12 JANUARY 2008, Page 27

Life after Wills: barely a whiff of smoke in the cosmopolitan gateway to the west

At the time of his death in 1972 my father worked for WD and HO Wills, the Bristol tobacco people. Wills were huge and rather enlightened employers and even now plenty of Bristolians remember the days when everyone either worked for the company or had a friend or relation employed there. Wills produced a cigarette called ‘The Bristol’ but were most famous for cheap Woodbines and Wills Whiffs — small cheroots sold in packets of five. For the first three quarters of the 20th century, the company seemed unassailable — and synonymous with its home city. I remember a huge new tobacco factory being built and despite early rumblings about smoking being bad for your health it seemed inconceivable that Wills would not remain a pillar of the local economy, as important to it as the slave trade had once been.

My father ran the ‘special events’ section of the company, responsible for show-jumping at Hickstead, for powerboat-racing and for horse-racing all over Britain, all flamboyantly deployed as marketing tools. Imperial Tobacco, parent of both Wills and its Nottingham-based rival Players, lives on as the world’s fourth largest tobacco company and Wills’ fags are still available in the Indian subcontinent. Imperial’s head office is still in Bristol but Wills itself seems in effect to have gone up in smoke.

Strange how changes in habit can so dramatically alter lives. My mother’s family fortunes, such as they were, derived from a glove factory in Somerset — but then people stopped wearing gloves and the business collapsed. Then we were supported, like so many in Bristol, by people who smoked. Then they stopped smoking. I sometimes worry that before long people are going to stop reading words printed on paper. Such life-changing shifts in popular custom seem to be almost a family curse. It would be distressing if words went the same way as gloves and cigarettes.

Iwas also brought up to believe that Bristol City was a great football club even though, if truth be told, the best they ever managed was in 1907 when they came second in Division One and two years later when they were defeated in the FA Cup final by Manchester United. In the 1950s and 1960s they had the great John Atyeo, commemorated in an eponymous stand at the club ground at Ashton Gate and six times capped by England. He turned down blandishments from Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and scored 351 goals in more than 600 appearances for City. After Atyeo, City descended to the old fourth division and even went bankrupt. But salvation appeared in the form of Stephen Lansdown, who founded a financial advisory business with a friend called Hargreaves in the early 1980s. The company floated last summer, netting the founders around £285 million apiece, and Lansdown is now chairman of the football club. City are currently chasing promotion in the upper echelons of the Championship. In the modern world an internationally recognised football club is a status symbol for any major city and requires a rich boss to match. It is definitely a sign of the times that the potential saviour of the Bristol club should have made his money from financial services rather than cigarettemaking, or any other kind of manufacturing. Still, at least he’s not a Russian (Chelsea), a Thai (Manchester City) or an American (Liverpool and Manchester United).

Nowadays Bristol is, mostly, a place through which I pass while using the sad shadow of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s once ‘Wonderful’ Railway, aka GWR. My cousin Thomas, who works in Bristol, tells me that Bristolians thinks of their city as the capital of the West of England though there is disturbing evidence that some people, notably London suits, think it is something to do with the southwest. From where I live in Cornwall, west of the Tamar, Bristol looks as if she is in the West Midlands and is remarkable mainly for being the most important staging post on the way to London. But that is not the metropolitan, or even the Bristolian view.

She has long been an important railway town — a strategic position now duplicated by the nearby motorway junction between the M4 and M5. Though the harbour is now more of a museum — where the SS Great Britain is as much of a star as the old Brunel railway buildings at Temple Meads — the port down-channel at Avonmouth is still a useful adjunct. The main story, however, has been the expansion of Bristol airport.

The city’s connection with the heavens is perpetuated at Filton, where benchmark aircraft such as the Brabazon and Concorde were first conceived and where British Aerospace (more properly but unmemorably now known as BAE Systems) still conducts its main research. But it is the airport which has become a key hub and literally keeps Bristol on the map. There is no British Airways presence, but charter companies and the new cheap airlines are well represented, as are international operators such as Air France and Lufthansa offering worldwide destinations to make the mouth water.

The airport is owned by a company called South West Airports, but before this causes a swelling of national or even regional pride one should realise that it is a British company only in name. Bristol International has, in effect, been owned since 2001 by the Macquarie Bank of Sydney, Australia. Ironic that this is one place from which there seem as yet to be no direct flights.

The Bristol Old Vic, the country’s oldest working theatre, is currently closed for refurbishment, but is scheduled to re-open at the end of 2008. It is a reminder that the city has strong cultural traditions — epitomised by two highly regarded universities, a notable part of the British Broadcasting Corporation and, in a slightly different vein, some wonderful old independent wine importers such as Harvey’s (now public) and Avery’s, the sole private survivor of the great 18th-century Bristol wine trade.

This, together with the city’s proximity to — let’s face it — London and the world beyond, means that the city has a strong, green-ish, cultured alternative life with some lively artistic entrepreneurs who enjoy the Bristol’s unusual combination of cosmopolitanism and comparative quiet. On this front, keep an eye open for a small independent production company run by two London television exiles. It’s called Whitby Davison Productions and it is evidence that Bristol is diffuse enough to offer more than one viable future — another welcome reminder of life after Wills.