Essex isn't just fake tans, fake boobs and gurning reality TV stars

BBC4’s The Joy of Essex is an oblique exercise in reclamation, in redressing the balance, in wresting Essex from the grasp of mahogany pec buffers

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Essex isn't just fake tans, fake boobs and gurning reality TV stars
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Jonathan Meades

It’s fruitless to deny that Essex is home to countless glamour models, hair extension consultancies, footballers’ four-car garages, toilers in the Class-A recreational drugs arena, treble-necked security operatives, fitness training spas, holistic tanning salons, fibreglass Doric column mongers, diamond geezers, top slebs, latex lingerie legends, groundbreaking reality TV stars, Botox lakes and Malibu fountains.

Fruitless. Essex is, unquestionably, a sort of shorthand signifying the brain-dead bling community: garish, vulgar, un-nuanced, crude. This Essex is not exclusively a creation of lowest depths mediation. It has an autonomous existence. The Essex of electronic folklore is, rather, a caricatural rendering of just one demographic facet of a populous, exceptionally varied county.

BBC4’s The Joy of Essex is an oblique exercise in reclamation, in redressing the balance, in wresting Essex from the grasp of mahogany pec buffers. The purpose is to portray an Essex I’ve known all my adult life, which shares only a name with the domaine of perpetual cliché.

That demands qualification. “Purpose” suggests didacticism or even evangelism: I’m more interested in making shows than making points. And “portray” is inappropriate: “my” Essex is as much a fiction as “my” Isle of Lewis or “my” Belgium. Documentary seeks to represent what is extant and actual. My aim is contrary. It is to invent a place that enjoyed no previous existence, yet, paradoxically, create it from components that do or did exist. It’s a process of patterning found objects, of collage, of acknowledging what is “real”, while contorting it to make a composition that is as biased as the Essex of fake tans, fake lips, fake breasts, fake Rolexes, fake Louboutins.

What my Essex further shares with that Essex is its proximity to what have long been the poorest parts of London. That proximity determined the pattern of its development, official and improvised. The former Becontree, an LCC cottage estate begun as “Homes for Heroes” in 1921, had, by the outbreak of the next war, a population of 100,000. After that war came the new towns of Harlow and Basildon. These are merely the biggest, most visible satellites that “received” London’s populace, beneficiaries of rational statist philanthropy in a county with a history of philanthropic endeavours, which cannot invariably be called rational. And in certain cases the philanthropy itself seems threadbare. The biologist TH Huxley considered the Salvation Army Land and Industrial Colony at Hadleigh to be based in socialist autocracy and despotism.

On the other hand, H Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and a supporter of the Army’s founder and Old Testament prophet William Booth, described the colony as “a place where broken men of bad habits can be reformed and ultimately sent out to situations or as emigrants to Canada”. Was this transportation with a different name? The means by which such souls – destitute, drunk, delinquent – might achieve salvation was, as usual, manual labour and fresh air. The colony claimed a 91 per cent success rate. What that meant and how the figure was arrived at are unclear. What is clear is how cannily businesslike the colony was. A narrow-gauge railway transported its produce to a quay on a tidal creek where it was loaded onto barges that delivered it to London markets. The Thames was a great highway. Landowners who lacked a creek dug canals to reach the river and riches.

International modernism of the 1920s and 30s was invested with a quasi-utopian social programme. Essex possesses two examples of paternalistic philanthropy in white, flat-roofed, rectilinear guise. Silver End near Braintree was a tied village in the tradition of Titus Salt’s Saltaire near Bradford. It was built by Critalls, manufacturers of metal-framed windows, for their work- force. The accommodation – inside toilets, gardens – was an inducement to move from East End slums even if the enforced communality let no one doubt they were owned by the company.

International modernism bore unmistakably national characteristics. The former Bata shoe factory at Tilbury is a piece of Czechoslovakia airlifted to the Thames marshes. Despite the Critall windows, the houses are of proportions alien to English practice of the time. Likewise the formal layout of streets. The planting, too, is a giveaway: poplars and silver birches in rows. Single-industry villages are vulnerable. When the company moves production to another continent, paternalism demonstrates that it is provisional. It ceases to provide shelter. The place loses its raison d’être. Its inhabitants realise that utopia marches to the tune of the market.

That lesson was also learnt by developers of Frinton Park, which would have been by far the largest modern movement settlement in Britain. But the kind of people who moved to Frinton, a doily of a town, did not want houses that looked similar to workers’ accommodation at Silver End and Bata. Only a few handsome streets bear witness to what might have been.

By their nature, utopian experiments tend to leave little physical trace. On Osea Island there’s a handful of buildings that give no clue to the fact they were built as a form of expiation by Frederick Charrington, scion of the brewing dynasty, who renounced his inheritance and established a temperance community. Essex abounded in back-to-the-land schemes of varying epochs, varying degrees of feasibility.

A couple of cottages by the young Charles Holden (architect of London University’s Senate House and distinctive 1930s Tube stations) belonged to the farm for the urban unemployed set up by the soap magnate Joseph Fells on the Dengie Peninsula. There are no visible remains of the Tolstoyan community at Cock Clarks a few miles away. Nor of the Q Camp founded at Hawkspur Green outside Braintree in 1936. Its real legacy is its ideas and practices. Regarded then as wayward, even as dangerous, they would become mainstream 40 or so years later. The tough love and self-governance pioneered at this therapeutic community were to become widely employed in the treatment of addictions in adults and antisocial behaviour in children.

The men behind the Q Camp movement were a former Borstal housemaster, David Wills, who’d become sceptical about the methods used in such institutions, and psychiatrist Norman Glaister, a fascinating figure who was a member of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, a non-militaristic version of the Boy Scouts, all tents and logging.

He founded the Grith Fyrd movement of camps for the unemployed and was involved in Priory Gate School, which championed nudity and self-expression over discipline and academic enterprise. It was run by a former military vet, self-taught psychologist and inventor of something called a Frigidity Machine “to unblock primal libidinal energy”. This was Theodore Faithfull, the great diva’s grandfather.

It’s easy to jeer at these Aertex-and-sandals eccentrics. But they should be valued. So should their attempts to create new worlds, ephemeral worlds, admittedly, in which might be found the acorn of future societies. They possessed the now hopelessly unfashionable characteristics of earnestness and hope.

God, whom they tended to shun, knows what they would make of today’s Essex where – and this is not an invention – a dinner-party conversation about the merits and demerits of various makes of sunglasses can last as long as an hour.

Jonathan Meades: The Joy of Essex is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4

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