13 November 2008

WoS Goes To London

It's been a pretty sucky year for WoS daytrips, dear viewers. Abysmal weather, various technical and traffic issues, and real-life economic pressures have conspired to imprison your would-be intrepid reporter within his own four walls for almost the whole of 2008, with the few ventures that were attempted (such as a rather bizarre trip to the Green Man festival in Abergavenny) invariably ending ankle-deep in mud. Only once, on a warm and sunny day in early September, did the fates (taking the form of a fortuitous series of unikely coincidences and special-offer promotions) align to permit a moderately successful adventure, and even then the quest ended with most of its original goals unconquered. But the two primary missions were both achieved, and surpassed all expectations, and WoS now humbly submits its debriefing for your enlightenment.  

If, like this writer, you're a fan of delicious snack treats, there exists in the UK a national archive of the utmost importance. The Museum Of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London's Notting Hill isn't merely a repository of old crisp and sweet wrappers, but it counts many hundreds of such exhibits among its thousands of items, and with the aid of a bargain advance rail ticket and a stupendously excellent two-for-one admission promotion, the entire WoS team set off for the capital on a massively ambitious cultural tour designed to explore as much of the nation's history as humanly possible in a single day. Departing from Bath Spa railway station at the crack of dawn one Saturday morning, we arrived at Paddington, and then from Notting Hill tube station, just in time for opening.

The Union Jack building isn't the museum. But that's some serious branding anyway.

The MOBPA is unassumingly located down a little mews-type alleyway about 10 minutes' walk from the tube station, and just off the Portobello Road market. WoS dallied for a while on the way in the many interesting shops in the area, but the lure of old crisp packets was powerful and we were the museum's first customers of the day. It looks tiny, particularly as it's all on the ground floor of the building, but the impression proves deceptive, and even in the small entrance reception the display cases are packed full of superb exhibits (comprising both originals and giant replicas, though the large majority of the museum is devoted to the former) like packets of "RINSO - The Dirt Dispeller" and Co-op commemorative Jubilade, celebrating Her Majesty's 25th year on the throne in the medium of strawberry lemonade, alongside what must have been a very short-lived "Chocolade" from Corona. (Elsewhere, royal events are also heralded by special-edition Salt'n'Shake crisps, biscuits and Coke - it's hard to imagine anyone caring that much about a royal wedding these days, isn't it?)

Moving into the museum proper assails you immediately with a massive visual stimulus overload. It's arranged in mostly chronological order, starting around the time of the First World War and moving forward by decades. There are lots of war-themed exhibits, from ceramic piggy banks in the shape of WW1 tanks, to marmalade adverts featuring letters from soldiers at the front, to (I think) Boer War boardgames, and tins of Needlers Military Acid Drops, which are boiled sweets rather than chemical weapons. There's also some rather sinister master-race material, like the baby-rusks posters asserting "We Cannot Have An A-1 Empire With A C-3 Population", and a confectionery flyer featuring three very sternly-moustached soldiers (see boardgames pic) insisting that you always buy "Purity Brand" sweets. The political upheavals of the age are also seen in a large amount of what appear to be mostly satirical products related to the struggles of the Suffragettes.

The media of the time appears to have been
almost exclusively hostile to votes for women.

Moving on to the brief peaceful period between the two World Wars, you find branding and packaging really starting to make itself noticed. (Pre-war packaging largely utilised the Ronseal approach of using the box/tin to explain a thing's purpose in functional terms.) From the 1920s onwards, products started to develop identifiable brand styles, and some of them, like the first Kit-Kats and Bournville chocolate, are instantly recognisable almost a century on. (In that picture, incidentally, you'll also see an example of one of the most excellent features of the museum, namely the presence not only of packaging, but also occasionally the actual products themselves, in this case some rather worse-for-wear Liquorice Allsorts.) Rolos, too, have barely changed in a hundred years.

Others, like Turkish Delight and Milky Way, were still trying to find their identity. (My favourite of the dozens of different looks that Turkish Delight went through before settling on purple is this beautiful and tasteful "gold bar" style, accompanied by the tremendously old-fashioned tagline "bigger and heavier". How times change.) And why can't you still buy chocolate with just raisins in it, by the way? WHY MUST NUTS ALWAYS RUIN IT?

Pressure on vital resources in WW2 was even felt in the world of dice manufacture.

