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Saturday, 17th May 2008

Cast your mind back to the beginning of this century. If your mind does not go back this far then cast it back to the last television adaptation of the beginning of it. If your mind does not go back that far I imagine you have trouble getting home every night.

It seems at times we are too busy missing the good old times to remember to enjoy these bad new times. Isn't it a shame that washday doesn't take all day anymore. I really cursed the last time water was pumped directly into my home, how I miss polluted water out of the village pump on a frozen winters day. Even now I am raging over the fact I am watching a sports event from the other side of the globe, live. I would much rather wait for the newspapers to tell me about the excitement when they finally get round to printing it. Then I would only regret the fact I could not see the paper in the darkness of the coal pit and then remember it did not matter anyway as a lack of formal education ensured I couldn't read.

large quantities of bananas...are being regularly shipped to England.

At the beginning of the 20th century Britain owned large parts of the globe and were in the process of civilising them. There is a firm of accountants in Britain that refuses to let its staff take their neckties off almost regardless of the country they find themselves in. It seems that is British, no matter where you are dress-up as if you are enjoying a wet weekend in Cleethorpes.

If this does not make you wonder exactly how well equipped we were to run the globe then perhaps the present state of affairs will underline how ready we were to give it up. Rather like someone going senile Britain hung onto the controls just a bit too long, refusing to let the new order take over, and creating absolute chaos when finally it became even obvious to ourselves we were no longer up to the task of running the planet.

Anyway lets wind the clock back to 1904, the British Empire was in advanced middle age but had not lost any of its vigour. Players took its chance to produce a darn fine set appropriately entitled, British Empire Series. A set of 50 cards. This date is somewhat transitional as text was appearing on the reverse of the cards at this time. However there are still plenty of design elements on the reverse of the card also. Made of thick card the art work on the fronts is first rate. For some reason there was no room on the reverse of the card to put the title and the number of the card so it appears on the front. Odd.

The set does not leave you in much doubt as to who is running the show and the fact it is a darn good job we are. It would seem the world just could not do without a Brit in a white suit and necktie drinking tea and clapping politely at a game of cricket.

Of course this is a generalisation and makes the Empire sound almost comically ineffective. This is about as realistic as the television show we have in the UK which is a comedy based on the French resistance in the Second World War. Laugh at ridiculous accents, barely contain your mirth at SS officers with bad legs.

Anyway this hasn't got a fat lot to do with cigarette cards thankfully so lets get back to them before I completely drop the plot.

Card one shows the Houses of Parliament, London. Card two shows us a cart being pulled by two listless looking oxen with a dog struggling along behind the contraption. It sets the tone for the entire set. We are in Burmah by card 2.

Details from Card 2
In Burmah the roads are very damp and muddy while at the same time the sun is extremely hot, so progress is necessarily slow. The picturesque carriage shown on the other side is typical of the somewhat lazy land in which it is used.

Sensitive text goes with the card. Lucky the compilers have not seen the sort of activity that goes on in my hometown here. Makes Burmah at the turn of the 20th century seem like some sort of powerhouse of industry.

Card 3 gives us another aspect of Empire: Lumbering has meant the Canadians have grown hardy and entirely dependant on their own efforts this, 'has been a great service to the Canadian Troops on South Africa.'

Surely that is, Canadian Troops have been a great benefit to us.

India, as is befitting, gets a number of cards, afterall it was considered the jewel in the Empires crown (literally really). We learn a snake charmer is a distinct caste, then we see camels. Then we see, 'The Loop Agony Point, Darjeeling.' [card 8] If memory serves me this appears on at least one other cigarette card, one of the Churchman railway issues. Anyway obviously the pace of life was slower then.

Details from Card 8
This extraordinary curve at an elevation of 7300 feet is a triumph of engineering skill. It derives its name from the agony experienced by nervous passengers when they find themselves rounding this curve and can look into the rear part of the train in which they are travelling.

Imagine if you went to a fun fair and got on a ride that turned such a steep corner that you could look back and see the end of the train. You could even be going at anything up to 20 miles an hour at the time. If that takes your breath away best you don't go on the corkscrew which is going to spin you over so fast you think your legs are going to fly clear off your body.

Australia gets a look in next and it is harvest time. Certainly it illustrates a lot of wheat, there is a huge pile of wheat with men scrambling all over it. It would warm the cockles of those in 'control' of the common agricultural policy in the European Union. Anyway the card explains the farms are massive, 'often many square miles' which is big when all you have got is a stationary steam engine and some horses.

Card 12 just has to get a mention, Jamaica has been encouraged by the assistance of the home government to grow large quantities of bananas and these are being regularly shipped to England. Well what harm can that do?

Now one can easily forget the time in which these cards were set. Card 15 shows an elephant team at work in Ceylon. Now this is an age where someone in your family will have told you endlessly about the time they saw 'Jumbo' the 'biggest elephant in the world.' Such was the level of entertainment you would sit enchanted by the story no matter how many times you had heard about this giant of the animal kingdom. If the circus came to town and had an elephant in the procession the town would line the street to see it.

