On a recent edition of the reality show ‘Dinner Date’, a female contestant, following her evening with a young man from Chelmsford said, “The date went alright…and he was a lot less Essex-y than I thought he’d be!”
How we laughed as the same old jokes about fake tan, and the men grooming more than the women, came forth from a woman who, aside from her self-cultivated Chelsea ‘hooray’ drawl, could have been the cartoonish impression of an Essex girl – all dyed blonde, drenched in tan and jewellery and constantly touching her hair.
Essex remains the one place in the UK that it’s still ok to be a snob about. It used to be the sheep-shagging Welsh, the bitter and feckless Scots, the happy, drunk and idiotic Irish, miserable Northerners, slow-talking bumpkins from Norfolk, in-bred West Country types and chirpy criminal Scousers.
“Much harsher, damaging and openly misogynist is the term Essex girl, which is effectively an ‘acceptable’ term for stupid slag.”
Regardless, through a mixture of rebranding and romanticizing, society deemed that they were actually cool. London still gets it in the neck from time to time, but it’s often from its own inhabitants, which doesn’t count.
But Essex, since the 80s, has born the brunt of a particular type of snobbery, all money and no class. How dare these dirty cockneys to move out of their rat-infested London streets to the greener pastures of Billericay, Harlow, Colchester, and Harold Wood?
For Essex boy read fairly harmless, laughing geezer, a wallet full of readies and condoms, shiny shirt and shiny shoes, gelled hair, a nice city job, chunky gold bracelets and plenty of lager at the weekend. Maybe you’d hear a cackling laugh as a Ford Escort resplendent with spoilers whizzed through a set of lights on amber.
Much harsher, damaging and openly misogynist is the term Essex girl, which is effectively an ‘acceptable’ term for stupid slag. The jokes bled into the 90s (“What’s an Essex girl’s favourite wine? Ohhhhh, I wanna go Lakeside!”), which, to the objective eye had replaced the mother in law as the target.
“The elephant in the room is jealousy.”
Yet while mockney accents became the thing, leading to toffs like David ‘Dave’ Cameron and Edward ‘Ed’ Milliband dropping t’s or g’s at the end of words, the elite started to cherry-pick aspects of us Essexonians.
We watched media and music’s cutting edge adopt the accoutrements of Essex man all through the 90s. Chris Evans, Danny Baker, Blur, and others were new lads, full of lager and bogusly ironic sexism, a copy of Loaded in their back pocket, and a girl in a bikini in the background. It’s alright though, cos we have a knowing look!
Essex also became a catchall term, accompanied very often by chav, to demonstrate a hatred of the white working class.
When self-serving snob and egomaniac Bob Geldof let what guard he has down and berated a crowd at a festival in Brentwood for wearing Primark, he was roundly booed. Strange that this well schooled, formerly Eurosceptic Knight of the Realm should attack the very people who contributed so much to his previous causes.
He’s not alone of course, an unchallenged prejudice continued, heightened like everything else during the referendum aftermath.
And why is this bigotry ok? Perhaps in part for the same reason that it happened in the first place. True or not, one aspect of the Essex stereotype is a working-class attitude of laughter, nice ‘fings and pleasure seeking. Because we never complained, and because we’d made good, we were fair game. And remain so.
There was also the view from the left that we had betrayed the Labour Party in the 80s. We voted for Thatcher because, having lived through poverty and escaped to be upwardly mobile and ambitious, she spoke our language and encouraged us, we liked that she had faith in us because we had faith in us. And nothing upsets a cardy-wearing, privately schooled, leftist beardy more than a working class person saying, “Nah Nah, it’s alright, I’ve got this”.
All of a sudden, the people of Essex weren’t the noble savage lefties liked that happily wallowed in poverty while town planners moved them from box to box destroying their communities. Now they were ugly white racists who had supped at Maggie’s teat and needed to be treated as the soulless scum they were.
The elephant in the room is jealousy. As the Essex inhabitants evolved from cab drivers and costermongers to bankers and traders on the stock market, their cars got bigger, their semis got swimming pools and hot tubs, their kids dared to be ambitious and crucially, not ashamed of their success or the trappings of wealth.
The cognitive dissonance is startling and barefaced snobbery at it’s most blatant. Somehow, Chiswick-dwelling middle classes with their multiple houses, farmhouse kitchens and wicker owls hanging from the fireplace are right, whereas the carpets, white Christmas trees, 64” 3D TVs and BMWs are wrong.
To many, these people were money-crazed, materialistic and criminally gaudy with their Roman pillars and little bars inside the lounge, why weren’t they using this money to educate themselves?
Of course, the worst nightmare for those judging and sneering isn’t just the success, it’s that these people combine their joie de vivre with knowledge of how they’re portrayed and what the motives are behind it.
As a young man growing up in Essex, I grew up on The Jam, raves, ecstasy and an ambition to make some mark. I spent a lot of time journeying into London, mixing with students, people from up north, the posher Home Counties, and doing jobs in media where I was constantly ‘ribbed’ for my class and background.
However, once I decided to ‘rib’ back, things became a little less predictable for the ‘ribbers’ as their grins transformed into a furrowed brow and embarrassment. And it was, and always has been, like shooting fish in a barrel. Their position clearly betrays a level of conviction-free smuggery that goes whichever way the wind of their Facebook timeline blows.
The thing I found most odd was the volume of attacks from people who came from towns and cities in the north. The places I had visited resemble many Essex towns with the only difference being in the accent. They had the same nightlife, the same accessories and similar attitudes.
Before he revealed himself to be as much part of the establishment as a Royal baby, Owen Jones wrote a book called Chavs, an energetic piece of writing that discussed how the working class were freely attacked and ‘demonised’. But Essex doesn’t quite fall into that subject. At least not neatly.
When The Only Way Is Essex hit the TV screens of the UK it did nothing to dispel myths or puncture prejudice, instead, millions of ‘professional people’ watched it like kids with their faces pressed up at the glass open-mouthed, laughing at chimps in the zoo. Who do you think is watching it? And why? Is it simply to giggle at them? Or is there also some kind of vicarious life experience as they slump on their sofa from Made.com while ‘hubby’ tweets about how much he loves the new Doctor Who to an 18-year-old girl with blue hair and a cleavage.
And while I can’t say I am proud of Joey Essex, TOWIE does have its good points. You can’t tell me that the legendary Bobby Norris isn’t hilariously aware of his role in the panto. He’s no Dame Maggie Smith (also from Essex), but he’s undeniably entertaining and fun.
It’s not perfect by any means, but where is? And the reckoning is long overdue. As well as Maggie Smith, there are plenty of famous daughters and sons from Essex; Depeche Mode, Alison Moyet, Dermot O’Leary, Jamie Oliver, Damon Albarn, Russell Brand, Jamie Cullum, Simon Amstell, Nick Frost, Dudley Moore, and Victoria Beckham.
But TOWIE is Essex declawed. The discussions are deliberately banal, the situations constructed by a production team one suspects would soil themselves if they had to have a pint with a builder or talk about pre-1996 football, that is designed to avoid what Essex really represents; ambition, enjoying life, being proud of your surroundings, family, friends and not taking life too seriously. Oh, and being a victim is somewhat frowned upon.
When you’re contemplating whether your husband has been eyeing up your au pair’s behind, those things will mess with your mind.