The Talk of Pram Town is, at its heart, a book about family, and what that meant in the 70s and 80s, and about the potentially fraught mother-daughter relationship. But it is also a book about a single, special place. The town my father worked in for decades at Gilbey’s behind the giant glass windows and glimmering gin distillery, and where I went to sixth form for two brief, brilliant years.
‘They told us they were building this town for Jack and his master. Well, who wants to live on the boss’s doorstep, I ask you?’ (Laurence Clarke, Harlow joiner, Daily Mirror, 7th January 1955)
Born from the rubble of the second world war, Harlow New Town was conceived in the late 1940s by visionary architect Frederick Gibberd, who seized at the opportunity to ease London overcrowding and create his own socialist utopia in rural Essex: managers and workers living side by side, albeit in two classes of house: Standard One and Standard Two. Front gardens would be outlawed, and kitchens would instead overlook communal pathways, ensuring a sense of community and encouraging conversation. It would be, the architects declared, a ‘New Jerusalem’.
By 1951 the first citizens – almost all young couples – were being bussed in from North East London to their brand new homes in Mark Hall and, later, The Lawn, and the place was quickly dubbed ‘Pram Town’ by the press, for the burgeoning number of mothers – a symbol in itself of hope; of the future. But, by 1955, the daring experiment seemed to be failing when, under the headline ‘Snobland’, the same paper – the Daily Mirror – ran an article revealing that neither workers nor managers appreciated their proximity, while Len White from the Harlow Development Corporation admitted they’d ‘realised just in time it doesn’t work’ and declared that, from then on, they would be adopting a ‘segregation policy’.
But jump forward thirty years and, for this teenager in the mid-1980s, Harlow was a fat, enticing slice of air-dropped America: expansive avenues with numbers instead of names; brash and dank nightclubs on elevated walkways; all the pubs named after butterflies; and everywhere glamour, glamour, glamour. It seemed to me to be everything my Saxon market town was not: modern, multicultural, and with a music venue that hosted actual bands, as well as boasting fellow Essex boy and then cub NME reporter Steve Lamacq among its Saturday night crowd. So, while Jean may have been one of those doubting young mothers, and Connie desperate to run to London, I was as goggle-eyed as Sadie, and am thankful for my two very happy years spent there.
‘We don’t like it. The children are so noisy, rollerskating up and down the street all day. Then there’s the washing hanging out behind the Standard One houses. It isn’t a very nice sight, particularly when some of the washing isn’t even really clean.’ (Harlow manager’s wife, Daily Mirror, 7th January 1955)