Sunday, 29 November 2009

Dear Blue Peter

I’ve been enjoying Dear Blue Peter (ed. Biddy Baxter), a collection of letters and emails received by the Blue Peter Correspondence Unit since it began in 1962. At its peak in the 1980s, the programme had an average weekly postbag of seven thousand letters. There are some lovely, touching letters from child viewers, and from parents who write in to say how much the programme means to their children. There are also some rather strange letters from grown-ups who seem to watch the programme primarily to get angry. The assigning of dark significance to idiosyncratic details, the humourless taking of offence, the suffocating earnestness … needless to say, students of the blogosphere will feel right at home. Here is a brief selection of the letters.

Dear Peter
I liked when you tried to ride a killer whale. I would like to see you try to skin dive and kill a shark. I have liked everything that Blue Peter has done especially that fort that Val made from lollypop sticks
Yours faithfully,
Ronald, Falkirk (1969)

Dear Miss Singleton,
Do please stop doing your hair as if you were a young girl. It is unbecoming, undignified & stupid – it makes you look like one of those cheap flappers.
I often wonder what the Royal Family think about it? Do please look your age when appearing.
Yours hopefully,
HWCC, Sussex (1972)

The Editor, Radio Times
Dear Sir
There is much to admire in Blue Peter but yesterday it reached the depths of inanity with the preposterous celebration of the birthday of two cats whose appearance has never been more than minimal and whose indifference to the proceedings are monumental … (1983)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘I’ve always felt that civilised behaviour was generally on a knife-edge. I can remember feeling that at school assemblies when someone would get up there and start talking. I can just remember thinking, ‘Gosh, if a man on a length of wire, stark naked suddenly swung across the stage, what would happen?’ ‘What would happen if I ran up there and stuffed a banana in his face?’ – something like that. I could almost do it. I don’t know if there’s a sort of syndrome for that. But I just felt these people are all playing a certain game, terribly sort of straight and focused, but only inches away from insanity.’ – Michael Palin

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Not just here for the beer

A little piece I did for the FT about Watneys Red Barrel, the allegedly appalling taste of which is now lost to history:

In 1936, the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club complained to the London brewery, Watneys, that its beer was not keeping until the weekend, when most of its customers came in. Watneys, which had been working on a prototype beer called Red Barrel intended for troops in India, swiftly redirected it to the less exotic surroundings of leafy Surrey. Red Barrel was a new type of beer: keg.

Unlike traditional cask beer, keg is no longer alive and fermenting: it is chilled, pasteurised and pumped with carbon dioxide to make it last longer. At first, keg was sold in just a few clubs that opened only at weekends. In the 1950s, however, it was rolled out to ordinary pubs, and by the mid-1970s, three-quarters of Britain’s pubs served no cask ale, only keg beer and lager.

Since brewers controlled most British pubs at this time, keg beer was often the only option for pub-goers. Brewers liked keg because it was easy to keep, but most customers either disliked it or were indifferent. The slogan “I’m only here for the beer”, used to sell Double Diamond in the early 1970s, was rarely true of any keg beer.

Watneys Red Barrel was the most reviled brand of all. Many drinkers hated not only its taste but the marketing that accompanied it, from irritating advertising jingles to entire pub refits. In 1971, in a misguided search for radical chic, Watneys urged beer-drinkers to “Join the Red Revolution”. Pubs were painted corporate red, bar staff wore red socks and posters featured lookalikes of Chairman Mao, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro supping Watneys.

That same year, the campaign against keg beer began with the foundation of Camra: the Campaign for Real Ale. Camra attacked the “mass-produced fizzy pap” of keg bitter and especially Watneys, which it nicknamed “Grotneys”. The invention of keg beer was an important moment in the industrialisation of the beer industry. But thanks to the efforts of more discerning drinkers, it failed to kill off cask ale – as shown today by the thriving number of real ale pubs and beer festivals, and the continued strength of Camra.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Ah, lipsmaggers!’ says Professor Stanley Unwin. ‘Elbone on bard, glistling glarps of Brewmastery frop and malty. Downit gulley’n throcus. Ah, deepjoy! As I always say, for the best picket in a blewflade – Flowers Brewmaster.’ (Advert in the Daily Express, 24 July 1962)

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Packaging wot talks

For a while now I’ve been intrigued by the way that packaging has started talking to us, addressing the consumer like a friend in the cause of a very modern business phenomenon: the brand that isn’t a brand, that can accumulate its millions by remaining cool and cuddly and non-corporate. Here are a few examples I’ve collected over the last few years:

