The Bristol Speedarama
The actual Kiln Room at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel, Bristol. The piece below was directly influenced by having breakfast in this spectacular room, and was written and performed in the same day - during the Bristolcon of 2016.
The Kiln room experience at the Hilton Bristol is today a muted affair, a place where Brunel-fatigued tourists partake of Instant coffee cunningly disguised as ground, and a perversely designed toaster that ensures bread is either three degrees above absolute zero or carbon. But coffee and toast notwithstanding, there is little to find fault. The service is courteous and efficient, the experience quiet and restful, the only the sound the clink of china and the mild hum of polite conversation. In short, as good a breakfast as you are likely to find anywhere within spitting distance of the Avon.
It was not always so. I was there in 1926 when the Kiln room played host to one of Bristol's most exciting attractions and which, for sheer style and originality, is unlikely to be surpassed. It was the first and possibly only wall of death combined with a four-star restaurant, where diners were invited to partake of a varied menu while watching motorcycles ridden at speed around the circular brick banking above them, the riders flat on the tanks, teeth set in a grimace of concentration and fear as they lapped at over seventy miles an hour, the minimum velocity required to keep them and their machines fixed vertically above the diner's heads. Most locals called it 'That English Madness' but to most of us it was known by the name emblazoned in neon above the door: The Bristol Speedarama.
The entire scheme was the brainchild of Abe Fitzsimmons, a man of many parts and most of them missing: He lost a leg to frostbite on the 1915 Trans-Siberian expedition, then his left arm while attempting to hand-start a recalcitrant Hispano-Suiza in the chill pre-dawn air of the Somme offensive. Invalided from the Royal Flying Corp but undiminished in energy and vision, Fitzsimmons turned his inventive flair towards spectacular sporting events. His first attempt at Locomotive racing was a failure, due in most part to the limited overtaking possibilities on the single track circuit.
But Fitzsimmons, never a man to be dissuaded by logic or practicality, saw indoor motorcycle racing integrated with fillet mignon and Chateau Letour '97 as the sport of the future. What could not be liked? Intrigued diners could partake of a dover sole while above their heads young blades, half out of their heads on adrenaline and booze, battled for supremacy on stripped down motorcycles, the exhausts muffled so one might still hold a conversation, do business or indulge in a romantic tete-a-tete.
The Speedarama was soon both Michelin starred and Michelin stocked. Motorcycles became larger, speeds faster. Sure, there were a few accidents. Billy 'The cog' Mullins and Harry 'Skidmarks' Grimshaw both came to grief during the infamous 'All You Can Eat Five Hundred' when a six-bike pile-up caused by an imprudently tossed cheese knife left three riders dead and most of table eight through fifteen badly injured.
Stung by criticism and facing lawsuits from diners who had their potage jojolie ruined by the arrival of a shattered gearbox housing, Fitzsimmons toned down the Speedarama to a more leisurely pace and introduced clantily dressed showgirls performing Busby Berkely numbers while conducting languid circuits of the walls.
But it was never the same. The devil-may-care attitude of the twenties had drawn to a close, and aside from a brief resurgence when George Formby conducted a three week engagement while performing from the back of a single cylinder Norton in 1935, the writing was on the wall and closure seemed inevitable.
But the rubber-slicked walls of the Bristol Speedarama would have one final hoorah before Europe plunged into war. 'Corky' O'Halloran, noted daredevil, aviator and racing driver was in Europe to have a crack at the Brooklands Lap Record. Corky was eating at the Savoy Grill, as ever accompanied by his pet lion Clarence when Fitzsimmon walked in. One thing led to another and pretty soon Corky agreed to take a spin around the track 'for old times sake'.
It was going to be a private affair but word got about. The following night the venue was once more full of expectant diners. Young couples, mostly, eager to witness the spectacle of which much had been heard. Corky didn't disappoint. He chose a BSA sidecar combination running on 75% ethanol, and rode for a full twenty minutes above the admiring diners who sipped the then-new banana daquiris and marvelled not only at Corky's skill, but the demure countenance of Clarence sitting stoically in the sidecar, mane flapping in the breeze, the tyres thrumming on the bricks, the air once more charged with the pungent odour of hot oil and exhaust fumes.
Sure, there was lion hair and drops of Castrol R in your kedgeree, but no-one was really eating. This was 1939 and two-tenths of the diners that night wouldn't survive the war.
But what the hell. For the moment, in the moment, this was life at its very best, and we were living it.