Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the hospital…

One of the odd things about people acting as though the COVID pandemic is over is that it increases the number of people who keep catching it. My Mum and Dad, both 92 and who very rarely go out, recently picked it up on a visit to Hospital, after sitting in a waiting room for quite some time surrounded by people without masks on. Both have got through it, Mum without symptoms, Dad being quite bad with it for three days, underlining again the relative vulnerability of men (weaker sex and all that). Both of them are as vaccinated as you can get and we’re all very thankful for that, as the death rate for people over 80 who are fully vaccinated is 1 in 68. If you have had fewer than 2 vaccinations your chances drop to 1 in 7. Residual vaccine sceptics please note. I’m not saying this to score a point.

So, I went down to Grays and did a very brief socially distanced drop off of some chicken soup my daughter made for them – “give ’em some chicken soup”. “But madam, that won’t help” “It wouldn’t hoit!”

Wandering back through town I stop off for a Capuchino and strudel at Lu Lu’s Cakes and Bakes on the High Street opposite where the Queen’s Hotel used to be. A little gem of a cafe full of pastries and caffeinated smells, staffed by Eastern European women busily doing accounts, with a couple of other grey haired geezers sitting at the tables outside, quietly taking in the breeze and the pale October sunlight. They have a sign on the counter which gains a bit from translation, proclaiming that all of their pastries are freshly made in “our laboratory”. “IGOR! The Strudels!” But the lab does good work. Recommended if you are ever in Grays High Street.

The precinct is busy but determinedly down at heel. An attempt to revive the High Street in the 1970s, complete with multi story car park and killed stone dead by Lakeside opening up in the 80s. The old status stores, M&S, even Woolworths, either migrating there or shutting down. A Poundland. A Burger King. A “Gorgeous in Grays” store. There seem to be a lot of Sacred Heart Jesus posters on sale, a counterpoint to the evangelical revival on display at the mega church at the Eastern end of what used to be Congress House, the old Coop Department Store that we thought was terribly modern in the sixties. The design of these varies, but the Jesus is always very white. In one he points to the blazing heart in his chest with the same sort of understated gesture that a gangbanger might point to a gun – “you don’t want to mess with this”. In another he holds up two fingers in benediction but has a reproachful expression – “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m deeply disappointed”. The fingers are crossed. A woman walks past talking to her mate “He was so fucking rude to me…” The classiest and coziest place in the precinct is the Costa cafe by the High Street entrance, where I pick up a sandwich for the train journey back. Most tables full. A buzz of conversation. A barista straight outa’ Shoreditch, all massive mane of curly hair and beard, brews coffees in a chilled sort of way.

On the way up to the station a tiny black girl gives me a conspiratorial grin as she zooms past on one of those three wheeled scooters.

The journey back goes up the Rainham line. That means we pass Wennington, the small settlement hit hardest by last year’s wildfires during the 40C heatwave. Wennington is one of those unobtrusive landmarks that you tend to take notice of without making a note of. Out beyond Rainham proper and built, presumably, on a bit of land higher and dryer than the big sweep of marshland that surrounds it and sweeps all the way down to Purfleet, so it stands on the horizon. Even expecting to see damage, the state of it is quite a shock. The stubby stone church tower stands at one end like a squat exclamation mark, next to it several houses that have been gutted, just their dividing walls and chimneys pointing blasphemously upwards, then a few houses that look untouched, then several more completely burnt out, blue sky showing where their living rooms and bedrooms should have been, then some more, seemingly normal. Not built back better. Or even built back at all. It stands as a memorial and a warning. We got off lightly in that heatwave, even though the Fire Brigade had more calls than on any day since the end of the Second World War. The winds were light. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky.

The flowers look much brighter in real life!

A sign of hope as I sit at Tower Hill and eat my sandwich somewhere scenic. The moat around the Tower, filled eight years ago with scarlet ceramic poppies in a striking memorial to World War One, is now running riot with wild flowers. The same sort of recreated meadow we have in our local parks but on a grander scale. The sea of colour waving in the wind somehow gentles down the still, grim old fortress, with its thousand year terrible history and hinting that maybe we can do better than we’ve done and, if we don’t, the flowers will still be here when we are long gone.

