Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
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.
By ruined Roman brickwork
In cold October air
Past Michaelmas, on Beryfield
They held St Dennis Fair
Now damsels dance down Queen St
And meet their modern knights
While trains come into Colchester
Beneath these ancient lights
On early Norman arches
The blue-eyed jackdaws perch
Above those cloistered shadows
Behind the Gothic church
A greensward for their carpet
They gaze down from the heights
For alms the tourists leave them
Below St Botolph's Circus
Under the traffic's roar
The souls of nameless soldiers
Go back and forth to war
In court each winter morning
The sun reads out his rights
The prisoner stands there, yawning
And longs for ancient lights
While medieval rooftops
Stare up at steel and glass
The past reminds the future
To let the present pass
When August flirts with autumn
And starry are the nights
And Colchester lies twinkling
Among the ancient lights
There had been neither hide nor hair of him for three years. I wasn't expecting to see him again and then, suddenly, last October he reappeared. Brian had been living in woods near to my home since the turn of the millennium. His dwelling was deep inside the woods. Unless you'd known the place very well, you would probably have had no idea that he even existed. He spent most of his time foraging wood for his fire. He lived very simply. Brian was often visited by his friend Matt, an outsider with musical ambitions but very little talent He was also visited by Clare, a former ballet teacher of Russian origin, who had a pilot's licence, so she claimed. This unconventional trio were occasionally joined by Morris Horse , an amiable character with an interest in buses bordering upon the Aspergic. Other visitors were seasonal, only joining Brian, Matt and Clare during winter months. I became very familiar with Brian and his strange friends. I saw him often for almost a decade.
Then, one year, he didn't appear. What had happened? Brian the Lion wasn't required anymore. My daughter, my little Essex girl had grown up. Some dads are good at more overtly daddish things; playing football, building tree-houses, driving you miles away to places of entertainment, taking you fishing, teaching you self-defence etc. My own dadding talents, however, resided in home-made stories, jokes and songs.
In early years, when my daughter was really young, I made the stories up as we went along. By the time she was six, however, Brian the Lion had become an established Saturday night serial, one which required plots, sub-plots, and incidental music played on a guitar or piano. It was round about this time, it dawned upon me that it might be a good idea to crystallise it – make her a CD of some of the best stories – for those times when I was working away from home. In addition, if it was her bedtime and I had my hands full in the kitchen on a Saturday night, a ready-made CD, was a handy sort of thing to have lying around.
By the time she was seven years old, the scripts were taking me three days to write and half a day to edit. Since I was at that time, briefly without decent home-recording facilities, I had to book a friend's studio in order to record them.
The reading and performing of the narrative, along with doing the various characters' voices, took up much of the first day. Dubbing the incidental music and sound effects took the second. A third day was kept free for 'track repairs' and mixing. That's about seven working days, two of them with someone assisting me in production duties. The end product was a feature-length audio-book, with a running time of about an hour. Why did I do it? Because it was something which I could do. I can't build rocking horses, drive a car or pay for a trip to Santa's Grotto in Lapland. But I can spin a yarn and I do know my way around a recording studio.
The Brian stories were never produced commercially, although a few copies did sometimes find their way to close friends' children. Several attempts were made to persuade me to consider either mass-producing them or approaching the industry with the idea. I resisted. It just didn't seem right somehow. It was a personal Christmas present. I believed, however loftily, that I shouldn't cannibalise my entire life for commercial gain. And anyway, who knew whether or not they'd have been good enough?
When my daughter became a sophisticated pre teenager, Brian the Lion left the woods. I didn't expect to see him again. I missed him, actually. Then, two years ago, I was informed by my youngest brother that the CDs which I'd copied for him, had been going down very well with his own young children. His little girl asked me, whether there were anymore. I confessed that I was afraid that there weren't. That was a Grinch moment.
Thus did it come about last November, that having found myself with some spare time, after a three-year absence, Brian the Lion 9 went back into production. For the past two weeks, I've been working piecemeal on Brian 10. His friend Matt the Cat is also back, this time with an all-cat boy band. Kool 4 Kats were formed rather too late to enter for Fame Acatemy, but they might just be in with a chance of winning Kittens Got Talent.
I'm not a children's writer but this stuff is fun. It just seems to write itself. As for the recording of it, two years ago, having appointed myself Jingle-meister for Radio Wivenhoe, I had all the excuses I needed for building a domestic mini-studio. One of the first things which I acquired was an ancient sound effects library. American in origin, it probably dates back to the 1950s. It's full of animal noises, industrial machinery, boings, crashes and breaking glass. I found it online. It cost me seven US dollars. It's real boys' stuff. The all-cat singing group effects, I have to make up myself; sitting there with cold tea and the light fading, overdubbing cat voices. It's an insane thing for a grown man to be doing but it's a great way of cheering up dark November days. It also still makes a pretty good home-made Christmas present.