The Banjo Book Two comes out in just a week’s time and it’s all getting rather exciting! To celebrate I am going to post a series of guest interviews I did with prominent Dagenham people who share their memories and thoughts about the place that’s dear to all our hearts.
My first guest is the Danny Fenn, the Boleyn Poet who first of all tells us a bit about himself and then talk with great fondness about Dagenham.
I have been writing poems and songs for a number of years and tend to put them on Facebook as I have a small following there who like what I do. I consider my verse to be more street orientated than regular poetry. I have scribbled down a number of poems about Dagenham mentioning streets and local landmarks etc which tend to resonate with people who have lived in the area. But my main following tends to be on West Ham Football Club pages hence the name The Boleyn Poet, which I carry with pride. This was given to me and it has stuck and I always sign off a verse with the title as it stops pilfering and plagiarism. I was recognised by someone in Spain who asked, “Ain’t you that poet fella?” Ah! Fame! Before the lockdown I had the ultimate accolade as I was asked by one of my heroes an ex West Ham player who does “An Evening With” events alongside other ex players to be their interval act, reading football poetry. But as the majority of these events are at night and due to a very heavy course of chemotherapy last year I tend to get very tired as the day wears on and then lockdown put a stop to everything. But this is my aim when the world gets back to normal to stand alongside my heroes and also to have a book of verse published.
But, one positive from lockdown – I won the Pen to Print Lockdown Poetry Competition with my poem After the Storm. I was really chuffed. Besides winning a Kindle, I will also also be performing it at the One Borough One Love Festival and at Readfest. It will also be published in the online magazine Write On.
Many thanks, Elaine, for giving me this opportunity to give my views on Dagenham the place that I have the privilege to call home. I have strong links to the area as I have gone in a circle round the place from growing up near the Heathway, then moving to the flats that were commonly referred to as Lego Land, then to a house near Martin’s Corner/Five Elms and since 2003 back near the Heathway again. My late mum Winnie was a very well known Dagenham character. I often jokingly say she was the only person who could walk in virtually any shop in the Borough and be given whatever she wanted by store managers as they all knew she was always auctioning items for local charities. At her funeral the Borough Standard was raised at the crematorium in her honour which I feel was a lovely accolade for a Dagenham stalwart who was the daughter of a Russian immigrant and like many others made this little patch her home.
Sadly I feel others around the country view Dagenham in a bad light due to often totally inaccurate and false news items. I’ve also seen it in the 10 worst places to live in the country, which I find an insult and utterly ridiculous. With hand on heart I can say I’ve never felt unsafe walking the streets of Dagenham even at night. I do know a lot of people and my partner is always commenting on how I seem to end up chatting to everyone and I will just say, “That’s so and so they grew up in such and such part of Dagenham and went to Robert Clack / Eastbrook /Manor then list off a dozen schools.” My wife, Angie, is from Plaistow and thinks this area is like a maze and still struggles to find her way round our streets and alleys, but I know she loves it here also. I often read comments on social media of people running the area down but I will always fight the corner for us Daggenites. Home is where the heart is and for me it’s right here.
During the lockdown Angie and myself like many others have been going for daily walks and I have shown her some places that she has fallen in love with all within a short walk of our doorstep. There are so many beautiful open spaces with lakes and wildlife like Eastbrook Country Park where you can an wander for hours; Western Avenue, just 2 minutes from Dagenham East as is the Beam. Then we have Parsloes Park, Valance Park and Central Park. I remember being told when I was young that the area was referred to as Corn Beef City due to the fact that all the houses looked like corn beef tins. It was only when I was older I found it was down to the fact that it was thought that it was all the locals could afford to eat!
I love Dagenham due to the fact it has a touch of just about everything. We are on the outskirts of London – about 11 miles from the Tower of London as I remember. We used to do a sponsored walk each year from Eastbrook School to the Tower which sadly is now a thing of the past but it gave us a lot of fun and raised quite a bit of money for good causes.
I think there are several things about Dagenham that people might be surprised to find out. The first thing concerns Sir Alf Ramsey who was England football manager when West Ham, I mean England, won the world Cup in 1966. (Sorry I had to get that in!) Now, Sir Alf was born In Halbutt Street just off the Heathway, although to listen to him speak you would never know he was a local lad as he had elocution lessons in order to rid himself of the Dagenham twang.
The Church Elm pub which was my local for a number of years was at one point in the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest bar I think in Europe.
And we also had our own, world famous pipe band – The Dagenham Girl Pipers. They travelled the world and were often on TV in top programmes such as the Morecambe and Wise Show. The Pipers also toured Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War II and it’s rumoured that Hitler said he wished he had a band like that! (I’m not altogether sure that’s a positive thing!)