Where’s Mr Flint when you need him?

We live in a distinctive but tutti putti flat; designed and built by a locally famous architect and builder called Ernest Trobridge in the late 1920s. Trobridge believed in using natural, local materials and had a real thing about compressed wood. His houses and flats are scattered around NW9, the earliest ones heavily thatched, and include the Castle Flats on the corner of our road; which appeared with Sir John Betjeman standing on top of them in his Metroland documentary in 1973 (and the Madness “Our House” video nine years later… from what feels like a very different time). His designs are part Tudor, part medieval, with imaginative twists – particularly tall, spirally chimneys – that make me wonder how many spoons of magic mushrooms he took in his tea. All the fireplaces in our row of flats are variations on a theme of decorative brick that look hefty and solid. But, the structure of interior walls (and some exterior walls) was described in our pre sale survey as “exceptionally flimsy”. So, though they don’t look just the same, they are, in parts, definitely made out of ticky tacky.

A while back, one of us knocked into one of the bedroom walls and a hole appeared. Pulling away a layer of wallpaper revealed a 6″ x 9″ rectangular cavity with an air brick at the end, that the previous owners had just papered over. Brushing out the dust and cobwebs revealed several rusted nails left over from 1927 and an air brick at a visibly wonky angle; implying that 1920s craftsmanship wasn’t all that it has been cracked up to be. Definite sense of “that’ll do” combined with an undue haste to get done. With the impending energy price rise putting a premium on closing off sources of drafts, I bought an air brick grille. This, like all good Christmas toys that arrive without batteries, arrived without screws; but with the instruction to use “Grade 6 round headed screws of appropriate length”. I needed four of them. The only packs they had in Wickes contained 50. So, having screwed them in, I am left with 46 spare. In the absence of another 11 and a half grilles to put in, I’ve just put them in the tin box that contains all the other packs of screws and nails; where they will stay unused, possibly forever.

When I was growing up in Grays, there was a tiny shop on the corner of Orsett Road and Derby Road that was run by Mr Flint. Flints was a bit like the shop in the 2 Ronnies “For…k…andles” sketch, but much smaller and qualitatively neater. In fact, it might be best described as a shrine to the most anally retentive possible kind of man cave. Presided over by Mr Flint: a small, bald, bird faced man in one of those brown coats that proclaimed that he was a tradesman and proud of it. He sold all sorts of DIY related bits and bobs, and a nice little side line in Airfix plastic models and armies in a box, and the dinky little tins of Humbrol paints needed to paint them. One line that seemed to sell quite well was models of the ships involved in the Battle of the River Plate – probably recalled in plastic because it was a moral boosting early victory for the Royal Navy at a time when everything else was bleak; or, given that it was on Dec 13th 1939, hadn’t properly kicked off yet. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee and the British and New Zealand light cruisers Ajax, Achilles and (rather more prosaically) Exeter; of the sort that were strikingly described as “eggshells armed with hammers”. I’ve known people like that. Me, sometimes. These were on display above the counter, as a sort of decorative flourish. But the main trade of the shop was tools, screws, nails, nuts and bolts and such. You could buy these in exactly the quantity you needed. If you wanted 4 Grade 6 Round headed screws, Mr Flint would sell you 4 Grade 6 round headed screws. And charge you a ha’penny for it. So, you got what you needed, no more, no less; no waste, no overconsumption, no pointless storage.

Mr Flint from memory circa 1964

In the middle of the parade of shops in Kingsbury, there is a large store to let. That is the sort of space that we need for a Library of Things, one of the Repair Workshops the Council is planning and possibly a free book exchange. The main shopping drag is part of the Roe Green Green Zone, along with the Park, the Primary and Secondary Schools and the streets to the North, which will be the prototype for local transformation. Early days and the Council has limited resources, but we should be thinking big.