I was in a certain well-known public house in the middle of Bristol the other day. This is a place which has been hugely popular for decades not on account of the quality of its food or drink, but because of its atmosphere.
So it was here that I had a couple of pints of old-fashioned squirt bitter. Didn’t think you could get this rubbish anymore.
It was all rather nostalgic, though, a throwback to the 1970s and early 1980s before the “real ale” revolution. Some years ago, the Conservative politician William Hague got himself into awful trouble when he claimed in a lad-mag interview that when he was doing his student summer job in the late 70s he would regularly get through eight pints of bitter of an evening.
He was accused of either exaggerating, or of being a teenage dipsomaniac. I’m certain he was neither, as we’re about the same age and I did heavy physical labouring jobs as a student, too. Back when pubs served beers like Double Diamond, Whitbread Trophy or Toby you could indeed get through eight pints. You’d feel bloated and need a slash every ten minutes, but you could walk home, unaided, in a fairly straight line, and still be able to load sixteen tons of Number Nine Coal the following day.
Part of the historic context to all this was that the government had regulated to reduce the strength of beer earlier on in the century to prevent us from losing World War One. At the time this, and other measures, particularly restrictions on opening hours, were so successful in combating alcoholism and public drunkenness that they pretty much remained in place until the 1980s. When pissed up idiots on the streets became a problem once more is was because of strong lager, not old-school British bitter.
Okay, okay, the joke … While the “real ale” revolution was under way, there was this quip people used when they started to realise how weak the big industrial beers were. I’ve mentioned this in public house company to contemporaries twice now, and they didn’t remember it. So here as both public service and minor item of social history is the 1970s weak beer joke:
I say, I say, I say, why is this beer we are drinking similar to making love in a punt?
I don’t know, why is this beer we are drinking similar to making love in a punt?
Because it’s fucking close to water!!
Yatatatatata-yatatata ner ner ner ner ner nerrrrrrr-uh-uh! (Ok, OK, I’m going…)
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What is now an industrial estate in Easton was once the site of the Bristol Waggon Company, and this is where the first caravan for recreational/holiday purposes was built, in the early 1880s.
This was the brainchild of William Gordon Stables (1839?-1910). He was born in Banffshire, Scotland, studied medicine at Aberdeen University and later joined the Royal Navy as a ship’s surgeon. Ill-health, however, eventually forced him to quit life at sea and he married and settled down in Berkshire where he turned his naval adventures and experience to good use as a writer.
He became one the pioneers of stirring adventure yarns for boys, in which spunky British lads, usually from humble backgrounds, succeed against the odds through pluck and self-reliance. He was also a great nature lover, writing about cats and dogs, as well as writing what would nowadays be called science fiction – the sort of tales of the future that made the fortune of his contemporary Jules Verne.
In the ‘Boys’ Own Paper’ he wrote an advice column, recommending cold baths, hot porridge and long walks as the cure for most ills. He hated drugs of all sorts, mostly on account of his struggle to overcome addiction to the sedative chloral hydrate.
But the main reason William Gordon Stables deserves his footnote in history is that he invented recreational caravanning. At some point in the 1880s, he commissioned the Bristol Waggon (sic.) Works Co. to build him ‘The Wanderer’ a custom caravan for £300.
Obviously there had been caravans before this, but this was the first one built for leisure, rather than work, purposes. Bristol Waggon Works was a successful and well-known firm at this time, and a major employer in East Bristol, building everything from posh coaches for the very wealthy all the way to farm carts. The company also had a flourishing export business, and Gordon Stables’ caravan was partly based on its “Bible Wagon” design based on the wagons used by travelling preachers in America’s Wild West. While the story of Gordon Stables and the Wanderer is known well enough, every account fails to correctly identify the firm that made it, and it’s taken me all afternoon to work out where it was. It was a big site that’s now the industrial estate just to the east of Lawrence Hill roundabout.
Gordon Stables took the two-ton Wanderer, drawn by two horses on an epic journey to Scotland with his manservant Foley to do the cooking and washing. He wrote up his adventures in a book called ‘The Cruise of the Land-Yacht Wanderer‘ (1886). In addition to the skivvying, the hapless Foley didn’t even get to ride in the caravan; he had to scout ahead of his master (to make sure the roads were OK) on a tricycle.
