If you grew up on the South Oxhey estate in the post-World War Two years, you may be interested in a staged reading of a new play about the estate at the Watford Palace Theatre early next month.
Nowhere Near London is a dramatised adaptation by former resident John Schad of his documentary novel The Late Walter Benjamin, set in the 1940s and which fuses realism and surrealism to explore both the earliest days of the South Oxhey council estate and the last, tragic days of the German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin.
“Benjamin is a figure who’s always fascinated me,“ explains John, 53, who teaches English literature at the University of Lancaster. “He thinks both religiously and politically because he was both a Jew and a Marxist, he puts the two together and that intrigues me. It took me back to the estate, where my dad was a minister – that’s my memory of politics and religion going together, my dad doing his stuff on the estate.“
John and his family moved to South Oxhey from Swindon in 1965, so his father could take up the position of minister at St Martin’s Presbyterian Church, which is now St Martin’s United Reformed Church, on the estate.
John left in 1982 to go to university, and his parents left when his father took early retirement. His father has since died, and his mother now lives in Bristol.
“I know two families still on the estate,“ says John. He went back when he was researching his novel, which came out in 2012, to interview a number of residents, whose voices made it into the novel, as interweaved excerpts, and now into the play.
The novel also featured extracts about the estate from the Watford Observer.
John had long considered that the book could be adapted into a play, having already transferred one of his earlier books, Someone Called Derrida, to the stage, and began the process about a year ago with fellow former resident Mike Crowley as director.
“Weirdly we didn’t know each other, although we were in the same school year,“ says John. “He went to Warren Dell Primary School and I went to Greenfields Primary School and we just somehow never met.“
They happened to meet when John moved to Lancaster to teach at the university and Mike was writer in residence at Lancaster Farms Prison for young offenders. When they realised they’d both grown up in South Oxhey, the memories flowed.
“We were both obsessed with football,“ John laughs, “and we talked a lot about the woods, we each read them differently – for him they were intriguing and exciting and a great place to hide, but I always thought they were a bit weird, I couldn’t understand what this green stuff was for! They were very happy memories.
“The play couldn’t have been directed by anyone else,“ he continues. “Mike has got South Oxhey even more in his blood because his family were genuine Londoners who were moved there after the war, whereas I’m a bit of a fake, coming in for my dad to work on the estate. Even though I lived there for 17 years!“
If the reading at the Palace goes well, John and Mike would love to turn it into a full theatre production.
“That would be great,“ says John. “We had thought, for this reading, about maybe staging it on the estate itself but that’s not how it panned out this time. But who knows? Maybe one day in the future we’ll be able to put on a full theatre production there.“