Is Essex less eloquent than the west?

Martin Newell: Round about the turn of the millennium, when the internet really began to come into its own, there was some discussion that the death of books must surely follow.

Martin Newell

Round about the turn of the millennium, when the internet really began to come into its own, there was some discussion that the death of books must surely follow.

This, coupled with alarming new figures about poor literacy skills among the young, was a cue for much crib-biting in columns of the more concerned broadsheets.

The literati themselves - like flamingos who'd suddenly become aware of an approaching crocodile, fluttered nervously until the perceived danger failed to materialise and they felt able to resume preening again.

There are, of course, traditional feeding grounds for such creatures and up until recently, the county of Essex has not really been one of them.

In the past though, mega-famous authors were quite happy to sashay farther afield, en masse to festivals at Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye or Oxford for their book-signings or readings.

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The very name Cheltenham - or 'Nam as the wits sometimes call it - is synonymous with literary lions, Regency hotels, legendary hospitality and crate-loads of expensive signed hardbacks skimming like frisbees out of the booksellers' marquees.

About ten years ago for instance, upon entering Cheltenham Festival's green room, I saw in one corner Andrew Motion and in another Malcolm Bradbury.

In the centre of the room, Tory bad-boy Alan Clark was holding court before going onstage in front of a battalion of the tweedy faithful.

Now Melvyn Bragg popped his head round the door, before quickly vanishing again.

The fame was deafening.

The rest of the room was thronged with publishers, stewards, journalists and sundry PR folk. Rarified? It certainly was.

And I remember wondering at the time: '”Why always the west country? Why not Essex? ”

In my own forthcoming work: Literary Essex -The Way We Was, I hope to explore this question more fully.

I'd also like the police to re-open their investigation into the fire at Colchester Library which destroyed both of its books - a tragedy made all the more poignant by the fact that up until then, only one of them had been coloured in.

In addition to this, during a stimulating debate on Radio 4 - following a complex question about whether our estuarine paradise really was the brutal wasteland which fashionable metropolitan opinion held it to be - I was happy to tell my fellow guests that quite the reverse was true.

Furthermore I said, I knew where they lived and would be burning all their houses down should they demur on this point. I thought that I had nailed the matter rather succinctly and after a few lagers told my driver so, as we roared back up the A12 in his souped-up Escort, listening to Christina Aguilera at filling-loosening volume, taking pot-shots at the speed cameras and yelling: “Oi, Doris!” at any young women we saw.

At the recent opening of this year's Essex Book Festival therefore, it was with confidence and pride that I was able to tell my interviewer that long-term residence in Essex had definitely 'informed my work' at all levels.

But how far we have come from that first festival in 2001.

Run by Essex County Council, it was for the most part hosted by our doughty library services. The festival comprised about 40 events, had a tiny budget and was almost ignored by the national media.

The current festival, now in its seventh year, was launched at Chelmsford Central Library. Still only midway through, from humble beginnings it has grown in both size and importance.

This year's launch began at the unpretentious hour of 10 am, and was fuelled by nothing stronger than tea and biscuits. Despite this, there was a discernible buzz about the place.

There were also popping flashbulbs, radio and TV people and a small stockade of famous authors patiently answering questions, signing autographs and trying to look as comfortable with it as working writers ever can.

A national bookchain's stall was doing brisk business, there were a local dignitaries and publishers hovering around and I felt rather proud to be there.

The truth of the matter is that Essex has no more and no less a literary culture than anywhere else in the country - even if we do suffer somewhat from being seen as London's scruffy backyard.

Our problems, such as they are, are national ones.

As with everywhere else there is an almost wilful espousal of ignorance pervading our popular culture.

A growing number of people in public life - from pop stars to politicians - do seem to use our language badly, innit? Perhaps it's a delayed reaction to governments of recent times, who have tried almost too hard to encourage literacy and - like a big enthusiastic dog that knocks you over as soon as you get in the front door - have actually achieved the opposite.

This has only helped to amplify the much-squawked 'dumbing down' twittering of sundry media critics.

By all acounts however, book sales and reading in general are doing better than they have done for years. Even more unexpectedly, privately-run book groups are flourishing everywhere.

It may partly be due to the often-mentioned 'Richard and Judy effect'. But people are thirsty again for reading - as I recently told a colleague during a lively late night debate in a local kebab house.

Even the arresting officers and witnesses agreed with us, the slags.

Literary culture in Essex is in rude health.

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