This book pretty much started the craze for caravanning, although in its early decades it was exclusively the domain of wealthy people who could afford to get the things made for themselves. One of the early customers for the Bristol firm’s new line was the Duke of Newcastle, who commissioned a vehicle he called ‘The Bohemian’ for a trip to Europe.
Gordon Stables – that’s him in the picture, along with his children, Wanderer and the long-suffering Foley – was later elected vice-president of the newly-formed Caravan Club, which he added to his busy list of civic duties, which also included helping to run the Sea Birds Protection Society and the animal welfare Humanitarian League. He was a familiar figure at dog, cat and agricultural shows, usually turning up in full Highland dress. He died at Twyford in 1910, while the Land Yacht Wanderer remained in the family’s hands. His grand-daughter Ottoline donated it to the Caravan Club in the 1960s and it used to be on display in the Industrial Museum. Anyone know where it is at the moment?
Caravanning fell into decline after WW1 until the appearance of new lightweight caravans which could be towed by car. So caravanning as we know it nowadays really began in the 1930s, as it came within the financial reach of the middle classes – although it was prompted as much by the American craze for “tin can tourism” as by Stables. Nonetheless, it did all start in Bristol, and indeed caravans remain one of the few tangible things that are still manufactured in the city. See http://www.bailey-caravans.co.uk
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Saturday Feb 9th is National Libraries Day.
At the risk of sounding like some witless press release, have you been into your local library lately and seen just how good they are?
Councillors and politicians up and down the land are busily closing libraries, often places which have been at the heart of their communities for 100 years or more. Often places built on money donated by philanthropists, or raised by the community, or trades unions, to enable working people to better themselves, or just to have some simple reading pleasure in their time off.
The conventionally easy thing to say is that people don’t borrow library books any more, that they would prefer to buy them off Amazon, or that people don’t read so much these days, what with all the distractions of the internet and 100 channels of telly. So, really, we don’t need libraries anymore, do we?
Well bollocks to that. I borrow plenty of books from Bristol’s libraries, and I see plenty of other folks doing likewise. But that’s kind of beside the point anyway.
Every community needs a space where people can find information about all sorts of things, and study it in peace and quiet.
Both in my local library and down the Central Reference Library I see plenty of youngsters sitting there quietly doing their homework or looking stuff up online. For a lot of kids, the library may be the only place they can study undisturbed, whether by other members of the family, or by their own self-imposed distractions – phones, web, music, whatever.
And another thing; Google doesn’t have all the answers. Google won’t always get you what you’re looking for. For that you sometimes need a librarian, you know, someone who’s an expert at finding things out.
So whatever politicians might claim, there are as many people using the library as ever. And the need for them is greater than ever. For a lot of kids it’ll be their route to a better life.
And for all of us it’s a way of getting books for business or for pleasure without handing our money over to a big cynical tax-dodging corporation.
So for National Libraries Day, show your local library some love, and stick one to Amazon by reading a book or two for free.
In Bristol they’re marking National Libraries day with some fun stuff and free stuff. More here.
Sorry, came over all preachy there. Next blog entry will be a dirty joke. Promise.
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The whole world’s going mad for Richard III today, since those bones in the car park have turned out to be his. This is my pretext for giving you my take on Richard. He gets a walk-on part in my critically-acclaimed (and commercially nondescript) novel Things Unborn (Earthlight, 2001).
In the story, World War III breaks out as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis and there is all manner of death and destruction and little wars for years afterwards. Also, for reasons which remain unexplained, people who died prematurely in the past are now popping up all over the place, having come back to life. The novel is set some years later. It’s a sort of political thriller about how a former African slave and WW2 fighter pilot have to thwart a fundamentalist Protestant plot to overthrow King Richard III. It all makes perfect sense when you read it.
I’d quite like to do a sequel one day.
King Richard III of England and King Richard I of Scotland was indeed hunchbacked, though only slightly, and almost certainly in consequence of his age.
Rochester bowed floridly, Scipio bowed stiffly from the waist.
The king waved his hand impatiently. “No need for any of that chickenshit writing-with-feathers nonsense when we’re alone,” he growled in nobby BBC spiced with a trace of a northern English. “Sit down. Smoke if you want. I’m damn well going to.”
The king collapsed into one of the chairs around the big table in a white cloud of cigar-smoke.
“So,” he said. “You are Inspector Scipio Africanus.”
“Yes, sire,” said Scipio, uncertain if ‘sire’ was the correct form.
“Bloody stupid name, isn’t it?”
