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.  


  1. Replies
    1. I think you'd like it, definitely worth a read.

  2. Thanks for the review, I must definitely get a copy. As I have droned on about before (link below) I was lucky enough to get to know Martin when I lived in Wivenhoe in the early 1980s while at Essex University. I would pop round every so often to pick up a copy of his latest cassette and help feed the geese (not a euphemism) in exchange for a mug of tea.

    1. Ernie, just after I put this up I also remembered your excellent post - so credit goes to you too and it's great that you got to know him back in those early days. You'll no doubt recognise places and people mentioned, I'd love to hear your take on it. Feeding the geese in exchange for a cup of tea with the man himself sounds like a good deal indeed.

    2. Book now ordered. I hadn't realised it was 15 years old, I don't know how I managed to miss it for so long. Many thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

      I'll report back when I've read it but I'm sure it will prompt some memories - I was there during the miner's strike, for example, so that bit will definitely resonate. The bus to Brightlingsea too, as I was in digs there the year before. The bus was very infrequent so in the summer months I used to hitch a lift with the ice cream van that toured the villages.

    3. I've a feeling you'll definitely enjoy it, there are going to be so many famiiar references. You tease us with these lovely snippets of your student life too - another memoir in the making?!

    4. Pertinent to nothing but we took our holidays in East Anglia in September. Our van took a circuitous route through Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. I have a lovely Auntie that lives in the Sanderlings. We loved exploring the lanes and villages in the area. The low countryside has a haunted feel to it. Weirdly though the landscape is flat and it is hard to see far which adds to the mystery.All such a contrast to my neck of the woods. Carry on.

    5. Hi Ben - I know just what you mean about the haunted feel. There is something about the big skies and flat fields, estuaries, scrubland, spindly woods, and lowland emptiness. Living here but having holidayed many a time in Cornwall I agree very much about the contrast; it's lovely to be able to appreciate both for different reasons.
      You never know, your van may have passed right by me too!

  3. Want it! Thank you, C, for this most beautiful of introductions. Will compare notes soon.


    1. Thanks John - Ii''s only just over 100 pages so it won't take you long; hope you'll get as much out of it as I have!


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