Friday, September 19, 2003

“Being mainly the description of a day out discovering the history of my adoptive county, culminating in a series of gratuitous nob gags”

To the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester with Mrs Scary and the Scaryducklings in the pursuit of a day of entertainment and discovery of my adopted home county. The first (and cheapest) visit of the day was to the Roman Town House, the most complete Roman villa in the UK. All very nice, but no-one was home, and there was one hell of a mess on the carpets. Not a slave in sight, either. I packed my toga away in disgust.

Let me tell you about the town of Dorchester. My chosen locale of Weymouth and Portland may be a tad strange, but over the Ridgeway in the County Town, they do things differently.

Dorchester - winner of the Bah Humbug award for Britain’s worst Christmas lights two years in a row, its single chain of a dozen white lights rescued from a skip behind Woolies impressing the judges year after year. Effective, simple, and because of the mayor’s habit of forgetting to put 50p in the meter, damn cheap.

Dorchester - historic county town noted for its connections with the writer Thomas Hardy and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, transported to the colonies for daring to ask for a pay rise. I’ve alluded to the fact in the past that Dorchester is the town where Judge Jeffreys held his now infamous Bloody Assizes, sending more men to the gallows than any judge before or since, and that includes those shonky ones they had in Argentina. And how was this feat of judicial barbarism celebrated? In shame? In a monument to the woe of broken lives, shattered families, the blood spilled on this green, green land? Nope. The Judge Jeffreys tea-rooms. Hot and cold beverages, a selection of cakes and pastries, violent and bloody death a speciality of the house.

The museum. Ah yes. Real live dead people in cases! That’s what I paid good money to see, and that’s exactly what I got. Whole piles of dead Durotrige tribesmen slaughtered by the Romans in AD43 when Emperor-to-be Vespasian took one look at Maiden Castle and decided it was in the exact place he wanted to open a lap-dancing club and pizza restaurant. No questions asked, sneak in through the back door and perforate them until they surrender. Still, tough on the poor buggers who lived there, dug up and shoved in a glass case two thousand years later. It’s what they would have wanted. I could tell - they were smiling, even.

But it was in one of the back rooms that we hit paydirt. A badger, a snake and some mushrooms all in the same case, like they had predicted the internetweb juxtaposition years in advance. Clearly, the museum owners were trying to tell us something, so me and Scaryduck Jr did the Badger dance until Mrs Scary gave me her best "That's the last time I take you anywhere" look which my own mother had given me on a visit to the Natural History Museum some thirty years before.

But as an aspiring writer, the part of the museum I found the most interesting was that dedicated to Thomas Hardy, our county’s most famous son. These days whole swathes of the country are now named, for twee tourist purposes, after famous writers. Signs welcoming you to Hampshire now also welcome you to “Jane Austen Country”, Warwickshire is now “Shakespeare Country”, West Yorkshire is “Bronte Country”, and James "The Rats" Herbert now has a claim on most of Central London, except for Belmarsh Prison, which is now "Archer Country". Dorset, then, is Hardy Country, even though he made up all the place names as he went along. The place is positively crawling with famous Thomas Hardies, and it was an earlier Hardye who is commemorated with a rather phallic monument between Weymouth and Bridport, with free petty theft from your car while you’re there.

The Dorset museum has done a rather good job of taking his entire study and rebuilding it, book by book in its own gallery. It did, however, lack a certain je ne sais quoi, possibly due to the fact that I consider his best work to be the stuff he did with Stan Laurel. I put this to the curator and was promptly shown the door. Then he showed me the ladies’ toilets, a genuine roman lead coffin and a selection of dirty postcards. And all on an entry fee of three pounds ninety. Class.

I must confess, however, my ignorance of this son of Dorset. This came about in my most formative years, when I confused one of his most celebrated works, which went some way to earning that bronze statue at Top 'o' Town roundabout, with The Sun’s 1974 Soccer Annual for Boys. I grew up convinced that “Far from the Madding Crowd” was about a footballer's desire to get away from the big time and live the simple life in the English countryside. Easy mistake to make, and what a disappointment I was letting myself in for when I finally got round to reading it. There was nary a 70’s bubble perm on a rainy night at Stamford Bridge to be seen. “Far from the Madding Crowd” is about rugger, as any fule kno.

On the way home we visited the Cerne Giant - he of the enormous wang halfway up a hillside not six miles from Dorchester. What a disappointment, such is the perspective the best views of the Giant are to be had from the air, and without a handy helicopter, I was always going to be let down. I've read that he spent much of the nineteenth century wang-less as the Victorians covered up the mighty mallet; and that his weapon has actually grown by twenty-four feet since he was cut into the hillside, all without the help of 100% guaranteed internet offers. Speaking as a man of the world, he’s never going to satisfy anyone with that thing. It’s quality, not quantity.

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