“Psst! The secret’s out…”

Secret Exeter cover

 

Welcome to Exeter: a city of witch trials, civil war sieges, uprisings, thwarted conquests and World War II bombing raids…

At least it was once…

Today Exeter is a modern, thriving and pleasant city, known for its cathedral, university, busy array of shops, cafés and restaurants and historic quayside. However, beyond its sometimes quirky, narrow streets, hide many lesser-known aspects in its history, those forgotten fragments of the city’s past that have thus far mostly eluded twenty-first-century attention.

How many people today, for example, know of the devastating Victorian theatre fire, the mass executions or of the multiple sieges that the city has endured during centuries of warfare? In Secret Exeter, local authors Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam attempt to shed light on the neglected corners of Exeter’s past.

From the introduction of Secret Exeter:

“Exeter is a fine place to live. Like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, it is neither too hot or too cold, but just right, (although it is admittedly sometimes too wet). It is the perfect size: it is not too big and not too small. Exeter is just big enough to be practical but not so gigantic as to be overwhelming. It is neither Brobdingnag or Lilliput. Assuming you are reasonably fit, it is easy to walk into the countryside from virtually anywhere in the city…

“But this is not a tourist brochure. The aim of Secret Exeter is to shed light on the hitherto less renowned aspects of Exeter history. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. On the one hand, Exeter’s history is very apparent. It’s hard to walk very far at all without seeing some reminder of it: a cannon on the Quayside, a statue of a soldier on a horse, a section of the city wall. On the other hand, these are all arguably so well-known and obvious as to not really qualify as ‘secret’: surely everyone knows about them? But while many people pass them by, few know their real history.

“Another factor is the surprisingly large number of obscure and sometimes incredible facts in the city’s history. Ultimately, we’ve decided not to try and second guess what people know, as it is impossible for us to know what you, the reader, is aware of. One person’s revelation is another’s hoary cliché. We hope everyone will find something in here that they didn’t know before, whether it’s murderous mayors or evidence of bomb damage that residents of the city may have walked past hundreds of times without knowing that’s what it was.

“Indeed, our particular interest isn’t only in telling the history and stories of Exeter past, but how hints and evidence of the city’s history still exist around every corner in buildings, place names and in the ground itself – as long as you know what you’re looking for.”

Secret Exeter

By Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam

Published by: Amberley

September 15th, 2018

96 pages

100 pictures

£13.49

https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/local-history/area/devon/secret-exeter.html

Author information

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough in 1976. He moved to Exeter in 2005 to write for a monthly DVD review magazine which Tim Isaac was the editor of. He has since written for the Exeter Express and Echo, Geeky Monkey, All About History, Best of British, Yours and Yours Retro magazines and has written several children’s annuals. He is married, lives in Exeter and can recite all the kings and queens back to 1066 in order.

Secret Exeter

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Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016 and The Roger Mellie Telly Times

viz

(Trigger warning: Rude words ahead!)

Is Viz as funny as it used to be? It’s been well over thirty-five years since the teenage Chris Donald first started selling his own self-produced adult comics in Newcastle pubs as a means of escaping unemployment in 1979. By the end of the next decade, it was a massive success story selling more than almost any other periodical except the TV and Radio Times.

I started reading it myself at about that point and to me it will always seem funnier then, partly because of the novelty and danger factor (reading it at school risked confiscation) and partly because I was barely into my teens. Just the name of the story Buster Gonad and His Unfeasibly Large Testicles was enough to send me into paroxysms of chuckling mirth for minutes on end. Other comics of the time were always promising to generate this sort of reaction. Viz was the only one that did. Buster and The Dandy could only offer mild amusement.

Some of my favourite strips are long gone: Finbarr Saunders and his Double Extenders, Roger Irrelevant (“He’s totally hat-stand”) and Victorian Dad and Modern Parents. I never liked the Fat Slags (to date, the only Viz story to hit the big screen, albeit in disastrous form) which is still going.

Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly is still here too both in this annual and in this new anthology of his old strips The Roger Mellie Telly Times, both available now.

One suspects the idea of a foul-mouthed TV presenter like Mellie is less shocking now than it was in the Eighties. But in truth, he has his moments.

