* Chelmsford, the usurper *
* The Pricking of Ladies Thumbs *
* Matthew Hopkins – Witch-finder General *
It’s funny the way things turn out sometimes isn’t it? You think things are firmly routed one way only to find that with a sudden movement everything that was established was in fact built on shifting sands. Chelmsford was only ever a minor town when compared to Colchester during the Roman period. It was never the capital of Britain and although popular with the Roman’s, it never quite occupied the same status that it now does. Okay, it isn’t the capital of England as that role belongs to London nor is it the capital of Anglia as there isn’t one but it is the county town of Essex and as such sits above all other towns and it does go one better then Colchester as it has a cathedral and that qualifies it as a city, only it isn’t, a city that is. Oh, it has as I said the cathedral and it has the university and it has that most English of establishments, the county cricket ground but still it has not been awarded the accolade of city; undoubtedly some red tape rigmarole prevents or forbids it; bloody daft whatever the reason.
I like Chelmsford for its Waterstones; it is a lovely shop to browse for books and comics but it also has the added benefit of having a café that serves a delicious latté. I like its ambiance, the genteel way you can sip coffee while reading your latest purchase. Of late I have been catching up on the works of P.G.Wodehouse and G.K. Chesterton although I am reading at the moment an odd book by American Wm Paul Young entitled ‘The Shack’. I say odd as I don’t quite know how to best describe it unless it is to say it is a tale, written by a Christian I would guess, about the disappearance and possible murder of a child, the grief of the father (who I am very suspicious of) and a rather whimsical meeting in a shack of the holy trinity with the said father. Worth grabbing a copy if only to say you have read it.
Chelmsford’s name comes from the Roman Caesoromagus which means Caesar’s market place as Chelmsford would have served as a local market town halfway between London and Colchester. The link between London and Chelmsford has only grown stronger in the passing years due in part to their closeness to one another; London is only thirty two miles from Chelmsford and is connected by rail link.
Today though I am here to visit my favourite book shop (second favourite in fact to Foyle’s of London), then to meander a bit around the shops before I make my way by train to Colchester. So, I sit at the table, the one that overlooks the settee below and I sip on my latté while from my shopping bag I pull out the Wodehouse book I have bought, ‘Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves’ which I then flick through delighting in the exquisite way in which P.G. Wodehouse plays with the English language. I so wish that I had his ability to write such divine sentences that sparkle with wit and charm. I take another sip on the coffee and this time drag out my free copy of the Waterstones magazine, ‘Books Quarterly’. Like all such free publications it comes with a baited hook for it contains enough temptation to test a saint but I am as skint as they come at the moment so all temptation is less a test and more a torture. I really fancy getting a copy of Sarah Waters’ ‘The Little Stranger’ which, according to the blurb, is a ghost story set in 1947 in a small Warwickshire village.
I first came across Sarah Waters when she rose to sudden fame through her daring novel, ‘Tipping the Velvet’ which I watched as it was serialised on television. I have always been a sucker for Victoriana and this story tickled my fancy which I guess is an apt description given the tales content. Then, sipping again on the creamy froth of the latté, I leaf through the final magazine purchase I have made; my copy of the BBC’s classical music magazine. At this point I have to say that my love of music, certainly of Jazz and what we all term as Classical did not arrive with middle age. I got into both when I was seventeen or thereabouts although my interest in Classical sounds would have been sparked by The Beatles and their wonderful ‘Eleanor Rigby’; no it was King Crimson that made me buy Beethoven’s ninth and fifth and it was the same band that kindled my interest in Jazz. The copy that I am holding has a piece on American composers; most notably and typically Aaron Copland and his protégé Leonard Bernstein both of whom I like. The article also makes mention of John Adam, another American composer that I like although I cannot for the life of me remember the full title of his ‘fast car’ piece. I note that Zappa isn’t mentioned and I think he should be. Zappa was as close to genius as you can get and not just with his witty satires but also by virtue of the fact that he truly composed all that he or the Mothers played. I think that his sound was far more naturally American that either of the two esteemed predecessors whose work was European with a certain additional Jazz quality. This is not my attempt at knocking two highly original and influential modern day composers but rather, in my mind, to source and seek out a truly American musical creation; something that comes from the heart of that nation. This train of thought gets me thinking about so many genres that I like and have enjoyed over the years. Musical styles as diverse and broad ranging as Gospel, Soul, Rhythm and Blues, Funk, Disco, Hip Hop, Rap and of course the Blues. Surely the Blues has to be the pumping heart beat of American music. What other sound is so pure, so natural, so very black and spiritual, and yet, as great as the Blues is and continues to be it is music that is played on a Spanish instrument and sung in an English tongue. Of course all music has its influences, its well spring from where come its origins. European classical music is no different and no better as it borrowed from many sources but the end result was as European as the Alps. For me, American composers such as Copland, Bernstein and Zappa differ from their European counterparts in the way that they allow their music greater flexibility, ore room to toss and rumble, freeform almost whereas European music, even Stravinsky, is more architectural, more formal and it this difference in styles that profiles the differences between the two cultures: Europe with its deeper history and long established protocols and America with its liberal heart. This, large panoramic, free thinking form though does not entirely reflect in American ‘classical’ music. The sound is still deeply based in European methods and cannot mirror the soul of this vast continent. Neither does the Blues even if the Blues has the most natural rhythm this side of the heart beat. So then, with all that America has given us in musical styles and genres, which or rather what music is purely of its own creation even if it does owe a huge debt to its sire, the Blues? For me the answer is an easy one. It comes from the cool tones of Miles Davis when he plays ‘Kinda Blue’ or from the flying fingertips of Oscar Peterson or else it comes from that erratic genius Thelonius Monk...., the music is of course black and it is of course Jazz.
