On the morning of 24 June 2016, the train from London Liverpool Street to Romford carried some unusual commuters on its 15-minute journey.
The nation had made a seismic decision its media had not anticipated. Reaction was needed, and fast. But the nation’s notepad wielders and furry microphone pointers were, for the most part, marooned in the middle of the London island of Remain. Those “Brexit heartlands” where all through the night people from another planet had erupted in loud delight as the shocking results rolled in – they were all very, very far away.
With one exception. In the buildup to the EU referendum, the historic market town of Romford had been regularly profiled as one of the “most Eurosceptic towns in Britain”. And it had proved so. The London Borough of Havering, of which Romford is the major town, had voted 70 per cent to leave the EU.
By noon, tired and shellshocked TV crews were wandering up and down Romford market, a path more regularly trodden by the town’s local MP Andrew Rosindell, an ardent Brexiteer who takes his bulldog canvassing with him, dressed in a Union Jack waistcoat.
One stallholder told the BBC it was “Great. Terrific. I’m pleased we’re out. I don’t regret it one bit.”
A pair of near euphoric elderly ladies told the same reporter they had voted leave because, “We remember the old days.”
That was 21 months ago now. And in precisely 12 months more that decision will have been made real.
It is neither patronising, nor condescending or anything else to say the country knows a lot more about the issues at stake now than it did then. It has talked about virtually nothing else for two full years.
But the anecdotal evidence would suggest the unending Brexit debate has not changed Romford’s mind.
“I’m bored of it. I’m bored, bored, bored of it.” That’s the executive summary of Matt Sims, a cabling contractor hurrying past the Primark in Romford market on Wednesday of last week. For his own boredom, he does acknowledge he is partially responsible. And he is honest about his reasons too.
“I did vote for it yeah. But it’s been going on forever now. I’ve had enough of it.
“People round here, they’ve seen it change so much, and they’re not happy about it. I’ve got nothing personal against anyone, Polish, Lithuanian, whatever. A lot of them are doing jobs we can’t do. And I don’t mean don’t want to do. I mean can’t do. Labouring jobs, mechanics, they’ve got proper qualifications, skills and all sorts that we don’t have, we don’t teach them in the way they do.
“But you can’t just have, you know, open free for all. You can’t just have every Tom, Dick or Harry coming. But it’s the numbers. We’ve got to decide the numbers. Not them.”
It is evidence of what Nick Clegg once referred to as the Cleethorpes paradox. Wherever there are the least number of immigrants to be found, concerns about immigration are at their highest. In Clegg’s analysis, it means that some of the country’s poorest areas have voted to make themselves poorer, motivated by fear of “immigrant ghosts”.
But if Romford voters were motivated by a desire to reduce Eastern European immigration, it is already paying dividends. In 2017, 1,801 EU nationals registered for national insurance numbers in Havering, down from 2,240 the year before.
According to Department of Work and Pensions data, 1,151 of them were Romanian and Bulgarian, down 212 from the previous year.
So emboldened has the area been by Brexit that last year, the Ukip faction on Havering Council compelled it to vote on a motion it called “Hexit”. Hexit was nothing less than the liberation of Havering Council from what it called “Sadiq Khan’s mini Brussels”, removing it entirely from the Greater London Authority. It failed, so complexities such as how Havering would go about setting up its own police force were never discussed.
The Hexit vote sent the TV cameras back down here, early last year. One elderly gentleman, having a cup of tea on a plastic chair next to a burger van, told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme: “The Mayor should be a Londoner. It should be someone who knows London.”
When it was pointed out by the incredulous reporter that Sadiq Khan grew up in Tooting, he was told: “Well, that’s what he says.”
Not everyone is pleased with their decision, however. Gary Howlett, who is in his late 30s, lives in Romford and works in manufacturing in nearby Purfleet, is one of few that has had a change of heart on Brexit. But Remainers might want to look away now.
“I regret voting to stay in the EU,” he says. “I was really on the fence right up to the vote, not liking the lack of democracy in the EU. But I believed the economic predictions and voted with my head instead of my heart to protect the poor from an economic downturn.
“I woke up hoping that we’d left and was concerned but happy to find out we had. I’ve not heard any convincing arguments for staying in from my Remainer friends, either before or since, they just called people names and showed what snobs they are.”
With a transition period already all but agreed, the UK will, in all likelihood, essentially remain in the EU until the end of 2020. It may be that that is the point that Project Fear comes to pass, but even if it does, there is considerable doubt it will cause Romford too much introspection.
