Friday, 2 November 2018

Jaywick kicks up a storm in US politics

One of the publicity shots for Benefits by the Sea
Hard to believe that Jaywick is now causing shockwaves in the United States' midterm elections. Just watched the recording of Have I Got News of You and a picture of Jaywick was one of the picture quiz items. Host Victoria Coren, Paul Merton, Ian Hislop, Judge Rinder and Janey Godley had a lot of fun with the image. The picture of Jaywick, complete with potholes and dilapidated homes, came from the Facebook campaign of Nick Stella, a Republican ally of Donald Trump. Over the picture of the Essex village it announced, "Only you can stop this from becoming reality." Today's Guardian has a feature on the furore. 

Stella's campaign has caused predictable outrage in Essex, with the locals pointing out that the US has plenty of dodgy trailer parks it can photo, and in any case the Jaywick road has now been covered in tarmac and many improvements have been made to the village since it was declared the most deprived neighbourhood in the UK in 2005 and then featured in the TV programme Benefits by the Sea. The locals are right. Jaywick might have had its problems, but it has a lovely beach and a lot of potential now the council is putting some investment into the place. It's not ready to be part of the US rust belt just yet. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Getting your Munnings worth in Dedham

This is a guest post by Nicola Baird reproduced from the blog Around Britain Without A Plane

The village of Dedham is in a sublimely pretty corner of Essex — especially on an autumn day. Tourists come here on an art pilgrimage seeking to find out more about two artists with deep connections to this East Anglian landscape. Many of us are familiar with Constable and his famous horse-drawn 'Haywain', painted at nearby Flatford Mill, but what about the equestrian artist Alfred Munnings (1878-1959)? 

Books about Munnings at the Munnings Museum shop.
Munnings excelled as a 
plein air painter, capturing the good times and summer light,
and starring beautiful horses, girls in frothy dresses, canvases filled with gypsy life,
backdrops of the River Stour countryside, racehorses. 

I love horses but they are horrible to draw: those sleek limbs bend so awkwardly when my pencil tries to fix them to paper. And their hooves! How does a horse stand on such a little sloping triangle? These are not questions you need to ask when you see the work of Alfred Munnings hanging at his dream home, Castle House just outside Dedham. His horse canvases are so realistic you can almost smell the sweet hay breath of his subjects.

If you know your horses you can see the thickened tendons of a racehorse turned hunter, the tucked up posture of a horse on the first world war front line, the tail flick of a gypsy pony brushing away a summer fly. But mostly Munnings paints the most beautiful horses, at peak condition. A lot of these were his own horses. Perhaps his most famous works are the race starts (which bizarrely I find I confuse with Degas' paintings) and the colourful carnival of travellers at Epsom Down during Derby race week or at horse fairs like Lavenham in nearby Suffolk.

As a bonus the gallery has a wonderful cafe open two hours before the exhibition. The food is terrific and the setting bucolic — green lawns, green fields, birdsong.

This is easy art: Munnings had an eye for beauty with a happy focus on horses and good looking women. For that period he was rather old-fashioned although that didn't stop him liking a party. Born on 8 October in 1878, Munnings was brought up in a mill, just like the one Constable painted in the Haywains (Flatford Mill). His natural artistic skills saw him apprenticed to a lithograph printer at 14-years-old. Over the years he developed a conservative style that many art critics lampooned. At the same time he had real antipathy to modern art (eg, Picasso, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali). Indeed his resigning speech as the President of the Royal Academy, in 1949, focussed exactly on modern art's limitations. It didn't go down that well with the diners.

Munnings was embroiled in the hunting set and made a good deal of money doing expensive portraits for the Belvoir Hunt followers, and others. His first big London show was in 1913, Horses, Hunting & Country Life at Leicester Galleries. By the 1920s he could charge £500 a canvas, which is £21,000 in today's money. He met his second wife Violet McBride, who loved to hunt, at Richmond horse show, and she clearly brought him social status and many equestrian commissions. Munnings did follow hounds but apparently he enjoyed long hacks on his own even more.

