Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Video paints a dim picture of Colchester town centre

Colchester High Street

Colchester High Street - Credit: Andrew Partridge

I received an email from Mr Terry Earl whose recent video, Tour of Colchester, was posted on the internet video channel YouTube.

The four-minute home video, at time of writing, only a week after its posting has had 11,000 views and rising. Footage of Terry’s cut-to-the-bone film depicts closed shops, the neglected old former Odeon Cinema and streets strewn with dog dirt. A shot of the Firstsite Gallery, captioned, “The VAF – A bargain at £26million.” is followed by others which show the deserted former bus station nearby.

Soon afterwards, follow views of the unprepossessing, now-empty 1960s architecture which had once housed retail and office space. Then there’s a caption, “Cultural Quarter,” accompanied by a picture of a run-down part of Queen Street. Over the whole film is the music of Melanie Safka’s 1971 hit What Have They Done To My Song, Ma? Whether by default or by device, this is a masterstroke of sorts, lending an almost unbearable poignancy to what is essentially, an amateur video comprised of stills.

In order to ameliorate the twang of nostalgia now clouding my objectivity, I forced myself to remember mid-1970s Colchester in more detail. For in truth, Colchester bus park, and the former Keddies building, along with the glory which is Southway, reside among our county’s unloveliest planning disasters, making the poorer parts of the former Eastern Bloc look like the Palace at Versailles.

Terry Earl, in making this short clip of his home town has obeyed one of the main rules of film-making: “Show – don’t tell.” The film, so far, has had a remarkable effect, which I suspect, has probably surprised its maker more than anyone else. This all part of the seismic ripple which has accompanied a more general democratisation of the media. Predictably, too, it’s brought out an ululation of righteous anger from the more apoplectic contributors to internet forums. Quite a little gale of fury, in fact. As is also usual in such cases, instead of searching for any sort of constructive solution, Mr and Mrs Incandescent of Colchester are already in there, thrashing madly around with the blame flail.

The Firstsite Gallery comes in for a ritual larupping, as does Colchester Borough Council and rather ironically, Sir Bob Russell MP, who fights the people’s corner harder than most. There’s no doubt about it, Colchester’s town centre is in a bit of a mess. Colchester’s not the only place in the UK which has suffered, though. Other places are as bad, if not worse. We have, after all, just undergone five years of recession.

In a recession, so we’re told, businesses close down. Not online, apparently, as recession has also coincided with an online shopping boom. This will have affected high streets profoundly.

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Compounding the problem is the fact that business rates really are too high, placing shopkeepers in an absurd position where they can’t actually afford to work in shops.

In Wivenhoe High Street, for instance, many of the former shops are now residences, with most of the surviving businesses having been ghetto-ised into business units in a commercial centre located well off the main drag

Back in Colchester, meanwhile, at certain times of day, no doubt as a by-product of recession, you may observe slightly edgy-looking individuals, often wearing grubby sportswear, sometimes with crude tattoos visible upon the hands or above the neck. They carry a look of pathos or desperate preoccupation in their lustreless eyes. Victims? Potential predators? Or both? Who knows? What they add up to, however, is perceived by more nervous shoppers as a good reason to speed up their walk and keep their wits about them. As an ambient backdrop for a retail experience, or ‘shopping’ as we once used to call it, this is possibly less than ideal.

I also felt that the recent short-lived traffic-free High Street experiment was interesting and potentially positive. But it made the car owners unexpectedly weepy, so it had to be stifled in the lambing shed. This was a shame. Tricky old customer, Johnny Car-driver.

Her Outdoors, chipped in, just in passing, that perhaps the market should return to the High Street instead of being crammed away like a broken train-set round in Culver Street. Fair point, really, Colchester was, after all, for long centuries, a market town.

My other mad idea was; you know those empty shops, and how homeless people often opt to sleep in their doorways? Well, why don’t we convert one them to a homeless shelter, with beds and public baths – like the ones which we used to have when I was a young man? And then, since such a large proportion of homeless people are former military personnel, offer recently-retired N.C.Os paid jobs, as wardens in charge of such places. It might save money and misery in the long run.

Maybe high street retail units shouldn’t, anyway, be permitted to remain unoccupied for longer than three months. Rather that they were rented out cheaply to anyone who’d do something useful with them, than that they remained empty, haunted only by the ghosts of old prosperity.

Terry Earl’s video of his hometown is bleak and moving enough. I can quite see how it might anger certain viewers. The thing is, I don’t believe that Terry made the film because he hates Colchester. He made it because he loves the place.