International Women’s Day: Sarah Waters

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it…”

It was these words that I thought of as I ate my first oyster at the Whitstable Oyster Festival back in July 2012. I’m not actually sure it was a native Whitstable oyster after all, but it tasted very nice. Not sure why it took me so long to try my first raw oyster (having grown up in this Kentish coastal town), but I’ll definitely be having more.

These words are the opening phrase of Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, probably my favourite book in the world.


I first read it a few years ago, on recommendation of my sister. Of course I was aware of the TV adaptation, which was famous for its saucy lesbian sex scenes – as most people found out when they watched it with their parents.


But in fact, the most intriguing aspect for me was this old portrayal of Whitstable – where I’d been born and raised – and the tale of a young woman moving to London in search of adventure, as so many of us from that town have done (though many have now moved back). And it’s so much more than that, because of its Victorian setting. It’s a sense of adventure as well for those of us born today, because of the attention to detail Waters describes in this Victorian world.


Sarah Waters is probably the most strongest writer I’ve ever read, and an outright feminist and lesbian as well. I attended a talk where she spoke about her work and met her afterwards; what was so inspiring about her for me, is that she studied in Canterbury and lived in Whitstable, she writes historical fiction, and she writes it well – so well, that she has effectively re-created this part of the lesbian and gay fiction genre.

History Summer Summer Summer Time

These are sunny days, and whether you are lucky enough to be spending them somewhere fitting, like by the sea in Whitstable, or camping in a field in Cheddar – wherever you are, I thought I’d give you some interesting historical facts to do with the summer. Just to bring the chilled out feel down a notch. Nah, only joking – I’ll try to keep things light.

1. The bikini was released in May 1946 by Louis Réard. Shockwaves rippled through many nations at this two piece bathing suit. The two-piece had already been around for a while, and was labelled “the world’s smallest bathing suit”. The thing that made the bikini different was that it revealed much more of the torso, including the belly button and so was less repsectable than its predecessor. It therefore became known as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit”. In fact the only woman who would model it was the lady below, Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer.


The bikini was named after Bikini Atoll, an island in the Pacific Ocean that is part of the Marshall Islands. This was a picturesque island – until 1946. This was the year when America decided to detonate an atom bomb there, and on its fellow islands in a series of tests named Operation Crossroads. They moved all the indigenous islanders to another local island and tested a bomb on their homeland of Bikini Atoll. When they moved everyone back, people began to get ill, so the island was deemed uninhabitable. The bomb test occurred on July 1st, 1946. The bikini garment was unveiled four days later.

So, not too mood dampening so far (just ignore the bit about islanders getting ill and their homeland being written off). It may or may not surprise you to know that Operation Crossroads is not the only nuclear testing America has done. Nor is it the only country to have done it. Watch this video, if you have the stomach for it:

2. BOY: I didn’t ask for any sauce.

ICE CREAM VENDOR: I didn’t put any on it.

Lines from my all-time favourite comedy The League of Gentlemen (the scene is where an ice cream vendor has a nosebleed over a boy’s ice cream).

I typed in “the best ice cream in the world” into Google, and it gave me the above picture. It also gave me a couple of other pictures, but I don’t think I should post them on here. People with children, you may have to up your internet censorship for your children, by including “ice cream”. Seriously.

So, who invented ice cream? Wihout even researching, I thought the Romans. Must be. Or the Greeks, then the Romans copied them and made ice cream a big hit. One source suggests that ice cream has been around since the 4th century BC, indeed with the Roman Emperor Nero ordering ice from the mountains and then topping it with fruit. So when did the “cream” bit get involved? 600 years later, King Tang of Shang in China is known to have mixed ice and milk together in various ways. Obviously these are noted examples, because it was the leaders that ate these ice related foods, but it may have been more common than that in those archaic days.

Since then, ice cream has been developed in terms of its ingredients and flavours all over the world, with the Americanised “ice cream” (previously “iced cream”) becoming the most prominent in the Western world. I’ve had ice cream in various places around the world: on Lido, the beach-goers island by Venice, there is an ice-cream vendor (or properly termed gelato – it’s made differently) on every corner. With all different flavours. I managed to get one down my throat whilst trying not to pass out from the heat (Mid-August is NOT a good idea for holidaying in Venice if you are allergic to the heat like me. My half Mauritian blood doesn’t help. As I tell people, I am half Mauritian, but I am also half white Londoner); in Berlin, they make flowers out of ice cream:

and in Barcelona, they expect a tip.

3. Pimm’s

Pimm’s has become synonymous with the British summer. This was a gin-based drink mixed with herbs and quinine in its earliest form, and is now a brandy based drink (the difference being that gin is either distilled from juniper berries, or distilled alcohol grain mixed with flavourings and herbs, and brandy is distilled from wine.) This early form of Pimm’s was made by James Pimm as an aid to digestion. Alcohol, along with other drugs, were often used for medicinal purposes up until the first part of the twentieth century. Nurses would often administer brandy to patients in hospitals in the old days. James Pimm was from Newnham in Kent (go Kent!), the son of a farmer, and he moved to London where he became a shellfish monger and the owner of an oyster bar, which led to a chain called Oyster House.

Today, we associate Pimm’s No. 1 with the sunny weather, and the company obviously markets this product towards barbecues and beach parties. There is also a Winter Pimm’s Cup that is drunk hot with apple juice, and indeed, there have been various “cups” developed over time, some of which have been phased out due to low demand (see above image). Interesting how the company directly generates its revenue through marketing its products to fit a particular season.

4. Finally, I cannot write about the summer without commenting on Whitstable, the once scruffy seaside town where I was born and bred. I was literally born there in my parents’ house; you don’t get much more shellback than that.

Whitstable is a very old fishing town. Not as much fishing as there used to be, nor as many boats in the harbour. It’s famous for oysters, though the Whitstable Oyster Festival always occurs in July, which is strange as the oysters aren’t in season that time of year (only in the months with the letter “r” in the name), so instead they bring over a load of Irish oysters. Still, the festival is great. If you like nothing more than salty shellfish, singing bearded men, blacked up morris dancers and big smelly St Bernard’s dogs then Whitstable Oyster Festival is the place. Whitstable is known to have had the first passenger train line, and the first train bridge though other places have claimed this. The line was called the Canterbury and Whistable Railway, but often nicknamed the Crab and Winkle Line. Today, the Crab and Winkle line is a footpath/cyclepath that follows much of the original route between Canterbury and Whitstable.

People say the best thing about Whitstable is the sunset on the beach in the summer. Some also say the sunrise, though I’ve never actually seen the sunrise on the beach – just in the street after very late nights.

And here is the Old Neptune – an old pub on the beach that was a filming location for the film Venus featuring Peter O’Toole. Neptune, a Roman god, was known as Poseidon to the Ancient Greeks, and was the god of the sea. He was father to Polyphemus, the cyclops that Odysseus and his men, held hostage by the one-eyed giant, famously blinded with a giant stake.

And there I finish – with a photo of a sunny evening night. No doubt the sun would have just dipped beneath the horizon in sunny, old Whitstable as I post this. If you’re there, enjoy it for me.