gromitA couple of years back Bristol was covered in life-size fibreglass gorillas, all of which were done out in different colours. Everyone loved the gorillas. Children got all excited whenever they spotted one, and even adults could be seen traipsing all over town to tick off every one of the 61 primates on the list. The whole thing was done to mark Bristol Zoo’s 175th birthday and it all raised a load of money for charity.

So this summer we have Gromits. As in Wallace and. As in Aardman Animations being a Bristol firm, and Gromit being one of their most loved creations, and so forth. Anyways, there’s a load of Gromits all over town, each with a different sponsor, and each decorated by a different artist.

The Gromits will be even more popular than the gorillas. You’d want to be some kind of weirdo not to love them, or at any rate not to love the way that kiddies squeal in delight every time they spot a new one.

Here’s one outside the Victoria Rooms, Clifton, photographed at 7.30 this morning. So we have a fibreglass model of an animated comedy character covered in gold mosaic tiles right next to a statue of King Edward VII. The statue, by the way, was unveiled 100 years ago this summer by his son George V. George didn’t want the Bristol statue of his dad to be on a horse (as is the normal etiquette with statues of kings) as it might be better than the one he was putting up in London.

Either way, one’s a flattering representation of a worthless parasitic sybarite who in later life was so corpulent he had to have a special chair made so that he could be serviced by his mistresses, and the other one’s a plasticine dog who’s brought innocent pleasure to millions. (This is the first and, I imagine, the only occasion on which I’d had some grounding in postmodern philosophy, so’s I could say something clever here.)

So foreigners, visit Bristol this summer, why don’t you? You can spot all the Gromits. They beat the living bejeezus out of 90% of all the other public sculpture in Bristol, and indeed the rest of the world. More here: http://www.gromitunleashed.org.uk/


Pope’s Bulls

10Jun13

Doing the old tall tales & urban legends walk Sunday week for the Bristol Civic Society. Your money goes towards making Bristol more lovely, and not towards making my bank balance more lovely, so cough up. Just for a gratuitous plug, here be one of my favourite Bristol seafaring yarns, yarr, belike (etc.). Even though this one’s actually true.

So it’s the early 1700s, and Britain is in the war of Spanish Succession fighting France and Spain. As was the practice back then, the government doesn’t just use the Royal Navy to prey on enemy shipping, but privatises the war effort by licensing merchant ships to do the same. Which is how come certain businessmen in ye port of Bristol fitted out two privateers, the Duke and the Duchess to interrupt the enemy’s commerce in the hope of profit. This, in other words, is state-approved piracy, and, by the way, some of it was bankrolled by those oh-so-nonviolent Quakers. Just saying.

This resulting expedition was the stuff of legend. Captain Woodes Rogers and his navigator William Dampier took the two ships, crewed for the most part by the dregs and sweepings of the docksides and prisons (few real sailors wanted to go on such a hare-brained romp), and came home with a vast fortune in treasure, plundered goods and ships taken as prizes.

Not only that, but they had circumnavigated the globe and returned with most of their scurvy crew more or less alive. It was the greatest feat of Bristolian seamanship ever.

AND they rescued this bloke from a desert island. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and his adventures became the basis for ‘Robinson Crusoe’, a yarn written up by a seedy and unscrupulous hack named Daniel Defoe.

But here’s my favourite bit … Along the way one of the ships they captured was a  Spaniard called the “Marquiss” (presumably Marqués) which, they were told, carried a fabulously valuable cargo. Eagerly our oak-hearted men broke into the hold, where they found …

Well, let Woodes Rogers explain: “We found in the Marquiss near 500 bales of Pope’s Bulls, 16 reams in a bale.”

What he means is papal indulgences. Certificates which gave the holder a certain amount of time off Purgatory, the place where Catholics believed most people went to be “purged” of their sins when they died before they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Purgatory is not a nice place, and you want to spend as little time there as poss., so if you gave the Catholic Church some money, they would see to it that your time there would be reduced.

Rogers said: “These bulls are imposed on the people, and sold by the clergy from 3 rials to 50 pieces of eight each, according to the ability of the purchaser.”

This is indeed a cargo of immense value to the Catholic Spaniards. But to our Protestant Bristolian cut-throats eager for gold and jewellery?

Rogers: “We threw most of them overboard to make room for better goods, except what we kept to burn the pitch of our ships’ bottoms when we careened them.”

And the moral of the story is that pieces of paper are only as valuable or as useful as consensus agrees them to be. Banknotes are the same, what?

I’ll tell you this one all over again on the walk, and a bit else besides. So cross the Civic Society’s palm with pieces of virtual eight, ye lubbers. If you all manage to keep up with me on the day I’ll also show you where Princess Diana’s assassination was masterminded. No, really.


‘Some People’ is out on DVD on May 20th. It’s not been on telly that often, and is unlikely to feature in anyone’s top 100, or even top 1000, greatest movies of all time, but it’s an interesting little piece of social history. It’s also a real treat for Bristol history spods, and indeed older Bristolians who were around at the time.

Directed by Clive Donner and released in 1962 it was a cheap and cheerful teen drama (with a bit of music) which was actually intended as propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Scheme. A bunch of teens in Bristol are hanging out, getting up to no good and headed for a future of problems with the law until the Scheme channels their energies in more constructive directions.

This is British youth just on the eve of the Beatles, and moments before the Sixties begin to swing. But this isn’t about neets or deprived youth; quite the opposite. One of the intriguing things you need to get your head around is that it’s prosperity, and not unemployment, that’s being blamed for their delinquency. These kids have jobs, and at one point a magistrate opines that the problem with youth today is that they have it too good, and that easy credit in the form of hire-purchase (ask your grandmother) is making the kids irresponsible.

It’s got an interesting cast, too. The young Ray Brooks and David Hemmings are very nice to look at, as are Angela Douglas and Anneke Wills (later famous as one of Dr Who’s assistants). Kenneth More, a British film megastar at this time, also gets a look in (he apparently did it for a minimal fee as he thought it was a good cause, and didn’t have any other work on at the time). Mind you, most of them have trouble doing a convincing Bristol accent; More is excused from having to do it because he’s a manager, and therefore his character is posh (and probably not from Bristol). The one who gets the accent  wrongest of all is Harry H. Corbett (later famous as Harold Steptoe from the TV comedy Steptoe & Son). That said, there are plenty of real Bristolians in small roles.

Bristol is also a star of the movie, and you can have all sorts of fun spotting the locations or getting the occasional handle on the life of the city at the time. So here’s the water tower on the Downs being a meet-up point for bikers, and here’s a nicely-done illegal bike race out along the Portway. You get Christmas Steps, Filwood (I think) swimming pool, lots of Lockleaze, all the usual landmarks, and some glimpses of the City Docks when they were still at work. There’s even some footage of one of BAC’s now-forgotten experimental aircraft, the Bristol 188 “Flaming Pencil”. I could go on about this, or show you some of the photos I took of it at the RAF Museum at Cosford, but let’s leave that for now…

That’s ‘Some People’, one to get now, or file away for the Christmas list for the older Bristolian in your life. Someone put a bit of it on YouTube, so here’s a taster.

And here’s the relevant Network DVD page.


The UK Independence Party (UKIP) made spectacular gains in this week’s local elections. But not in Bristol.

Some are wetting their knickers over the idea that this is the start of a new era of four-party politics. It so isn’t, you know. It’s ushering in an era that’ll deprive the Conservative party of votes and hollow the activists and local NCOs out of constituency associations in a way that could keep the right out of power in Britain for a generation.

You do have to feel rather sorry for some of the UKIP council candidates who were only standing as electoral cannon fodder to send a message of protest to Westminster, and who now find they have responsibilities. WTF are all these grumpy old men going to do now? Unilaterally declare Loamshire’s independence from Brussels? Demand that schoolchildren sing Baa-Baa Black Sheep in assembly? Turn sites earmarked for social housing into golf courses?

To be fair, there are some perfectly intelligent and well-intentioned UKIP activists who have honest and legitimate concerns about Britain’s membership of the EU. They are not all mad Little Englanders and closet racists who get in a froth about gay marriage. But many of them are, and in any event this vote wasn’t really about Europe at all. UKIP are hoovering up discontent of folks with all manner of beefs which they think could mostly be solved if we all went back to the 1950s when there were fewer immigrunts (as they say on the forums) and when bobbies on the beat could give youngsters a clip round the ear.

While the party made huge gains in many parts of England – among other things UKIP also functions as an English nationalist party – they got nowhere in Bristol. They only fielded six candidates where they could have stood in all 23 wards up for election. They took less than 5% of the overall vote in Bristol and didn’t win any seats.

The story in Bristol instead was that the Greens took two seats to double their presence on the Council, that the Independents for Bristol party/movement/thing got almost 6% of the vote and took one seat, and that the Lib Dems got stuffed, mostly by Labour. Labour gained six seats  and are now the largest group on the Council. The Tories, as ever, didn’t do much. They lost two and won two.

