Thursday, July 25, 2024

Becky’s Blog: Happiness in Thurrock, Papa Lazarou and Dinosaur Jnr….

By Becky Shepherd

LAST month, the media (The Guardian, The Daily Mail etc) were quick to report news that Thurrock had scored lowest in the Government’s wellbeing survey, giving it the title of Most Miserable Place in the country to live. Thurrock is my hometown and I, along with a lot of my friends and neighbours, were angered by the coverage, which was extremely unflattering. Since then, there has been a lot of really lovely counter pieces in praise of Thurrock. But I’ve written the culprits a little response of my own. Here it goes…

Hello Offending Journalists,

When I moved to Thurrock as a kid, I quickly heard about ‘The Hospital’. Essex County Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1853, about four miles away from my house. Built in red and black bricks with claustrophobic windows and octagonal towers, the hospital was a homage to medieval architecture, towering over the country lanes of Warley from a giant hill in all its terrifying glory. The asylum housed patients indefinitely for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Legend has it that the authorities had an underground tunnel made from the local railway station to Warley hill, for discreet access. This tunnel was useable right up until 1990, by which point many of the patients at the newly named Warley Hopsital weren’t even mentally ill, most were recuperating from a breakdown of some sort. But locals maintain that in the decades gone by the underground tunnel was also an escape route for patients who managed to flee the hospital. Those who escaped would exit the tunnel and the first livable place they’d find was Thurrock – where there was a small but thriving community and ample opportunity for jobs at the docks or extracting chalk for the various cement industries that were knocking about then. The story goes that by the turn of the twentieth century, so many had managed to break out of the asylum that the authorities stopped coming to look for them; after generations of escapees settling and having children in the area, it got too hard to determine who was a patient and who was a resident.

Now, the fruit and veg man at Ockendon Market swears blind that all of the above is “as true as I’m standing ‘ere”. Not being one who’d wish to discredit someone who sells the best apples you’ll ever taste, I won’t pass comment on the legitimacy of his story. What I will say is that his story undeniably proves two things – firstly, that you can’t abridge the entire history of an aging town over a sausage roll. But more importantly, that folk from my neck of the woods have a wicked sense of humour.

All children hate their hometowns. It’s part of growing up. You’re not allowed outside of the safety parametres your parents set for you, which in my case was a small stretch between Hangman’s Park and The Little Shops. You’re desperate to explore. Desperate to go somewhere you haven’t wandered a thousand times with your friends. Maybe you push the boundaries a little bit. Maybe you go into the woods behind the park (sorry, Mum) or you ride your bike really fast, heart racing, and you zoom past The Little Shops and even past Christy’s house, whose road you’re not even sure the name of. But once you’re certain you won’t get caught and you frequent all those nooks and crannies you’re not supposed to go to, you get bored. You know it all as well as the spotty landscape of your own chin. I was no different. I hated my house, my town, the neighbouring town my school was in. It was all so dull, every day the same. I was positive that one day, I’d pack up my lip-smacker and my Dinosaur Jr CDs, leave and never look back.

I got older. And life wasn’t as easy as I always assumed it would be. I went to places, I lived away. Stuff happened, not all of it good. So I ended up back in the house that I’d cursed every day of my adolescence, sat in my purple bedroom listening to my music too loudly and feeling, for a short while, that I’d gone full circle.

It was then I realised how much my bedroom meant to me. My home. My town. I felt comforted, safe in the knowledge that I could probably shout out of my window and one of my friends would hear me. The suffocating familiarity wasn’t suffocating anymore. It was comforting. My relationship with Thurrock received a new lease of life. I was, for the first time, really glad to be here.

I arrived at Carnach Green in 1997, the year when Things Could Only Get Better. Since then, things have got worse. But you didn’t try to offer any explanation for why in fact we might be so unhappy. Homelessness has increased by 153% in the last year, there’s a statistic you could have used.

You didn’t mention any success stories either. Most of my friends went onto University. Those who did and didn’t, have done a whole catalogue of weird and wonderful things with their lives. We’re not all neanderthals. Even the local vagrant carries a bag for life. And maybe if you’d ventured further than the JobCentrePlus, you’d have met someone a little cheerier. Instead, it was easier to mock us. To point a patronising finger at the misery guts living in the biggest “cesspit” in Britain. Get your cronies to approach people who’ve just signed on anywhere in the country and you’ll get the same skewered opinion of their constituencies too.

Thurrock is 60% green belt land. Did you know that? There’s playgrounds everywhere. Country parks, nature reserves, fields, grass, open space. I wish I’d appreciated how lucky I was to have that space to roam. Now, when I go out with my friend’s children or I take a walk on my own, I remember running alongside the footpaths, through the nettles and thorns, screaming and laughing.

I make jokes about where I live. A lot. My longtime favourite is the time I swore I saw Papa Lazarou driving the 22 bus, coupled with a (bad) impression that goes something like “you’ll be my passenger now, Daaave”. I can get away with that kind of crap, I know everyone. But you really have no right to judge. Judgement remains for those who live here and really understand the problems and hardship that some of our residents face.

It’s taken me weeks to write my response. When I sat down to write it the day I read all of your comments, I felt like I had to come up with something epic. A flawless testimony that validates not only my objection to what you said about us, but my repulsion at the way you approached your articles. But that’s not the case. What you did was wrong, whether what you said had any truth in it or not. You know that, I know that.

I think you should pop back. Don’t worry, there’s no hard feelings. I’ll even put on a guided tour. Then we’ll see who’s laughing.

Yours Sincerely,

Becky Shepherd

Originally posted in the THE INDIE PEDANT
…an online magazine for independently pedantic people!


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