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.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Wilko on Radio 4 tonight

There's a poignant but also strangely upbeat interview with Wilko Johnson on Radio 4's Front Row tonight at 7.15pm. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer Wilko says: "Right now it's just fantastic, it makes you feel alive. Just walking down the street you really feel alive. Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road, you think 'I'm alive, I'm alive'. I hope I can hang onto that. I've had a fantastic life. When I think about the things that have happened to me and the things I've done, I think anybody who asks for more would just be being greedy. I don't wanna be greedy."

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Essex: the only way is up?

There's a  full page feature on Essex in the Guardian today about Jonathan Meades' documentary The Joy of Essex showing on BBC4 on Jan 29 and an art exhibition based on former Leigh resident Helen Mirren (who described Essex as "the armpit of the world") at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend. Sadly no mention for my book The Joy of Essex, but at least it proves Essex is trending… Click on the link to read.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Joy of Newham

Thanks to the Newham Bookshop for the prominent display of The Joy of Essex in the window. Ranked with Tony Cottee, Danny Baker and Jamie Oliver and in close proximity to Victoria Pendleton and Jessica Ennis - we're not worthy, indeed. I'll be signing books at the Newham Bookshop's stall from 11.30am-1pm at the Annual General Meeting of the East of London Family History Society on Saturday 26 January 2013, at Sarah Bonnell School, Deanery Road, Stratford E15 4LP.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Witch Factor: Darran Hayman's The Violence

Thanks to Liam for sending the following details about Essex Man Darran Hayman's new album. It's a 20-song, double LP chronicling the 17th century Essex Witch Trials during the English Civil Wars and is  the third part of Darren’s Essex Trilogy. His previous two albums were Pram Town and Essex Arms, dealing with the new towns and suburbs and the lawless countryside. Well worth a listen…

“I have been drawn to my birthplace because it is both familiar and alien to me,” says Hayman. “Essex is so close to London yet so remote from it in many ways. I want to be both brutal and tender about the place in my songs. It’s easy to become trapped by your own tropes. I write easily about modernity and pepper my lyrics with slang, brand names and colloquialisms. I wanted to write about something in Essex’s past that spoke of its strangeness and also forced me to write in a language suitable for another period.”

Between 1644 and 1646, approximately 300 women were executed for witchcraft in the eastern counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Matthew Hopkins was the self appointed Witch Finder General who travelled East Anglia and helped small communities to rid themselves of these lonely, widowed women.

The album deals with fear and isolation, the way we use our own terror in times of trouble to lash out at the weak. It’s about how societies persecute otherness and outsiders.The album also concerns itself with the wider context of the English Civil Wars. Hayman sings about King Charles I’s doomed love for his French bride; Parliamentarian spies; Puritan ideals and the comfort of animals.

The album is epic in both concept and sound. The landscape of the Dedham Vale is bought alive by beautiful intricate woodwind scores, trembling strings and destroyed church organs. The Violence is an outstanding creative achievement, a truly unique and unprecedented album. “It’s about how violence frightens us and how fear just leads to greater violence,” says Hayman.

Glowing reviews for the Violence…‘Hayman’s fragile delivery gives voice to the paranoid and persecuted of the past while drawing subtle eerie parallels with modern times. A major work.’ – Mojo – 4 stars.

‘Lustrous future folk and psych wonderment’ – NME 8/10

‘His vision goes far beyond any other current independent artist and is a true treasure’ – Q Magazine

‘All that he does is beautifully thought-out, clever and tuneful and The Violence is no different…diverse, gently melodic and skilfully wrought…lovely, literate, approachable way to approach the past.’ RocknReel 4 stars.

‘Behind this bold and unique record lurks the thinking persons indie-pop legend and unaccredited national treasue Darren Hayman.’ – Stewart Lee – The Sunday Times.8/10 Uncut Magazine

‘These are wonderful pop songs, each a compacted treasure of melody and heart. Autumnal, witty, sad and very, very English The Violence is the high watermark of Hayman’s career and one of the finest British releases of 2012, a record that neither floats, nor drowns but soars.’ – The Quietus

‘Triumphant’ – Artrocker

Friday, 11 January 2013

Wilko does it right

Sad news arrives that Wilko Johnson has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The man is a Southend and Canvey legend and his book Looking Back at Me is a great off-the-wall read of Dr Feelgood madness and mayhem, life on the hippy trail and stargazing. His Canvey Island gig features in my book The Joy of Essex as well as his telescope in a dome on top of his Southend gaff. Wilko is now embarking on a farewell tour so let's all give him a cosmic send-off and a blue plaque outside the Labworth Cafe.