Posts Tagged ‘history’

You could be forgiven for thinking that part of the appeal of “Never say ‘No’ to Panda” is the peculiar novelty of seeing pretend animals acting in unexpectedly violent ways.  However, I was shocked to discover possible antecedents in the early work of Jim Henson and an era of “muppet ultraviolence” that hitherto had passed me by.

In 1957, Henson was contacted by Washington DC-based Wilkins Coffee. They asked him to produce a series of 10 second adverts for local tv stations. Between 1957 and 1961 he made – according to the Muppet Wiki – 179 ads, in which Kermit-forerunner Wilkins, the Wilkins Coffee-lover, attacks Wontkins, the Wilkins Coffee-hater, in varyingly violent ways.

The question I have is… Whatever happened to Wilkins Coffee?

Surprisingly, there’s very little information out there, even in the vast cyber-wilderness of the Internet. According to a poster on Michael Procopio’s blog Food for the Thoughtless:

Wilkins sold the roasting plant to The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1970 and continued to distribute Wilkins Coffee from Landover, Maryland. Halco, a public company, purchased Wilkins in 1974 and the division was called Halco/Wilkins Food Service. Wilkins was once again separated and sold in 1982.

There the trail seems to go cold and there are few if any references to what happened to Wilkins Coffee. A second poster on the same site reports that the name was bought by Royal Cup Coffee but notes that there are no products sold with that branding.

Frustratingly, there appears to be very little information available about Wilkins Coffee before its murderous muppet adventures. The only thing I could find is a tantalising early reference in this list of radio programmes which details a 15 minute transmission on WRC (National Broadcasting Co.) at 6.30pm EST on Friday 3rd October 1930 by the Wilkins Coffee Orchestra.

I wonder how big a phenomena that was? I wonder how proud the members of this now-forgotten ensemble must have felt to hear themselves broadcast over the airwaves?

There must have been countless numbers of similar artistic ventures sponsored by companies that are now barely footnotes in our global industrial history. Wilkins Coffee, boasting advertising budgets that could fund hundreds of television ads, now really only survives in the global consciousness as an interesting chapter in the early history of the lunatic puppets created by Jim Henson.

If you can cope with the undoing of happy childhood memories of Kermit’s nephew Robin singing “Halfway Down The Stairs”, take a look at the clips below.

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The election was little more than two weeks ago, though, in truth, the astonishing developments of recent days make it feel like half a lifetime has passed.

This weekend is the first since before the start of the campaign that I have had a moment to catch breath and reflect on the incredible and exhausting roller-coaster of emotions that has carried me through the last few weeks. I am still struggling to get my head around a moment in history that has taken the party to which I have devoted most of my adult life from being the second party of opposition, fighting against media expectations of annihilation, through the incredible highs of Nick Clegg’s performances in the television debates, to the shock and dismay as we lost seats, and, finally, after careful and determined negotiations, on an extraordinary journey into government. Not at any moment had I envisaged the highs and lows of the last seventeen days, nor the conflict of emotion, loyalty and reason that has tested me and many, many party members.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have never been backward in offering up frank criticisms of the Conservative Party. At the risk of offending “socialist” colleagues (I use the term advisedly these days), I have long mischievously regarded the Labour Party as merely a hundred-year anachronism that, hugely significant in its impact on the politics of the twentieth century, is merely the upstart younger brother of a progressive Liberal tradition that has a far longer and richer history as a counter-weight to the political and societal inhibitions of Conservatism. With that as my starting point, the idea of a coalition with the Conservative Party was never something I had entertained, instead attaching my instincts in terms of coalition in a balanced parliament situation to the romantic notion of a realignment of the left and a partnership with a Labour Party looking to rediscover its sense of purpose.

I use the term ‘romantic’ quite deliberately. That sense that Labour were the natural partner of the Liberal Democrats paid scant regard to the illiberal and authoritarian reality of thirteen years of Labour government, but owed more to my admiration for the integrity of leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell who sought the prize of a realignment of the left in order to usher in a new era of liberal reforms. That emotional detachment from political reality governed many of my initial reactions to the General Election result and the truly baffling parliamentary arithmetic delivered by a cynical, angry public to the political class.

