I think of the county of Essex as one of the Home Counties i.e. those surrounding London. I also regard it as part of East Anglia, the rounded protruding section of south-east England which touches the North Sea. Ken Worpole, an esteemed colleague and friend of my dad’s, sees Essex as existing outside these geographical categories.
There’s no denying that my dad* was a person with progressive ideas hailing from this enigmatic county. He was associated with some of the contributors to a new book called ‘Radical Essex’. It is published by the Focal Point Gallery in Southend, directed by Joe Hill. The contents are six essays, a series of photos, a scrapbook and a programme of events under the Radical Essex heading.
The sections of the book are linked by the conscious debunking of Essex myths and stereotypes. The boring ‘Essex Man’; the shallow ‘Essex Girl’; strait-laced commuters who live in Legoland. All are overturned in different ways by some inspiring writers.
Charles Holland discusses the way Modern architecture was born, flourished and then went out of fashion in the county. Benevolent employers like Crittall’s Window Manufacturing Company near Braintree and the Bata shoe firm in East Tilbury provided pioneering square, austere houses for their workers. The Frinton Park Estate and more down-at-heel Bishopsfield Estate in Harlow are more examples of quiet visual boldness.
Ken Worpole’s chapter talks about Essex’s alternative communities. Othona, near the Blackwater Estuary, ‘has increasingly combined religious principles with those of ecological self-sufficiency’. (There is a photo essay on current Othonians by Catherine Hyland later in the book.) A colony near Hadleigh started out as a Christian rehabilitation camp for East Enders. It is now an organic farm and provider of work placements for young people with learning disabilities. A Quaker experiment in Great Bardfield shared similar therapeutic goals.
Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted Church in the 1910s, partially subverted Christianity itself. Tim Burrows describes how Noel was a fan of William Morris and encouraged Gustav Holst to stage festivals of pagan music and dance. Tim also describes Bohemian Essex natives with unconventional lifestyles. This includes Martin Newell of Wivenhoe. ‘The Cleaners from Venus’, a band Martin was in during the 1980s, came out with some great stuff.
More Essex Alternatives soon.