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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