Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Hands off, Suffolk! Dedham still belongs to my county

Constable Country: People enjoying a day by the river in Dedham.

Constable Country: People enjoying a day by the river in Dedham. - Credit: Archant

To Dedham, which, amazingly, has still not yet been annexed by Suffolk. Some days, I swear you can psychically sense them, massing on the border, in their red trousers, designer hiking boots and stockman overcoats; as seen advertised each weekend in the colour supplements. The London weekenders really want Dedham not to be in Essex.

I saw a scouting party once: four of them in their late-forties. Patrician-looking urbanites, they walked around in the drizzly rain: the men in their broad-brimmed leather hats – their sniffy ash-blonde other halves mentally assessing the property prices. They smelled of minor literary prizes and second homes in Umbria. One of them peered back at me through his wire specs. There’s only one thing to do when confronted with that sort of thing. Turn round and stare right back at him while chewing gum in as vulgar a manner as one can muster. Now walk firmly up to him and bark in Pukka. “May I remind you, Sir, that however spurious your aspirations, at present, you are actually still in Essex.”

Honestly. It sometimes makes me long for a bunch of Braintree soul boys to come to the rescue, roaring into the Royal Square in a big white car, blasting out Janelle Monae. If you’ve not heard Janelle Monae, incidentally, she comes recommended by my youngest brother Joe, the soul deejay. A good introduction might be Dorothy Dandridge Eyes. I’ve not stopped playing it all week. It’s not the sort of music that men of my age usually develop a taste for. But then, I’ve become very jaded lately. I’ve had quite enough of the blues, for instance. If I walk into one more pub only to discover four retired geography teachers, nodding at each other, like carthorses in denim while playing another flatulent blues shuffle, I think I shall scream.

I don’t know why, but I always feel that I should be on my best behaviour whenever I’m in Dedham. There’s something defiantly ‘county’ about the place – but it’s still a thing which I’m much more willing to put up with nowadays than, say visiting Londonists.

Wivenhoe, for example, where I live, isn’t remotely county. Worse, it’s becoming like Islington-on-Sea. In fact, it’s whispered lately that even the town’s burglars don’t actually steal anything – they just wait until you’re out at yoga and then slip in to criticise your book collection.


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Meanwhile, back at Dedham, I discovered that a cellist named Philip Higham was to play a solo concert at the Assembly Rooms there. This was a part of the estimable Roman River Festival. Higham was billed to play three solo cello suites – two by Bach and one by Britten. Britten, I can take or leave. There are one or two of his works which I’ve heard and really liked but much of it sounds far too difficult for my essentially ‘lounge-core’ tastes. Bach, on the other hand, I can listen to until the guests go home. Aesthetically speaking, therefore, this concert, warranted to be a musical sandwich made with two slices of classic German schwarzbrot, filled with some rather indifferent post-war spam.

I had never been inside the Dedham Assembly Rooms before. The auditorium was smaller than its counterpart in Bath and yet hardly less impressive. Accessible by a flight of stairs was a narrow gallery looking down upon the performance area, which, prior to the concert, the organisers allowed audience members to explore. There is something deep within me which has always taken a prurient interest in the Georgian Regency period. To sit, therefore, in this sparsely elegant, infrequently-used room listening to a young virtuoso cellist playing perfect Bach was a glorious treat for me. I had no idea that one unamplified cello could muster the power to drench such a large room in its own woody richness. It was almost as if you could hear the instrument breathing, in between the opulent clusters of notes emanating from it. Every so often, I gazed up at the high Assembly Room windows and noticed the blustery wind ruffling the leaves of a tree, outside. The autumn sun, meanwhile, kept subtly changing the light within the packed room whenever it emerged from the clouds. This was the stuff of time travel. If the concert-goers present had been dressed in the appropriate period attire, along with the room’s acoustics and its natural light, it probably wouldn’t have been that much different from a similar event 200 years ago. You’d have needed to waft in the aromas of pipe smoke, lavender, and a more earthy human miasma. Oh, and then you’d have to elbow out that Benny Britten and pull Al Scarlatti off the subs’ bench.

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It was worth noting, that the audience, who gave the cellist a well-deserved and sustained applause, seemed to be purely music fans. They weren’t there to show off their hats and shoes, or to minny around being seen. They’d arrived on a blowy autumn mid-morning to listen to the playing of an exceptionally gifted young cellist.

I would challenge anyone in the arts who fancied their chances, “Could you, either as artiste or promoter, sell about 120 tickets, at £12.50 each for a Sunday morning event, packing out a country assembly hall?” Because I couldn’t.

Anyway, back to the subject of Dedham. It remains in Essex. Is that all right, then?

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