Bristol: my love/hate relationship with my home city
Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Finally. Finally. Finally. The Colston statue has been removed. Bristolians, black and white, have together done the decent thing. The only right thing. A completely right thing. Not even in the wrong way. I defy any national politician to claim otherwise. The action of anti-racists has removed the memorial to a historical monster. And in my soul, I hover between feeling immense joy and a bit less guilt. I certainly have more hope for the future. There is currently a momentum that we must grasp to maximise the chances of realising genuine racial equality.
I will always regard Bristol as my home city, even though I despise so much of its ugly past. My sense of collective, historical, social responsibility, local and national, will never go away. And I don’t want it to. I am prepared to answer for who I am, and where I come from. Not to justify it, only to acknowledge the connections I cannot deny, and to strive to be better. To make a difference in my own time. And to embrace all that is positive, decent, heartening and worthy in the city.
But why exactly do the recent events matter so much to me? As well as my determination to help bring about social justice for all, I am keen to explore my personal, historical connections with this city. They are extensive. Where did I exist? Who did I mix with, spend my life with? And where was I on the social ladder, really? I never developed a Bristol accent. Never slipped in an extra ‘L’. The ‘Bristol L’ was only used by common people, I was told. I never got to eat vanillal ice cream. I was neither posh nor ordinary, but somewhere in between. And always polite. I moved away from the West Country many years ago, but I often feel drawn back. I reflect wistfully. Here, I have delved deep into my formative years, and this is my story.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge (photo: Bristol Live)
Dare I start by confessing I was never a citizen? I was born in Weston-super-Mare, some way down the coast from Bristol, brought not by a stork but by a seagull. My family moved to a village north of the city before I was one. Bristol was just eight miles away, but in some ways it could have been a million miles. As a toddler, in sunny Almondsbury, I can only remember spending time with my pet tortoise in the garden, until it escaped and never came back.
My favourite early memory of the city comes from the time my Mother took just me to have coffee in Carwardines, opposite John Lewis in the Horsefair. The best coffee shop I’ve ever been in. I remember the wainscoted booths, the clink of china crockery and the rich smell of roasting beans. I don’t think I even drank coffee at the time, but I’m convinced it was the best cup of coffee in the world. Elf was wrong. I've since discovered that coffee houses started up in Britain in the late 17th century, and that instantly raises a red flag, but I didn't drink coffee at such a tender young age, let alone sweeten it, so I'm telling myself I can relax on this.
Carwardines (The Horsefair): Well before my time, but ever the home of the best cup of coffee in the world
Delightful. Pointing to a nearby branch (photos: Paul Townsend)
With my fellow siblings, we later went on an expedition to the Cabot Tower at the top of Brandon Hill, off Park Street. I’ve never had much of a head for heights, and I get claustrophobic in narrow stairwells. But it was a stirring experience and one that gave me a great view of a city that I’ve long since realised wasn’t all that great. But I don’t mind dwelling in the past a little. Cabot voyaged back and forth to America in the late 15th century. I have a new research project on my hands, and I'm hoping to find he was not involved in transporting people in chains, though I'm willing to learn.
The Cabot Tower (photo: England 101)
My paternal grandparents ran a sweet shop. All that sugar! Except it was really a tobacconist’s, which also sold Airfix model airplane kits and bottles of Corona – limeade, cherryade, lemonade – with ten pence back on each bottle returned. Sugar again. Sometimes the visits were fun. Other times not so much; all duty and no fizz. In the early days I also went to visit my great grandma. She gave me as many glasses of Tizer as I could quaff and Royal Scot biscuits from a bottomless barrel. And she always sent us a huge box of chocolates at Christmas. I don't think I need to state the key ingredient again. My grandfather had been a copper, and it showed. Not the kind of person you wanted in your family. So strict. My great grand-father, though, was a gentle, kindly old man who had driven steam trains and grew vegetables. We knew him as Nunky. Can you imagine a more delightful Dickensian name?
At the age of ten I started supporting Manchester City. Embarrassingly I’m the exception that proves the rule about United fans being the ones who live anywhere but Manchester. Well, it was always Manchester United v Liverpool in the primary school playground, and I wasn’t having either of them. My first big match as a spectator was a 1-0 defeat at Ashton Gate by Bristol City. Oh dear. I think I deserved that. But not the following thirty-five years without a trophy. I made my choice, and thankfully I stuck with it. Alas, Bristol City dropped three divisions in consecutive seasons and unlike the Blues, the Robins have never soared to the dizzy heights again.
The football terraces in the early eighties were hostile places, but the potential for hostility went much wider and deeper in society. I can see now that certain communities were ignored, mistreated and deprived of basic rights and opportunities, and eventually enough was enough. Enough was too much. Yet way back then, the social unrest in the city in 1980 came as a big surprise to me. I watched BBC Points West in horror as they showed the riots in St. Paul’s. Not ‘race riots’, the police said, just riots that started in the Black and White Café. A social venue in a part of the City where my white, slightly upper-middle class family would surely never dare to tread. This was our own version of Brixton.
