Europe – July 2017

Day 3 – South Ockendon

Monday 31st

We’re starting to settle into a routine now. Even though we don’t have any pressing reason to be getting up early, our body clocks are still kicking us all into gear from around 6 a.m. Even I’m finding I’m wide-awake well before 7 a.m., whereas I would normally be quite unconscious still at that time of the morning in Melbourne.

Today turned out to be a lovely stroll down memory lane. The only obligations we had from the agenda were a couple of author presentations and the first of those wasn’t until 2 p.m., so I wanted to take advantage of a free morning by driving around South Ockendon to re-visit some of my youth. Before this, however, I wanted to pop into the local library so check out the venue for my first talk of the day. We met Wendy, the librarian who had been helping to organise and promote the event. It’s a small library but the meeting space was perfectly adequate for purpose. I really don’t expect there to be more than a handful of people present, which is perfectly fine by me.

After a few minutes of chitchat, we said goodbye to Wendy for now and were about to start driving around the estate when the phone rang. It was Dad. As it happened, he was just meters away doing some shopping. At just under 20,000 inhabitants, South Ockendon isn’t a particularly large town. There are a small handful of shopping streets dotted about the place with the largest of these in the centre of the town at a place called Derwent Parade. All up, there are about 40-50 shops there, although the place does generally look a bit run down. I grew up referring to this as the big shops, with the little shops being one of the smaller shopping streets just a few minutes walk from where I lived. There are perhaps a dozen shops there. We walked over to the big shops to have a chat with Dad, who was doing some errands. He was there on his mobility scooter and agreed to come with us for the drive around the estate. His scooter would be perfectly fine left where it was for a half hour or so – or so I hoped. A sign of the aging population of South Ockendon was that there were actually a dozen or more scooters parked outside various shops at Derwent Parade. The most visible of demographics that I could see was old aged pensioners wandering around the place.

With Dad now safely in the car, the first place of interest was Foyle Drive and the house where I grew up. The house itself appears to have undergone quite a few changes but the houses around it and everything else in the street are all exactly as I remember. We parked the car whilst Sandy and I strolled back and forth taking some photos. I imagine it might have looked a little odd to some of the neighbours. Next up was my old primary school, Dilkes. I had been e-mailing back and forth with someone at Dilkes called Tracy regarding the author presentation this afternoon. Evidently, they are sending one of their current teachers to sit in on the presentation. It’s the summer holidays here so the schools aren’t in session, which is a pity, as I would dearly have loved the opportunity to go inside. As luck would have it, however, there are some renovation works going on so the school grounds were open. We drove in and parked up. Dad stayed in the car whilst we went for a wander. It was like stepping back in time. Although there were now modern windows installed and the place had been generally spruced up a bit, just about every other aspect of the school was exactly as I remember it. I walked around the entire grounds taking photos from every angle. Even the trees I used to play under were all still there – right down to every last oak, horse chestnut and conker tree.

My memories of Dilkes, and indeed of my life generally from the age of between 5 & 11 are extremely fond ones. In fact, I cannot recall any other time period of my life that I felt so contented as my time at Dilkes. As I was standing there at the back of the school grounds, remembering myself playing fondly in the various playgrounds, the phone rang. It was Sandy. I suspected she was wondering where I was but it turns out she bumped into Tracy, the lady that I had been e-mailing with over the past few weeks. She just happened to be here at the school today. Sandy explained that I was here to take a look around and Tracy had apparently invited us to come inside to take a look around. This was an opportunity just too good to miss.

Inside, the school was being modernised with new plumbing, electrics, etc. The corridors had been painted and there were new carpets but other than that, it was exactly as I remembered it. I walked the same corridors, climbed the same steps and explored the same classrooms. In my minds’ eye, I could see the same kids running up and down the halls. The same hubbub of children playing and shouting echoed in my mind. It was like an old movie was replaying inside my head. We went into the assembly hall where I used to sit with my schoolmates every morning before school started. The same climbing ropes and ladders on the sidewalls were still there. Even the very same piano was there. Every morning, the school would assemble here and the headmaster, Mr. Barratt, would talk to us about something or other. There was a huge flipchart that hung from the ceiling at the front. Each page had the words of a particular hymn written on it. Mr. Barratt would lower the flipchart and turn to one of the pages and we’d all sing that hymn to the tune that very same piano. I can hear myself singing some of those hymns even now. Nowadays, they don’t sing hymns at the school and that flipchart is no longer there. Back then, each assembly would finish in exactly the same way with Mr. Barratt asking everyone to close their eyes and hold their hands together as in prayer. He would then deliver the blessing. I remember it as clear as yesterday: May the Lord bless us and keep us this day, and always. Amen. We would then all say Amen in unison. Then we would all get up in our class groups and set off to class. Other than the hymns and morning blessing, there were no other religious teachings or overtones that went on at the school.

