Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The joy of Essex

For the next ten days or so, I am offering a small clutch of reviews of recent books that might appeal to readers of this blog. First of all...

Gillian Darley, Excellent Essex
Published by Old Street

There used to be lots of county books: county histories, county guidebooks, meandering accounts of counties by bellettrist old “countrymen” full of clichés about nestling villages and “delightful churches”. There’s not so much of this about now, and some say we think less about counties than in the days of before local government changes messed about with county boundaries and names in the 1970s. That’s debatable, but people certainly have prejudices about counties, and none more so than about Essex – Essex Man and The Only Way is Essex are familiar parts of Britain’s media landscape. Gillian Darley’s Excellent Essex blows all this out of the window, and wafts some welcome fresh air into the idea of the county book.

Excellent Essex does a good job of evoking the great variety of Essex, which is part rich countryside, part London fringes, part absorbing towns, with a very long coastline thrown in too. And of confronting the contradictions of a place that’s widely pro-Brexit but has always welcomed newcomers. Darley knows her Essex, and gives us absorbing nuggets of history and topographical fact about all these aspects of the county. Essex is full of memorable architecture, much of it there thanks to the wealth coming in from local industries – whether it was Courtauld’s textiles, Bata footwear, or Tiptree jam. Interesting and sometimes highly influential ideas have been born, or at any rate bred, in Essex, which has been home to future American Pilgrims, Tolstoyan anarchists, and women’s suffrage campaigners.

Darley, who has an honourable track-record of writing about architecture and its contexts, is the ideal author for all this, and is alert to the county’s sometimes surprising buildings and their stories. Essex is where we will find historical wonders like Thaxted Guildhall and the pargetted quaintness of Saffron Walden. It is home to Critall metal-framed windows, the Bata buildings of East Tilbury, and the glorious “seaside modern” houses of Frinton – all at the heart of English modernism of the 20th century. The county is also, of course, the site of the memorable and wonderful House for Essex, created by the architectural practice called FAT along with Essex man and artist Grayson Perry. The county also has its share of plotlands and the various offbeat joys of Canvey Island. All human culture, oner might say, is here, from the music of Gustav Holst (who spent a lot of time in Thaxted) to that of Sandie Shaw and Wilko Johnson, from the art of the Great Bardfield painters to that of Alfred Munnings or, yes, Grayson Perry.

Essex is, then, as diverse in its combination of old and new, high and low art, idealism and entrepreneurship, inventiveness and conservatism, as England as a whole. Gillian Darley does a superlative job of portraying this, and her account, rich with history and anecdote, also makes the trip to Essex a highly entertaining ride.

1 comment:

bazza said...

Hooray for Essex and this book! Asa local lad , I have always been ready to promote the many positive things about the county. From Manningtree to Chigwell, from Malden to Saffron Walden and from Danbury to Stansted Mountfitchet there are many delights!
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