Sunday, 8 November 2015
The Tinworth House Witch
'You don't like Brighton, Iestyn, because you've not seen a single suitable witch's house - and you think the lack of them will interest my students?'
'You'll find little else in Brighton that will interest architectural students. But I really meant that there's a lack of folklore in Brighton, Graham. And don't order blackberry crumble. It's after September. The devil's pissed on blackberries by now and they're for witches only.'
'You really, really need to move away from here.'
I did. I'm happily back in a place with a folklore and a witch living across the Meare. The weather is really mild. The blackberries were late and are hanging on. Just last week I saw a woman coming from the direction of the windmill with some in a tupperware container. I looked past her for the witch's familiar. It wasn't to be seen. Maybe the woman will be lucky, who knows?
This time last year Graham Perring, who lectures in architecture, met me for lunch in Brighton and said that we were going for a walk afterward.
'I'm bringing my students here to do their project on how buildings impact on the people living or working in them and then on their surroundings. You live here, the buildings impact on you, I can get your thoughts.'
I said, 'I like the Art Deco block on the front going down to Hove. Oh, and the pier. But you can't live on a pier here, apparently. Chris Eubank has offered to buy the burnt-out pier and restore it, as long as he can live at the far end looking out to sea. Council says no.'
Graham's an old friend so I tried to think of another Brighton building that I liked.
'Sorry, you're talking to the self-appointed head of the League Against Brighton. Though, really, you're an architect. Look around you. Endless streets of those same white houses. Tower blocks so flimsily built you can almost hear the piss-filled lifts going up and down inside. Those...' I pointed out of the restaurant window.
'Maisonettes. What my nan used to sneeringly call bungalows with an upstairs. Her friend Dawn moved into one down in Ystrad and lost all sense of taste for home decoration. She had a patterned sofa, with patterned walls and patterned carpet. Nan said you went all the way over there for a bit of tined salmon and a tomato out of the greenhouse and ended up with your eyes turned kaleidoscopic.'
Graham still made me go on a walk around Brighton.
'There are features from the environment that would impact on the buildings,' he threw out.
'Is there a Richter scale equivalent for pointlessness? What? The most notable ever resident of this place is a woman who pushed an amphibious gypsy caravan in and out of the sea for the Regency hyphenated to swim from.'
'What about Aldeburgh - you love Aldeburgh - other than Benjamin Britten living there?'
'Queen of the Iceni tribe Boud - insert rest of name here in accordance with most up to date research on its pronunciation - very probably rode her chariot up and down what is now Aldeburgh high street, past Cooney's fish and chips. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first woman doctor. MR James set one of his most terrifying stories "A Warning to the Curious" at The Suffolk. The sale of The Suffolk just fell through again, by the way...'
'Things going bump in the night?'
I shook my head. 'Tim Molesley-Mars gazumping. Oh, wait, there is one interesting story about Brighton. Lewis Carroll used to stay in Sussex Square, where there's a private garden with access through a tunnel, and he based the rabbit hole on it.'
I had verified this in the reference library. When Graham foolishly went ahead with his idea of centring an architectural project in Brighton - next year, I said, how about an LGBT diversity project in his home city of Winchester? - he took his students to meet the chair of the Sussex Gardens Residents' Association who beadily waved the Lewis Carroll story aside, saying it was apocryphal.
'How would she fucking know?' I was angry. 'I can just see her - Sussex Gardens Residents' Association chair. Mary, I bet. Forbes. Bifocals on a chain round her neck; like my mother had. Cardigan; M&S; lilac. Slacks; catalogue; wool; dead-bat grey. Thinks a library's the place her prep-school master great-uncle used to call the boys to in pairs for a construe of Virgil over a fork-toasted crumpet. I looked up the Lewis Carroll story in the Encyclopaedia of Brighton!'
A book more for leveling a table rather than wedging open a door, but still.
'Brighton's the kind of blandly pox-ridden place that needs the Lewis Carroll story to be true. What else is there? Queen Caroline of the Stinky Knickers; mods and rockers chucking deckchairs; Thatcher having herself bombed for the sympathy. Even the letting agents balk at selling Brighton on its folklore.'
Though they do insist on trying to sell it on its cafe society and colourful vibe. Alistair Mills, chief lettist at the Leaders Western Road branch, was driving me to viewings during my first week in Brighton.
'Adam, not being funny, but you've pointed out six quirky cafes on this one short stretch of street? I'm moving here from Camden. Then you've been gesturing out of your driver's side window at something you call a colourful vibe? It's a drag queen on her way to host Pound a Pimms Bingo. Mate, I got disqualified from the Llangollen International Eisteddfod - I can't tell you why, I don't really know you - let's just say that the lift door opened a lot sooner than I thought it was going to. But with all the free time now on my hands in Llangollen, I could help my aunt Sophia running her hot food tent on the main field...'
