Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Having previously been cancelled and rearranged twice, the actual day of the second eye-operation arrives. I turn up, as instructed, at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead at 11.30am for a midday admission. I now know the place so well that I'm getting to know various staff members' anniversaries and their children's names. This time, opthalmology buffs, I'm having a vitrectomy. The procedure involves some laser surgery, a new lens, and some readjustment of the detached retina which I had cryo-buckled last August. Too technical for you? Okay then. From a d.i.y enthusiast's perspective, try to think of it as some electronic chiselling, a bit of smoothing-out with a small rat-tail file, followed by a repositioning of the eyeball, which is then held in place with two tiny counter-sunk screws. Finally, they tap in a small plastic shim, to straighten it all up. That's all there is to it. The human body God's own flat pack.
Honestly, you'll be fine. The surgeon is a whizz. He works very fast, apparently. At this point I must recount a story which the Yorksire chansonnier, Jake Thackray used to tell on stage. He'd gesture at the guitarist in his band and say: This one's a proper musician. No, really. He's that good. He'll get to the end of the song long before the rest of us do, just you watch.
I was unlucky. The last turkey in the shop. They finally trundled me into theatre at 7.30 in the evening. The process took about an hour. I was conscious for the whole procedure, having opted for a local anaesthetic. Disappointingly this was administered in London rather than at Marks Tey as I'd requested. Fancy some eye surgery in Hampstead this evening? It may be uncomfortable and painful at times but at least it's terrifying. On balance, however I'd still opt for a vitrectomy over being forced to sit through We Will Rock You.
I could hear the laser-work crackling like arc-welding in my head during the procedure. The light show was amazing, though, if mostly in monochrome. In younger, more psychedelic days I'd probably have paid good money for visuals like that.
They wheeled me out. A nurse gave me a whole carrier bag full of medications, far too many instructions to take in and a sheaf of paperwork. I found my way out, down the stairs and staggered into a now deserted reception area. Down the corridor a cashpoint glowed enticingly in the closed cafe. I also found a minicab sticker on a broken phone-point. I dialled it on my mobile phone. You know when they ask you, before an operation: Is there anyone who can meet you?
That's why you should have someone there. Otherwise, you end up one evening on a north London street, with a carrier bag full of medicine, only one eye working, feeling faint and hoping that a taxi will come soon. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, actually. He's a good cabbie and when he sees the state of me with my bandaged eye, he is kindly. In an earlier life he'd been a contract driver for the Labour Party. In his time he'd ferried nearly everyone. Mo Mowlam had been his favourite, along with Roy Hattersley. For some reason, he'd never really gelled with Mr Blair or Mr Brown. No, I didn't ask.
London at night is rather different nowadays to the one which I once knew. In Old Street for instance, during my own gadabout evenings, there'd been not much going on there but the rent. These days, the pavements are thronged with pubby Londoners all puffing and guzzling for England. It's 9.15 pm and the traffic's inching along, for all the world as if we were cruising Soho during rush-hour. Bright lights, big city and all that. It's been reconfigured but it's still there.
At Liverpool Street, I really begin to wilt. I find that I can barely read the electronic notice boards and now that the anaesthetic is wearing off, there's a deep, naseating ache behind my left eye. Somewhere around 9.30, I board a Colchester train. I didn't expect it to be so busy. The carriage is almost full. I would estimate that about half of my fellow passenger are eating; stuffing their faces with hideously unfragrant franchise food. The remainder are fiddling with, or bellowing into their mobile phones. As I sit down in my seat, two men gawp at my appearance. I stare back with my one good eye, until they look away. As people finish their food, they too, take to their phones. The train fills up still further at Stratford. Mercifully, at Romford it empties out to just under a humanitarian-crisis level. Further down the carriage, a bulky twenty-something, with a ticking
i-pod has spread himself out, his filthy be-trainered feet up on the seat opposite.
I do not know when England's old peasant class disappeared, but someone should tell the sociologists that there's a brand new one in germination right now. Semi-literate, greedy, loud, half-sozzled, ignorant and unmannered, you may meet them mid-evening on the rattling, uncleaned trains of suburban south-east England. At 10.30 pm, emerging into the cool night air of Colchester North, I swear could have kissed the holy platform out of sheer gratitude. And never was a man so glad to see a blonde of a certain age, standing at the ticket barrier with her car keys.
A tall slim female bear stood with her hands on her hips frowning at the horse and his blanket.
"Good morning, Clare. said Brian. Cup of tea?
Clare the Bear sat down on a fallen tree. Ooh, yes please, Brian. I'd love one. And then, if these two pea-pods will stop arguing for a minute or so, perhaps we could talk about arrangements for our Early Winter Party?
Oh great. An early winter party. said Morris Horse. Might there be a bus?
Heaven preserve us all! said Blanky.
A small catty voice from behind a tree asked. Will there be lots of food there. Only it'll be winter and I always get a bit more... hungry on cold days.
Clare the Bear glanced in the direction from which the voice was coming.
You can come out from behind that tree Matt. I know it's you. I don't suppose there's any point in me asking you, if you'd seen a fish pie, which I left round here for Brian yesterday ? Is there?
A Fish ...pie? asked Matt, thoughtfully, as he crept slowly out from behind the tree in order to warm himself by the fire.
Yes, Matt. said Clare. A fish pie. Two words: 'Fish' and 'Pie'. Meaning, literally, some kind of a pie...containing chiefly, fish, I suppose. I mean, which bit of 'fish' and 'pie' did you not understand?Matt sat down and scratched himself, in a puzzld sort of manner before asking. Would this pie have been in an oval-shaped dish...with very delicious-looking perfectl- cooked crusty pastry?