Despite an illegal war (yes, it was illegal), huge incursions by the state into our private lives, the threat to traditional British rights such as trial by jury, repeated failure to deliver on reform of the Lords and our electoral system (even though these were manifesto promises), the running down of our rural communities and the ruin of our agricultural industry, the bankrupting of the nation’s finances, and complicity in the ruin of confidence in our Parliament, Labour somehow still felt a more appropriate partner for government. However, listing these abject failures, just as I did in the pause for thought that was created by Nick Clegg’s commitment to allow the party with the greatest mandate to seek to form a government first, forced me to recognise that the political instincts of the Labour Party, still nominally progressive, are as far from my own and my understanding of my party’s as are those of the Conservative Party. More importantly, from the point of view of attempting to come to terms with the political and economic reality of 2010, the Labour Party is exhausted and broken, uncertain of what it believes or what sort of party it should become.

By contrast, the Conservative Party revealed a confident capacity to subordinate expectation, objectives and tradition to the practical necessity of negotiating with its erstwhile political opponent – qualities that had clearly escaped the observations of many commentators who saw minority government as its only route to power. If I am being completely honest, they are qualities that had escaped me, also, my ready preference to hide behind (well-founded!) tribal prejudices proving that I did not know the party I had been campaigning against as well as I liked to believe.

The outcome, a Coalition Agreement and a Coalition Government which sees Liberal Democrats at every ministerial level, is a genuinely radical attempt to confront the challenges facing the country and, in its composition, demonstrates a commitment from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party to making this arrangement work.

Knowing how many of my fellow party members share my instinct, I am proud at the way the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally have responded to the challenge set by the electorate. That there was such considered acclaim for the agreement at the special conference convened to provide an opportunity for members to discuss the Coalition Agreement does not detract from the hard questions the party asked itself. We fully recognise that a new and tough challenge will be to promote ourselves as a party of government, making clear the very real impact that having Liberal Democrats in government will have on people’s lives.

Of course the proof of the pudding will be in its eating at the end of this Parliament and the extent to which the Coalition has delivered on its clear commitments. However, the ambition is tremendous and a high benchmark that has the potential to reconnect the public with politicians and provide a real opportunity to break open the old ways of doing things. The list on which this Coalition is determined to deliver includes things I never seriously believed I would see in the programme of a single government: fixed term parliaments to end the game-playing of sitting prime ministers; an opportunity for the country to decide on voting reform, jemmying the crowbar of preferential voting into our creaking and unrepresentative electoral system; reform of the House of Lords; an ambitious plan to green our economy; a Freedom Bill to roll back the powers of the state; huge investment in the schooling of the country’s poorest pupils; and the raising of the income tax threshold to help those on the lowest incomes.

Most of all, this Parliament provides a uniquely important opportunity for all those supporters of electoral reform: to demonstrate that pluralist politics can work and that the national interest is served by a strong and distinctly Liberal voice in government.

Despite the colourful, passionate and necessary rhetoric of the election, my own emerging understanding of this unprecedented situation is that coalition cannot be founded on our deeply-held prejudices as politicians, but instead has to be grounded in an objective assessment of how best to serve the national interest in all its iterations, however personally troubling the accompanying journey might be. I believe Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made just that assessment, setting aside instinctive and fundamental differences to establish a coincidence of interests to best serve a tired, cynical, yet hopeful public.

I wish them – us –  every success.

And I look forward to pressing the case for Liberal Democrat achievements in Government against robust challenges from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in five years’ time.

You can read the Coalition Agreement, approved by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party 11th May 2010, here:

You can read the Coalition’s Programme for Government, published 20th May 2010, here:

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June 2010 will be the third year that Britain has celebrated Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.

There is a shocking amount of ignorance about the historic and cultural identities of the travelling communities in Britain. Few who are concerned about the impact of travellers on the greenbelt will pause to think about traditions that extend back half a millennium, more rooted in the history of the British isles than many would ever imagine.

As Jake Bowers writes on the GRTHM website:

“Quite simply, ignorance about who we are and where we come from leads to ruined lives.  Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month celebrates our culture and history by tackling the negative stereotyping and prejudices that have led to this situation.”

