‘Colchester today? Where does everybody park?!’
Writer Joe Neal on the lost treasures of Colchester, saving newts from the bulldozers and why ‘if you don’t love enough, you’ll always regret it’. Oh - and why Brexit’s crucial
“Six things I most remember about Colchester? The good old North-East Essex accent, which seems to have been replaced by one from Romford and East London. How we all seemed to know one another, with a much smaller population. The pubs and cafes that have disappeared – the Cups in High Street; the destruction of the Red Lion Toby Bar, which was a wonderful meeting place; the loss of the Fleece…”
Whoa. Pause for introductions.
This is Joe Neal. Actor, journalist, wannabe MP in the past, a poet obsessed by love, son of “Nibs” Neal (a captain of Colchester Golf Club, ex-jazz-band pianist and owner of a gents’ outfitters in the High Street). Joe lived in Britain’s oldest recorded town as a lad.
Introductions over. He was bemoaning the loss of the Fleece in Head Street.
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“…of the Corn Exchange, Jacklins Cafe, Neal and Robarts Cafe which served wonderful toasted buns dripping with butter; the loss of the splendid dance floors in both the George and Red Lion hotels. But I’m glad to see the oak tree on the castle wall is still thriving. As a nine-year-old I tried to pull it up while on a school visit…
“I was sorry to see the closure of Endsleigh School (Lexden), which was very progressive, very liberal and a place where all we pupils were so happy together. Change has to take place, with population increase, but it is always sad for those who remember the old days – and where does everybody park?!!”
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Colchester’s one of the places that shaped Joe’s life, and its influences are there in his sixth published poetry collection: Rossetti’s Wombat.
We fired a few questions at him. Best start by explaining that title.
“I chose the title of the book from one of the poems, thinking that its sheer oddity would help it sell! The poem of that title is about the poet and Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s strange and eccentric hobby of collecting exotic creatures from around the world to entertain his artist friends. It is not favourable to him!”
You were born half-way up a Welsh mountain. Was it a drama?
“I was told that the delivery was carried out in very difficult circumstances by my mother’s sister as the midwife couldn’t get up to the little house where we lived. It was during the latter part of the war and my father was in France or Belgium, doing his military bit for the country.
“My parents met when my father was evacuated from Dunkirk and sent up to North Wales for re-training in preparation for the invasion. My mother, Rosemary, was doing a stint as an ambulance driver and had been instructed to meet my father’s platoon at Porthmadog railway station and arrange their billeting.
“I can imagine them saluting one another on the station platform – dad was a sergeant major and a stickler for formality! They fell in love at first sight, I think.”
Tell us about dad…
“My father Herbert Neal (known to all as Nibs) was born in Clacton but had worked for Owen Ward’s gents’ outfitters in Colchester High Street and his job was kept for him until after the war.
“He lived on Cowdray Avenue and had once been a pianist in a jazz dance band headed by drummer Len Rankin of Shrub End Road and who later became my godfather.
“My first memory of my father must have been after VE Day, when he returned to Wales. I have this image of a tall man in a khaki great-coat letting me try pulling the trigger of his rifle – a Lee Enfield .303, as I now know, and which he still had to carry until officially demobbed. He was crying, I remember.
“We all moved to King Harold Road, Shrub End, Colchester; my father took up his job again with Owen Ward’s. I remember that we as a family joined Mr Ward’s family on a balcony above the shop premises to watch the VJ Day parade through Colchester High Street, and Mr Ward’s daughter – dressed in her Girl Guide outfit – had caught a hornet and had it in a jar. Strange how these memories stick!”
You must have deep memories of Colchester.
“So now we were living in Colchester at The Oaks, 70 King Harold Road, which in those days petered out into a footpath across cornfields farmed by Mr Blake of Prettygate Farm.
“I believe the original gate is at the pub of the same name which was built in the late ’50s, when all the surrounding land was developed for housing with new roads and shops. A paddock and large kitchen garden we had was compulsorily purchased for the new development.
“It had been a very secluded area and sometimes we heard nightingales singing – and green woodpeckers had a nest hole in one of the giant oak trees that were cut down by the developers.
“We were also finding a lot of stag beetles there, I remember. Quite rare now. Still, people need houses and this was necessary progress in the decade after the war.
“I remember a most beautiful Tudor or Elizabethan house on the corner of Walnut Tree Avenue which was pulled down too. Its great walnut trees were also cut down – the branches used to brush against the green Maldon-bound double-decker bus we used to catch from town after walking from our school (Endsleigh, in Lexden Road) each day.
