Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
They stand in bright winter light by a tree in a country lane. He, with his greatcoat and peaked cap, a sack draped over his shoulder, looks for all the world like a Russian emigré. She, with her fancy hat, flouncy dress and elegantly-cut topcoat resembles a music-hall performer, the type who might bounce out onstage to bawl out a bawdy song like. “Keep yer 'ands on yer ha'penny.” In the photograph, taken in about 1910, the two of them stare at the camera like two aristocrats on their uppers. She holds his arm fiercely, proudly, while his eyes seem to say: “Look at this magnificent woman I've won.”
They are Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes, Colchester's most celebrated mendicants and it's taken me a long time to track them down. During the Edwardian period, Emma and Grimes tramped the country roads in the Colchester area. They lived by begging and blagging whatever they could: money, clothes, food and drink. Emma was no ordinary bag-lady and liked to dress rather grandly. She also had a foul mouth on her, which she used to great effect whenever she was taunted by local youths. She'd been in service at some point in her young life and her fondness for helping herself to her employers' marmalade is the probable origin of her name. Perhaps, too, she'd picked up some of her sartorial style by observing those “above stairs” who'd employed her.
Grimes, though, was actually from a respectable family. He was the son of a local dignitary, Alderman Grimes and somehow, either through rebelliousness or indolence, had tumbled down through the social ranks. He and Emma slept where they fell – in hedges and ditches – often preferring it to the shelter of a barn. One report has them sitting in the middle of a snowstorm somewhere up the Mersea Road, she hunched over a sputtering fire smoking a pipe, he, unperturbed and reading a newspaper. They'd organised their own local rounds, which they carried out in order to procure food and drink. The Cock and Pye on North Hill was one port of call. They'd turn up in the mornings asking for the beer slops, which they then drank. They argued and shouted at each other all day, although it seems partly to have been a stage-act, since each was devoted to the other.
Everybody in small-town Colchester knew them and to an extent, local society tolerated them. Even so, on one occasion at least, Marmalade Emma served a short jail sentence for swearing at a copper. Asked by local urchins where she'd been, she snapped at them: “To college.” She must have been a tough old cookie, because in the 1891 Colchester Census, she put down her occupation down as “prostitute” – the only one listed on the register. Such defiance was a thing which might raise a few eyebrows even nowadays, let alone in her own tightly-buttoned era. Emma also carried a cat inside her jacket, which she doted on, feeding it the tastiest morsels which she could scrounge. When bronchitis got to her, she was taken into the Essex County Hospital, where she screamed and shouted when the ward sister discovered her cat, removed it and incarcerated it in a shed.
Despite Emma's recurrent illness, it was Grimes who died first, having been taken ill in a shop doorway in Queen Street. Emma went not long afterwards. She died on an old Colne barge somewhere down by the Hythe bridge which the two of them had once slept under.The two are buried side by side in a Colchester cemetery. In an odd coda to this story, I found a song about the pair on a re-issued album by a 1970s acid-rock band called Hard Meat. When I looked up this now obscure Birmingham three-piece, at first I could find no Colchester connection. Then, I discovered that they'd done the classic thing which rock-bands used to do back in those furry days. They'd “Got it all together in a country cottage,” and had spent the summer of 1970 blasting out their psychedelic rock over the flat fields of Great Bentley. In a local pub they'd heard about Emma and Grimes and had duly written their album-finisher, The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes. I found the song on an internet video site. It's doubly nostalgic– a forgotten band from forty years ago with a Traffic-like song about two long-dead Colchester tramps.
Still, though, Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes stare out from that wintry picture in a world far removed from the one in which we now live. They'd probably be given short shrift if they existed today. Their begging would be strongly discouraged. On one hand, they'd be descended upon by those agencies whose job it is to sort such problems out. On the other, they'd be at serious risk of attack from any team of drunken yobs who came across them. Hounded from the rural haunts now gentrified and peppered with Neighbourhood Watch stickers, simply bedding-down in the country would be difficult. People would be frightened of them. That haunting old photograph of the pair, however, radiates a robust dignity which you'd be hard-pushed to find in their modern counterparts. It tells you that for all of our improvements, state benefits and social safety-nets, certain elements of individual freedom and basic charity which they knew, have almost completely vanished during the past century.
At least this is what the La Lily has found. As all teenage girls will know, if your dad says,"Look, you're a young English Rose. Your complexion is perfect...among the best in the world..you don't need foundation." just ignore him. He's lying. But what many people don't know, is that computer keyboards need foundation make up too. So why not just multi-task? While you're putting your own make up on, why not talk to your friends on Bebo? That way, your dad's ("ageing and slow..like you.") laptop can have a bit of a foundation too.Sure, Dad may wonder why the keys have a slightly matt orangey texture, but whatever? He'll eventually thank you for it..even if he's sitting there later, after you've gone to school, asking himself: " What's the f***'s happened to this keyboard?"
I am currently completely absorbed in my new writing project. Lots of poems about trains, boats, history and churches for railway station hoardings. All got to be in by end of October. This job has been sent to me by a celestial force, I reckon.
