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  1. The Weekend Essay
27 May 2023

The meaning of Essex

Built for commuters, the county created a brash new consumerist identity. But its success has come at a price.

By Andrew Motion

My great-grandfather, also called Andrew, was the offspring of bakers who lived in St Andrews, Scotland, but he grew up in the East End of London and took to brewing as soon as he’d done with school. He was good at it. He features in histories of the trade as the man who pioneered the idea of Free Houses, and with the proceeds of that innovation bought a big house in Warwickshire, then moved with his wife and six children to a village in Essex called Stisted. That is north Essex, or the “leafier” part, as Tim Burrows calls it in his heartfelt evocation of the county. Eventually, Andrew’s descendants scattered through East Anglia, devoting themselves, so far as I can tell, to discovering more and more efficient ways of burning through the money he’d made. In 1964, when I was about to turn 12, my father bought a smaller house in the same village. He always preferred to keep change to a minimum, and despite the stark differences between his hard-working present and the past he vaguely remembered, he convinced himself that he’d come home.

I was at home, of course, following the move, but still early in the process of learning what home meant, and how incomplete it might feel. Yes, my family had connections with the place – my great-grandparents were buried in the village churchyard, with empty plots beside them, reserved for my grandfather and my parents – but these links seemed to have reached their vanishing point. And yes, the village was postcard pretty – but not in ways that my young self found comfortable. My father sometimes looked out of our sitting-room window at night and complained about the lights of Braintree pulsing like coals on the horizon. When I did the same thing, I protested that I liked the look of them – while silently wishing that Braintree offered a more cosmopolitan escape hatch to the kind of adult life I imagined. It all made me feel that the future was likely to be comprised of paradoxes. The six years I lived in Stisted were intensely character-forming: it’s the place where my eyes opened to the world. But it was also the place I longed to leave so that I could invent a different sort of existence for myself. And leave I did, as soon as I went to university. After that, I never stayed “at home” for longer than a weekend. Now I only visit occasionally, to lay flowers on my parents’ graves.

Burrows has deeper and more complicated reasons for feeling attached to Essex than I do, and is mainly interested in parts of the county that lay beyond my horizon. But, because The Invention of Essex is really a set of linked essays, the narrative of his belonging is delivered piecemeal. Patching it together, we learn that his grandfather hailed from the East End, that he grew up in Southend during the 1980s, that Burrows moved to London, stayed there for 13 years, married, had two children, and in 2019 moved back en famille to Southchurch, not far from where he set out. Is it modesty that leads him to sprinkle these details at random intervals, or a laudable wish not to give the impression that “his” Essex is equivalent to the existential truth of the place? A bit of both, no doubt. And was it homesickness that drew him back as an adult, combined with the wish for wider skies and cleaner air, or an almost-obsessive sympathy with the peculiar range of mobilities that Essex seems to allow? Again, a bit of both.

[See also: What does it mean to be British?]

Early in his account, we realise that the aspect of the county he finds most interesting is its ability to function as a “marshland laboratory to meet the demands of the age of reality television”. Towards the end, he admits that he “used to think Essex was characterised by… hidden places, from its idols excavated during the building of new roads to the magical stories of cunning men handed down through generations, but now I think it might instead be the place where England is finally seen, where it refuses to hide”.

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That is quite a claim, and runs counter to other arguments that Burrows advances about the unique character of the county. In this respect, it’s expressive of larger discombobulations in the book’s structure and organisation. Just as he never seems quite to have decided where to place himself in his own story, so he also hasn’t finally made up his mind whether to write a personal tribute or a sociological history. This means the book’s a bit of a mess (disjointed, and prone to circling back to subjects it’s already treated), as well as being limited in the range of its attention. “Leafy” rural Essex doesn’t get much of a look-in – though Burrows does make a trip to “Constable Country”, where, not surprisingly, he’s confronted by an irksome form of tea-towel sentimentality – and the geological past, as well as the cultural-historical past, is often treated in a pretty cursory fashion. We catch a glimpse of Boudicca bashing the Romans, are offered the Peasants’ Revolt as an early example of local resistance to establishment oppressions, and see the disinterred remains of some original heroes (the Anglo-Saxon “Prittlewell Prince”).

