One sunny weekend not long after the Brexit referendum, four generations of our extended family gathered for a surprise birthday party at the country house of one of my cousins. We were there to celebrate the birthday of his mother, Iris, one of my two maternal aunts. My mother is the youngest of three sisters who moved out to Essex after the Second World War, my mother and her eldest sister to live in Harlow new town, while Iris settled in the Brentwood area.
That afternoon we discussed the referendum and I was not surprised to discover that nearly all my cousins and their partners voted for Brexit. Some of them now live in Hertfordshire and Suffolk but, in so many ways, they are representative Essex men and women of the generation who were shaped, energised and motivated by Thatcherism.
Essex Man – the journalist Simon Heffer’s shrewd coinage – was an archetype of the late 1980s. Today, because of TV series such as Educating Essex and The Only Way is Essex, the county, in spite of the diversity of its landscapes and complex history, is associated with a certain kind of vulgar, flashy individualism.
There’s no denying that there is a distinctive majority Essex identity and accent. One can’t imagine comparable TV programmes called Educating Kent or The Only Way is Bedfordshire. And the politics are, on the whole, right wing: every district in the county voted for Brexit and every constituency has a Conservative MP.
But Essex is not homogeneous, as Gillian Darley reminds us in her absorbing and gracefully written book, Excellent Essex (Old Street Publishing). For a start, there’s “radical Essex” – the county has long attracted free thinkers, nonconformists, cranks and outsiders – and there’s the Essex that over many centuries has absorbed waves of migrants, from rural deep England, from Scotland and Ireland, from the East End of London after the war, from the Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s, and, most recently, from eastern Europe.
Darley operates as a kind of omniscient tour guide. She sweeps us along on a journey through time and around the county, from the mysterious, secluded salt marshes of the Thames Estuary, where Paul Gallico set his bestselling novella The Snow Goose (1940) and where Robert Macfarlane camped out for his book The Wild Places (2007), to the lovely villages of the Suffolk border so familiar to Constable.
She visits the new towns of Harlow and Basildon, created by the Attlee government after the war, and introduces us to the historic buildings and settlements of Epping Forest. Along the way, she uses Ordnance Survey maps to search out moats, “dead ends” and uprooted hedge lines, and tries to work out what once was and what survives.
“If you have a certain tree in a hedge, that was the edge of a medieval wood,” she said. “I like that the landscape can show you what has passed through. If you look you discover things. It’s all there. It’s a landscape you have to work at. You have to take a step towards it.”
The book is essayistic and episodic, and all the better for it: you can read it chronologically or dip in and out. As a historian who also studied politics, Darley sees the past in the present, and she understands how much topography contributes to the identity of an area or region.
She grew up just on the other side of the border near Sudbury in Suffolk and now spends a lot of time in a village near the county town of Chelmsford. Essex has been misunderstood and “put down”, she told me when she visited the New Statesman offices. “I’ve had appalling conversations with thoughtful people who, when I’ve said I’m writing about Essex, express straight up and down snobbery.”
Because of the East End diaspora? “Yes. But the mix of London and the rest is what gives Essex its electricity. You don’t get it in Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire. Essex has the farms, and the sea coast as well – and the reality of all those incomers. At its best, it shows the best of how to be open and how to be welcoming.”
I was interested to know whether Darley, who started her career writing about housing for professional journals, considered the new towns to have failed. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Basildon and Harlow had a huge problem. They were built for public social housing and while the political will was there they were maintained and looked after. Then a change of politics and the introduction of right-to-buy and it’s end-of: maintenance goes right down. They were neglected.”
She believes that Harlow, which, when I lived there as a boy in the 1970s, was still semi-rural, with fine woods and protected “green wedges”, had advantages over Basildon. “It had that wonderful landscape and it had [landscape architect] Sylvia Crowe, who was able to make sense of it.”
John Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, called the new towns “essays in civilisation”. I mentioned this to Darley and she said: “To read about Lewis Silkin [the minister of town and country planning who introduced the second reading of the New Towns Act in 1946] reading Utopia in the House is one of those moments when you think you’ve been born in the right place. My goodness – imagine!”
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics