Tag Archives: bristol

Appearance at Bristol Festival of Literature on 23rd October

18 Oct

‘Everyone has been nearly everywhere’, wrote Jan Morris. This has provided a new challenge to the travel writer: how to find a new angle on a familiar destination? The answer lies with alternative travel writing.

Two alternative travel writers discuss their very different work. They talk about what they’ve written, how they write, their influences and what they’ve learnt.

Doors open at 6.30pm.

Over the last nine years, British writer Tom Sykes has travelled extensively in the Philippines to write Realm of the Punisher, the first major travel book by a Westerner to explore Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency of the country. Tom, to understand the Duterte phenomenon, attended crime sites, met with dissidents on government ‘death lists’ and interviewed friends and enemies of ‘The Punisher’ – as he’s known – in politics, the media, the arts and the third sector. Sykes witnesses anti-government demonstrations in the capital Manila and visits the provincial city of Davao, where Duterte began his draconian crusade against crime using police and vigilante death squads.

Mike Manson’s most recent novel Down in Demerara, (Tangent Books) features Felix Radstock, a man plucked from his humdrum job and dispatched to the forbidden rainforest of Guyana on a mysterious assignment. Set in 1999, Down in Demerara is a funny, charming and quirky tale of self-realisation through love, friendship and fear.

Book tickets here.

Turning My Family Green in Bristol (2010)

12 Jul

A year ago, my partner Donna, six year old Daisy and I were living in Manila, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Our road was so traffic-choked that everything in our apartment smelled of diesel. In the distance, huge chimneys pumped heavy metals into the air all day long. To my horror, I discovered that we were breathing in the equivalent of twenty cigarettes a day and shaving a decade off our life expectancies. The authorities had neither the funds nor the infrastructure to address these problems, so they were only getting worse. When my work stint was over, we came back to Britain determined to live a better life, if not exactly The Good Life.

Bristol seemed like the perfect choice. Its reputation for green spaces, cycle paths and general eco-friendliness preceded it. We got rid of our car and immediately noticed the savings on petrol, MOT, repairs and so on. We also cut our rent by moving to a flat in Hotwells without a parking space. This is a great part of town, within walking distance of Clifton Village and Down, the river and – sometimes at a stretch for Daisy this one – the city centre. All was going well until we realised that the nearest school with a free space was three miles away in Bedminster.

We started taking the bus. It seemed simple enough: a forty minute journey with one change in the city centre. However, we didn’t bargain for the Manila-like traffic jams (minus the smog of course) that blight both Hotwell Road and Redcliffe Hill first thing in the morning. Worse still, random vehicles – an ice cream van, a pink limousine, a Bentley – would park at our stop and dissuade the bus from pulling over, making us late for school almost every day. We got depressed. We questioned whether the government was serious about helping people – like us – out of their cars and onto public transport.

Now we have a solution: an adult-sized bike with child’s ‘tagalong’. It looks like something from a Victorian circus, but I don’t mind because I don’t have to pilot it! Instead Donna pedals her heart out up the hills of south Bristol, hoping that, one day, Daisy might pedal too instead of just sticking her arms out and shouting ‘Wheee!’ Nearing the school, they must brave cars driving on to the cycle paths because the road is too narrow, other cars parked on double yellow lines and speeding hypocrites who shout at them: ‘What you’re doing is so dangerous!’ So far, though, nothing bad has happened and Donna has kept her cool. I think I would have lost mine by now…

After an uphill struggle – literally and metaphorically – my family’s attempt to turn itself green is paying off. We’re no longer ‘blowing so much smoke around the world’ as Daisy puts it. I’d recommend the experience to anyone, but with two words of advice: watch out for cars and make sure your co-pilot pedals!

(Originally accepted by a magazine in Bristol that shall remain unnamed, paid for and then not used. Oh the injustice!)

Review of Memoirs of a Black Englishman

7 Mar

The year is 1963: thousands march in protest at a bus company’s refusal to employ non-white staff. A handsome and charismatic young black man addresses the crowd about Martin Luther King and the global struggle against racism. But this isn’t taking place in pre-civil rights Alabama or Mississippi. It is happening in Bristol, and the young black man is Paul Stephenson. It is partly thanks to his work that Britain is a more tolerant and diverse nation today.

