Thursday, 27 January 2011

Human snails

Ever since the 1930 Road Traffic Act, which abolished the 20mph speed limit for cars but kept it for those pulling trailers, caravans have been vilified as “sheet-metal slugs” and “human snails”. It doesn’t help that they have traditionally had such unsuitably speedy names as Sprinter, Hurricane, Rapide and Cyclone. Or that they all come in that ponderous, semi-bulbous shape - ironically, a product of the discovery of aerodynamic streamlining in the 1920s.

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 cafĂ© 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

The crisp at the crossroads

In 1970 the architectural critic Reyner Banham wrote a celebrated New Society essay called ‘The Crisp at the Crossroads’. A champion of the serious study of consumer ephemera, Banham gave the humble crisp the sort of attention his colleagues reserved for buildings by Le Corbusier. His theme was the transformation of the crisp from marginal pub fodder into mass-marketed, multi-flavoured snack.

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

The banana returns

It was the first winter after the end of the Second World War, and the children of Britain were about to receive a late Christmas present. On 30 December 1945 a Fyffe ship, the Tilapa, arrived in Avonmouth from Kingston, Jamaica, loaded with a consignment of ten million bananas. Hundreds of children, most of whom had never seen a banana before, were there to greet it. As the ship docked, a crew member threw a yellow banana on to the quayside, where it was caught by the ten-year-old daughter of a dock worker. It was the first banana to reach Britain since 1940.

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.

Mundane quote for the day:

Farewell to long lunches
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

A history of the world in 1 object

I found this quote in Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, which I share with you just in case you’re one of the 23 people in Britain who didn’t get it as a Christmas present. It’s about the famous Spanish coin ‘pieces of eight’, the first truly global currency, which was produced in the 1570s and had spread across the world by the end of the century. Unfortunately this caused rampant inflation in Spain and a shortage of silver as it all went to pay for foreign goods and the upkeep of Empire. There was a lot of discussion among Spaniards about how their riches seemed more apparent than real. This is an unnamed writer in 1600 on the groupthink of speculation and the often illusory nature of wealth:

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

A brief history of the bus shelter

Bus shelters were once boringly functional affairs, built solely by local councils. Some were iron-and-glass edifices covered in peeling municipal green paint; others were made of brick; some in rural areas even had thatched roofs. Then in 1969, two advertising billboard companies, More O’Ferrall and London and Provincial, joined together to form a company called Adshel. The idea behind the new firm was simple: Adshel would supply bus shelters to local authorities for nothing, in return for the right to display advertising on them. In the early 1970s, it began installing its first shelters in Leeds, which is why the Adshel bus shelters in Leeds are still numbered “0001”. The ads were displayed in “6-sheet” panels - now universally known as “Adshels”, whether they adorn shelters or other places like supermarkets and motorway service stations.

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

Saturday, 1 January 2011

On new year's day

‘The nineteenth-century revival [of Christmas] did little for the New Year, although the exchange of good wishes recovered its respectability. One might stay up on New Year’s Eve for a midnight toast, or make resolutions for self-improvement; revellers gathered in Trafalgar Square to see in the New Year and frolic in the fountains – a pleasure now forbidden on grounds of safety – but 1 January was an ordinary working day. However, in Scotland, which for long paid little or no attention to Christmas, the New Year was and remains a great occasion, being completely untainted by popery. By the Bank Holiday Act 1971 New Year’s Day was recognized as a Bank Holiday in Scotland, but in England it did not attain that status till 1974. Since then, however, many companies have determined that it is not worth their while to resume work during the intervening week, much to the disgust and envy of journalists, who enjoy no such extended holiday.’

From The Oxford Companion to the Year, eds Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Stevens