Jonathan Meades; The Joy of Essex
I am grateful to my naturalist neighbour, Secret Informant, for tipping me off about this programme and for introducing me to Jonathan Meades; ‘He’s like Jeremy Clarkson on heroin’, he promised. However, beyond a faint facial likeness, even if you are prepared to exert the necessary energy to imagine Clarkson under the influence of hard drugs, which I wouldn’t recommend, there is no significant resemblance. Meades, unlike the unrepentant motorist and shire Tory, is excellent in parts, he’s very funny and it’s impossible to resist the shot of him standing on Beaumont Quay posing in front of and oblivious to, a buried torso, apparently his own, with legs protruding stiffly and vertically from the banks of a muddy creek. Unfortunately, from now on, every time I go to Beaumont Quay, a favourite beauty spot of mine, I will have to fight off a mental picture of Jeremy Clarkson’s torso buried head-first in the mud, legs protruding stiffly and vertically. Thanks again, Secret.
The Ray-Bans are the first key to the programme. Ray- Bans are a statement sunglass – appropriate for a man who freely dispenses bold statements – and Jonathan Meades’ clothes – a suit, possibly linen; a turtle-neck sweater, decidedly louche and he appears to be bearing a variety of brothel creeper on his feet – bespeak a beatnick sensibility perhaps evoking Bob Dylan circa 1965/6 or, as Sam Woolaston suggested, reflecting a frustrated desire to have been a member of the Velvet Underground. I think it more likely that Jonathan, should he play air guitar in his bedroom, would have Lou Reed as the frontman, for, this garb implies, more emphatically than anything else, the concept of ‘Urban’. Essex, the programme claims, is inexorably shaped by proximity to London. Meades goes on to perform a fairly comprehensive hatchet job on ‘bucolic philanthropy’, first, rural utopians, then hubris – prone planners who seek to create ‘happiness garrisons’ characterised by ordered, pre-planned regulation and the pettily proscriptive, fostering dependency and resentment. I think he would include the new towns in this category. ‘They’ made the rules. ‘Us’ obeyed them. He doesn’t like enforced,or idealised,countryside.
At the end of the previous post I was anticipating whether and how Meades might deal with the 1953 East Coast flood. He does so briefly towards the end of the programme describing it as ‘A graphic lesson about the inevitability of dissolution’ and the conditionality of the whole idea of ‘land’. And finally the sea as; ‘The bounteous evil against which all defence is ultimately in vain’. For him, the Essex coast is an emblem of human powerlessness or more specifically, scourge of the pretensions of rural idealists, morris dancers, vegetarians and town planners, all of whom he sees as manifestations of the same dangerously oppressive phenomenon; Optimism. This sort of thing was fairly well-rehearsed in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 6 and I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t more radical.
The Joy of Essex starts promisingly; ‘’All places, all counties are various. All counties, all places are equally defined by a shorthand that denies that variety…’’ he then goes on to recite a long and surprisingly diverse litany of Essex stereotypes whilst standing in front of, in a strikingly urban manner (don’t forget the Ray-Bans), an even more diverse array of period architecture and scenery. Layer Marney Tower; St Peter on the Wall; St John’s Abbey Gate; Hadleigh Castle; Colchester Castle; Tilbury fort; Coalhouse Fort. Having dismissed the rural utopians as middle-class do- gooders, he then turns his sights upon architectural modernism. Good if done by the seaside, or by Charles Holden (‘’a school of one and a good school’’). Bad if done by Tomaz Bata for the employees of Bata Shoes. Not only bad, but paternalistic, sinister and collective. Similarly Bad were the works of randy Essex (Labour) M.P. Tom Driberg and the lefty vicar of Thaxted who was a fan of Joe Stalin and morris dancing.
Nowhere does he consider the impulses of the monks who built St Osyth Priory , or the Tudor nobility who built the 80 foot high gatehouse/ folly that is Layer Marney tower. What was St Cedd doing when he ransacked a ruined Roman fort to build St Peter on the Wall in the 7th century? None of these were engaged in altruism, and all had more or less explicit designs on the subjugation of the lower orders in order to exploit their labour power, and whilst I for one am happy that buildings like this are on my doorstep, their beauty and the fact that they date from before the 19th century are no guarantee of any merit in the intentions of those that built them. Mr Meades is an architecture critic. He knows this.