But this leaves a great deal unpraised and unprized: the brave hearts of the Battle of Maldon get a shout-out, but there’s no mention of John Clare’s stay in an Essex asylum or his marvellous account of flight from it (the “Journey Out of Essex”). Also, there’s nothing about Tennyson’s connection with the same institution, and no mention of Edward Thomas, who during his time at Hare Hall Camp, Epping, in the First World War wrote several poems set in the Essex landscape.

If Burrows had introduced his intentions more clearly, these and other omissions wouldn’t trouble the reader as much as they do. Because when the book focuses most intently on what turns out to be its main subject – namely, the way in which parts of Essex have functioned as “a Petri dish for the experiments of modernity” – it has considerable interest and value. It’s written mostly in appealingly conversational and unpretentious prose, has a sharp eye for people’s “self-mythologising as a tool of resistance”, and derives from a likeable commitment to extolling equalities of opportunity. Especially the opportunity for self-improvement. With London continually threatening to overwhelm, belittle or exploit them, the towns that smoulder along the Thames Estuary, continue along its coastline and, particularly in recent times, have rapidly expanded inland, have acquired their character as much in shows of defiance as anything more respectful or simply competitive.

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This is the backstory to the caricatures of Essex Man and Essex Girl that emerged during the 1990s. Prior to that, waves of town planners, including those unleashed by Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” housing policies, had adopted various approaches to meet the needs of those wanting to flee London but remain within easy commuting distance of the work it offered. As Burrows reminds us, there was a plotland bungalow boom. There was the interwar Becontree Estate and the initiatives promoted by Attlee’s postwar government. There was Harlow New Town, and the rapid growth of Basildon and Romford. There were major industrial investments by Ford at Dagenham, by the Bata Shoe Company, and by Crittall Windows at Silver End.

As these things gave the county a louder voice, they also fostered the growth of a distinct identity, one that seized on an existing reputation for feistiness and plain-speaking, and adapted it to suit the age of mass communication. Especially the age of TV. Spitting Image (remember its ditty “Essex is Crap”?), Harry Enfield’s “self-made geezer” Loadsamoney, The Only Way is Essex: all these struck up a relationship with the county that allowed a certain idea of “reality” to flow from one to the other and back again. So what if it was comprised of spivvy suits, bare legs and white high heels, massive intake of lager, and an approach to life that once upon a time was called philistine: anyone identifying these things as vulgar, or offering them as proof of dumb consumerism, was missing the point. They were at once a badge of honour, a rebuke, and a form of protest. A cheery f**k-off to London, and a complex parody of its beating heart (the City).

The reason for this, Burrows argues, was a pursuit of “sovereignty” – in the local sense of home-ownership, and the larger sense of self-governance: it’s not surprising that so many of the urban centres of Essex voted Leave. But now, as the calamity of that decision becomes more evident, what is there to celebrate?

As Burrows winds his way through windswept and boarded-up town centres, or is intimidated by the Foulness Military testing site, or recoils from the vile pollution of the waste management project at Mucking (the name!), he does his best to stay loyal to his origins, but can’t help sounding dispirited. In 2022, he tells us, Essex Council announced a £300,000 campaign to revise the image that in the 1990s had made the county a byword for brashness. “Good luck with that” he doesn’t say, but might as well.

At the end of his survey, Burrows returns to consider what endures beneath the surface of things. Via a description of Grayson Perry’s fascinating “A House for Essex”, and a touching look at the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell (a structure dating from 660), he comes to the clear water well at Runwell, where he broods on the paradox that lies at the centre of his own feelings. “Essex,” he says, “might have become a success story about the idea of making a home.” But in doing so, it contributed to making “the mere idea” of buying a house “as unobtainable as a unicorn ride”.

Andrew Motion is a writer and former Poet Laureate

The Invention of Essex: The Making of an English County
Tim Burrows
Profile, 336pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation