Friday 3 November 2023

Snapshots of an English town

Two more stops and I would've landed in Wivenhoe.  I didn't - I got off the train from London on Tuesday night at the usual junction and took the connecting one back to Suffolk, but I was sorely tempted to carry on to that small estuary town just South East of Colchester in the hope of bumping into someone whose music, words and philosophies have very much made me smile in recent days.  The brief fantasy flitted through my mind as the onboard announcement listed the stations yet to come -  oh, if I could only disembark in Wivenhoe and magically spot him in the street, I would tell Martin Newell exactly how much I had just enjoyed reading his book, 'A Prospect of Wivenhoe, Snapshots of An English Town'.

There's such a lot one can say about Martin Newell, he's been around the music scene for decades and I first came across him in the late '70s when he strutted his stuff with his band Gypp at my local gigging haunt, an intimate music venue/arts centre at the far end of my town.   I saw so many bands then - sometimes three or four a week (including school nights).  Only a few stood out that well or went on to greater things, but the memory of him as a compelling, and frankly rather scary (to me anyway) in a glam-rock-yet-Dickensian-way frontman  - endures.  The next time I was aware of him was much later in the highly recommended book 'Lost In Music' by Giles Smith, who was at one time a member of Martin's band The Cleaners From Venus.  And then....well, for the most part I didn't think too much about him, nor hear much more of his music, until being pleasantly reminded by an excellent now-retired music blogger from Seattle...  Here I must divert you to Brian's brilliant blog should you want info, insight and some fine songs, as his knowledge of Martin Newell's output over the years far exceeds mine.

As for this post, I simply want to express my appreciation of one of Martin's literary works  which I decided to buy after his name came up again in conversation with a lovely friend.  It's the book mentioned earlier which I've now just finished reading - described on the back cover in his own words as being: 

"...a work of the greatest affection.  It is about Wivenhoe.  It is about East Anglia.  It is about England."

Being English and having lived in East Anglia since the age of three, there's much that resonates, but I think too there's an awful lot that would still be meaningful and interesting wherever and whoever you are, not least because Martin has such an engaging way of story-telling and skilfully sketching out the characters from the real-world tales in which they starred.  Like all the most charming memoirs, it's a perfect blend of relatable, ordinary(ish) daily life with the eccentric, the bizarre and the left-field, beautifully seasoned with humour, politics and a poetic turn of phrase.  As I devoured the book in bed every night last week I could so easily imagine the characterful houses and pubs, the ageing professor with his big garden, the bus ride to Brightlingsea, the picketing miners who lodged in the cellar, the May Fair with its raucous bands, cider punks and its "dense alien cloud of cheap hairspray and dope fumes." - plus so much more.  And not just because I live in East Anglia.

Perhaps one of the best things I took away from this book, however, is that oft-needed reminder that in a world where much that was once considered non-conformist has been appropriated by the masses, your true artists, bohemians, offbeats, free thinkers, etc. are still out there, always have been and always will be.  A reminder that life doesn't have to be neat and tick all the societal boxes, that we should stay true to who we are and not feel pressurised to fit in with something that doesn't naturally sit right with us.  Maybe that all sounds a bit deep but I find myself increasingly clinging onto these reminders, perhaps because it sometimes feels that the margins they/we inhabit are getting ever smaller.  But to delve into Martin Newell's world, albeit one from the past in this particular case, felt... well, like having a brilliant, satisfying conversation with a much-loved and familiar but eminently interesting friend you haven't seen in ages, and to realise you're not alone.  Perhaps a lot like blogging too.

I leave you with one of my favourite paragraphs from the book which just sums that up for me, where our narrator fondly describes the family from whom he rented a small studio:

"This was a family and here was a portrait of them.  There was a bloke who did an unusual job, a cheerful woman, an angelic-looking eleven year old boy, a deviant dog and a masochistic cat.  And there among all the exercise books, the film scripts, the uncompleted homework, the waiting tenants, the endless visitors and all the chaos, was life.  Not conventional life, not a half-asleep, better-drive-to-Tesco-you-don't-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here-but-it-helps sort of a life.  But a real life - with motorbike spares left where they shouldn't be, a washing-basket next to a book of medieval history and a pub sign for The Fool and Bladder - a prop from Steve's film - in the backyard."

I love it.  

Oh, and of course, a song!

The Cleaners From Venus: Summer In A Small Town

'A Prospect of Wivenhoe - Snapsots of an English Town' by Martin Newell was published by Wivenbooks in 2008 and is still available from some online retailers... mine cost lest than a fiver.  

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