Friday, 15 July 2016

Is Shenfield the nation's most influential school?

It's been a good week for my old school. Former Shenfield School pupil Philip Hammond became Chancellor in Theresa May's shuffle. Meanwhile another old Shenfieldian, Richard Madeley, revealed that Hammond was "a Goth back then, he used to arrive in class in a leather trench coat." While Popbitch added that Hammond also used to run a mobile disco in Shenfield. The Goth story is a little unlikely - in the mid-1970s Phil would surely have been more of a trenchcoat-wearing hippy carrying a Led Zeppelin album. Not to be outdone, another old Shenfieldian, Ross Kemp, was on our TV screens getting shot at in Syria in Ross Kemp: The Fight Against Isis. Never mind Eton. Now Cameron and Osborne have departed the scene, it seems that Shenfield, now a comprehensive, is the nation's most influential school.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Strange news from Essex

Just finished Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, which is a riveting read. Set in 1893, the landscape of the Blackwater estuary is in many ways the star of the book — Perry does for rural Essex what Hardy did for Wessex. Most of the action is set in the fictional village of Aldwinter, which is on the River Blackwater and appears to be somewhere around St Osyth and Brightlingsea.

The reader comes to know Perry's village intimately — the mist rolling across the salt marshes, the village church with its carved serpent on a pew, World's End cottage at the end of the village and home to the slimy-coated Mr Cracknall, Traitor's oak, the ribs of the wreck known as Leviathan, the changing skies and the rubbing of boats on shingle as the locals fear that something lurks out on the water.

There's lots of simmering passion between wealthy fossil-hunting widow Cora Seabourne and married local vicar William Ransome as they take long walks through the Essex woods, plus more love interest in the form of pioneering surgeon Luke Garrett.

Perry makes good use of historical detail; Cora first stays in Colchester, where she meets Thomas Taylor who lost his legs in the Colchester earthquake of 1884 and now begs by his shattered house. The myth of the Essex Serpent comes from a real source too, the 1699 pamphlet Strange News From Essex, alerting the villagers of Henham-on-the-Mount to the Essex Serpent.

The Essex Serpent is enjoyable for its exploration of Victorian themes, science versus faith, the stirrings of feminism, the slum housing of Bethnal Green and advances in surgery. And on a personal level, as my great great grandfather died from tuberculosis at the age of 33 in Whitechapel in 1872, it's very moving to read Perry writing of the disease's debilitating effects on one of the novel's main characters.

Overall it's an enticing, beautifully-written book for anyone who likes Essex history intertwined with a Victorian love story.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Southend brought to standstill by onions

In a truly Monty Python-esque scenario, Southend was yesterday brought to a standstill by 50,000 onions, reports the Southend Echo. A lorry overturned on Eastern Avenue spilling the said onions, blocking the road and causing gridlock. This eye-watering news could certainly lead to tears in Essex and is proof that for one day at least, the Southend world is just a great big onion. Police advice is to keep 'em peeled.

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.