Act! A Poem for Basildon
Looking from the window above, like a story of love. Can you hear me?
— Yazoo, Only You. 1982
I'm lonely here. There are no poets here. Oh yes, one or two. There's always one or two but, mostly only makers of money.
— Arnold Wesker, Beorhtel’s Hill. A play for Basildon. 1989
We were the great experiment. The babies born wild into this new Jerusalem.
Our blameless, fucked up parents dragged onto fast tracked conveyor belts -
delivering us all screaming in bloodied raged beauty. Our birthmarks exposed.
The town planners, in celebratory shock, coughed bile from cheap tipped cigarette
fumes, got pissed blind on tepid Watney’s Party 7 whilst snapping Harold Wilson’s
pipe and singing ’World Cup Willie’. Here was their fortune. Here was our future made.
This was Basildon. A strangeloved Formica futurist Essex delta dream paved
with pearly lined, brutalist estates and never-ending pursuits of Green Shield stamps.
Our East Ended mums and dads arriving on promises of indoor toilets and hope.
Of working hard in the new factories, shopping centres and breeze blocked building
sites, forever gazing back at a beloved estuary. Out of time now and out of reach.
For now, there were new names for them to conjure: Craylands, Pitsea, Alcatraz.
In pushchairs we were trundled along as if prizes in a town centre parade. The shops,
the fountain. Sharp light, dull talk. Cold, hot, fog. A clock like a billiard ball ticking
as if chance was running slow and out already, compressing the wins, the losses.
We’d have rubber sandwiches in cafes that played chirpy cheap beautiful pop music.
In the aisles of Sainsbury’s, Timothy Whites and the cut price mince merchants
of the shouting market, we’d always be looking and listening. The early notes.
In school we coloured in castles, staged wars in playgrounds. Failed at kiss chase.
Sometimes we’d go to the seaside. Cockles, muscles and cut glass on the shore.
We never saw a black boy or girl, except Cassius Clay or Diana Ross on the telly.
When two arrived in the classroom, we played with them as if they were toys.
They never came to our birthday parties; we’d never see them on a Saturday morning.
Confused to the reasons we made enquiries, got clipped ears when asking for more.
Elsewhere, on the other side, beyond the refinery, in the garden parties
of a confidant older England, Mick Jagger sang of untidy Kentish wives with
19 nervous breakdowns and clutched blister packs of mother’s little helpers.
And in Liverpool, another estuary. The Beatles swooned triumphant of love
and a diamond encrusted Lucy’s murmuration into a Mersey dockland sky.
Here, in this Basildon, we could not even hold a tune. Not yet. Not for a while.
The trains stopped at our town in 1974. Our new station was like Cape Canaveral.
Tickets to London, a journey to Mars or Jupiter. Petticoat Lane and Upton Park.
In 1976 the roads melted. We wrote our names in the tarmac, squinted in sweat
as we learned wood and metal, how to bake a cake, stitch and sew into our tomorrows.
In Raquel’s discotheque dancing to Travolta, kissing under the palm tree. A girl pregnant.
There were holidays to Benidorm. The bullfighting posters on our walls. A ballet of death.
We were happy in parts. Our town immune and tranquilized. A glass, concrete peace.
On the telly again, young men with bad teeth told a goading presenter to “Fuck Off!”.
Questions in the House of Commons about bringing back the birch and National Service.
In our houses we went to our bedrooms. John Peel and anarchy giving us enough rope
to became NF, Soulboys or Punks. Creation quickening inside us. Finally, the song to sing.
Then came “Where there is discourse may we bring harmony.” The chrysalis cracked.
Outside of here, there was a war, unemployment, strikes and riots. But they loved her.
In Basildon, her trick was to divide and rule. Buy your home, be better than your neighbour.
Our parents became competitive and mean. A hurricane blew hate and our houses down.
We acted in plays, formed bands in our kitchens, brought keyboards from toy shops.
We signed on the dole, wore long coats, ate beans on toast in front of Top of the Pops
as one of our own gazed from the screen. If they can do this, then why can’t we?
The town began to fold in. A plastic Barclay carded Royal Flush busted to debt in the shops,
satellite TV and laminated flooring. Us, the artists were viewed with suspicion, a luxury carpet only we rolled on. No one invited us to our theatre, our library. A place in the world. Other popstars came here. The kids waiting twice around the block, singing their hits. We got drunk on disappointment in the pubs. Ecstasy came and a young girl died of thirst. Our own Top of the Pops band became the biggest in the world. They never spoke of us.
Some of us left for London, some headed north, south and west. Some put down their pens
and synthesisers. They gave up their good. Disappointment is the greatest heartbreak of all.
A few fought. A resistance against the power of disinterest. A puppeteer here, a poet there.
These were the troubadours that time forgot, but time did not care about their feelings.
Basildon. The future has faded like a record, the needle popping and jumping as if a message. The tribute bands rule, the shops are boarded up, heads are down. But the story must go on.
Artists of Basildon! It’s innate to create. If no one is going to gift you, then you must gift yourself. Grab your purpose, fight for it with absolute love. Act now, not tomorrow!
We, the ones who came before demand this from you. We lived in this town and perhaps still. So paint, sing, write, dance, bang that drum in the estates, the streets, the pubs and shops. Take clay, mould it with truth, bake it hard until unbreakable. Cement a future new. Deliver your screaming bloodied raged beauty. Hand it on and on. Reach out and touch faith!