Stephenson’s remarkable life story is inextricably tied to the eventful history of Black Britain. He was born in London in 1937 to a West African man and a mixed race Englishwoman. As an evacuee in World War II, Stephenson fell in love with the English countryside, its cattle auctions and rolling cornfields. His return to the capital was less pleasant. Despite Britain having just defeated a racist dictatorship abroad, white bigots would hurl bricks and bottles at the young Stephenson as he walked down the Romford Road. A little later, the very first Jamaican immigrants to Britain were to arrive on the Empire Windrush.

By the time Stephenson was working as a youth leader in St Pauls in the early sixties, his personal experience of racism had evolved into a political mission to defend the 3,000 West Indians now living in Bristol: ‘I didn’t want them going through the nightmare I went through’. One organization responsible for that nightmare was the Bristol Bus Company and its ‘colour bar’ preventing the recruitment of blacks and Asians. Stephenson started a campaign to boycott the buses, earning the support of figures as wide-ranging as the then Bishop of Bristol, the High Commissioners of Trinidad and Jamaica, cricket legend Sir Learie Constantine and Tony Benn (who provides the rousing foreword to this book). Stephenson took everything that was thrown at him – physical assaults, threats to his family, defamation in the media – with astonishing good humour. Indeed, everywhere in this book the prose sparkles with Stephenson’s warmth, generosity and optimism.

The campaign succeeded in August 1963, and Raghbir Singh became the first non-white bus conductor in the city. Bristol and Britain had taken a vital step forward. Since then, Stephenson has been no less busy, taking up such causes as Apartheid, police brutality, and the ubiquity of slave trader Edward Colston’s name among Bristol landmarks.

Skilfully researched, these memoirs explode the myths that racists still trot out today. We are reminded of how Jamaicans and other colonial subjects were originally invited to Britain, how these non-white peoples constituted a tiny fraction of the total number of arrivals, and how the state has tended to demonize black immigrants while favouring whites.

Another strength of this book is its seamless transitioning between past and present, using the lessons of history to illuminate contemporary problems. While Stephenson shows how injustice was overcome yesterday, he warns against liberal complacency today; ‘in a world of poverty and prejudice, [black civil rights] have to be constantly fought for and improved.’

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, Winter 2011.

Clifton Rock

7 Mar

Clifton Rock

George vowed not to be grumpy today. He had something to look forward to. But his good mood only lasted till he reached the breakfast table. ‘Feel like a foreigner in my own bloody country,’ he groaned into the Mail on Sunday. He looked to the bust of Queen Victoria on the mantelpiece and felt better.

‘What time does the station open, dear?’ asked his wife Audrey, bringing him a bacon sandwich and herself a mango.

George scowled at her choice. ‘You’re not used to that stuff, love. It might give you the runs.’

A statuesque black man wearing only boxer shorts passed through the room.

‘Who the bloody hell was that?’ whispered George, cowering in his seat.

‘Must be a… friend of Sarah’s,’ said Audrey, nibbling a spoonful of mango. ‘Excuse me?’ she called after the man. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Well I wish she wouldn’t treat this house like some bordello,’ said George.

‘Give her a break, dear. He might be her boyfriend. Could be good for her after all she’s been through.’

‘Yes yes, that’s probably what he’s been telling her too.’ George shook his head. ‘But why doesn’t she go for someone less…’

Their son Tim ambled in, yawning and fuzzy-haired. He lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

‘Uh-oh,’ said George. ‘The great scholar graces us with his presence.’

Audrey raised her eyebrows to her husband. ‘Dear, when did you say the station opened?’

‘Fancy coming to see some real history, son?’ said George.

Tim brought a mango to the table and sat down. ‘You mean unlike that fake stuff I’m doing my degree in?’

George rolled his eyes. ‘Postcolonial postmodern post-this and post-that. Whatever happened to good hard facts? Did you know, son, that the railway extends five hundred metres from Clifton to almost next door to this very house? Isn’t that fascinating?’

‘Yeah, Dad, fascinating.’

‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’ asked Audrey with a sudden smile.

George got awkwardly to his feet. ‘Well I’d best be off.’

‘How is uni, love?’ asked Audrey of her son.

‘Costing me most of my pension,’ said George, picking up his National Trust walking stick.

‘It’s fine, Mum,’ said Tim.