‘A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the Fryers at Burts. Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle! But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is Palm Oil Cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to Orangutans.’ (Burts crisps)

‘We’re delighted you’ve decided to treat yourself to the natural, healthy goodness of goats’ milk.’ (Delamere Dairy goats’ milk)

‘We developed this grease-proof pouch after a customer complained their Danish stuck to the napkin!’ (Pret a Manger Danish pastry)

‘It takes a steady hand to make a really good cappuccino. Just to be sure we weigh about one in three.’ (Pret a Manger coffee cup)

‘What is an innocent smoothie? Well, since you ask …’

‘Once opened consume within 4 days or we’ll come round and get you.’

‘We like talking: If you’re passing and you fancy a chat, we’re here at Fruit Towers …’

‘One portion of this smoothie will provide you with the same amount of antioxidants as your average 5 fruit and vegetables a day. But this doesn’t mean you’re excused from eating some nice veggies with your dinner tonight.’ (All the above seen on Innocent Smoothie bottles)

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The noblest prospect in the world, it has been well said, is London viewed from the suburbs on a clear winter’s evening. The stars are shining in the heavens, but there is another firmament spread out below, with its millions of bright lights glittering at our feet. Line after line sparkles, like the trails left by meteors, cutting and crossing one another till they are lost in the haze of the distance. Over the whole there hangs a livid cloud, bright as the monster city were in flames, and looking afar off like the sea by night, made phosphorescent by the million creatures dwelling within it.’ (Henry Mayhew, 1849)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Decoding the decade

This piece by me appeared in the Guardian last Saturday:

I am pleased to announce that, after many years spent at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, I have finally mastered the art of time travel. I am not at liberty to say exactly how, but I managed to scramble through one of those wormholes in the space-time continuum and I’m actually writing this column in November 2039. We’ve got it all here in the future, you know: teleporting, thinking robots, space elevators. The only slightly disconcerting thing about the 2030s is seeing the decade I have just left behind being recycled as part of the nostalgia industry.

For instance, there is a chain of “noughties” theme pubs here, called Strictlys, where all the bar staff have to wear stick-on goatee beards and they play Coldplay on a loop. Then there are the digital retro parties, where everyone has a good laugh at those primitive iPhones we put up with in the 2000s, and we all wonder how on earth we got through the long winter evenings with only 200 TV channels. And you only have to see people getting wistful about when the whole family used to watch The X Factor on a Saturday night to realise what a strange and omnivorous human urge nostalgia is.

Not that remembering the 2000s is all about wallowing pleasurably in kitsch. The New-New Labour politicians of the 2030s have been falling over each other to distance themselves from their New Labour predecessors by constantly reciting the mantra, “We must never go back to the failed policies of the noughties.” Strangely, though, they don’t mean the unregulated financial system which caused the money markets to crash and turned the bankers into folk devils at the end of 2008. Instead, one moment of ignominy gets mentioned ad nauseam: the winter of discontent of 2009, when the intransigence of all those public sector workers who resisted market “modernisation” caused the worst recession in living memory. Everyone here remembers the noughties as the dark ages to which we must never return – rather like the 1970s in your day, in fact.

In short, we in 2039 are suffering from a nasty bout of what Ferdinand Mount, way back in 2006, called “decaditis”. This tendency to package decades as unified entities is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it takes a while for each decade to accumulate its own set of historical cliches. At the end of 2009, for instance, no one really knew what the noughties stood for. There were a few brave efforts at instant retrospectives, but people’s hearts weren’t really in it. Every one could see that the decade was just a series of contingent moments held together arbitrarily by the Gregorian calendar.

You may remember a similar thing happened with the 1970s, which took some time to become crystallised in popular mythology. In a book about the decade published in 1980, Christopher Booker referred to it as “a kind of long, rather dispiriting interlude”, a merely transitional era with no distinctive characteristics. We had to wait a few years before the 1970s assumed such symbolic importance in the now familiar Thatcherite narrative of postwar national decline and our failed experiment in social-democratic politics. The problem with this kind of decadology is that it treats the past as a cautionary tale in which the ending seems inevitable, and thus views our forebears as stupid or naïve for not seeing the writing on the wall. The 1970s, or the noughties, come to seem as distant and alien as Pompeii, with nothing to teach us except how much more enlightened we are today.

