Keeping it Weird by Barbara Nadel

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I’ve just moved. From the wilds of the Pennines to a small village in Essex just outside London. It’s a bit of a culture shock as it is, on the surface, a lot more conventional here. Let me explain.

In the wilder reaches of the Pennines people can go a bit ‘Bodmin’. To those unfamiliar with this old Devonian term, which refers to the isolated communities on Bodmin Moor, it means going a bit ‘odd’, slightly ‘off piste’ in terms of what is conventional. This happens in the Pennines too. Those in isolated communities who do their own thing probably rather more than most. I’m all for it. I knew ancient men who rode motor tricycles and boasted about their sexual conquests, a woman who wore curtains and people who lived without electricity, gas or even running water. The people involved in the local guinea pig fancy were beyond description. There’s a book there somewhere which I will mine out one day – probably when I’ve started drinking again or with the aid of morphine.

Here in London/Essex things are far more busy, fashionable, ordinary and sedate. But, as I say, that is on the surface. The first intimation I had that this place was to some extent, keeping it weird, was when I saw an old man at one of the bus stops who was vaguely familiar. He looked just like an old bloke I’ve been seeing for decades in Istanbul. I call him the ‘badge man’ because his ancient suit is covered in badges from all over the world. Whether he’s alone or with his two massive lurcher dogs, he’s a walking advertisement for everywhere from London to Ulan Bator. And he’s always happy. This version wasn’t so much a badge man as an every type of brooch and pin you can imagine chap. And he was wearing feathers in his hat. He too was happy, laughing at nothing anyone else seemed to be able to see. I was encouraged.

Then the other morning, in a burst of fervour to walk about and get fit, I decided to explore the village and see what I could find. I went down to the river side which is where the big, laughably expensive houses are and watched the ducks, swans and other aquatic fowl dive for fish. It is said that smugglers used to operate round here in past and so as well as houses worth millions of pounds there are also some tiny, also very expensive cottages with links to bad men who’d cut your nose off for the price of a finger of gin. So we’re in ‘I have my own yacht moored outside my house’ and ‘heritage’ land. Except, that is, for one bungalow. Built in about 1900 it sits in a large, wild garden, has failed to modernise in any way, has no curtains and is full of stuff. It is inhabited, I saw someone moving about in there, with some difficulty, admittedly. OK it’s probably the house of someone with a hoarding issue, but there was also a touch of the wild frontier spirit about the place that I liked. It’s probably one of those dwellings that was flung up by a Londoner with a bit of cash who bought a plot of land for almost nothing donkeys years ago. That used to be possible. Areas where that happened were called the ‘Plotlands’ and my village is on the far eastern edge of that. As a teenager, when my family moved from London to Essex, I used to often roam about looking at weird little sheds full of chintz furniture and odd hand constructed towers, plonked on the ends of wooden bungalows. The last gasp of the Plotlands. Or not.

Here it was again and I was delighted to see it. What also cheered my heart was the sight of an odd ex-pumping station (or something) which has been turned into some sort of Soviet style bunker-dwelling at the end of a smart cul de sac. There are peculiar little footpaths that, at the moment, lead out into not very much except muddy fields where they fizzle out into massive puddles. Caravans turn up all over the place and shonky sheds in the wilder lanes by the river are rife. I like all this. People are doing their thing and keeping it weird. But for how long in a place where land is so valuable now?

Well if the developers have their way, not very long. A vast new estate is planned for loads of fields currently occupied by horses and a rather dodgy water-table issue. Executive housing for amphibians, clearly. Or not. No it’s Mr Greed coming to a town near you again, building houses on sodden land for his own selfish ends. And that will be a weird in a bad way. When that comes to town, people will look at the weirdness and find it wanting. That’s how gentrification works. You get thousands of new people in and change things.

I think I can feel a horse dung dirty protest coming on…

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