“When or if nothing gets better, that will be because the politicians got it wrong,” says David Eldridge, a 44-year-old playwright who grew up here. In Basildon, his dramatisation of Essex family life, won awards at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012. “They will say, ‘The politicians have f***** it up, the EU has screwed us over. We’ve paid them all this money to leave.’ I can’t see there being any kind of massive volte face, or change of opinion.”
Eldridge, who now lives in Haringey in north London, suspects he is the only member of his family to have voted remain, though the subject has never been discussed.
“The morning after the referendum I just said to my dad ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ So we’ve never talked about it as a family,” he says. “That’s unusual for us. The political banter is generally quite good natured and piss-takey in a way, between me and my dad and my brother, but we’ve just not talked about Brexit at all, because I was really, really upset about it.”
Eldridge knows well the values that have informed Romford’s choice, and he knows they will not change.
“Romford is a conservative place with a suspicion of government. They want low taxation, low regulation, people not interfering. That is what is in the bones of the place.
“In a way the EU is antithetical to that kind of way of seeing the world.
“Romford is full of blue-collar, working-class conservatism. They are families that have migrated out of the East End. They have worked hard and tried to improve their lives. They’ve not become rich, but they’re in a terraced house with a back garden, not a council flat. They are immensely proud of where they’re from.
“Then there is a feeling that the town is down on its luck. It’s a bit shabby. And this is allied with the fact there are Eastern Europeans around in the daytime. And the night time doesn’t feel safe, with people coming in to party from elsewhere. All these different accents, different voices.”
Indeed, just down the road from the market is South Street, the beating heart of Romford’s much-maligned night time scene. After dark this strip of predictable and grim bars feels like a satellite state of Magaluf but without the sunshine. It forms the largest nighttime economy outside central London. Outside the Wetherspoons, at three in the afternoon, three young men are very much the worse for wear, their shouted conversation fraught with a tension that looks like it might take a turn for the unpleasant.
I grew up in nearby Upminster and, as it happens, raised a shot of Aftershock to welcome in this millennium in the bar directly above where these men are standing. I have recently moved back to the area after 17 years away. To me, it doesn’t matter that these men’s voices are Eastern European. Tomorrow or the next day, the exact same scene will be unfolding, the voices swapped for the trademark elongated vowels of purest Cockney.
But the pace of social change engenders different reactions in different people.
In the buildup to the referendum, I watched people I knew from round here, from back then, become deeply politically engaged in a way I had never seen before. Their Facebook profiles transformed into a wall of Britain First propaganda. These are feelings that will not easily be put away. Currently, these same people talk about Brexit “betrayal”, language they are inheriting, by the way, from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who knows and understands precisely nothing of the tiger he rides upon.
“They are very suspicious of immigration, wary of change,” says Eldridge. “There is an element to it which was true in the North-East, and other [Brexit-voting] areas too. It was laying dissatisfaction with austerity at the foot of what we pay to the EU. It was thinking ‘We’re going to be better off when we get out. There’ll be jobs for our people, not foreign people, and that will make us better off’.
“These people aren’t rich. Public services are important to them and to lay the blame at the foot of the EU, they see as an easy answer. I think that is misguided. We know, to use the main example, we know that we won’t see £350m a week more for the NHS.”
It’s possible he’s right but not one person I spoke to feels scammed by the referendum. Quite the opposite, in fact. The scam is what’s come to an end.
Last Friday, like every Friday, Andrew Rosindell was back on Romford’s pavements, not far from his office in Margaret Thatcher House.
“People in this area are pretty streetwise,” he tells me, over the phone, while getting on a bus a few hundred yards from where I now live. “They’re not fooled by things. They might not have been to university. They might not be highfalutin central London types but they can see through a scam.
“We were told it was a common market trading arrangement, but it was a political thing. People deeply disliked that concept.”
He says that when out and about in the constituency he meets “virtually no one” that wants to remain the EU.
“If you nail it down, if you speak to the average person in Romford, even Labour voters, even Remain voters, I would say 90 per cent of people, don’t like the whole EU concept.”
Getting out, he says, will turn out to the “best decision this country has ever made. We will wonder why we ever tied ourselves to a bloc of countries who are all pursuing their own national interests.”
With a year to go, Brexit is about to enter its most heated phase, and for no greater reason than geographical convenience, the media will continue to ride out and take Romford’s temperature. They will find a town playing it very cool indeed. And if there is fire on the way, Romford is not about to turn it on itself.