Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: City of culture? Let’s get rid of the drunks first

Let's rid city of drunks

Let's rid city of drunks - Credit: PA

LAST week our much-derided and misunderstood county finally received some praise on television. Jonathan Meades, former food critic, architecture buff and cultural commentator brought his attention to Essex.

I have so far not heard a bad word spoken about his elegantly-titled programme, The Joy of Essex, which was beautifully shot and presented. Having missed it, I eventually managed to see it via a catch-up service.

I have been a fan of Mr Meades’ programmes for several years now. His deadpan presentation, delivered in existentialist funeral attire from behind inscrutable shades makes for oddly compulsive viewing. He came across as having a genuine fondness for Essex, as well as – for an outsider – an unusual understanding of our complex social DNA.

Places featured in the programme included Layer Marney Towers, Jaywick, Hadleigh Castle, Wrabness, and a number of other enchanted corners so often missed by those Balsamic-gargling media Fauntleroys. Another thing which Meades’ programme managed to do, with its frequent panoramic shots, was to remind us that Essex remains 70% rural, despite continuing rumours about it having become a concrete wasteland.

A few years ago, I was invited to take part in a Radio 4 edition of the Today programme. Asked by Sarah Montague about culture in Essex and about how we could import it, I replied that we already had plenty of culture and that far from importing it, perhaps we should instead consider exporting it – to the rest of the country.

This brings us sashaying daintily over to Colchester’s forthcoming City of Culture bid for 2017. I received an invitation last week to become a ‘founder member of the Tier 2 planning group’. No. I didn’t understand it either.

Frankly, I can’t think of anything worse than Colchester becoming a City of Culture and was indecently quick in saying so to the project’s hope-filled organisers, who probably don’t deserve my scorn.

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The thing is, that my becoming a member of almost anything to do with arts and culture, if past experience is anything to go by, will almost certainly mean attending interminable meetings, whilst negotiating in that infuriating patois of arts ’n’ media speak. There’ll be time-consuming emails and letters to be answered. There’ll be ego battles, tears and gown-rending – and that’s just me.

There’ll be backslapping when it goes well and blamefests when it goes badly. All of this for a skipload of tenuous events which, as self-appointed head of the Philistine Liberation Organisation will probably bore me to incontinence. There’s ten million quid if we win it. Stap me! They could build a bus station with that. Now that would be an art statement.

I need to be involved with this, like I need a headmastership, an honorary degree – or a damehood. Actually, I’d probably accept a damehood. “Don’t hold back then, Dame Martin – just say what you think” said a blunt little voice in my head as I sent back my refusal, less than five minutes after receiving the invitation.

Am I really being so mean, so negative – such an old git? I later asked myself. Very probably. And yet, this town, Colchester – which I still love like a whipped cur loves its thuggish master– needs to get a few things straight before we go merrily holding culture festivals.

For a start, we should close down all those town centre Yoof Drinking Venues. A team of bouncers on the door and CCTV does not tell you that a place is safe – quite the opposite. Why not put such ‘leisure solutions’ in specially-managed compounds outside the town, with all security paid for by the drinks industry giants who champion them? We currently have a ridiculous situation where the shoppers all have to go out of town, while the drunks have the run of the High Street all weekend. That can’t be right. Get rid of the disorder and then perhaps the mild-mannered, the middle-aged, the merchants and their money may return to the town centre. It’s hardly rocket science, is it?

Then, if we really do want arts and culture, shouldn’t we stop encouraging free arts events and music festivals where everyone gets paid except for the performers? Because in the end, such a state of affairs only leads to a more general mediocrity, as the amateurs take over the stage and the professionals are forced into teaching roles. True excellence will rarely work for no pay. Even humble buskers get paid.

Having a City of Culture, is like a having a Passengers’ Charter – or a Patients’ Charter. It admits that there’s some sort of deficiency in the first place.

Finally, let’s just accept that there’s a sizeable sector who simply aren’t interested in arts and culture. And who could blame them? You can’t just cattle-prod people into galleries and theatres when they really prefer things like The X-Fracture. I, for instance, would rather go and see The Sooty Show than sit in a theatre having to endure two hours of soul-corroding misery by Beckett or Strindberg – both of whose work I hate.

And contrary to the silly slogans proclaiming otherwise, the arts are not ‘for all’ – any more than eye-surgery or astro-physics are ‘for all’. Any daft mare can shove a few sticks, seashells and feathers in an old box and call it ‘an exhibition of found objects’. Try drawing a human hand instead. Culture? Yes please. But first let’s clear the drunks off the street and the audience off the stage.

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