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Essex Clay

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At the same time there grew among us the gradual acceptance of other differences. Ours was only in part a works estate in the tradition of the Birmingham chocolatiers and the Wirral’s Port Sunlight. It was becoming a place for the upwardly mobile at a time of restless mobility. So there were questions. Were the engineers’ families of Rothmans Avenue, Dorset Avenue and Noakes Avenue quite as much the same as first appeared? Did the more brilliant scientists live in Rothmans, the more managerial in Dorset, the more clerical in Noakes? Were they richer in Rothmans and rather poorer in Noakes? Did the ‘Millionaires Row’ houses by the school gates really have four bedrooms? Whose kitchen had less Fablon and more Formica? Should Marley floor tiles be polished? And where exactly did everyone go on holiday?

Summer was the great unequalizer. On the North Sea coast, only thirty or so miles away, the skies were known equally to all masters of air defence. But the beaches beneath were crisply divided. Clacton, Walton and Frinton were never the same. We always went toWalton­on­the­Naze, the middle town of the three, the one which had the widest concrete esplanades where children could ride bikes. Clacton­on­Sea was south of Walton and had slot machines and candyfloss booths where ‘other people’ could waste their money. North of Walton was Frinton­on­Sea, which had no candyfloss, no caravans (we always stayed in a caravan), no fish and chip shops, not even a pub, just Jubilee gardens and what was known, only by warnings not to walk on it, as ‘greensward’. Did Rothmans Avenue families prefer Frinton? By the time of my eleventh birthday in 1962, it sometimes seemed that they did. Our Marconi estate was small, confined and had only one entrance to the world. Once inside it we could always roller­skate through the class lines. On the coast, it was an impossible walk, and even an awkward drive, between three neighbouring towns that seemed built deliberately to show how different from one another we might be.

My father was a typical Rothmans engineer of his time, in every respect except in certainty that his was the right path. That was his grace and glory. He never stopped me preferring stories about science to the understanding of what science actually did. He read the fictions that I wrote about my manufactured hero, Professor Rame, without complaining directly to me that there was no point in any of that. He did not much like the Coleridge and the Tennyson being on hand. But he did not take them away. He himself liked to see people as electro­machinery, as fundamentally capable of simple, selfless working. It was simpler that way. But he never imposed the company line. His own mind was closed to the communications of religion or art. His favourite picture then was a photograph of Great Baddow’s tribute to the Eiffel Tower. But his passions for moving parts, moving balls and jet streams in the skies over air shows did not preclude an acceptance of others’ passions. He was a pleasure­seeking materialist – in a company estate where those were the prevailing values and the predominant aspirations. Materialism in those days was a means of science, which he loved, not of extravagance, which did not exist, nor even of shopping, which he would barely tolerate. It was the successful basis of a contented, comfortable life.

Peter Stothard was Editor of The Times from 1991 to 2002, and is now Editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

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