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.
Philip Morant, roving Rector and ferocious defender of his realm, wrote a magisterially capacious two volume book of this kind; The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex, in the late Eighteenth century. In it he describes an exception to Darley’s “largely horizontal topography” in the north-west of the county as a relatively high ground from which many rivers spring; a small tributary to the Lea, as well as the Rivers Chelmer and Roding. The area is known from afar today for Stansted Airport but just below it and the Roman Stane Street around Hatfield Forest and the Roding’s catchment is an area with the highest density of moats in the country. Moats traditionally surrounded Manor, with farm and church or chapel secured in this way, but there is no settled view as to their significance except as an indicator or guarantee of independence.
The moat is an Essex figure just as much as Julie Cope, and Darley is commanding when she writes about the “yeoman farming landscape” that generated and was generated by these means. Essex is mostly a place of scattered hamlets, non-nucleated villages and a very stable cultural landscape dating to the clearing of the Forests of Essex by Roman and Saxon settlers in particular. It bred a form of independence already described and Darley quotes a Sixteenth century source to describe “each one dwelling in the midst of his own occupying.” She writes elsewhere “I have been continually struck by the literal steadfastness -‘sted’ meaning place, of the Essex landscape and people”, a resourcefulness and resilience which combines visionary energy with “expediency” to get stuff done. Sound familiar?
The strengths of Excellent Essex lie in the central chapters of the book where these qualities are foregrounded. Chapter titles are faithful; Heaven with the Gates Off, A Peculiar People, Do Something Fierce, Crepes, Grapes and Salt Flakes. These concern new beginnings and utopian dreams, resilience during and after war as well as an entrepreneurial Essex. Darley can be a brilliant sketch-artist and is armed with a treasure-chest of stories, people, uncanny resonances and eccentricity to select and weave into mini-essays which act like stepping stones through this complex space.
Crepes, Grapes and Salt Flakes, for instance, starts with her version of the story of harvesting of salt at Maldon on the coast. Elsewhere, Darley is commanding when writing about the eruptions of Modernist and other more elementally Utopian communities across Essex, from the now well known Bata, Frinton or Silver End communities to the plot landers of Dunton and Pitsea all the way round to Jaywick Sands. A highlight of the book is her version of the Crittall story which includes the creation of Silver End, a white-rendered series of flat roofed ‘foreign’-seeming buildings with their ubiquitous steel windows; no pargetting or thatch. She writes; “20th-century Britons looked out through little else, whether at home or at work, in industrial villages or fashionable resorts, in garden suburbs or, later, New Towns.”
A Peculiar People centres on an account of Daisy, Duchess of Warwick and exemplifies the rewards of the book. Daisy published multiple volumes of her own memoirs, appears in many others, is the subject of at least two biographies, as well as the song Daisy Bell about her easily-mythologised love-life. The Duchess is a difficult figure to champion: heiress of the largest aristocratic estate in England at the age of 3 which centred on Easton Lodge and a Deer Park on the banks of the River Roding three kilometres from Stansted Airport. Daisy is interesting less for the extreme privilege of her early life, in which she spurned Queen Victoria’s approval of marriage to her youngest son only to have a 10 year long affair with the eldest; Edward, who lent his name to the first decade of the Twentieth century, but for her anomalous political radicalism.
In 1895, Daisy gave an extravagant ball to celebrate her husband’s inheritance of his Earldom, Warwick Castle and estates at which she appeared in full Parisian couture as Marie Antoinette. It was another winter of brutal cold weather and agricultural collapse, exacerbating the rural poverty which emptied the poor of Essex into London’s dockland slums. The Duchess described the criticism she received as the turning point in a life which led her to declaring herself a socialist by 1912. Darley tells stories about the pioneering educational institutions Daisy attempted to establish, and the near-miss of the TUC campus at Easton that was scuppered by the cost of the General Strike in 1926. However, she doesn’t manage to situate Daisy herself, even as I have here, and the segment runs on into the nothings of an annual fete in the restored formal gardens.
