Thursday, 25 February 2021


Believe it or not, this isn’t a rubbish dump, it’s a river.

The Wid is an unassuming little river flowing along a shallow Essex valley. It rises in the village of Blackmore, flows south and under the A12, and curves eastward and then northward, not far from the suburbs of Billericay. It passes under the road between Ingatestone and the neighbouring village of Stock, then proceeds in a generally north-eastern direction parallel to the A12 and the railway line connecting London with East Anglia. It doesn’t pass through any large or famous towns, and it disappears from the map after converging with the river Can between Writtle and Chelmsford. Unless you’re a local, you’ve probably never heard of it.

But the Wid has a certain charm. In most seasons it meanders gently through the landscape, flanked by grasses and sedges, stands of willow, and dense thickets of blackthorn. Once or twice a year, maybe more, it changes character when a few days of rain transform it into a fierce, brown torrent. This winter has been particularly wet, and the traces are still apparent: flood-flattened vegetation stained with mud; bare, newly scoured sections of riverbank. For the time being, though, the river is placid again. Soon the blackthorn, now covered in tiny buds, will burst into bloom. Green fields dotted with sheep and cattle, white blossom, birdsong: a walk along the Wid will be an absolute delight.

Except that it won’t, because at some point this winter someone has tipped a lorry-load of rubbish into a ditch by the roadside, near the picturesque bridge linking Stock Lane with Ingatestone Road. That ditch has flooded, and hundreds of black plastic bin liners stuffed with rubbish have been swept into the River Wid. There they’ve been snagged by submerged or overhanging branches, and many have ripped open, spilling all manner of waste into the river. The predominant item seems to be plastic bottles, but there are also tyres, textiles, and other random objects. A spray bottle of blue cleaning agent hangs from a branch. A pink plastic trug with one handle missing sits incongruously on the footpath beside the river. Stray bottles litter the adjoining field, where cows and their calves are grazing. In the river, every twig and stem seems to be festooned with some item of waste. Shreds of black bin liner and other unidentifiable plastics hang from the trees, clusters of bottles and other rubbish have gathered in eddies. It’s an incredibly distressing sight.

I’ve reported this to the Environment Agency and sincerely hope they’ll sort it out. It won’t be easy, though. This isn’t something an enthusiastic band of volunteers could sort out on a Sunday afternoon. The river isn’t navigable with any kind of boat, it may be too deep for wading, its banks are steep and heavily vegetated, and above all, there are tangles of blackthorn and willow in and above the water which make it extremely difficult to move in any direction. There may even be hazardous waste – whoever dumped this rubbish probably wasn’t too concerned about oil or chemicals finding their way into the environment. So the clean-up will require time, agility, and the right equipment. And even if the worst section is cleaned up, some of the waste is bound to have escaped: some of those bottles will have bobbed down the Wid into the Can, then down the Can into the Chelmer, and from there into the Blackwater Estuary and eventually the North Sea.

Presumably whoever dumped this waste didn’t intend to have it spread down a quarter of a mile of river and riverbank. But what did they intend? Did they think a concerned member of the public would see the rubbish near the roadside and report it to the council, and that the council would clean it up? Or, given that it was most likely on private land, did they think the landowner would deal with it? Perhaps this would have happened if nature hadn’t intervened with a catastrophic flood. On the whole, though, we have to assume that people who illegally dump waste by the roadside don’t really care what happens to it, because even if the public is quick to report things and councils and landowners are quick to act, there’s always a chance that the waste will be dispersed by wind, traffic, or animals, and that some of it will remain in the environment.

Can anything be done to prevent this kind of thing happening? An individuals, all we can do (apart from reporting fly-tipping if we see it) is dispose of our own waste responsibly. In the UK (or in Chelmsford at least) we’re lucky to have effective kerbside rubbish collection and recycling services and free municipal recycling centres where there’s an appropriate place for everything. If we can’t take our rubbish to the tip ourselves, then we need to double-check the credentials of anyone removing it for us. If we’ve accumulated a front yard full of waste from a building project or a house clear-out, and a friendly passer-by offers to dispose of it for fifty quid, we should almost certainly say no.

Sadly, however, there will always be people who don’t care where their waste goes, as long as it doesn’t cost too much. In those cases we probably have to rely on councils and landowners to put up cameras in popular fly-tipping spots so the culprits can be caught and prosecuted. You never know, it might deter others.

