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Friday Feature: Dagenham Is The Protagonist

by Elaine Spires

While I was growing up, I was blissfully unaware I was doing so in a place that so much of the country would have looked down its nose at and considered ‘deprived’.  I didn’t know it was sneeringly referred to as Corned Beef City by those who thought that was all its working-class residents could afford to live on. To me, it was a place of green spaces and parks where we played from dawn to dusk in the summer months, taking advantage of the Playleader Scheme, or racing around on our bikes, or lining up our cardigans to form a makeshift net, while we lobbed tennis balls at each other, or queued to get into Leys or Valence Pool, where the water always managed to be freezing, however hot the latest heatwave.

My home town offered several cinemas where we could lose ourselves to the Wild West or Sherwood Forest for sixpence at Saturday Morning Pictures and was home to that most magical place of all: Valence Library.  The children’s entrance was round the back, and woe betide any child who strayed into the adult section. I always felt a flutter of excitement as I went in, fingers crossed that the books I had set my heart on would both be available.  Yes, both.  We were only allowed two books, which meant a bookworm like me was there a couple of times a week during the school holidays. I had loads of friends and our neighbours were called Auntie and Uncle or Mr and Mrs if they were older.  We respected and heeded them as much as we did our parents, because we knew they had our best interests at heart.

We were lucky because our council house, having been built in 1952, had the luxury of central heating. My dad took pride in the garden and most summers, he won a prize at the Town Show for his roses or geraniums.  This was matched only by my mum’s pride in the house.  The windows were cleaned inside and out every week until they sparkled and were adorned by blinding white net curtains.  The door knocker and the step shone.  This civic pride was evident all over the Heath Park Estate and the rest of the town itself, for in those days Dagenham was an Essex town and not a London Borough.

So, I have no qualms in saying I had a wonderful childhood and I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere other than Dagenham.  It was quite a shock to find out as I got older what other people thought of the place.  More than once, I met a raised eyebrow or an acerbic remark when I said where I was from.  People seemed surprised that I could discuss world affairs and speak in coherent sentences and was well-dressed and nicely-groomed. This made me somewhat angry and made me even more proud of my home town.

For those familiar with my books, especially the Singles Series, the location plays an integral part in the plot and effectively becomes another character.  So, when I started seriously writing books, I knew I would set at least one in Dagenham in 50s and 60s and so it was the case when I wrote The Banjo Book One.  One of the big plusses was that I needed to do very little research, other than to confirm my memory was serving me well. By checking a few dates and conversations with friends and family, this added to the depth of the research.

However you look at it, Dagenham was a real success story, as the Becontree Estate was Europe’s largest housing project.  In a short space of time – thirty years – it was turned from a tiny rural community into a buzzing town and, as the old News Of The World used to claim, all human life was there.

To me, Dagenham was always an Earth Mother.  She took so many East End families into her warm, welcoming arms after both World Wars and replaced their dilapidated, overcrowded, often bomb-damaged homes with brand new houses with running water, inside toilets and gardens. She nurtured and encouraged them and was always so proud of her famous sons and daughters, including: Dudley Moore, Sir Alf Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and Sandie Shaw.  She celebrated their successes and mourned their misfortunes.  She offered them her churches, her pubs and clubs, her parks, her sports grounds, pitches, pools and her cinemas for their leisure time, while providing them with her factories and shops, where they could earn a decent living.

And then, like so many elderly relatives, she was abandoned by those she had sheltered and forced to go along with ‘change’ when she knew that change isn’t always for the best.  She watched as her ancient core was bulldozed and soulless flats replaced quaint, historic cottages. She raised a weak voice in protest as her pubs and cinemas closed their doors for the last time but was ignored.  Now, she sits in a dilapidated armchair, a toothless crone, confused and bewildered.

The Dagenham of 2020 is a world apart;  totally unrecognisable from fifty years ago.  I want to say that I’m not totally blinded by nostalgia; I don’t see the past as some rose-tinted theme park.  I’m not claiming it was better; it was just different and the story I tell in The Banjo is my story and my truth.  I have portrayed Dagenham as she was back then, warts and all.  And my truth is the truth for others, too, if feedback is to be believed.  So many Dagenham people have read The Banjo Book One and told me they remember it exactly as I’ve written it, which is both flattering and encouraging.

And Dear Old Dagenham will be a protagonist again, but this time during 70s and 80s, when The Banjo Book Two comes out later this summer.

The Banjo is available in paperback and in Kindle version on Amazon, click to buy. 

Elaine Spires is a novelist, playwright and actress. Extensive travelling and a background in education and tourism perfected her keen eye for the quirky characteristics of people, captivating the humorous observations she now affectionately shares with the readers of her novels. Connect with her on Twitter: @ElaineSWriter

Be sure to read Elaine’s interview with Write On! out on 31st May in our Sunday Interview feature. 

Read Issue 4 of Write On! magazine online now. 

While I was growing up, I was blissfully unaware I was doing so in a place that so much of the country would have looked down its nose at and considered ‘deprived’.