It isn’t read much in 2039 but there is a novel called 1984, in which the hero, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth rewriting old editions of The Times, casting the previous versions into the “memory hole”, a chute leading to an incinerator. What the author, George Orwell, failed to realise is that in the future there would be no need for such censorship, because of our insatiable appetite for decadology and its infinite capacity for inducing selective memory.

Every so often here, an older person might dimly recall something about “bankers’ bonuses” or “sub-prime mortgages”, and for a brief moment it acts like a Proustian madeleine, a secret corridor into a forgotten past, just like snatches of the song “Oranges and Lemons” do for Winston Smith in 1984. But mention these phrases to anyone under 40 and you might as well be speaking in Latin.

Admittedly, one or two maverick historians are starting to put together an alternative history of the noughties. They point out that the economic crisis at the end of the decade led to a brief questioning of market fundamentalism and its relentless pursuit of growth, consumption and speculation at all costs. But then the market fundamentalists fought back and managed to present their version of the future as the only form of progress, so that everyone who disagreed with them came to seem like a dinosaur. Personally, I don’t think this alternative version of the noughties will ever catch on. As some people were pointing out even back in 2009, decadology has very little to do with history.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

We have recommendations for you

As someone who regularly buys presents for children on Amazon, I am familiar with the vague feelings of 21st-century anomie attendant on receiving emails beginning ‘as someone who has expressed an interest in the Harry Potter interactive wand, we thought you would like to know …’ or ‘as someone who has enjoyed the High School Musical Annual 2009, you may also be interested in purchasing …’ Recently this email marketing campaign has taken a more troubling turn. I received today an email from the online retailer identifying me as ‘someone who has expressed an interest in male grooming’ and inviting me to purchase a number of items including the BaByliss for Men Automatic Stubble Rechargeable Grooming Tool and the David Beckham Intimately for Men Gift Set containing Eau de Toilette and Body Wash, at the allegedly tempting discounted price of £17.99.

Reader, if you could see me as I type this you would immediately realise what has thus far escaped the Amazonians, which is that I have absolutely no interest in male grooming. There may be a small number of things in this world I am less interested in than male grooming – the properties of belly-button lint, the insides of an internal combustion engine, the love lives of the cast members of Hollyoaks etc. – but suffice it to say that the list is not long. I cannot imagine why Amazon thinks otherwise. I think I did once buy a replacement foil for an electric razor from them, but I hardly think this qualifies me as a Beau Brummell for the noughties. Perhaps they are confusing me with the Joe Moran who is the Brad Pitt of the Cornish Coast (see elsewhere on this blog, passim).

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The post is fat with appeals and bargains. Too much to support, too multitudinous to purchase, their computerized headings address me intimately. But I am not to be bought by their matiness. Soon their oral squeals will be on the telephone. “Good morning, Mr Blythe, my name is Joanne and I want to interest you in our Windows and Doors.” The young voice quakes momentarily as it braces itself for rudeness. No thank you, Joanne. Politeness costs nothing, as mother said, though it isn’t quite true when it comes to Windows and Doors.’ – Ronald Blythe

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Toast to a pint-sized polymorph

Another one from the bottom drawer. I wrote this little cultural history of the beer glass for one of those two-part supplements they have in the Saturday Guardian and Observer (this one was on summer pubs).

Most drinkers probably think of their beer glass as a fairly functional object, designed mainly to convey the liquid on its important journey from the pub table to their mouths. But you can’t separate the history of beer from the history of the beer glass.

Until the end of the Victorian era, pub-goers mostly drank out of pewter tankards, which hid the bits of sediment that used to float around in their beer. Then two things happened: dingy pubs began to be better lit, and modern filtration methods started to produce a clearer drink. As newly enlightened drinkers took more notice of the clarity of their pint, the modern beer glass was born.

The first mass-produced beer glass – the 10-sided, handled pint mug – arrived with the consolidation of the brewing industry in the 1920s, and became famous when the Brewers’ Society used it in its “beer is best” adverts in the 1930s. But after the war, it was nudged out by the dimpled beer mug, made of thick glass patterned with indentations, resembling a hand grenade. This design change fitted in with changing drinking habits: dark mild had acquired an unfashionable image as an old working-class man’s drink, and its substitute, amber bitter, looks lovely in the refracted light of a dimpled glass.

Then, in the 1960s, the dimpled mug went into a long, terminal decline because (or so the brewers told us) drinkers preferred a lighter, straighter glass. The invention of a new type of glass, with a bulge about an inch from the top, also solved the perennial problem of straight glasses – their propensity to chip near the rim when being washed together. This was the Nonik (no nick) glass.

