Home town blues

In a stab at optimism the, crochet decoration on the post box outside the library that used to have the tribute to NHS workers on it has been replaced by a cute creation featuring Christmas mice and candy canes. The Health worker figures on the old one were looking exhausted and droopy; as well they might. The mice are contrastingly upright and perky. They haven’t been told about the South African coronavirus variant yet.

The stall holders in a slightly desultory street market are all wearing Team Elf green hoodies that are evidently not warm enough; and are a bit premature given that its not December yet. There’s a scattering of customers but not much sense of magic. A couple of young girls have pulled their sleeves down over their hands and are looking at each other with faces too frozen to have an expression. The guy on the mulled wine and mince pie stall just into George Street is playing Hank Williams very loudly.

The war memorial at the bottom of the high street is becoming increasingly elaborate. When I was growing up it was just quietly there. In a prominent position but not aggressively in anyone’s face. Remembrance Sunday brought a wreath, which added its dash of blood red tribute, but this, again, was unobtrusive. Now, in the aftermath of failed wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya there are two life size black silhouettes of World War 1 soldiers, leaning forward, heads bowed, wreaths all the way around the plinth, poppies mounted all along the top of the crash barrier along Orsett Road and a large Union Jack permanently drooping on the flag pole. It has something of the quality of a shrine to a Hindu god, but with poppies instead of marigolds.

The increased prominence of Remembrance – the way some people wear metal poppy pins all year round now – is of a piece with the need that recent governments have felt to officially define acceptable forms of national belonging, fundamental values and so on: and speaks to a declining confidence that any of it really is fundamental enough to be taken for granted without constant reassertion. The rush of red poppies is like the burst capillaries of a state with hardening arteries.

All the same, on my way past I always take my hat off – in the same way I do when a hearse passes in the street. This is partly general, partly familial. Late in life, my grandmother campaigned for her brother Sid’s name to be added; as they’d left him out when the World War 2 dead were added. She succeeded and there he is at the bottom of the plaque; so, to me, its also a memorial to her.

Killed on 13 May 1943 on the last day of the North Africa campaign when he drove a lorry over a landmine in Tunisia. He was 21. My Mum, who is 91, remembered the date like it was carved into her more surely than his name is into the memorial.

On the way back to the station through the precinct, everything is low key but friendly. No one doing a roaring trade. All a bit quiet and shop keepers chat to each other in an amiable way. No mad rush for anything. A row of three trestle tables has Xmas activities for children. Making bright red cardboard crowns and so on under the banner “arrive as yourself- leave as an elf”. A crowd of secondary school students mills in from the street. About twenty or thirty of them. Black uniforms. Why are they always black? Seemingly nothing untoward as I walk towards them. A sudden scuffle that looks like play fighting at first erupts into a flurry of fierce, fast punches, felling one lad who curls up on the floor. At least two of the others kick him while he’s down, hard and fast, nothing restrained. I make towards them yelling for them to leave him alone. A voice beside me roars for them to back off. Someone, slightly unnervingly, calls out “check for weapons!” The security guy yells that he’s calling the police. The bloke to my right is built like a prop forward and has the body language of a man who has been in many rucks. Chest out, hands to his side in a “come on then” gesture, head jerking from one protagonist to another. The kids panic – partly at what they’d done – and scatter like a troop of chimps confronted by a silverback gorilla. The lad who was kicked in is given refuge in a shop that starts bringing its shutters down. He is curled up groaning and holding his head. No one knows him or what the fight was about. On the way back out to the High Street, three kids are being given a quiet talking to by one of the Stall holders, who is pointing to a woman in a pink puffa jacker who was bowled over by the escaping mob and is now walking unsteadily away. I chip in that the crowd had just been kicking lumps out of someone, and one of the kids made a serious allegation about him that would explain the fury of the attackers if they believed it to be true. But they might have been wrong, and they could have killed him. As it is, if caught, they will probably get charged with ABH. Teenage vigilantism in the absence of any certainty of a recourse to courts that are out of reach for most and from another world. Back to the hue and cry and lynch mob.

In retrospect the instant civic response – people intervening to try to stop the fight, limit the damage, keep the peace, talk down the participants, people finding a place of refuge, phoning ambulances and police – is reassuring.

What happens next might depend on whether the youth involved think that honour is satisfied or want to pursue it relentlessly, whether the victim and his family accept a retributative kicking as fair pay back or want to start a vendetta. The involvement of the kids school – they were in uniform so subject to disciplinary procedures even if off premises – courts and the whole legal process looks somehow small in comparison with the social consequences, even if they get involved from on high. The story is out there. It is widely believed. The kid who was kicked will have a mark of Cain from those who believe it, will be collectively shunned and shamed, sent to Coventry, looked at funny; the story told and retold all the time he lives locally. Thus it was, is, and shall be.

Portrait of the author as an old git.

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