God, she could run - and she had to: round and round trestle tables close to collapse - the trestles, not my aunt Sophia - from the weight of her home-cooked, self-dredged Seaweed Sweetloaf, her Welsh Cakes, her Cockle and Whisky Faggots. Not so busy serving food that she had to run either - no, she was being chased by Welsh farmers intent on getting her wellies next to theirs in the outdoor boot box. They sang ballads to her that included all the possible poetic descriptions in Welsh of "hill":
Hill with steep incline.
Hill with less steep incline.
Hill with steeper incline and with trees.
Hill with less steep incline, no trees, but with stream.
Hill with steeper incline, trees, stream, snowfall and mediaeval ruin.
Hill with less steep incline, no stream, trees, Norman ruin and snowfall that's melting to reveal what you missed in the previous picture: grazing flocks.
But howsoever the hill may have presented itself poetically, the farmers were still bent on chasing my aunt Sophia up it randily, brandishing an oak branch; she nursing her cooking pot; Rhyslan, the local baptist minister, overseeing fairplay.
Alistair, changing down to turn into Sussex Gardens, was still not getting that the Brighton colourful vibe was simply not going to register on my scale. I laid it on the line for him.
'It's the places you've shown me. You think they "benefit", as you estate agents put it, by being in Brighton per Brighton. I don't. I know people like to refer to Brighton as Shoreditch-on-Sea. They must be confusing Shoreditch with Streatham. I'm a middle-aged variety turn nursing a Judge Judy habit with a library card in every port wanting a simple studio flat. I'm not about to start an arts foundation course at the Brighton College and pay my way by dealing, dog-sitting and giving Thai Massage in that partially partitioned room we just looked at opening off the mezzanine in the Helter Skelter.'
But, as I say, not even Letting agent Alistair would have tried to sell Brighton on its folklore. And, see, that was my contention - a place needs a folklore!
'That's why I really don't like Brighton, Graham. You could never imagine there being a house where the witch my mother warned me about might live...'
My mother would say that I once had a twin, who was so badly behaved that he had been sent away to live on a farm near where Welsh Lil lived now in Woolwich - and I would remember how long it took us on all those three buses to get there. Did I want to go and live with my twin brother on the farm?
My response was to chuck the alphabet bricks, mother's stilettos and/or the cat out of my toddler truck and start putting my clothes in it, asking where exactly the farm near Welsh Lil's was?
Or my mother would say that there were children starving in Africa who would be glad of this food and that there was nothing else now anyway as the shops were all shut.
This "food" being her stock-free, barley, carrot and Caerphilly Cheese stew. If Blue Peter were to get this for their Appeal then I wouldn't get a badge. 'And there's rice pudding, I saw you put it in the oven.'
Then there was my mother's warning about the witch, which came to mind just yesterday when I was taking my afternoon walk. Under the shades of Airfix battleship sky I looked down from watching the fifty-strong skein of geese to see, in an otherwise empty plough furrow, a tiny apple. There was no tree nearby that it might have fallen from. I was about to pick it up when I heard my mother's voice.
'Do you know what that stuff actually is that you keep picking up off the pavement? It's what the witch who lives in Tinworth House has dropped taking off or landing on her broom. When it's gone to ground, she can't sense it, but when you pick it up - she suddenly turns her head to look down from up in the sky and will know where it is now. And will carry off whoever has it in their possession and cook them in her cauldron for her dinner.'
I left the tiny apple where the witch had dropped it. Fear of the witch? No. Though I know where she might live here in Thorpeness. Thorns along by the windmill thrust up from the hedgerow, as though the fruit has been snatched at from above. There are scorch marks in the gravel where she sets her cauldron at midnight. The witch's familiar, a raven, perches nearby. He has been to look speculatively at me through my window this morning. Perhaps he and the witch know what I'm writing. I hope she knows that as a child I was kind to her kin...
I had watched my mother till she fell asleep in her rocking chair after her second whiskey, then, not daring to breathe, put her over-stuffed handbag beneath the chair.
'Iestyn, is that mum's bag you were out in the area with earlier?' dad whispered.
The area was the ground between Randall House, where we lived, and Tinworth House opposite.
'And what on earth are you doing now?'
Another time he would most likely have stopped me doing whatever it was, but that afternoon my mother had told him off for jeering at the TV Tarzan for not diving, vine-swing or yodelling as well as Johnny Weissmuller had in the films.
'You couldn't do any better, Terry, so keep your big gob shut!'
I opened the sitting room window, looked expectantly out at the sky over Tinworth House and told him,
'I'm feeding the witch, dad.'