Monday, September 23, 2019

Box sets, Bicycles and Banjos

Here's another daft Shaftesbury tale - this time for a Christmas anthology, and you can probably tell how much I like telling Christmas stories from what follows.  It is, however, redeemed by a very fine illustration from Ella McDonough.

Box sets, Bicycles and Banjos

It is not obvious, unless you have carefully surveyed street maps old and new, that the part of the A350 that runs through Shaftesbury and extends from the Ivy Cross roundabout to the junction with Barton Hill is known as ‘Little Content Lane’.  Though buildings that face onto this stretch of road are sparse now, there was a time, long ago, when Little Content Lane boasted a sizeable population.

The majority of them took exception to the name and wanted it changed.  “It demeans us,” they said.  “We really don’t understand why it should be so named, we did not participate in the process of naming it and we think it ill serves our town.”  It came to the point where they felt that something had to be done.  It happened that Christmas was coming and the last thing they wanted was for Santa to get the wrong idea about their neighbourhood.  Why would he and his elves deliver anything of substance to Little Content Lane, when they could bestow their presents on Great Lane or Gold Hill?  Something definitely had to be done.  They put up notices all around Shaftesbury calling for a special meeting of the Town Council.

At the time, the Mayor of Shaftesbury was, in fact, a mare.  This was the result of a local squire stating: “Sooner my grey mare than any of those lefty liberal types!" and pulling the necessary strings to ensure that in the event of such an emergency, Mayor Mare would be appointed.  Under Mayor Mare’s rule, any progressive or even vaguely sensible proposal was met with a chorus of nays.  For those who preferred the status quo, it was indeed a whinny-whinny situation.

Now the people of Little Content Lane had amongst them a champion, a man by the name of Horace Oats.  Horace Oats made a careful study of the procedural regulations governing the naming of streets and the more he studied the more irate he became.  “They have condemned us,” he exclaimed, “to receive mere stocking-fillers from Santa, whereas the folk on Great Lane and Gold Hill will be given box sets, bicycles and banjos.”

Thus it was that, on the evening appointed for the special meeting, the people of Little Content Lane marched en masse to the Town Hall, carrying banners that said: ‘We want box sets!’  ‘We want bicycles!’  ‘We want banjos!’  This caused some perplexity amongst the handful of town councillors who had turned out for the meeting.  “What on earth are these idiots on about?” they muttered to one another, raising their eyebrows and rolling their eyeballs. 

In order to comprehend the proceedings at any such meeting, Mayor Mare relied heavily on the services of the Town Clerk.  Her name was Sandra and she was a horse-whisperer.  Heroically multi-tasking, she would not only record the minutes but, in a hoarse whisper, translate them for the benefit of Mayor Mare.  As Horace Oats made his presentation, Sandra did her very best to convey its essence to her four legged superior.  When he had finished, a series of nuanced snorts provided Sandra with a translatable mayoral statement.

It was clear, she said, that the citizens of Little Content Lane were labouring under a misapprehension.  The implication of inferiority that the name bestowed was only to be found if one placed verbal emphasis on the first syllable of the second word (content).  Place it on the second syllable of that word (content) and the implication changed considerably.  The name was a tribute, she told them, to a people who strived to better themselves and their environment and for whom ‘second best’ simply would not do.  And since the name had existed for a considerable length of time already, what proof had they that Santa had ever delivered any fewer box sets, bicycles and banjos than he did to the residents of Gold Hill or Great Lane?  Indeed, many of those attending the meeting had arrived on bicycles, were members of the town’s highly accomplished banjo band and had left family members at home watching box sets.

At this Horace Oats was rendered speechless and the protesters deeply abashed.  How could they have been so foolish?  Leaving their banners behind them they returned to their homes, determined to use the power of their discontent to better serve the town where they dwelt.  And that Christmas, when Santa and his elves delivered candlesticks, catamarans and cardigans with absolute equality throughout Shaftesbury, it was clear that their lot was no worse than that of any other part of the town.

Mayor Mare was re-elected for several years running and, though she is largely forgotten now, was considered one of the finest dignitaries ever to have held that title.  In one respect, however, her legend lives on.  To this very day you have only to walk by a field full of sheep and you will hear her name being repetitively celebrated.  “Mehh!  Mehh!”

