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Authors: Griff Rhys Jones

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This
must have been a stop on my father’s independence, though he never openly
complained. Grandpa didn’t last long. But Granny hung on in. She moved into
that room upstairs when she was in her early sixties and died at the age of
ninety-eight, three houses later. ‘I think he just expected them to stay for a
short while,’ my mother said ruefully ‘I don’t suppose he imagined she would
outlast him.’

My
mother’s sense of post-partem proprietorialism even extended to houses built by
a speculative builder on land she had sold forty years ago. ‘Well, they seem to
have let that house fall into a state.’

And it
was in a state, with a shopping trolley bunged up against the side wall. I was
prepared for change. How could I not be? It was effectively thirty years since
I had been in Epping — at least ten since I had last had any reason to go
there.

The
alleyway was still functioning. A billboard advertised ‘Holistic Massage’ on
Wednesday, ‘Thought Field Therapy’ on Thursday and ‘Spiritual Healing, Shiatsu
and Reiki Teaching’. When I was last there, every other shop in the high street
sold shoes. Nowadays the holistic clinic was joined by two acupuncture centres,
a Chinese herbalist and ‘Positively Healthy, the healthy living shop’ (in our
old doctor’s surgery). Nobody came into town for white stilettos any more.
They came to get their auras read.

‘It’s
all restaurants now,’ said the man in the ‘Oriental Rug Shop’. It was all oriental
rug shops too. But ‘Coles the Tailors’ was still flogging what looked
suspiciously like the same stock, beneath its familiar sign (a man in inflated
breeches wielding shears) and ‘Batchelors’, the smelly riding tackle shop, was
still there. ‘Church’s the Butchers’, where, if stuck, you could almost guarantee
to find your mother ordering pork pies, was there too.

I stood
transfixed at the corner of the high street. They had moved the zebra crossing
twenty yards, but … ‘Look, look,’ I squeaked. Sitting where I had sat, over
forty years ago, was a row of little boys waiting for the same Saturday-morning
shearing in the same barber’s shop. ‘Just a little off the sides and back,
please.’ They certainly didn’t listen then. Whatever you asked for, they
scraped you down to the bone. Did they still get the long strands of cotton
wool out of those chrome dispensers poked down behind the collar? Did they use
those puffers that finished the job with a squirt of talcum powder? Were these
kids going to glower at their own fat faces emerging from shaggy disguise, beg not
to have any Brylcreem and rail at their mothers for sending them there?

To
escape the depredations of the Demon Barber we had moved to ‘Nigel’s’. He was
my mother’s hairdresser. My father refused to be seen going to a women’s salon,
so Nigel started coming to the house for private sessions. He ended up cutting
all the local doctors and the vicar too.

‘You
probably won’t remember me …’ she began.

‘Gwynneth,
you haven’t changed a bit!’ Nigel himself, older and stouter, his business
thriving, was misty-eyed for the old days when Epping’s entire medical
community had sat in my mother’s kitchen waiting for their trim.

‘I used
to get through a whole bottle of gin in an evening,’ chortled my mother.

Across
the road I had worked the pumps one Christmas, falling for the old ‘check the
radiator’ gag in Volkswagens and waving goodbye to customers with their petrol
cap still m my hand. Shell had gone. A car showroom occupied the forecourt. But
the Methodist church, the big plane trees and the picket fences were still in
place.

On my
first day in St John’s Primary, standing in assembly in that huge hall with
the high windows and the gloss baby-blue wall paint, amongst another six
hundred strangers, I had suddenly felt hopelessly lost. After moving from
Harlow to a second school in the space of one year, and, at the age of eight,
when I should have known better, I wept publicly and humiliatingly.

I was
over it by lunchtime. I was perfectly happy at an ordinary school, where you
were safe enough as long as you kept out of the way of the nutters. We had a
lavatory block that you avoided. It was better to do it in your pants than have
to use the oozing facilities, with the unlockable doors, crashable by prowling
junior sadists. We had the boy in class who got increasingly covered in scabs
and got to smell so bad that the teachers had to step in. We had the church
hall on the other side of the road, round the back of which certain of the more
bossy girls would organize ‘you show me yours if I show you mine’ assignations.
There were monumental playground games of British Bulldog. We collected Civil
War bubble-gum cards, with ‘death on the stakes’ a prized rarity.