The Black and White Cafe, St Paul's
All calm for now (photos: Bristol Live)
Amazingly, not long afterwards, I started going with my Dad to Bristol Five Boys Club in Fishponds, barely two miles away from St. Paul's. He did his bit for society, every Thursday night and sometimes at weekends. In the summertime I went along to play cricket with the boys club boys. In the autumn, I ran the line for Dad whenever he refereed. I made him red and yellow cards, but he never had to send anyone off. Bad language was usually as bad as it got, and he quickly shut that down. Back in the clubhouse, I mixed in with many young black youths, all male. No girls were allowed to join the club; they caused trouble! Mostly when the males showed off. So, I mingled with many who I gathered were less advantaged than I was. I wanted to be friends, though I knew I didn’t quite fit in. I can’t remember if I really knew what racism was at the time, but I do recall feeling a bit smug when I took a swig from a bottle of fizzy pop offered me by a boy called Rodney Coke. Honestly! He had an older brother caller Roger. Both were gifted footballers and cricketers. By sharing a bottle without wiping it first I thought I was being such an enlightened, easy-going, magnanimous fellow. Daring too.
I joined in as often as I could. But at the end of the evening we always went off to our leafy village in what was probably part of Gloucestershire at the time. Or maybe North Avon. One evening, we stopped off on the way home for battered sausage and chips from Yips Fish ‘n’ Chips. They tasted amazing. Nowadays, I would be highly suspicious of Chinese chippies. This has nothing to do with the Corona virus, by the way. I’m just convinced they use different oils that make the chips look too shiny and taste wrong. But back then, they were delicious. Happy days.
A little older, still, I was finally allowed to travel into the city centre on my own, on Bristol Omnibus. Whoa! The bus company that Paul Stevenson had to take to court in 1963 since they refused to employ black people. I never knew about the Bristol Bus Boycott when I was young. Nor that this had led to the Race Relations Act. I was just excited to have the freedom to travel on a number 301 green bus, on my own, to Broadmead. There, I would tour all the record shops, looking for an obscure Killing Joke single, a twelve-inch Toyah Willcox picture disk, or a scary Iron Maiden album cover. Vinyl reigned supreme in those days.
Paul Stevenson, at the Bristol Omnibus Depot (photo: Andy Howard via Twitter)
Standing together against racism (photo: Historic England)
As soon as I was allowed, I went to my first pop concert. With her spikey red hair, Toyah was widely regarded as a punk rock queen. Looking back now I see she was noisy but tiny and quite harmless. Before going in, I bought the programme, bought a T-shirt – from a spiv outside – and then found far better official merchandise inside, money gone. Mid-way through the show I got so close to the stage that I was able to stretch out my hand for Toyah to grasp it. Seems pathetic now, but at the time, boy what a thrill! Where did this all take place, you might ask. Oh yes, it was the Colston Hall. Oops. I never knew about the connections with slavery money at the time. It was just a rock venue where all the big bands played. Even U2, before they became megastars. A few year later, I got bolder, and saw Johnny Rotten and Public Image Limited at the Bristol Locarno Ballroom.
Toyah Willcox (photo: artist's website)
I took this further, masquerading as Drunken Eddie, appearing three times in the studio on Radio West’s Punk and Disorderly show. Now that was fun. The station was on the Watershed, opposite the Arnolfini gallery. Not all that far away from the Colston Hall again. To get to Radio West you had to pass several bars. One night, buying a round for a few mates, I asked for two ciders and a lager. Mishearing, the barman gave me two pints of cider and lager, all mixed up. My mates were well impressed. They said the drink was called a snakebite. Oh dear. Not quite so happy days. But fun of a kind.
Then came books. I would make my way across the centre, ignore the cathedral, admire the grass on College Green and traipse up Park Street in search of words, words, words. I liked to frequent each of the three Georges bookshops. In the literary outlet, I revelled in the Viragos as well and the Penguin Classics, and bought the entire contents of my first year reading list for university. Then moved on to the discount bookstore on the way back down the hill. On one lucky visit I found a stunning hardback version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, at bargain basement price.
Park Street (photo: Square Foot Finder)
Classic bookmarks, one from each store on the hill
Developing my interest in creative culture, I quickly came to love the theatre, starting at the Old Vic in Kings Street. First, to see The Tempest, then The Comedy of Errors (not much of a comedy that one), then Le Misanthrope, and the last I can remember was The Cherry Orchard, starring the actress who used to play Mavis Riley in Coronation Street. On the silver screen, I must have been crazy but I once spent two consecutive afternoons in the city centre watching Xanadu at the cinema. A must-see film if ever there was one. Not for any high minded, socially improving reasons, but rather to gaze on my real-life muse, Olivia Newton-John, tripping the light fantastic as Terpsichore, goddess of the dance.