Clare The Bear said, Yes...
Matt asked. And did the pastry have a sort of fish design drawn on it, then there were two holes made in it, to let the steam out?
Yes... replied the Bear.
Matt continued. "And was the pie still quite hot and put on a special little tray, with a red and white chequered cloth to cover it over later...And then might there have been a little note on it which read: 'Dear Brian, here's the fish pie I made for your tea. Hope you like it. See you later. Lots of Love. Clare' "
Clare looked at Matt and said, Yes. That's exactly it. That's the pie that I'm talking about. Why? Did you see it then?
Matt gave an little innocent shrug and said, Oh er...no. I never saw anything like that.. And it wasn't left by the tree outside Brian's house, at about 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Definitely not. But rest assured. If I ever do see such a thing, I'll certainly tell you.
Clare the Bear and Brian the Lion looked at each other. And then they looked at Matt. And then at each other again. Thank you for you honesty Matt. said the bear.
Matt the cat sat down rather awkwardly, licked his paw and pretended to be cleaning behind his ear.
Last Wednesday, Colchester's new square at Colchester Town Station, was officially opened.
The Magistrates Court, which waiting rail travellers will notice overlooking the platform, opened for business last year amidst some controversy about its design. A futuristic archway by the urban artist Jo Fairfax, now crowns this south-eastern gateway to Colchester and Colchester Council's Regeneration Team can chalk up another job well done. It's been a long time coming.
When as a 20 year-old, I first knew the station once known as St Botolphs, the pub on the corner was called The Fountain. As I passed by its door, I'd sometimes see Derek, an old busker with a cowboy hat playing authentic bar-room piano and bawling out rock'n'roll songs. The pub's clientele back then were a lary-looking crew of men who looked as if they wrestled bears for a living. Whenever I came into Colchester by rail from Great Bentley, I'd notice how the shabby old trains groaned and rattled as they dragged their way down that last bit of weed-ridden track. It like was the crotch seam of Colchester's tattered old work-jeans the Last of Industry. It seemed almost as if the trains themselves were reluctant to arrive at the place.
The St Botolphs area is one which I've known for nearly all of my adult life. It possesses a distinctive psycho-geography. I dislike that last word, incidentally. It's clunky and pretentious-sounding. Unfortunately it describes something for which, so far I've found no better word. Psycho-geography is the study of the way in which events occurring and the people habituating a particular area will, over time, shape its general ambience. But there is something else too: the psycho-geography of a place may sometimes dictate how an area will continue to attract the same types of people and to host the same events as it always has done. Areas such as Soho in London, St Pauli in Hamburg and Montmartre in Paris are all examples of places with their own psycho-geography. It's as if such places haunt themselves, so that newcomers arriving there have no choice but to be swept into their flow.
When I first learned that the new Magistrates Court was to be built at St Botolphs, it did give me a small frisson of recognition. St Botolph was the patron saint of itinerants or 'wayfarers.' The area is certainly much-associated with transit, both physically and spiritually.
The new courts overlook the ancient ruins of St Botolph's Priory, founded circa 1103. England's earliest Augustinian priory, St Botolphs had no rich patron or sponsor bankrolling it and was therefore never well-heeled. So far as its gradual ruination went, it suffered less from Henry VIII's Dissolution than during the English Civil War, when a besieging Parliamentarian force to the south of Colchester cannonaded it. Lurking darkly beside the priory is its gothic-looking Victorian namesake, St Botolphs Church.
Built in 1836 it was designed by a brilliant young Ipswich architect, William Mason of Ipswich, who also built St James Brightlingsea and St Lawrence Rowhedge, before emigrating to New Zealand.
Around the new town station square, the ceaseless roar of traffic is heard as it converges upon St Botolph's Circus from Southway, Magdalen Street, Queen Street and the Mersea Road. Underneath the Circus is a small municipal garden where the underpass emerges to light. This urban oasis has in the recent past been the regular haunt of street drinkers and beggars.
Farther up Queen St, was the old bus park and bus garage. Westwards, along nearby Osborne St, is the new one. Over two centuries or more, St Botolphs has also witnessed many thousands of soldiers on their way to and from various barracks located up Mersea Road. During the Great War, 2,000 horses from the cavalry barracks were entrained at St Botolphs Station for the coast, en route to France. Most never returned.
The new courts, therefore, sit smack-dab in a place full of people in transit. The people around here have always been in transit and, like all places of transit, there's a sub-economy of bars, fast-food joint and clubs.
St Botolphs in medieval times stood just outside the city walls. This area, one of the town's poorest, according to the historian John Ashdown-Hill, was a place of prostitutes and human dungheaps. Off Queen Street, also outside the walls, was nearby Vineyard Street, then called Bere Lane where bear-baiting went on.
Around the corner from the station is a metal sculpture. It commemorates the site of Paxman's Britannia Works. The old factory was destroyed by the Luftwaffe one night in February of 1944 when 1400 incindiary bombs were dropped on it.
Here in the general vicinity of the station, you will still meet with some of life's more weathered travellers. On certain occasions, the police will be seen running a check on them at the station's entrance or ticket barriers. You may sometimes glimpse one of these wayfarers, together with his dog, lurching flinty-eyed off to some vital appointment. Who is he? Where did he come from? How did he come to be here? I doubt if even he could tell you that. But you will recognise him. Because you'll have met him in every bus park and town square from Portsmouth to Pisa. He's one of St Botolph's clients and he'll know very well what it's like to stand blinking, unshaven and hungover in the harsh morning glare of a Magistrates Court.