Whatever
time was left over from school was occupied in the pursuit of war. Obviously I
had a massive collection of armaments which included, after much badgering, the
black plastic Armalite rifle from Woolworth’s with real clip-on, knife-shaped
bayonet in slightly bendy grey plastic. (It effectively out-gunned any silvery
Colt cowboy gun in Epping because of its up-to-date murderous reality.)
Although I was rather fond of a fine matching pair of mart-black long-barrelled
six-shooters, now I come to think of it.

I also
had a massive army. At some time in the late sixties Airfix hit on the
spectacular wheeze of the ‘little men’. They came in boxes with a Cellophane
window: nicely detailed half-inch-high personnel pegged to plastic trees. They
were cheap. A two-and-six pack provided two dozen soldiers. To begin with we
got the British army in khaki, the German army in a bluey-grey and the Afrika
Korps in a sandy yellow and ended up with thousands of them. We tipped the lot
out on to the bedroom floor, grabbed a
blanket which could be roughed up
a bit to make a convincing landscape and spent whole days plonking them down in
mammoth conflicts. Our main pleasure was lying with our faces pressed close to
the carpet, closing one eye and going ‘Peyooow!’, ‘Pooorgh’ and ‘Acka, acka,
acka’ while visualizing extremities of carnage.

Mostly,
these were years of routine. Out of the house, around the back, through the
covered alley, past the newspaper and sweet shop, down to the pedestrian
crossing (manned by the old bat who got in the papers because she was a devout
Catholic and objected when her hand-held traffic sign was abbreviated from ‘Stop
children crossing’ to ‘Stop children’) past the church-and down the road to the
school. To begin with we even came home for lunch. It was a Church of England
primary school, which owed much to the folk-myths of the pre-war education
acts: pageants, country-dancing, queues, reciting, rote and willingness.

Empty
on this wet Saturday in November, the school was astoundingly familiar. We
walked straight in. The main entrance door was painted the same eau de nil
colour. There was a big new block where the prefab infants’ school had been.
Everything- else was unaltered. The red bricks were spalling in just the same
way, the high building labelled ‘Cookery School 1915’ was still the art room. I
could see the paint brushes stacked against the window.

‘Come
around here.’ I led Jo on. ‘Look at the back playground.’ There it was too,
bounded by high walls, unremittingly tarmacadammed like a prison yard, exactly
as it had been forty years ago. It lacked children, but somehow that made it
like a visit to the silent past; as if some bell had just summoned everybody
away.

There
was only one major change. Above the playground was a
close-boarded
fence. I clambered up. It was slippery and raining. I was peering at yet
another abandoned swimming pool. There were tall weeds growing through the
concrete tiles on the other side of the empty bath. The paint was flaking. This
wasn’t winter storage. It was finished. And we had built the place ourselves. I
remembered the fundraising drive. We had sold apples from our back garden in
the corridor during the lunch break for two pence —’tuppence’ in fact.

The
highlight of the summer had been the races, won by the fat bloke with
astonishing water-borne agility, who flung himself in, emptied half the
contents and darted through the remainder like a walrus. But we were always
standing by the poolside. It was always swimming. There had been swimming back
in Midhurst, where I learned: getting one foot off the floor as I slipped
towards the deep end of the little hospital pool (closed this year for health
and safety reasons).

In his
book
Waterlog,
Roger Deakin charts the decline of the swimming pool. The
health and safety lobby have successfully closed all the plunge holes and
untended pools across Britain. Roger defiantly swam across the country, jumping
into locks, closed lidos, canals and quarries on the way I went with him for a
reedy dip in the Waveney But I wonder whether the lust for it has gone too.

I
walked back to St John’s church, where I’d left my mother. When I was nine she
had fancied that I ought to be able to sing because I was Welsh and sent me off
to join the choir. There was practice in the cold church on a Friday night, and
I was expected to attend at least one service a week, preferably two, under the
tutelage of a particularly twitchy, greasy vicar with a taste for High Church
parade.