“When the pond was filled in by the demolished house we collected great crested newts as they scrambled ahead of the bulldozers and took them to ponds in surrounding villages. Perhaps we were budding environmentalists – great crested newts were pretty rare even then.
“Bluebottle Grove was also a favourite place in Prettygate and we used to cycle through its dipping paths on old bikes without brakes.
“Another memory was sneaking down to fish in Colonel Round’s pond near Birch, using cut laurel branches to hide our progress down to the water in full view of his house – a ploy our gang adopted after reading Shakespeare’s Scottish play! We were caught, of course! I wrote a poem about that – it’s in one of the earlier books.”
“I remember Colchester as it was before all those one-way systems and when everyone seemed to know each other when walking down the street, with Jumbo (a water-tower) visible from all directions.
“We had five cinemas – the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Regal (later Odeon), the Playhouse and the Cameo. The Repertory Theatre was next to the Fire Office in High Street (North Hill end).
“Close by was Radcliffe’s the gunsmiths, where I bought my first Milbro catapult and later a Webley .410 shotgun which I sold a few years on so that I could afford to take a girlfriend up to London to see West Side Story. I had my priorities right, even at 17!
“By this time my father had his own shop – Neal’s Man’s Shop, 5 High Street. Nibs Neal was a former captain of Colchester Golf Club and active with both Witham and Colchester operatic societies.”
And how did your own life develop?
“I attended Bishop’s Stortford College after leaving Endsleigh and later went up to Nottingham University after training as a professional actor. After university I trained as a journalist so that I had a good day job to fall back on, having married very young and become a father.
“I had many friends in Colchester and played for Colchester Rugby Club. I still return from time to time and attend the Endsleighans reunions each year.
“I plan to return from Ireland to live in the area again but am presently caught in the financial collapse of 2008, which has had long-term repercussions for house values – still 68% down in my part of Ireland (Wexford in the sunny South-East) so I can’t sell my cottage and buy elsewhere.”
Speaking of acting, what was Colchester’s theatre like?
“The Rep was a wonderful little theatre and I first went there with my father to see a production of Ambrose Applejohn with Ciceley Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert. I was six, I think, and most impressed when I saw one of the actors – still in military costume – outside the stage door, smoking a cigarette. It was then I decided that acting was for me!”
When did you depart?
“I left Great Horkesley, where I was living, when I left the Daily Express in September ’88. Yes, sad to go but I do come back from time to time and still belong to the North Countrymen’s Club in Colchester.”
You’ve said this about your written works: “Love, I’m afraid, is a constant theme: lost loves, found loves, hoped-for loves, hopeless love. Mostly the last.” Do tell us more.
“I believe that if you don’t love enough you’ll always regret it. You must invest your heart in everything that you do in life – even in the finesse of a line you may write with an ear to the music of words and a feeling for the fire that ignites them.
“Poems are an experiment in day-to-day living, in observation and, naturally, in what it means to love and to lose and to love again and to lose again. So, yes, I suppose I am a romantic dreamer – but what harm?”
And you’ve stood for public office…
“I suppose I get a bit worked up about the unfairness I see around me in society – the inequalities, and the scant regard for truth and honesty and the things that really matter, like concern for one another – something we seem to have lost through the all-pervasiveness of new technology and the rush and tear of living.
“I have, also, a deep scepticism of the EU and its overbearing influence over our country and its institutions (and I am British, although I now live in Ireland).
“I think the first vote I had was the referendum in the early ’70s, when we were told the Common Market was ‘a loose association of countries coming together for the purposes of free trade – and nothing more’. I didn’t believe it and voted No. If I had been allowed to vote in the recent referendum, I would certainly have voted Out.
“The EU is not right for Britain and never has been. Just look at the fishing industry and how badly our fishermen have been treated. That’s reason enough to vote Out – let alone for loss of sovereignty.
“I stood twice for Parliament in Britain when still living there, and did so as an independent who wanted a referendum on Europe. In Ireland I stood for the European Parliament, also as an independent highly critical of the EU. Had I been elected, I would have fought tooth and nail for the fishermen in both Britain and Ireland.
“I did my homework and studied the Lisbon Treaty… I wanted to fight on behalf of ordinary people, to make their lives better. But then, all would-be politicians say that, don’t they? I like to think I would have meant it!”