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Lane That Runs Out of Time

Rats!  Didn't quite manage an August blog in August.  Here it is in September. Piece I wrote as a contribution to a collection of tales, tall and otherwise, by local writers - all connected with the North Dorset town of Shaftesbury, where I currently live.

The Lane That Runs Out of Time

We don’t know, of course, exactly where it will emerge in 2020.  It could appear abutted onto one of the leafy lanes that run down the slopes to St.James.  It might just turn up in the town centre, tucked into that grey stone block of buildings between Trinity Church and the High Street.  Or perhaps, seeking the novelty of the new, between identikit housing on Rifles Road or Badger Walk in that forlorn estate to the east of the town.  Wherever it appears, it will remain accessible – if you can detect it – for just twenty four hours, and then it will disappear without so much as a puff of smoke.

No one knows where it goes when it is not present in Shaftesbury.  Its residents have no interest in telling us.  When it last showed up, back in 2016, it was down in Enmore Green, on Well Lane between two of those old stone houses you encounter just before the A30 cuts it off.  When it shows, it has this knack of looking like it’s always been there.  You might even walk down it without ever realising that you have entered a numinous zone.  When it’s here, it’s very Shaftesbury.  A mingled mix of architectures that span the centuries – old stone, red brick, timber clad, or deco glass and concrete.  You can turn a lot of corners in this town and not know what you’re about to encounter, so this little lane is perfectly camouflaged, even managing to dovetail with the newer estates if it finds it necessary to do so.

Its residents are a motley lot, but they function as a community and it’s doubtful whether any of them would ever want to move house.  So you’ll not see any roadside signs from Connells or Chaffers amongst the slightly scruffy hedges or low stone walls with their surrounding adornments of snowdrops, crocuses, primroses and daffs.  Wherever it is they are when they are not in Shaftesbury, it seems to suit them just as well.  But on that day when they get here, you can rest assured that they will nearly all, individually or collectively, make a pilgrimage to the Bargain’s shop to stock up on woolly hats, candles, batteries, hair adornments and post-cards with images that look three-dimensional.  Check it out on the day.  But mind, it can get pretty crowded in there, both tills in constant use.

Take a wander up the street, round the corner and down the steps to Underground Music, just above Gold Hill, and you’ll encounter at some point in the day one of the lane’s most colourful residents.  He’s getting on a bit now, his once imposing black moustache and hair now a thinner grey.  But under a multicoloured coat he’ll be sporting a dazzling tee shirt and a middle eastern waistcoat. And with them wearing a psychedelic pendant and an orange baseball cap.  For all the signs of age, his jaw is firm, his face strong and somehow tanned.  He’s come to buy reeds for his flute, has Raja Ram, and perhaps a hand-drum or two.

Pearl, his next door neighbour, scours the charity shops, picks out the funkiest threads she can find – fringed items a speciality – and with a tilt of her tinted glasses and a friendly cackle, hoarsely asks the attendants if she can try them on.  By the time she heads back to the lane, her wild hair blowing in the breeze, she’ll be toting a sackful of outfits and a carrier bag laden with quarts of Jack Daniels from Shaftesbury Wines.

Not all the residents who spread out through the town that day are quite as colourful as these two.  Charles in his sombre black suit displays only a hint of colour with the rakish neckerchief knotted to the left of his Adam’s apple.  He too has just emerged from the wine shop, where they have slipped him a bottle of absinthe from under the counter.  He spends much of the day in his favoured parts of the town, St. James Street and Bell Street, where he feels a little more at home, a little safer from the flowers of evil.  In contrast Buster, in his ill fitting suit and boater, spends several hours in the Barton Hill skate park, where he shows the young ‘uns on scooters and skateboards hilariously but exactly how it’s done.

Marilyn and Audrey select the finest lingerie that Shirley Alum has to offer, while Coco stares in mute disgust through the windows of Superdrug.  Dylan spends the entire day in the Mitre and John Pierpont calls in at Lloyds Bank to check the interest on a sum of money he deposited in 1904.  You can hardly get across town without bumping into one or another of these folk.  And they are friendly, personable types on the whole, happy to invite you to the parties they’ll be holding in the lane that evening.

But here a word of caution.  If you choose to join them in their revelry, be sure to leave before midnight.  For if you are still there when March 1st commences, you will not see Shaftesbury again for 1,460 days and nights.  But at least you might find out where it is they go for all that length of time, those extraordinary people who live on Leap Year Lane.