The Devil’s Porridge

The-Devils-Porridge-MuseumLast year one of the book launches I attended was for thriller writer Matt Hilton’s collection of short stories, The Demon Drink and the Devil’s Porridge. Set against a backdrop of the so-called State Management System (a kind of mini-Prohibition) in Carlisle, the stories are fun and entertaining – and the history of this particular period is fascinating, too.

Basically the State Management System (SMS) was set up during the first world war to prevent hordes of workers from the nearby munitions factory at Gretna Green from descending on Carlisle’s pubs and drinking them dry. As you might expect, the combination of alchohol and explosives (mostly nitroglycerine – the Devil’s Porridge of the title) isn’t a healthy one and the authorities were alarmed enough to step in, introducing restrictions on the number of pubs and the amount of booze sold, and having nice cosy games like bowls to try to gentrify the whole process of drinking.

Rather remarkably, it seems to have worked. Even more remarkably, it lasted until as recently as 1973. And now there’s a museum at Gretna Green, called The Devil’s Porridge Museum, which celebrates the munitions factory, the people who worked there, and the SMS itself.

It sounds absolutely fascinating, and if it had been open we might well have called in during our trip to Gretna at the weekend. Annoyingly,  it had just closed for its winter break and won’t be open again until mid-January. But we’ve made a note, picked up a leaflet, and will definitely visit next time we’re in the area. It would be a shame to miss this!

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Clash of the Genres

Saturday found me in Carlisle, attending a session organised as part of the new-ish Borderlines Carlisle book festival.  I’d only been to the city once before, on a nippy February day when everything looked rather bleak.  This time the whole city was buzzing with shoppers, festival attendees, students, buskers, and even a brass band in the bandstand by the market cross.  I’m not sure if the atmosphere was due to the festival or if it’s always like that, but it was all rather lovely.

The event itself, held in the impressive ballroom of the Crown & Mitre hotel, featured two crime writers (Matt Hilton and Sheila Quigley) and two historical novelists (Ben Kane and William Ryan), all of whom have links to the city or the wider area, in a so-called Clash of the Genres.  I’d been expecting this to be quite a feisty affair, with quick-fire questions parried by one or other of the genre pairings; in the event it was more of a four-way author talk, but no less interesting or entertaining for that.

It was fun hearing about Ben Kane’s perambulations along Hadrian’s Wall dressed in full Roman armour, and interesting to learn how all four writers got started, why they wrote what they wrote, and whether they did much research.  (Ten out of ten to Ms Quigley for admitting that she doesn’t bother with research, she just sits down and writes!)

The only bugbears were a glitchy sound system which all the authors struggled with, and the fact that I had to creep out before the end thanks to unhelpfully-timed trains.  At least I didn’t trip over the rug and make a racket on the way out, and I’ll definitely be back next year, hopefully for more of this excellent festival’s events.