CJ Stone's Britain: a series of columns for the Guardian Weekend
CJ Stone’s Britain was a series of travel columns which appeared in the Guardian Weekend Travel section between October 1996 and March 1998. It followed on from the very popular Housing Benefit Hill column which had appeared in the same magazine for the previous three years.
It had fairly loose parameters. The only connection between the places was that I was there in them, hence the title: CJ Stone’s Britain. And the way I picked them was fairly relaxed too: if I knew someone there, or there was some kind of an association in my life, then it was fair game to write about it.
I was writing my book at the time, The Last of the Hippies, so some of the places were chosen because I was investigating them for the book. Also I was living in a van which was intrinsic to my life in this period: living on the road, travelling about the country, visiting people and places I had known from my earlier life.
The first of the stories features Steve, better known as the Bard of Ely here on HubPages. Steve is an important figure in my life and more than one of the stories have him as the central figure.
When I’d first pitched the concept, the editor had told me to write at my leisure. Which is what I did. The original version of this story came in at over 3,000 words long. The published version was much shorter, at around a third of the length, and wasn’t anywhere near as good, so it’s the longer version you have here, featuring some busking, some washing up, and a terrible tale about one messed up person’s suicide.
The story was called Old Habits die hard, and you can read it here.
The next place I visited was Birmingham, the city of my birth. This was inevitable really, as part of the point of the stories was an exploration, not only of Britain, but of CJ Stone's view of it. This one involves a dead cat, a lost wallet and a visit to the Rag Market, and you can read it here.
I had a friend in Scotland, who had introduced me to the central character in the next story. His name is John Plott, and he’s a singular figure, as you can read here.
The story also involves a hangover, which, not surprisingly, I had acquired the night before. You can read how I got the hangover in a story which didn’t appear in the Guardian, but in Mixmag, around the same time. So maybe it’s not part of the original series, but it might help to explain a thing or two. The character of “Scoob” in the one, and “Kodan” in the other are the same person. He was a great friend of mine. His real name was Alan Ashcroft, and he sadly passed away a few years ago now. A lot of these stories feature friends who have since died. The Mixmag story is here.
The next piece is set in Coventry, birthplace of the car as it declares itself, and once again it opens with a hangover, which must tell you quite a lot about my life at the time. This one focuses a lot on a landmark feature in the town which, even as I was writing the story, was being dismantled. This was Anarchy Bridge, which also features in the novel A Touch of Love by Jonathan Coe, although I didn’t know this at the time, and it plays no part in the story. You can find the Coventry piece here.
The next story involves a location which is in two places at the same time. It was my sister’s flat in Charlton, London, and the story illustrates the way in which our social attitudes affect the place we live. A few months later, after I’d moved out of my sister’s flat, I went back to the pub which is featured in the story and was surprised to find myself the centre of attention. The landlord bought me a drink. It was the first time his pub had ever got a mention in the Guardian, and a lot of people had visited it as a consequence. The story is here.
The next story is set in Poole in Dorset and – once more – involves an extended drinking session, this time in the company of a young German nurse called Vera, and a philosopher with a stutter called Phil.
The text of this story is here.
The next one is another story about my good friend Steve, though this takes place in Swansea rather than Cardiff. My conclusion about Swansea is that nothing much happens there, though you’ll have to judge whether that makes for a good story or not. You can read about Swansea here.
The next one is also about Steve, and is probably one of his best stories. Unfortunately I got told off by the Guardian for this one. “You’ll have to decide, are you writing people stories or travel stories?” my editor asked. I was told I had to concentrate on the travel element more. It's set in Ely in Cardiff and you can read it here.
The next story features my good friend and arch prankster Tim Sebastion, Archdruid of the Secular Order of Druids (read the acronym) now sadly passed away. You can read the story here, and Tim’s obituary here. I recommend you read both.
The next story takes place in Ironville in Derbyshire where I was invited by the Groovy Movies Picture House, which was a mobile solar powered cinema doing the rounds at the time. It still exists, as you can discover if you follow the link. The story appears on my website, but the version which appeared in the Guardian was a little shorter. They weren’t keen on the reference to the newspaper, but I think it’s quite amusing, so I’ve left it in. You can read about Ironville here.
The next story is set in Western-super-Mare and its suburb, Worle, and features two old school chums, Joe and Pam Field. The article caused something of a stir at the time. As Pam says: “This article almost led to a fight in Worle! There was a Labour Party meeting in a pub, and a Worle resident did not take kindly to Chris's write-up.” And one more thing: no carrot and coriander soup was harmed during the writing of this article. You can read about Weston super Mare here.
The next piece was written in memory of my Aunt Else and Uncle George who looked after me for a while when I was about 19 years old. I worked in Burton on Trent as a dustman, developed muscles, and a taste for beer. Which is what this story is about mainly: beer. You can take a sip of Burton ale here.
The final story in the series comes from Hull in what was North Humberside when I was living there – now reverted back to it’s original location in Yorkshire. I’m proud of this story – as I am of all of them in this series – even though it was the last one and lead to my final break with the Guardian. As StarCreate says in one of the comments: “Just goes to show that interesting and evocative travel Hubs don't depend upon exotic and glamorous locations!” You can read about Hull here.
And that was exactly the point of these stories: ordinary places, but written about with honest affection, in a way which evokes their spirit for the reader. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed the process of exploring the towns and writing about them. Perhaps they represent a time gone by. Then again, there is still much in these stories that is relevant today.
- CJ Stone's Britain: Old habits die hard (Cardiff)
There's an apocryphal story about Cardiff, that during the plague they buried some of the victims alive. People say that this is the reason that Cardiff has so many delinquents and messed up people wandering about