Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Jonathan Meades' The Joy of Essex: the verdict

It’s not often you hear Essex and “exemplar” in the same sentence. “Has this bloke swallowed a dictionary?” was the comment of several Twitter users on the #joyofessex thread last night.

I’ve just viewed Jonathan Meades’ BBC4 documentary The Joy of Essex for a second time as on first viewing it feels like you’re being machine-gunned with facts and words ending with ‘ist’ and ‘ism’. Overall, it’s a fascinating romp through the utopian history and architecture of Essex, even if Meades does wear shades throughout, looking to quote the Guardian, like a wannabe member of the Velvet Underground.

Meades makes the valid point that there’s much more to Essex than Towie. He’s very good on the Hadleigh Farm Colony founded by Willam Booth for “broken men of bad habits”, Mayland Farm founded by soap magnate Joseph Fells, the Q Camp near Braintree and the Purleigh Colony, a utopia championed by Tolstoy’s acolytes.

He gets very excited by the architecture of the derelict Bata factory at East Tilbury (nice shot of Bata’s statue with a pigeon pooing on his head), the “aggressively genteel” houses of Frinton Park and the Crittall windows and modernist white buildings of Silver End. And it made me want to look at the yacht club at Burnham-on-Crouch again.

The camerawork is brilliant, getting over the wide skies and muddy estuaries of Essex. On the downside Meades is very patronizing to the supposed Towie-class, “reality TV cretins barely capable of reading their own newspaper columns” and “surgically enhanced slappers”. The soundtrack of a fictional Radio Essex DJ becomes  annoying and is pandering to a dumbed down stereotype of Estuary Essex. The county is big enough for both sides to coexist and there’s a lot of charm and humour among the exiled Eastenders too. The show certainly polarised viewers. Barry Sykes on Twitter commented: “Half rich, vivid rethink, half sour, misanthropic rant (oh, and those terrible local radio gags).”

Meades is harsh on Basildon and Harlow and dismisses post-war planners as “people who like scum of the earth politicians are life’s prefects… socially or emotionally crippled whose mission is to tell us what to do.” For all the faults of the new towns many people are still proud to live there (see the interview with former Harlow councilor John Young in my book The Joy of Essex) and the planners at least tried to create green space and decent homes for bombed-out Eastenders.

He’s right to celebrate the “under the counter” Essex of plotlands on the “cockney Shangri-La” coast in Lee-over-Sands as “the people’s Essex”, but ignores the problems of lack of space and social decline, that planners might have helped avoid, in places like Jaywick Sands.

Still, the programme certainly made you think about God’s own county, even if at times Meades did appear drunk on his own verbosity. Still, it's great to be reminded of the quote from William Morris’s News From Nowhere, “I come not from heaven but from Essex.” The general idea of the sea as an emblem of human powerlessness (“everything returns to the immemorial ooze”) is well done and an idea mooted by Essex geezer philosophers Phill Jupitus and Wilko Johnson. Lots of intimations of mortality, but sadly no Tiptree jam, even though it’s a design classic.

I’ve still no idea what Meades’ final line about a “voracious sump inhabited by an eternal mutating Driberg” means. Tom Driberg was the MP for Maldon and later Baron Bradwell and had a hand in a building in Frinton that Jonathan likes. He was also "the country's first spermophage," claims Meades. If anyone in the UK can enlighten me about this then I’ll gladly send them a free copy of my book The Joy of Essex.


  1. I too could have done without the local DJ stuff. I suppose it served as filling between the geenrally incredibly well-researched, well-thought through and very erudite main features...Yes that last line was a bit odd, wasn't it...? Driberg was MP for Barking as well, and lived up near Bradwell (frequently inviting local members of the Barking labour party, and others, to stay.). "Wild promiscuity" is probably the no 1 thing I'd associate with him - and he was quite open, even shamless about this, (well, flamboyant homosexuality and showy Anglo-Catholicism too) - so, excluding the homosexuality (and religion) thing, I suspect the point was a dig at the Essex stereotype of slappers in Romford/Basildon nightclubs, etc.

    But done is a sufficently obscure way not to make the point too obvious.

  2. (Driberg's autobiography, "Ruling Passions" is quite good on this)

  3. Fabulous review Pete. I was so busy tweeting I had no idea what was going on. Certainly makes me realise how hard it is to focus on ideas and tweet - how does the TOWIE group manage to be so good at this? Nicola

  4. Excellent review Pete. Good that he got the 'West Ham, which used to be in Essex ..' too.

  5. And a clip of Martin Peters too Liam!

  6. Dominic, thanks for enlightening me about Driberg's sex life! I guess I owe you a free book - if you email your address to me at I'll post you The Joy of Essex, which sadly has no spermophage (is that how you spell it?) references at all.