One thing that might have helped in this particular case would have been the existence of a deposit scheme for plastic bottles. My theory is that the rubbish currently clogging the Wid was dumped by (or on behalf of) a dodgy landlord, clearing up after an untidy tenant. The tenant had a fondness for fizzy drinks, and left hundreds of plastic bottles in the house. Now if each of those bottles were worth twenty pence or more, what are the chances that they would have been allowed to accumulate for so long? Isn’t there someone in every family who needs a bit of extra cash for chocolate or cigarettes or hair dye or fake eyelashes? I’m thinking children and teenagers whose pocket money doesn’t quite go far enough – wouldn’t they be willing to scramble around gathering up bottles, and take them to the local shop to collect the deposit? If empty coke bottles were worth something, I’m certain that fewer would end up on roadsides and in rivers.

As for the Wid, I’ll be going back there over the next few weeks to check whether the Environmental Agency or the local council has leapt into action – and to see if the blackthorn is in bloom.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021


Within a month of its release on Christmas Day 2020, Bridgerton had been streamed by 82 million households worldwide, making it Netflix’s most-watched series ever. How are we to explain this extraordinary success? I have investigated.

Bridgerton offers much to please the eyes and the heart. The hero, Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings, is undeniably handsome. The heroine, Daphne Bridgerton, starts off as an innocuously pretty ingénue and graduates to a luminously beautiful bride as the series progresses. The build-up of lust and longing between them is a pleasure to watch. The colours are bold, the costumes gorgeous, the decors sumptuous. There’s sexual tension. There’s sex. In short, there’s plenty to enjoy.

There’s also plenty to quibble at. Bridgerton is not subtle, for a start. Many of its characters are overdrawn to the point of caricature, and the dialogue is often clunky and clichéd. It signals its messages very obviously. Women are oppressed, prevented from making their own choices in life. Society upholds a sexual double standard, allowing gentlemen to sow their wild oats while their sisters must remain chaste. A lady’s fragile reputation is ruined if she is so much as seen unchaperoned in the company of a man.

The clearest illustration of this patriarchal double standard is the heroine’s brother, Anthony Bridgerton. Left as head of the family after his father’s death, he struggles to impose his authority on his mother and siblings. When we first glimpse him he is engaged in upright outdoor sex with a lusty brunette – his opera-singer mistress – when he should be attending to family duties. Later, he speaks of his obligation to find a suitable match for his sister Daphne and protect her virtue. His lover notes with envy that not every woman is afforded such gallant protection, to which he replies:  “Every woman is not a lady”.

Back home, Anthony’s efforts to do his duty also cause much distress: he finds fault with almost all Daphne’s suitors, but inexplicably accepts an offer from the deeply unattractive Nigel Berbrooke. Daphne’s reluctance is irrelevant. It is only after learning that Berbrooke has made an attempt on his sister’s honour that Anthony loses enthusiasm for the match. Despite his smouldering good looks, slightly reminiscent of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy (or is it just the hair?), Anthony’s pompous, misguided attempts at playing paterfamilias turn him into something of a villain.

At times, the plight of oppressed women is overshadowed by another message, less explicitly stated but no less obvious: that good taste goes hand in hand with virtue, and that bad taste is almost as contemptible as immorality. This is exemplified by the contrast between the Bridgerton family and their neighbours, the Featheringtons.

The series begins as the season’s debutantes prepare for their presentation to the queen. In the Featherington household, older sister Prudence is being laced into her stays, ever tighter, while the voiceover (soon revealed to be the commentary of the mysterious, pseudonymous gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown) introduces the Featherington daughters as “Three misses, foisted upon the marriage market like sorrowful sows by their tasteless, tactless mama”.

Cut to the elegant, wisteria-clad house across the square, home of the Bridgertons, where all is good taste and clean family fun. A clutch of perfectly handsome sons and perfectly beautiful daughters (as noted by Lady Whistledown), only one of whom is to be thrown upon the marriage market this season. As the three Featherington girls are squashed onto the seat of a slightly too-small carriage, opposite cross mama and indifferent papa, the Bridgerton carriage – despite the presence of mother and three younger sisters – gives debutante Daphne ample space for her tasteful gown and perfectly balanced tiara, and no family squabbles distract her from gazing in wide-eyed wonder at the view.

At the palace, the three Featherington misses make an undignified attempt to squeeze simultaneously through the door of the queen’s audience room. Even the official announcing their names seems to feel their number is excessive. Herded forward by mama, they curtsy inelegantly to the bored monarch, and one – perhaps the too-tightly-laced Prudence – faints dead away, eliciting a faint expression of disgust from queen and courtiers.

