To Colchester, where we have rented a Landmark Trust House in the Dutch Quarter, where Flemish weavers settled in the 1570s after being driven into exile by religious persecution. The late-Elizabethan interiors, evenly set wall timbers and long, mullioned windows are a delight. The roads getting there are less so, but then you have to pity the council. Every time they employ a digger it probably regurgitates another amphitheatre or the bones of a famous Spartacus figure, halting progress. Colchester was the first city in Roman Britain and its first capital.
The house sits just below Colchester High Street, close to Essex Youth Service and a mental health unit. Some of the residents are sitting outside on plastic chairs and jeer us as we walk past. We probably have the worst margarita we have ever had – pure sugar – in a hotel bar and head into the fray as newly recruited diabetics. It figures that in The Only Way is Essex the nightclub of choice is called the Sugar Hut.
Into the wild
Apparently, Colchester town centre is the most dangerous place to live in Essex: 406 offences a year for every 1,000 residents. It’s Friday night on the high street and it’s kicking off. This is rewilding Essex-style, a restoration to its natural uncultivated state. Heavily tattooed men rampaging like wolves, their tongues hanging out, occasionally sniffing their crotches; women trotting off in the highest of heels in deer-like groups, fluttering false eyelashes as dense as forests.
Afghan asylum seekers and Ukrainian accents abound; Colchester has a proud tradition of helping refugees that dates back to those Huguenots. Drug addicts are sitting in circles on the pavements as if they are picnicking; squaddies pile out of taxis – there has been a garrison here since Roman times – and students step off buses. All the caricatures of Love Island are present as well. For a member of the chattering classes it’s like watching a BBC wildlife documentary. The street cleaners in the morning must have their work cut out.
England’s brave heart
Do I sound condescending? I hope not. My overall view is a positive one. I tell my husband: if we were ever invaded by Russia, it’s this populace that would save us, Wagner-style. It’s no coincidence that there is a chain of Martello towers built to defend Colchester from Napoleon, or that the city gave the Romans their first colony, or has one of the largest Norman castles. Or that Boudica torched the Romans out of their temple here.
Quite frankly, I’d let Denise van Outen lead me into mortal combat any day. These are warrior people. Colchester might be elevated as a town, but this lot are born of the “plains”; they know how to charge unhindered when agitated. It’s this nonconformity, this sense of making the best out of neglect, suspicion of authority, work ethic and a desire to have fun, that makes it a condensation of everything brave about England. In some places it’s a thin membrane between going to war and waiting for one to arrive. Colchester High Street on a Friday night is one of those places.
[See also: What does a real refugee look like?]
The salvation bus
We pass a parked-up red and green bus inviting the lost and wounded into its open jaw, sticking out a tongue-like ramp. It’s Colchester’s community bus, sponsored by McDonald’s. Written on its sides: lost your mates? Need emergency first aid? Feeling threatened? Need a rest and a chat? Need some water? It embodies the town itself, a bastion of defence, one that is rooted in the protection and preservation of its people.
I like Essex, not because it’s Constable country but because it’s Conservative country. And as Roger Scruton once said: “Conservatism is more an instinct than an idea.” Essex is all instinct. It’s rebellious. It connects with its primal nature and allows its people to live authentically. It has identity. In an age of perpetual crisis, even Labour is talking about returning the state to its primary function: security. Essex will get that.
As for the real Wagner Group, I have been watching with fascination the abortive uprising led by the former hot dog salesman Prigozhin. Particularly interesting is this business about Putin being dependent on private armies in addition to his conscripted force. It’s the equivalent of Jamie Oliver cobbling together a private army from apprentice chip-fryers and pastry chefs, and walking from Cornwall to Westminster to overthrow parliament. The only difference between the two is Prigozhin beats his foes with a sledgehammer, while Oliver pulverises his meat to tenderise it. But then, Oliver does hail from Essex, so who knows what he is truly capable of.
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia