Simon Heffer

What do we think of when we think of Essex?

Its industrial new towns have nothing in common with its picturesque villages and lonely estuaries – but a refusal to conform still unites this deeply schizophrenic county

Fun and games on Clacton beach, 1932. [Getty Images]

Apparently much of the notoriety – or perhaps by now it has become allure – of Essex is my fault. In 1990, weeks before Mrs Thatcher was defenestrated, I wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph called ‘Essex Man’, in circumstances that Tim Burrows describes entirely accurately in this exceptionally well-written and intelligent book. Although the Iron Lady was about to be history, the part of England that had come to exemplify her achievement and her legacy was throbbing with capitalist energy more than ever – which motivated the profile of Essex Man and his hard work and ability to seize opportunities in a society where native ability counted for more than class. From that came The Only Way Is Essex, jokes about Essex Girl (thanks not least to the great Richard Littlejohn, who differentiated her from a shopping trolley by asserting that the latter had a mind of its own), and the notion that, with black people and the Irish no longer available as targets of humour, Essex would fill the gap.

Burrows is an Essex native who moved back to Southend to avoid the absurdities of the London property market. He has an implicit understanding of the temper of the great diaspora of cockneys who moved out to the south of the county after the war, though some had already left East and West Ham after they became industrialised at the end of the 19th century. He also understands the pull of the quiet emptiness of the marshlands that surround the coast, and of the islands and creeks in the estuaries of the Thames, the Crouch, the Blackwater and the Colne.

Essex has a vast acreage of picture-postcard villages, a few of them near the marshes on the Dengie peninsula and in the largely unknown corner of the county north of Southend, but most of them north of Chelmsford, populated in part by what in Essex passes for old money.

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