Thursday, 27 January 2011
Yet your chances of being stuck behind a caravan are surprisingly small. They mainly come out in the summer months, and their favoured habitats are the holiday roads like the M5 going down to the West Country, or the narrow lanes of South-West Wales and East Anglia, where caravan sites cluster on the coast.
The man chiefly responsible for this seasonal swarm is Sam Alper, who built his first caravan in 1947 entirely out of wartime salvage, using the undercarriage from a Spitfire and a roof made from barrage balloon material. A year later he designed the classic Sprite, an affordable (£199) caravan light enough to be towed by a small saloon. Alper’s talent was to recognise that postwar families were companionate enough to make do with less space and fewer partitions. The Sprite pioneered the bunk bed for children, an obvious space-saving idea that soon caught on in homes.
Alper may have domesticated the caravan, but his own adventures in it were quite intrepid. He fearlessly dragged his Sprite across continents, keen to prove how well it performed over long distances on terrible road surfaces. In 1951, he won an intercontinental rally from Frankfurt to Florence, clocking up 4400 miles in 11 days. Still more inspiring was his sprint around the Mediterranean the following year, covering 11,000 miles and 25 countries in just over a month – cannily, with a newspaper reporter in the passenger seat. In the Sahara, tribesmen attacked their Sprite, while more affable ones helped them dig it out after it got trapped in the sand. As well as turning Alper into a celebrity, the trip achieved its main aim: however cheap and flimsy it seemed, the Sprite had to be taken seriously. Another great caravanning evangelist was Alper’s friend, a swashbuckling, high-society dentist called Ralph Lee, who in 1958 steered his caravan through Norwegian dirt roads all the way to the Arctic Circle – and founded the Order of Bluenosed Caravanners for those who achieved the same feat.
Caravanning truly became a mass activity in the 1960s – a decade when the Caravan Club’s membership doubled and Sprite’s famous Alpine, with its distinctive green waistband, became the bestselling model of all time. Apart from the rise in car ownership, a key factor in this success was the decline of arable farming, which meant that it was often more profitable for farmers to grow caravans than crops. Caravanning introduced mass tourism to far-flung parts of Britain like Devon and Cornwall for the first time. By 1970, caravans made up one-fifth of all holiday accommodation in the UK, a figure that has remained broadly the same ever since.
Soon, though, the caravan-baiters seemed to have history on their side. The OPEC oil crisis of 1973, the introduction of VAT and rising inflation hit caravan sales hard. The seasonal nature of the industry had already forced Alper to diversify into other businesses like the Little Chef roadside café chain – and in 1982 his firm, Caravans International, went bust. In the era of cheap flights and last-minute package deals, caravanning seemed plodding and stay-at-home. As cars became ever more powerful and motorway speeds crept up, trailers were too slow even for the slow lane.
In the 1990s, when everything from speed cameras to traffic cones fuelled the modern motorist’s persecution complex, caravanners were caught in the crossfire. The Anti-Caravan Club, formed in 1992 after an advert in Private Eye, demanded that these “eyesores” be stored in already despoiled areas like power stations and sewage works. It called for a compulsory road test for caravanners and a daylight curfew so that they could only drive their trailers from dusk until dawn. At its peak, the ACC had 27,000 members.
But the anti-caravanning lobby seems to have gone rather quiet lately. Outside of the motoring programmes, few car drivers can muster up any resentment towards their trailer-towing cousins. Modern-day caravans, which have sorted out the traditional problems of under-braking and snaking, nip along at a fair old pace. And in any case, we seem to be rediscovering the virtues of slowness and localism over speed and distance.
Caravanning will probably never be trendy, because its devotees are creatures of habit and tradition. One reason that those dinky, rake-backed caravan “pods” have never really caught on is that the market is buyer-led. Caravans are only built when a client orders one, and caravanners are practical sorts who want the headroom. There has always been an uneasy relationship between the conventional “tuggers” and the parvenu “chuggers” – the camper van drivers who have somehow managed to nurture a reverse public image as hippyish free spirits. Caravanning seems to be perennially caught between the camaraderie of an exclusive club and the egalitarianism of mass consumerism.
Wednesday, 19 January 2011
According to Banham, before the 1960s the crisp had the same purpose as a Babycham: respectable women could ask for a bag of crisps instead of a beer in a pub, thus remaining ladylike without dropping out of a round. Then, in 1962, Golden Wonder entered the market, building the largest crisp factory in the world in Widnes, and ending the 40-year dominance of Smith’s Crisps almost overnight. Golden Wonder introduced ready-salted crisps in direct competition to Smith's, whose packets had little blue twists of greaseproof paper full of salt. This led to the 'flavour wars', with Smith's and Golden Wonder battling to produce new varieties such as cheese and onion, salt and vinegar and smoky bacon. By the end of the 1960s, the crisp market had doubled.
In the year Banham wrote his essay, Golden Wonder invented the Cheesy Wotsit, thus paving the way for what the industry calls ‘mimics’: crisps made of powdered potato, maize or starch, re-formed into shapes such as hoops, monsters or Space Invaders. Some were aerated, so eating them didn't seem to fill you up. The high percentage of air in any bag led to the belief that they were unfattening, which has since been exposed as a myth.
