Twenty years ago it felt as if the rest of the country despised Essex as vulgar. Now it seems to have taken it to its heart. STEVEN RUSSELL discovers how an exile returned to his native county and found there’s actually a lot to love

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IT all started in 1990 when journalist Simon Heffer, himself a resident of the county, wrote a provocative profile of “Essex Man” in the Sunday Telegraph. This amalgam was “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”. His girlfriend was blonde and wore white stilettos.

An illustration depicted him as a bull-necked young man in a shiny suit, standing outside the council house he’d bought. There was a satellite dish on the roof and a flash new motor outside. It proved one of the compelling images of the Thatcher era, and stuck.

The county then appeared to be fair game for a whole stream of jokes at its expense – the worst kind being the “Essex Girl” quips that took stereotyping to a nasty new level.

In recent years, though, the tide has turned. Britain, it seems, has embraced Essex . . . even if it still can’t quite explain the fascination.

Last May, for instance, Labour leader Ed Miliband went to Harlow on the same day that David Cameron and Nick Clegg visited a tractor factory in Basildon and technology firm e2V in Chelmsford.

Writer Pete May, raised in Essex but now calling north London home, gives a lot of credit to celebrities who have proved fine ambassadors for the place that helped make them who they are – people like X Factor favourites Matt Cardle and Olly Murs, and chef Jamie Oliver.

The TV series Gavin & Stacey, aired from 2007 to 2010, also presented Essex and its people in a warm, welcoming and unpretentious light.

And then came The Only Way is Essex, an ITV semi-reality show whose cast were generally heavy on the fake tan and false eyelashes and light on general knowledge.

OK, lots of viewers hated the folk obsessed by their appearance and murdering the language with their glottal stops, but Pete says it wasn’t all bad. “Yes, the show was stereotypical, but there was a warmth and humour to some of the characters that people liked, plus that great Essex argot . . .”

And many of the cast of TOWIE, as it quickly became known, had an entrepreneurial zeal that could only be admired. All this helped redress the balance. Now, he says, the historic home of the East Saxons “is still the most iconic county in the UK and the essence of Essex is everywhere”.

The fact Essex has more cultural baggage than any other county is one of Pete’s principal reasons for putting together his semi-tongue-in-cheek book. (Its title, The Joy of Essex, mirrors EADT writer Martin Newell’s weekly column. But we’ll overlook that – even though Pete mangles our name a bit and calls us the Anglian Daily Press!)

We get a namecheck because Martin was once the gardener of Pete’s friend Roz, a sociology graduate who lived at Wivenhoe for a long time. The town on the doorstep of the University of Essex, the book points out, was nicknamed Sociology-on-Sea because of the number of academics living there.

Pete’s nostalgic mission also followed the deaths of his parents, something that “inevitably results in a period of reflection and a desire to explore the haunts of your youth”.

So he went back – sometimes accompanied by Chelmsford-born wife Nicola, daughters Lola and Nell, and dog Vulcan.

Most of the book, admittedly, focuses on the more urban towns of the county – the Londony bits such as Basildon, Harlow, Dagenham and Southend – but Pete also ventures to what he calls the posher parts. Saffron Walden, for instance, offers tea dances and turf mazes . . . He calls at Chelmsford before Tiptree, Clacton-on-Sea, neighbouring Frinton-on-Sea and Colchester. En route, his book philosophises about outsiders’ perceptions of Essex.

At university, and after he moved to London, folk would laugh about some of the stereotypes – such as furry dice in souped-up Cortinas – yet being from Essex also seemed to earn some kudos. It was all a bit schizophrenic.

Pete, a freelance journalist since 1987, points out that the concept of “Essex Man” – as coined by Simon Heffer – was 22 years old this October just gone. Time flies.

“Essex Man was useful shorthand for why Thatcherism was successful, thought Heffer: ‘the barrow boy who uses instinct and energy rather than contacts and education . . . He is unencumbered by any “may the best man win” philosophy. He expects to win whether he’s the best man or not.’”

Pete says it was “a brilliant piece of journalism, snobbish, over-stated, but with enough truth for the phrase Essex Man to enter the Oxford English Dictionary”. And it did pick up on a cultural phenomenon. Aspirational working-class East Enders had in the past made a bit of money and left war-damaged homes behind – moving out to Essex new towns such as Harlow and Basildon. As manufacturing jobs disappeared, the children of the old East Enders found jobs in the City and the used-car lots of the Southend arterial road, the argument goes.

The portrayal of 1990s Essex Man was picked up across the media – which didn’t go down well with all the locals, who found themselves being defined by association.

Peter, comedian Phill Jupitus and Richard Edwards – a chef in the Colchester area and a fanzine editor – formed the spoof Essex Liberation Front, making a unilateral declaration of independence for the county. “We claimed that our government in exile would soon restore culture to our new nation and fund itself through sales of Tiptree jam and marmalade.”

While it was a laugh, there were some touchy points beneath the surface. Pete writes that there was a strong whiff of the English class system in all this Essex Man business. “When toffs get a bit of money they still wear frayed shirts and plead poverty due to school fees. They’d never have a personalised number plate. Whereas the working class made good, flaunting their cash, was considered much more vulgar.” He submits “It’s possible that Essex Man made it permissible to laugh at the white working class again, leading to chav jokes and Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard.”

