Saturday 29 June 2019

Back in the jug agane!

Back to my home town, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, decades after leaving.

Southend now has a small and human scale international airport, which conveniently even has its own railway station, a stop between my native place, the charming country village of Rochford, and Prittlewell which is part of Southend.

From the airport station platform I can see the hulking, sinister chimneys of the Rochford Maternity Hospital where I was born in 1961. They make me think of Auschwitz. 

I take a train in the other direction, a £3.50 single to Southend Victoria that takes ten minutes. I get talking to two nice sixty-something American tourists who have been all over Great Britain and tell them of my reservations about meeting the people from my grammar school after 39 years. 

'Well you will be the only one who lives in Bucharest', says the woman sweetly. This was exactly the right thing to say.

She asks me about my politics and I say I have come to like Donald Trump.

This occasions a remark from the man across the aisle. 
'That's a minority opinion.'
I said that I had been told that if you mentioned you disapproved of single sex marriage on trains in England strangers would start arguing with you. The stranger said the local MP, David Amess, voted against single sex marriage. 

The American pair who, despite coming from Arizona were not conservatives, became much less friendly. 

Southend-on-Sea, like all British towns of a certain size, once had a Victorian arcade of shops made charmingly of wrought iron. It was demolished in the 1960s, at the edge of my memory. Instead it got the old Southend shopping centre, a brutalist white elephant when it was built in around 1970, which is now refrurbished and roofed in. Still half the shops are unrented, as they were when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. But Poundland had useful bargains. 

W. H. Smith’s at the top of the High St feels funereal now. Grey light through grey curtains. Empty except for an old man and a young girl.
In the afternoon they came unto a land 
In which it seemed always afternoon.
I had not imagined Tennyson would be describing Southend High Street when I read that in my teens.

Few people on the high street or in Marks and Spencer’s and those mostly over 75. Shops sell subscriptions for mobile telephones. I feel like I am in Goldsmith’s Deserted Village. That was a story about the ill effects of emigration. What is the reason why Southend is empty?

The house where Warwick Deeping grew up is no longer Boots.

The new shopping centre, built circa 1990, is deserted too, but it is a working day.

The Radisson Park Inn Palace was the Palace Hotel and is where Laurel and Hardy stayed in 1952. A view over the beach.

Good lunch – sea bass in an excellent sauce – across the high street in one of Southend’s few old buildings the Royal Hotel built in 1789. 

This is the very small bit of the town that I respected in my bookish adolescence, because it was literary and historical. It's the South End which Mr. Wodehouse, the heroine’s valetudinarian father, extols in the opening chapter of Jane Austen’s Emma. 

The fishing hamlet became democratic and popular when the railway came, bringing the working classes from London. The story of England, really.

A Gingerbocker Glory at Tomassi’s, a childhood treat. Tomassi’s has moved to the other side of the street but is the one place that is doing a roaring trade, with people on day trips from surrounding towns. I recommend you have a Gingerbocker Glory if you are ever in Southend High Street. You will thank me.
You look as if you wished the place in hell? 

Oh no. Nothing, like something happens anywhere.

So said Philip Larkin taking about his home town, Coventry. It is true. I find I have forgiven Southend its lack of history, lack of romance and for having paved over its local gods.

It now has an Edwardian charm, its streets named after battles, colonies and Victorian statesmen. I used to wonder where Palmyra was when I walked past Palmyra Road, but now I have been there and so feel I have seen the world.

In Prittlewell Square with its 1840s facades and balconies I’d be happy to live. 

There is nothing at the end of the pier any more. The end of the pier, with its pub, theatre and slot machines burnt down long ago, which may be symbolic, but I am not sure of what.

Clark’s, whose shoes my mother bought me as a child, sells very good shoes still. At £65, a steal. 

My schoolmates and I meet after decades at the Cliff’s Pavilion overlooking what we always called the sea (it’s the Thames Estuary). On the other side, we all realised as we reached our teens, was Kent not France.

Most of us look very old. Much older than when I met some via Facebook a few years ago. Many are unrecognizable. One, whom I could not remember, seemed very nice and made me ashamed when he praised Mrs. Thatcher and I remembered how I had disliked her.

