Paul Embery

Today’s The Banjo Book Two Guest Interview is with a man who has Dagenham written right the way through him.  Firefighter, trade unionist, @Unherd columnist and newspaper reviewer for Sky News – Paul Embery.  I have been one of Paul’s fifty-three thousand plus Twitter followers for a considerable time and I always look forward to reading his thought-provoking, sometimes provocative views so I am delighted he’s taken the time to talk to me – to us – today.

ES: Paul, your Twitter header says you’re “Made in Dagenham”. Please can you explain your connection to the place?

PE: I was born in Barking Hospital and grew up in Dagenham on the Becontree Estate – Goresbrook Road, to be precise. I was a fourth-generation resident of the estate. Both sets of my grandparents and one set of great-grandparents moved there in the 1930s from the East End. The estate was built to accommodate East End families who were displaced by slum clearances. I went to Monteagle Primary School and Bishop Ward (now All Saints) Secondary School. My parents grew up a couple of hundred yards from each other, my mum in Markyate Road and my dad in Lillechurch Road and later Marlborough Road. They were in the same class at Dorothy Barley primary school.

ES: How do you think the rest of the country sees Dagenham? And how far do you think that view is true?

PE: I guess those who know anything about Dagenham think of it as a typical blue-collar working-class area in that sort of ill-defined piece of land falling between East London and Essex. That image is still true to a degree, though an awful lot has changed in Dagenham in the past twenty years. Many people will know of Dagenham as the home of the Ford Motor Plant (not that there is much left of it), and I imagine that the film ‘Made in Dagenham’, which centred on the Ford women machinists, has given the place a bit of a global profile. Some people, I am sure, will have heard of the Dagenham Girl Pipers, who achieved a degree of international recognition.

ES: Tell us something about Dagenham you don’t think many people are aware of.

PE: Sir Alf Ramsey, the England manager when we won the World Cup in 1966, was born in Dagenham when it was still a village, before the days of the Becontree Estate.

ES: Did you know that the term Banjo is peculiar to Dagenham? Have you or anyone you know ever lived in one?

PE: I had no idea the term banjo was unique to Dagenham until I was in my thirties! I just assumed that it was in common usage throughout the country. I never lived in one, but I had plenty of friends who did.

ES: What are your fondest memories of Dagenham?

PE: We lived opposite a huge field in Goresbrook Road. It was great because my brother and I were into football and cricket in a big way, and we spent hours and hours playing on that field. It was quite odd looking back, because the field was rarely ever used – not for any official purpose at least! It was just a huge expanse of green, regularly mowed and well-maintained, and surrounded by a sort of plastic mesh fence (we would nip through a hole in this fence to access the field). It was almost like having a front garden the size of 10 football pitches! The field is now part of Barking Rugby Club.

I played football for Dagenham United, which is arguably the most prominent junior club in the area. I also represented the Borough of Barking and Dagenham at football and cricket. Both sets of grandparents lived just the other side of Becontree Tube Station, so we were regular visitors to their homes. I really enjoyed my primary and secondary school days. Cycling around the streets on my Grifter bike. Lots of good memories.

I moved away in 2009, after living there for the best part of 35 years. When I was a kid, Dagenham seemed the centre of the world. I wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else. The houses on the Becontree estate were well-built – much superior to the shoeboxes that are erected these days – and have stood the test of time. I don’t wish to unduly romanticise the place, but there was a distinct community spirit, which I think was the legacy of the people who moved there from the East End. I knew all of the neighbours along my street. There was a real sense of cultural attachment. People had a lot in common. There was an air of familiarity and belonging about the place. When someone died, neighbours would hold a collection, and then the deceased’s loved ones would erect a notice on a wooden post in the front garden giving thanks for the condolences and flowers. I imagine that happened in other places, too. These are small things, but they demonstrated the degree of social solidarity. But you just don’t see that type of thing now.

ES: Dagenham has undergone huge change in the last 20-30 years.  What do you think are the underlying reasons for these changes?  Are they changes for the better?

There has been huge cultural and demographic change in Dagenham over the past couple of decades. Has it been a good thing? Bluntly, no. It has caused fragmentation and atomisation on a large scale. Change is always inevitable, but it has to be done at a pace that people are comfortable with. In Barking and Dagenham, the sheer pace of change caused a great deal of unease and disorientation. The anxieties of local people were dismissed as racism, but it was no such thing. People were uncomfortable at the fact that everything they had known and were familiar with was suddenly altering before their eyes. Their sense of order was violated. Barking and Dagenham was a guinea pig in a social experiment. The experiment failed. That’s why the BNP became such a presence there. The tragedy is that things didn’t have to be that way. If the change had occurred at a sensible pace, the people of Barking and Dagenham would have tolerated it. Of course, you have to factor in other things, such as deindustrialisation, which can cause a sense of displacement and loss. But the social and cultural changes in Barking and Dagenham were what really caused the upheaval and turmoil. I explore some of these themes in my upcoming book – Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class –  which focuses heavily on what happened in Barking and Dagenham.  

ES: And I for one can’t wait to read that! How would you like to see Dagenham ten years from now?

PE: As a community far more at ease with itself than it has been for past twenty years.

ES: And now, the two most divisive questions of the whole interview…  For you is it fish and chips or pie and mash?

PE: Fish and chips. Ideally from the ‘Golden Fish’ at Beacontree Heath.

ES: And is it Dagenham Essex or Dagenham East London?

PE: Ah, the million dollar question. Coincidentally, I was having this conversation with my mum a couple of weeks ago. For her, it will always be ‘Dagenham, Essex’, but for me it’s ‘Dagenham, East London’. It’s a generational thing. I think I’m correct in saying that Dagenham was formerly part of Essex until 1965, when it was swallowed up by the Greater London conurbation and became a ‘London Borough’. So that seems to be the dividing point.

Great interview, thanks so much, Paul. 

Here is the link to Paul’s book:

If you want to follow Paul his Twitter handle is @PaulEmbery

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