About your new book, Elaine, The Banjo Book Two, I did know that the term for a banjo was peculiar to this area as my Angie used to look at me like I was mad when I referred to it. She would say, “Its a cul-de-sac.” I would then ask a random person, “What do we call that?” and the instant answer would be, “It’s a banjo.” She now begrudgingly refers to it herself in that way as I’ve pointed out her uncle who lives not far from us lives in one himself. I also refer to a banjo in a couple of my poems about the area. I lived on the corner of a banjo myself for several years and my children were born in the house both were home births. A banjo definitely creates a little town within itself as you all tend to look out for each other.
My fondest memories of the area are many and I’m sure each day different sights and sounds would remind me of different things. Where I grew up along Reede Road we had a timber yard behind us so every morning I woke up to the sound of saws and the lovely smell of sawn timber. And next to the yard was a large area commonly known as “the Dump”. It was just long grass and weeds but to us kids it was our playground. And I fondly recall each October we would all start collecting wood for the bonfire in preparation for Guy Fawkes night. We would build a huge bonfire and about a week before all the parents would chip in whatever they could afford and huge boxes of fireworks would be bought for the big night. I also remember standing in my back garden in the mid 70s and I would hear the boats hooting and honking on the Thames it was quite a haunting sound but you don’t seem to hear that now.
What I miss most about Dagenham now are the local pubs which were a huge part of the community. So many have gone. They were a focal hub to go and have a chat and laugh with friends old and new. You would get some real characters in there. I recall a grand old lady by the name of Nancy who would come down the Church Elm every day and sit with our crowd who were late teens early 20s. She was in her early 90s but she was part of our crowd. She would have a brandy then burst into song and each time I walked into the bar she would burst out singing Oh Danny Boy.
I think the changes the area has undergone are all part and parcel of a changing world. People have always moved as I say my nan was Russian and came here to escape persecution during the Russian Revolution so people making Dagenham their home is nothing new. The place changes but mainly for the good in my opinion.
I try to see the positive in change rather than look for the negative. We have a wide variety of shops now and some, like Woolworths, have sadly bitten the dust. But that’s happened all over not just here. I understand some people are apprehensive of what they don’t know and are maybe wary of going into an Eastern European or African shop but once they try it and realise it is just a shop for customers like any other they accept it and adapt.
I have very fond memories of the Dagenham Town Show. Along with the Carnival it was the town’s yearly highlight. As a nipper I would eagerly wait on the top of Heathway Hill, balloon in one hand and clasping my mum’s hand with the other, watching the floats go by. The majorettes would be twirling, the clowns would be doing their stuff and it was a magical occasion. Then we’d go over to Central Park for the Town Show itself where you could spend the whole day and still not visit every tent. The main arena in the middle would be packed and we would watch the stunt riders etc. Great, great days. Then as I got older I would spend the two days over the town show with my friends making the most of the beer tent. I would love to see the Town Show return and I’m sure many others definitely would.
Looking to the future, in ten years from now I would like to see Dagenham thriving for all. And I’d like it to be a cleaner place. My main bug bear is litter. There’s just no excuse for it. We all need to take some responsibility for what we do and set examples to others. I’d also love to see Dagenham and Redbridge Football Club climb the professional leagues and put us back on the map. I’d love to see the Mall Shopping Centre doing well as I know the people who run it as well as a number of the security guards and they all work tirelessly to keep the place ticking over though it is under enormous pressure from bigger shopping precincts elsewhere. We have Lakeside Romford and Westfield all within a short bus or train ride away.
Now, you asked me if I’m a Fish and Chips or Pie and Mash Man. Being honest – and I’ll say it quietly – I’m not a lover of either. I prefer fish without the batter and though I will occasionally eat pie and mash I’d prefer a chicken kebab. Being a huge West Ham fan pie and mash is very much a tradition for the fans and considered a must have. Two and Two! My Angie loves it but as I say I will on occasion indulge so if I had to choose, I’m Pie and Mash Man.
Even more divisive than fish and chips or pie and mash is whether Dagenham is in Essex or East London? Being truthful I’ve always referred to it as Essex but I use the East London as a reference when on holidays abroad for example. People know London more than Essex. Also if we look at The Only Way is Essex then Dagenham is definitely much more East London than how Essex is defined on that programme. Although the postcode hasn’t changed we are now known as a London Borough and much debate is still had whether we are one or the other. For me it’s still Essex but what’s in a name?All in all I’m an Essex boy with a touch of East London thrown In but at the heart of it I’m a Dagenham boy.
You can follow Danny Fenn the Boleyn Poet on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/danny.fenn.10
The Banjo Book Two can be pre-ordered: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Banjo-Book-Two-Elaine-Spires-ebook/dp/B08CDVT7BQ/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Elaine+Spires&qid=1597159437&s=digital-text&sr=1-2