Ironically, despite the wealth of digital ‘fast news’ at our fingertips, there’s never been a better time for true local journalism. Whether you like it or not, with the rise of social media we’ve all become ‘journalists’. It’s true that those with measured opinions get a voice – yet more often those with unverified assertions accumulate the larger audiences.
Unfortunately now, compared to when I was a reporter, there’s a propensity to regurgitate less than favourable news – maybe there’s less positive or worthy news to report on. But whatever the situation is, bad news travels faster and sadly has a longer shelf life. However, negative opinions and attitudes with regard to Harlow are nothing new; only this time they’re sadly coming from within the town rather than surrounding areas.
Before I became a reporter for the Harlow Gazette in 1972, I cut my teeth at the Herts and Essex Observer. Then, Bishop’s Stortford didn’t have the same level of appeal it does now – in truth, it was a little run-down in places. But that didn’t stop my co-workers, who lived there, casting lighthearted aspersions on Harlow. Some referred to it as a police state, putting on phoney Russian accents – as if portraying Harlow as a communist utopia, where everything was laid on for its inhabitants. Others just looked down on the town, speculating that it was populated with East London guttersnipes.
Seeing as I was born in East London, they were comments that were a bit too close to home. Even in recent years some doubt that I, as a professional person, could’ve emerged from Harlow – let alone been educated there.
My parents moved to Harlow in 1951. My father, having left the army, went on a demob training scheme and became a plumber. With work in plentiful supply, and living relatively close by in Walthamstow, he travelled to Harlow daily plying his trade. Eventually he was entitled to a house, which until eight years ago was still in the family.
Despite enjoying all the ‘luxuries’ that Harlow had to offer, I still had fond memories of Walthamstow. Not only did my grandparents still live there, but, for nearly a year, my siblings and I stayed with them during the week and attended school while my mother recovered from an illness. This was a period of time which felt very much like we were leading a double life; albeit without the deception. We’d grown used to life in Harlow – when not with our father at weekends it was like going back in time.
As I approached my teenage years I yearned for the bustle of London – after all, in the mid-60s that was where I, as an impressionable Mod, perceived the epicentre to be. Don’t get me wrong, Harlow had a scene of sorts – but for any self-respecting Mod the latest fashions were imperative, something, alas, Harlow was in no hurry to stock.
Nevertheless, I made do and hung about with the other local Mods, who if not wreaking havoc on the Rockers would instead stir up altercations with the nearby Debden estate. Having said that, I never caused any problems myself – to be honest, I was rather studious. Many a time I would opt to be at home writing short stories or poetry – an early indication to my future career.
After settling down at the Harlow Gazette I remained there for several years, until taking a career break to raise my two children. In the mid-80s, as a newly divorced mother of two, I returned to part-time and eventually full-time employment at the Harlow Star newspaper. In just ten years I noticed a tangible shift in attitude, plus increased levels of discontent within the town.
With the Harlow Development Corporation (HDC) being an impenetrable autocratic organisation, many were pleased to see its demise, believing that a democratic system, with increased representation for individuals, would be more appropriate and beneficial for the town.
However, when the HDC was fully replaced by Harlow District Council some found the transition troublesome. Although the council was trying its best, many felt that, unlike the HDC, the council didn’t appear to have the same impetus (due to a lack of funding) to address issues on the ageing properties and assets that they were now responsible for. The longer tenants’ problems went unresolved, the greater the number of complaints we, as journalists, would receive. Many assumed that seeing their beef in print might encourage the council to pull their finger out! This was fair enough for significant problems – however, our attitude, especially towards trivial requests, altered. If a tenant was berating the council over a ‘wobbly hinge’ we gently suggested that maybe they might have a go at fixing the problem themselves – a concept that was often followed by a deathly silence.
More troubling was the inability to house Harlow’s subsequent generations. However, such expectations weren’t misguided – that was the intended plan. The HDC was originally charged with building a community – without retaining future generations the town would falter.
Therefore, with a lack of housing development and the Right to Buy scheme, it’s not surprising that negativity increased when the ‘lifelong’ approach to housing wasn’t as forthcoming.
Then, during the era of Margaret Thatcher, I did something that I wholeheartedly disproved of – I purchased my council house. I felt a terrible hypocrite, especially now in light of the social housing problems we have – but in my defence I was of the opinion that if someone was going to own and profit from my home it was going to be me.
Harlow has had and will likely always have its critics, but in reality it’s improved the lives for so many – who either through choice or necessity have settled in the town and progressed in life. This is something my parents – both strong Labour supporters – felt very passionately about, which is why, in 1972, my mother was one of the first to hand out supplies at Stansted Airport, when the first mass airlift of expelled Asian citizens arrived from Uganda. However, such actions were nothing out of the ordinary for my mother. As a strong supporter of communities and social justice she’d be the first, even before she became a councillor, to help or lend a sympathetic ear – especially when it came to housing, welfare and education.
Her campaign and successful election in 1971 changed her life, but her newfound devotion to politics happened by chance rather than intention. Initially, it was my father who was encouraged to stand as Labour’s candidate for the old ward of Mark Hall North. He declined, but chivalrously suggested that his wife, my mother, was a far more worthy candidate. She was duly elected and remained a councillor until her death in 1991.
As a well-respected member of the community, it was suggested that a newly completed park in Harlow should be named in her honour – Jean McAlpine Park. Sadly, she never managed to see the park, but shortly after her death we held an informal family ceremony.
I’m incredibly proud of what my mother achieved, but my remaining in Harlow (and having no plans to leave) has nothing to do with her legacy – I’ve developed my own sense of loyalty to and pride in the town. But would I consider becoming a councillor myself? NO! Sitting through many turbulent council meetings as a reporter has put me off for life.