Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Time traveller would soon want to beam back to 70s

Colchester GV: High Street/East Hill bus lane

Colchester GV: High Street/East Hill bus lane - Credit: Su Anderson

What with conducting these Sunday morning walking tours, I’ve lately been spending rather a lot of time in Colchester again – East Hill in particular. It hasn’t half set my memory off. This time 40 years ago I was living there. Equally blessed and cursed with a good memory, if I concentrate hard enough I can summon up scarily accurate vignettes of the past and torture myself with them.

Now, this newspaper is no slouch on nostalgia. We print daily photographs from decades gone by, and I find myself playing a somewhat melancholy game, whereby I try to guess the photo’s year without looking at the captions. The pictures from the 1980s are easy, the women’s hairstyles tend to be the giveaways. With 1960s pictures, it’s often the tone, depth and the cut of the clothes which will tell me where we’ve alighted. The two most recent decades are more difficult to unravel. A recent picture of some Suffolk schoolboys gave me little clue as to the era, forcing me to read the caption. It turned out to be 1975. Those boys would all be about 50 now. Forty years ago I was 22 years old, a hairy oik just moved in with a mate of mine on East Hill. Both of us in casual jobs, footloose, fancy-free and with a pub just over the road. What could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing much, actually. Not after the late snows of early June, anyway.

I kid you not, it snowed in Colchester the day I went to collect my train tickets for the south of France. I returned a few weeks later, bronzed and broke, to one of the best summers that I can remember. So, here’s the point. If I could somehow take that cheery young Colchester kitchen porter into the future and walk him around town in June of 2015, what might he think?

The first thing he’d ask would be, “Why is everyone talking to themselves, and fiddling with their pocket calculators?” He might also be flabbergasted, that is, aghast at the flab, since people would appear much ‘rounder’ to him now than in his own decade. Upon witnessing Skyping, he’d be pleasantly reassured that those videophones, long-predicted by his boyhood space comics had at last come into existence.

Whilst strolling the High Street, he’d wonder where all the famous shops had gone: Cullingfords the stationers, Radcliffes the country sports shop, Jacklin the tobacconist and many others. The pubs would be a shock: open all afternoon with people sitting outside at tables and yet nobody smoking indoors. If he himself lit up inside, there’d be an immediate ‘issue’ as someone rushed over to remonstrate. He might, in fact, wonder why there were now so many ‘issues’ rather than topics, matters, problems, questions or situations. Upon buying a copy of the East Anglian, he’d be amazed to see that it was now a tabloid – and in colour!

Our time traveller would be astonished at the numbers of adults dressed in shorts and brightly coloured shirts, like overgrown children on a seaside holiday. He’d be shocked at the amount of people, especially women, sporting tattoos. He might think it odd that so many unfit-looking people were dressed in sports clothes. He might also wonder why the bushy-bearded, yet short-haired student boys were wearing ultra-tight jeans, too short in the leg, rather than the fashionable, flapping flares and chest-length hair, which he himself wore. Walking back down the High Street, through distressingly heavy traffic, he’d notice that the Post Office at the bottom had gone. Further down East Hill, the bus-park too, with its looming multi-storey car park had mysteriously been vaporised, replaced apparently by a golden-roofed space centre. The Ship, a pub on the corner of Priory Street, where he drank bottles of Oranjeboom lager, whilst playing either bar-billiards or pinball, was now transformed into a smart-looking Polish shop. The Chinese restaurant, the Scotch Bakery, the Shirt Boutique, Pan Signs, Pratts the Newsagents and the sub-post at the bottom of hill were all gone. Where was the petrol garage next to The Goat and Boot, where he bought paraffin for the stove to warm his coldwater flat? That too had vanished, replaced by two new blocks of homes.

The slim-looking televisions glimpsed in shop windows, seemed unfeasibly large with no apparent inner workings to them. The pictures which they showed were brilliantly clear, yet at prices equivalent to three months of his 1975 wages, they’d be well beyond his budget.

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Upon conversing with people, he’d find their language much the same, although with far fewer using the old north Essex accent. Most young local people in 2015 would have sloppy London-ish accents lacking much definition in many of the consonants. Present in their speech, too was a peculiar inflection, with many of the sentences ascending strangely in tone, almost as if they were questions?

Younger Martin might be puzzled by the fact that there were now no record shops in the town centre. He’d be startled by the spectacle of a young man, wearing a food-stained track-suit and training shoes, riding his bike blatantly down the middle of a crowded pavement and shouting into a pocket calculator, whilst pedestrians stumbled distractedly of his way.

Finally, overwhelmed by the awful music which he heard booming from huge cars, he’d probably pull a teleporter from his jeans pocket and mouth the words, “Beam me up, maan.”

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