Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Colchester’s ‘third world’ streets are littered with potholes as austerity measures takes a grip
I’m writing this on my 63rd birthday, an event which I’m still mildly in denial about, writes Martin Newell.
In April of 1966, a few weeks after my 13th birthday I returned home to England from Singapore. The child of an army family, I’d been living there for 18 months.
My dad’s sudden posting to a Malayan jungle hill station presented yet more potential disruption to my schooling, so I was sent home to live with my grandparents in Herts.
The England to which I returned seemed different to the one which I’d left in 1964. Even then the place had still possessed a certain post-war monochrome quality. By comparison, 1966 seemed zippier and more colourful. Both versions, however, are almost unrecognisable again when compared with modern England.
Equally blessed and cursed with a good memory, I find that I can easily summon vivid recollections of my early impressions upon returning from the Far East. They now help me to put into proportion, certain situations today which people commonly moan about.
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It’s a curious thing, for instance, that we in the UK have supposedly been experiencing what are described as ‘austerity measures’. Some of the sidestreets in my own affluent town are now pitted, holed and rutted in a way which would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Their general condition might possibly surprise visitors from less well-heeled countries, not to mention British ex-pats returning home after long sojourns abroad. I have even heard the streets described as being ‘third world’. They are actually nothing of the sort. You only have to look at the sheer numbers of shiny and inappropriately large cars which now clutter them. Our perception of our vehicles as being an extension of our homes, even of ourselves, rather than mere conveyances, has clouded our judgement
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The occupants of many of the houses on our pot-holed streets are actually comparatively well-off, at least in terms of domestic and electronic technology. Their homes have indoor lavatories, sometimes two. In the larger streets, former front gardens have been paved-over or gravelled for the parking of their families’ multiple vehicles. The parlous state of our streets, therefore, has little to do with austerity. The fact is that they are now used by far more and by far bigger vehicles than they were ever intended for.
The cheery, whistling England of 50 years ago was, nonetheless, one which still bore scars of the austerity which followed the Second World War. In 1966, I remember, many British families were without cars, telephones or washing machines. Quite a few families still didn’t even have indoor loos. Our roads, however, were mostly in good order, while traffic jams, where they existed, usually only occurred in city centres, or occasionally on bank holidays.
If, in 1966, someone in power had decided as a money-saving measure to turn the street lights off between midnight and 5am, I doubt whether anybody would have noticed. The wartime blackout would still have been in recent memory, besides which, since no ‘night economy’ then existed.
During 1960s winters, as I remember, our bedrooms were cold, sometimes freezing. To counter this my grandmother gave me a hot water bottle. On exceptionally cold nights, before I turned in, she’d warm the bedroom for 10 minutes using an ancient electric heater, which resembled a 1930s sci-fi ray-gun.
Bedding consisted not of high-tog duvets, but of sheets, blankets, an eiderdown and a counterpane. If it was really cold, I sometimes kept my dressing gown on over my pyjamas. Children were much more outdoorsy back then, so we all had rosy cheeks and runny noses.
Regulation shoes for English schoolboys at the time included the Freeman, Hardy & Willis ‘Vanguard’ - a type of coffin for the feet. I’d really wanted black suede Chelsea boots. Fat chance. Upon first arriving home, I didn’t even have the Vanguards. My grandad, a thrifty fellow, said: “Ang about, Cocker. No point in spending good money, yet. I might have something knocking about that’ll do you nicely.”
From somewhere deep within the meter cupboard under the stairs he exhumed a pair of shoes, the like of which I’d never encountered before, nor since. They were clumpy, black, round-toed service shoes of some kind. Their surface was finely dimpled, almost planished. As part of their archaic styling they featured heavy buckles. In suburban south-east England in 1966, I must have presented a fascinating sight to my new classmates.
My parents had also sent me home with 1950s-looking heavy grey flannels with turn-ups, rough grey shirts, a flat-ended school tie and a too-large serge blazer. “It’s all right. He’ll grow into it,” they chirped. “We’ll leave his grandad in charge of the shoes.”
Two days later, my headmaster ushered me into my class wearing this ensemble. “This is Newell, he’s come from Singapore.” In the midst of Swinging England, I also had a regulation army haircut and a deep colonial tan. Upon seeing me, the prettiest girl in my new class burst out laughing. I was thereafter nicknamed ‘Cripple-feet’.
Weeks later, my grandparents finally bought me my new black Vanguards. I was pathetically happy with them. It now strikes me, that if we transplanted a few modern 13-year-olds to the England of 1966, they might possibly deem it ‘harsh’. I now think of the time, fondly, however.