Bears Of England Extracts

Civilian Bears – extract

There have always been rumours of bears living among us. But at the very outset we should make a clear distinction between the subject of this chapter and those wild bears which occasionally stray into a town’s outskirts, upsetting dustbin lids and dogs, not to mention dogs’ owners, when their regular supply of food runs dry. Our only concern here is that bear which, one way or another, deliberately sets out to inveigle its way into society; to dress itself up in such a way that it might live the same life of unmitigated tedium as the rest of us.

Such tales of deception often seem to originate in England’s working-class communities. There are reports of bears carrying sides of beef on their shoulder around Smithfield Market, a bear employed as an assistant at a hardware shop in Rishton, Lancashire and several bears said to have worked as miners in the pits of Durham and Nottinghamshire.

Two separate reports from the 1920s refer to a man of ‘bear-like appearance’ being employed in hotels in East Anglia – the first at a traditional establishment in Cromer, the other in the kitchen of a guest house in Southwold, although why a bear or bears should be drawn towards the catering trade is a mystery, beyond the obvious proximity to great quantities of food.

We should be somewhat sceptical of the woman in Dorset who, in the 1870s, claimed to have married a bear. As is the case in all these ‘My husband / wife is a bear’ stories, it is much more likely that her spouse simply had about him one or two ursine attributes, such as extra weight around the girth and nether region, a grumpy demeanour or general hairiness. It is also worth noting that the spouses of such ‘bears’ only seem inclined to make public such allegations when the relationship has in some way broken down…

Sewer Bears – extract

We all have our dark little secrets – those sources of shame which make us flinch whenever they come to mind. So it is with every town and city. And none more so than the city of London, which has enough skeletons in its cupboards to keep the whole place a-rattling from now till Kingdom Come.

One of its guiltiest secrets is that, for a good proportion of the nineteenth century, bears were kept locked in its sewers, where they served as the city’s unpaid flushers and toshers. Around a hundred bears patrolled that stinking labyrinth of pipe and tunnel which carried away the waste from the city’s homes and factories, and drained the water from the streets. Without their efforts every heavy rainfall would have plunged the whole place underwater and the air would have been thick with pestilence.

But make no mistake, the bears were prisoners. Every grate and manhole cover was locked tight-shut. The only light that found its way down to them was that which filtered through the grates and gulleys, or came up from the gates where the drains emptied straight into the Thames.

It was the bears’ unenviable task to accompany the city’s effluvia, from the moment it first entered the system right down to the river. True, gravity bore some of that burden. But it is in the nature of sewage to coalesce at every opportunity, to silt-up at every turn. The bears’ only objective was to keep things moving. For they knew that, whatever they managed to clear before them, there would always be plenty more coming along behind…

Spirit Bears – extract

In the days before electric light and oil lamps, the night imposed its own abysmal tyranny, and daylight’s surrender was measured out in strict division. Sunset gave way to Twilight, just as Evening preceded Candle-Time. Bedtime was hope’s last bastion. Beyond that, there was nothing but Dead of Night.

Dead of Night was like an entombment – a heavy stone slowly lowered onto every home. It eclipsed the past and obscured the future. Hope and reason crept away. And in their absence the world was altered. The night’s actions were a mystery.

Filled to the brim with every sort of ignorance and superstition, no Englishman would dare venture out at Dead of Night, for fear of being swallowed up by it. Every door was locked and bolted, and remained so right through those awful hours, until deliverance finally arrived at first cockcrow. Prior to that, every scratch and scrape, every rattle of leaf was thought to be the work of some demon, some twisted malevolence out among the trees. And in the villagers’ imagination that evil found its most common incarnation in the form of Spirit Bears…