THE INVENTION OF ESSEX: THE MAKING OF AN ENGLISH COUNTY
by Tim Burrows (Profile £16.99, 336pp)
What’s the difference between an Essex girl and a supermarket trolley? Answer: the trolley has a mind of its own.
As Essex girl jokes go, Tim Burrows could have been far crueller in his choice of example. But either way, as his book about the county shows, the girls themselves won’t mind — Essex residents have been shrugging off criticism for a very long time.
Essex girl: Towie’s Gemma Collins, pictured in 2018, has become a household name across the country
In 1700, a clergyman named James Brome wrote that the county was home to ‘Persons of so abject and sordid a Temper’ that they seemed ‘by conversing continually with the Beasts to have learn’d their Manners’.
More recently, the TV programme Spitting Image had a song called Essex Is Crap, in which Bruce Forsyth’s puppet sang about shell suits, leather sofas, coal-effect fires and karaoke. The late radio presenter John Peel, who lived in Suffolk, was so averse to Essex (and in particular its drivers) that whenever he headed home from London he bypassed it completely, choosing a longer route that took him through Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire instead.
But even though the rest of the world delights in mocking the county, we can’t help being fascinated by it. One of the biggest TV hits of recent years has been The Only Way Is Essex, or Towie to its devoted fans, who include the Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence. The series chronicles the lives of Essex’s twentysomethings, and led to a surge in popularity for fake tan and ‘vajazzles’.
If you’re unfamiliar with the latter, Burrows describes them as involving ‘adhesive diamante gems’. We’ll let your linguistic intuition (and possibly Google) fill in the gaps.
Essex is a county of firsts. There was the UK’s first nudist colony (1924, in Wickford, intriguingly called ‘Moonella’), and the world’s first regular radio broadcasting company (established near Chelmsford by Guglielmo Marconi in 1922).
But the examples most relevant to modern British politics (one of the book’s main themes) both belong to Margaret Thatcher. Her Tory government’s policy of allowing people to buy their council houses was launched in 1980 with a photo opportunity in a kitchen of a house in Romford. And the first public services she privatised were the bin collections in Southend, in 1981.
It was fitting that one of Thatcher’s most prominent supporters was Norman Tebbit, an Essex MP (first Epping, later Chingford).
The establishment’s attitude towards Mr Tebbit was summarised by Tory grandee Harold Macmillan, speaking to friends at his gentleman’s club: ‘Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a Cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty’s ministers.’
Chantelle Houghton (pictured in 2006), who grew up near Wickford, won the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother
Not that Tebbit would have been bothered — his view of the landed gentry was that ‘I don’t hold any brief for someone whose only contribution is to have been born in the right bed’. Instead, Tebbit liked people who got on through their own hard work and talent.
Chantelle Houghton grew up near Wickford, in a family so poor that ‘my dad, when the neighbours went on holiday, would get the hose pipe from their house and then put it through the window of our bathroom and fill up our bath so we could wash’.
She’s done very well for herself since then, initially by winning the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother, then by giving interviews to OK! magazine and making public appearances.
On one occasion, a crane lifted her up to become the fairy on top of the massive Christmas tree outside Lakeside shopping centre (‘I was so frightened, my legs just went limp’). Houghton has invested her earnings in property.
It’s a very ‘Essex’ success story. A lot of people will take the easy way out and sneer, as they always have. After the sitcom Birds Of A Feather featured sisters called Sharon and Tracey, the names became shorthand for ‘Essex girl’.
So much so that in 1994, when Volkswagen were launching a new people carrier, they thought about (but eventually decided against) changing its name in the UK. It was the VW Sharan.