Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Sorry everyone, I'm on a writing deadline at the moment. The January newsletter's due up any minute though. Have the following piece instead. It's a recent article I wrote about Harwich for the East Anglian, which many of our non U.K. readers won't be able to gain access to. I'm rather proud of my work for the Anglian and it enables me to go round the county writing about all sorts of interesting people and places, in this case a very historical English sea-port about twenty miles from where I live.
I could have stayed in and perhaps I should have. At some point during the New Year I'd managed to download Version 1 of the National Cold into my system– that's the one that comes with the hacking cough and blocked sinus, with its optional add-ons of headache and sore throat. Though it was a bright cold Saturday and I decided to go and mooch around in Harwich instead. When the god in charge of mucking about with perfectly good historical places visited Harwich, he must have missed a lot of it out. The old part of the town is remarkably untouched and still haunted by the ghosts of the thrumming old seaport which it used to be.
From the town pier, you can see the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Stour and imagine the numberless sailing ships over the centuries whose first or last sighting of England must have been old Harwich. It's a little-known fact that when the Beatles first went to Germany in August of 1960, for a 48-night stint at Hamburg's sleazy Indra Club, it was from Harwich that they left. There's blurred snapshot in one of my old pop books of John Lennon on the quay watching the band's battered and overloaded Austin van being hoisted onto the ferry.
For centuries Harwich was a very important place. Samuel Pepys the naval administrator and diarist was an MP here. When Dr.Johnson and Boswell left England for Holland, it was also from Harwich which was then the gateway to Germany and the Low Countries. Daniel Defoe described the port as: 'a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure' but acknowledged that some of its residents were wealthy. The vestiges of that wealth are still to be seen in the streets of the old town, though the grandeur is discreet – as you might expect in a town which has also known hard times.
When I first knew Harwich in the mid-Seventies as a young pantiwaist of a singer in a gigging band, it was known as a rufty-tufty, hard-living sort of place where you generally watched your step. My father was a Port Health-officer here for many years and was immensely fond of it. Later, however, after the sea cargoes were containerised and the trade moved away from the old port, it made him sad to revisit the place. When he met the old port workers he'd known, he said: “You find they just want to talk about the old days.” There's still a residual melancholy about the Old Town and yet, one gets the feeling that Harwich is quietly on the up. The American cruise ships arrive in summer – disgorging many of their passengers into Harwich for the day. True, many will be coached to Colchester or London for day-trips but others will stay and wander around the town marvelling at the antiquity of the buildings or gazing up at Harwich's imposing church, St Nicholas. In addition to this, Christopher Jones, the Master of the Mayflower was from here, the Elizabethan house he was born is in Kings Head Street. In nearby streets, even by contrast with ten or fifteen years ago, are signs that Harwich is beginning to do okay. Some of the older houses, bought by hard-up teachers during the housing-boom years when Harwich was cheaper than many other places, look well-kept and genteel. Despite dire times for the pub trade, there are still lots of pubs and as one local told me, “It's not hard to find somewhere to to eat here” The Pepys and the Pier restaurants both seem to be flourishing and even on this bitterly cold day, if the streets are quiet it's only because the eateries are full. In high season, my guide said, on some days these streets are packed. And the people who really do take to Harwich are the cruise ships' mainly Filipino and Thai crews.
Standing on the town's Ha'penny Pier, it's easy to imagine Harwich as it was, a place full of tall-masted ships, coal boats and Men of War – many of which were built here for the Navy. Further in, in the alleyways and cut-throughs of the Old Town were the sailmakers, the chandlers, the taverns and the roperies. A few centuries ago Harwich was the town that never closed. Here the press-gang would have waited, to waylay some drunk sailor so that he could wake up with a headache en-route to a sea-battle with the Dutch navy. Here Defoe arrived in spring of 1722, finding the townsmen 'far from being famed for their good useage of strangers'. Here too, the Huguenot refugees and Flemish weavers on their way to Colchester would have had their first experiences of England. And then came the slump of the late 20th century when the economic game moved up the field. Harwich today though, surprises me and I can't think why I haven't been back here for so long. Sure, there's talk in the town about the recent closure of Woolworths and who might go next. But despite the freezing weather there was a good turn-out on the quay for the New Year fireworks. In a few months' time the cruise ships will be in again and the various festivals and tours will take place. And then the visitors will come – and I will be among them.
I have been omitted again from the list of New Year Honours. Quite apart from this, the chaps in the local Indian restaurant, who are actually very nice, misheard my name when I made a telephone booking once and still think that I am called Mr Mule. I haven't the heart to correct them, so for the past year or two, for the purposes of the exercise, I am Mr Mule. In a moment of despair and lassitude I wrote the following poem
upon being omitted from the New Year Honours, then later that evening upon finding his name pronounced wrongly in the Indian restaurant.
Sir Nartin Mule
In swansdown folds of early dawn
Awakened by un-counted sheep
And disappointment's hunting horn
Across the marshes of my sleep
I called: “Fetch me my writing things
For genius is about such things"
I will not quietly crawl away
The world shall know this very day
That I go on, though life be cruel
Arise, arise, Sir Nartin Mule
Arise again, Sir Nartin Mule
Stand up the man who never balked
When work began, though people talked
And rumour ran, while fortune walked
Arise now Mr Nartin Mule
A name, you must concede, a name
That strode head-high down streets of shame
Dreamed futile dreams of honour, fame
Yet still the knighthood never came
Sir Nartin Mule, VC and bar
I wait in vain for Palace car
Outraged, as I am sure you are
I never fought on Heartbreak Ridge
Or died defending any bridge
Admitted, though, I was not born
But had I been, that fateful dawn
The enemy, such as had shown
Would take one glance and would have known
My striking figure on its steed
And say "Here is a man indeed!"
