Monday, 20 June 2016

The Essex Serpent

There's been some glowing reviews of Sarah Perry's new novel The Essex Serpent. It was book of the week in Saturday's Guardian and described by the Sunday Times as  "One of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade". It's set in 1890 around the Blackwater estuary and is the story of widowed Cora Seagrave who moves to the wilds of Essex and hears stories of the mythical serpent terrorising folks on the river. She is soon involved in a complex relationship with the local vicar and adversary of the serpent William Ransome. Sounds like it has a lot to say about Victorian attitudes to science and religion and indeed Essex and I'll be reviewing it as soon as I've got a copy. Interestingly the Essex Serpent is also a pub in Covent Garden. Not a lot of people know that.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Frontline art from Essex in WW1

Artist Barry Thompson's work is inspired by his adolescent memories of where he grew up, "an area of Essex between Dagenham and Romford (or the further reaches of East London depending on your point of view)." Thompson's exhibition, Fistful of Blood and Feathers, at Peer in Hoxton has three categories of, "playing soldiers, bird watching and sexual awakening."

Thompson explains: "All took place in the same location, the same backfields and alleyways I would escape to - either with friends or alone. Hiding in the trees or long grass (stalking, secretive behaviour), building dens (in which to prepare for battle, to decorate with pornography), under-age smoking, drugs; or just ambling and wandering in search of that elusive species of bird, never found."

The first room of the exhibition features postcard-sized paintings of blossoming hawthorns, country lanes and scrub illuminated by sunlight. The second room features his affecting world war one pictures. Thompson discovered that war poets Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas trained at the then-rural Romford, along with artists Paul and John Nash. His images of soldiers are surrounded by white, as if eternity is closing in, while the hand-written crosses inked above the heads (my granddad did the same on his war pictures to indicate his position) look like flying birds.

This being old Essex (now technically part of London), there's also a more literal use of the term "birds" on a couple of pictures featuring scraps of old porn mags, the forbidden fare found in the woods and taken to adolescent dens (shades of Ian Dury's song Razzle In My Pocket here).

It's well worth a look and my wife Nicola, who knows about art, enjoyed it too. The exhibition runs until July 9 and has an interesting library accompanying it. I enjoyed thumbing through Michael Foley' Front-line Essex and reading about the important role my childhood haunts of Warley Common and Warley Barracks played in Britain's wartime history.

Barry Thompson — Fistful of Blood and Feathers, is at Peer, 97-99 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6QL. June 2-July 9For more details click on the link.
Nicola, bowled over by the artworks, reads about about wartime Romford

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Escape to Essex

Essex was represented as some sort of Eldorado in the BBC's controversial documentary on the borough of Newham, The Last Whites of The East End. Tony, who has a Jamaican father and is married to a Romanian, is moving to Hornchurch, while Leanne is heading to Raleigh (which her family regard as something akin to emigrating to Mars), Peter from the East Ham Working Men's Club has moved to Hornchurch and boxer Darren has moved to Rainham. What came across is that the old white community are basically decent people but appear very conservative and too easily assume that non-white faces represent a problem, though it's worth noting that Usmaan, a fifth-generation East Ender with Bangladeshi roots, also feels threatened.

London changes all the time. Perhaps the change has been too quick, but the old East End was never going to remain the same after the docks and industry disappeared. People's kids don't live next door anymore. My dad's family moved out of the East End to Essex in the 1930s. So-called 'white flight' was through aspiration as much as anything. Essex has always been more attractive than Newham because of the space and countryside and proximity of the sea. Can we really blame Asian families for buying up the cheap houses vacated in the East End?

Race isn't the problem in Newham, but poverty, jobs and housing are. It's sad, but the old East Enders are mourning a lost way of life that won't return (and it was as much the Krays and rigid conformity as unlocked doors). They'd be better celebrating bringing their East End values to Essex rather than mourning Newham. The borough has problems, but it's also an exciting place full of great curries, a vibrant market, a great bookshop, the Who Shop, Nathan's pie and mash shop and still some proper old cockneys. We need to accept that Newham's now multicultural and that the people growing up there are British — while Estuary Essex is now the home of the children of the old white East Enders.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Tiptoe through the bluebells in Billericay

Caught the last bluebells at Norsey Wood in Billericay last weekend. We also saw first world war training trenches and lots of ant nests amid decaying tree trunks. The 165-acre wood has a bit of everything, a Bronze Age burial mound, a prehistoric track, a medieval deer bank and somewhere underneath it all lie the remains of lots of revolting peasants who were slaughtered by the King's forces at the end of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Finds include a Mesolithic axehead, an Iron Age glass bead, Celtic burial urns and Roman pottery and burials. It's an enticing, leafy place to get lost in and we topped it off with some excellent takeaway falafel from Menad restaurant near the station.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Sky's the limit at Clacton

PICTURE: KAY BURLEY TWITTER
The media's obsession with Essex continues. Sky News has been broadcasting live from Clacton-on-Sea today with Kay Burley live on Clacton beach, which is looking pretty glorious in the sunshine. She's also been doing live links from in front of the pier, complete with fish and chip shop. The reason Sky is there is that Clacton is Britain's most Eurosceptic town — though the Guardian recently claimed this was Romford. Anyway, Claction is represented by Ukip's Douglas Carswell, who defected from the Conservatives. 

Sky News has been interviewing residents of the German town which is twinned with Clacton (they want the UK to stay) and the locals in Clacton, and has even taken Douglas Carswell to Poland. Burley has also pondered how the huge wind farm in the sea off Clacton would fare without European subsidies. She's there all day so check it out on Sky News. And a nice day out for the news crew… let's hope they have a go on the slot machines and some chips before returning to London.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Signs of the crimes in Blackmore

The Daily Telegraph reports an outbreak of strange vandalism in Blackmore. All references to Blackmore on the village's signs have been erased with grey paint, and even the stocks on the village green have been daubed with paint. Why would someone want to erase all traces of Blackmore? Is it something to do with the Mountnessing People's Front, the People's Front of Ingatestone or someone looking back in Ongar? Or someone with a grudge against former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore? Mulder and Scully are set to investigate soon…

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Mersea oysters on Countryfile

Good to see Mersea Island featuring on last week's Countryfile. Plenty on the problems of keeping the native oysters going and some nice footage of Matt Baker going out looking for oysters with seventh-generation oyster fisherman Richard Haward and learning how efforts are being made to replenish the depleted native oysters; and also of Shauna Lowry on the banks of the River Colne with reintroduced water voles. Click on the link to view.