Scipio was taken aback. “Many of Your Majesty’s subjects have stupid names,” he said.
The king nodded, and gathered some of the books and papers from the table. “D’you know what I’ve been studying recently?”
“I cannot begin to imagine, sire,” said Scipio.
“Oh!” said the king, “I smell sarcasm there, Inspector! Well done! I like your style, man. Don’t take any crap from me. I’m only the fucking king after all.” Richard broke into a giggle, and resumed arranging his papers.
“American academics,” said the king, examining a table of figures, “love to visit and pay court. They sit and enquire of this or that episode in my past, but I know there’s only one question they really want answered. Being Americans, they are forward, and they eventually find the gall to ask about the business.”
“Yeahhh,” he drawled. “You know. The nephews-business. The princes. The sprogs in the Tower whose assassination I am widely accused of organising … So anyway, when the forward Yanks ask me about the poor truncated squits, do you know how I reply, Mr Scipio? I cackle and turn all malevolent like the actor in the old film of Shakespeare’s play and I say … NOT TELLING!”
Scipio realised that his jaw had dropped somewhat in the last minute or two.
Had Richard murdered the young King Edward V and his brother? Had he caused them to be murdered? No-one would ever know for sure unless …
“Has Your Majesty not considered the possibility that the boys will one day be re-born? And that they will then be able to bear witness before all as to what befell them?”
“Of course I’ve considered the possibility, man! I go to bed each night sweating over when the brats will turn up and tell on me. Then again, Inspector, how do you know they have not already been re-born, and that I have not commissioned their murder a second time?”
The King smiled, then giggled, and then puffed on his cigar once more.
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This week sees the publication in the United States of Darwin – A Graphic Biography, drawn by Simon Gurr and written by yours truly.
Originally produced in the UK for the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th of the publication of Origin of Species), the US edition has been fully translated into American. Which, for you Brits who’ve never had to do this sort of thing before is a surprisingly challenging task. More than just misspelling words like “colour” or “theatre”.
The only thing we want you to know about this is that it is a meticulously researched towering work of genius with frequent interludes of humour and is so compellingly readable that it hardly feels like education at all. If you have children between the ages of 8 and 92 you should consider buying a copy for them. If you do not at present have children, buy a copy just in case you somehow acquire some one day.
You may also wish to purchase a copy for yourself.
The U.S. National Center (sic.) for Science Education has put some preview pages here (PDF).
Here it is on the Smithsonian website.
Here it is on Amazon.com
Here it is on Amazon.co.uk even though they are cynical tax-dodging opportunists.
And here is some proper science which proves – PROVES!!! – that comics are educational.
Aaannnd me being interviewed about it here.
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If you have ever been a kid, then the chances are that at some point or another you may have wondered whether or not history is a big lie. It’s a common enough youthful suspicion; that all that stuff about Henry VIII, Julius Caesar and the War of Austrian Succession has all been made up for some reason you’ve not quite figured out.
You grow out of it, of course. As you get older you begin to realise that stuff does change and that we’re not living in an eternal present. By the time you’re my age, stuff that you remember like it was yesterday is the subject of Timewatch documentaries.
Now, though, it turns out that some scally really has been making up history. Not twisting or distorting or selectively quoting in order to hammer actual facts to fit some agenda, but actually making it all up.
At the beginning of the month it turned out that Wikipedia had deleted a 4,500 word entry on a completely fictional war between Portugal and India’s Maratha empire. Details here.
The entry had been there for five years. It had even been accorded featured article status at one point. This has profound implications, since for the majority of school and university students, Wikipedia is <mild exaggeration alert!> just about the only source they ever consult.
One day I’m not going to write the sf story about time-travel. Not actual, like time travel, but a sort of virtual time travel of the near future. See, I figure that the human hive mind and collaboration on the net can now fill in such a vast, vast amount of detail about the past that it will soon be possible to create a sort of immersive “virtual past” experience. You suit up and visit Victorian times, say, and wander around utterly authentic streets, talk to people whose clothing and mannerisms of speech are spot on, and even the smells are right.
And of course the point of any such story is that something has to go wrong. That’ll be the appearance of something utterly, stupidly anomalous then, and something deadly, obviously … (You make up the rest.)
So there you go, another free sf plot for someone to play with. Unless I get round to it first. Which I won’t.
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According to various reports (here’s one), Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to remove Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum.
So far, so predictable. Like most other Tories, Gove believes that school history lessons should be about Kings and Queens and the British Empire and probably the speeches of Winston Churchill and other great men (and not many women).