The reverse of the card gives the elephant plenty of credit, 'it would be difficult to find a more pains-taking, intelligent and powerful worker than the Elephant.'

Card 17 shows a certain lack of understanding about things 'foreign.' It suggests it is a zulu conveyance. It basically looks like a crate being dragged along the ground by oxen. People sit in the crate. It certainly looks uncomfortable and I am not sure how practical it would be. However the card dismisses it as worse than walking. If it was you would really expect the Zulu's would have worked this out for themselves and got on with walking. We continue this attitude in the Western World when we shriek about the 'large' families Africans seem to have in areas where starvation seems to be an everyday concern. The fact that large families are in fact a perfectly good adaptation to the situation these peoples find themselves in does not figure in many peoples equations. Of course in 1904 this was not quite such a topic for discussion, high child mortality and no social security system, poor birth control ensured Victorian England was populated with families often containing over ten children. Mind you pointing and laughing at Zulus being dragged along in a crate is a bit rich when you consider the sort of transport we were enduring at the time.

The happiest Penal Colony in the World?

The set then spend the next few cards examining transport about the empire. A fantastic horse drawn ice carriage in Montreal is the best of the bunch. The most unlikely is the Bengal Camel carriage. A European carriage pulled by four camels, each camel with a rider on the back on doubt desperately trying to keep control of the contraption. Obviously something thought up by a Brit as there is no ridicule poured on this idea as there were the poor Zulu's being dragged along the ground in a crate.

The Andaman Island get a mention. The Empire comprised a lot of places that unless you live there you would not really know existed. As ever though no real industry is shown, in this case the natives are dancing. The card notes this is a very strange dance. You can almost see the looked of pained appreciation on the British fool in the necktie as the natives dance about.

Indian kid getting the point

There then follows a two cards extolling the virtue of British military rule.

One card just has to get a mention, Indian Jugglers. You can see the card illustrated. Now that is juggling, if I saw some street entertainers doing that my fifty pence would be in the up-turned hat before you said, 'Look out'. Forget all these people juggling three balls, juggle kids on the end of a stick, that's entertainment.

The Empire was a 'civilising force' and the set remembers this when it shows a post office in India. An elephant is bathing in the river outside and a mud hut (the Post Office) is in the middle distance. You can tell it is the PO because there is a telegraph wire connecting it with the rest of the globe. Excellent and although the card suggests this is far removed from the level of activity associated with Post Offices it looks just like the one in my home town here (apart from the Elephant.)

Card 36 made me smile when I read it.

Details from Card 36
Pulo Brani is a strange little village in the Malay Peninsula, composed entirely of houses built on posts and driven into the bed of the river. The inhabitants support themselves by fishing.

Presumably it is the fishing poles which are doing the supporting. The very next card does not make me smile very much. It is a Kachin chief, Burmah.

Now this is really is down-shifting heaven. Imagine being able to live in a place where even as Chieftain all you need is a roof over your head to be comfortable. As I sit shivering weighed down with more technology than a man could imagine would ever exist in 1904 and more demands on my income than could have been imagined ten years ago the idea of living in a village as a Chieftain under a few palm leaves suddenly has an appeal all of its own. Still the compilor does not quite see it like that as can easily be read on the reverse of the card.

Details from Card 37
This appears to be a very poor sort of dwelling for a chieftain of any sort, but the wants of a Kachin chief are very few, and as long as he has a well-thatched roof he is content.

Malta gets a mention, wheat threshing described as primitive and barely practised in any other part of the Empire. Well that puts Malta in its place then doesn't it. A country later decorated for bravery and one of very few countries with a currency stronger than Sterling. Obviously outmoded farming methods in 1904 is not a complete disaster.

Card 41 shows Tiger hunting. It shows Brits with elephant guns sitting on top of elephants which are controlled by Indians and the reverse of the card explains it takes great courage and endurance for both hunter and elephant. Obviously the Indian elephant driver needs no such skill afterall he seems to have a small stick to save him and if whitey's gun jams no doubt he would be expected to hurl himself into the jaws of the tiger in the hope his body would make a worthy meal.

Card 42 continues the hunting theme, and surely I do not detect a note of sarcasm:

Details from Card 42
Sport seems a necessity to the Britisher wherever he may be situated, and many of his shooting expeditions require the greatest courage and endurance though in this case the victim is the harmless black-buck of Southern India.

Now the British Empire is often held up as a great catalyst of civilisation in many countries although it now seems more likely these countries developed despite rather than because of. Anyway card 43 puts forward the idea that Fiji has made great progress since their cession to Great Britain in 1874.

Progress has been so tightly defined for so many years that we have not really noticed where all this progress has got us. Ten years after these cards were issued progress plunged Europe into War which was followed twenty years later by a more global example of this particular art. Luckily we invented a bomb which could vaporise islands to stop all that nonsense (and how fortunate we owned a few island to vaporise, apologies to those that actually lived on the islands but I bet they were pleased to see progress.) Now progress has meant we are turning our cities into areas where oxygen is now becoming a luxury commodity.

Despite the fact I obviously have views on exactly how great the Great British Empire was the Players set really is great. High quality through and through and it represents a really nice snapshot of 'reality' in 1904.