Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I'm cycling down Wivenhoe High Street one mid-afternoon when I become aware of a vehicle behind me. I sense that it's in a bit of a hurry, so I quickly nip in between two parked cars and wait for it to pass. The car is one of those large paramilitary-looking things, to which the manufacturers give names like 'Intruder' or 'Slayer' The youngish woman the wheel, speeds off rather more quickly than might be prudent on such a thoroughfare or at such an hour of the day. She seems cross.
Although I have never driven a car, I swear that I can sense when a vehicle's being driven angrily. Even if there's no obvious revving or clunking of gears, when you're a cyclist, there's something about a crossly-driven car which tells you so. It's as if there's some invisible aura or atmosphere being given off. My way of dealing with it is to pull in, give way, or sometimes to gesture with a cheerful wave of the arm that the driver should pass me. Their need, after all, must be greater than mine. No point in being antagonistic. That's their turf.
The default setting of the English, as the critic A A Gill has observed, is one of anger. In recent years anger on the roads has increased substantially. Essex, however fond of it I may be, is the Land of the Petrolhead. North to south, it seems, we love our cars. No amounts of taxing by governments or tsk-tsking by the Holy Global Warmists can change us. You may protest at the side of the road with your bicycle-trailer as much as you wish, Young Crusader, but if you wave your green swastika at Captain Colchester when he's driving home from a hard week's collar, he will spring, grille-teethed from his car and break your jaw with his best roundhouse punch; and all of the other drivers will laugh heartily as they pass your prone body.
I think that the rage problem is not just caused by overcrowded roads but is also a by-product of years of car manufacturers' selling techniques. Thanks to the brilliant effectiveness of their advertising campaigns, to an owner, a car is no longer merely a tool to get one from A to B and back. Nor is it even – that cliché - 'an extension of the home'. I fear that it's rather more extreme than that. Many of us have reached the point where we believe we are one with our cars: “Chippeth not my paintwork, for you lacerate my soul.”
If the vehicle manufacturers could market a chic little tank in bright magenta; say an FV107 Scimitar – other makes of light armoured reconnaissance vehicle are available – it would be roaring commercial success. On weekday mornings, Colchester's Lexden Road would be even more full of yummy- mummies parked in the cycle lane , perched in their gun turrets re-applying their lippy and muttering at the traffic wardens: “Go ahead, punk – make my day.” .
Clingoe Hill, following a tense afternoon school-run would resemble the retreat from Stalingrad. Maybe not a great idea from a health and safety perspective but it wouldn't half jazz up the drive-time bulletins on Radio 2 : “Now here's Sally Traffic with the latest on another school-run firefight just outside of Elmstead Market. “Thank you Simon – that Telecom van still burning on the A133 but Essex Police say they're expecting Mrs Catchpole's ammo to run out within the next fifteen minutes. For the time being, though, the diversion through Great Bromley remains firmly in place.”
Colchester is one of the fastest-growing towns in Britain. During the past decade, the town itself along with villages within its environs have had vast chunks of housing welded onto their flanks. These in turn have spawned corresponding numbers of personal and service vehicles attendant upon such expansion. Our roads are overcrowded, public transport is inadequate and expensive. Accommodation too, is expensive. So, despite improvements in communications technology
a significant proportion of people are still forced to commute to London. Because of this daily grind, understandably, many of us feel the need for regular breaks away, thereby causing even more traffic congestion. It's Hell's Own Merry-go-round.
The North Station roundabout, for instance, is an ideal illustration of modern chaos. Nationally notorious nowadays, in terms of traffic problems, it's Colchester's solar plexus and like a human solar plexus, doesn't require much of a blow to bring the entire system, puffing and blowing to its knees. No wonder everyone's in such a flaming temper.
Who's to blame? Well, no one, actually. To lay the blame at any single doorstep would be spurious and only a fool, or a politician wishing to score points would attempt to do so. In 200 years time, historians looking back will write that the people of the early 21st century suffered terribly from overcrowding and traffic congestion. This, they will explain, was because of large population shifts to England's south-east following the death of industry at the beginning of the Early Silicone Age.
In a few weeks time, Colchester High Street commences an 18-month trial as a car free zone. The approaching ban on cars using the High Street between 11am and 6pm has seen emotions running high, locally. It is a brave, many say, a foolhardy experiment. I wish them luck. As ever I'll be among you taking notes.
