Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Why our part of the world is so much leafier and altogether nicer than London

Colchester CAMRA Club's Winter Beer Festival

Colchester CAMRA Club's Winter Beer Festival - Credit: Archant

By the time you read this, I’ll be on a train to ‘that London’. I’m playing a daytime concert there.

This will be the first time I’ve visited our easy-going, reasonably-priced capital since April of last year. It’s not my best London-avoidance effort. I once managed three years without setting foot there, which is amazing for someone in my occupation.

I usually try to persuade metropolitan correspondents or colleagues to come out to Essex instead: “So much leafier and altogether nicer,” I say. Tellingly, they don’t usually need to be asked twice. This visit, I’m looking forward to, though.

Earlier this year, a London music promoter contacted me to ask if I’d do a concert there. I gave him my usual deal-clinching spiel. “I’m not doing any rock venues, no night-time gigs, no horrible pubs, clubs or converted factories, nowhere in Whitechapel, Hoxton or anywhere where media people hang out. Oh and I’ll want paying properly.”

That’ll get rid of him, I thought. “Where would you prefer to perform, then?” he asked. I replied. “Only in the West End, preferably: a small theatre, an old church or any interesting historical space not usually used for performance purposes.You’ll never find one, or not at a price which we can afford.” A few days later, he was back to me.

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“Have you ever heard of St Giles in the Fields?” he asked. I knew the place well. England’s first Palladian church was designed by Henry Flitcroft in 17-something-or-other. It was previously a leper hospital founded by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I.

The handsome church of St Giles stands proprietorially on the corner of Denmark Street, London’s own Tin Pan Alley, a place where as a songwriter, I once spent so much of my time that for about 18 months I was practically living there. “You’ve got St Giles for me? For an afternoon concert?” I asked him disbelievingly. “Then I’m definitely doing it.”

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I’ve been spending an increasing amount of my time in churches of late. I find myself fluttering around them, like a daddy long-legs near a hallway light. For example, I spent a few hours the other evening filming in St Mary’s, Wivenhoe. Having been entrusted with the key, in absence of an actual church representative, I felt very much ‘on my honour’ as we used to say, when were kids. The morning after the filming, I returned to the church early to check the crew had left things exactly as they’d found them. They had done, in fact. But I still took a can of Mr Sheen and a duster with me just in case I’d left any fingerprints on the piano keyboard.

My growing interest in churches is strange because I grew up in a family without any religion. My father, whom I later discovered had once had a faith, lost it aged 17, the day that his mother was killed by a V2 flying bomb. As a young soldier, he steadfastly refused to go on church parade each Sunday, regularly choosing ‘jankers’ instead, which mainly consisted of cleaning the camp toilets.

He would not suffer any ‘god botherers’ who ever came to our door, although he had rather more time for the Salvation Army. Curiously, he was always very respectful of certain other religions. He’d learnt something of them on his travels and taught me a little about the Moslem and Sikh faiths. Nobody else on either side of my immediate family ever went to church, so far as I know. My late mother told me that if anyone ever asked me my religion, I should simply reply ‘C of E’ and then they usually nodded, ticked a box and moved on.

The funny thing, as I stumble uncertainly into my third age, is that I think that I probably am C of E at heart and always have been in my own quiet way. A distinguished book reviewer once wrote that she thought that the meter of my poetry had been chiefly influenced by the hymns which I’d heard at school. I was a little dismayed when I read it. She was of course absolutely right, much as it pained me to realise it. Those stirring old Anglican hymns with their, 4/4 beat, soaring melodies and big bass lines striding confidently around underneath them were a huge part of my boyhood soundtrack. Whether I cared to admit it or not they’d crept into my own work. My favourite venue in which to perform remains St Mary’s Arts Centre, Colchester, another former church.

So I’m buddying-up to the Big Chap now, am I? Well, I’m not ready to do a Cliff Richard quite yet and I’ve never liked gospel music but I have, however, developed an interest in early liturgical music. The Anglican Church, for their part, always seem more tolerant of their critics than vice versa.

I do find it interesting that people who believe in God, the soul, ghosts, or any of the other great intangibles, are often rather quiet about their beliefs. Nor do they usually go around condemning non-believers. It is the atheists and the sceptics whom you’ll generally find banging their fists on the table and bellowing, “How can you be so gullible?” I wonder why this is so? I’ll leave you with that one.

In the meantime, I return to Denmark Street, London, epicentre of the Beat Boom and home of British music publishing This time the appointment is with St Giles.

See more from Martin Newell in our Essex section

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