Here’s the story: I like rummaging through boxes of ephemera in bookshops and antiques markets, which is how I came across my original copy of the 1968 booklet Modern Buildings in Wessex by the architectural critic Stewart Brayne.
I bought it for 50p because of my interest in post-war buildings but soon discovered that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Among notes on schools and civic centres, there are entries concerning the work of émigré architect Hälmar Pölzig who built extensively in Wessex:
And that’s just the start…
* * *
I really do like ephemera.
And I really do like post-war buildings, especially as described by Ian Nairn.
Nairn’s London from 1966 is one of my very favourite books, especially this entry:
I also love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, Universal horror films, folk horror and all that eerie Scarred for Life TV from the 1970s and 80s.
I first wrote a version of this story 15 or more years ago, with a character inspired by Nikolaus Pevsner exploring the buildings of a backwater Somerset town. It was a rewrite of ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’, essentially, and didn’t quite click.
Somehow, though, it must have been locked away in the back of my brain, evolving and ripening, until a few weeks ago, I suddenly thought, oh, yeah, that’s how to do it.
It’s not just a short story – it’s an object, a work of pastiche.
I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, from the typography (like Nairn’s London, the body copy is set in Plantin) to the photos to the cover design.
I’ve only had 50 copies printed because, honestly, when you draw a Venn diagram of people who like Ian Nairn and those who like creeping horror, I don’t think the overlap is huge.
If you want a copy, get in touch. It’s got 20 pages and costs £5 delivered. Email me (email@example.com) or DM via Twitter (@MrRayNewman) to sort out payment and postage.
Some People is a little-known social realist film from 1962 that offers a glimpse of a post-war Britain rarely seen on screen. It is not set among northern terraces or the slums of the East End of London but on the docksides and gleaming new council estates of Bristol, the capital of the West Country.
When I moved to Bristol last year I wanted to get to know its culture and so asked around for tips on which novels and films best represent the city. Some People was one of the suggestions and after a little hunting I found a DVD released by Network in 2013.
It was lying on the coffee table when my then 69-year-old Dad visited and he recoiled at the sight.
“Is that… Is that Some People?”
“Oh, nothing,” he replied, still eyeing it with suspicion, and I knew there was a story to tell.
His reaction prompted me to watch the film sooner rather than later.
It was directed by Clive Donner who would make a name for himself with The Caretaker in 1963 and then head to Hollywood to make What’s New Pussycat? In 1965.
While Some People is clearly the work of a director finding his feet it is nonetheless an enjoyable drama about a teenager, Johnnie, played with charm and intensity by Ray Brooks, and his struggle to choose between straightening up or continuing a descent into delinquency.
Johnnie and his friends Bill (David Andrews) and Bert – a baby-faced David Hemmings – get into trouble racing their motorbikes along the Portway on the banks of the Avon and are banned from riding them which leaves them frustrated and deepens their boredom.
Then one night, while messing around in a church they’ve all but broken into, they are taken under the wing of Mr Smith, a local youth group organiser played by veteran British actor Kenneth More, who encourages them to form a pop group.
Bill rejects Mr Smith’s mentorship seeing in it an attempt to control him and breaks with Johnnie and Bert, falling in with a gang of hard-cases.
Then, fuelled by jealousy over his girlfriend’s attraction to Johnnie, Bill tries to sabotage his friend’s new found stability. It’s small stuff – squabbling and scrapping, hardly Marlon Brando territory – but that makes it feel all the more authentically British.
The film’s strengths are its cast, setting and its considerable charge of nostalgia.
Filmed entirely on location, it captures the reality of Bristol in the heat of post-Blitz reconstruction, half tumbledown harbour city, half planners’ dream.
A large part of the action takes place on the Lockleaze estate, high on windswept Purdown in the city’s northern suburbs.