The straight/dimpled glass distinction is shrouded in mythology. I have heard northerners claim the dimpled glass as a southern affectation – southerners presumably being too soft to get their whole hand round a glass – and I have heard southerners claim it is quirkily northern, perhaps unconsciously influenced by the scene in the 1971 film Get Carter, when London hard man Michael Caine asks for a pint of bitter in a Newcastle pub “in a thin glass”.

A more interesting question is why there have been so few beer glass types in Britain, when the Germans and Belgians, for instance, have countless branded glasses for every type of drink. In George Orwell’s (non-existent) ideal pub, The Moon Under Water, he noted approvingly that they “never make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass”. Along with glass and pewter mugs, they had some of the strawberry-pink china pots that practically died out after the first world war. While grudgingly acknowledging that this was because most people like to see their drink, Orwell declared that “beer tastes better out of china”.

Beer glass innovations have generally been propelled by the brewing industry. In the 1960s, for example, there were various proprietary moulds used by keg beer manufacturers such as Worthington E and Watneys Red Barrel in an effort to create a national brand image. Oddly shaped glasses thus came to be linked, in the minds of real ale purists, with the theme pubs and fizzy pap that brewers were trying to foist on them. Another factor is that the British drinker likes be served a full pint, and this is easier to calibrate in a no-frills glass. Only in Britain, one feels, would you have the slightly bigger “pint to line” glasses so popular at beer festivals and in cask ale pubs.

But no one can agree about how the shape of the glass impacts on the most important thing: taste. Some say a thin glass is better because the temperature of the beer rises more slowly in it; others say a thick glass and handle are preferable because the hand doesn’t warm the beer. And Orwell swore that beer tasted better out of china. But good luck with finding a pub that will still serve you a pint of bitter in a china mug.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Family Britain

I was delighted to be sent an advance copy of David Kynaston’s Family Britain 1951-1957, the latest volume of his magisterial survey of Britain in the post-war, pre-Thatcher years – although I would have bought it anyway, because the first volume, Austerity Britain, was my favourite book of 2007. Like its predecessor, Family Britain offers some beautifully thick and humane descriptions of everyday life from our recent past. How can you not like a book that manages to turn the memoirs of Noddy Holder into a rich historical archive? Every so often Kynaston interrupts the narrative with these wonderfully evocative lists:

Dabitoff, Windolene, Dura-glit, Brasso, Brillo, Rinso, Lifebuoy, Silvikrin, Amm-i-dent, Delrosa Rose Hip Syrup, Mr Therm, Put-U-Up, Toni Perms, hair-nets, head-scarves, Jaeger, Ladybird T-shirts, rompers, knicker elastic, cycle clips, brogues, Clark's sandals, Start-rite (that haunting rear view of two small children setting out on life's path, Moss Bros, tweed jackets, crests on blazers, ties as ID, saluting AA patrolmen, driving gloves, Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, Sunbeam Talbot, starting handles, indicator wings, Triumph, Norton, sidecars, Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer, trolley-buses, Green Line, I-Spy, Hornby Dublo, Tri-ang, Dinky, Meccano, Scalextric, Subbuteo, Sarah Jane dolls, Plasticine, Magic Robot, jumping jacks, cap guns, Capstans, Player’s Navy Cut, Senior Service, Passing Clouds, cigarette boxes, Dagenham Girl Pipers, Saturday-morning cinema, Uncle Mac, Nellie the Elephant, The Laughing Policeman, fountain pens, Quink, napkin rings, butter knives, vol-au-vents, Brown Windsor soup, sponge cakes, Welgar Shredded Wheat, Garibaldis (squashed flies), Carnation, Edam, eat up your greens, Sun-Pat, Marmite sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, semolina, shape, sucking oranges through sugar cubes, Tizer, Quosh, Kia-ora Suncrush, dandelion and burdock, Tom Thumb drops, Sherbert Fountains, Spangles, Trebor Chews, barley twists, blackjacks, fruit salads, aniseed balls, pineapple chunks, Big Chief Dream Pipe, flying saucers, traffic-light lollipops, gobstoppers …

I wonder what a similar list from the noughties would look like:

Activia single pots, Jamie Oliver, Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor, Kettle Chips, Innocent Smoothies, KFC Bargain Buckets, goatee beards, low-slung jeans, Ugg boots, peasant skirts, iTunes, Amazon, Boden clothes, beanie hats, Who Do You Think You Are, iPlayer, Twitter, wristbands, full-zip hoodies, Caffe Nero, farmers’ markets, 3 for 2s at Waterstone’s, Radio 2, Cath Kidston tents, VW Kombi camper vans, Nintendo Wii, Doctor Who, High School Musical, Festivals, carveries, Top Gear, Ant and Dec, misery memoirs …

No, it doesn’t really work.