Actually, kids should spend more time learning about kings and queens as it’s the easiest way for them to get a sense of chronology, which is the single most important thing kids need to get from school history. They should also learn about the British empire; the empire helps explain to kids why their classmates’ ethnic origins are from all over the world.
This probably isn’t how a bumptious Tory minister would see it, though.
History teaching hasn’t been very well served by the left/liberals either. School history’s obsession with Nazis is particularly cowardly; we can all agree that Nazis were, like, evil, and we mustn’t let it happen again, right? Well yeah, but most of history isn’t nearly so clear-cut and simple. Teaching Hitler again and again is a disgraceful cop-out. Way easier than, say, the empire, or the British civil wars.
Mary Seacole is a different problem. A few years ago one of my children came home from primary school and announced that the teacher has said Mrs Seacole was a far more historically important figure than Florence Nightingale.
Mrs Seacole is not a figure of any historical significance in the conventional sense. She didn’t start or lead any movement, wasn’t involved in politics, never had any power over anything, didn’t invent or innovate anything.
Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, was a pioneering feminist and social reformer who was hugely influential throughout her life. The effectiveness of her nursing in the Crimea is disputed, but she did more than anyone else to establish nursing as a secular profession. She also deserves more recognition for her ground-breaking use of statistics. She succeeded of course because she was a white woman from a wealthy background with personal access to the great and good. Sorry, but that’s how it was.
In summary: Mary Seacole, nee Grant (1805-1881) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a white British army officer and a creole mother. She had a huge appetite for adventure and travelled extensively. During the Crimean War (1854-56) she travelled to the war zone and opened a restaurant and eating house, catering for the troops, with extensive stocks of posh grub and booze for the officers. Following various battles she tended to wounded men and after she ended up penniless at the war’s end, they clubbed together to raise money for her back at home.
Seacole has been bigged up in some circles as a pioneering nurse. On the right wing of the argument, she’s a person of no importance who wasn’t, ahem, even properly black.
Actually read her memoir for the racial prejudice she encountered from Americans for being even slightly black. This was a woman who knew all about racism.
What’s curious is that both the pro- and anti-Seacole factions both display a massive lack of understanding of what she actually was, and the context in which she lived. This is also clear from her memoirs. (Get them from Project Gutenberg).
Any military historian can set you right on this, too.
Mary Seacole was one of those female camp-followers who were known at various times as sutlers or victuallers. A person who follows the army and makes a living supplying soldiers with food, drink, tobacco and other small luxuries. During the very unusual periods when there were large numbers of casualties, they often mucked in and helped to nurse injured men.
In the French army they were known as vivandières or cantinières and by the time of the Crimean war they even had their own uniforms. Time and again, captions to Roger Fenton’s photos of these French women describe them as nurses. They were not. They were one-woman convenience stores.
Mary Seacole was the same, only on a larger scale. But she did also nurse the wounded, and did have some knowledge of traditional and herbal remedies which she had learned from her mother. Thanks to her nursing and her restaurant, the soldiers thought she was wonderful and she became a minor celebrity back in Britain after the war’s end.
You can see how she’s emerged from obscurity in recent years. If you’re of African-Caribbean heritage it’s great to have an actual Jamaican heroine who’s not in some way connected with slavery. You don’t want your entire history defined by slavery, do you?
If you want to remove her from the National Curriculum, preumably you believe – as most Tories undoubtedly do – that the proper study of history is of kings and queens and past glories and great men and women.
There is another way of coming at it, though, and that’s to say that the study of history should equally be about individuals of all ranks, colours and classes in the context of their own times. In that sense, Seacole’s remarkable adventures, her undoubted courage and her larger-than-life personality make her a good hook to hang all manner of social, sexual, racial and political history on. This was a strong woman of great character who made her way in a man’s world.
You can’t teach kids a lot of history in schools. The best you can hope to do is to give them a sense of chronology and to fire up their enthusiasm with some good stories, and Seacole’s story is a good one. Keep her on the curriculum if you want, but please don’t tell my kids (or anyone else’s) that she had a greater influence on history than Florence Nightingale. It is her very ordinariness that makes her remarkable and interesting.
History Today ran an authoritative attack on the modern Seacole industry a few months ago here.
Operation Black Vote have a very sensible piece about the controversy here.
Aaaannd there’s an online petition to keep her on the curriculum here.
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