Now the crisp is at another crossroads. In one direction we see the long-term decline of the bog-standard crisp; in another direction, we see the rise of ‘premium’ crisps such as Burts and Kettle Chips. As Banham pointed out, crisps are a non-food, with little nutritional value, so eating them has to be a theatrical, symbolic act. The posh crisps have this ‘audio-masticatory’ appeal in spades. They are solid and crunchy. Eating them is hard work; they do not melt in the mouth like Quavers or Ringos. Their bags have minimalist designs with restrained colours, and they seem pleasingly crackly.
Posh crisps also carefully target middle-class food obsessions with more exotic ingredients, although much of this is down to adding adjectives - instead of ‘salt and vinegar’ you have ‘sea salt and malt vinegar’, and instead of ‘cheese and onion’ you have ‘mature Cheddar and red onion’.
They don’t fool me.
Monday, 17 January 2011
Most of the bananas were green and unripe and meant to be stored for a week before being distributed all over the West Country, but only to under-18s. A popular wartime song, by the bandleader Harry Roy, had asked “When Can I Have a Banana Again?” The arrival of the Tilapa was a symbol – unfortunately, a premature one - of the end of shortages and the return of good times. Many children had to be shown how to eat a banana, like an ice-cream cone rather than corn on the cob.
Ever since refrigerated ships initiated the global banana trade at the end of the nineteenth century, this fruit’s tropical origins, and its susceptibility to disease and shortages, had made it an exotic object. The words “have a banana” were popularly inserted into the music-hall song “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, giving it free advertising which would have been the envy of any other fruit. In the interwar period, London’s Tin Pan Alley tossed out songs like “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana”, and dance halls held banana nights.
The banana went on to divide East and West in the Cold War, for it was rarely available behind the Iron Curtain. Nikita Khrushchev boasted that the Soviets could produce everything except bananas. As the Berlin Wall came down, West Germans pointedly threw bananas at the East Berliners pouring into the west. Despite being frowned upon by today’s low-carb diets, the banana is still one of the bestselling items in British supermarkets.
and other boozy pursuits!
Hail to the new age
of the desk potato,
strict hours of imprisonment
and eyesight tortured
by an impassive electronic screen. – Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch
Tuesday, 11 January 2011
The cause of the ruin of Spain is that riches ride on the wind, and have always so ridden in the form of contract deeds, of bills of exchange, of silver and gold, instead of goods that bear fruit and which, because of their greater worth, attract to themselves riches from foreign parts, and so our inhabitants are ruined. We therefore see that the reason for the lack of gold and silver money in Spain is that there is too much of it and Spain is poor because she is rich.
Oh dear. We really haven’t learnt very much in the last 411 years have we?
Mundane quote for the day: 'Money is one of those human creations that make concrete a sensation, in this case the sensation of wanting, as a clock does the sensation of passing time.' – James Buchan
Saturday, 8 January 2011
Bus-shelter ads really started to boom in the 1980s. In 1984 Adshel launched a campaign for a fictitious product called “Amy”. Market research revealed an impressive awareness of this imaginary product among the public – and since it could only have come from bus shelters, it proved the value of advertising in them. Then, in 1988, a new data system called OSCAR (Outdoor Site Classification and Audience Research) provided information on vehicle and pedestrian traffic for poster sites. This allowed advertisers to direct their campaigns at passing pedestrians and motorists as well as bus users. Bus shelters soon had illuminated posters and cantilevered roofs so the adverts could be seen by everyone.
Adshel and its rival firm JCDecaux now supply most of Britain’s bus shelters. The bus shelter is no longer just somewhere to wait for a bus; it has become a marketing opportunity. These two firms have built themselves into global brands – bus-shelter builders to the world. They are increasingly branching out into other types of street furniture, one of the fastest growing areas of the advertising industry. In a post-Thatcherite world in which local authorities contract out many of their public services to private companies, our towns and cities are being colonised by advert-laden objects – not just bus shelters but automatic toilets, benches and litter bins.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.’ - Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
Monday, 3 January 2011
This blog has long been interested in news stories that turn out not to be news at all – see the post for 7 August, ‘Not many dead’.
Over the slack period of Christmas and New Year there are always lots of these non-news stories. In fact there are often stories that are not only not news, they would only be news if the opposite were true. Let me explain.
On Christmas Day the BBC reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury had said in his Christmas message that the nation needed to get ‘closer to God’. It is of course reassuring that the Archbishop is fulfilling his job description, but it’s not really news. However, if he had said that we all needed to get closer to Beelzebub this Christmas, that would certainly have been news.
Similarly, on New Year’s Eve, the BBC reported on its hourly radio bulletins that Australians had already celebrated the new year. Given the global acceptance of Greenwich Mean Time and the way the world spins on its axis, it would only really be news if the Australians hadn’t actually celebrated the new year before us – although that news would be so worrying I don’t think I’d want to hear it.
Lord Reith famously wanted BBC news to avoid the strident voice and restless search for drama and human interest found in newspapers. A Good Friday news bulletin in 1930 simply stated: ‘There is no news tonight.’
This now seems very long ago.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines … The daily papers talk of everything except the daily … We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep.’ - Georges Perec
Saturday, 1 January 2011
From The Oxford Companion to the Year, eds Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Stevens