Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A Rye smile

Is it really early July? I’ve spent the past few months writing solidly, proofreading and doing more writing, so the seasons have rushed past my office window and I haven’t had much chance to get out into the fresh (and frequently damp) air and experience them at first hand. I’ll be writing about the results of all this work in the next few weeks.
Despite being so busy, I’ve still found time to go shopping. No, not the sort of shopping trips that involve major credit card usage, followed by major angst when the bills come in. I’m talking about everyday shopping – bread, fresh vegetables, some nice cheese. Not so long ago, we used to buy all these things in a weekly supermarket shop that was slightly frazzling (I always seem to be standing in the wrong place and having to get out of the way) and completely anonymous. It was all rather depressing, and we would often come home with our shoulders hunched around our ears and our nerves standing on end. But then we saw the light. We realized what was on our doorstep.
Doing as much of the weekly shop as possible in Rye has become a huge pleasure. We buy our bread, wine, cheese and salad oils in the farm shop. All our veg and fruit (not to mention local free-range eggs that taste the way all eggs should taste) comes from the greengrocer’s. Rice, flour, the Carley’s organic pumpkin seed butter to which I am addicted and all sorts of other things are snapped up from the health food shop. Books from the Martello Bookshop. All these shops are independently owned. All of them have character. Unlike our erstwhile dashes round a supermarket, this new style of shopping is relaxing and far from anonymous, because we stop for a chat in each of the shops. We keep up with one another’s news, chat to friends and neighbours who pass by, get the lowdown on what’s happening in the town. It’s how we all used to shop, and I never fail to enjoy it. I always come home smiling.
There is a strong tradition of this sort of shopping in Rye, and it’s described in all its glory and complexity by a man who was once a prominent Rye resident. EF Benson, the author of over seventy books, lived in Rye for just over twenty years until his death in 1940. He was a keen and astute observer of human nature, and he was amused by the shopping habits of people in Rye, who tended to collide in doorways with their marketing baskets, or would scuttle out of harm’s way when they saw their current nemesis bearing down on them. He put his observations in a series of six novels that are now known as the Mapp and Lucia novels, in which Rye is very thinly disguised as Tilling (so-named after the River Tillingham which runs through Rye). The series begins with Queen Lucia, which introduces us to the unforgettable Lucia, who lives in the Cotswold village of Riseholme (based on Broadway) and rules the inhabitants with an iron hand that is sometimes lacking its velvet glove. No one ever gets the better of her for long, try though they might. Elizabeth Mapp is cut from similar cloth although, as we discover in Miss Mapp, she is far more malevolent and scheming than Lucia, and likes to have the upper hand in Tilling. When these two women finally meet (and clash repeatedly, like cymbals) in Mapp and Lucia, it’s as though a bomb has gone off. And further bombs are detonated in Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia. Both these women would be trying beyond belief if it weren’t for EF Benson’s sharp humour, forensic eye for detail, gentle mockery of their pretentions and his wonderful compassion for the vagaries of human nature. (And, coming from the strange family that he did, he’d had plenty of practice at that particular art.)
I have read my copies of the six novels so often that they are now falling apart. Well, they are thirty years old. My mother once had to stop reading Lucia in London on the train because she was laughing so much that everyone was staring at her. If you’ve never read them, give them a go. They might be the best bit of shopping you’ve done in ages.