St Mary Magdalene with St Francis church is one of the stars of the production – a mad modernist vision in concrete and stained glass that provides a surreal sci-fi backdrop to the boys’ antics. The church opened in 1956 and was typical of the space age houses of worship built on overspill estates all over the country in the post-war period.
Unfortunately, though it looked astonishing, it was plagued with structural problems and was demolished in 1994, which only adds to the value Some People holds as a record of a time and place.
Another particularly striking scene takes place in the Palace Hotel, an especially grand Victorian pub on Old Market. There Johnnie has a breakthrough conversation with his taciturn working class father played by Harry H. Corbett (whose Bristol accent, it must be said, ends up drifting to somewhere near Cork). Real pubs are rarely seen on film, especially in colour, and this is a particular lovely example – cast iron tables, a beaten up piano, everything dark with age, the aroma of smoke and stale beer positively wafting from the screen.
Those with an interest in public transport will thrill at the plentiful footage of the famous Bristol ‘Lodekka’ buses while aviation geeks will get a similar thrill from scenes of Mr Smith at work: when he isn’t encouraging young tearaways to play nicely together he is an engineer overseeing test flights of the Bristol 188 ‘Flaming Pencil’ supersonic jet.
Anneke Wills plays Mr Smith’s daughter, Anne, who has a teenage fling with Johnnie. His influence leads her to buy tight jeans which she further shrinks to fit in the bath. You’d think this scene a little ripe if it turned up in a modern period drama set in the 1960s but here it is charmingly authentic.
In general the film is a useful reminder that in 1962 kids were still wearing quiffs and leather jackets.
Passing scenes of dancehalls, espresso bars and roadside motorbike hangouts will also bring back memories for anyone who was on the scene in the 1960s. Less thrilling but no less evocative are the bus stations, council houses and cigarette factories where real life plays out between bouts of fun or violence. It isn’t Grim Out West, only a little grey, a little sparse, slow and sleepy.
If Some People has weaknesses they are the score – square rock’n’roll arranged by Ron Grainer and performed by local Shadows wannabes The Eagles – and the fact that it is effectively propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme which part-funded the production. I say ‘effectively’ because Bill, the rebel, delivers several stinging diatribes against it and, frankly, seems much cooler than Johnnie and his gang of goody-goodies.
Once I’d finally watched the film I was more curious than ever about Dad’s reaction and pressed him on it when we next went for a pint. With some reluctance he told me the story.
Like Johnnie, Bill and Bert, he and his 14-year-old friends on a Somerset council estate were often bored and got up to mischief. When it wasn’t joyriding, it was repeatedly breaking into the local CO-OP to steal cigarettes.
One night he returned home to find his father in a foul temper.
“Where have you been, boy?”
“In town to see Some People.”
“Oh, yeah? Some People? Well while you’ve been out, some bloody people have been here to see you.”
The people in this case were the police and Dad ended up with a criminal record.
After that, like Johnnie in the film, he started a rock group and threw his energy into making music rather than trouble, before settling down to a life working in factories and warehouses.
Endings are good, so let’s have one: a year since I left Cornwall for Bristol, and half a year since this project began, it feels done.
What have I learned? That there’s a lot more to learn, for starters.
One of the aims of this project was to jolt me from a rut, to make me look at towns and villages that didn’t previously have a place in my consciousness, and in that respect, it worked. I’ve read books, looked at maps, and even (money and time permitting) got on buses and trains.
The fun, silly stuff — the trivia — turned up in surprising places, and hardly ever when I was actually looking for it. I have no doubt there’s plenty more to stumble upon, and I hope to keep stumbling. Only the other night I learned that Paul the psychic World Cup octopus was hatched in Weymouth.
I have also reached some conclusions about the West Country. Despite having lived there for six years, and knowing that it was distinct and different, I never really doubted that Cornwall was part of the West Country. Having got to know Gloucestershire a little, at the other end of the scale, it seems absurd to consider those two places part of a single entity.
The Ghost Exhibition at Frampton Feast, Gloucestershire, 1887.
