“Breaking up a tree fight on your property is one of the hardest things you will ever do,” I tell my incredulous seven-year-old nephew.
We are both reluctant guests at a wedding reception. Across the room the DJ puts on Abba's 'Fernando' in an attempt to stir some life into a stagnant dance floor, at present populated solely by the bride and groom who are slow-dancing and oblivious to their surroundings. On the fringes, where the varnished blonde wood meets with an expanse of coral-coloured carpet, a young bridesmaid gyrates shyly next to one of the circular tables. A partly-folded linen napkin that still resembles a swan, lies crushed on the floor in the shadows near her feet.
“Even harder than extremal combinatorics?”
“Yes, far harder than that. I would say twice, or maybe even three times as hard as what you just said.”
If the archives at the Museum of Southend are to be believed, it took the combined efforts of 47 consecutive generations of my family to break up a vicious bare-branch fight between a pair of oak trees.
The unseemly spat occurred on the front lawn of the family home, in plain sight of the church across the road. One can only imagine the effect that such commonplace violence must have had upon the children who dwelled within the property and who, upon peering through the front windows, would have been greeted by the brutish spectacle of the trees beating seven bells out of each other.
It was my ancestor Andrew Sadler who first noted the bough of one of the oaks extending towards its neighbour in a threatening manner, while the other tree appeared to lean provocatively forward, a leering hollow in the trunk mouthing the word: “Tosser.”
Sadler sternly admonished both trees. The following morning the entire family convened beneath their leafy canopies to recite passages from the New Testament and sing hymns.
These readings from the holy scriptures did nothing to improve the moral characters of the skirmishing oaks. If anything hostilities between the pair escalated.
42 years later Andrew Sadler's great-grandson, John, was the subject of slanderous gossip spread by Alan Webster – the then patriarch of a family who have been our rivals since the 1500s. Recently their eldest son, Derek, beat me to the position of Assistant Manager at World of Toner.
Alan Webster swore before the Bishop of Lincoln that he had witnessed John Sadler watering the two oaks on the Sabbath with a barrel of beer “thereby making both trees drunk and belligerent and mindful to continue in their ceaseless brawling which has so demeaned the character of our fair village.”
An account of life in Southend at this time refers to the Sadler household as “a rowdy establishment of ill-repute, where outside a pair of great oaks do battle with one another, while at night crowds of ne'er-do-wells gather and place bets upon the eventual outcome.”
Ironically it took a war to force a break in the hostilities: In 1915 both trees were drafted into the army and served on the continent in separate regiments. They returned to England unscathed in early 1919, having each attained rank of captain. After a brief armistice they resumed their violence towards each other with renewed vigour.
In 1961, a policeman called at the family home late in the evening. It was my grandfather, Harry, who opened the door to him, whereupon he was informed of a complaint raised by neighbours regarding a fearsome cacophony taking place in the front garden: The incessant rustling of leaves and the sound of acorns falling and striking the ground, long after the 8pm curfew for such activities had passed.
My grandfather appeared before a justice of the peace the following morning where he was made to formally apologise for the disturbance and swear an oath pledging to make renewed efforts to end the fighting. For a while there was talk that both oaks might be removed and transferred to the infamous tree prison at Kew Gardens. However a judge, upon considering the facts of the case, and taking into account the military ranks of the trees and their past service to this country, instead imposed a sentence of 160 hours community service a piece, along with an Antisocial Behaviour Order, preventing either tree from venturing within 50 yards of Southend High Street.
In 2007 I obtained permission from the council to plant a pair of two Estonian Judo Trees on my property. Despite their fearsome nomenclature, their purpose is to act as mediators, restraining the oaks and preventing any further punches from being thrown until such a time that “everyone takes a chill pill and calms the fuck down.”
“Do you see now why, if you hope to lead any kind of normal life you must leave Southend and go far away. And perhaps change your surname?”
My nephew nodded silently.
The opening notes of the doom metal classic 'Corpsecycle' filled the function suite. I watched as generations of two families, brought together by a marriage, rose to their feet and flooded the dance floor.