It was easily the most interesting local election in a generation.

What it tells us, yet again, is that Bristol is different. We don’t do politics the same as everywhere else. Last year, Bristol was the only place to opt for an elected mayor, and voted in an independent, George Ferguson, who used to be a Liberal. The Independents for Bristol group who stood this week were also part of that feeling some have that party politics has no place down the Council House, sorry, City Hall. They would have fared better if we knew what this assortment of candidates were actually for/against, but as things are, they did surprisingly well. Better than the Kippers, and with far less publicity.

This was all on a turnout of 27%. Just over a quarter of the electorate bothered to vote, even though it was a lovely sunny day.

Let’s call this quarter/third of people who turn out to vote in any town’s local polls the local civic class. These are the people who think voting’s important; with varying degrees of faith, they believe the system works.

In Bristol, this civic class is not right-wing. The Tories have been stuck as a minority on the council for decades, as a group rarely getting much bigger or smaller. Instead, the civic class here might be described as small-l liberal, from Lib Dem to Labour and Green – the three parties between them took 65% of the vote in Bristol last week. The Tories and UKIP between them made up less than 30%.

This is a pattern you can see in Bristol again and again. The Lib Dems took a pasting, but their votes are going to Labour and the Greens. What it probably means is that people want to punish the LDs as a party for their part in the Coalition nationally, but they still want broadly centrist politics with a progressive flavour.

The political character of this civic class may well be to do with demographics. It may be something to do with the fact that Bristol is better educated and younger than the national average. That’s all there in the 2011 census if you want to seek it out.

Education probably has more of a bearing on this political complexion than, say, wealth. You do get more people voting in the richer wards, but many of these vote Tory, and Bristol’s is not a Tory council, and hasn’t really been for a century. The other thing about rich wards is that they have settled populations and where councillors can count on a strong personal following, regardless of party.

You could caricature Bristol’s politics as “middle class liberal”. But this is by default, not by universal consensus. The majority do not vote; some because they can’t be bothered, have no interest, but some also because they have no faith in the process. And some because they’re just plain stupid, of course.

But in the meantime, the story is that Bristol didn’t vote UKIP, that it told the Lib Dems to go to hell and it feels the same way about the Conservatives that it always has.

Bristol also has two new Green councillors and an independent. In Lawrence Hill, one of the poorest wards in the region where the voters are definitely not middle class, the winning Labour candidate was Hibaq Jama, an articulate and plainly intelligent Somali-born woman and therefore the polar opposite of everything that UKIP stands for.

That will do very nicely for now. Bristol exceptionalism wins the day again.


(Sigh!)

<Old Fart mode> The £1 coin is currently celebrating its 30th birthday and I keep reading articles by people who really should no better, that it was “nicknamed” the “Maggie” – as in Thatcher – when it first went into circulation.

No-one ever called it a Maggie in everyday conversation. It was a gag which originated somewhere or other. It might even have been with Neil Kinnock, who became leader of the Labour Party in 1983. Certainly it was Kinnock who was credited in the media at the time for spinning the line that it should be called a Maggie as it’s “heavy, brassy and thinks it’s a sovereign.”

Other variations included “thick” and “worthless” along with the brassy and sovereign thing. It was funny because it was true.

Other money jokes from this period include the Irish one about their pound, which was generally known as the Punt (Punt Éireannach) from Ireland’s break with Sterling in 1979 until the country joined the Euro in 2002. “Why’s it called a Punt? So that it rhymes with bank manager.”


Unbuilt-Bristol1My latest local book, Unbuilt Bristol is to be published on May 18. Most families will probably be able to get by with just three copies (one for the coffee table, one for reading in bed, one for the guest room) but don’t let that put you off buying more if you need to.

Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050 looks at around 50 of the buildings, monuments and other structures that have been proposed for Bristol at one time or another, but which were never actually built. While all your old favourites are there (all the other proposals for a bridge over the Avon Gorge, the insane 1960s/70s plan to fill in the Floating Harbour and cover it in roads etc.) there are plenty more which you won’t have heard of. Like the Victorian scheme to put Bristol’s main railway station in Queen Square, or a visionary 19th century plan to run the city’s street lighting using power generated by the rise and fall of the river Avon.

Some things were easier to research than others. It’s very difficult, for instance, to keep track of several decades’ worth of failed plans to build new grounds for City and Rovers, as these schemes seem to change with every season. Or all the schemes for generating tidal power from the Severn; these are hard to follow as some of them are serious plans put forward by bodies which could, theoretically, find the money to do it. Others are more, ah, speculative. Talk of a dam across the Severn goes back to the 1840s, though the notion of using it to generate electricity only goes back to a piece of paper put in the staff suggestions box at the Great Western Railway’s Paddington offices in 1918.

