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Reviewed: The Joy of Essex with Jonathan Meades

Escape from orange county.

The Joy of Essex

I’m trying to finish a book at the moment and every time it seems as though this task is completely beyond me, which is at least five times a day. This is what I do: I pick up Jonathan Meades’s new collection of essays, Museum Without Walls, and I read a paragraph or three. It’s the writerly equivalent of standing on the top of Kinder Scout and breathing deeply. The scope of his ideas, the force of his arguments, the sheer vitality of his sentences: these things come at you like negative ions after a storm, with the result that you soon start to feel an awful lot better – envious but revitalised, too.

It’s the same with his films. Better five minutes of Meades than one hour of Andrew Graham-Dixon, five hours of Waldemar Januszczak, two years of Jeremy Paxman: imposters, all. The Joy of Essex (Tuesdays, 9pm), a quietly triumphant counterblast to the vomitous world of TOWIEand, before it, Birds of a Feather, saw him back in Blighty (his last series was about France), which is where I like him best. Stick Meades, immobile as a mahogany tallboy, in front of a prefab, a pebble-dashed semi, or some stuccoed exercise in 19th-century bad taste and you have a recipe for total happiness. The words patter out and not a single one is wasted. Don’t be deceived by the flat, mordant delivery: it’s a verbal burqa, behind which there lurks –Meades will despise me for saying this – passion of an unusually throbbing variety.

Essex is weird and he had the evidence to prove it. Thanks both to its proximity to London and to the sea, down the years it has pulled in all sorts of Utopian idealists: men who, as Meades put it, believed they could make the world a better place “through deeply felt smocking”. And so he toured the various miniature empires they established, from Charles Booth’s Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh Farm to “Bata-ville” in East Tilbury, where in the Thirties, the Bata shoemakers were invited to live in modernist houses and spend their holidays in Zlín, Moravia. This was so interesting, my head started to itch. After this, the architectural dreamers: Charles Holden (“a school of one” said Meades), Arthur Mackmurdo, Oliver Hill. He was a bit down on beardy-weirdy Mackmurdo, I felt, but his account of Great Ruffins, the house (circa 1904) that bankrupted him, was great. Its design, he said, looks “as though one hand doesn’t know what the other is up to”. This is not something that can be said of him.

Between destinations, Meades had a new gimmick. On the radio of his Prius could be heard a local DJ, demented, wittering and scatalogical, his scripts (once you grasped they were scripts; at first, I tuned out, assuming this to be a genuine voice of Essex) the product of another, more scabrous side of him. This was funny in itself but as punctuation it was quite brilliant. When the wittering stopped, you were in the next place, serene and grateful. I loved the look of Mistley, with its remnant church towers, sentinels from another age; I find, somewhat to my surprise, that I urgently need to arrange a mini-break that will take in the Frinton Park Estate (seaside modernism), Silver End (model village featuring many Crittall windows) and even Lee-over-Sands (jerry-built bungalows).

There isn’t a better tour guide in the world than Meades – though mindless enthusiasm and windmilling arms are not for him. Rhetorical leaps, labyrinthine sentences, unsettling conjunctions: these are the knives in his drawer and they are sharp. The viewer must pay attention, or lose track. “Accessible means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons,” he said, at one point. On the surface of it, he was talking about architectural modernism, something most British people continue to find so very alarming. But as he gazed at the camera, still as a lizard, I understood his real target to be television itself, over which, alas, boredom, inanity and Amy Childs mostly preside.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis