Perfidious Albion

You can head towards Abbeyhill from here to gaze in wonder at remnants of a bygone era, or you can gaze in wonder at remnants of a bygone era here.

Mr WB Albion, nineteenth century industrialist, was, like many people whose middle name was a gift foisted upon them by a mother anxious to dispose of it with all possible expedition, teased relentlessly during his impressionable years, and consequently consumed by a passionate belief that if he could take it, he was jolly well licensed to pay small children almost nothing to manufacture yards of it in his factory. The fact that his father named him after a compass point didn't help matters. He was red-faced, stovepipe-hatted steam-driven and bellowing, yes, and his face was so convulsed by the permanent expression of total contempt with which he greeted the world around him that he took to wearing a monocle in each eye even whilst asleep.

Albion manufactured asphalt, which he took for his liver and sold to an international shipping conglomerate who exported it to the Indian Subcontinent in exchange for strong tea and traffic cones. The rock which his factory needed as a raw material was transported in gigantic cylinders from Blackpool by ship to Liverpool, by canal to Goole, by donkey-cart to Doncaster and thence by steam train to Edinburgh, whereupon it was crushed to tiny fragments beneath a colossal pulverising engine which comprised sixty solid steel hammers driven by bulges at various points along a rotating camshaft, each bulge being offset from its neighbour by six degrees, so that successive hammers were triggered at regular intervals once each per rotation of the shaft. The camshaft was, of course, kept in rotation all hours of the day and night Sundays and Christmas no exception by one of Mr Watt's mechanical contrivances fuelled by the spines of Lanarkshire Trade Unionists. Nimble young girls, some of them only four years old, were paid thrupence every day the thirty-first of the month coincided with the new moon to skip along after the hammers and remove any pieces of the rock which happened to have been broken in such a way as to reveal the word `poo', quickly, before the cycle came round again, for fear of further litigation from Major-General Farridan-Smipp of the Eleventh Hussars, Calcutta, whose wife, the only daughter of an Anglican missionary, had sensibilities about such matters. In the height of summer, however, the rock became sticky and all too many failed to make good their escape.

The pulverised rock was then mixed with treacle which was shipped from Albion's slave-operated plantation in Antigua to Glasgow by the same great ocean-going cargo vessels which used to take culture in the opposite direction. On arrival, it was pumped into the Union Canal, thus displacing previous shipments a little further towards the Forth. Horse chestnut trees were planted all along the route, so that freckle-faced lads (who, for the privilege, were only beaten with yew branches on alternate Thursdays, instead of the usual blackthorn) could pick the fruit and fire them from their elasticated braces at the recalcitrant swans who never stopped polluting the vital supply.

Following this, the combined product was floated onto a gigantic rectangular bath of mercury and left to cool and set. The mercury was critical to the process as, having a relatively low specific heat capacity, it conducted the heat away from beneath the asphalt much more rapidly than the air above, leaving it solid and perfectly flat whilst the exposed side was still slightly tacky. Mint imperials and other unwanted high boiling-point confections were then shovelled on to act as foundations, and meanwhile, a team of divers in waxed canvas suits and cast-iron helmets with a little glass window in the front swam back and forth through the mercury stamping `THIS WAY UP' at hundred yard intervals longways and every seventeen feet from side to side, for seventeen feet was the width of the strips into which the finished road surfaces were cut by circular saw before being taken by rail to the Port of Leith for export. Heaven help any poor diver who was caught too near the surface when that saw went by.

After the Second Reform Act of 1867, Albion, an early advocate of Proportional Representation, joined the Whig Party in the hope of influencing any investigation into his business practices which might be initiated by an increasingly populist administration, and indeed his nephew, Stirling, was subsequently elected at a by-election for the Parliamentary seat with the enormous majority of one vote which was three hundred yards long, seventeen feet wide, made of solid asphalt and dropped on the polling station from the roof of a neighbouring building. Stirling it was who chaired the inquiry of 1871, which found that while Albion's industrial relations were at times best described as `brusque' (the unpublished preliminary report said `dyspeptic'), within that frock coat now three sizes too small beat the heart of a true philanthropist. The dead were given Christian burials in the waste ground you can see next to the railway line, the living had money enough to spend in their spare time, and those in between, with cholera, say, were permitted to work shovelling the mint imperials, a relatively light duty with no dangerous machinery, and the occasional corpse embedded in the foundation of a road causes no significant subsidence for at least thirty years.

WB Albion's last days were spent, somewhat biliously and with prickly heat, on his plantation in Antigua, where employees of Mr Macadam had surreptitiously been introducing the game of cricket. Unable, for fear of a Westminster scandal, simply to have the thing abolished, Albion was forced to import an MCC XI comprising assorted Yorkshiremen, Oxford and Cambridge Blues and even a sprinkling of Boers to take on his troublesome workforce. He even instructed his bowlers to aim for the genitals, preempting Douglas Jardine by sixty years. However, as so often in later years, victory tended to go to the side with superior mastery of spin.

On the seventeenth of November 1873, after yet another middle-order batting collapse, Albion padded up himself and, marching out from the pavilion of the Recreation Grounds, took up his stance, glowering through both monocles at the bowler, who came round the wicket. As he was about to release the ball, Albion pulled out a revolver and shot at him, missing, but accidentally stumping the batsman opposite. The last of the tailenders came out to replace him and take strike as the over was up, but the new bowler tripped accidentally over Albion's bat, allowing a quick leg-bye. Spurred on, Albion swept viciously at the next ball, but he had crucially misjudged its length---it took a top edge and sailed high into the air. He shot it into two pieces, both of which were caught in the slips, bringing the innings to an end.

Accepting that he was not particularly accomplished as a bowler, Albion began his innings in the field, revolver in hand at silly mid-off. However, after de Klerk's twelfth no-ball in the same over, Albion shot him and took over the attack. His first delivery made it as far as the facing batsman; Albion leapt round and fired vertically into the air to appeal for leg-before-wicket. `Howzat?' he bellowed. The bullet reached its apogee, then fell back down to earth, first piercing not only Albion's brain but also his left kidney. `Not out.' replied the umpire.

With the Grand Old Man gone to meet his maker, leaving no wife or children, Stirling inherited the business. He soon realised he didn't have the stomach for it, and sold off the assets in pieces for a fraction of its value. A consortium of Irish divers bought the mercury bath in which they had risked the saw for so many years, and in 1875 it became Hibernian Football Club. As you can see, the main factory building still stands. Even the little platform at the top of the ladder from which Albion had been used to conduct industrial relations and by-elections has not yet entirely rusted away. And the old man's body? It was interred in the same patch of waste ground in which he had buried so many young girls who had died amongst the hammers and young lads eviscerated or drowned in mercury from a leaking flange. Young children still throw mint imperials from the footbridge the city fathers built so that the workers could keep a respectful distance, but they no longer remember why. Raspberries grow on his grave.

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