Our Famous Favourites
PUBLISHED: 16:48 16 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:05 20 February 2013
Pat Parker selects her favourite Essex interviews.
As Essex Life magazine reflects on its 60 years of publication, Pat Parker picks some of her favourite interviews with the famous faces of Essex.
I interviewed The Bard of Barking in 2007, shortly after hed published a book about English patriotism in which he advocated a bill of rights that would enshrine both our freedoms and our values of tolerance and fairness. The book was inspired in part by the BNP winning council seats in Barking (since lost), and he pleaded for his home town to be afforded more housing and better infrastructure.
Billy made his name in the 1980s as a socialist singer/songwriter strongly opposed to Thatcherism. But in his song Between The Wars, he sings the memorable line: Sweet moderation, heart of our nation. I asked him whether that summed up Englishness to him, and he gave this reply: It sums me up. My ideology was never Marxist. I have always been broadly a democratic socialist.
So was he a frustrated politician at heart? Billy roared with laughter. No! Ive got a life! I can say what I want, go where I want and not be bound by anyone. And anyway, Id look dreadful in a suit!
Beth Chatto, whose beautiful gardens in Elmstead Market are renowned across the world, will be 90 next year, but her enthusiasm for plants is undimmed and she has an artists eye for composition. She explained: The whole point is to have a succession of shape and colour as the seasons progress. To make a landscape, you need verticals grasses or a slender tree to raise your eye to the sky. Without those, low plants like lavender or the sages can look like a tray of buns. I love it when the sky is full of mountainous white clouds. They form a landscape in the sky, echoing the shape of the trees and shrubs in the garden. She summed up her gardening philosophy of working with nature rather than against it, in these words: Theres a phrase which has now become ubiquitous, but which I suppose I started, which is to find the right plant for the right place.
Plants are like people. People would not take kindly to being pushed into the nearest job and plants dont take kindly to being pushed into the nearest available hole. They have their preferences too. If you have a very shady garden, theres no use planting it up with grey foliage plants which need full sun. It sounds obvious now, but it wasnt 50 years ago.
In the summer of 2009, comedian Phill Jupitus, who grew up in Barking attending the same primary school as Billy Bragg, explained how hed been unhappy at school, had left with four average GCEs and worked in Thurrock Jobcentre before he tried gigging as a punk poet. Meeting Bragg in 1984 inspired him to believe he could become a success.
He worried that appearing on Never Mind The Buzzcocks had given some people a misleading impression of what he was like in real life. I think on telly I come across as boorish, loud, loutish. Its a natural thing, because comedy is quite combative. People think youre more arrogant than you are. And if people come up to me with that preconception, shouting at me in the street, I completely go dead. Theres something on the internet saying Im one of the grumpiest celebrities in real life, but its been written by people who expect me to be juggling or making balloon animals for them.
Moving to Leigh on Sea fulfilled a long-held ambition and, despite never having had a career plan, he had found personal and professional contentment. Most of my life I always fancied living in Leigh, because I loved it as a boy. So living within a ten-minute walk of the cockle sheds gives me a real sense of achievement.
TV presenter and writer
Richard Madeley, of Richard and Judy fame, was born near Romford and grew up in Brentwood. His very personal and revealing book called Fathers and Sons covered the legacy of cruelty which had afflicted three generations of his family.
His grandfather had been abandoned by his family who left him to work unpaid on his uncles farm the price he exacted for their passage to Canada. Richards father had been sent to a brutal Dickensian boarding school, which left him emotionally stunted. He appeared to be a loving father until suddenly, when Richard was seven, he began to suffer violent rages in which he lashed out at his son uncontrollably. He looks back on the abuse now with understanding rather than bitterness. He clearly felt a huge anger at the way hed been treated as a child and, I think in a very animalistic way, it simply spilled out. I think in an odd way, I was an unwitting part of his cure. Family life with us had cured him of most of his demons, but there was still a bit of poison to come out, and I was the conduit. After that two-year period it had all come out and he was whole again.
Richards father died suddenly aged 49 when Richard was just 19. His memories of his father are mostly fond ones, despite the violence. Richard continued: Im a very sunny person. I think its important to leave that baggage behind you. You can go through life like Jacob Marley, dragging these chains of sin and pain behind you, or you can confront things, and get on with your life.
Government spin doctor, writer and broadcaster
Tony Blairs former communications director Alastair Campbell, spoke about his novel Maya at the 2010 Essex Book Festival. In a frank interview, he spoke about the nervous breakdown he had suffered while working as a news editor. By the time he resigned as Blairs spin doctor in 2003, he had become infamous for his aggressive haranguing of journalists. With hindsight, would he have done the job differently? I certainly wish my relations with the media hadnt become so bad. But I think my reputation for bullying was overplayed. The press wants me to say were both as bad as each other. I dont accept that. The press think they should have the monopoly on judging what the news agenda is and unless you have a sense of your own agenda and how youre able to project that to the public, theyre just going to blow you over. Look, Im a very forceful person. I will defend myself. I will present myself aggressively at times. But so do they.