Stunning. Bristol Old Vic (photo: Phillip Vile).
Getting out in the open air, I often played pitch and putt in the grounds of Ashton Court Park, where the balloons take off for the annual balloon fair. I went round the course in 73 once. An exceptionally good performance, just four shots per hole! I was inspired that day, even in the blustery rain. One of the ways to get there takes you over the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge. That’s one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s. It’s such a brilliantly engineered structure, so spectacular that it deserves a far less muddy gorge below. I’m all about bridges and Wow, what a bridge! The greatest highlight of the Bristol landscape. The site of the first modern day bungee jump in the UK. Sadly, it’s also a location of choice for people who’ve just had enough of life.
Hot air balloons soaring high above the Suspension Bridge on their annual flight (photo: Visit Bristol)
Although enemy territory in my own city, I must mention the County Ground in Neville Road. Not as inspiring as Taunton, I later came to appreciate, but the scene of some fine John Player League matches and two thrilling single wicket competitions. The first between Viv Richards and Zaheer Abbas, the second between Ian Botham and Mike Procter. Alas, both times the Gloucestershire players won. On another cricketing note, walking to my club one sunny afternoon, a car pulled up alongside me, accosted me even, and I was asked for directions to where I was going myself. They were friendly and belonged to Bristol West Indian CC, so I boldly asked for a lift and told them I would show them personally. Eager to smash some sixes and bowl a stream of bouncers, they were delighted and we happily went to the ground together. But for a moment my heart raced: one must never accept lifts from strangers!
Bristol West Indians. Taken approximately two decades before my own cricket career started (photo: Paul Townsend)
For once, they must have pitched the ball up! (image: BWIPCC)
A series of three tests behind the wheel took me all over Westbury-on-Trym. First, a near perfect run in a sporty Honda prelude, but for a van door in the way. Second time round I had an absolute mare. Everything went wrong. Third time lucky, I sailed round in the family Ford Escort. Each time, I went across the Downs. A stone’s throw away form Blackboy Hill, leading down to White Ladies Road. How I’ve always hated those road names. To my amazement, it seems the names may not have been linked to the slave trade. Maybe not at the time of naming, but they sure are now. They are yet another affront. The Downs themselves are a place of wonder. Being rained on by conkers is one of the great joys of a blustery autumn.
The Downs (photo: Bristol Mum)
In the spiritual realm, I joined Bristol Christian Fellowship. A happy clappy church on Cotham Hill, my salvation for a couple of years when I was seeking a greater sense of purpose in life. Self-worth through divine connection. St Mary Redcliffe and all of Colston’s traditional churches were not for me. Things went fine for a while at BCF, but they expected members to get born again and to speak in tongues. I never quite managed either of those. Heaven knows I tried, but it just wouldn’t happen. Eventually, I went off to be a student in another city. New church. Then no church.
In so many ways, Bristol was somehow my city, and yet so often it was out of reach. I consider myself fortunate on both counts. As I grew into adulthood, I learnt more about the history of the city, and started understanding the world better. Especially the evil history of the slave trade. I became quietly ashamed of the city and its former practices, the cause of its wealth and many of its historic buildings. The churches, the commercial empires enriched through the evil the profits made from violently dragging people away from Africa and conveying them thousands of miles away to the Caribbean, shackled on board ships that set out from the docks of the city where, a few hundred years later, I would grow up and move around at leisure. And in the comfort of our home we would sit round the television on Sunday nights, watching Roots, thinking how terrible it was but what did it have to do with us?
My own life was happy enough on the edge of the city. But I led a very sheltered life, and I am so much more aware now of where I come from, my connections, and my ongoing responsibilities and opportunities. I have told the tale of my diversions and delights, and my naivety and ignorance, in my younger years. In a linked piece, and here again too, I have written about the centuries of anger and discontent culminating in the Colston statue being brought crashing down. I dearly wish it had not taken so long, and that we were not starting again from as far back as we are. Even Liverpool is ahead of Bristol in that it has an International Museum of Slavery. And yet here we are.
Black Lives Matter placards surrounding the empty plinth, after Colston's statue was removed, at last (photo: Bristol City Council)
This is no time to be silent. I see a new spirit cooperation and collective endeavour. An opportunity for social harmony. It’s going to be hard. There will be much more resistance. But better must come. And I want to be part of the process.
And if anyone still thinks the statue should be put back on its plinth, or should ever have been installed in the first place, the onus is on you to say why. Call yourself out. Or just stay quiet, learn, and see what more needs to change. There is plenty.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020
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