An extract from the memoir of philosopher Andy Martinby Andy Martin / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
Andy Martin teaches French philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Growing up in Essex inspired him to write about surfing, Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Napoleon Bonaparte—in short, anything other than Essex. Until now. He is currently writing “Nausea in New York,” recording the secret war between existentialists and the FBI.
How do you get Geoff Russell, Johnny Herne, my twin brother and me on a single bike? Easy! My brother on the rear, Geoff on the crossbar, me pedalling and Johnny sitting up in front, on the handlebars. Which was a bit unfortunate for him. Not so much on account of the brake dropping off half way down Avalon Road—about a 1 in 5 gradient—when we had picked up maximum speed. More because of the brick wall on the far side of Merlin Gardens that we inevitably crashed into. Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Johnny sustained only a broken arm and some minor lacerations, and wandered about forlornly in a cast for a month or two that summer, with the rest of us writing hilarious comments on it. That bike was never quite the same though.
Avalon Road and Merlin Gardens are still there. That immovable wall has gone. In Geoff Russell’s front garden—the very house where I first kissed Wendy Smith!—there is now a flagpole proudly flying the flag of St George. Drawn back by dreams and rumours of Essex, I’ve bought a cheap day return to the far-off, far-fetched land of myth and miracle where I grew up. You’d think it would be wall-to-wall déjà-vu—but it’s all unsubtly different, as if I had jumped the tracks and alighted in a parallel universe. Through my schoolboy years, I used to live in Nowheresville, clinging to the fringes of Outer London. I’ve returned to Selfie City, the capital of consumerism, populated by pop idols and reality TV stars, bottle-tanned blondes and muscular dudes living out a perpetual party.
“Essex girls!” screams a passing t-shirt, emblazoned with an enormous pair of pouting lips, in Romford market place. If only I’d known of their fabulous, air-headed existence then, perhaps I would never have run away. Back in the day, the only sex in Essex was in the second syllable.
I could tell you that I was born in Upton Park, just down the road from the West Ham football ground, and that I was swept up in the postwar Cockney diaspora, as my parents—coming from a long and distinguished line of drunkards and convicts, football captains and dockers, seamstresses and sewing machine virtuosos—spread out from London’s East End, going further east, in the direction of green open spaces, guided perhaps by the railway, rolling on relentlessly from Romford to Emerson Park to Upminster, Brentwood, and Shenfield, traversing the great cultural maelstrom of the 1960s and ’70s. But it might make more sense to tell you about the ten shilling note.
We found it—my brother and I—in the alley near our house. We were probably about ten at the time. Ten shillings then is equivalent to 50 pence now. With that bronze-coloured note we got on a bus, went to the flicks, bought ourselves a choc-ice each, caught the bus home again—and still had change. It was that long ago. The whole status of Essex has since been caught up in an inflationary spiral. Back then it was void and without form; now it’s been cosmetically enlarged, pimped, steroidally hunked up.
The good old conker tree is still there. The primary school that my brother and I fondly thought of burning to a crisp (our only mistake was to borrow the matches from a neighbour, who duly asked our mother if she could have them back again) has been replaced by a perfectly pleasant housing estate. The classroom where Mr Keeling awarded me a copy of The Schoolboy’s Book of Knowledge is now number 29 Hyde Close. Dave Brettingham lived here, Patrick Callahan here. Here Fred “Water” Mayne used to eat sugar sandwiches made by his mum (I always thought that was a bad idea, even then). From atop these steps I pushed my brother into the rose bushes. My best friend Griffo’s house is still there. So too the pub where I saw King Crimson play “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
There really ought to be plaques, I feel. The library where I first saw Wendy Smith, the street where I first picked up Wendy Smith in my father’s old Land Rover, the house in Hornchurch in which she took me to her room and initiated me into the mysteries of art history—these are sacred. (Obviously, there is no “first time” where sex is concerned, not for a guy—like everyone else, I lied a lot, thus missing out on any first time.)
The point about Essex, and especially Romford, was that it was a great place to leave behind. It inspired thoughts of transcendence. Towards the tail-end of the ’60s, you could either go west to Haight Ashbury or east to Kathmandu. It was at the Stones café (now Debenhams) in the market place that Griffo and I laid our more modest plans to go south to St Tropez. Along with Wendy Smith, I was schooled by Jean-Paul Sartre and Brigitte Bardot. And it was while lying in bed— seeing a giant apocalyptic wave sweeping up the river, drowning schoolmates, family and friends while I surfed away to salvation aboard a passing tree—that I first dreamed of going to Hawaii. It was my only option after they built the Thames Barrier.
Although I had the Beach Boys on repeat in my head, the grittier real world soundtrack was provided by The Who and The Kinks. In this post-Teddy Boy era, the battles between mods and rockers were at their most intense. I defined myself as an existentialist (which meant that I didn’t have to obey any of the idiotic rules at my grammar school in Gidea Park, the Royal Liberty.) But, if pushed, I guess Griffo and I leaned more towards the mods than the rockers. And the reality was that you could be pushed around, and sometimes given a good kicking, on account of being a mod. You had to choose. It was all about the clothes. For a short while, I even sold clothes in Romford Market. I briefly had dreams of becoming a barrow-boy myself, except that having to get up at 4am on Saturday mornings dissuaded me.