No such jostling for Daphne: her entrance is graceful, her curtsy elegant; she radiates purity and loveliness. The jaded queen stands and walks toward her, raises her demurely dropped chin, places a kiss upon her forehead, and declares her flawless.

Artwork by Natalie Eldred

In short, Daphne is an object of admiration, envy, and desire, while the Featherington girls inspire at best pity, at worst sniggers of scorn. They are essentially a foil for her beauty, a bit of comic relief. One of my most enduring images of Bridgerton is that of the chubby and querulous red-headed Penelope Featherington, squeezed into a series of unbecoming pink and yellow dresses by her tasteless mama, and trying desperately to rescue the object of her affections from the schemes of a prettier rival. The cards are stacked against Penelope from the start. She does eventually extricate her beloved – the bland and oblivious Colin Bridgerton – from romantic peril, but has no chance of winning him any time soon. Poor Penelope.

Besides its simplistic messages and its casual cruelty towards redheads, there is something a little disconcerting about Bridgerton’s treatment of race. The novels on which it is based, by American writer Julia Quinn, depict the lives of the white upper classes in Regency London; the hero’s icy blue eyes are a key feature. The TV series casts some of the key characters as Black, most notably the leading man Simon, his mentor Lady Danbury, and Queen Charlotte (who does not feature in the novels). People of other ethnicities also appear occasionally at the margins of the action. Initially this appears to be a case of non-traditional or colour-blind casting – race is simply not mentioned. But then, twenty minutes into episode four, when Simon has ended his friendship with Daphne and is on the point of leaving England, Lady Danbury reminds him that it is love that has “allowed a new day to begin to dawn” in British society. “Look at our queen. Look at our king. Look at their marriage. Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us.”

The action moves on, and there is no further discussion of the matter in this or subsequent episodes. Yet the presence of this isolated explanation, this shift from colour-blind fantasy to revised history, draws attention to its own plausibility, its internal coherence. Could such a transformation have been achieved within the reign of a single monarch? Does the extraordinary wealth of Simon’s family, the grand house in London, the even more spectacular country mansion, match this narrative of newly acquired privilege? Were it not for Lady Danbury’s speech, we could simply enjoy seeing ethnically diverse actors on screen in a lavish Regency romance, without worrying about the whys and wherefores. Might it not have been better to leave this altogether undiscussed rather than to raise it so fleetingly?

Such quibbles aside, there is no doubting the hero’s appeal. Simon has overcome a lonely and difficult childhood (we are left in no doubt as to just how lonely and how difficult it was) to become an astonishingly well-adjusted adult. Tall, strong, handsome, and fabulously wealthy, he is the prize every match-making mama dreams of. But there’s a catch: he has sworn, at the deathbed of his despised father, never to marry or to sire an heir. Will Daphne be the one to overcome his resolution?

Various classic scenes show the growing attraction between them. Dancing at a society ball, the two gradually move closer, and Simon’s hand (bruised from punching the persistent and ungentlemanly suitor Berbrooke) moves up from the back of Daphne’s dress to rest, momentarily, on her bare skin. There is a moment of great sweetness where the two stand side-by-side to discuss a painting, and their hands move almost involuntarily into a quick clasp that leaves them both breathless. And then there is the occasional departure from the traditional script. Desperate for a little information, Daphne asks Simon what goes on in a marriage. Rather unexpectedly, he suggests it is a natural extension of what happens at night, “When you touch yourself. You do… touch yourself?” Faced by her obvious bewilderment, he gives a quick set of instructions. She follows these at the next opportunity, to very satisfactory results. The subject matter of this conversation seems highly unlikely – would a nineteenth-century gentleman, even one with the reputation of a rake, see marital sex as a continuation of masturbation? And would anyone assume a well-bred young lady was enjoying herself alone in bed? But the dialogue is delightfully sexy: promenading in a public park, the two are just out of earshot of their chaperones, and have to stand mere inches apart to hear each other – cue close-ups of hungry eyes and trembling lips.

There is much to unpick and discuss about Bridgerton’s sexual politics and its treatment of history – and I may return to this – but in the end the question of its appeal is not difficult to answer. The romance between Simon and Daphne, moving not altogether unpredictably from sham flirtation to genuine affection and attraction, is the beating heart of the series and the main reason to overlook its many absurdities and keep watching. It will be interesting to see whether the second season will find an equally compelling central thread, and satisfy the viewers pulled in by season one.

Artwork by Natalie Eldred,


Believe it or not, this isn’t a rubbish dump, it’s a river. The Wid is an unassuming little river flowing along a shallow Essex valley. It r...