‘I saw Sarah’s… friend earlier,’ said Audrey, ‘and, well, wondered if you’d got yourself a girlfriend yet?’

Tim looked away.

Everyone fell silent as the black man passed through the room again. For a brief moment Tim and the black man made eye contact.

George didn’t know what to make of this. He patted Victoria’s crown for reassurance.


The steep walk up Hinton Lane was tiring. George stopped halfway to take a painkiller for his arthritis. When he reached the Top Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway, his heart was pounding more from excitement than from the trek. A bearded guide spoke slowly to a queue of Chinese tourists. George joined it, looking at his watch with impatience.

Once inside, he peered through the gloom into musty corridors and rubble-filled offices, at the stained brickwork of the auditorium and the grazed iron of the tracks. The guide rejoiced in the past. The world’s only four-track funicular railway created by Victorian sweat. A vital artery of local life surging through the cliffs. In its heyday, whisking thousands between chic Clifton and the bustle of the river. By 1940, defending the realm with an air raid shelter and emergency radio unit. George flushed with pride. He wanted to tell a Chinese tourist how great it was to be a Brit and a Bristolian.

The queue shuffled into the pump room. This had once housed the ‘water balance’ machinery that had been the driving force of the railway. On the ground George noticed a loose rock with a weird blue glow to it. He waited for the queue to move out and placed the rock in his breast pocket. It felt warm and stirring against his heart. He thought about the railway some more. It came from a golden age when the word ‘British’ was synonymous with strength, excellence, hard work. What an age to have lived through.

On the way home, the pain in George’s leg returned. But he didn’t stop for another painkiller. He lifted his walking stick, stiffened his back and marched.

Nearing Hotwell Road, he felt increasingly bewildered. He frowned at the cars whizzing past, at an aeroplane in the sky, at a teenager on a mobile phone. ‘Egad,’ he muttered to himself.

He entered the house and bowed to the bust of Victoria. Audrey was sitting at the table reading. ‘How was the railway station, dear?’

George scrutinised her book. ‘By Jove, wife, what is that?’

‘A book.’

‘A book authored by a… female?’ He let out a stentorian laugh. ‘The very notion is absurd. The fairer sex is congenitally incapable of any act of philological composition. That is empirically proven. This must be a wheeze of some variety, and there is no room for japery in this house. I shall do you the honour of disposing of it forthwith.’ George snatched it with forefinger and thumb and tossed it in the bin.

‘But I love Danielle Steel!’ peeped Audrey, putting her fist to her mouth.

Music sounded from the student flat next door.

George put his fingers in his ears. ‘That recalls some godless racket from the colonies, the kind of egregious din the martial races tortured us with back in Lahore, ‘82.’

‘Are you feeling all right, George?’ asked Audrey. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

Tim appeared at the front door. He was wearing cycling gloves. ‘Hi Dad.’

‘Dad?’ barked George. ‘Dad? Henceforth you shall address me as ‘father’ or ‘sir’, confound you! Respect for one’s paterfamilias is essential to a young man’s hardihood and discipline, lest he degenerate into some idle jollux, rummy old cove, or worse – Yorkshireman.’

Tim removed his glasses. ‘Are you playing some sort of joke on us? It’s not April Fool’s Day is it?’

‘No dear,’ said Audrey.

‘I am not, at any rate, a ludibrious fellow,’ said George.

Tim looked hopefully to his mother. Audrey got up without looking at either man. ‘George, if you could stop all this messing about, there’s something Tim would like to tell you.’

George approached his son with a self-assured nod. ‘Is this so, boy? I trust it is good, sturdy news, as you would not trouble a gentleman of my wit and standing with a mere trifle. Are you going up to Cambridge to read Mods and Greats or Divinity perchance?’

‘No Dad, I’m already at UWE, remember?’

‘Or perhaps you have enlisted with the Royal Engineers to help annex the Dark Continent for Queen and country? Come on, boy, spit it out.’

Tim was about to when Sarah entered. Her dreadlocks bounced against her camouflage vest. ‘What’s all this hassle about? I can hear you all from my room.’

‘Sarah, child-’ began George.

‘What do you mean ‘child’? I’m twenty-four years old.’

‘Do not ejaculate in such a discourteous fashion, child.’

Sarah sniggered. ‘Why are you talking like some olden days person? Have you been drinking?’