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, History Month has gained international significance, Gay McDougall, United Nations Independent Expert on Minority issues, issuing a statement welcoming the United Kingdom’s commitment to recognising the contribution of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to British society [see the PDF below].

This year promises to offer the widest range of activities to engage the settled community yet. I hope it crosses your path in places other than this blog. More than anything, I hope we are all big enough to rise to the challenge of considering Gypsy, Roma and Traveller issues with an open mind.

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“The owls are not what they seem…”

I remember it vividly.

1990 and Twin Peaks had been the subject of fevered classroom conversation for weeks. There had been teasers and trailers. Deliciously, it was airing on BBC2. Mark and I were in our final year of sixth form, enjoying a friendship that had been long in the making: a knowledge of each other in primary school refined by the ruin of other friendships in secondary school and a discovery of shared interests in gaming and cards and quirky television.

Twin Peaks, the product of the warped creative genius of David Lynch and Mark Frost, was unlike anything else that had been on television. It was the 1990s and it was the first decade I felt I could truly own, really aware of the music and film and television informing the media culture we were growing up in. It was also the last Century of a dying Millennium and somehow the dark weirdness of Twin Peaks seemed utterly appropriate. And from the slow motion opening credits, accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score, I knew we were hooked.

The murder of Laura Palmer – and the seductive overtures of Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne – would overshadow our final school days.

That all seems a long time ago now and in the intervening years I forgot the specific qualities that made Twin Peaks uniquely brilliant. More sadly, friendships faded and with them the remembrance of things that made them live so vividly at the time.

Then, several years back I spotted Twin Peaks on DVD.

I couldn’t resist. I wanted to know if it had stood the test of time. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Like the very best wine and the very best whisky it had improved. In an almost Lynchian way, it didn’t feel dated – perhaps because so many of the usual markers that age television of a period (technology, city fashions etc) are absent. Instead it was fresh and provocative. And, once again, Twin Peaks accompanied the transformation of a relationship – this time in a very much better direction.

Having previously watched the whole of Sex and the City back to back with Em, Twin Peaks was always going to be something of a contrast. However, we were immediately immersed in Lynch’s mischievous and murderously dark envisioning, lapping up Agent Cooper’s humorous musings, Audrey Horne’s sensuous teasings and hankering after a mug of “damn fine coffee” and a slice of cherry pie.

Lynch is one of our favourite directors.

Even at his most disturbing, there is something shockingly honest about his camera and what it sees. Wild at Heart is one of the films that sticks most in my memory, my Midnight Cowboy or  The Graduate, seeing it for the first time after I moved away from home to begin my studies in Hull. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern give two career-defining performances in this twisted celluloid nightmare that somehow veers just the right side of kitsch, ricocheting through the violent badlands of an America that is only equalled by that of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone in its capacity for brutality. IMDb has a long list of film trivia that is testament to the influences on Lynch and which he recognises in Twin Peaks through wry asides and visual tributes.

Em loved it.

And we both shared the same enormous frustration at learning that the release of Series Two had been held up by legal wranglings. I was particularly keen to get hold of it as I had – have – seen every episode except the very last. Mark never spoiled it for me and I don’t know to this day how the series resolved.

On several consecutive August excursions to Cornwall we asked the guy in Moods and Visions, in Falmouth’s George’s Arcade, if it had been released. We always left empty-handed, wondering if we would ever get to sit down with Coop again.

Then, quite by chance, walking past Basildon’s HMV just last week, I saw it.

Series Two.

Tonight we went back to Twin Peaks and picked up where we left off. It is gloriously bonkers and I am glad to be back home.

Buy it. Watch it.

Enjoy it for the uniquely brilliant piece of extended television theatre it is.

And just in case you are reading, Mark, here’s another little reminder of 1990…

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The White Lion, Fobbing

I meant to write this some days ago, but I am discovering that work is eating the hours as never before. It’s not only when you are having fun that time flies…

But last Sunday afternoon was perfect for late March. I spent the best of it at The White Lion in Fobbing, drinking jars of ale with my cousin and enjoying bright sunshine, being the only two sitting out in the garden. There was something timeless about enjoying a beer, surrounded by violets, the stone tower of the church behind us and it was impossible not to feel the history.