The place and the season in which it happened, when taken together, don't really comprise the classic setting for such an event. It didn't, for instance, happen on a dank winter evening. There was nothing eerie about the weather or the light. In fact, it was high summer. A light southerly wind was blowing in a broad blue sky. It was a Saturday morning, the gulls were bickering on the saltings and all other background sounds were those of an estuary town in full chime. It was the church, though, which I'd noticed that day. At this time, I'd only been living on the east coast for a year or so. Apart from vaguely registering that St Hildas' stood somewhere up on the hill among terraced backstreets, I'd never really explored it before.
It wasn't what you would call a conventionally handsome church. But for a small Essex riverside town, it was unusual, being octagonal in shape with the sides of its roof gradually converging to an imposing point. St Hilda's stood darkly, almost proprietorially, occupying its own space between two quiet streets. The churchyard sloped down alongside the back gardens of nearby houses. Whenever I'd ever passed it before, except for certain services, the church had not been open to the public. Now, as I walked up through its half-tended churchyard, I saw that bunches of white lilies had been placed by its door. There seemed to be a function going on inside.
Out of curiosity, I went in, soon discovering that I'd walked into some sort of themed fete. Churches, nowadays, are much like any other businesses. In a godless age, their custodians have to compete in the market with everyone else in order to draw people in. We live in an age of nostalgia, retro-chic and re-creation. It's common enough to find, say, a town council running a 1940s-themed dance complete with a big band. In the villages, 1960s nights are practically a charity fund-raising staple nowadays and Dickensian Christmas Fayres are also popular. I wasn't surprised, therefore, to find that the church's Victorian summer fete, was being run along similar lines.
I was greeted by a pleasant elderly woman, wearing a shabby black dress and a bonnet. She smiled and handed me a dog-eared cardboard ticket. I dropped a couple of pounds into a wooden collection box on the table and gazed around the church. It was surprisingly light and airy inside, especially when I considered how gothic its exterior had appeared. The parishioners had gone out of their way to look authentically Victorian. Usually, at such events, a few people will have made some sort of an effort to dress up. The majority, however, will only throw on a shawl, a hat and then cobble together an ensemble which just about passes muster. Here at St Hilda's it looked like a costumier from a professional theatre group had been at work. There wasn't a single person who hadn't dressed for the part. No sign of sports trainers, for instance, were to be seen peeping out from undeneath the long dresses. The small children present wore scuffed little work boots ‒ which looked exactly right. Someone had obviously gone to a great deal of trouble for this occasion. A boy of about twelve even wore an iron calliper on one leg, which I thought was a nice if rather morbid touch. One or two of the adults, I noticed, had gone as far as blacking out some of their teeth. It was redolent of a TV costume drama. I now felt singularly out of place in my jeans and shirt. I was the only person in the church not dressed in period costume. A man in a peaked cap, standing at a stall regarded me curiously and smiled at me.
“Am I too early?” I asked, “ Your door was open.”
He laughed back at me, and replied in an exaggeratedly rustic accent,
“Oh, I shouldn't think so, boy. I should reckon you're just about on time She give you a ticket
di'n't she? You'll do!” and then he laughed again.
In a corner, two old chaps, one playing a squeezebox, the other with a fiddle, struck up an odd-sounding folk tune. Even the vicar, who was busy circulating among his parishioners, seemed to have entered into the spirit of the fete, having got himself up like an old country parson, complete with gaiters. At this point, I observed that there were more women and children than men in the building. This was par for the course, I thought, knowing how difficult it generally is to get the average stubborn Englishman to dress up for such occasions.
But still, for a small parish church, on a late Saturday morning, when most people were either out shopping, or thinking about having lunch, it was a good turn-out. There must have been about sixty or seventy people there ‒ and everyone in costume except for me. I turned again to the lady who'd given me the ticket and said, “This has been brilliantly organised. I really feel quite out of place., There were no posters around the town or anything, saying that it was on.” She looked up at me,with kindly, nut-brown eyes, placed a maternal hand on my arm and cooed, “Oh, we don't have to tell anyone, dear. We've been coming here for many years now. Everybody always knows!”
I walked around, marvelling at the costumes and flower displays, taking in the tranquil atmosphere of the church and its fragrance. It was a comforting sort of smell ‒ rather like an old bookshop. But there was another scent underneath its mustiness, sweetish, half-familiar and slightly sickly. It had a vaguely medicinal quality, reminiscent of old-fashioned cough sweets, or embrocation.
