Posted in Reading on Sunday 22nd September 2019 at 1:09pm
Imagine being known only by your least appealing attributes...
For most of us that's not a big speculative leap: there's a decidedly British ability to fall back on self-deprecation and we're all aware of those aspects of our character we regard as the least prepossessing. Often, of course, we're entirely wrong about how others see us, and it's this lack of complete self-awareness that prevents us from entirely giving up on society. For the County of Essex though, in Gillian Darley's words "England's most misunderstood County", it's a tough ask. Certainly, for the last quarter-century, the entire place has been an embarrassingly easily deployed punchline to almost any location-specific gag in the book. Over time the easy-target status has mutated unpleasantly too, expanding to embrace the social class, criminality and moral standing of the local citizens. When a County which was once a proud Saxon nation within a nascent England can be portrayed as a series of hackneyed stereotypes so generalised as to be almost ubiquitous, any attempt to salvage a reputation is going to have to work hard. In Excellent Essex, Gillian Darley lets Essex do its own heavy-lifting, leveraging the often charmingly eccentric, defiantly non-conformist and downright uncanny air of the place itself. It would take a lot of whitewash to erase the cultural memory of TOWIE, Essex man or the white stiletto - but by embracing and extending some of these tropes, Darley's essay-turned-love-letter manages to dodge apologism, circumvent denial and gets stuck into the reality of Essex. A reality which is often far odder than the myth.
How many of us trot out these tropes without any personal experience of Essex is another matter entirely of course. Essex is somewhere we're content to experience entirely by proxy in most cases, assuming we know all we need to know from veiled mentions on Eastenders, cartoon-like depictions in comedy or perhaps in the more colourful exhibits in the true-crime genre. But the County is vast, spreading from the edges of the City of London, through the traditional East End out into the eerily empty salt-flats of the east coast. A more alien pairing of liminal zones its hard to imagine. The huge tracts of farmland in between have provided fuel to the engine of London's progress for much of its first two millennia, and the industrial belt which still creeps along the Thames shore may be shifting from belching chimneys to mysterious prefabricated sheds, but it still employs and services the capital in a way unique among the counties bordering the capital. I remember my own earliest forays into Essex: crossing the River Lea and just knowing that something on this bank felt very different. The vast expanses of Epping Forest and the gated mansions of Chingford Mount rubbed shoulders with weatherboarded churches, windmills and marshland forts. Sometimes the open friendliness surprised me, while at other times I felt the dismay of prejudice in the face of trophy dogs and excessive jewellery. But once I'd finally crossed the threshold, I was hooked on the story of this odd, marginal, in someways exiled place.
Excellent Essex in many ways picks up where Jonathan Meades' Joy of Essex left off. He told us this was a weird place, and no mistake. Darley takes up the baton: it's strange, but in its eccentricity is an abundance of life, wit, invention and erudition. Through a series of loosely themed chapters, the whole sweep of the County is whirled into the mix. The stories come thick and fast at the pace of an enthusiast wanting to share. This was a little shocking at first: I was familiar with Gillian's more scholarly efforts on Iain Nairn, and the sheer ebullience of this book was surprising. But it's ridiculously easy to be swept along by her smart, playful prose. Taking the ancient borders of the County as a guide, Darley is as comfortable on the fringes of the city stalking William Morris in Walthamstow as she is on the vast, empty coastal reaches commandeered by the MOD. In between there are stories of model societies forming around charismatic leaders or well-intentioned philanthropists, there are scientist-clergymen judging the speed of sound, and there are struggles for freedom to live in ancient ways as the County feels the inexorable pull of modernity. The book is deeply honest about the relative success of the endeavours of these men and women of Essex, and never shies away from facing down some of the stereotypes born on the dancefloors of Brentwood or Basildon - but its done in a spirit which recognises the humanity of the supporting cast: from maverick parsons to TOWIE-regulars alike.
The spectre of London is never far away, and the book expresses the drag towards the capital while deftly ensuring that the edges of Essex which have more in common with East Anglia than the City get their time and space. The stories weave around the places and character, bringing folk customs, traditional products, dialects and history into something which manages to be both a whirlwind tour of facts and fancies and a bloody good read all at once. The sheer scope of Excellent Essex means it's over all too soon - there are characters you'll want to read more about, ancient customs of which you'll want to find out the fate, and both dark alleyways and tempting green lanes you'll want to explore. And perhaps that's the true joy of this book: you'll want to seek out the primary sources, visit the village greens and talk to the inhabitants of this singular part of Britain first hand. No tourist board would ever be brave enough to write something as dizzyingly smart, witty and honest about the area they meant to promote - but then only one tourist board has the challenge of selling Essex to the skeptics, and Gillian's not working for them. Well, not yet at least.
And if this works, and we all decide to throw caution to the prevailing westerly winds which have carried so many unexpected cargoes over Essex, then I'll see you outside a weatherboarded pub in the marshes, or perhaps in the churchyard nestled in the Proctor and Gamble works. There's plenty of space for all us out there in the Essex wilderness, and this is a wonderful introductory guide.
You can find Excellent Essex at Amazon, or better yet at your local bookshop.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.