The strengths of Darley’s Essex are also its weaknesses, in that her burdensome task is to introduce or re-introduce us to all of Essex now. One of the constants of the county is its close relations with London, the capital which it once fed as a wandering Daniel Defoe notes. “Palaces were thin on the ground in Essex, despite (or because of) proximity to London”, Darley writes. The grand houses of the Industrial Age which littered the old Essex west of the River Roding, from where William Morris Senior, Buxtons and others commuted by stagecoach into the city, have long been consumed by fast suburbs. Betjeman was right to speak of the poor deal the county received from the Twentieth century compared to other Home Counties, like the Royal Berkshire I grew up in. By the Twenty-first, Essex had become a set of unexamined cliches; ‘-man’, ‘-girls’, TOWIE, orange-faced UKIPery. Excellent Essex has to underpin, reconstruct as well as re-articulate a great deal to catch up on this lost century.
In sketching ‘everything’ in this way, Darley’s account thins. I wonder, for example, what point there is in mentioning John Clare or Tennyson’s interludes in Epping Forest while adding nothing to what is very well known. At times differences between the resonantly located -anecdote or phenomenon- and the merely local blur. The former lit up Darley’s account of Daisy and a theatre she established in her estate, where figures like HG Wells, Arnold Bennet, and Gustav Holst as well as politicians like Kenyatta to Attlee via Margaret Bondfield, the first female Cabinet Minister, lived or gathered. Darley’s telling interest is in Daisy’s support for and staging of The Furriner, a “play entirely in Essex dialect”. In contrast, the merely local; garden fetes, local history associations as such, chunders aimlessly.
Darley is best on architecture and the built form and her book misses a trick by not indulging more substantial explorations. These don’t have to be essays in the Sebaldian mode, but sufficient pages to offer memorable, inspired or useful takes aways. She writes well on New Towns like Harlow, noting the value of “retained green wedges”, or on Basil Spence’s Basildon; “always less mainstream than Harlow”. She detests Philip Johnson, notes that Frank Crittall was “a chapel man”, admires Michael Landy’s transfer of his father’s semi- on Kingswood Road, Ilford, to Tate Britain, and battles against Essex-sneerers, without quite accusing Jonathan Meades of being one. The politics of all this looms not in manifestoes but in association with and attention to realms beneath the establishment radar. It’s the politics of a not-quite-declared commons.
Excellent Essex is also good on “the other Essex, that inexorable landscape of saltmarsh, reeds, mudflats and water” which includes the Frinton of her recalled childhood. I would have liked more of this partly as a counter to the logic of Sebald’s Suffolk, in which he went with the flows eroding the coast to valorise a tendency to build towards and in the West. Darley turns firmly to the East here and is at her most affectionate along the muddy shorelines of Mersea and beyond. Her heart is in this Essex and there is no doubting the authenticity and encyclopaedic appreciation of the county that she has invested in her book. As such, it has the makings of a cult like the Tom Nairn volume on London that she so admires.
Darley’s Excellent Essex is also a great introduction to an England composed of Celtic tribes plus every wave of immigration -including the Windrush- that has made Britain what it is at its best. Essex is a beacon of immigration, without which we would not have ways of making, travelling, farming, owning and using land, rabbits or pheasants, nor the names of the River Roding, Essex or England. Essex is also shifting, with the artisanal micro-brewery-world encroaching its westernmost flanks from Walthamstow and Epping Forest, to the returns to and recoveries of Southend and Radical Essex. It’s a transformation that requires more of the acute observational writing that Tim Burrows has been doing on Canvey Island and beyond as well as more sustained essays at resonant characteristics, histories and elements like the Roding’s riverworld, for example.
“There’s always been something uncharted and insoluble about Essex”, Darley concludes. Her pioneering recovery of the county in all its gorgeous and generative complexity does thin in places but disappoints most by pulling up too short. Nevertheless, this much-needed encyclopaedic sketch will catalyse many other voices to burrow and build an unignorable presence once more. I hope that is understood as a compliment.