Jazz is as American as bourbon on rye, as natural as sex and as liberating as dancing naked on New Years Day in Central park. The music that is the true creation of America and an equally wonderful hybrid is, Jazz.
I finish what remains of the coffee, draining the dregs before wiping the back of my hand across my mouth. Picking myself up from the table I replace the magazines and book back into the bag and leave the shop behind. A little way off is an HMV store and as addicted as I am to books and music, I am equally entranced by film. I browse around the shelves picking up this and that, looking at Anime and in particular the Studio Ghibli section. Then I move as my spirit takes me onto the romantic comedies where I see ‘As Good as it Gets’ a film starring the brilliant Jack Nicholson and the inspired Helen Hunt. I love this film not just because it has such terrific acting with such an incredible storyline but also because in some odd way I identify with the character, Melvin, that Jack Nicholson plays. A novelist suffering with compulsive, obsessive disorder or is it the other way round? Obsessive, compulsive disorder? Whatever, I see a lot of how I had started to become in that role: a flawed and troubled man who so desperately wants to repair himself while finding a love that fits him. It is quite amazing how fragile even the strongest minds can be, how easily they can dissolve into such a mess of panic driven, obsessive desires that drive you on as though you were on the brink of insanity. The way your mood can swing from the jolly, jovial clown of dinner parties into the demonic, abusive circus freak that juggles with loved ones feelings as though they were nothing more than playthings. And the truth of the matter is that even when you have beaten the panic attacks and the dark mood swings and have returned to being the fun loving person you always were, that other side still sits within you curled up and waiting. You simply have to take one day at a time and remember that life goes on within you and without you.
Chelmsford is another old market town chock full of alleys that lead you on down past curious curves and hidden histories. There is much of the golden age of Victoria here with many buildings having been built during England’s golden era. There is a bridge built by Victorians that spans the road as a testament to those halcyon days. Its architecture has all the grandiose hallmarks of that period: tall arches that rise like arrogant eyebrows, disciplined brickwork that scorns the passage of time.
And of course there is the magnificent cathedral that not so long ago was just another church. It has that grandiose elegance that strikes as being so typically European with its daunting tower and blazing stained glass windows.
But it is neither the railway arch nor the county cricket, nor is it the beautiful church come cathedral that impresses me but the newly acquired university with its links with famed Cambridge. Not that I am easily impressed with the status provided by having a University in town but rather it is the rush of young life that it drags in its wake. Chelmsford literally buzzes with throngs of students who litter its café’s and lean chatting against its walls. They give it a modern, pulsing feel that I find exciting.
A hubris of noise and colour that sounds raucous, joyous and neon bright; a little bit brash maybe with all the shrill laughter and mock hip hop street cred but they, these modern youths, are pretty harmless and definitely not as rebellious as the generation that I came from; far more conservative in their politics and music and clothes Yes, I like it here where the past moves gently allowing modernity to come swaggering on the feet of the young and trendy
Of course, if that doesn’t float your boat, there is always Hylands House the mansion built in seventeen thirty by Sir John Comyns and landscaped some sixty years later by Humphry Repton.
• 500 hundred acres of land seems a bit extravagant for anyone’s tastes and so now days it is owned by Chelmsford Council and is used for the world famous V festival where you can see Razorlight, Oasis, The Specials, Lilly Allen, The Killers, Starsailor, Taylor Swift, McFly and goodness knows how many more. It is one hell of a gig and bloody good fun. My favourite and personal recommendation would have to be MGMT who are an incredible band who sound as though they hail from this century rather than from the last.
And if large country estates don’t do it for you then there is the history of the place which carries enough weight for even the cynics among you to go slack jawed over. Both Neolithic and Bronze age settlements have been found here but it is not the ancient histories that set the flames of interest burning but rather the name of Matthew Hopkins that sets the page alight for me. He lived, from 1620 until about 1647 and was the notorious Witch-Finder General. He was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire but it was during the period when he was living in Manningtree (near Chelmsford) that he overheard women talking off their illicit meetings with ‘the devil’ that he turned from being a lawyer to becoming England’s most notorious witch hunter. Upon hearing of these heinous consultations with the fallen angel nineteen witches were hanged and four more died in prison and a reputation was forever more sealed. Hopkins, accompanied by his partner in witch hunting, the estimable John Stearne, began their travels over eastern England moving through the Anglia counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. His witch-finding career was relatively short, lasting some two years, from 1645 until 1647, but in such a short space of time he built a myth that has lasted for centuries. Even way back then, torture was technically unlawful but Matthew Hopkins was not the sort of man to let a technicality stand in his way, He used a variety of methods to extract confessions from his unfortunate victims; methods that ranged from verbal browbeating to sleep deprivation but first he would have to find a sign of some sorts on the women that signified that they were of the devil. A birth mark would do or a boil which would then be referred to as a third nipple. Upon finding this mark he would then use a blunt knife with which he would slice into the poor woman’s arm and if she didn’t bleed she was declared a witch. He also employed what were colloquially known as witch-prickers who would prick the accused with knives and needles. Hopkins’s and Stearne were well paid for their work, earning £1 per witch. Good money for pricking and abusing innocent women. I wonder what the pair would make of the women’s liberation movement; a sign of the devil for sure.
Has not this present Parliament
A Lieger to the Devil sent,
Fully impowr’d to treat about
Finding revolted witches out
And has not he, within a year,
Hang’d threescore of ‘em in one shire?
Some only for not being drowned,
And some for sitting above ground,
Whole days and nights, upon their breeches,
And feeling pain, were hang’d for witches.
Words by Samuel Butler
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.