Was it
the hours I spent listening to his ponderous biblical readings that turned me
into a life-long opponent of organized religion, or was it the boy führer of
the choir, who jumped me during some spat, pinioned me across the shoulders
with his knees and dug his extended middle knuckle into my temple screaming, ‘Repent,
repent’? Either way, the place had seemed horrible, the ruffs and cassocks
uncomfortable, the services interminable. Even the extra two bob that could be
earned on a Saturday morning for turning out at a wedding never made the thing
worthwhile. And now I thought the church was quaint with a
beautiful
pale-blue coffered ceiling and an estimable rood screen. The Harlow Choir were
rehearsing. They were enchanting.

When I
took the bus a few weeks later, back to Harlow itself, it ground through the
back ways, as buses always do, skipping the obvious express route to the centre
(raffishly called ‘Second Avenue’) and took me on a tour of the new town and
its world-beating collection of mini-roundabouts. I looked at it anew Harlow
wasn’t a brave new world after all. It was a brave new Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Many of the houses had pitched roofs and tile-hung fronts. The blocks of flats
were neat and unthreatening. There were dozens of recreation fields and
hundreds of rhomboid green corners, seemingly designed as targets for used
plastic Coke bottles and cans.

In the
seat opposite sat a girl wearing pink stiletto boots. She had bright white
trousers held up by a pink belt, with a shiny pink anorak trimmed in fur and a
pink baseball cap. I wanted to capture this genuine Essex Girl’s overheard
conversation, just like Alan Bennett, except that he must have sharper ears or
quieter buses. As I spied on her, she met a surprising number of former school
friends. They were on their way to Harlow too, for a bit of mid-afternoon
action.

It had
been the same for us. London had been an hour away; a giant step.

In the
centre of Harlow the original spare, tinky-tonk ethos has not aged well. All
the geometric details — the concrete octagon half-roofs, the shell designs, the
raised walkways and the sweeping underpasses — only work if kept spanking new
We have more affection for the fantasies of Gerry Anderson and Ken Adams, the
designer of James Bond, than we do for the concrete realities of Basil Spence.
Yet Lady Penelope could have married the Saint in Harlow church with its
bathroom glass windows and copper-coated needle spire.

The bus
put me down in the usual place. It was the bus station! We ate Wagon Wheels
outside this very newsagent, ‘Newswell’, chocolate-covered marshmallow biscuit
sandwiches, waiting with sodden towels. And we flicked through Marvel and DC
comics on the revolving wirework rack. Green Lantern and Captain America,
Spiderman and even Superman were forbidden. My father disapproved. We never
seemed to have the money to buy them anyway. We had subscriptions to improving
comics like
Look and Learn
and
The Eagle.
American comics had to
be taken furtively Like the noisier, bigger toy guns ‘that would only break’,
like ITV, like American series, like pointed shoes and long hair and foreign
holidays, they were not for us. There was a line around our family taste that
must have been placed there by osmosis, since my father never paid membership
fees to any social group. But it was vaguely puritanical, vaguely in favour of
British things and vaguely attached to good taste: ‘nothing too garish’. In
Harlow, however, there were no barriers. This was an East End overspill after
all. Hereabouts, American would have been good. Bubble gum would have been very
good. Colourful would have been extra good.

The
crowds did not look very colourful today Next to his van in the market with a
virtuoso vertical display of raw meat, a butcher was spookily whispering into a
powerful speaker system. ‘Good prices today, ladeeez.’

This
was our nearest cinema. Sometimes we came into this piazza and joined a queue
stretching right the way around three sides. Well, not that often, I suppose,
but definitely for
Summer Holiday
with Cliff Richard, and for most of
the Norman Wisdom films too.

A man
stopped me in astonishment (‘What are you doing here?’), but he couldn’t tell
me whether the cinema I was looking at was the original one. It felt wrong.
There were surely some new buildings.

BOOK: Semi-Detached
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