Thanks Old Street for winging a copy of this to me; I pressed a number of editors on the book and all-too-easily overlooked subject, and have tidied some notes into a couple of thousand words here. Suffice to say how bizarre it is to see wall-to-wall fibre-free smoothie Malcolm Gladwell taking the place of wider notice of this ground-breaking even if not wholly successful book. What has been published (see below) has been notable for its engaged positivity, even if punishingly short (the exception filled an architectural column). I hope it’s clear from the above that I value the book and Darley’s enterprise, that I think you would too?
(My own manuscript –Rivering Roding– is very different; fortunate in its focus on a distinct somewhat finite but deeply resonant aspect of Essex, its worlds and lives that could also be considered a smart strategy though it was not conceived as such. But it allows a very penetrative trawling and capture; both richly crafted observational detail about water, flora and fauna, and a generative riverworld conjured artfully along the way to its quintessentially urban confluence. It allows me to link small or concrete things to ultimately very large existential ones; the mud on my boots to the eddying muddles of ongoing symbiosis; a petal to the art of rendering it, the death and painful memories of the artist, etc. Where Darley and my riverworld overlap directly, I can see exactly what she has done here and it’s very impressive for being deliberate and consistent with her peculiar vision. Nevertheless, it’s essential to take off in chase of the things that burn and know what that is, means, does and be able to write definitively as well as mix up the densities. A river is a strong ally in these respects! A great writer and friend once described the former as very ‘hot ‘writing which needs the variance of ‘cool’ to truly work. Daisy’s story, as above, for instance, has a personal resonance, but it’s a story worth telling properly, because it also ‘stands for’ larger things, and I do. It’s a risk, of course, and so it must pay off. Anyway, as I find myself saying often, a river like the Roding is defined by its flow. My book, as you will see, is defined by its threads… )
. Catherine Slessor heralded Darley’s Essex at generous length in The Observer here: “Pinioned by water on one side and London on the other, Essex has a sense of being perpetually under siege from both the sea and the elephantine presence of the metropolis… Threats of inundation and invasion have always weighed heavily on the Essex mind… EE is a richly nuanced billet doux to a terrain populated and shaped by dissenters, eccentrics, witch-finders, Puritans, plotlanders and punks… Darley makes a delightfully convivial and knowledgable sherpa (but) existential dread casts a particularly deep and baleful shadow over Essex… in Darley’s vivid narrative of reclaiming and resituating. Contradictory and complex, Essex is never quite what it seems.”
. Paul Lay in The Literary Review here: “Gillian Darley’s book is not a mad dash through this most compelling and complex of English counties. Nor is it another tired example of psychogeographical self-indulgence in the mode of Iain Sinclair or Will Self. It is a measured and loving treatment of a slice of England made schizophrenic by the ‘pull and push’ of London… Essex historically has been an early adopter… It will now be, at least, a little less misunderstood.”
. Simon Heffer in The Spectator here: “Essex really is a special and unusual place… That authentic, even Cromwellian, voice of the bloody-minded, rugged individualist that has given Essex and so much of the eastern counties a unique flavour is if anything even stronger today than it was 75 years ago: many more piles have been made, and Essex — even its rural, picture-postcard parts — still throbs with the Roundhead determination and ingenuity that has provided Darley with so much to write about.”
. Jonathan Meades in History Today here: “What those unfamiliar with the many versions of Essex Darley scrutinises, but who are up to speed on popular misrepresentations of the county, will make of this energetic, dense, quasi-omniscient piece of work is anybody’s guess. It may come as a sort of revelation. Darley’s Essex is multi-layered and constantly counter-intuitive. Much of its character is due to the scarcity of big estates and the consequent non-feudal nature of its old settlements… much of Essex is, after all, London seeping ever eastwards… Essex’s incoherence gives Darley her structure. It is thematic, often indifferent to chronology, reliant on association and formidable energy… a generally stellar performance”.