Years ago, as a hardcore cyclist with miles in my legs, I used to dash along with the Dunwich Dynamo, an overnight mass cycle ride from Hackney to the Suffolk coast. By far the most daunting obstacles were the drunks and geezers pouring out of the nightclubs of Romford and Ilford – a little bit London, a little bit Essex – before the darkness of Epping Forest enveloped the busy main road, where boy racers got a little too close to the pedals of the peloton. There we sought safety in numbers, herding behind whichever well-prepared velocipede had the lamp power to navigate the starless and Bible black. Once out of the forest, another world emerged: peaceful, sparse of people, bucolic – the other Essex.
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. Although places such as Thurrock – maligned, working-class, Brexit-voting estuary Essex – were and are dumping grounds for the capital’s excess, for some the ‘combination of rural remoteness and relative proximity to the capital’ has long appealed: the ménage of Augustus John, his wife, Ida Nettleship, and the bohemian exemplar Dorelia McNeill made it to Matching Green and fell in love, not just with each other but also with its common, frequented by traveller communities, with their geese and dogs. Alas, they did not admire it to such an extent that they couldn’t often resist heading back to gloomy Liverpool Street via Harlow (before its reincarnation as a new town).
Not all the county’s radicalism is so faux. Essex historically has been an early adopter. It is hardly surprising that a region at the heart of Oliver Cromwell’s Eastern Association should have had its head turned three centuries on by another puritan, Margaret Thatcher, a similarly belligerent philo-Semite who handed her supporters a succession crisis that promises never to end. The Sun of Kelvin MacKenzie’s heyday expressed a Thatcherite ‘Up Yours!’ attitude typical of aspirational, individual Essex, which altered the cultural landscape of the country. It is a necessary reminder that radicalism is not necessarily progressive: who can forget the argument of Norman Tebbit – the archetypal Essex man, accent and all – that The Sun’s Page 3 ‘stunna’ was simply the working-class version of Titian’s nudes? Simon Heffer, one of the more cultivated sons of the county, defined Essex Man as ‘young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren’. In response, Darley provides a helpful list of Essexers made good – Alan Sugar, Vijay and Bhikhu Patel, Jon Hunt (founder of Foxtons) – though she omits certain leading pornographers and football club owners. Jony Ive, chief design officer at Apple, in particular stands out as a credit to his county, though he had to cross the Atlantic to do so. He was far from the first: many Puritans in the years before the Civil Wars escaped the intolerance of Charles I’s Personal Rule by heading to New England, which has an abundance of places named after Essex towns and villages, where they developed their own array of bigotries and dogmas.
Controversially, Darley claims Rod Stewart for the county, even though he was born in Highgate. Until earlier this year, however, he did own a country pile, Wood House, in Essex – indeed, there is something very Essex about it. Another house, Beaulieu, just outside Chelmsford, was bought by Henry VIII from Thomas Boleyn around 1520. There, he wooed Boleyn’s daughter Anne, having evicted his own daughter Mary, whom he had previously installed in it. It passed into the hands of the green-fingered first Duke of Buckingham, who dispatched his gardener to Europe in search of new plants for its abundant grounds, and was later bought for five shillings by Cromwell. Eventually, in something of a theological shift, Beaulieu – reverting to its original name of New Hall – was acquired by the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, a Catholic order whose members had fled Flanders in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Ironically, the order had been established to educate girls from wealthy English recusant families fleeing the predations of the Reformation kick-started by the amorous goings-on at Beaulieu.
Such shifts and ironies are typical of Essex and abound in this absorbing book. Darley is right that Essex is at once misunderstood and rewarding. But a county that encompasses the thatched cottages and watermills of Constable country, the salt marshes and mudflats of the Thames Estuary, Lord Tebbit and Grayson Perry, the insular and the eccentric, and, in the Chapel of St Peter on the Wall, the most moving structure in England – well, how could it not be? It will now be, at least, a little less misunderstood.