Audrey spoke up. ‘Sarah, dear, you know your dad hasn’t touched the stuff for years.’

‘Well maybe he went back to it,’ hissed Sarah. ‘They say retirement is boring.’

George tightened his grip on the walking stick. ‘Blast your slanders, child! Do not forget that I have long been a stalwart of the temperance movement.’

‘But seriously, Dad, have you fucking flipped?’

‘Why, your mouth is like the Randall Road Sewer and your mien that of some velvet-tipping harlot of ill fame! On the contrary, child, it would seem that you are suffering from feminine hysteria. Melancholia too, perhaps. I advise laudanum or heathen tinctures from the Orient, but failing that, a restorative spell in Bedlam. There is one Dr Featheringstone based therein whose progressive methodologies involving the Padded Rotary Chair come highly recommended by both The Lancet and the governor of Newgate Prison.’

‘What are you trying to say, Dad? Are you talking about my depression?’

‘Don’t say horrid things to Sarah, dear,’ said Audrey.

George’s eyes zipped about in shock. He raised his stick at each family member in turn. Tim started hyperventilating. Audrey took a step back. Sarah stayed where she was.

‘What is this?’ said George. ‘Mutiny? Mine own blood going socialist on me, possessed by frightful hobgoblins? Do you want me to thrash the lot of you? Gluttons for punishment all, eh?’

‘Wanker,’ said Sarah under her breath.

‘Please, dear,’ squeaked Audrey. ‘Put your stick down, this is getting out of hand. And Tim really does have something to tell you. It’s very important.’

Tim was bright red, his breath still escaping him.

‘Well hurry and enunciate, boy! And do not bore me with trivia.’

Tim caught his breath and took it in deep. He squared up to his dad, eyeball to eyeball. ‘How about this for trivia, Dad? I’m gay. Got that? I’m gay.’ He turned to his sister and mother and shouted with the hysteria of relief. ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’

Audrey raised her eyebrows and smiled faintly. Sarah grinned with pride. ‘At last, little brother, standing up for yourself!’

George frowned. ‘So you declare that you are happy. There is nothing so queer about that-’

Tim screamed in his dad’s ear. ‘I’m homosexual! Got that? A bugger! I spent all night with my black boyfriend’s penis up my arse and I loved it and there’s nothing you can do about it ‘cos I’m free and you don’t rule my life!’ George opened his mouth to speak, but Tim’s rant wasn’t over. ‘And I don’t know what all this Victorian bollocks is about, but if you ever bothered to read something other than pub quiz primers you’d know how fucking miserable that period was, how this country exploited half the world, how women and children were treated like animals, how hypocrisy was elevated to an art form, and, and, and…’

With his free hand, George brandished the rock from his pocket. His family gasped at its blue glow. ‘Backgammon player!’ George howled and swung the rock down towards Tim’s head. Tim dodged and snatched the rock.

‘Give that back, you opium-addled mandrake!’ shouted George.

‘What the hell is this?’ said Tim, turning the rock over in his gloves, staring at its blueness.

George whacked Tim on the backside with the walking stick. ‘Take that for demurring the authority of your patriarch!’

‘Right, I’m calling the police,’ said Sarah.

‘You’re mental!’ shouted Tim at his dad. He ran out the door, down the steps and into Hotwell Road. George gave chase with shrieks of ‘Churl! Hobbledehoy! Workshy affiliate of the back-stair classes!’ Neighbours rushed to doors and windows.

Tim dropped the rock onto the pavement and jumped up and down on it. By the time George was a walking stick-length away, the rock had turned to dust, its blue glow gone.

George collapsed, eyes rolling as he fell.


Some hours later, George awoke in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. His family flanked the bed, cheeks sore from tears.

Audrey fell upon her husband, hugging him for dear life. ‘Oh George, you’re awake, you’re all right! The doctor thought you’d gone into a coma.’

‘Well I feel all right,’ said George. ‘Bit groggy. How did I get here?’

‘Do you remember what happened before you blacked out?’ asked Tim, touching the spot where his dad had hit him.

‘No, son. I was in the station and I took this rock as a souvenir. Then… well, nothing.’

The doctor came in to check George’s pulse and blood pressure. The doctor asked some questions about where he lived and what year it was. George answered them correctly and was free to go.

Back at the house, his family explained what had happened, the things he’d said and done. ‘You were, like, possessed, Dad,’ said Sarah.

