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Going Back Home: A Journey Through Estuary Myth And Identity
Tim Burrows , December 7th, 2014 15:35

In an extract from an essay taken from his co-authored collection with Lee Rourke, Trying to Fit a Number to a Name, Tim Burrows discusses the culturally (re)enforced and self-fulfilling stereotypes of the TOWIE Essex and the 'archetypal' UKIP-supporting Essex Man via Samuel Beckett, Wilko Johnson and Mike Leigh

Photograph by Luke Turner

In January 2013, Wilko Johnson announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and was travelling the country in a final farewell, having, at the last minute, been served up his moment in the sun. When he was given the news by his doctor, Wilko was told that he had until October to live. ‘I’m supposed to be dead,’ was his catchphrase by November.

Johnson’s rise in 2013 seemed so incongruous because what he and Dr. Feelgood represented subverted the prevailing notion of what an Essex person had become: bland, ill-educated archetype, celebrated ironically by the wider culture for its entertaining, inoffensive vulgarity. As a by-product of London’s dominance of the British media, the capital’s neighbouring county had assumed the role as a convenient destination for a put-upon production assistant when looking for that verbally challenged feel. The media trope of the crass East End family moving into a Barratt Home mansion in Essex is nothing new. It was institutionalised during the 1980s, woven into the fabric of national discourse through canned laughter-laden episodes of Birds of a Feather and Spitting Image’s spoof song ‘Essex Is Crap’. It found its ultimate articulation in the keen-eyed derision of Simon Heffer’s now-infamous 1990 Sunday Telegraph editorial that canonised the stereotype: ‘When one walks through the City most evenings the pools of vomit into which one may step have usually been put there by Essex man,’ he wrote, ‘whose greatly enhanced wealth has exceeded his breeding in terms of alcoholic capacity.’

The spectre of Essex Man returned to newspaper headlines recently as Nigel Farage’s ‘I’m-not-racist-but’ pressure group cum political party, UKIP, made significant gains across South Essex – in Southend-on-Sea, Basildon, Thurrock and Canvey Island. An air of blame emanated from some sections of the media and from commentators on Twitter — and from Heffer an air of pride. ‘Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock, Brentwood, Basildon — the roll-call of councils where UKIP recorded sweeping gains sounds like a series of minicab destinations from ITV’s reality show The Only Way Is Essex. But they also signify a seismic shift in the political landscape in what, not long ago, was an apparently impregnable Tory heartland,’ he wrote in his Daily Mail column after the local elections. ‘Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I coined the phrase Essex Man to describe those aspirational, hard-working people whose values were championed by Thatcherism. Today, most natural Tories, and quite a few long-time Labour supporters in Essex, have had enough of their views being ignored. That is why Essex Man is increasingly more likely to vote UKIP.’ Following the recent Clacton by-election result in which Tory MP Douglas Carswell defected to UKIP and beat his former party, the image of Essex as insular haven for working-class right wing bigots has been renewed afresh.

The Only Way Is Essex, more commonly known by its acronym TOWIE, has helped Essex become a British stereotype like no other since it was first aired in the autumn of 2010. Essex has gone global as adjectival shorthand for a spray-tanned and silicone-enhanced look – a kind of OTT scanty glam that, in truth, can be found in the bars of Liverpool as much as Loughton. One school in the Epping Essex area gives an annual prize to its ‘Most Essex’ student. Dayglo images of the county’s new faces dominate wall-mounted widescreen televisions countrywide: handsome, loveably ignorant goon-for-hire Joey Essex (real name) with his ‘Fusey’ haircut and recently published ghostwritten ‘autobiography’ Being Reem is perhaps the most successful of the show’s stars; Chloe Sims and other surgically enhanced, tabloid-hugging names are symbols of how the Californian cosmetic tradition has been grafted on to Essex; reality show stars such as hyper-camp Corringham Celebrity Big Brother 2013 winner Rylan Clark, who is shiny yet crass, high-maintenance yet low-grade, hyper-charismatic yet wallowing in the HD dullness of appearances on Loose Women. A vanguard of capitalist surrealism, the TOWIE generation is presented as a new breed of ‘talent’ that has no real talent to speak of, and so becomes a blank canvas, a repository for the cosmetic industry, forever doomed to a contiguity of soulless appearances in the backwater clubs of Milton Keynes and Luton, but crucially adhering to the time-honoured Essex tradition of buying and selling, of exchange, that goes further back than Pitsea Market, to the old East End. The commodity, in this instance, being themselves.

