Other Half and I had a lovely trip to Carlisle yesterday for Matt Hilton’s latest book launch.
For those of you who don’t know Matt, he writes the Joe Hunter series of crime thrillers, which runs to around thirteen books now and is very popular. However, for this particular book, ‘Demon Drink & Devil’s Porridge’, he has changed tack somewhat. The book contains seven short stories, still featuring crime, but set against the historical backdrop of the little-known State Management Scheme in Carlisle.
This dates from the First World War, when workers from the huge munitions factory at nearby Gretna descended on the pubs of Carlisle and drank too much. Not only were the good citizens of Carlisle appalled at the drunken behaviour which followed, but alcohol and high explosives make for uneasy bedfellows.
Concerned for the safety and morality of all, and for the security of the war effort, in 1916 the Government stepped in, closed down many pubs, and took virtually all the others in the city and its outlying areas under their own control. Pub landlords were recruited from the civil service, opening hours and alcohol amounts were reduced, and leisure pursuits such as bowling were introduced, to try to gentrify the pubs.
It must have been a reasonable success, because the scheme continued until 1973! Now, under the auspices of the Carlisle City Centre Business Group, the SMS is being celebrated with a pub trail, permanent exhibitions, – and Matt’s book of stories. Leaflets, maps and more information on the participating pubs are available at the State Management Story’s website, all of which makes fascinating reading.
As to the book launch, it was a riot. Held at the Kings Head pub on Fisher Street (one of the original SMS establishments and a very attractive venue with a date stone of 1748 in an upstairs room), it was really well attended by Matt’s friends and fellow SMS enthusiasts. We heard far more detail about the history of the original scheme, the plans to develop a combined hotel and SMS museum in the city centre, and even the filming of an episode of the recent BBC tv series Hairy Bikers: The Pubs That Built Britain, which featured the SMS scheme and several pubs in Carlisle.
And then Matt read one of the stories from the book, and we all fell about laughing. I won’t give away the punchline, but I will say that the story was light-hearted and entertaining, but still conjured up all the atmosphere of 1916 city life – the sounds, the smells, and the lingering fear. If all the stories are as good as that then shelling out a few quid for the book seems like a thoroughly good idea. And you won’t even need the demon drink to help wash it down. As to what the devil’s porridge was, you’ll just have to read the book to find out! (It’s available to order from Bookends bookshop in Carlisle.)