The Reading Room

Essex gets an unlikely new PR man

Whether he’s talking about food, architecture or travel, you can be sure former Times critic, writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades will always have a barbed bon mot ready to entertain and sometimes enrage. Last night he was back on form and on TV for the first time in a while mounting a spirited defence of one of our most often and lazily maligned counties in The Joy of Essex on BBC4.

The county has all too easily been the target of scorn in recent years due to easy media targets from brash Bentley driving footballers to the rise of celebrity wannabes like Amy Childs and Mark Wright. It had joined northern regions mocked for a preponderance of flat caps and whippets and Scousers stealing hubcaps, moaned Meades. He reeled off a string of cliches used all too often in the media about the fair county to the east of London while all the while standing out in glorious countryside or in front of beautiful historic buildings like St Osyth’s Priory. The message was a clear one – there’s a lot more to Essex than its cliche-toting critics would have you believe.

Dressed from head to foot in black and sporting all-black Ray Ban Wayfarers, looking like a cross between Johnny Cash and Lou Reed, he seemed a most unlikely figure to be scowling into camera and deadpan reciting rich prose and polemic from the Essex cornfields, historic monuments and tidal salt flats.

He pootled around the county in a Toyota Prius, all the while tuning in and out a local radio DJ whose Alan Partridge style inanities were actually made up for the programme, but could just as easily have been the real-life musings of any of the daytime presenters on BBC Essex or Heart Essex. This recurring gag became a bit overdone in the end. But one never grew tired of Meades and where he would take you on this most idiosyncratic tour.

He talked about the 19th century Bible bashing cults who would put people to work in Utopian but harsh settlements, anything from William Booth’s Sally Army farm at Hadleigh (where Meades couldn’t help but hang round the historic castle and refer to how Constable had painted it) to New Harmony, the Chartists, Ruskin’s Guild of St George. It seemed Essex was a magnet for such confident social experimentation as the industrial age began to impinge. But many of these superficially Godly endeavours were little more than an excuse to exploit slave labour and indulge in another form of the clearances, Meade revealed.

He was equally excoriating about some of the county’s historic figures who are still afforded plaques and statues in museums and churches, such as Thaxted’s controversial vicar Conrad Noel – “This fascinating and infuriatingly wrong-headed man, one of the best known clerics of the early 20th century, was for many years incumbent of St John the Baptist, Thaxted, a living which was in the gift of the champagne socialist and horizontal socialite Daisy Countess of Warwick. Noel was both an Anglo Catholic ritualist and a Christian socialist activist. That’s having your cake and eating it, it wasn’t enough though; Noel wanted the entire bakery. So he was also a fellow traveller of Feinianism and Stalinism, which’ll be why his tomb proclaims that he loved justice and hated oppression.”

Architecture was also under Meades’ fascinating spotlight, from the modernist model village created by shoe giant Thomas Bata to Oliver Hill’s quaint and just a little crazy Frinton-on-Sea and the bizarre hit-and-mainly-miss arts and craft stylings of Arthur Mackmurdo, who in some weird way almost predicted art nouveau.

The dead hand of the town planners came under fire too, for their rolling out of the overspill towns of Basildon and Harlow, but in particular for their attack on the self-made and self-determining sprawling shanty towns of seaside shacks along the east coast, or “an Essex on the sly, an under-the-counter Essex, a Cockney Shangri-La, a homemade heaven on earth” as Meades romanced it.

“Planners are people who, like scum-of-the-earth politicians, are life’s prefects, social and/or emotional cripples whose mission is to tell us what to do and what not to do. Essex is notorious in this regard. The Essex Design Guide was first published almost 40 years ago. It ordained a simpering, winsome, pseudo-vernacular, neo-traditional, bogusly folkloric style of architecture for the county. South Woodham Ferrers was the earliest but by no means the most saccharine example.” Ouch. I hope there weren’t any town planners watching.

As TV presenters go, Meades can be brutal but never less that brilliant and personally I can’t wait to see some more of his idiosyncratic extolling of the virtues of a county I thought I knew but had never really seen so many charming and quirky sides to. Meades is one hell of a guide. AW

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