Thursday, March 13, 2008

Everard in Bristol. Oo-er, missus!

"Of course, them Europeans has got it right", said the man in the bright orange street cleaner's uniform. "They has a siestal."

"A siestal?"

"Yaas. They has a sleep after dinner. That's what we needs. A siestal."

It's a curious feature of the Bristol accent that many words ending in vowels seem to collect an L that shouldn't by rights be there. Thus, in just a few short minutes I had learned all about Ford Fiestals, the local areal, avocadols and, now, why street cleaners on the night shift should have siestals. I've since discovered that this Bristolian idiosyncracy may have actually given rise to the modern name of the city as it was once called Brycgstow (the place of the bridge) in old English. The locals, presumably, added the triumphant final L.

Our conversation took place last night at some time between 1.30am and 2pm in the proximity of an excellent kebab wagon parked at the junction of Broad Street and Corn Street. I'd just enjoyed a riotous evening at the nearby Wetherspoons pub - The Commercial Rooms - of which I will tell you more shortly, and was now in the mood for processed lamb-like meat, pitta bread and hot chili sauce. The fact that I could enjoy this fine repast in the company of several street philosophers only served to make my doner even more rewarding. As the searing heat of the chili sauce cauterised my taste buds to mere blackened stumps, I found myself chatting with two street cleaners. I have no idea what their names were, only that they were two of the most splendid people I've met in a long while.

I'd been in Bristol for a couple of days running a seminar for people from various organisations. It's a great city, lots of fun, lots of history and, without a doubt, one of the friendliest I've ever visited. Without exception, everyone I met was quite lovely, from the strangely elf-like receptionist at the Thistle Hotel to the drunk street busker whose rendition of Fake plastic trees will stay with me forever - But not in a good way. During the lunch breaks and the inevitable finger buffets that accompany such events, I took to roaming around the narrow alleys and streets, discovering glass covered markets and quaint little shops selling ethnic jewellery, fossils, home-made clothing (scarves mostly), fine foods - including the best pies I've ever tasted - and many antiquarian bookshops.

It was in one of these that I found a corking little gem with the title - using that economy of words so prevalent of the era in which it was published - Male methods of Birth Control: Their technique and reliability - a practical handbook for men by a Dr George Ryley Scott. Published in 1937 and priced at one shilling and sixpence, the book is a candid though joyously coy book that explains such baffling concepts as Coitus Interruptus, Coitus Reservatus, Coitus Saxonis and how to wear an American Tip. Here are a few choice extracts:

'While the wife may know nothing about the peculiar and scientific risks connected with the withdrawal method, she has no confidence at all in her husband's power to withdraw in time, and she is therefore filled with anxiety every time the method is in operation. The effects of this anxiety is psychologically bad for the woman.'

'When a condom has once been used, if it is desired to employ it again, great care must be taken in its storage, or it will be useless. The best way to preserve rubber is to keep it in a dark place under water. Alternative methods of preservation are immersion in powdered chalk or Fuller's earth.'

'Most skin condoms have a string at the top (open end), for use in affixing to the penis, with the express object of preventing slippage. Many men use rubber bands instead of the string.'

And, among the reasons cited for a husband (sic) to be sure that he arranges the contraception rather than his wife are where the wife is either 'stout' or one of the 'very large number of feeble-minded, ignorant and lazy women'.

The extraordinary thing about this book is the way that it highlights the dramatic change in sexual politics that took place after The Pill was made available. In this strange little book, we learn that women - sorry, wives - had very few, and mostly unreliable, methods of birth control at their disposal in 1939. Therefore, responsibility (and control) was almost exclusively male.

There is also frequent mention of the National Council for Public Morals, who, it must be said, would have been quite apoplectic if they'd met the groups of students we met in the pub earlier that evening.

Bristol is a university town and, tonight, one university student was celebrating her 20th birthday. I know that I'm getting older but, as I glanced around the bar, it took me a while to realise that every reveller was over 18 despite looking, to my rheumy old eyes, like they were all twelve. The young ladies were clear skinned and fresh-faced and most were stick thin. The boys were tall, spotty and wore those attempted beards that students wear; chinstrap, sideburns and moustache but none of them yet joined up. They looked as if they'd been attacked by the rare Clifton facial moth. All had sensible, fashionable haircuts meaning that they were Freshers or second year students ... give it another year and they'll all be pierced, tattooed and be sporting the silliest hair cuts and colours imaginable.

The gimmick of the birthday party was for everyone to turn up wearing a plain white t-shirt and to bring a fat permanent marker. They then proceeded to grafitti each other's bodies. Soon, every bosom was sporting a pair of badly drawn nipples and various slogans based upon the theme of 'Suck these'. The boys sported slogans like 'Gay for pay' and 'I cum for gum' on their annoyingly flat chests and pecs. But the really priceless stuff was on the rear of the shirts. Because the hapless victim couldn't see what was being written or drawn upon their backs, the pen-wielders became much fruitier. Downward-pointing arrows appeared in the small of the back accompanied by such witty bon mots as 'My crack' or the wonderful 'My beautiful anus'. Badly drawn genitalia proliferated across shoulder-blades along with subtle innuendos like 'Fuck me for a fiver' or 'If you can read this, you're up my bum'. One simply said 'I suck'. Take that as you will.

It seems just a few short years ago that the use of words like these in public would have been deemed obscene or in some way deleterious to public order. But these were not some ASBO-generation knife-wielding maniacs intent on anarchy and a night of Happy Slapping. These were well-adjusted, happy, well-behaved kids celebrating their newly found indepedence and freedom of expression having moved out of Mum and Dad's house. They were no trouble at all. And some of them are our future doctors, lawyers and politicians.

Having concluded my chat with the street cleaners, I dallied briefly with an ambulance crew before a gaggle of five young university ladies approached the kebab van in need of burgers. They were very chatty and I explained that I'd been in the pub earlier when they'd had their pen frenzy. One of them then asked me to add something to her shirt. My age was once again thrust upon me because her bosom wasn't. Despite having happily had young men scrawling all over her chest for hours, she presented me with her back to scribble on. I didn't mind. In fact, it made me feel a lot less like some old perv ... after all, these young ladies were actually younger than my own kids. I drew a caricature of her and the racy 'Good luck!' It must have pleased her because the other four immediately lined themselves up for a sketch each. I wandered back to my hotel happy, mildly squiffy and with absolutely no sense of taste whatsoever.

Bristol is a wonderful city and I'd recommend it to anyone for a visit. Bath - just up the road - may be prettier but Bristol is more cosmopolitan and has some extraordinary architecture as shown in the photographs that pepper this post. Favourite for me was the amazing Edward Everard building in Broad Street (see above). Now a branch of RBS (Insurance), it is fabulously clad in tiles made by Doulton to a design by W J Neatby (based in turn upon an idea by Everard himself). The building opened as a print works in 1900 and the main image of the faience frontage depicts Gutenburg and Morris separated by a stylised angel representing truth and light. It's quite stunning.

I will go back soon I think and explore some more. I will certainly be keen to see if I can find any of the other books in the same series as Male Methods of Birth Control. They include The Commonsense of Nudism, Sexual Apathy and Coldness in Women, Sex Problems and Dangers in War-Time and the worryingly titled Sterilization of the Unfit.

I'd joined a gym before I realised that it was actually about preventing 'the incurably insane, the feeble-minded and the imbecile from breeding.'

Good grief.

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