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Essex Clay

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The following extract is taken from Peter Stothard's forthcoming memoir, On the Spartacus Road. It appears in Granta 109, ‘Work’, which is published on Friday.

Essex clay could be like living flesh or a cold dead wall. We could punch it, climb it, cut it, try to mould it, try not to offend it, but the clay was permanent like nothing else. Half a century ago, behind the back door of a semi­detached house on the Marconi works estate, a mile from Chelmsford, were hundreds of slimy­sided cubes of this clay, newly cut by machines, soft but indestructible, leaden red by day and looming brown by night, an amalgam that at a child’s bedtime might be an Aztec temple or an ancient Roman face or a Russian.

Ours were homes built in a hurry, dug out of a butcher’s farmland below a giant steel aerial mast that had been erected against the Communists as soon as the Nazi threat was past. The mobilization of men and material to watch for Cold War missiles was as demanding as the hot war in which my father and his engineering friends had learned their craft. In the Rothmans fields of Great Baddow village, beside a town that already boasted the title ‘Birthplace of Radio’, we became part of an instant works community of families whose fathers understood klystrons, tweeters and ‘travelling­way tubes’ for the long­distance radar that kept the enemy at bay.

Every man I knew then understood either about the radar that saw things far away in the dark or about the various electric valves that were its eyes. There was a residual wartime spirit, an appreciation of values shared; and also a rising peacetime ambition for new values, new houses, holidays and televisions. As well as helping to defend British prosperity against hostile objects in the sky, we were supposed to share in it, creating a haven of high education, a science park, even an Essex garden community in which the clay cut to make the foundations of 51 Dorset Avenue might one day grow cabbages, fruit trees and flowers.

There were many advantages to life on these company streets. Almost everyone, for example, had a television set. Almost everyone’s father could make his own model if he wished. Ours had no polished cabinet (my mother’s woodworking came only later) and its twinkling diodes were slung along the picture rails and around the back of the sofa. But when we wanted a better picture, the contrast of our black and white could be improved from the first principles of the cathode ray. To make the most of The Billy Cotton Band Show, a massed expertise could be deployed, from as far afield as Noakes Avenue, the outer limit where Marconi­land ended and Essex farming returned.

The houses were so alike, and the food in their cupboards so absolutely alike, that it hardly mattered where on the estate we fed our pet pond creatures or ate our tea. Most boys had the same­shaped box room for their den, an unusual cube that contained within it another cube, not much smaller than itself, in which the inner supports of the staircase were held. A sawn­off end of a radar monitor was so perfect for newt­keeping that every boy who braved the ‘bomb­hole’ pond in the ‘rec’ had one of his own. Break the glass and there was always a replacement the next night. All groceries came from the same dirty­green single­decker coach of ‘Mr Rogers’, a silent ex­soldier who piled his fruit and vegetables on either side of the aisle where the seats had been and twice a week toured the avenues from Dorset to Noakes to sell cereals, sugar, flour – everything that the gardens might one day produce but did not yet.

Books were universally rare. There were five at 51 Dorset, the brightest­coloured being a sky­blue edition of S. T. Coleridge, the title printed in such a way that for years I thought that the poet was a saint. Next to it sat a collected Tennyson, in a spongy leather cover, half bath accessory, half one of the then new and exciting table­tennis bats from Sweden. There was my Yorkshire grandfather’s copy of the second half of Virgil’s Aeneid, with the name B. Stothard, in a firm, faded script, inside the flyleaf. I have that one here with me now. On the shelf below was a cricket scorebook in which someone had once copied improving philosophical precepts, and beside that, The First Test Match, a slim, slate­green hardback which alone looked as if it had been read.

