Escape from Orange County

Article excerpt

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 TOWIE and, 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 =usually 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 Zlin, Moravia. …