We were joined on the bench by a craggy wildfowler and the conversation turned to trees and birds, the durability of fence posts hewn from different hard woods and a reassuringly rural challenge to burn chestnut without it spitting (apparently if it is seasoned after a natural dead fall it doesn’t – in any other circumstances it does). So very good to be reminded that there are still folk around who really do understand the way in which our lives are bound up with the countryside – and not in a soppy, sentimental way, but one that recognises the co-dependence of different habitats. It’s not many afternoons that I get to discuss the impact of plastic fascia boards on the nesting potential of houses and their contribution to declining garden bird populations. We left giving merry assurances to investigate the re-siting of owl boxes.

I then went to his parents to collect a book by local historian Randal Bingley. In return for ten pounds I received a copy of Behold The Painful Plough, Country Life in West Tilbury, Essex 1700-1850. (For those interested in obtaining a copy, drop me an email or contact Thurrock Museum Services who singularly fail to promote this brilliant book – which they publish: ISBN 0-9506141-8-1.) I was gobsmacked to arrive and find Randal Bingley there, drinking tea at a picnic bench under an apple tree, and talking about political anscestry with my uncle. We joined them and spent a pleasant hour discussing the value of the written record, the folly of reliance on digital information, East Tilbury’s Bata shoe factory and Sir Peter Scott on Nature Parliament, part of Children’s Hour.

It was wonderful and random.

As life should be.

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“He is as Autumn shadows, stealing soundlessly beneath the vaulted arches of the Moon-burnt sky, the deadly promise of a winter’s blade in the dark watches of the night. Relentlessly he pursues Her. Defiantly he loves Her.”

Keredh Windryder, Ranger

Gaming is either something you get or something you don’t.

For some of us, the prospect of immersing ourselves in the LCD glow of a world constructed from bits and bytes sets our pulses racing. Our imaginations can spend all day rehearsing the moment we turn the lights off and sit down to lead our friends and guild-mates into battle.

For the rest, the prospect leaves them cold. The world of the geek gamer is a dark and alien place, strewn with the detritus of a life lived online:  cans of coke, empty coffee mugs with a crusted sediment deep inside, discarded crisp packets and sweet wrappers – and the musty – occasionally rancid – smell of immobile, sleepless concentration.

I suspect most of my family, friends and colleagues fall into this latter category, bemused at the hours of life that Em and I can spend in these virtual worlds, each with its own lexicon, politics and social mores.

Computer gaming, though, has been a huge part of my life for almost thirty years.

As technology has developed, so the boundaries between real life and virtual life have shifted and blurred. Sometimes this has had catastrophic personal consequences – and on other occasions it has resulted in moments of sheer serendipity. I can honestly say that gaming, specifically the two incarnations of Everquest, has impacted my life in far more significant ways than I could have ever envisaged.

More on that another time, perhaps.

So it was today, sitting at work, that I felt a familiar ache. A longing for a place I know better than the back of my hand. A place that most script kiddies and World of Warcraft fanbois have never known – but a place that makes Azeroth look as exciting as Tellytubby land.


Sony’s Everquest is the Great Granddaddy of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). Everquest 2 is its electrifying reinvention.

On and off for the last seven years, Everquest (Everquest 2 for me these days) has been a way of escaping from the stresses and strains of an exhausting day. But how did I reach a point in life where I can see a point to investing hours in the development, customisation and manipulation of a virtual avatar, a wood-elf ranger that specialises in striking down his enemies with a blow from the shadows or a bow-strike inflicting massive damage from afar? (And believe me,  I can!)

That is a story that takes me from Mazogs on the ZX-81 in 1982, to Sentinel of Fate, the latest EQ2 expansion, in 2010. In an occasional series of pieces in the coming weeks I will explore that story. I want to reflect on the friendships forged in huddled hours around the screen – and remember the computers and the games that have given me so many fond memories.

In the meantime, take a look at where it started in 1982:

And see where that story is now in 2010:

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So there I am, thinking about a post I want to write on my imminent return to Everquest 2, when absent Googling throws up this little gem. 100 Amiga games in ten minutes. What a trip down memory lane!

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