He bought his first horse when he was in his 20s and kept riding until the end off his life. Munnings knew how much he owed to his horses (quoted in the book pictured above AJ Munnings by Stanley Booth on sale at the Munnings Museum): "Although they have given me much trouble and many sleepless nights, they have been my supporters, friends — my destiny in fact. Looking back at my life, interwoven with theirs - painting them, feeding them, riding them, thinking about them — I hope that I have learned something of their ways. I have never ceased to understand them."

Munnings Museum is in this yellow painted house. When AJ Munnings moved
here he called it his "dream home".
At the collection my friend Eugenie and I quickly found favourites. Eugenie loved Shrimp, the young traveller man often painted on a cheeky grey Welsh pony called Augereau.

I fell for a showstopper, painted in 1932 - My Wife, My Horse, Myself. It's a conceited but beautiful painting of Lady Munnings riding sidesaddle on a stylish English thoroughbred outside her beautiful country home, in the corner her proud husband smiles by a canvas of the same painting. It's a show off portrait of Munnings' possessions, capturing the swank (albeit horse-centred) lifestyle of this miller boy-made-establishment. 

It also owes plenty to the then popular hunting writer, Surtees who barked (surely he must have barked!): "Three things I never lend - my 'boss, my wife and my name." It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1935, a rocky time in British finances, which might well be why it's also been dubbed: "The most defiantly British picture of the 20th century". Strangely it's the sort of insult that Munnings would have been taken as a compliment.
Painters Constable and Munnings would still recognise the River Stour at
Flatford Mill, just in Suffolk. It's now a very popular tourist spot.
I'm a huge fan of dogs and horses so it's always been painful to me that the late Victorian and early Edwardian animal painters, in particular Munnings but also Landseer (who painted Monarch of the Glen) and the stunning equestrian artist Heywood Hardy, all fell out of fashion as the shock of the new art exerted its magnetic pull. Country life may not have ended in the 1930s, but it feels as over as the time when families crowded into the mill cottages, six sharing a bedroom, and never left the country, never mind the country. You can see exactly what I mean if you visit the little National Trust property (free entry) a few miles over the fields at Flatford Mill.

But that doesn't stop a real sense of joy when you see Munnings' wonderful paintings (this collection has more than 4000) in his old home in this elegant Georgian family house. It's a visual delight to go into every room, and the studio, and see pictures which such a strong sense of place (there are around 150 on display).

I've been longing to see Munnings' paintings, but took my time figuring out
how to get from Manningtree train station, Essex (seen here with a glowing sunset).
Munnings' work can be written off as sentimental or chocolate-boxy (if you really don't like horses that is) but he had such grit. Next year expect a complete rehang as Castle House is taken over by the 1918 portraits Munnings did of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade as a war artist on the front line in France.

Munnings, by then pushing 40, has been blinded when he was just 19. For most of us a thorn striking your eye would be a life disaster. For a teenager starting out on his artistic career, without much money behind him, this should have signalled the end. Somehow Munnings overcame the disability forcing his sole good eye to let him paint well — damn well — again.

Gallop over to see his paintings in the house where he lived if you get the chance. And don't forget to take a break at the Garden Cafe.

How to get there: An early autumn day was perfect for the four or so mile walk across the
water meadows from Manningtree station via Flatford Mill (plus 20 more minutes from Dedham village). A friend with a car was a bonus. There are also taxis from Manningtree and a bus (see Munnings Museum website, then double check with coach provider).

  • More info at 
  • Address: Castle House, Castle Hill, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6AZ
  • The museum closes for the winter on 31 October 2018 and reopens approx Good Friday (April 2019), check website. Admission is £10.
  • Check Garden Cafe opening times, tel: 01206 322127 (option 5) 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Having your cake and eating it

Went to the RAF club in Piccadilly to celebrate the birthday of my old Shenfield School pal Mark, who went on to become an RAF helicopter pilot and all round hero. But he's not forgotten his Essex and West Ham roots, so Mark's wife Lyn made some suitable cakes to mark the occasion. Chocs away!

Friday, 3 August 2018

Thurrock: the worst services in Britain

Good to see Essex win another trophy in addition to Love Island. Thurrock services on the M25 topped a drivers' poll of Britain's 111 service stations as the absolute worst. The Guardian went along to the services at Thurrock. They don't sound that bad compared to other dodgy service stations, just very chain dominated with branches of Burger King, M&S, W H Smith and Costa. Plus there's some smelly showers according to the lorry drivers. The services were opened in the 1990s and are now under redevelopment. Operators Moto do score highly for euphemisms though, describing being voted a bit crap as "a negative impact on our customers preconceptions."