A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.
I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.
Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.
Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.
He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner.
When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery. We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.
This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?
Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.
Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed. The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes. Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.
He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:
His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.
Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.
From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.
Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.
Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.
He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)
In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)
Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:
In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre. Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…
But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.
It is it any wonder that the West Country, with its yin-yang of boredom and tranquillity, its distance from authority, its big skies and mystic tendencies, might have a drug habit?
A few months ago I was at my desk in Penzance (I’ve moved to Bristol since) when I heard a boom so loud I wondered if the earth might have cracked. A little later the air ambulance, that scarlet Valkyrie, flew so low overhead that my skull vibrated. A little later again I learned that what I’d heard was someone slamming their car into a bus stop seriously injuring a 16-year-old bystander. When the case came to court the gossip I’d picked up queuing in the grocers was confirmed:
A former addict who hadn’t slept for five days and mowed down a teenager whilst high on a cocktail of drugs claims she took the drugs to avoid the wrath of a masked gang who stabbed her boyfriend…. [She] was spared jail after her defence barrister told the court she’d taken the drugs to stay awake and was fleeing a violent gang who she felt were going to carry out a revenge attack on her when she crashed.
I’d picked up hints of that back story, too — sirens and cordons in the middle of the day, boarded windows, whispers in the pub, people threatening each other in the street, and incautious statements in the comments below news stories. I knew that there people dealing drugs in the flats near my house, on the estate near my house, and possibly in a house near my house.
This is all, I gather, part of an ongoing problem in the West Country. Despite the beauty of the landscape and ever more dominant beach-hut bourgeois tendency, the region is a target for big city drug dealers and, at the same time, an in-route for drugs with its many miles of coastline and secluded backroads. “Quieter counties, like Cumbria, or Devon and Cornwall are seen to have less proactive policing operations,” one ‘drug dealing insider’ is supposed to have told the Liverpool Echo.
I suppose I’ve always been vaguely aware of this side of West Country life. It has, after all, been going on for a long time. When Joe Strummer, late of punk band the Clash, relocated to Somerset in the 1990s he caused some local upset when he told an interviewer the reason for the move: “The drugs are better down here. It’s like the Wild West.” (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the original article — tips welcome.) A 1995 interview with electronic musician Richard James, AKA Aphex Twin, includes this passing observation:
Growing up in hippie Cornwall, drugs were part of local life. One of his earliest memories is the “funny smell” in the house of one of his mum’s friends. Sometimes he finds drugs come in handy when writing…. “I find it quite interesting, the way they make things turn out. It’s like using a different sequencer. Drugs just make things sound different.”
Is it true that planes from Holland used to land at the disused airfield at Westonzoyland in the middle of the night during the 1980s? That was certainly the gossip in Bridgwater and as a child I used to lie awake listening for them.
In his 2016 book The Swordfish and the Star, about the gritty reality of life on the Cornish coast, Gavin Knight records the connection between the Cornish fishing industry, drug smuggling, and drug use from the 1970s onwards:
In the front of the Swordfish people would be drinking but in the back, there was any drug you wanted. One time, to get to the bar, you had to step over a fisherman lying on the floor unconscious from coke.
The gentler 1960s drug culture came West, too, manifesting in the Glastonbury Festival and the St Ives hippy invasion. In 1966 Bristol publicans were trained by police on how to recognise the smell of weed using hemp burned over a gas stove (Birmingham Post, 25/08/66) while raids in Cornwall found LSD, cannabis and other drugs from Land’s end to St Agnes. (Times, 28/05/73.) Looe, a particular hot spot, even gained its own local drug squad, “known as Brian even to the people he was nicking”.
Go back far enough and you’ll find Samuel Taylor Coleridge composing the proto-psychedelic ‘Kubla Khan’ in Nether Stowey, Somerset, in what was probably an opium daze. It was published in the same 1816 volume as ‘The Pains of Sleep’ which is now generally reckoned to be an account of drug withdrawal:
…yester-night I pray’d aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorn’d, those only strong!
