Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: It’s pleasant to visit the past but don’t forget the future

DOMINATING my bookshelves, apart from reams of terrible old poetry which you’d probably hate, are diaries, journals, letters and various memoirs from history. Here, for your interest, are some historical snippets from among my favourites:

From the Goncourt Journal – The Goncourt brothers were diarists and boulevardiers

1st January 1866: “Travelling in France, it is a misfortune to be a Frenchman. The wing of a chicken at a table d’h�te always goes to the Englishman. He is the only person the waiter serves. Why is this? Because the Englishman does not look at the waiter as a man, and any servant who feels that he is being regarded as a human being despises the person considering him in that light.”

From Joan Wyndham’s diaries. Joan was a wartime WAAF, stationed in Scotland at the time

25th December 1943: “I danced with a veritable waltzing mouse of a fighter pilot called ‘Guns’ – terribly sweet, lovely teeth but with the brains of a newt. Nothing to say but Whizz-O and Bang-On. He told me he’d love to have me for a sister. It snows almost every day now, alternating with blue skies, very cold and clear. At New Year there was a dance given by the 1st Suffolks where there were oysters and hot punch and four men to every girl. I got kissed by twenty men!”

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Early January 1131: “This year after Christmas, on Sunday night, at the first sleep, the heaven on the north side was all as if it were a burning fire, so that all who saw it were more afraid than they ever were before; This same year there was as great a pestilence among livestock as anyone remembered before over the whole of England; that was among cattle and among pigs, so that in the village where ten or twelve ploughs were going, not one left. May God improve it, when it is His will.”

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From Oscar Wilde, in exile in the south of France, to Laurence Housman

28th December 1898 – “My Dear Housman, After your letter declaring the impossibility of coming here, I am surprised not to find you in the adjacent pinewoods, for these woods change the air to an aromatic: the wind that makes their branches restless is pungent with keen odours: when one walks in their dappled shadows, one’s feet crush sweetness out of the fallen needles: and the still sweeter sun is as warm as wine and coloured like an apricot.”

From the Diary of Samuel Pepys, diarist and MP for Harwich, Essex

3rd January 1666: “I to the Duke of Albemarle and back again; and at the Duke’s with great joy, I received the good news of the decrease of the plague this week to 70 and but 253 in all; which is the least Bill hath been known this twenty years in the City, though the want of people in London is it, that must make it below the ordinary number for Bills.”

From Eleanor Butler’s diary. Eleanor and her friend Sarah Ponsonby – to the shock of their aristocratic families – eloped together and set up home in Llangollen, North Wales

1st January 1788: “Soaking rain, gloomy heavy day. Three. Dinner. Roast Beef. Plum Pudding half past 3 till 9. Still, close night. Reading – making an accompt book. Then reading Sterne to My Beloved while she worked on her purse. 9 – 12 in dressing room reading – writing to Mrs Goddard. Bath. A day of Sensibility and Sweet Repose.”

From The letters of A. E. Housman

29th December 1927: “My Dear Basil, I had a visit not long ago from Clarence Darrow, the great American barrister for defending murderers. He only had a few days in England, but he could not return home without seeing me, because he had so often used my poems to rescue his clients from the electric chair. Loeb and Leopold owe their life sentence partly to me: and he gave me a copy of his speech, in which, sure enough, two of my pieces are misquoted.”

From the diary of James Woodforde, country parson of Norfolk

9th January 1785: I dreamt last Night that I went to Weston Church with a Corpse after me and just as I came to the Church Yard Gate, saw another Corpse bringing from Morton Road way, and which had died of the small Pox. The corpse that I attended to on seeing the other, I ordered to be carried into the Chancel, till the other was buried. When I returned to the Chancel, thought I saw the most elegant Dinner served up – particularly fish – whether I waked then or not I cannot tell, but could recollect nothing more of my dream besides.

From the diary of Martin Newell – Essex musician visiting Captain Sensible in Brighton

8th January 1988: I really quite like Brighton. It’s one of those place like Whitby, where I arrive and just feel at home, almost as if I’d been here in another life. It has an element of preciousness, maybe. Full of people with dodgy, ugly modern haircuts and silly trousers. It has some lovely buildings in Regency style. But, also, very young in feel, with the kind of energy which you’d be hard-pushed to find in the Colchester area.”

Now remember, readers: If you gorge yourself on the past, you won’t leave any room for the future.

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