George didn’t believe them. This was a wind-up. But then the police visited and confirmed his odd behaviour. They said that the matter was now in Tim’s hands; he could press charges for assault if he wanted. Tim chose not to. George felt an incredible sense of shame which he couldn’t shake off. He was also scared for his health; ranting and raving and collapsing in the street wasn’t healthy. Not for a man of advancing years.

He admitted all this to Audrey the next morning at breakfast.

‘Perhaps you need to make some life changes, dear,’ she suggested. She brought him a mango instead of a bacon sandwich. He enjoyed it. That surprised him.

‘I was wondering, dear,’ said Audrey. ‘We should invite Tim’s friend Deon to dinner at the weekend.’

George began to scowl, but thought again. ‘All right, we’ll… we’ll give that a try.’

Tim rushed into the room and sat down. He was shaking. ‘We don’t know how that rock works! What if I’ve been… infected by it? I held it in my hands.’

Audrey touched his shoulder. ‘But you smashed the silly thing up, dear. And you were wearing gloves. I’m sure they would protect you.’

‘I don’t know. I should avoid anything Victorian for a while. Might trigger a Dad moment. No costume dramas, no flowery wallpaper, nothing designed by “the Little Giant”.’

‘That’ll be hard in Bristol, dear.’

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said George. ‘This’ll do us both good.’ He picked up the bust of Queen Victoria and took it out to the bin next to the sealed Bottom Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway.

First published in Hidden Bristol (Tangent Books), 2011.

Tagalongs and Gazelles: Green Family Transport

3 Mar

How does a modern Bristol family get around without a car? How does it make the school run, do the shopping, take day-trips? Walking can be time-consuming and tough on small kids. Public transport isn’t the answer either – it’s still pollutive and where I live on Hotwell Road buses don’t stop due to heavy traffic and bad parking. However, six months ago my family found the solution: a tagalong. These contraptions may look like something out of a Victorian circus, but they are sturdy, safe, free (after an initial payment of course) and highly efficient. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg – there are now many options for families wanting to ‘travel green’.

So what are the options and where can you find them? The not-for-profit Bristol Bike Project (http://www.thebristolbikeproject.org ) recycles, repairs and re-sells bicycles of all kinds. They also hire out a tagalong (£6 per day) which, as employee James Lucas explains, is ‘easily interchangeable between bikes’. Tandems (£15 per day/£35 for 3 days/£80 per week) are an alternative, ideal for family members of roughly the same height. The BBP keep their prices low to encourage cycling and plough all their takings back into the project. This sustainable approach recently won them an Observer Ethical Award.

Really Useful Bikes (http://www.reallyusefulbikes.co.uk/) in Rodford sells several ‘cargo bikes’, the Rolls Royces of green transport. Proprietor Rob Bushill tells me that ‘choosing the right one is subjective – it depends entirely on where you live and how old/young your family is.’ For the hills of Bristol he recommends the Workcycles FR8 which can carry three kids on a rear seat, an extra saddle with footrests and a Bobike mini seat behind the handlebars. James’ colleague at the BBP, Adam Faraday, lives on the flatter side of Bristol and his only problem is ‘the crazy designs of barrier they put in’. He also wastes time explaining his Danish-made cargo bike ‘to people who’ve never seen one before’. If the hills are too steep, you can always invest in a Sparticle motor (£650) – not hugely eco-friendly but still more so than driving.

There’s also space for luggage on the FR8. The Gazelle Cabby (£1400) has a vinyl passenger compartment with clips for a baby’s Maxi-Cosi. The quintessentially Dutch Backfiets NL (£1700) boasts a hardy wooden box (plus seatbelts) where you can put children, groceries, and plenty else. When the weather turns bad you can attach a waterproof canopy. 8-speed gears, roller brakes and a dynamo all make for a smoother journey.

Next to cargo bikes, the tagalong suddenly sounds rather low-tech! After an initial resistance to tagalongs, Rob is now a fan: ‘The more expensive ones are pretty solid, they can take a lot of bashing!’

With so many good reasons to stop driving – financial, ethical and environmental – the stage is set for a revolution in green transport. With its fine network of cycle paths, inventive community projects and well-stocked bike shops, Bristol should be at the forefront of that.

First published in The Spark Magazine Summer 2011.