Sunday, 8 August 2010

Literary Geezers — Would Mr Darcy now come from Essex?

David Nicholls is channelling Essex for literary success via Southend-on-Sea

Would Mr Darcy now come from Essex? It’s interesting to note that the hero of David Nicholls’ very funny novel Starter For Ten is a character called Brian from Southend. The opening scene sees Brian and his two old mates from school on the end of Southend Pier, drinking beer and contemplating his imminent departure to university.

The novel is heavily autobiographical, but even though Nicholls himself hails from Hampshire he makes Brian an Essex man. These days coming from Essex is a form of literary shorthand for an unsophisticated bloke who drinks too much and then has many comedic moments trying to bed a posh bird with middle-class bohemian parents who walk around the house in the nude. And having to overcome the prejudice against Essex men makes it all the better when he finally gets a girl.

Indeed, Essex characters have a long history in literature. A recent reading of Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841, made me realise that old Dicko had created the Pub Landlord 170 years before Al Murray. Dickens’ character of John Willet, landlord of the Maypole Inn in Chigwell, likes to sit by his fireside boiler ‘tackling’ subjects in his slow-witted boorish manner, surrounded by his barroom acolytes. He would almost definitely read the Daily Express, dislike the EU and insist on a white wine for the lady. Dickens’ enjoys his comeuppance. There’s a very funny and poignant scene where a stunned John is finally rendered speechless as anti-Papist Gordon Rioters smash up his pub.

Hopefully there might one day be a sophisticated Essex character in a novel. But perhaps the comedy of Essex characters is just too good for authors to resist. Indeed, there may well be a PhD to be had studying the role of the Essex Geezer in literature.

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