Grim tidings cast a cloud over town: Charles Oulton visited a twon mourning the loss of 2,000 jobs

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CLOSE your eyes, and it could have been 1940, with couples in khaki dancing cheek-to-cheek, some possibly for the last time. Open them, and the romance ebbs away.

It's 1992 in a modern shopping complex in Hatfield, Hertfordshire; and although a number of middle-aged couples are doing the foxtrot and quickstep at a tea dance much to the amusement of younger shoppers, they are doing it in a soulless arena now in the hands of the receiver.

When the problems of the Galleria came to a head last week, few shed tears for one more statistic of the recession. But 150 yards away, another statistic was unveiled yesterday, one that will be mourned outside Hatfield.

When British Aerospace announced it had decided to close its plant in Hatfield with the loss of 2,000 jobs, the music of the quickstep became a dirge. The closure is devastating for two reasons. First, Hatfield is the aviation industry to many people. Without it, the Mosquito would be just an insect and Comet the name of an electrical store, not the world's first jet airliner.

These aeroplanes were born and flew out of Hatfield. So did the Tiger Moth. Part of Britain's heritage has gone.

Second, BAe is Hatfield. It is easily the largest employer in the town, both directly and because of the work it provides for subcontractors. Many of the houses were built for BAe employees. Until recently, 20 per cent of Hatfield houses were sold or bought by BAe people. The company enveloped the town.

But no longer. Many of the dance couples used to work at the Hatfield plant. Jim Nicholson, 70, was yesterday playing music for the dance but from 1962 until 1986, he was a procurement officer at BAe. 'Most of us who were involved with the 146 were aware that it was not reaching its productivity targets. Already quite a few young to middle-aged people have moved within the company, but this has not happened to the older ones who have taken early retirement. There will now be many more of them. And one of the aims of this tea dance is to keep people like them happy.'

Sam Sonerville, 67, worked as a coppersmith at BAe for 20 years. He said: 'I feel very nostalgic today. It used to be the best place to work in the country. We had the greatest tradesmen and now it's all gone.'

So, what's left in Hatfield? According to the Chamber of Commerce, there are now 10 reasonably-sized companies employing local people, although 3,068 of those are already on the dole. Until a few years ago there was virtually no unemployment. With the closure of BAe, Mitsubishi, the Japanese electronics company, has taken over as the town's biggest employer, giving work to up to 500 people.

But to this chiefly working-class area, that is part of the problem. Geoffrey Healey, 74, who paid a visit to Hatfield House yesterday to inspect some toy soldiers in one of its exhibitions, said: 'In my opinion Hatfield should never have closed. Everything now is Japanese.'

His enjoyment of the toy soldiers was marred by the announcement. But this ex-Royal Army Service Corps soldier was not the only person whose spirits were in need of a lift. Anyone who has not recovered should avoid the Galleria's cinema this Friday. The film on show: Terminator 2.

Venture details, page 30

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