Martin Newell's Joy of Essex - A true romance story that dates back to the Blur-Oasis days

PUBLISHED: 10:21 30 April 2016

Ella Johnston and Martin Bewick

Ella Johnston and Martin Bewick


Theirs was a Brit-pop love story and you know that I'm a sucker for a good romance, writes Martin Newell.

He was a young Cumbrian with the sort of McCartney-Marr looks which you generally only find in the north of England. She was a Camden girl from an Irish family of feisty females. He’d mucked about in bands and worked in record shops. She’d hung around in Camden on the arty fringes of the Blur-Oasis scene when it was still smart to do so. This, anyway, is what each brought to the table when they met at Essex University in the nifty Nineties. They married.

Almost two decades later, remembering their days at Essex, they eventually returned to the big skies and the River Colne with its birdlands. Both of them were now seasoned freelance writer-editors. They managed, before the prices went completely loop-de-loop, to buy a house not far from the river and they settled.

During afternoon tea, I study Martin Bewick and Ella Johnston now in their early forties, both of whom still possess a glimmer of that Britpop cool of the Nineties. They have, perhaps, nowadays, more in common with the Wordsworths, the Coleridges and other 19th Century nature writers, than with the urban pop urchins which they once were. Last year, the two of them launched Dunlin Press, an independent publishing house in fine tradition

In an age when, thanks to print-on-demand technology, nearly everyone and their hairdresser has become a Belle Lettrist, Bewick & Johnston – who already sound like an established Fitzrovian publisher – are the real thing. Their first book, Est, was a collection of poems, prose and reportage, an amiable ramble though the East Anglian wilds.

Martin and Ella, the Dunlin Press editors, for their first outing chose their contributors wisely, staying discreetly backstage during proceedings. Their debut book was well-received regionally and nationally. A year later and their new book, The Migrant Waders, sees Ella Johnston in the illustrator’s chair. Her illustrations are a deft combination of realism and prettiness. This is a tough trick to accomplish, since it aspires to emulate nature itself. Her bird drawings, however, are beautiful. Now, I grew up with those old Ladybird children’s classics, illustrated by C F Tunnicliffe, so I’m not that easily moved by such matters.

I know that in these columns, I sometimes disparage modern nature writing or wild writing, as its recently been rebranded, but the prose and illustrations within those old Ladybird nature books were often of the highest quality and that is what I’m looking for.

We on these islands, are fond of our flora and fauna. At regular intervals, therefore, there’s a new publishing flurry on the subject. In the 1970s for instance, The Country Diary of An Edwardian Lady was all the rage. It was actually a great book and a long reigning publishing success. Damned eventually by its own ubiquity, it was sneered at in certain highbrow quarters for being twee.

Madeleines of the current wild writing school include J A Baker’s The Peregrine and W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Both of these books I made valiant attempts to read, but soon discarded in favour of Viz comic, which I always find to be a more accurate map of our nation’s psyche.

Writing about nature, which over many literary eras remains a pleasant walled garden, has lately become fashionable again. You can, if you’re daft enough, pay an awful lot of money nowadays to attend wild writing workshops at a writers’ refuge abroad. Or why not grow a fascinating beard and enrol on a wild writing course at university? Nature writing, like many other simple subjects, has recently been academicised. As mechanical diggers munch their inexorable way through England’s meadows and woodlands, it’s no surprise that many of us are now gazing sentimentally towards the nearest bit of greenery. But as the literary-academic world turns its dusty old Anglepoise on the subject, you just know that it’s going to become pretentious, complicated and dull. Then, once the bandwagon’s been overloaded, with luck it’ll probably all go quiet again.

If I were a nature book publisher, the first thing I’d ask about a book would be: “Has it got lots of pictures and big writing?” I’m a peasant like that. Otherwise, you’ll only sell it to a few other writers most of whom will anyway think that they could have done it better themselves.

Back to Dunlin Press’s The Migrant Waders: the reason I’m writing about it is because I know that the subject will be of interest to many readers of a good country newspaper such as our own. On Ipswich’s Chantry estate, which I once knew quite well, all the roads are named after our native birds. There’s even one named after a dunlin. That’s how fondly we regard our wild avian buddies.

Meanwhile our two human migrants, she from Islington, he from the Lake District, have settled down here to be closer to the creatures which captivated them during their own fledgling years.

The Migrant Waders, like its predecessor, Est, is a rich mix of prose and reportage drizzled with a little poetry. Contributors include the RSPB’s Martin Harper, The Guardian’s Country Diarist Colin Williams, cult author, David Southwell and poets Annabel Banks and Caroline Gill. Ella Johnston herself has contributed 21 ink and watercolour illustrations. The book, even for a clod such as I, is therefore an object of desire.

The Migrant Waders is published by Dunlin Press, £12.99 ISBN-978-0-9931259-1-1

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