Jonathan Meades returns to our screens tonight with The Joy of Essex (BBC Four, 9pm). Our own Jonathon Green finds his old friend in typical acerbic, cliché-bashing form…
Jonathan Meades, who has guided us of late around the Baltic Fringe and through the less obvious aspects of France, has made his way home. Or at least back this side of the Channel. To Essex.
Essex, is there a county so deeply enshrined in contemptuous and yet simultaneously envious iconography? Do we need enunciate the clichés? Slang noted the county’s role long since: Essex’s lion being merely a calf, it’s stile a ditch. This, maintains Mr Meades, is mere placeism: kneejerk condemnation based like all isms on the lazy regurgitation of spoonfed pap.
Meades, a man of solids, has no time for this. In its opening sequence The Joy of Essex runs down the clichés; bling, tanning parlours, McMansions, chirpy if exiled cockney cabbies and the rest. That the background to these is a travelogue of Essex glories: brick houses, mini-castles, swathes of fertile vegetation, dank but fascinating marshland, the sea…all makes it clear that this is not the Essex of TOWIE. Not a white high heel in sight. Writing in last Sunday’s Telegraph he noted that the Essex of popular fantasy, Essex Girl Essex, to paraphrase, is what the marketeers might term Essex TM. The Joy of Essex, I would suggest, is Essex JM.
Meades has been at this for a long time now and Meadesland has its landmarks. Those who take a trip there know what to expect and relish it. There is the usual acerbic wit: ‘accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons’, ‘democracy is all pretence, but it is the pretence that is important,’ an appreciation of the counter-language: a man who married well ‘got his cock in the till’ and the description, adapted from Tom Driberg’s biographer Francis Wheen, of the voracious fellator as the great ‘spermophage’; a far from genial contempt for such ‘prefects’ as politicians, planners and other layers down of laws for others, an admirable philosemitism. If one needs to seek an epitome of the refusal to suffer fools gladly, look no further. And if there is one difference that should jump out at every regular, it is sartorial. Abandoning his usual mix of subfusc and some un-named colour-code from Reservoir Dogs, Meades has a donned a polo-neck. It acknowledges, no doubt, the east winds that traverse the county under review.
Nor does the erstwhile restaurant critic eat or drink. No signature herrings, no cold running schnapps. The linking comedy is produced by the parodic delivery of cod-local radio newsflashes delivered in tones so authentic that they are surely professional. Much less of these, I fear, would have gone as far if not further.
If Essex TM offers the pleasures of conspicuous consumption and above all immediate gratification then Essex JM shows that the county’s older leitmotif seems to be that of gratification infinitely delayed. Essex appears to have been a magnet for utopianism. I come not, declared William Morris’ Time Traveller, from Heaven but from Essex. The tour d’horizon takes in a variety of schemes, often sidling into cranky cultdom. The original appears to have been the Salvation Army’s late 19th century land colonies, seeking, as Meades notes is ever the way, to reform those considered to be enjoying life too much, i.e. via smoke and drink, by depriving them of such pleasures and replacing them by hard and in every sense unrewarding labour.
The Sally Ann scheme worked, fields were tilled, cheap goods produced, and its graduates were smartly dispatched to new lives abroad. The cults that followed, the hey-nonny-no folkies and their kin, did not. Beards, sandals, exercise, that grimmest of all phrases: ‘joining in’. The joyless regimen of health and efficiency. There is an underlying sniff of Charlie Manson in all these utopian hempen homespuns and what Meades terms ‘transcendental bivouacs’. Cults spinning out of control and potentially disastrous consequences. Purgings, fissiparousness, the fell diktat that if I am right then it is necessary that you be wrong and suffer accordingly. In the event none seem to have prospered.
This is Jonathan Meades and the social comes with the architectural. Usually in the same entity. The BATA shoe factory, a Czechoslovak creation that blended cheap manufacture designed to confer both social and economic benefit with a range of company designed buildings (houses, leisure centres, the factories themselves) that adhered to what was for Britain a revolutionary modernism. The firm moved on, the buildings remain. More modernism – crisp rectilinearity, Crittall windows (another Essex creation) , sleek, unblenmished white paint – in Gidea Park and Frinton but Britain prefers its residences as mini-manors. As Meades points out, there is something suspiciously ‘international,’ i.e. Jewish, about all these ‘foreign’ right angles and the wilful denial of furbelows. Meanwhile Essex hosted the ‘effortfully eccentric’ A.H. Macmurdo, sometimes credited as founder of art nouveau, but in truth not so. Meades, like a design-driven Tom Thumb, plucks out these architectural plums, though uninitiates will regret that he chooses to leave some of them unspecified.
What Mr Meades likes, as regulars will know, is the unfettered. The personal on parade and no place for high-minded condescension. He dealt with prefabs long since and Essex offers its share, folk art created by poor whites, home-built follies thrown together with ‘lashings of asbestos and corrugated iron’, as our narrator puts it with all the enthusiasm of Blyton’s Famous Five sitting down to a scrumptious tea. This is the true workers’ playtime and there are no physical jerks in Meadesland’s utopias.
For Jonathan Meades the disappearance of this ‘people’s Essex’, the true ‘joy’ of the programme’s title, is to be mourned. The planners’ authoritarianism – utopia for themselves if not those upon whom they impose themselves – will ensure that. As for Essex TM the scum continues to rise. Perhaps Mr Meades, so particularly well equipped to excoriate such dross, will devote his next appearance to doing so.