The Second World War, which you come to next, was a much more austere time for packaging, with little of the outpouring of celebratory propaganda zeal of the First. Where trivial things like sweets survived the rigours of rationing at all, they were found wrapped in plain paper with sober markings, akin to today's supermarket economy lines. (I was terribly disappointed a few years ago when Sainsbury's retreated from the fantastically utilitarian design of their original budget brands, where you could go in and buy a bottle of spirits adorned only with a square of white paper with the word "VODKA" stamped on it in big black letters.) So there are comparatively few exhibits from the 1939-45 period, although those that do survive are no less splendid for that.

It wasn't until the 1950s and (particularly) the 1960s that the art of commercial packaging as we know it really took flight, and finally free of the restrictions of wartime (rationing in Britain continued well into the 50s as the country struggled to recover from the massive economic damage wrought by the war), shop shelves exploded in a riot of bright colours, fantasy glamour and aspirational optimism for the future. (From this era WoS is especially fond of Stripey The Magic Mini, which appears to be owned by a couple of bears with human children, and also of Dan Dare Interplanetary Dominoes.)

 If only there had been an episode of The Sweeney
featuring deadly space robots. Or Dusty Bin.

Your reporter was born at the end of the 1960s, so it's at around this period that things start appearing in the museum that I have personal recollections of. (Basically, anything priced in decimal is my era - I was four when the "new money" came in, pretty much the same point at which I was first able to buy anything for myself, though I do just recall when Fruit Salad and Black Jacks were four for 1p, meaning that you couldn't buy a single one since the smallest denomination of decimal currency was the halfpence.) Chocolate bars like Cadbury's delicious milk-and-plain-blended Ice Breaker, for example, are fresh in this writer's memory despite being out of production for 20 years or more. (Though I must have missed the decimally-priced peppermint Crunchie in that pic by a matter of days.)

(The one thing I'd really hoped to see on the visit as a pure nostalgia trip was the similar and tragically-lamented Mint Cracknel, a strange construction of two thin, square paving slabs of chocolate filled with what was basically sheets and shards of mint-flavoured glass. Sadly the museum didn't have any, though you can get a reasonable approximation today by going to a South African import shop and picking up some Nestle Peppermint Crisp.)

Familiar, too, was a range of drinks including Jokers (featuring Tom and Jerry cartoon strips on every can), Top Deck shandy and the tooth-furring majesty of blackcurrant Cresta, and a characterful collection of ice lollies - though it's generally best not to tell people that in your childhood you enjoyed enthusiastically sucking on many a Screaming Red Woppa.

I think it's a real shame you can no longer get
lager and lime in a can, with a romantic picture.

WoS' heart was quickening now, though, because we were approaching the crisps section. Only an unfortunate rat incident had prevented the museum receiving a donation of a packet of Tudor's incredibly short-lived chocolate crisps that I'd successfully hoarded unopened for over a decade, but many bags had managed to survive with their contents intact, and were on display for all to admire. The reduction in the breadth and depth of crisp flavours available today is a sad indictment on our national character in the post-Thatcher years, too easily swayed by overpriced "posh" crisps in poncy flavours involving things that no normal person would ever eat in real life, like chives and sour cream. (What the hell ARE chives, anyway?) For these we've sacrificed proper British flavours like gammon, chutney, Oxo, pickled onion, deep-fried chicken and of course sweet'n'sour pork, and it makes me mad.

It's also really sad that we've lost almost all of the different crisp manufacturers there used to be. When WoS was younger, a trip to a new part of the UK would bring with it the dizzy excitement of a whole new range of savoury snacks, as different regions were dominated by different companies. But Tudor, Smiths (charmingly self-billed as the 'IT' crisps, presumably enjoyed by swinging hipsters), Burtons, KP and Golden Wonder are all now gone, or else completely marginalised (you can still find KP crisps in wholesalers, but they don't seem to be sold anywhere but a few discount bargain stores), and everywhere you go from Lands End to John O'Groats you see the same half-a-dozen dull Walkers flavours. 

(The dismaying fact, incidentally, that pound shops are the last surviving bastion of diversity on the High Street will be the subject of a WoS feature all of its own one day.)

Smiths Bones were especially lovely, and have no modern equivalent.

I had to be physically dragged away from a wistful (and hungry) reverie at this point, and we were already over the 90 minutes allotted for the museum on the tour schedule, but there was still a lot to see. The museum's admirably ambitious goal is to catalogue the whole of consumer design culture, not just snack treats, and there are numerous themed displays set alongside the chronological procession. (There isn't room to show all the museum's inventory at once, so it also puts on special mini-galleries for a few months at a time.)

