Review of A Tall Short Story in ‘The Malvern Gazette’ – by Roger Bibbings

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Readers of the Malvern Gazette or the Worcester Evening News, or listeners to BBC Hereford & Worcester may recall the recent Book Launch at The Morgan pub in Malvern, featuring a marvelous cyclecar called Muriel, a Morgan-Ariel Special which is effectively a Morgan three-wheeler powered by a single cylinder Ariel engine.

A plausible provenance of this marvellous vehicle is revealed in an extraordinary book entitled ‘A Tall Short Story’, which is inspired by some of the very special Morgans and their drivers of the1930s and designed & crafted so meticulously by mathematician, amateur engineer and dedicated motorist John Bradshaw. This is a delightful tale of life in Malvern and the West Midlands in the 1930s, sprinkled as it is with references to places and characters both real and imaginary. The main story relates the early life and times of a local farmer’s boy who discovers the joys of motorcycles, trials, girls and then a Morgan, but is interrupted by war and action in a Fairy Swordfish biplane. He grows up rapidly…. It is an excellent read, especially for people who inhabit the world of motoring clubs, trials and speed hill climbs, etc, and who love all things mechanical, especially motorcycles and light cars, the aroma of Castrol R fumes and all that.

The book is no less extraordinary than the cyclecar itself not least because it is in fact two books in one: Turn the book over and start reading in the other direction and you are into ‘Transmogrification’ (a real word – look it up!) the true story of Muriel and her construction, a labour which has taken John over ten years to create, resulting in the ultimate ‘bitsa’ (the enthusiast’s shorthand for ‘bits of this and that’). The true story is no less absorbing than the fictional one, for it is not just the story of an extraordinary project, but it is very much a window on John Bradshaw and his life and friends. The real world story of creating Muriel, a car that never was from over seventy years ago, focuses understandably on the gradual evolution of the vehicle. From original chassis, suspension and documents, to engine choice, transmission, bodywork, steering and so on, the author relates tales of how various conundra were solved, often with advice, help, materials and components from numerous friends spread far and wide. In fact, it is through all this detailed problem solving with its accompanying frustrations and joys that the reader gets to know not just Muriel, but also something of its creator and his extraordinary ‘bitsa’ life.

In the end, the two tales – real and imaginary – seem to merge in a curious way as in an Escher type drawing. The false story, written as a racy Boys’ Own Paper narrative in Capt. W.E. Johns style, is presented with delightful illustrations, line drawings etc, such condiments serving not just to bring out its full flavour but also to help the reader to see the writer’s tongue pressing very hard into the side of his cheek. In this vein it is full of references to the certainties and comforts of the 1930s and ’40s, speaking of a simpler life with reassuring comforts, including strong tea, substantial but tasty sandwiches, lots of beer of course, coaching inns – and even sex, which admittedly is left largely to the reader’s tasteful imagination. The vehicles were simpler and more substantial too. Likewise, images of Malvern & the Hills, Worcester and the Midlands all seem very familiar and reassuring, as do those of places even further away, reminding one of those little sketches in editions of Motor Cycling in the 1940s – a lad standing by the village pond with a church spire and an oak tree in the background, giving a cheery wave to a passing pal on his speeding mechanical steed. Just nostalgia, or genuine regret for greater times past, never to return? It’s the reader’s choice.

So it is an unusual jigsaw story of Muriel, a real but extraordinary car with a make-believe and almost credible pedigree, is a book not to be missed, especially by those who love motoring and motorcycling.

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