Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: season of beauty . . . and an apocalyptic dawn
That’s gett’n later a lot earlier these days – Old Essex country saying
AS I write these words, Hurricane Michael has just been absorbed by Tropical Storm Leslie and is engaged in some sort of tear-up over Iceland. The two of them will then press on to produce strong winds and rain over northern Scotland.
I don’t know how we all got on first name terms with meteorological events but even outside my own window, at the moment, I can see the trees being tugged around by Gale. I’m hoping that she’ll be relieved over the weekend by Light Breeze Reg, an altogether more amiable sort of chap.
Autumn is upon us. Westerly winds, those chambermaids of the seasons, have come to strip the beds, whilst grey unlaundered clouds sail overhead like great galleons. In the middle of all this fuss, the squally showers will come, spanking the windows and plastering last summer’s leaves to the wet pavements. Then the light will change and the nights will draw in.
Melancholy autumn? Certainly, and yet also a rather beautiful sort of time. This is especially true when its first hurly-burly abates, usually in early October, leaving one of those sublime periods of crisp rosy days and still, misty nights.
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That’s what I reckon the ex-pats in southern Europe must miss out on each year. It’s definitely what I yearned for as a child during years when I lived in the humid Far East. And even during much of autumn 1987, when I was working in a windowless Soho recording studio, it was what I looked forward to when I returned to Essex at weekends.
The train home would sometimes halt for a while by dense woodland just outside Brentwood. With half of the commuters dozing, apart from an occasional cough and the rustle of a newspaper the only other sounds were those of the heaters under the seats, ticking metallically as they cooled down. Outside the train window, in fading afternoon light, with beech and sycamore leaves turning red-gold, it looked like a Burne-Jones painting.
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I never bothered saying anything, of course, because by then Mrs Thatcher’s efficiencies team was discussing rail privatisation. If they’d known that such bewitching beauty was being enjoyed for nothing, they’d have probably added it to the inventory of assets: Spontaneous autumnal elation in enchanted woodland near to Brentwood. That might have put an extra few quid on the monthly season ticket.
But it was also during that very autumn 25 years ago that we had The Great Wind, or the Hurricane of ’87 as many called it. I was at home in Essex on that particular night and my tamer at that time was a Yorkshirewoman.
You know what Yorkshire’s like, don’t you? Aye. Texas o’ the North, that’s what. Smashing place, but you can’t tell them anything. Whatever it is that Essex has done, Yorkshire’s done it bigger, better, colder, hotter, cheaper and so on and so forth.
At 3am on the morning of the Hurricane I woke up and said, “Blimey, that’s giving it some stick out there!” She laughed and said, “ Ho ho. This would be nothing in the North.” At 4am I said, “ No. Seriously. It really is quite extreme.” She said, “Ha. You southerners. You haven’t seen the half of it.”
At 6am I heard a slate crash through a fanlight in the dining room. Looking out of the window I could see sturdy garden shrubs pinned flat by the wind and could hear a metal dustbin waltzing around in the street. It was redolent of the Kansas storm scene in The Wizard of Oz.
By now I’d had enough. In a Fawlty-esque voice I heard myself snap “Right! That’s it!”
Adding a phrase rhyming roughly with the words “trucking” and “shell”, and with the sound of scornful laughter ringing behind me, I dressed and went out to see what, if anything, might be required. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done, but it had occurred to me that in such conditions someone, somewhere, might have needed some help. After all, I still occasionally worked as a jobbing gardener and knew what a mess there’d be.
The sights which greeted me by early light were surreal. An ancient standard apple tree had come down and crushed an outbuilding of a gardening client’s house. Trees which had been a feature of Wivenhoe’s High Street were gone. The whole north-western vista was now bigger and much lighter. Garden walls had been damaged and sheds were lying on their sides.
In gaps between 70mph gusts, whenever the howling wind abated momentarily, I could hear the tinkle of slate and glass. Objects such as plastic dustbin lids were being propelled violently along the street like Frisbees.
There were tree branches all over the roads. I didn’t see a single moving car, there appeared to be no trains running and for some time I seemed to be the only person out and about. In the unearthly light it felt mildly apocalyptic.
With a return to the recording studio now cancelled, I went home, shaved, had a brew, grabbed some garden tools and joined the unofficial weekend clear-up force. Somehow, it all seemed more useful and interesting than making a stupid pop record in London.
Perhaps I was finally growing up.