I asked the old lady what time it was. She produced an ancient watch from her pocket and squinted at it. “It's about one o'clock. We'll soon be off, I suppose.” Time had melted. It only seemed like I'd been in there for five minutes or so and yet, almost an hour had gone by. “Well,” I said. “ It's excellent. Good luck with it ‒ and I hope you get many more people this afternoon.” She looked at me rather oddly, as if she hadn't quite understood what I'd said. “Oh, if you're not staying, may I have...” and she gestured at the battered ticket in my hand, which I handed back.
As I wandered back down the hill, apart from a young girl walking her dog through the churchyard, there seemed to be hardly anybody about. Little riverside towns such as this can be quiet at certain times of day. Once I'd reached the quayside, though, the town seemed to reclaim itself Now, there was the laughter of drinkers outside the pub and the sound of cars parking. The tide was almost full and a light sea breeze scooped down the estuary, rattling the halliards of the sailing boats at high water.
That was my story. I wouldn't have thought much more about it had it not been for a meeting which occurred later that autumn. I got into conversation one evening in the pub, with a couple, both of them retired, who informed me that they helped to assemble the parish magazine. They asked me if Id' like to write something for them, from the point of view of a newcomer to the town. Huddled at their fireside table, while the rain spanked down outside, I waxed enthusiastic about the place, told them what a relief it had been for me to leave the hurly burly of the City. I told them how much I loved the slower pace of the town and its baffling, if charming idiosyncrasies.
Then we talked about St Hilda's. It was a beautiful church in its strange gothic way, I said. I spoke of my surprise at how light it had seemed inside. I told them that they should make more of the summer fete, which I'd stumbled upon in the summer, and how authentic the event had seemed.
Here, they looked puzzled. The wife, asked me whether I'd meant the recent Harvest Festival. I replied that the event which I'd attended, had taken place far less recently, in the middle of summer, in fact. The husband now enquired whether I'd got the fete mixed up with another fete somewhere else. No, I assured them and told them, in detail, exactly where it had been. They shook their heads, as if to say that perhaps it was they who had been mistaken. Maybe they'd been on holiday during that time, the wife asked the husband. Her partner made a great show of attempting to recall exactly, when it was that they'd been away that summer. And then there was more shaking of heads and acknowledging that one or other might well have been mistaken. But I knew then, that neither of them had a clue as to what I was talking about and were trying to spare me and probably, themselves any further embarrassment. I agreed to write them a few words about the town for their magazine and we parted company.
It was the following summer, when I made my next discovery. I was engaged in a research job to do with bygone Essex coastal trade. It was tedious work on a subject which I wasn't particularly interested in. On an oppressively hot afternoon in late August. I was almost dropping off over my keyboard, struggling through a maritime archive website, when I came across a small item, The Sinking Of The Daphne. It made uncomfortable reading. A packet steamer of that name had gone down in the Thames estuary, during the summer of 1871. The ship, the account recorded, had been taking a number of local people on a day trip down the coast to London. It had been paid for by a church charity, who'd provided an annual day out for the poorer parish families. The Daphne's crew, along with sixty-five passengers had gone down with the ship. Most of the dead, the report said, were women, children and the old of the parish. The parson of the church had been among them. Very few of the victims' bodies were ever recovered. There was no more information than that.
I imagined that the tragedy must have loomed large in the town at the time. And yet, there was no monument to mark it, except, I later discovered, a small plaque in the church. It hadn't been a wealthy parish and the event was now long out of living memory. Death, it seems, was a thing which the Victorians lived rather closer to than most of us do today. They didn't make such a fuss. They probably couldn't have afforded to. They simply moved on.
I've heard that drowning is a beautiful death, at least, so far as any form of dying can be beautiful. I have no idea how anyone would possibly know such a thing. I gather, however, from certain descriptions by those who have almost drowned but were later resuscitated, that once you have surrendered yourself to it, given up the desperate struggle and allowed your lungs to fill with water, the pain and terror of the experience will dissolve. It's said too, that during the process of drowning, those final ebbing moments of consciousness are calm and sometimes, instensely spiritual. I'm not exactly sure why they come to mind but it's always at this time of year, after October goes, as autumn tiptoes quietly into winter, that I recall the faces of the drowned.