So, that yin-yang: hard work, hard lives, hard drugs. Dreamers and dancers, poets and rock stars. Visions and cramps. Men from Porlock and men from Merseyside.
This blog post has two purposes: first, to introduce this new project of mine; and secondly, to answer a question fundamental to it – where exactly is the West Country?
What I’m hoping to do this year is really focus on the part of the world I’m from, learn more about it, and share what I discover on the way. I’ll be doing that primarily via Twitter (@wildwestward) but with occasional blog posts here when I need more space to stretch out.
It’s weird to admit that I need to learn more about the West Country. I was brought up in Somerset, spent several years in Devon as a child, lived in Cornwall from 2011 to 2017, and have recently moved to Bristol. My ancestry includes pilots on the Bristol Channel, Somerset sheep rustlers and servants at seaside retreats. When I go Home (with all the complexities that word entails) it is to Bridgwater, and I say ‘gurt’ without the slightest irony.
The problem is that being from the West Country, I wasn’t interested in the West Country. As a kid I wanted to read books about Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, London, outer space… Places utterly different to Bridgwater or Exeter. I’ve read near-as-dammit every word of Raymond Chandler but not one lick of Laurie Lee; I’ve devoured Dickens but dodged Daphne Du Maurier; I had to read Hardy at school but resisted, perhaps because all that gloomy, doomed, class-crisis bumkpinry seemed too close to home.
I only developed a slight, sneaking interest when I went to university and homesickness kicked in. That’s when I started buying second-hand books with titles like Rambles in Somerset or the Penguin guide to Devon. But still, even now, I’m more confident navigating east London where I lived for eight years than the Somerset Levels where my Dad grew up.
So that’s part of the plan for this year – to read as far as possible only books by people from, or books about, the West Country. (Suggestions are welcome.)
And that brings me to the first big question.
The Shape of the West
One of the reasons I like the concept of the West Country is that it is vague with soft edges but as I suspect I’m going to get asked – indeed, have already been asked – which regions I consider to be within scope, I’ve decided to probe the term.
Maybe it’s “the five south-western counties of England” (Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall) as argued by John Payne, who excludes Gloucestershire as mostly “Cotswold country”.
Perhaps it’s just Devon and Cornwall, as many practical guidebooks not prone to navel-gazing over identity seem to suggest?
(I realise this last bothers some Cornish people who see this kind of thing — and, indeed, the whole idea of the West Country — as the first step on the slippery slope to full-blown Devonwall annexation by England.)
In the world of local TV, BBC West covers Bristol, and parts of Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire; while BBC South West serves another chunk of Dorset, the rest of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Scilly. (The remaining bit of of Dorset is covered by BBC South — what a carve up!)
Thomas Hardy’s Wessex includes not only Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but also Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. It excludes Cornwall. The ancient Kingdom of the West Saxons from which it draws its name shifted its boundaries and influence over time but like Hardy’s Wessex (to simplify grossly) stretches further up and closer to London than most ideas of the West Country might allow.
The South West Region defined by the government includes Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Another bureaucratic body, the EU, says that a cheese can only be described as ‘West Country Farmhouse Cheddar’ if it is produced in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset or Somerset.
And, finally, I’ve always thought of the Great Western Railway line that runs out of London Paddington all the way to Penzance as a kind of spine for the West Country. As a result, I tend to look up on Swindon and even Reading as far appendages of the West Country. Maybe Paddington counts, too, like our Voyager probe poking into the western side of the capital.
So, for now, here’s my conclusion: the heart of the West Country is Devon and Somerset; neighbouring counties are deeply entangled; but the next counties out again might or might not be in the West Country, depending on the angle from which you view them, or which story is being told.
I hope that doesn’t mortally offend anyone. I suspect my view will change the more I learn and read, or perhaps you want to try to change my mind. To which I say, go for it!