In becoming an EXEssex Man
by K. Harris
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The wind, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
A.E. Houseman A Shropshire Lad, 'The Welsh Marches'
It was a long and mixed haul from the starting point of being a Shropshire lad. I'd criss-crossed Wales and England many times, been a Geordie for a while, walked 200 miles along the Pyrenees Mountains, been held in a high security sterile medical insulation cell, become a Londoner for the best part of 15 years, lived in Brighton, across Kent, on Dartmoor, on the road and then I arrived in Basildon, a town designed through the 50s and 60s for London's spillover.
Despite its status as a new town, Basildon ranks among the oldest settlements in the UK and was the seat of pre-medieval King Beorthold, who gave his name to the original settlement of Beorthold's Hill, the origins of Basildon. In the late 1980s the local town council commissioned US playwright Arnold Wesker to script a new play as the inaugural production for the brand new state of the art Towngate Theatre in the town so he lived locally for almost one year, researching and writing the play, titled Beorthold's Hill. It spanned across the history of the town from early to modern days. I received the first completed copy to readand I later lost it, or rather, it was discarded. Can you believe, an original Arnold Wesker manuscript?
Working as a reporter with a local newspaper group covering Essex and north London, I was regularly seen at the major theatre houses throughout Essex, writing reviews and articles, meeting performers, producers and writers. My reporting area covered Essex county and much of north-east London and my list of patches grew extensive: Laughton; Chingford; Woodford; Chigwell; Walthamstow; Leyton, Wanstead, Stratford and West and East Ham; Ilford, Barking; Dagenham, Romford; Hornchurch; Upminster; and then Rainham through and across Canvey Island, Rayleigh, Billericay, Wickford and Basildon to Southend, not to mention Braintree, Chelmsford and Colchester. There's one hell of a lot of villages too.
Brentwood Theatre staged the debut production of a new and powerful play based on the life of the man who cracked the German U-boat Enigma Code and I was fortunate in being able to meet and interview the young playwright at the theatre some days prior to opening night.
After writing hundreds of stories from these areas and travelling thousands of road miles, I felt very much the Essex Man, working with the likes of Essex legends Brian Davis, John Howard and John Teague of Southend, Pete Biscoe of Great Wakering and national award winning news photographer, the great Arthur Paffey.
I'd been a restless soul as a youngster and had clocked up many thousands of miles of adventure long before reaching 21. Despite having lived all across London for well over a decade, when I left Essex five years later I felt I knew the region intimately, much more than my familiarity with London. Check the archive files of the Yellow Advertiser newspapers during the period 1985-90.
After leaving Essex I repeated the experience but this time became a Hampshire Man, playing cricket against the senior Hampshire police team and finding myself in all sorts of weird situations. It was a time when the rape of the countryside at Twyford Down and Saint Catherine's Hill was in full swing, the government of the time intent on driving a motorway cutting through the ancient and supposedly 'protected' landscape following a protracted 20-year long series of protests, objections and public inquiries.
The protests grew in strength with the start of work on the cutting and the destruction of ancient wooded areas and areas of archaeological interest. Protesters travelled from all over the country and even abroad to camp on the land in the way of the earth movers and many of the demonstrations turned ugly with violent clashes with the police and a large contingent of security personnel deployed around the sites.
It soon grew apparent that the protesters were fighting an already lost cause as the government railroaded the completion of the road through, despite being instructed to put the project on hold by the European Commission's environment Minister. [see related story]
In my mid-30s I'd read the novel The Mary Celeste, a fictionalised explanation of the fate of the ghost ship that relied heavily on true courtroom testimony given at the inquiry into the fate of the ship, held in Gibraltar. The book impressed me and I felt it had the classic hallmarks to turn into a good radio play. I contacted the publishers, who in turn contacted the author who agreed to let me turn the book into a 90-minute radio dramatisation. Then one day when working in Hampshire I interviewed a best seller author who was about to release a new book based on activities of the Russian Mafia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There among the dozens of books lining the walls of the writer's study I spotted two copies of The Mary Celeste, and remarked that I had once turned the book into a radio play. It turned out that the writer was the author of the book and had written it under a pseudonym. It was the first time we had met and as he had never seen a copy of the radio script, I later dropped one off for him. He said he enjoyed it.
In the mid-90s someone I regarded as a friend turned sour and broke the life I had carved into pieces, carelessly throwing them all away, including the Wesker manuscript, and leaving me with little more than an empty mold of the past. In a period of disillusionment I quit my job, my apartment and my life in Hampshire and travelled to Ireland, where I took up travelling the country in an old but well constructed camper van before venturing over to Boston in the USA as part of my efforts to find a new life.
Toward the end of my stay in the US, during which I came to know Boston well, I spent a few days and nights walking the streets of New York city with the words of Sting's Illegal Alien song running through my head after hearing it in a coffee shop. My visa had expired and I was waiting to leave the US. Later I was having a beer downtown when the song came on again and I remarked to the bartender that it was odd, here I was in New York waiting to leave as my visa had expired, I'd met Sting several times before the formation of the Police and I kept hearing this damned song over. The bartender carried on polishing glasses. Before I left he was pulling me free beers and probably counted me among the greatest tellers of fiction to have sat at his bar. Who knows?
They say once an Essex Man always an Essex Man. Having reflected, all I can say is: who knows?
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