Happily, it’s changed – thanks in no small measure to those Essex folk who have found their way onto TV and shown the population’s traits of warm-heartedness, drive and an innate knack for pricking the bubble of pomposity.

Folk work hard, but no-one takes themselves too seriously, Peter suggests. Viz the big, tongue-in-cheek, kitsch, Hollywood-style sign that Basildon put up on the A127.

He doesn’t find it surprising that perception has thawed – “the sons and daughters of Essex Man now run much of the media. Public school might teach soft skills, but in Essex hard skills such as drive, hunger, humour and a refusal to worry if you call the drawing room the lounge have brought big rewards, and indeed bonuses for turning the banks into upmarket bookies”.

And so to Pete’s Great Road Trip.

The big surprise is that he found much of his native county a surprise. He enjoyed things he hadn’t expected, such as a piece of Roman wall in the basement of a Colchester restaurant. “While writing this book it’s become apparent just how little I knew of my home county,” he confesses. “The first eight months of my life were spent in Dunmow and the rest of my childhood in Brentwood. My family never fully explored the new towns, the islands, the jam factories, the castles or the coast – and the diversity of the place has been a huge surprise. Now I’m proud to come from Essex.”

He admits the most entertaining part is “Estuary Essex”, with its East End overspill parents and their children with TOWIE values, yet much of Essex is upper middle class, “or as we say in Brentwood, well-posh”. Evidence? Well, The Essex Rose tearoom in Dedham, run by Wilkin & Sons, and Constable Country along the border with Suffolk.

“Essex is where the city and country merge. Away from the Thames Estuary, Essex has wide skies, sea, marshes and estuaries, and the Essex tundra is just as deserving as chronicling as the more exotic destinations of, say, the Solomon Islands or Papua New Guinea.”

Honest.

The tour took him to Chelmsford, the county’s only city. Formerly Caesaromagus – Caesar’s market place – it was also home to the UK’s first mass production of ball-bearings. Maldon, “proper posh Essex”, is a delight for the exile’s senses. “The Blackwater Estuary is rather magical. On Hythe Quay, Maldon feels more like north Norfolk or Cornwall.” Pete notes the Thames barges moored on the muddy banks, rigging flapping in the breeze.

“These sailing barges used to work the east coast rivers and sail to London in the nineteenth century. They would carry hay, straw and grain to London to feed the growing numbers of horses and return with the ‘London mixture’ of manure and straw, which seems a neat summation of the way London has often thought of Essex.”

He notes the Northern Lights were seen over Maldon and Heybridge Basin in July: “proof that Essex has everything the Scottish highlands can offer and more”.

Wilkin & Sons’ famous factory, producing preserves, jams, marmalades and curds, is another highlight. It’s made Tiptree famous by exporting to 40 countries. Little Scarlet is James Bond’s favourite jam, mentioned in From Russia with Love. Tiptree is the only place in the UK where that particular type of strawberry is grown.

“Essex starts to feel distinctly East Anglian as the train heads towards Clacton. Giant skies, flat land, rippling green fields, cow parsley-flecked embankments and tumbled-down old maltings, completely ungentrified, at the tiny Thorpe-le-Soken station.” At the seaside, he stays in the same B&B that looks after Ken Dodd when he’s in town.

On to Frinton. “It’s so upmarket that the hairdresser has a simple name rather than a pun, something unheard of in the rest of Essex.”

It’s Colchester, though, that seems to make the biggest impression on this back-to-his-roots traveller.

He and his good lady go there on a mini-break to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Their rather pessimistic taxi driver reckons the town hasn’t got a lot going for it, though concedes the new art gallery – dubbed “the golden banana” – might be OK, and that the castle is worth seeing if you like that kind of thing.

But our adopted north Londoners are enchanted by historical re-enactors they come across, putting on Tudor dancing. They adore the best Roman gateway in Britain and the stunning Roman walls, and they leave the castle “drunk on history”.

Back home, he reflects that returning to the county “has made me realise I hardly knew the place”. He likes what he found. An entrepreneurial zeal abounds, as does “a particular kind of self-deprecating comedy that is often insulation against the gap between expectation and reality”.

And the good folk of Essex? “Yes, there’s materialism, belligerence, road rage, xenophobia and intolerance, but also warmth, humour, a desire to better themselves and a total disdain of pomposity.”

Through comedy, film and literature, people from the county are making a real contribution to the cultural zeitgeist, “although in Essex you’d probably still get a slap for using such a phrase”.

OK, but maybe there’s still a danger that the labels swirling around in the national consciousness (promulgated by shows like TOWIE) are seen as representative. Perhaps that image can foster prejudice. What does Pete think?

“Yes, I do feel sorry for Essex women in particular, as people from outside the county often assume they must be blonde and tanned and wearing stilettos. But I guess a lot of other counties have to put up with stereotypes,” he tells the EADT.

“If nothing else it’s a conversation opener and an opportunity to point out how different Essex is.

“Also, I do think there are some aspects of the Essex TV stereotype (in everything from TOWIE to Gavin & Stacey and I’m a Celebrity) that people admire, such as the fact that Essex people tell it like it is, they can have fun but also laugh at themselves, and they’re not pompous.”

Mind you, he admits writing the book has been instructive.

“A lot of literary editors are quite sniffy about reviewing a book about Essex, and one London bookshop simply replied ‘It’s not for us’ on hearing the title!”

n The Joy of Essex – Travels Through God’s Own County is published by The Robson Press at £9.99

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