I owned a Ben Sherman button-down and at least one pair of Levi 501s, but I never went in for the mod-defining Parka (fake fur-lined hood essential) and the Lambretta (festooned with lamps). Apart from the inherent absurdity, it only made you a target for passing rockers. (In terms of transport, it was scooters versus motorbikes.) Griffo always had cooler suits than I did (the chocolate brown mohair to name but one). My mother made me buy a grey one that I briefly thought could be perceived as reasonably stylish. Phil Dines, a renowned follower of fashion, asked to borrow it—only to reveal later that it had been for a funeral. “I didn’t have anything dull enough in the wardrobe,” he said.
When mods started morphing into skinheads, acquiring Doc Martens and braces and ever shorter hair, I experimented with being a hippy. I grew my hair longer (and was sent to the barbers’ by the headmaster, for my trouble) and once even wore a flower power necklace, earning the wrath of my mother (“So what drugs are you taking?”).
These were style wars—ironic, mocking allusions to the real wars that had taken place or were still happening. Having won the prize for French Poetry Reading (not something I boasted about), convinced that “I is another” (as Rimbaud, 19th–century schizoid man, put it), I could never take them too seriously. I didn’t realise, then, that the sense of total freedom—from the past, from one’s own ancestry, above all from any particular location in the world (“Essex girl/boy” would have been meaningless gibberish)—would be so readily relinquished in favour of getting stitched up with labels, allegiances, and affiliations.
Take the 175 bus to somewhere near the top of Highfield Road in Romford, look east and you can see Canary Wharf and the Shard on the horizon. Get on your bike and puff up Orange Tree Hill to the village green at Havering-atte-Bower and you can look down, south, to the Thames. And, surprisingly, it remains mostly green. The three great glories of this part of Essex are the parks: Bedfords (good for tobogganing), Rise (leaping the brook) and Raphael (summer of love and tennis).
I went back to the café in Bedfords Park and bought a KitKat, giving a wide berth to the cappuccinos which are now, theoretically, available. I found myself admiring the deer enclosure yet again. But one difference struck me: now it’s not enough just to admire—and the deer do look in good nick, it has to be said—you have simultaneously to be instructed. What used to be a “park” is now a “trust,” which means everything has to be labelled. “This is a deer,” reads the sign. “This is one with antlers.” And “This is known as ‘rutting’.” And so on. It seemed like a terrible intrusion on the poor old deer. If I had looked closely enough, I imagine I would have found stickers on all the flowers too (“this is a stamen…”). There is no such thing as wildlife—or wild life—any more, not in Essex anyway. Everything has been enclosed, packaged, framed for the viewer, not just the deer.
It is no longer enough to exist (the crux of existentialism, after all), you have to categorise and classify individual lives. Which means they are not really individual at all, only generic. I guess it was our fault—my fault—for going on about Levis and Ben Shermans and all that bollocks, it was the genesis of hypersemiosis (I hope that means something like hanging signs—or flags—on everything).
As I wandered the market place, two women accosted me: one offered to help me stop sinning, the other to stop smoking. But I was only really sucked in by the guys in the rival fruit ‘n’ veg stalls who were all giving a good impersonation of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins (“It’s a luvverly ’oliday wiv Mary”). It used to be “Get your ’nanas ’ere, two bob a pound!” Now it’s “Come on! Get your mangoes/melons ’ere, four for a pound!” I walked away with all the mangoes and melons I could carry, and a bunch of ’nanas, too, for old times’ sake. How could I resist that siren call? “Strawberries! Pair for a pound! All English!”
Funnily enough the market in Romford is right next to the library. And I think there is a connection. It was in the library, in 2014, that I discovered that old Romford Market goes right back to 1247, when modern English was starting to take shape, and “it was ordered that the High Sheriff of Essex shall proclaim publicly throughout his country and its hundreds the establishment of and holding of a Market…” In 1636 someone described it as a “sweet, savoury, clean and gainful market for hogs and all sorts of swine and what else is needful for man’s life,” adding that “it hath these taverns, the Angel, the Bell, the White Hart, and the Cocke.” Amazingly, there is now a Havering Reminiscence Day, organised by the Romford and District Historical Society (founded 1956). An Essex forgot-me-not.
Rousseau reckoned it all started to go pear-shaped the day someone said, “This is mine.” I think it was more when someone said, “Come and get your luvverly x ’ere!” Language begins with selling somebody something. I should have realised that Essex would end up selling itself. Essex is an enormous pound shop, in which the price tags and labels are obsessively attached.
Now, after years in East Anglian exile, I’m going back to live in the East End (Hackney, not far from Broadway Market). I’m obviously returning to my ancestral roots. I’ll soon be singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at Upton Park (or the Olympic Stadium) again. I realise that in writing about Essex I’m doing nothing but sticking on yet more labels, barrow boy that I am at heart.
I can’t help but think of something Wendy Smith once said to me in her room in Hornchurch about cave art. She said that all those paintings of deer and buffalo and mammoths were probably not signs recommending that people should go out and hunt them to extinction. She reckoned that they only began to appear at the point when those species were already dead or were on the verge of dying out. They were like a lament or valediction. Or maybe, it strikes me now, they were just another way of trying to lure someone into your cave.