A second key to the programme is that Jonathan Meades is enjoying the sound of his own voice, in the best sense of the word. The language flows and his rhetoric has a bracing wind chill factor; describing a ‘Simpering, winsome, pseudo vernacular folkloric style of architecture…’ whilst standing on Wivenhoe Quay is very funny, especially if you live where I do. And what precisely are ‘cranial drainage drivers’? On the down side, his pronouncements are sometimes shaded with a fringe eugenicism; as when, for example he refers to ‘’The Thomas Hardy theme park for slow learners called Poundbury’’, or lamenting the death of what he calls ‘People’s Essex’, at the hands of planners who he describes as ‘’…people , like scum-of-the-earth politicians, who are life’s prefects. Social and/or emotional cripples whose mission is to tell us what to do and what not to do.’’
Some of his elisions are fairly spectacular – and I’m ignoring the commonplace in which he elides support for the Palestinian state with anti Semitism (he is nothing if not wide-ranging) – citing for example, the case in which ‘’Modernism took on the market and the market won’’ . He asserts this portentously and with relish. What was the scene of this epic battle? Our own dear Frinton. What was the occasion? the failure of a housing estate to reach its full fruition because the elderly people who aspired to live in Frinton did not want to buy houses that looked like Bataville or Silver End (when he says ‘modernism’ he doesn’t mean Picasso or Henry Ford or James Joyce, he means buildings). I could name several housing estates within a few miles, or even hundreds of yards from where I live that are currently failing to reach fruition because the market has fled in full retreat. I wonder if this is a corresponding ‘victory for post-modernism’?
Readers of a certain age will remember the punk magazine Sniffin’ Glue, with the three-string punk blues manifesto; ”This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. NOW FORM A BAND.” The Jonathan Meades approach to housing development, it turns out, bears a marked resemblance to the spirit of Mark Perry’s invocation. The camera lingers lovingly over shots of Lee-Over-Sands, Jaywick and the Houseboats at West Mersea; ‘’This is wood. This is asbestos. This is corrugated iron. NOW BUILD A HOUSE!”
He is not, I think, being ironic when he talks about an ‘under-the-counter Essex’ of self-built chalets and bungalows. It is perhaps unfortunate that the building being visually caressed at this point in the film is H.M. coastguard station at Lee-over-Sands. For, what could be more in tune with current government policy than an under-the-counter coastguard service? Inspired, Jonathan. Step forward Group4, QinetiQ, Virgin, Serco et al. I can see coastal Essex Tories rubbing their hands with glee. Meade has perhaps, more in common with Jeremy Clarkson than I thought. I wouldn’t want to be in a boat in a high sea though.
The chalets at Lee-over-sands and houseboats at West Mersea do have a rough-hewn, hand-made appeal ( although it is worth noting that they were selling at 80 – 90 grand a pop a few years ago, which is not my idea of an under-the-counter price). Modest projects, says Meades, not unreasonably, are likely to succeed. He likes the plotlanders, but he romanticises self-sufficiency and the hope of self-determination with a veneration of the hardy pioneer worthy of Sarah Palin. Some of the chalets were built by people who were blitzed out of London during the war. Others, like those at Jaywick and Maylandsea (and he acknowledges this), were speculative builds for cheap holiday accommodation. He finishes with one final rant against what he calls the ‘fetishisation of nature, with reptiles and wildfowl being granted greater rights than homesteaders’. ‘Homesteader’ was the term used by the ‘free soil’ movement in the United States in the run up to the civil war. It is worth perhaps bearing in mind that without state support and canned food, the 19th century American homesteaders wouldn’t have stood an earthly. I’m off to read some Colin Ward. I suspect however that Jonathan Meades’ heart is not in this conclusion; television documentaries like to tie loose ends and the genre isn’t good with ambiguity. Unlike the Essex coast. The Joy of Essex does better on this front than most. It is repeated tonight at midnight. Highly recommended.