“More honey for the same expenditure of material”

That’s Pappus of Alexandria, one of the last Greek mathematicians, commenting on why the hexagons of the honey-comb are so efficient. Just one of the infinite interpretations of bees in our language, literature and general culture.

There’s a lot of bees around at the moment, and I’ve just had to respond to a question about why they are so prevalent in the context of Manchester. And Manchester is currently on all our minds, and tongues.

I first saw Manchester — oh! — over sixty years ago. I was not impressed. I instantly made the mental association with Dickens’s Coketown:

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.  It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.  It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.  It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

In retrospect, I’d qualify that: Manchester might once have been Coketown; but its great days were already passing. To be absolutely correct (and here comes the teacher of Eng. Lit.), Dickens probably had Preston in mind, where he had visited to give a reading in early 1854 (serialisation of Hard Times began in April), just after a cotton workers’ strike.

Today, Manchester still wears the masonry of the industrial centre it had been. Now it is buffing up, the air is breathable, new buildings are in-filling and are as uniformly and crassly modern as anywhere else. It does have, to its credit, a developing and efficient mass-transport system.

One enters Alfred Waterhouse‘s vast Town Hall, and walks on bees:

That same bee turns up world-wide in the punning trade-mark for Boddington‘s beer: now a gruesome fizzy, frothy concoction brewed way-out-of-town, but once a staple for the cotton workers. Both brewery and employment long gone.

Dickens’s “black canal” has been bourgeoisified: it is now couth and well-scrubbed-up. When I’m through Manchester (and its our closest international airport of substance), I would head for The Wharf. The full address is Slate Wharf, Castefield, thus linking the industrial pedigree to a somewhat-imaginative Roman castra. The Wharf will offer as many as a dozen decent brews, not fizzy, but real ale, and several of them local. There’ll be no cotton-workers in sight: today this milieu is all professional and media types. Manchester may not make as much in the way of physical goods, but it sure knows how to make money.

So the bees buzz everywhere.

They are on the coat-of-arms of Manchester University (as right). They are featured on the crest (as left) of  HMS Manchester. The first (well, actually the second, if we include the down-market supply ship of the Napoleonic wars) of that name had a short, but spectacular — even controversial — life in the Second World War. The name was sufficiently re-habilitated to be applied to a Type-42 destroyer which did its bit in the Falklands and the Gulf.

There is another connection.

The co-operative movement started in Rochdale, just down the road from central Manchester, in 1844. The symbolism of “co-operation” meant that bees were carved on the buildings of the Co-ops. And remain a symbol to this day.

I’d reckon Pappus would approve.

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