A lot of things happened on Mayday, as they should. In medieval England, it was one of the biggest, most popular and least controversial holidays of the year, the focus of a week of ribaldry, licence and lust, when the rural working class (90% of the population) got drunk for days on fermented beer, cider, and festering turnip juice to celebrate Beltane, Mercury and the year’s light half.
Mayday 2021 saw a morning visit of Maisie and Ella, an amble down Wellhouse Lane with the dogs alongside fields newly sewn with maize, and a first public family celebration organised by Jessie on Brighton seafront. I was afflicted by something irksome in my stomach for much of the day, but it had improved by the evening. As we were finishing our dinner, the temperature suddenly dropped as a piercing north wind arrived, and despite the delicious food, jolly festivities, and three layers of clothing, I became so cold that I could hardly move. The next morning I was right as the rain that set in for the next week. Hints that all this may have been due to over-enthusiastic foraging in fields near Plumpton agricultural college on the day before were difficult but possible to deny. But let me put it this way. After hours of field, picture, and desk research I am still unable confidently to differentiate between the nearly identical plants of cow parsley and poison hemlock as potential food items. The latter was the choice of Socrates when condemned to suicide, and an early sign that the cause of the problem lay elsewhere seemed to be that no dull pain had started moving up from my feet. Thankfully, no aches or pains followed, either, from my second Covid vaccination.
I drove to York via Kirk Deighton, near Wetherby, where I spent a delightful evening in the excellent company of twin sisters Debbie and Fi at a dinner party featuring their robustly cheerful cousins Peter and Penny, then picked up Gwen and some of her possessions from her York apartment, a month ahead of the end of her degree course at Askham Bryant College. I made the same journey a few days later to bring her back, also staying in Kirk Deighton and beating the village bounds in a hearty walk with Fi. I also stopped in Barnsley to see Charlie, my longest-lasting friend, starting as best mates at the Dragon School from 1965, lapsed for thirty years, then re-connected nearly twenty years ago. He and his partner Liz inhabit a dog’s home where three large dogs including a Dogue de Bordeaux generously permit them to share their living space.
In between my visits up north occurred Jessie’s 30th birthday. Jessie‘s partner Jurrat had secretly arranged a serious of inter-related events for the weekend. Her old friends Katie and Sophie magically appeared, as did sister Gwen, and together with cousin Sophia, they all went on a treasure hunt through Brighton that Jurrat and I had created. It included random engagements with some of Brighton’s shops and monuments, re-creations and revisits of sites in Jessie’s youth as schoolgirl, county swimmer, student, graduate, and youth worker. The hunt was captured in selfies and propelled through instructions, riddles and questions in iambic heptameters (‘fourteeners’). The party of six were mandated to meander through the North Laine to Brighton station from the beach, then to take a short train journey to Burgess Hill, and walk from there to Broad Oaks. They were welcomed by the rest of the family and friends on the terrace, before continuing in teams to search for sequential clues sequestered in painted toilet rolls hidden around the garden. I nearly lost the treasure trove altogether when our neighbours took everything away from its hideaway on the other side of our hedge to their garage for safe keeping. Mr. Neighbour explained that he thought the packages had been a fly-tip or that the boxes might have contained ‘abandoned kittens’. He lacked a credible explanation for why, upon discovering that the boxes in fact contained champagne, beer and chocolates, he had promptly snaffled them. But everything was duly restored to the hedge. The hunt proceeded and the trove was won. The day moved on with a delicious five-salad terrace lunch with meats and cheeses prepared by Alli, champagne, a birthday cake baked by Ella, vegan cup cakes by Gwen, and guacamole made by Jurrat. It was a memorable and long overdue family day.
The temporary greenhouse that I was bragging about having built from a kit last month was destroyed one night by a high wind. Although it stayed in its place, battened and weighted down, the wind’s force tore the transparent covering apart and flayed the contents, including dozens of tomato, okra, courgette, and butternut squash seedlings, pots, trays and seeds that I was going to plant over the next few days. However, I planted the slim pickings of the debris, mostly beans, securely in the earth, where they would be safer, given that the unseasonable early morning frosts had stopped. Jessie and Jurrat visited us later and we mended the greenhouse with gaffer tape. Two weeks later another and bigger storm destroyed the construction all over again; and I have still to put it up again, I suppose.
Among the best walks this month took place without the dogs but with a group of ex-runners from the Burgess Hill Running Club. Ella, a club member, had suggested that I come with the walking group. The five-mile route uncovered a fine tracery of paths and tracks sewn through three of my favourite villages: Westmeston, Streat and Ditchling, contradicting my impression that I already knew them well. It finished with an old straight track into a Ditchling arched by a rainbow. The following week Ella and I went to an exhibition in the Brighton Dome of photos and videos of David Bowie in the early 1970s. We then had a high quality Bangladeshi Sunday lunch with Jessie, Jurrat, and Sophia, before returning to Hassocks and welcoming Ella and Sam to dinner. This was another great family day overall, adding to our first sense of genuine release from a lockdown that we had respected quite strictly, confirming the tremendous privilege we feel from our daughters’ opting to live near us. To prove the point, towards the end of month I invited myself to dinner at Jessie and Jurrat’s flat and had a delicious vegan chili with corn bread, pickled red onions and sour cream – cooked expertly by my niece Sophia.
I have read two excellent but very different books this month: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi and Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent. Freshwater is a debut by yet another brilliant Nigerian writer, an extraordinary re-telling of west African myths and stories of the spirit world in a modern context. When I opened the title page of The Confidential Agent I saw that my father had read the very same book (a Penguin, priced at 3/6d) 55 years ago. His one sentence review was: “Poor stuff, compared with his later work”, written and signed across the frontispiece with a fountain pen in his elegant Chancery cursive. It was, on the contrary, a delightfully wry comedy set in pre-war middle England with under-currents of violence, distrust, cruelty and corruption. I reckon my highly political father, who had just lost heavily as Conservative candidate for East Ham South in the 1966 General Election, had not approved of Greene’s meaningful anti-British narrative. In 2021 I could better understand Greene’s perspective; he was writing the book in the late 1930s in an environment somewhat similar to contemporary political affairs.
The Spring bank holiday weekend close-bracketed the suddenly sociable month perfectly and in sunbathing mode. Jessie, Jurrat and Sophia arrived for Sunday afternoon and dinner of roast lamb, as Ella and Sam had done the weekend previously. Jurrat got some serious time with Joe and George on the makeshift basketball court and Sophie and I walked around the Oldlands Mill and Lodge Lane. We are looking forward to much more family society in the weeks ahead and I sign myself
yours despite the variants,