So: The B-word…
“I think Britain should have made a clean break two years ago. There is no dealing with the EU, who have all the cards and expect total capitulation in any negotiations. The Government should have realised this and were ill advised to carry on talking. No deal is most certainly the best deal for Britain in both the long and the short term.
“The Irish border issue has been made difficult by the EU; it is not insurmountable, as both countries have the will to make it work – to keep the borders open despite Europe’s petty-mindedness. Unfortunately, Ireland and Britain are too much in awe of the power of the EU.”
How long have you been on the other side of the Irish Sea?
“I have been living in Ireland off and on for about 25 years, with gaps when I was working as an actor in the UK – and also trying for Parliament!
“I came here after my divorce. My Irish wife, Kathryn, who is still my friend, lived in Wales after our split and I took the cottage we had bought here as a holiday home. Our son Justin is a lawyer and lives with his wife and two sons (eight and four) in Cheshire.
“Wexford, the county town, is the nearest biggish place to where I live. Agriculturally, it is probably very similar to the Colchester area – even down to strawberries. The Slaney River’s wide and beautiful estuary is here and mussel boats work out of the harbour.
“I have eaten Wexford mussels, Wexford beef and Wexford mushrooms in Colchester – so there must be a connection! Dublin is about 90 miles away. Most of my work is in Dublin, Belfast or London – although film work may take me further.
“The 300-year-old cottage where I live is close by a waterfall and sea trout come up the river, which I fish. Pretty idyllic, really. I miss the mountains of Snowdonia, where I was born and where my brother and I spent our school holidays in spring and summer. So I have very happy memories of both Colchester and of North Wales, where my mother’s family lived.”
We’d better talk poetry. What compels you to write?
“I think my experience as a journalist and as an actor has led me to choose that particular medium as a form of expression – writing very tightly and concisely and gaining inspiration through a heightened imagination.
“Compulsion is difficult to explain. Certainly I want to convert people to the love of poetry: to entice them to try it and enjoy what they find; to share my enthusiasms for life.
“Writing a poem is like digging a trench for the pure hell of it: you get nowhere really, but it’s quite invigorating! I jest, but it’s half-way true. I just like to share what I love about life.”
Are any of the poems in Rossetti’s Wombat influenced by Essex?
“Yes. ‘Clubbing’ certainly was, and is set at around the time of my divorce! In my previous collections there are a lot of poems with a hint of Essex, too.
“In this book, Living Memory is a poem about changes I saw taking place around Essex and how places that no longer exist still linger as memories in the mind.
“The poem For Otto is based on a childhood memory of a former German prisoner of war from Camp 186 near Shrub End whom my father met in the Berechurch Arms and invited back home to play piano together on my father’s Bechstein. I still have that piano stool!
“They had both been sergeants in the war in their respective armies and both liked jazz – something I also share.
“Other poems with a hint of nature or the countryside reflect the influence of my time living and enjoying being in Essex. My brother and I often used to cycle out to Great Totham to stay with a school friend and roam about together climbing trees, looking for birds’ nests, catching butterflies – doing the mischievous things that boys did in those days.
“Earlier poems have touched on the Romans and our angling expeditions to the banks of the Colne and the Stour, sailing off Mersea and scuba-diving off Dunwich.”
I ask this of every poet I interview: how do you convince the public that poetry is worth a look?
“Poetry has always been difficult to sell – largely, I think, because it was so badly taught at school, though now things have improved and poetry is actually enjoying a revival of popularity.
“My generation were made to learn by heart certain classic poems which the teachers themselves had probably been taught when they were children – poems which had no apparent connection with life as we lived it. Nowadays the emphasis is on poetry which really connects, and reading aloud in a meaningful way.
“I try to entertain and stimulate the imagination of the reader. The perfect poem, I think, is like a pop disc single: it draws you towards it but doesn’t give you quite what you want – you, the reader or listener, make the completion in your own mind. I accept that some of my poems are more like the B-side of a single – not the best, but different!
“The actual power of a poem lies in its ability to remind the reader that there is more than one universe of understanding – more than one way of looking at something, be it an experience or memory of that experience.
“The trick is to present that moment of (dare I say) ‘enchantment’ in a way that on a fifth or sixth reading it is as exciting and as revealing as the first. That’s the challenge I set myself, anyway!
Rossetti’s Wombat is published by The Choir Press at £9.99