Mundane quote for the day:
‘May you be dull –
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.’ – Philip Larkin, ‘Born Yesterday’

Thursday, 5 November 2009

English roundabout

Here is a little piece I did for the FT about the British reinvention of the roundabout. Limitations of space prevented me from mentioning the classic song by XTC, 'English Roundabout', allegedly inspired by the magic roundabout in the band’s hometown of Swindon: ‘And all the horns go “beep! beep!” / All the people follow like sheep … I have had enough, / I just want to get out / Let me off o’ this English roundabout’.

The traffic roundabout first arrived in Paris and New York in the 1900s. Britain was a late developer, only getting round to building its first one at Hyde Park Corner in 1926. But these early “traffic circles” were fairly anarchic. The constant weaving of cars caused frequent hold-ups and accidents, and in heavy traffic they would clog up completely.

Then, in 1966, the British unleashed the full potential of the roundabout: a new law stipulated that vehicles approaching the roundabout had to give way to traffic already on it. The Road Research Laboratory near Slough conducted a series of studies of traffic flow at roundabouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s that made the British the leading authorities in the field. One of the fruits of this research was a uniquely British invention: the mini-roundabout, which began to appear on roads in 1967, and which greatly increased traffic capacity at smaller junctions.

The case for roundabouts soon became compelling. They cut out unnecessary delays and so were less congested than junctions with traffic lights, and they eliminated one of the most dangerous turning movements: right or left into oncoming traffic, with the potential for lethal side-on impacts. The roundabout with offside priority became one of Britain’s most successful international exports – at one point in the 1990s, France was building them at a rate of about a thousand a year.

It seems odd, then, that the roundabout has become the bête noire of the British motorist in a way that traffic lights have not. Perhaps this is because it is the landscape feature most associated with new towns such as Milton Keynes, which are often unfairly dismissed as boring and soulless. There is even an urban myth that car tyres wear out quicker in Milton Keynes than anywhere else in the country because locals drive round the roundabouts too fast. New towns are a traffic engineer’s dream: they can start from scratch without worrying about property lines or existing road layouts. So naturally the traffic engineer with a blank canvas builds the safest form of traffic junction: the roundabout.


The Argleton story is moving fast. My dad found this in an old Francoist newspaper, ABC, which he reads to improve his Spanish:

La principal teoría al respecto es que Argleton fue añadida deliberadamente al mapa para rastrear con mayor eficiencia a compañías que copian los datos de los mapas violando los términos de copyright. "Puede ser un error deliberado para que la gente no copie los mapas. A veces se colocan calles ficticias en los mapas para que no sean robados, pero nunca lo había visto en Google Maps", concluyó Joe Moran, académico de la Universidad John Moores.

I didn’t realise I was so fluent.

Monday, 2 November 2009

I remember Argleton

Argleton, the place not far from here that exists on Google maps and nowhere else and on which I have blogged before, has now come to the attention of the national media:

I did explain to the nice reporter from the Telegraph that all I knew about Argleton I had gleaned from Roy Bayfield’s intrepid explorations in the badlands north of Liverpool on his blog ( Still she managed to spatchcock my inane musings on the matter into an uninformative but not too embarrassing quote. Strangely, my more esoteric references to Alberto Manguel’s classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places failed to make the cut. I note that I am described as a ‘map expert’, which I am sure will delight real map experts everywhere.

Apparently there is now a ‘Save Argleton’ campaign gathering pace on the net. Tell me where the barricades are and I’m there …

Martin Wainwright, who already gets maximum respect from this blog’s posse for writing a biography of the Morris Minor, has just published a book about my neck of the woods, True North: In Praise of England’s Better Half, which I’m enjoying. There is no mention of Argleton but plenty of good stuff about beef dripping and fish’n’chip shops. I liked the account of his Uncle Chris, a vicar in Bradford who explains why people there never take their overcoats off: ‘If it isn’t raining, it soon will be,’ he says. Wainwright also has a blog on the book ( which is well worth a look, as is his intriguingly titled partner blog Martin’s Moths (, which sadly now seems to be hibernating.