And yes, Viz still is funny. Even if you don’t warm to the comic stories (the long running Sid The Sexist, Ivan Jellical, Gilbert Ratchet, Raffles The Gentleman Thug most of which derive a little from the traditions of British children’s comics, try the news stories (“Donald Trump’ s World of Pumps”) or better still Letterbocks, always Viz’s funniest section. “Do you think it’s possible to train a hedgehog to walk up and down a table with cubes of cheese stuck to the end of its spikes?” asks one reader who is planning a party.

viz mellie

Or maybe it’s not for you. As the editor of Punch once said when asked if his magazine was as funny as it used to be, he simply replied: “it never was”.

Or as Roger Mellie would put it: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

roger_hail_sweary

Book reviews: Viz Annual The Otter’s Pocket 2016

The Roger Mellie Telly Times

Both published by Dennis

Book review: Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

thatcher

Thatcher’s Secret War: Subversion, Secrecy and Government, 1974-90

By Clive Bloom

Published by: The History Press

The Thatcher era was probably the most radically divisive in recent political history. The period is fascinating and has, of course, been well documented.

But what about the secret state? What was going on behind the scenes?

Thatcher has been out of power for almost a quarter of a century now and dead since 2013, but no one would expect all of the secrets of Britain’s espionage activity during her tenure to be revealed yet (or, indeed, ever) and Clive Bloom doesn’t claim this. This is nevertheless a fascinating and sometimes chilling read.

The book opens in 1974, at a time when Thatcher herself was still in Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. The nation, however, was already starting to experience the intense political polarisation which would characterise her time in Downing Street. It was a time of intense paranoia with groups of retired officers plotting a coup should the nation take a sudden leftward turn. Airey Neave, Thatcher’s confidante, who would himself be assassinated by the IRA shortly before Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 General Election reportedly threatened Tony Benn with assassination if the latter ever became leader of the Labour Party. Bloom claims the chances of Benn ever becoming leader were “slim”. We now know of course that he never did. But would this have been obvious at the time? It seems doubtful: Benn might well have led his party had he stood in 1980 or had he not lost his seat in 1983. But anyway…

In 1976, Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and soon began talking to journalists like this:

“I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room. Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. The blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere.”

Wilson was clearly long past his best: an alcoholic and probably suffering from the early stages of dementia. But MI5 had been plotting against him when he was in power. It was a fact.

Under Thatcher from 1979, the government’s enemies were clearly defined: the IRA, unions, the Soviet Union, British socialists and the Left, the last few often viewed as effectively in alliance. The enemy within. The government even took the view that the inner city rioting of the early Eighties could be blamed on left wing politicians stirring things up.

Covering everything from the still emerging scandal concerning high level paedophilia, to the battles with the IRA, the miners and the Soviets, to the alarming number of suspicious looking and unexplained deaths, this is the book not of a conspiracy theorist or even a polemicist but a balanced and well written insight into the world of those who lived and worked in the shadows during the most interesting decade (or so) in modern British political history.

thatcher secret war

Book review: Movie Star Chronicles: A Virtual History of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars

movie book

Movie Star Chronicles: A Virtual History of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars

General Editor: Ian Haydn Smith

Foreword by: David Gordon Green

Published by: Aurum Press, October 1st 2015

Who needs a book on films these days? This is 2015, after all. If I need to know about a particular film or film star I just have to fiddle around with my phone for a little bit and the answer will be revealed.

Why does the postman always ring twice? Surely most of the time he doesn’t need to ring at all, particularly if there’s no post that day.

What is a Fassbender? Orson Welles that end well? Will Smith or not? If Christoph Waltz, why does Charles Dance? Natalie Wood but is Robert Shaw?

Such questions are all answered somewhere by Auntie Internet. Contrary to legend, IMDB does not stand for Internet Movie Database. It stands for I Must Destroy Books.

Indeed, if you still have any books at home you might as well make a big bonfire of them now. They’re worthless. Like those ones made of dust in the far future scenes of the film The Time Machine (not the Samantha Mumba one. For God’s sake!) They are worth more as pollution than they are as a book.

Enough silliness. This is a book to restore your faith in books, specifically film books. It is stylish, lovingly put together, well illustrated and written.  It’s basically a page by page guide to 300 film stars living and dead. It is not comprehensive nor does it claim to be. If you’re a fan of Steve Buscemi or John Lithgow as I am, look elsewhere.

But for an attractive and informative coffee table guide to Hollywood’s biggest stars, this is ideal.

tom-cruise

General Election memories 8: 2010

New government starts

Exeter, May 6th 2010

A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.

cam 2 2010

2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.

Welsh Conservative conference

In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee  solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.

My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.

Bradshaw

For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt.  History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.

Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.

2010

Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.

Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:

Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).

The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.

Nick-Clegg