He conceded, however, that his controlling personality may have exacerbated the situation. I freely acknowledge Im obsessive. The reason Tony wanted me to do the job, and why I was able to do it well, was in part because of my personality, but there may be a downside to that. But even parts of the media who cant stand the air I breathe, tend to put me in the effective bracket.
Businesswoman and star of Dragons Den
Dragons Den star Deborah Meaden shared her childhood memories of Essex. Deborahs mother divorced when she and her sister were little and took a summer job working on a Butlins rifle range in Clacton. The girls were left in the care of a Brightlingsea fisherman and his family. She found this lovely couple to look after us and give us some stability. I have wonderful memories of my time in Essex. I still have some lovely photos of myself and my sister on the beach. It was a magical time. On Dragons Den, she was initially seen as impatient and severe. In fact, to talk to, she is warm, friendly and funny. She pointed out that viewers only see a fraction of what goes on in the Den.
The shortest pitch has been seven minutes, and the longest three and a half hours. So you dont see all the soft bits and laughter. But I make no apologies for getting irritated with some people. If someone asks me for a quarter of a million pounds and cant be bothered to tell me what their turnover is, Im entitled to get a bit annoyed. I just think theyre wasting an amazing opportunity. She saw nothing wrong in telling some would-be entrepreneur that they should stop deluding themselves and quit. I think its much fairer to tell people if they are completely wasting their time. And actually, its at my cost, because people then decide that Im blunt.
Essex and England Cricketer
In spring 2010, former Essex and England captain Nasser Hussain spoke frankly about the mental pressures he had experienced as a top cricketer.
His cricket-mad father, Joe, had coached him from an early age, and he will always be grateful for his encouragement, but he was so anxious to please his father he developed a deep fear of failure. Fundamentally, cricket was what we did it wasnt something I chose to do. My dad gave me so much, and I owe him everything, but it was a fine line I could easily have rebelled. He was tough with me and it worked, but it does give you a bit of a fear of failure.
He went on to become one of Englands greatest captains, but he was open about the sleepless nights and anxiety rituals he would go through before a game.
I ended up with so many idiosyncrasies. Id have to sit in the same spot in the dressing room, change in exactly the same place, wear my lucky shirt. If it works for you once, you just try to bottle it and use it every time. Fiddling with my bat was a way of coping with the pressure focusing on that rather than having to think about facing Shane Warnes bowling the next day!
Failure could result in fierce tantrums. I have a temper simple as that. If I got out, Id kick my cricket case or throw my bat. I was a fiery character. It was important to me and at times I couldnt control my emotions.
Artist and broadcaster
Internationally-acclaimed artist and astute social commentator Grayson Perry, grew up in Chelmsford with a violent stepfather. His mother and stepfather disowned him after he became a transvestite and he had not seen them in 20 years. Had he forgiven them? I forgive, but I dont forget. Any attitude I have towards my mother and stepfather now are not because of what they did then, but now.
He still visits Chelmsford and I wondered if his feelings about his home town had been indelibly tainted by the unhappiness of his childhood? Ive got over most of the hard things and now I just see Chelmsford for what it is really, which is messed about. It seemed like a different place back then, quainter somehow.
He won instant fame when collecting the Turner Prize in 2003 as his alter-ego Claire, dressed in a little girls silk dress. Some felt this was a publicity-earning stunt, but he explained it matter-of-factly. Its my way of dressing up. I havent really got any suits. It hasnt done me any harm and I enjoy it. And a weird by-product is that I can become famous without becoming too recognisable. I didnt set out to do that, but most people dont know who I am if I walk down the street in my normal clothes.
Russell Kane described how he had grown up feeling he had nothing in common with his working class parents and in particular his macho Essex father. I wasnt excluded or anything like that. But I suppose I felt an outsider in the things I was into. I was quite bright. I was a child who sought a lot of solace in my imagination. I got a First in English, but I grew up in a household where the only books were a diving manual and a microwave cookbook.
The family lived in Enfield but had a beach hut in Shoebury which they stayed in every weekend for half the year. Southend became Russells second home and he has always loved it. Today, he has a house in Westcliff, which he said is the only place where he has felt truly at home. He feels a deep affinity with Essex people.
Its the spirit of the place that makes me laugh. Although I didnt get on with my dad, he was the largest shaping force in my life and the happiest times in my childhood were down at the beach hut at weekends. Ive got a lot in common with the people here. They chime with me. You have a lot of people with very working class roots who have money, or a brain, which doesnt fit with the fact we can sound, dress and look like complete chavs. Its a place of contrasts.