We chatted with Tracy for a while and I told her some anecdotes about my time at the school – a subject so vast in itself that I could dedicate an entire volume to. I had previously arranged to hand a couple of books to the lady that would be attending my talk this afternoon but I suggested I hand them to Tracy now just in case something came up and the other woman wasn’t able to attend. Tracy was excited to receive the two books and several dozen bookmarks. I told her I’d like for one book to be donated to the school library and the other to be earmarked to reward a particularly deserving student. I do hope that whoever receives it finds it rewarding. I autographed and inscribed both books as per Tracy’s request.

I am so very grateful to Tracy for accommodating me and for taking me on a tour through the school. She showed me a notice board in the main corridor that depicted some newspaper clippings and other things relating to the school’s history. I suggested I maybe write something for her when I get back, so that she could add it to the board. After signing and inscribing the books, we thanked Tracy and took our leave of her and the school. Once again, I left the school grounds with fond memories.

Next up for today was my author presentation at the local library. As predicted, there weren’t a lot of people there, but between my own family and the few that did show up, it was enough to fill the space and to make the talk worthwhile. The presentation itself went very well – despite some heckling from one particular…brother. It was all good-humoured and I think everyone enjoyed it all. There were half a dozen kids that seemed particularly keen to hear what I had to say and I made sure to engage with those specifically. When it came time to hand out some free books, the most enthusiastic kids each received a free, autographed book. At the end of the session, the teacher from Dilkes made herself known to me and we had a brief chat. Another parent also came up to me to let me know that I was at Dilkes with her sister, who remembered me. It was a lovely ending to a lovely afternoon.

As planned, we all made our way over to Uncle Dave’s house immediately following the book talk. Despite being warned to the contrary, Uncle Dave did recognise us. He was there most of the time but did drift in and out. For a man of 93 years of age, I think he’s doing very well, although admittedly very frail. Uncle Dave’s house is quite small but still exactly as I remember it and it was another step back in time for me. I used to be in and out of this house almost daily as a small child. As with my sojourn around Dilkes, the memories came flooding back and I could easily place myself back in the day with the sights and sounds bouncing around the depths of my mind. Several of my cousins were all there and we had a thoroughly enjoyable catch-up with all of them. Although nobody could be entirely certain of the exact numbers, Uncle Dave has literally dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren to his name. By the time we left the house, I couldn’t but help conclude that this was, in all likelihood, the last time we will see Uncle Dave again. This thought strikes me about other family members as well, but I don’t like to dwell on those thoughts for too long.

With a second author talk planned for later this evening with the Thurrock Marching Brass, my old marching band that my Brother now runs, we had an hour or so to kill. We stopped at the big shops so that Sandy could pick up a few provisions. As we were waiting outside for her to quickly pop in and out, the low socio-economic nature of some aspects of South Ockendon revealed itself with an altercation in the street just behind us. We don’t know what all the shouting was about but some woman was clearly upset with some man and she was letting the whole world know about it in no uncertain terms.

Sandy took her time in the shop, the reason for which only became apparently once she got back into the car. She had actually paid for her shopping on the global currency card. However, after having paid, the woman at the checkout seemed to insist that they didn’t accept these types of cards. Rather than make a scene, Sandy allowed her to refund the card so she could then pay by cash instead. I wouldn’t have been nearly so accommodating. Once paid, it would have stayed paid and I would have left the store with my shopping.

We went back to Paul’s house to rest for a bit before the final planned activity of the day. The youth marching band practices at a nearby school so we drove over there and waited for everyone else to arrive. Back in my day, the Thurrock Marching Brass was over 125 members strong. This latest reincarnation of the band sits at around 40 members strong, having been re-started about eight years ago. Once all the kids, teachers and parents were there, Paul introduced me as a former band member and I delivered my presentation. The kids were great and quite interactive. It’s always a juggling act trying to adjust to the audience size and make-up but I got through it all relatively in tact and I think the kids all enjoyed themselves. Paul had previously arranged for a box of books – all of which I had autographed last night in preparation. We called each band member’s name in turn and I handed them their book whilst Sandy snapped a shot of each of us. With a final group photo at the end, my section of the evening’s activities was concluded and the band continued with their normal rehearsal schedule. At the end of the rehearsals, Paul called on me to address the kids. I did feel a little put on the spot but I had stood where they stand now and could easily relate. I did my best to provide some genuine, inspirational feedback.

After band rehearsals, it was too late to cook so a fish and chips supper was on the cards. Amazingly, the local fish and chip shop had run out of most things so we had to pick up half there and half at another fish and chip shop elsewhere in the estate.

At the dinner table, it was clear that tiredness and fatigue were setting in and I had to discipline Joey for his behaviour. He – and I for that matter – settled down eventually and calm was restored to the universe. With absolutely nothing left in the tank to do my write-up, I contented myself with just the notes again. I’ve just completed the blog now and we’re now off to London.