I spoke to the broadcaster Jonathan Meades, whose own experience of Essex differed so much from the prevailing myth that it prompted him to make the BBC4 documentary The Joy of Essex to redress the balance. ‘I think it’s a creation of the basest end of television and media in general,’ he explained about the stereotype’s birth. ‘And, having created it, they report on it as though it is something they didn’t create.’

Meades’s counterblast against the rising tide of representations fulminated at what by now was peddled as a bona fide truth. In 1992, Anglia University’s David Crouch drafted a report entitled Essex Man and Woman: A Search For Reality. It questioned why the Essex stereotype had caught on so effectively. Crouch put it down to a need for identity in a place that has experienced such flux. ‘Many Essex people originally come from London’s East End. Yet the north of the county runs into rural East Anglia. This has produced a schizophrenic state in Essex people. They don’t know where or what to relate to.’ The report claimed that the Essex caricature was an easy identity for people to buy into. Images and slogans filtered down to the Essex ‘burbs and are taken on as identities, creating a chicken and egg situation: did Essex make this ersatz, perma-tanned, ‘loads-a-money’ caricature, or was it thrust upon them?

In May last year my wife Hayley and I visited her widowed grandfather, Ernest Singer, in the village of Upwell, near Wisbech, in the somnolent borderlands of the Cambridge and Norfolk fens. Writing up in his dusty study, I was drawn to look at the neglected books on his shelves. Underneath a worn copy of the science-fiction novel The Great Explosion by Eric Frank Russell, which posits the possibility of a colony of humans leaving Earth to set up an anarchistic society on another planet, was a book with a torn jacket that had most probably lay unread for a number of years: The Roding Valley by M.B. Collingwood, a practical guide published in 1947 to aid the casual walker’s journey along the river Roding, which runs from Dunmow in the more verdant north of Essex to industrial Barking. As was the predominant stance of the period, Collingwood saw the expansion of Metropolitan Essex as disastrous. He iterates how the ‘suburbs of Woodford and Loughton encroach on the rural scene’; how parts of Epping Forest have ‘degenerated into suburban parkland’ and how ‘urbanised areas of Woodford Wells and Highams Park’ are ‘no longer representative of the true Epping Forest’.

The rise of the suburbs in the Twentieth Century led to new concentrations of disposable income, meaning communal entertainment such as variety shows, the cinema and eventually, rock music thrived. Grand Victorian or Edwardian-built palaces of entertainment were utilised for gigs, such as a former Dagenham bingo hall, the Roundhouse, that was visited by Dr. Feelgood, as well as Led Zepellin, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd during its early to mid-70s heyday.

But the people that this Essex suburbia fostered into being in turn became entertainment for the rest of the country. For dramatists, there is something irresistibly theatrical, in a soap-operatic way, and comedic, in a tragic way, about the place. Mike Leigh knew it, setting early TV plays such as Abigail’s Party (1977) and Meantime (1983) in the hinterland between East London and new-built Essex. The playwright and director depicted the tension between the consumerist hope of east London’s nouveau riche escapees and the working-class family members they left behind, teasing wit and epiphany out of the violent schism of social division.

Meantime begins with upwardly mobile head of the household John (Alfred Molina) ordering his in-laws, who are visiting from Bethnal Green, to take their shoes off — the ‘shoes-off’ home being the ultimate in don’t-know-your-born rejection of the more personable side of working-class life — when entering his property in suburban Chigwell. Later, Tim Roth’s introverted character Colin is employed by Auntie Barbara (Marion Bailey) to paint her house, so she and John can sell up and move even further up the ladder, and further away from her family. Colin gets lost, ending up a few miles away from Barbara and John’s home. We catch up with him as he plods past the crumpled, bronze statue of Winston Churchill at the southern end of Woodford Green, an east Londoner bewildered by the absences on the edge of London, overlooked by the bulldog hero of every gravel-voiced, five-pints-a-night Essex Man.

