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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide