A journey back in time

15 11 2010

A guardian of the Essex Road village

So it certainly hasn’t been a speedy progress. Getting busy at work and being stymied by opening hours that don’t graciously convene with my daily plans have meant a big gap between my visit to the Bathstore and a trip to Essex Chemist and Opticians at 41 Essex Road.

But what a joy this was. I walked into this chemist-come-opticians to find a man up a ladder arranging some fittings. He greeted me and carefully backed his way down. No sooner had I started explaining my strange little project when an extremely well dressed woman I hadn’t noticed stepped out from behind the counter. Her red and gold outfit and jewelled bindi (For Diwali I later figured out) caught me off guard a little. She took up the conversation from her colleague who quietly climbed back up the ladder. She smiled knowingly as I explained what I’d been doing.

I kicked off with my questions and was immediately taken aback. She had worked in this chemist, a family business for 25 years. By some way the longest serving of all my interviewees. And it showed. Everywhere I’ve been so far has been friendly but this was a perfect example of a community business. Not a single customer entered whilst I was there who wasn’t greeted by first name. In turn they all knew Aziza’s name.

Aside from the genuine warmth and interest, this was a superbly useful visit. I quickly got on to talking about the block I’ve just finished visiting/cataloguing/enumerating – pick your word. It’s been something of a mystery so far but Aziza told me it had been a factory of some sort and that in it’s day the chemist had been a launderette. This explained the blue tiled cladding around the outside of the building.

I enjoyed falling into an interesting chat about the area. There was a real affection for Essex Road here. The people, the businesses and the way it had developed and was developing now. A brief diversion into talking about my rules project opened up a pandora’s box about government rules and regulations. You won’t be surprised to learn that as a small businesswoman, Aziza had plenty to say about interference and bureaucracy.

Disdain extended from the vassals of government to Tesco as we discussed the other businesses that they used. The language used to describe major national stores was generally negative: Invaded, dehumanised, conditioned. I love the idea that these words suggest some kind of territory or living thing that was being despoiled. That’s another level of affection for the place you work. How many of us could claim that? The fruit and veg place, the newsagent and the Coop were the main places mentioned in a positive light. I’d love to know which business I visit has the greatest geographical elasticity. You’d expect people to use their nearest newsagent but will they travel further than they need to for a hairdresser or bathroom fittings showroom?

As we chatted I reprised the debate about whether it’s ‘up’ or ‘down’ Essex Road. No definitive response here but given the feeling I got that this was a village, maybe the concept of up or down didn’t apply and everything was just closer or further away from a centre. Aziza furthered the sense of the chemist as a community focal point as she described women she’d met when pregnant who’s daughters were now coming in with kids of their own. A touching generational thought, although my dark side immediately thought that 15 years should do that for you further down the road in Hackney.

Aziza had been unable to remember exactly what had been on the factory site and before I could stop her she’d called a local resident to come over and help. I felt desperately guilty but that quickly evaporated when I met Doreen. 76, born and bred on Cruden Street just off Essex Road, she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of each building and business that had been on Essex Road in her youth and then what had replaced them. She told me about milliners, car garages, music halls, an offal shop, factories. It was like having a picture painted before your eyes. I could almost see old time characters in period costume going about their business. Buying offal. And again this amazing sense of a community. A place where people came from and called home. I really felt a big distinction between how I suppose most people see the area now and how Doreen did. People move there, they live there and then they move somewhere else. Doreen was categorically from here. It’s hard to explain but I felt like this was something it takes generations to achieve and even then it’s a struggle. Something I’d really only associated with darkest rural France or the far reaches of Cornwall was alive and well here, 500 yards from my house. I’m not ashamed to admit I was humbled.

Just as Doreen was telling me about Anderson’s Wood Yard (the site demolished to make way for the new build block that formed the first four businesses) and expressing the kind of casual racism that seems to be allowed once you’re over 70 (“The Bubble Cafe was next to that, rotten people in there, Greeks and such”) she got a text with a hot racing tip. I read it from the screen for her and she made her excuses as she needed to get to the betting shop. I asked her if she thought it was a good tip to which she scoffed disdainfully. (It came home fourth I found out later)

As she left I asked her if she liked the area. “Oh yes” she said. Elaborating with another “Oh yes” somewhat wistfully. I thought about all the businesses she’d mentioned. The vast majority were named after someone. Collins Music Hall, Repukes the Undertaker, Dickens the bakers. Outside of the inauthentic authenticity of posh brands, that sort of thing doesn’t really exist anymore. Lambast me as some sort of Telegraph-reading ex-Colonel if you will but I think that’s a shame.

Back in the present I realised that I’d taken up a huge amount of these good people’s time and had an impatient wife waiting down the road. I made a purchase (shaving foam – might as well get something I need) and said my goodbyes. I noticed as I left that Aziza was reading my blog after I’d written the address on a scrap of paper. I promised myself not to pull any punches just because I knew a subject would be reading it. Then I sensibly promised myself not to give any others the details.

  • Business has been there since – 1985
  • Guaranteed cumulative years in business – 39
  • Previous business was – launderette
  • Three people work there
  • Interviewee arrives there by car or bus from Manor House
  • I bought shaving foam for £2.75 (I think – I lost the receipt – twat)
  • Cumulative spend – £21.75
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