Soon after returning from Upwell, Hayley and I cycled to Buckhurst Hill on the edge of Epping Forest from our flat in Walthamstow, passing the squinting Churchill and the scrubby green of Woodford Cricket Club. Round here, the roads that connect former villages have become fume-filled, gridlocked tributaries. We soon passed the private hospital, Holly House, where Premier League footballers are X-rayed for the right price. I am told on good authority that they also scan pet dogs, cats, even goldfish, to make souvenir scans to maybe frame and put on the wall.

‘PSYCHIC TODAY’, cried a poster outside the hall as we entered Queen’s Road and were treated with a sudden view over Chigwell. It is about this point where one enters the Essex of popular myth as much as topographical Essex itself: pseudo-mysticism, urged on by celebrity. Background chatter of ‘auras’ and ‘fate’. A place where tabloid superstition outweighs empiricism as much as bronze skin beats pallid, fueled by London-earned wealth.

We stopped for a coffee, and perused Essex Life, a magazine featuring a star columnist in local estate agent Philip Leigh, and pages and pages of articles that detail new boutiques being opened by different stars of TOWIE. Lauren’s Way, a beauty salon run by former member of the show Lauren Goodger, was filled with orange women eager to have their voluminous hair coaxed into gravity defying shapes for an immodest price. The place was heaving, but not everyone has been so admiring. According to reports, the salon was ‘petrol bombed’ on the evening of its opening day in February 2012. The culprits smashed the windows with a crowbar before chucking the explosives in. Perhaps it was a cell of a new terrorist group, trying to protect the sanctity, and sanity, of Epping Essex. Perhaps it was tabloid-designed set-piece stage managed by her media fixer, the now-disgraced sex offender Max Clifford, a man who helped to invent the world that these reality stars now stalk. Lauren’s Way is now closed, and Ms Goodger’s hopes to launch a pop career look bleak without the aid of Clifford.

Unlike Wilko Johnson, Joey Essex was born with his stage name. Polar opposites, they both beguiled in 2013. Joey boasted of his under-education; Wilko played down his knowledge of literature. Joey had matinee idol looks and polished teeth; Amphetamine-reared Wilko was lucky to have any teeth. While it might seem a little too easy to point out the discrepancies between reality television and rock music, there is an important point to be made here. Joey represents Essex subject as malleable meat. Dr. Feelgood used Essex’s Cockney outlaw image to exploit the rock industry, yet today’s Essex wannabes are anodyne and supplicant participants in a politely obnoxious non-event.

The Only Way is Essex’s popularity is mystifying,’ quipped comedian Gráinne Maguire at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival. ‘Nothing happens in it. It’s like a never-ending hen night mixed with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.’ It’s a joke that nails the show’s appeal. There seems to be something profoundly — even old-fashionedly — existential about TOWIE’s particularly wooden and detached brand of the structured-reality template. Implicit within the series is consumer lifestyle: relationships, clothes and cars are acquired without effort or fanfare; the Essex countryside landscape is a mere backdrop for group getaways organised to lather up the tension. Only nothing is particularly tense. Events are staged in a way that clobbers you around the head to let you know they are, producing a distancing effect that is not a million miles away from Waiting for Godot. Far from pulling you in mimetically, the show seems to somehow leave you stuck out on the periphery of the narrative, estranged from the proceedings: ‘Nothing to be done.’

However intentional, TOWIE, as in Beckett, plays with meaning and meaninglessness, creating a bland, glam, steady pulsed cartoon that is fascinating in its flatness. A reel of viewer tweets precedes each advert break sustaining and mirroring the main event. TOWIE-centric ‘news’ (sourced via agent bungs) lines the website of the Daily Mail: bikini selfies, who-shagged-who stories and liposuction disasters provoking reader responses in the comments section. Oiled by digital mirrors, it all exists as it reflects, a perfect arrangement that spins Samuel Beckett evoking the philosopher Bishop Berkeley’s maxim Esse est Percipi (To Be Is To Be Perceived) into a bastardised new: Essex est Percipi (To Be From Essex Is To Be Perceived).

An Extract from 'Going Back Home: A Journey Through Estuary Myth and Identity', taken from the joint essay project Trying to Fit a Number To a Name by Lee Rourke and Tim Burrows