This was a community of algebra and graph paper. Mathematics was the language of choice. Contract bridge was the nightly recreation. My curly­haired, smiling father had a brain for numbers that his fellow engineers described as Rolls­Royce. Notoriously, he did not like to test it beyond a purr. In particular – and this was unusual in a place of intense educational self­help – he did not care to inculcate maths into his son. This was a task which he had recognized early as wholly without reward. Max Stothard would occasionally attack the mountain of clay in his garden but never knock his head against a brick wall. He was nothing if not blissfully relaxed.

Like most of our neighbours, he had learned about radar by chance, in his case while becalmed for the war years off West Africa on a ship called HMS Aberdeen. He had bought red­leather­bound knives for his mates back in the Yorkshire­Lincolnshire borderlands; he had sent postcards of Dakar’s six­domed cathedral to his strictly Methodist mother; he had never fired a hostile shot except at a basking shark. And when he had needed something else to do, he chose to watch the many curious ways that waves behave in the air above the sea, turning solid things into numbers. That was how he spent most of the rest of his life, in the south of England instead of the north because that was where the radars were made, quietly reasoning through his problems on his ‘bench’ in the Marconi laboratory and in an armchair at home, spreading files marked ‘Secret’ like a fisherman’s nets. He earned £340 per year, as my mother and I discovered when he died. Secrecy about earnings was always an obsession, although everyone was paid much the same.

The Rothmans estate was based on a bracing sense of equality and a suffocating appreciation of peace. Although most of our fathers felt they had a part in this great military project of the future, rarely can so massive a martial endeavour, the creation of air defences along the length of Britain’s eastern coast, have been conducted in so eirenic a spirit. Not even the Bournville chocolate workers of Birmingham, the group best known then for living together in a company town, could have demonstrated such a Quaker appreciation of calm. The fighting war was absolutely over. The new business was civil, work carried out with civility above all else, work that would keep us safe and increase our prosperity as the politicians promised. And because everyone was in it, everyone was in it together.

That was the constant message of Miss Leake, our doughty headmistress at Rothmans School, whose doctrine of ‘excellence and equality’, delivered in her severest voice, was adapted only slowly to the gradually advancing evidence of differences around her. There were certain girls with vastly superior proficiency at maths; but certain boys could freely pervert the spirit of Rothmans peace in a greater Rothmans cause, designing missiles and fighter planes to crash Pauline Argent and Anne Spavin back to earth. For our first two years Mrs Sheffield reassured us repeatedly that we were all much the same; but eventually and inexorably, when we were aged seven and in the empire of Mrs Maloney, those of us who counted badly had to be separated from those who counted well. Those who could not sing were called ‘groaners’ and told to wait outside the door; and those who preferred Virgil’s stories to vulgar fractions were reluctantly allowed to write fiction for our homework, as long as it was science fiction.

My father was not at all worried about my being a ‘groaner’ (he listened to no music himself at all and was especially offended by the violin and the soprano voice) but he was faintly sad about my missing number skills. Numbers were the key to advancement. Physics was the first step to a working future, a future in paid employment in a world which itself worked well. Many of my friends with no aptitude at all for figures – who could draw a beautiful anti­Pauline­Argent plane but never match her equations – were pummelled on to numerical paths. How, asked our neighbour on the other side of the clay mountain, could anyone pull themselves up by any other route? It was hard to find anyone who would argue with this doctor of metallurgy from the northern steel lands of Scunthorpe – about that or about anything much else except bidding conventions in hearts and spades and the best way to see things that dared fly low in the sky.

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.

Comments (41)

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  1. pbyonwade

    Sun Feb 28 23:10:37 GMT 2010

    I enjoyed memoir. I consider your father, and thousands of others, as my 'professional ancestor.' I'm an engineer, you see. I look at the world through an engineer's eyes and seek the "how does that work" of everything.

    As with your father, none of my offspring have followed a technical path. As with your father, they are doing (not doing?) so with my love and blessing.

    What they do have, as I see in your writing that you have, is an appreciation for the father's way of relating to the world.

    Yes, the differences do become gradually accepted ... and appreciated.

    Thanks for the glimpse of one of my forebarers and his progeny.

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