Tuesday 26 May 2009


Is there such a phenomenon as Bank Holiday bloodlust?

There might be something in it. The Mods and Rockers always used to enjoy a nice Bank Holiday punch-up at Weston-super-Mare or Brighton.

Cheese rolling ('Cheesy' yesterday) is a Bank Holiday tradition involving the Roman-style spectacle of lemming-people risking limb and life hurling themselves down the steepest hill I've ever seen.

Admittedly, it's a bit tame for the Romans what with the "catchers" waiting at the bottom of the hill to stop uncontrolled contestants impaling themselves on the fencing. The Romans would have had hungry tigers and lions salivating at the foot of the hill and the chasers might have needed determined prodding to go down. But the whole massed chorus of baying cheering hoi polloi struck me as the kind of crowd you'd get in on a big night at the colosseum.

The other big Gloucestershire bloodlust tradition hasn't been seen for many years. It was a good one; firing a woman out of a cannon across a river.

It must be twenty five years ago at least that a guy called Joe Weston-Webb would rock up to Tewkesbury on Bank Holiday Monday with his human cannon. It was a big black home-made job about the size of a fire engine. The human was a girl called Mary, who was no more than 17 and looked 13. She probably lied about her age. A slight, slip of a thing with no glamour about her whatsoever. Not for her the Las Vegas showgirl glitz, the Madonna brassiere, the skimpy bikini or humungous improbable implants and Tangoed body. She dressed in jeans and an anonymous baggy T shirt. She looked as though she was taking a break from the milking parlour.

Her only protective clothing was a black helmet which could have been salvaged from the World War I.

Large crowds would gather alongside the River Avon after paying their groats or whatever was the currency in those days and Mary would climb on to the cannon and let herself gingerly down into the tube. The plan was to emerge head first.

There would be a significant delay of 45 minutes punctuated by announcements about delays for "important safety checks" while many hot dogs and beers were sold to the expectant masses.

Joe's henchmen had a net waiting somewhat optimistically on the other side of the River Avon.

Call it tension, call it boredom, but one or the other, or both would build until the crowd yelled along with the final countdown to blast off.

There was a minor explosion half as loud as a shotgun, wisps of smoke from the cannon and we would wait muttering "Oh my God. She's toast" until Mary's helmet appeared from the end of the muzzle. She would wave to assure everyone of her continuing health and disappear again for the cannon to be reloaded.

If we were really lucky, there would be another slightly louder explosion and Mary would be expelled, legs and arms flailing. Breaths would be held as everyone plotted her brief trajectory into the river. She generally popped up to the surface pretty quickly. Rescue personnel would heave her on boat their boat and take her to the bank where she'd clamber up to a heroine's welcome.

After at least two successive years of broken promises, there was a definite feeling that the crowds were calling out for more. Plopping into the river wasn't enough. After all, she was supposed to be shot clear across the river. That was the point. People don't like failure and lack of blood. It's tedious. No-one dared admit it but the ghouls had only turned up in order to see either a girl shot clear across the river or fodder briefly roasted inside the cannon.

I was told on the quiet that the stunt was quite safe as long as Mary landed in the river. The real risk was if by some quirk of nature, she actually did make the distance because, er, there was no direction-finder on the cannon, the net wasn't actually that big and it was much easier to miss the net than the river.

So imagine the brown trouser moment the Bank Holiday when there was really quite a large explosion (think a dozen boiled-dry eggs exploding in a saucepan in a small kitchen) and Mary flew in a perfect arc, (legs and arms aerodynamically trained by now) and cleared the Avon by an alarming margin.

It was one of those horrifying slo-mo sequences. It was looking as though, this time, this one time she was flying so far that she was also going to clear the net.

There was a choral "Ooooh..." then silence.

Some sensitive souls flinched and turned away. Mary ricocheted from the very edge of the net and bounced into the middle like a broken puppet.

The silence continued. She lay crumpled and still. Then she twitched, stretched and waved a cheerful arm with a fist clenched in victory.

She had done it. A roar of approval from the satisfied spectators. They hadn't seen blood but they had very nearly seen a tragedy. They seemed content. Jubilant, even. My knees were jelly and I felt a bit sick. For once, Joe had lived up to his promise. I vowed never to go again. Too traumatic.

I didn't need to worry. That was the last such event in Tewkesbury. I suspect that the fact that Joe had at last succeeded in his aim induced Health and Safety to step in and produce a thick raft of conditions which made a repeat performance impossible.

Joe went on with his shows elsewhere catapulting girls, wrestling crocodiles, racing goldfish.

I'm not sure he shot Mary ever again. It would be nice to think it was her swansong. She is fine, by all accounts because, dear reader, Joe married her.

I last heard of him on "Have I Got News for You" which reported a story about him using his cannon to fire chicken muck at unwelcome intruders. At least he's not firing the wife.... well, I don't think he is.. . maybe only on Bank Holidays.