And as for the blasted trams… We’ve been talking seriously about trams now since the early 1980s, and we are still talking. Now it is true to say that there are all sorts of complicated topographical problems if you’re trying to put a tram system into Bristol. Not to mention all the complexities of the planning process itself, and trying to square the needs and wants of a very dense population. One of the most telling things that everyone needs to know about Bristol’s original tram system, which ran between the 1860s and 1940, was that the firm was run, from its early days by a man who was not an engineer or architect or builder. Sir George White was a lawyer. The first thing you need to put a tram system in place is not technology and it’s not even money; it’s a route and the permission and build it.

These problems aside, a person of a cynical frame of mind might also conclude that talking about a tram system suits some people better than actually building it. There are council officers in Bristol and the neighbouring authorities who have spent entire careers not building us a tram. And then there are all the lavishly-remunerated consultants…

So then, Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050 (to remind you of the title once more) has trams (or rather it doesn’t) and loads more besides. Anyone remember the 1990s plan to make a pyramid of bottles on top of the Create Centre? Or (for older readers) the amazing 1960s vision of streets in the sky? We were all going to be walking around on pedestrian decks and even a plaza suspended over the Centre while the traffic thundered by at ground level.

All this and more in (that title again) Unbuilt Bristol: The city that might have been 1750-2050, published by Redcliffe Press on May 18 at a very reasonable fifteen quid. More here.

I’ll be doing a few events around the book over the spring and summer, including a gig at Arnolfini with Mayor Ferguson in June (more details as and). But the first, on May 18, will be a guided walk for Bristol Festival of Ideas. Yes, a walk looking at non-existent things. Last I heard it was almost fully booked, but if there’s enuff demand we’ll do another one. Details here.


Bash the rich?

11Apr13

One of the more moronic tabloids once featured Ian Bone on its front page as THE MOST EVIL MAN IN BRITAIN. That would be going it a bit given all the competition from elsewhere. If, however, there were to be some contest to find the most obnoxious man in Britain, Bone would certainly poll heavily.

In case you’ve never heard of him, he is perhaps the elder statesman of the anarchist movement in Britain. He’s equally at home savaging liberals and Marxists as well as conservatives and fascists. If his writings are anything to go by, the one group of people he despises above all others would be the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP nowadays is an increasingly dysfunctional religious cult masquerading as a political party, and is currently riven by splits and accusations of sexual misconduct. Bone has always, however, been highly critical of the party’s blinkered ideology, authoritarianism and its (often risible) attempts to hijack every oppositional cause going. Back in the 1980s, the story goes, some leftists claimed he was a fascist, presumably because they simply could not grasp how anyone wiv a working clarse accent who was being so horrid to Marxists could possibly be anything else.

It’s worth noting all this at the moment in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s death. The Daily Mail and other papers are going on about how disgraceful it is that her passing is being celebrated by “left-wingers”. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I know what a “left winger” looks like anymore. The Labour Party and trades unions are fully absorbed into the establishment, while the old-school Marxist left is sliding into genteel and dribbling irrelevance. Hardcore opposition these days generally comes from people operating outside of formal political movements, whether it’s the coalition of activists around campaigns like UKUncut, or from people who style themselves anarchists.

Elderly troublemaker Ian Bone is one of the leading lights of the anarchist movement. He’s also important because he has written the best book ever about life on the fringe of British politics in recent decades.

Bash the Rich, is now available as an e-book. It’s a fantastic, foul-mouthed and funny read all about his own personal journey in search of a meaningful political creed. The son of domestic servants, Bone grew up with an abiding hatred of “toffs”. Studying at Swansea University he began his quest, at various times getting involved with extreme Welsh nationalists, all manner of leftie groups, animal rights campaigners and more. The section on his flirtation with feminism and male guilt and ending up single-handedly running a creche with dozens of kids for a whole weekend is worth the cover price all on its own.

Eventually he arrives at anarchism, becoming one of the leading lights of Class War. But let him tell you the rest. You may disagree with his politics, you may get cross at his line on political violence, you may find his views and actions laudable or obnoxious, but the book will also have you laughing like a drain. It will also leave you with more insights into the thinking and behaviour of Britain’s radical and leftist political fringe over recent decades than any number of academic tomes.

The e-book’s available here.

Ian Bone’s blog is at http://ianbone.wordpress.com



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