EXCELLENT ESSEX In praise of England’s most misunderstood county by Gillian Darley Old Street Publishing, London. 17 Sept 2019
Gillian Darley caught my attention some years ago with her positivity towards that “most overlooked and undersold of counties”; Essex, which she presented without the usual preface of undermining caveats. “Surprisingly, Essex is rather self-effacing”, Darley wrote, its “delight based on anomaly and paradox.” The part of Essex I have come to know intimately; the River Roding, its valley and catchment, which runs through the north west flanks of an exceptionally rich cultural landscape into London’s most vital parts, exemplifies these qualities. Darley’s refreshing words appeared in her review of an updated Pevsner guide in the London Review of Books (2007) which was, it turns out, also the trigger for Excellent Essex itself.
Titles and terms; I’m as troubled by the ‘excellent’ here as I know you are. If it’s a reference to a phrase or shorthand then I don’t get it. In any case, how does Superb Sussex, Brilliant Berkshire or ‘You’re Beautiful’ Yorkshire sound? Then there is the more elemental problem of a book, any book, about a county. Do we still do that? It’s not that a comparative counties schtick would be better or any less old-fashioned; both belong to cultural realms last evidenced half a century ago. Indeed, Darley refers admiringly to the photography of Edwin Smith which appeared in Gerald Scarfe’s Shell Guide to Essex (1968), in the series edited by Johns Betjeman and Piper. All of which feels fustily antique.
In somewhat belaboured contrast, Darley draws her book to an end with A House for Essex, the architectural curio commissioned by Alan de Botton, produced by architectural new-wavers FAT and artist-mascot Grayson Perry, and located in Wrabness. Darley writes; “The more I think about Julie Cope (Perry’s ‘Essex-girl’ name for it) the more she emerges as a figurative Essex.” By this she means the knowing vulgarities and devil-may-careness of it as well as something more profound. Darley’s figured Essex “took a journey out of one Essex into another, towards a wider more generous world.” This is an Essex I recognise; “belonging yet not-belonging, absurd yet admirable … open to ideas and experiment, making it fertile ground for alternative ways of living and favouring the independent-minded”. Qualities of a place worthy of a book, in fact. Continue reading “note_21 Gillian Darley’s Essex; meanderings (in lieu)…”