Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A sense of perspective as the young turks grow old

IS IT really spindly old November come back to haunt us so soon? Well, the clocks have gone back and tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday.

Is it really spindly old November come back to haunt us so soon? Well, the clocks have gone back and tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. I read in one of the nationals last week that in London there’s a new generation of poppy-sellers, the same age as the servicemen and women who go back and forth to Afghanistan from places like Colchester.

I don’t know what this says about our often-criticised youngsters but it probably won’t stop the usual hand-wringing from the generation who went before them. How well I remember the catchphrases of our parents’ generation going on about my lot: “Your trouble is L.M.F. – Lack of Moral Fibre.” Or what about, “We didn’t have teenagers when I was young; there was a war to be fought.” Or, “It’s all very well tearing everything down but what-are-you-going-to-put-in-its-place?”

It seemed incomprehensible to me at the time that they’d fought a war to give their children this gift of freedom, only to create merry hell when those same children picked it up and danced joyfully down the road with it.

Yet that feckless baby-boom generation, so drunk on their own liberty, were pioneers too. Many became the ingenious engineers of classic fashions, unforgettable music and, whisper it, computer technology, which for good or ill is now part of all our lives.

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Ironically, now that the baby-boomers themselves shuffle disbelievingly into late middle age, they rail every bit as indignantly about the generation to whom they must now hand over the controls. They despise their successors for their rampant consumerism, their superficiality, their crude humour, clunky fashions and their dependency upon mobile phones. In fact, short of shouting at them “I didn’t grow long hair and get busted by the pigs in Grosvenor Square in 1968 just so you could waste your life on games consoles,” we’re probably every bit as condemnatory of the new generation as our own parents were of us.

It’s fitting, however, that a new generation should pick up the splintered baton of Remembrance just as it begins to fall from the arthritic hands of the dwindling survivors of the last great conflict. I’m heartened that they don’t appear to have forgotten.

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When I was a child, the Second World War – which nearly everyone in my family still talked about almost daily – seemed eons away. To put this into a wider cultural context, I now find it incredible to think that within 20 years of the D-Day landings taking place the Beatles were making their film A Hard Day’s Night. The two eras, separated by less than 20 years, seem so completely different

They’d had a war, our elders kept reminding us. We had the Beatles and the Stones. Yet, we grew up under long shadows cast by a world war; two world wars in fact, since our own parents had grown up in the shadows of an earlier one.

No young generation ever really had it easy, though. The adversaries of the young are eternal: problems of housing, employment, money, education – or simply making one’s way in life with little experience of anything.

And the golden age, as a Greek once said, was never the present one. When I was a youngster, Colchester had housing problems. I frequently dossed at friends’ houses, house-sat for people and, once or twice, was homeless. Accomodation was the bain of my life. Even when we found a place, housing of the type available to lads on low income was frequently cold, without central heating and, not uncommonly, without even a bathroom. We either managed with stand-up washes from a hand basin, went round to our mum’s houses or used the public baths. When you’re 20, though, you just roll with it.

Most of us in those days didn’t have telephones. A group of us living in Colchester ran our band’s bookings – our entire social lives too – from a red telephone box on East Hill, opposite the old bus park. It’s still there. We worked as kitchen porters, labourers or supermarket cleaners. Often we didn’t even have a television. And if we were out and about in our rock’n’roll finery we had to be a bit careful, since the bikers, the smoothies, and the soldiers all hated us in equal measure. Walking into the wrong venue could be like being a zebra trying to squeeze into a watering hole between a team of lions. Pubs in those days shut sharp at 11pm weekdays, 10.30 on the nail on Sundays and were closed all afternoon. The news headlines were either dull or discomfiting. They told of IRA bombs – always a background concern in a military town – strikes, devaluation and serial murders. They predicted, just like today, the end of the world as we knew it.

I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of being young and hard-up in 1970s Colchester. Was it that bad? Not really. I don’t remember it in monochrome exactly, more through a filter of frayed baggy denim. Yet, in years to come, what will our current youngsters remember? Possibly, they’ll recall being unable to get on the housing ladder, a university education being out of reach, jobs being hard to find, and weekends of sporadic drunkeness. And then they’ll have children and they’ll have to worry about someone other than themselves.

It will be uncomfortable and difficult. And then, just like we all did, I expect that they’ll muddle through. And I hope, like most of my lucky generation, that they never encounter war.

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