It was the longest day of the year and felt mystical, even in Westcliff-on-Sea, though perhaps I have been away too long. 

Long grey beards worn by three men (why?) whom I last met aged 18 made the scene seem even more druidical.

I complained to the Romanian waitress in the Greek restaurant where we dined (the Acropolis, a good place) that I was surrounded by old men. I asked if any of us were attractive from a feminine point of view. I and two others out of the fifteen, she said.

She was of course hoping for a tip but I am sure she was sincere. I think it's to do with the life force. One of us, a bearded journalist, is even at 57 a cool dude.

The quietest boy in the class told me quietly that he has spent his life as a dentist. The noisiest and naughtiest boy talks loudly about his life as a preacher. My best friend at school was as funny and clever as ever and wore a cravat. He is a Bengali, one of my year's three non-white boys. He works as a nurse in the Mile End Road and told me half his patients are illegal immigrants. He also told me he votes BNP. Another of my former friends is a successful barrister. Others are rich or poor or in between. 

Are they happy? They seemed so. They were loud and became tipsy. 

I was a little scared of meeting them and perhaps scared of being scared of them, but they were not scary. Nobody could have been less so.

It reminds me of Max Beerbohm saying of some Victorian Liberal politician, mentioned in a book with his year of birth and death in brackets, 'Look - a moment and he is gone'.

One wastes one’s life or lives it but now at 57 it no longer seems so very important – what matters, I suppose, is love. 


  1. Just a couple of weeks ago I went for the first time to one of those...

    People recognizing each other with the help of forty years old pictures... Talk about friends gone in theirs thirties and forties... Kids, divorces, pets, pension... Didn't do much, if anything... Just mindless work... It's a fairly small apartment but I like it...

    Obsessing since about ''The Dead,'' John Huston's great adaptation of the finest James Joyce story.
    I'll have to find a way to see it again.

  2. Oh Paul! Accusing moi of voting BNP at least demonstrates that you've retained your cynical sense of humour (though I do recall some affinity with a couple of UKIP-ers on a 'pro-smoking' Thames cruise last year -Trevor Bayliss always makes a bee-line for me too at this annual function - facinating Gent). Do you not recall me being literally 'stoned' from my bicycle on my way to my piano lesson in 1975 by the National Front? I'll never be a Facist.

    I confessed to you at the reunion that I've never really been clever - just a quick-witted empathist. Nursing children, (if not acting), therefore, was a bizarrely natural choice.

    Incidentally, I've always enjoyed the arrogance of your affected factual inaccuracies - but they're a little puerile now - including pretending not to recall someone's name to demonstrate your own lofty disinterest. We should both move on and perhaps dwell on our mutual love for Pliny, Somerset Maugham and Wodehouse (remember Rupert Psmith?).

    I enjoyed meeting you again. We've neither of us changed - but I hope we are, at least, self-aware.

    As you choose to forget: I retired from RLH in 2017 and moved to Parthenay. I was requested to return to the NHS (unusual) in December and I'm working for Guy's & St. Thomas's (south of the river and very posh). I'm back in France now for a few weeks, trying to save my house after a chimney fire in May.

    These irrelevancies are the "Sel de vie ".

  3. Jamil dear old chap, you told me when we met in July 2009 (where did ten years go?) that you voted BNP and would join the party except they wouldn't have you as a member because you are not white. I now assume, from what you say in your comment above, that it was a joke. I thought you were serious.
    That has cleared that up.

  4. " I've always enjoyed the arrogance of your affected factual inaccuracies - but they're a little puerile now". Jamil underestimates himself; he is both clever and astute.

    1. He is but there were no affected factual inaccuracies. A boy I never spoke to at school called McCain grew up to be someone I didn't recognise who made me feel guilty for having disliked Margaret Thatcher whom he admired. Most of us two weeks ago didn't recognise most of us.

    2. Nor was the BNP remark inaccurate - my memory of what Jamil told me is very accurate.

  5. I used to visit Southend quite often when I worked for HMRC. It has some nice nooks and crannies as you say.