Last week our much-derided and misunderstood county finally received some praise on television. Jonathan Meades, former food critic, architecture buff and cultural commentator brought his attention to Essex. I have so far not heard a bad word spoken about his elegantly-titled programme, The Joy of Essex, which was beautifully shot and presented. Having missed it, I eventually managed to see it via a catch-up service.
I have been a fan of Mr Meades' programmes for several years now. His deadpan presentation, delivered in existentialist funeral attire from behind inscrutable shades makes for oddly compulsive viewing. He came across as having a genuine fondness for Essex, as well as – for an outsider – an unusual understanding of our complex social DNA.
Places featured in the programme included Layer Marney Towers, Jaywick, Hadleigh Castle, Wrabness, and a number of other enchanted corners so often missed by those Balsamic-gargling media Fauntleroys. Another thing which Meades' programme managed to do, with its frequent panoramic shots, was to remind us that Essex remains seventy percent rural, despite continuing rumours about it having become a concrete wasteland.
A few years ago, I was invited to take part in a Radio 4 edition of the Today programme. Asked by Sarah Montague about culture in Essex and about how we could import it, I replied that we already had plenty of culture and that far from importing it, perhaps we should instead consider exporting it – to the rest of the country.
This brings us sashaying daintily over to Colchester's forthcoming City of Culture bid for 2017. I received an invitation last week to become a 'founder member of the Tier 2 planning group' No. I didn't understand it either. Frankly, I can't think of anything worse than Colchester becoming a City of Culture and was indecently quick in saying so to the project's hope-filled organisers, who probably don't deserve my scorn.
The thing is, that my becoming a member of almost anything to do with arts and culture, if past experience is anything to go by, will almost certainly mean attending interminable meetings, whilst negotiating in that infuriating patois of arts'n'media speak. There'll be time-consuming e-mails and letters to be answered. There'll be ego battles, tears and gown-rending – and that's just me. There'll be backslapping when it goes well and blamefests when it goes badly. All of this for a skipload of tenuous events which, as self-appointed head of the Philistine Liberation Organisation will probably bore me to incontinence. There's ten million quid if we win it. Stap me! They could build a bus station with that. Now that would be an art statement.
I need to be involved with this, like I need a headmastership, an honorary degree – or a damehood. Actually, I'd probably accept a damehood. “Don't hold back then, Dame Martin – just say what you think.” said a blunt little voice in my head as I sent back my refusal, less than five minutes after receiving the invitation.
Am I really being so mean, so negative – such an old git? I later asked myself. Very probably. And yet, this town, Colchester – which I still love like a whipped cur loves its thuggish master– needs to get a few things straight before we go merrily holding culture festivals. For a start, we should close down all those town centre Yoof Drinking Venues. A team of bouncers on the door and CCTV does not tell you that a place is safe – quite the opposite. Why not put such 'leisure solutions' in specially-managed compounds outside the town, with all security paid for by the drinks industry giants who champion them? We currently have a ridiculous situation where the shoppers all have to go out of town, while the drunks have the run of the High Street all weekend. That can't be right. Get rid of the disorder and then perhaps the mild-mannered, the middle-aged, the merchants and their money may return to the town centre. It's hardly rocket science, is it?
Then, if we really do want arts and culture, shouldn't we stop encouraging free arts events and music festivals where everyone gets paid except for the performers? Because in the end, such a state of affairs only leads to a more general mediocrity, as the amateurs take over the stage and the professionals are forced into teaching roles. True excellence will rarely work for no pay. Even humble buskers get paid.
Having a City of Culture, is like a having a Passengers' Charter – or a Patients' Charter. It admits that there's some sort of deficiency in the first place. Finally, let's just accept that there's a sizeable sector who simply aren't interested in arts and culture. And who could blame them? You can't just cattle-prod people into galleries and theatres when they really prefer things like The X-Fracture. I, for instance, would rather go and see The Sooty Show than sit in a theatre having to endure two hours of soul-corroding misery by Beckett or Strindberg – both of whose work I hate. And contrary to the silly slogans proclaiming otherwise, the arts are not 'for all' – any more than eye-surgery or astro-physics are 'for all'. Any daft mare can shove a few sticks, seashells and feathers in an old box and call it 'an exhibition of found objects'. Try drawing a human hand instead. Culture? Yes please. But first let's clear the drunks off the street and the audience off the stage.