Labour MP Alan Johnson lived on the Britwell from 1969 to 1987 working as a postman. With his kind permission I am pleased to include some extracts from his book Please, Mister Postman in which he describes his and his family’s first experiences upon moving to the Britwell in 1969. Incidentally, I believe ‘the council’ that Alan refers to would be the Greater London Council who owned the Britwell Estate at the time.
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‘We had received a letter from the council telling us that our house in Notting Hill was being compulsory purchased to be demolished. As my wife Judy and I had been the housing list for less than a year we would be given one offer, take it or leave it.
For us there was absolutely no prospect of being able to raise a deposit to buy a house, let alone meet mortgage repayments.
On a sunny June day in 1969 Judy and I were outside the station in Slough, Buckinghamshire. In my hand was a letter from London County Council offering us a council house on the Britwell estate, Slough.
‘Excuse me. Do you know how to the Britwell estate?’
The two Thames Valley policemen to whom my question was addressed were chatting beside their pale blue Ford Anglia. They looked at each other knowingly.
‘Do we know how to get to the Britwell?’ one of them said. ‘We should do, we go there often enough.’
The other one asked Judy why we were going there. Judy told him. ‘Well, I wouldn’t live there for all the tea in China’ was his helpful advice.
As we approached the estate, Judy nudged me to draw my attention to the view from the bus window: a community centre flanked by football pitches. On a long low brick wall at the back was painted, in huge letters, ‘Keep Britwell white’.
The house had two bedrooms with gardens front and back. The windows were boarded up to deter vandals and the grass was unkempt and over grown. Inside there was a long downstairs room running the width of the house, a snug kitchen, the bedrooms and a loft.
My mother had spent her entire adult life on the council waiting list, bringing up her children in barely habitable, multi-occupied slums. Her dream had been to have her own front door to a house like this. She had died, aged 42, still waiting. Now here we were, Judy and me, at the beginning of our married lives, with the chance to move straight into this solid, modern, well-appointed house. It was a chance we grasped with delight. We had no hesitation in accepting the one lifeline we had been given by the council. We would make the Britwell estate our home.’
‘My plan was to try to transfer with the Post Office. When I rang the Slough sorting office to inquire about vacancies, the guy I spoke to almost burst out laughing. They had more vacancies, apparently, than almost any other office in London and the south-east. When would I care to start?
Jobs were plentiful in Slough owing to the town’s thriving economy, which dated back to the 1920s, when the enormous trading estate was built on the site of a First World War vehicle depot. It was not only the first business park in Europe but, at almost 500 acres, remains the biggest to this day.
It was the impact on the town of this inter-war munitions dump that prompted John Betjeman’s infamous 1937 poem:
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!
Although Betjeman’s intention was to lament industrialization and the blighting of England’s landscape in general, rather than Slough in particular, the mud has stuck, much to the continuing disgust of the townspeople. If Judy or I had read this before accepting the house on the Britwell, we might have thought twice about it. By the time we did read the poem I was able to appreciate it while disagreeing strongly with its specific reference to the town we were happy to call home. Having been born in a street that literally ‘wasn’t fit for humans’, I knew the difference between a place that was and one that wasn’t.’
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Note for clarification: Alan Johnson was born in Paddington. The website author’s own review of Betjeman’s poem is expressed on the Slough Introduction page.
The author of this website has also been a postman for a short time, albeit as a contractor and in a very different era, in 2009
Returning to Alan Johnson’s book, the next extract is just a few paragraphs further on from the previous and describes the moving in day. The ‘four of us’ refers to Alan, his wife Judy and their two little girls Natalie and Emma:
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‘On a glorious summer’s day, the four of us squeezed on to the bench seat next to the removal man, winding down the window to breathe in the warm air. The van drove along the Great West Road, past the glory of the Hoover Building, out beyond what we call London Airport and towards the rolling Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire. The A4 cuts straight through Slough High Street, lorries and vans dispersing shoppers who hurried across the main road, seeking sanctuary on the pavement as the traffic roared past.
When we arrived at our new home the van bumped up over the kerb of Long Furlong Drive on to the little green around which ten houses were nestled. The neighbours who had cars used the green as a convenient parking place so our removal man did the same, churning up the brown dust that was all that was left of the grass.
The council had assured us that the house would be ready but we found it still boarded up, with huge sheets of plywood bolted into the brick on either side of the windows to discourage vandals. It was already midday. One of our new neighbours told us that the council offices in Wentworth Avenue, five minutes’ walk away, would be open for another hour.
On my way to notify the council of our arrival I remembered the reaction of those two policemen who’d directed us here on our first visit to Slough. Walking the unfamiliar streets of Britwell, I tried to assess the level of danger; to sense, as I had as a kid in North Kensington, the trouble spots, the streets it was wiser to avoid. Nothing registered on my Richter scale. It felt like a peaceful village on a summer’s afternoon. Children played in the pleasant streets, men washed cars, women tended their front gardens or walked back from the Wentworth Avenue shops struggling with bags of groceries. The Britwell seemed to me to be more Arcadian than anarchic.
The council workmen came at about four o’clock to let in the light. The dismantling of the boards felt like a fitting relaunch of our lives; the sun flooding in a grand opening for our little house. As the long summer’s day began to fade, with Natalie and Emma asleep in their own room for the first time, Judy and I stood at the back door surveying the first garden either of us had ever had. We both felt disorientated but elated too. Perhaps the policemen who’d warned us off the Britwell had been locals dismayed by the influx of London council tenants on to their local patch. Whatever their reasons, they had been wrong. This was a Saturday night and yet there was silence except for the sound of television programmes filtering through the open windows of the houses that backed on to ours. We listened, like two anthropologists, to the comforting sounds of domesticity.’
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This abridged account was extracted with Alan Johnson’s kind permission from his book Please, Mister Postman published by Bantam Press, 2014.
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