One scaryy thing:, I've scarcely rehearsed anything for the Golden Afternoon, yet. Don't worry I'll work nights.
Came across two pics recently. One of me at breakfast with Simon Armitage (top geezer and good poet) in St Andrews, earlier this year. Another one sent in by Lee Cave Berry of Cambridge (now betrothed to Sir Kimberley Rew). It shows a younger Newell, 30 years ago onstage with Gypp. See for yourselves.
Newell and Armitage in St Andrews.
Newell in red waxy trousers in Ipswich 1978
Some people just don't take to school – Winston Churchill, most notably: “How I hated this school– and what a life of anxiety I lived there for two years.” James Dodds told me that he didn't get on very well at his Colchester secondary school and left aged fifteen. This, when I first ever met the artist, was a point of contact between us. I hadn't done very well at school either and had also left when I was fifteen. I once saw an old photo of the teenage Dodds. In it, he stands shaggy-haired besides a baby-faced Colchester rock group, Cosmology, for whom he acted as roadie. Dyslexic, rebellious and somewhat hesitant of speech, with boyhood now over, James was apprenticed to a shipwright in Maldon, Walter Cook & Son who rebuilt traditional sailing barges. Here, he was given an adze to work with, an ancient woodworking tool, which literally, might have come out of the ark. That's the thing about making a wooden boat. Apart from radar, sonar and one or two other bits of modern electronica, the basic construction of a traditional wooden boat has hardly changed over long centuries.
James told me that they used to train a young shipwright by pairing him up with an old shipwright. On his first day at work, the older shipwright told him: “I shan't say nuth'n. You watch me.” The young man's first timid swipes with his adze at a piece of oak, were gently admonished by the older man with: “Stop taking bees-wings off, boy.” and James, a quick learner, began to pick up the knack. He learned the parts of a boat: keel, keelson, stem, sternpost and strakes. He swept out the yard, made the tea, lit the fire under the pitchpot and helped take the planks, newly-pliable out of the steaming-trunk He learned that the bottom planks of a ship are often made of elm – because elm behaves well underwater – though, he said, it stinks of cow-dung when it's first sawn up. James, in fact, became thoroughly versed in the trade of Noah.
Four long years later, having travelled, winter and summer by bus to Maldon, his overalls covered in paint, resin, mud and pitch, Dodds emerged as a shipwright. He'd been trained on the River Blackwater. Though, he was actually a son of the Colne, having come from a Brightlingsea family. His mother's side, were mostly in maritime-related trades. His father, Andrew, was an artist and lecturer who for 48 years, worked as an illustrator for our sister paper, The Eastern Daily Press.
Art, too, was in James Dodds' blood. He had the talent. Still just in his teens, he returned to education. It must have been strange, having been a working man since he was fifteen, to attend art college in Colchester amongst people of his own age, many of whom would have seemed immature by comparison. His years as a shipwright, which had taught him the virtues of hard work, stood him in good stead. Seven years later, with an MA from the Royal College of Art in London, he'd stopped painting the abstracts which were then the stock-in-trade of the fashionable metropolitan art world. He began instead making prints and lino-cuts of ships, shipyards and working-life in East Anglia. For James, acclaim wasn't instantaneous but steady and sure, with a slow accumulation of successful exhibitions, sales and reviews. There's an East Anglian reticence about him, too. Catch him in London at a packed Cork Street exhibition, clean-shaven in an unfamiliar smart jacket and he'll still seem as awkward and tongue-tied as the teenager in that old photograph. Drop in on him at his workshop, however, grinning and unshaven in overalls, surrounded by prints hung up to dry like pillow-cases and a floor covered in bits of framing wood and then, you meet the man.
James Dodds has just produced an extraordinary book. “A book and a half.” in fact, as we might say round these parts. River Colne Shipbuilders – A Portrait of Shipbuilding 1786-1989 is published this month by Jardine Press. With an exhaustively-researched text by John Collins, archivist of the Nottage Institute, the book has been many years in the making and details 200 years of shipbuilding at Brightlingsea, Rowhedge, Wivenhoe and St Osyth. It is a definitive work, chock-full of diagrams, linocuts, paintings and photographs of ships, shipyards and the men who worked there. Many of the pictures are previously unpublished and all of them are stunningly re-produced. The front cover alone, a rare 1877 painting of a Colneside shipyard observed from the Rowhedge, with a wooden capstan in the foreground, sets the book's tone. Even if you weren't particularly interested in the subject, River Colne Shipbuilders – in an age where many of our rivers have become playgrounds for waterfront developers – brings a lost world back into sharp focus. Stood in rows by their work, the Victorian shipyards' men, stare out at the camera, moustached and cloth capped, with their mauls (heavy shipwrights' hammers) resting on their shoulders. It was their river then, a place of hammering, sawing and the drifting smoke of boiling pitch. The River Colne gave James Dodds to the world. Alongside John Collins' sterling text, with River Colne Shipbuilders, he returns the favour.
River Colne Shipbuilders , published on 18th September, is available from local bookshops.