And broke their ranks and ran away
While I, Sir Nartin, won the day.
Arise Sir Nartin, MBE
M.M., M.C. and Maltese Cross
The only call that came for me
Was ignominy. Mute with loss,
I wander mountain fastnesses
These deserts in their vastnesses
A man deprived of Fame's own fuel
Arise, arise, Sir Nartin Mule
But women? Ah, they knew me well
In all of Europe's greatest houses
Now they'll fasten hands on blouses
Recollecting midnight trysts
On star-strewn lawns in woodland mists
"Sir Nartin, must you go so soon?"
Their voices chime, their voices chime
Alas, I never had the time
And I would haste away, half-dressed
Too shy to say why it was best
And even if they cried a pool
Since greatness beckoned Nartin Mule
Destiny had need of me
What cause had I to disagree?
Yet now, while I await the call
The postman hardly comes at all
Though when that brief arrives for me
Addressed: Sir Nartin Mule VC
I'll know, as Mrs Baxter does
My housekeeper, who's old and plain
And stifles feelings, in the main
But won't betray Sir Nartin Mule
And keeps her mouth shut, as a rule
Though even so, as women might
She has a healthy appetite
And taps upon my door at night
To take advantage of my plight
Admitted.... in the longer term
She's like a Flymo to my worm
Though, selflessly, I let her stay
Till sated, she must slink away
While I repair to bathroom shelf
Applying unctions to myself
Arise, Arise, Sir Nartin Mule
The maids regard me and still drool
A shabby knight, a tarnished sword
Yet should there not be some award?
For all this work through all the years
My chest was drenched in women's tears
Pursued by keen biographers
And hounded by photographers
A film, a major film at that
Perhaps a plaque above my flat?
Just something to commemorate
That I turned up. And I was great
But no! There's nothing. Not a light
My name pronounced and still not right
Though I shall have revenge on you
When I am rich, for I will sue
Then you shall pay. And pay a bomb.
Now where's my fucking Poppadom?
It was forty years ago, January 6th 1969 that I started work, aged 15. Hacked off with my teachers, my school, my parents I'd walked out of school the previous autumn and never gone back. As winter 68 set in, I'd gone to help Hedley and his dad in their shop in Earlsfield, south London. We'd glue bases on acrylic gonks and throw them into a big cardboard box. The boxes would be sealed and shipped off to Norway. I think Hedley's dad occasionally put hooky watches in one or two of the consignments. Then on Fridays he took us to a pub and gave us some money. Nice man. French. Never did find out exactly what it was he did though.
It wasn't a proper job though and naturally my mum thought I was at school. In January it was crunch time and so I began work as a trainee 40 column punch-card operator for the General Post Office. My mate Dave Ward did too. It was his idea. The job was well-paid, safe...and deadly, deadly dull. I remember walking in the January sleet from Farringdon Tube, round the corner up Farringdon Road and up the stairs. At lunchtime we went to a glass building over the road, Fleet House I think it was called, to a canteen. Here you could get sausage beans and chips for 2shillings and tenpence (old money). The people that Dave and I worked with were mostly boneheads but there were a few deviants. I was there for about 6 months..
Our supervisors were Mavis and Christine. Mavis was a scout-mistress in her spare time and quite kindly. Christine was waspish: "Mr Newell? " (it was weird being called Mister Newell, aged fifteen) "Are you deaf...or just Styoo-pid?" she once asked me. "Deaf please, Miss." I replied. I made £7/10s per week, which was better than Robert, my mate, who only got about £6.00 Dave and I spent a lot of money in the pinball machines in Clapham Junction arcade..or we bought records. I was fifteen and I was a working lad. I didn't like the job much but it beat the hell out of the education system. My parents wanted me to pay too much money out of my wages, so I phoned up to enquire about a bedsit in a then-notorious part of Balham. I had no fear then. When they realised I was serious my parents came back with a more sensible offer. Still, by aged 17 I'd been working for nearly 18 months and now had my own little flat (kitchen/ room and bog two floors down. Funny that kids don't do that now. They stay at home till quite late. They all go into education, which I don't always reckon is the best thing for a good brain, much as it will annoy some people that I dare to say so.
Going out to work for a couple of years when you're really young, can be quite good for you. It makes you grow up quickly and concentrates the survival instinct wonderfully. When I realised that I'd been in gainful employment for 40 years now, it was a bit of a surprise, that's all. I thought that it was worth writing down.
Now that I think about young people and work, I reckon the same rules would still apply now as always did. These days, kids are railroaded into staying on at school. They come out of the system aged what? 22 to 24? They are saddled with debts often exceeding £20,000 and many of them don't (as the Americans say) know shit from Shine-ola. Very often, despite the qualifications they hold and which they were told they would be on the employment scrapheap without, they can't still get the jobs they wanted. There's always room for a smart cookie though. Employers like a maze-bright rat. Apart, obviously, from certain scientific and medical jobs, most of the things that people do, can be be either self-taught, or learned by tying the young dog to an old dog so that he learns by example. If I were advising my younger self on a career trajectory today I'd probably say, "Go and wash some dishes in a busy hotel kitchen. Talk to the chefs and managers. Find out how it works. Step in when somebody goes sick. If they really like you and you need the formality of a qualification, they'll send you on a crash course."
I think that what I'm trying to say, is that despite all the bollocks talked on the subject, if you're smart and fast and prepared to graft, you can still work your way up from tea-boy to C.E.O if you really want to. And no-one can stop you. And that's never going to change. This anyway is what I thought on the 40th anniversary of me commencing employment.
The building by the red bus, is where we
had lunch.(I think)