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Dani loving Essex island

Dani Dyer has joined a long line of Essex folk who have prospered in reality TV shows, including Stacey Solomon, Mark Wright, Dougie Poynter, Harry Judd and Matt Cardle. Plus fellow Love Islander Megan Barton Hanson, who comes from Southend. The viewers loved former Loughton barmaid Dani's brand of Essex humour and honesty. My favourite moments included Dani's revelation that thongs itch and when dressed up in a new dress her declaration of, "I'm all beefed up like a burger!" Boyfriend Jack might hail from across the estuary in Kent, but he appears to be an Essex Man in spirit. While dad Danny, although born in Canning Town, now lives in Essex and in true Essex style recently referred to David Cameron as a "twat" for calling the EU referendum and memorably described Cameron as being on holiday "with his trotters up". Essex style might not be subtle — but what you see is what you get and there will surely be more victories to come.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Tiptree Jam Jar Bar

Tiptree jam cocktails! Proof that Wilkin & Sons is taking over the world comes with the opening of the Tiptree Jam Jar Bar at the Fenwick department store in Colchester. The bar was opened to coincide with World Gin Day and serves fruit gin liqueurs and Tiptree-flavoured cocktails, based on Wilkin & Son's successful jam gin launch. Cocktails are served in stylish jam jars, and It is, of course, said to be jam-packed with shoppers turned Tiptee tipplers.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Essex Man About Tarn

A Lake District epiphany for an Essex Man features in my new Kindle Single book Man About Tarn. There's a chapter devoted to the Shenfield School Geography A Level field trip of 1976 where I yomp up to Stickle Tarn in a pair of high-leg Doctor Martens. Where were the Ford Cortinas and burger vans? It was like Essex — but with tarns and mountains and no shops called Mr Byrite. 

"My home county is peopled by geezers driving done-up Ford Cortinas, with their names emblazoned in sun-strips stuck across the windscreen. My parents are tenant farmers who don’t do holidays because they can’t leave their cattle. You can see the Post Office tower on the horizon from my dad’s fields and there are plans to build a motorway across his land. It’s the last piece of green land before greater London. For most people in Brentwood the countryside means a country club with chicken in a basket and maybe a glimpse of a West Ham footballer. A trip to the mudflats of Southend down the A12 Arterial road or a hippy bonfire at Mersea Island is my Essex idea of adventure. But here are the biggest mountains I’ve ever seen."

Click on the link for more details. 

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Write stuff at the Essex Book Festival

The Essex Book Festival is now underway having been opened by Billy Bragg, who spoke about his book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the WorldCheck out the Essex Book Festival websiite for details of this month's events. Highlights include writer-in-residence Syd Moore talking about her Essex Witch Museum mysteries. Plus radioactive stories in the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker, a crime-writing masterclass with Nicola Upson, eating like Queen Victoria with Dr Annie Gray, Nicci French on being a husband and wife writing double act, mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick, Guardian columnist Erwin James on writing from inside, Gail Honeyman on Eleanor Oliphant and much more. The Festival runs until the end of March.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Sunshine (and hail) on Leigh

Leigh-on-Sea was looking particularly striking on a winter’s afternoon. Our party arrived at Westcliff-on-Sea station, surprised to discover the sea is only an hour from London. We walked along the seafront to Leigh, much to the delight of dogs Vulcan and Livvy. Even Kent Girl Paula was a convert. 

The tide was out and at times the sun glistened on the estuary mudflats, despite the wind and rain. While the layered clouds were various hues of gunmetal grey and Kent power stations brooded across the water. Chalkwell station has fantastic views out to sea and some fine Essex artwork in the ‘portals’ on the beach wall too. 

We passed the Crow Stone, a mysterious obelisk that marks the end of the City of London's authority over the River Thames. Our walk ended in Leigh, via the seafood shop and heritage museum. As the weather turned we headed for the pub. There’s little better than sitting in the warm window seat of the Crooked Billet looking out at the hail coming down, enjoying fine fish and chips and a pint of porter. We shall make more visits to estuary Essex in the winter.