working on his house for all the years I have lived in the village, but the noise of his industry seems disproportionate to any noticeable results. Two of the windows have been boarded up for as long as I can remember, and the rusting guttering on one corner will never now join the downpipe – still, it is made of cast iron.

In the meantime high wood panelled fences have gradually enclosed the property, erected by neighbours to shield them from the sight of the junkyard within of Jim’s ‘salvaged’ and ‘reclaimed’ materials, and to halt the gradual incursion of lengths of wrought iron, old paint tins and collapsing piles of bricks into their gardens. Jim of course has objected strongly to the planning authorities about the fences; he would have preferred ‘traditional’ post and rail, which is ‘more cottagy’.

I paused before continuing on our walk to read a couple of Jim’s newer planning applications. I couldn’t help but smile to read one for double glazed units -- wooden sashes, of course, but double-glazed, just the same. As usual, Jim was rather selective in what he considered worthy and ‘old’.

It is a truism in our village that the age of one’s property affords a far more elevated social status than its size. If, like Jim’s, your property is listed, then you can join the village aristocracy – although Jim’s will probably need to be less derelict before he can come out from behind his enclosure.

Last year, when a couple had the audacity to put in for planning for an extension to their old house (listed) which was dominated by steel beams and sliding glass walls, the council website was clogged with complaints – some from people who lived as far as 20 miles away. A local ringleader took it upon himself to call a special village meeting to ‘give the village a voice’ on what became termed ‘that monstrosity’ in casual conversation beforehand.

          The meeting filled the church hall to the rafters. A top table, as at a wedding, stretched across the stage at one end, seemingly reserved for those whose houses clocked up at least 150 years. A fairly decent wine was served and people at ground level chatted in groups, clinking glasses.

Just as the meeting was called to order and people drifted to their seats, I heard Lawrence’s voice boom, ‘Isn’t it good, us all getting together like this in the village?’

Meanwhile, rather like Lawrence’s recycling bin last week, the couple whose fate was to be decided hovered in the doorway, not sure whether to stay or make a run for it in case the crowd turned into a lynch mob. When the self-elected Chairman mentioned that the design was in line for an architectural award, a large number of people even sneered, loudly and cruelly.

All the well rehearsed objections voiced previously in the pub and the shop were re-stated. One of the top table elite appeared to be noting them down. Little or nothing was said in favour of the extension.

Suddenly a feint voice came from the doorway, ‘What if we painted the steel frames in a rustic pale olive, incorporated some glazing bars and added an elevated skylight… so as to make it into an orangery?’

Murmurs of approval, tinged with victory, spread round the hall like wildfire, competing only with the audible sighs of relief from the couple as they stepped forward and to be included in the circle of neighbours.