There are sections devoted to board games, toys (a terrifying grey-skinned zombie Ponch from CHiPs), magazines (how I long to know whether "Honey" eventually concluded that Sweden was an example or a warning), and the simply troubling (what "unique symbolic fantasy" entailed one shudders to imagine). And having previously viewed the many exhibits from the world wars, it's somewhat jarring to come across a cabinet filled with Sex Pistols memorabilia including the famous "Destroy" shirt, complete with swastika, but it's just another little bonus treat in a treasure trove of iconic design.

I like the reflection of the "That's Life" boardgame in this picture.

But ultimately the MOBPA (note: when planning your trip, don't get confused with the MOPBA, which is the Museum Of Particularly Bad Art, and will involve making a much longer journey) knows what attracts its audience, and you're soon back into the realms of everyday shopping, with lots of rather more mundane household products. (It's not that these are dull, you understand - check out the fantastic limited-edition Pepsi cans, or the wonderful tin of oil made to cunningly look like a bird that I couldn't quite manage to get a decent picture of - merely that they don't have the same magical associations that long-lost sweets and crisps do, or strange things from barely-imaginable bygone days. Not many people have especially strong feelings towards J-cloths or pedal bin liners of the 1990s.)

But the museum also knows how to end with a flourish, and until May 2009 the final section as you near the exit comprises a spectacular showing dedicated entirely to the sweets of the 1960s. (Which were of course also in large part the sweets of the 1970s and even 1980s.) WoS could ramble endlessly about it, but you know that you just want to see the pictures.

New Berry Fruits are the all-time favourite sweet of WoS' mum. (Not pictured.)

There was an odd fashion in the 60s for making chocolate look like cigarettes.
(See also the Cadbury Twenties in the middle of this shot from the museum's website.)

By comparison, the range of centres in today's choc bars is dismal. Although
some of the lines in the museum that are now discontinued
in the UK can still be found in Australia or South Africa.

Roses: schizophrenic.

Even WoS doesn't remember blackcurrant Toffos.
Mint ones are still made, but are very elusive.

Yet another flavour of Cadbury's centre, there. And what's with that Galaxy design?

The Milk Tray bar was especially interesting, being basically eight or so
individual Milk Tray chocs, in their original shapes, glued
together on a chocolate base to form a single unit.

If WoS could bring back just one chocolate bar,
it'd probably be the fruit'n'biscuit Tiffin.

And that, almost two-and-three-quarter hours later, was that for the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Design. It comes with WoS' heartiest recommendation even if you go by yourself and have to pay the full entry fee of a modest 5.80, but if you go with a chum using the coupons linked in the second paragraph of this feature, it's just a ridiculous bargain at 2.90 a head. The pictures here are just a small fraction of what's on display, and the museum is so absorbing that WoS was already striking two venues off its projected itinerary for the day, but more of that soon. If you live in London, or within a reasonably-priced journey of it, this is a place that'll make you happy. And who doesn't like being happy?

(Answer below.)

See you next time, viewers!

Next on WoS: something completely different.

Sorry, what? Why do I hate Americans? Oh yeah, that. Britain, viewers, used to love limes, greatest of all the fruits - so much so, in fact, that the Americans famously call us "limeys" to this day. And accordingly, we used to have lots of delicious lime-flavoured snack treats. Starting all the way back with Roses Lime Jujubes, through Terry's Lime Fruit Pastilles, original Opal Fruits with lime ones instead of a foul blackcurrant "Starburst", right up to the gorgeous (but recently discontinued) lime Crusha milkshake syrup, green in a British snack food has always meant lovely, sharp, juicy lime. Mm.

But in the last 10-20 years, the increasing hegemony of US influence over what we consume has meant lime slowly disappearing, to be insidiously replaced by that gross pretend fruit favoured by idiot Yanks, the apple. Blech. Now, if you buy a bag of jelly beans or fruit chews, chances are that you have to spend five minutes tipping it all out onto the table and picking out all the disgusting apple ones, lest you absent-mindedly stick your hand into the packet while watching telly and put something with the flavour of punishment and hate into your mouth. If I wanted vegetables I'd have gone to the greengrocer's for a snack, not a sweet shop. Give us back our limes, you fucks. 

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