Home Page End of an era points up how quickly the town changes 27/07/12

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

When people bemoan the slow speed of change in Haverhill, it very often reflects their own views and interests rather than the actual truth.


Ex-pats – those Haverhill-bred wanderers who now live in far-flung parts of the old empire – are always shocked when they visit at how much the town has changed. We, who live in it, are less aware.


But there are events which, historically, make change move more quickly. One is war which, thankfully, we don’t have to suffer directly in this quiet corner of Suffolk.


Another is the changing economy, and we see that reflected in Haverhill all the time. In the good times, things can start to shift, although it may take a while to overcome the initial inertia. We saw this with Tesco, Cineworld and the associated developments.


These were things which, ironically, actually became reality in Haverhill after the global economic crash struck, and have probably helped to shield the town from the immediate effects of it. But they were planned and agreed in the days before the crash.


Now we are in the depths of recession, very little new of significance is likely to be planned because no one’s got any money to spare. The research park has been in gestation for several years and that will, hopefully, deliver in time. Haverhill Hamlet may soon see redevelopment and, again, the site has been identified for years. But completely new ideas? They will be few for some years.


However, a different sort of change comes in the wake of economic difficulty, and that takes the form of closures and redundant buildings. Haverhill has done well for the past four years to minimise these, but they are around us now. The Co-op is still empty. Pubs have gone. And now the Echo itself will be closing its office in Queen’s Square.


In days gone by, people might have passed remark about the contemporaneous closure of pubs and the Echo office. But no more. The world has changed.


On a Monday morning in April 1976 – a warm prelude to an even hotter summer – I arrived, shy and ignorant, at the Old Corn Exchange (now Saffron Brokers) in Haverhill High Street. I was shown to a desk with a typewriter and a telephone, the two fundamental prerequisites of journalism in those days, and given things to write which, four days later, appeared in print.


I knew nothing about reporting and very little about Haverhill, having been to school in Cambridge and then lived in London for three years.


The reporters’ room – the little one right next to Gurteen’s gateway – opened directly onto the street, and during the morning I was interested to see an array of different people pop their heads in and say hello, or even come in and chat for five or ten minutes with the then news editor, Jim Healey.

Much of the community passed before my eyes over a period of three or four hours – police, sportspeople, shopkeepers, business people, councillors, church leaders, pub landlords, firemen, farmers, and then, later in the day teachers and even schoolchildren.


Most had no particular reason for dropping by except to say hello, although some brought in reports they had written about some activity or other, and a few came to complain or want a story written about some hardship or other.


Many other people rang up, often with information (sometimes anonymous, particularly in that era of lightning strikes at the HMP meat factory, or other large employers on the industrial estate), and after a while I, too, got to know who all these people were.


On Wednesday morning I went round to the court in Haverhill and began to learn about the local villains, about the numerous ways motorists can be penalised, and about the licensing laws.


By Wednesday afternoon, when the paper had ‘gone to bed’ and we all adjourned to the Bell, I knew quite a lot of people, and quite a lot about Haverhill, and even a little bit about journalism.


And, best of all, it was fun. The newspaper knew its place in the community and the community knew its newspaper, even if it did like to make fun of any mistakes (and there are always mistakes in newspapers). Haverhill people have always been a friendly crowd and within a few days I had joined them.


It is, of course, pointless to compare that long-lost era with the present day. It had its difficult times as well, and the rose-tinted specs cannot disguise them. Later that year the Echo would have closed down altogether if it had not been bought by a large publishing group.


At the time that seemed a good thing and, to a large degree, it was but the seeds of trouble were sown then and have been reaped ever since with the profit motive leading to a continuing and apparently inevitable distancing and weakening of those ties, despite the best efforts of everyone who worked there and, I am sure, those who still do.


Newspapers have had a horrid time in the past two or three decades and no one really knows what their future will be. The Internet has also been taking over irresistibly and, despite the best efforts of Mr Murdoch, it is still virtually ‘free’ of access, and so massively competitive and hard to monetarise.


People who produce newspapers seem to be joining blacksmiths, printers and coalminers on the long road to niche working or career changes. Heigh-ho.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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