Getting older, we forget things. I had either forgotten, or never knew, that Ged Martin, another British imperial historian (mainly of Canada), came from the same neck of the woods as I. In retirement, he has now turned to researching and writing the history of Havering (mainly Hornchurch and Romford, in what used to be Essex), despite not having lived there for more than 50 years, and now residing in southern Ireland (lucky man). He was also an almost exact contemporary of mine at Cambridge, where I knew him – though not well. His ‘Havering History Cameos’ are here: http://www.gedmartin.net/index.php/martinalia-mainmenu-3/235-havering-history-cameos. Getting older, we also become nostalgic. I’m hugely enjoying these pieces. I thought I’d get in touch with him, but I can’t find an email address. If he picks this up, through Google perhaps, he might drop me a line.
John Saville, the distinguished Labour historian, also came from Gidea Park. Both he and Ged, I think, went to the local Royal Liberty school. (I went to another one.) There may be others. David Irving was at my school, but I don’t know whether he was a Haveringite. (I hope not.) The editor of the Essex volumes of the Victoria County History, WR Powell, lived in Harold Wood. I wonder whether there were more? Did we all have anything in common that might have derived from the locality? If so, we might be grouped together as ‘the Havering School’. It could give the place some cachet. Maybe the Havering Tourist Bureau – if there is one, which I doubt – could organize visits to all our homes. Mum’s old house would get a blue plaque. She’d have liked that.
Learning this has all been a bit of a shock for me. I loathed and despised Hornchurch – my bit of Havering – and never thought anything good could come out of it. I even thought it devalued me. The outer London suburbs seemed the dullest places in the world, mainly because they had no local character or identity, like provincial towns, or rural villages, or even central London, could boast. They were in-between places, purgatories, neither one thing nor the other, which one simply had to endure before passing on to the more characterful Heaven or Hell. (In my case, Hull.) The accent was awful: neither proper Cockney, nor rural Essex. (Today it’s called ‘Estuary English’.) Once I escaped from Hornchurch, in 1960, I never went back, except occasionally to visit Mum before she moved up North. To my friends at Cambridge I used to pretend I came from somewhere else. ‘East London’ had more cachet, in an inverted-snobbish kind of way, and wasn’t too far from the truth. I’ve always hated ‘suburbia’, ever since.
Obviously this was a grotesquely unfair prejudice. People aren’t entirely moulded by their physical environments, and in any case Hornchurch may have been less dull than it seemed to a pretentious little twerp like me. Perhaps it was adolescence. Do young people often wish they lived elsewhere? I ought to go back – though not to live there, obviously (God no!); and perhaps join Ged in his efforts to colour in the place. From the vastness of the Empire to the parochiality of Hornchurch: it’s a curious academic journey, for both of us. But it could bring me down to earth.
I grew up in Coulsdon – heading out of London down the A23 – about which I felt almost exactly as you did about Hornchurch; I loathed the place and felt (probably very unfairly) that there was nothing to it, no ‘there’ there. Meeting my wife-to-be – who’s from Preston – and discovering how much of an England there is out there, beyond the vampiric gravitational pull of London, changed my life and temporarily turned my head a bit; for a while I seriously, though ineffectually, tried to promote a left English nationalism. (I got over that, fortunately.) I’ve still got very mixed feelings about London – not at all shared by my wife, who only sees the positives, ironically enough.
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