The long read: From Loadsamoney and Basildon man to Towie and Brexit Essex has long been held up as both the authentic England and the crudest, stupidest symbol of Englishness
As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s in Southend, a sprawling seaside town in south-east Essex, I noticed that people on TV often laughed at the very word Essex. Some years later, in 2016, my wife, Hayley, crossed the border into Albania from Montenegro while travelling with an old friend who, like us, grew up in the county. The border guard asked where they were from and when they told him, his response was quickfire: Ive heard a lot about Essex girls, he said. But Im sure you are not like that.
Thousands of kilometres from Essex, the border guard had not only heard of this county in south-east England, but even knew what it had come to signify: a land of crass consumerism, populated by perma-tanned chancers and loose women with more front than Clacton-on-Sea.
That stereotype is relatively new, but after it emerged in the 1980s, it caught on fast. Essex has since become a place simultaneously embraced as home to the real, authentic England and scorned as the crudest, stupidest symbol of Englishness. It is embraced by politicians who celebrate it as the home of no-nonsense, real people David Cameron hired the ex-Basildon Echo reporter Andy Coulson as his head of comms but also mocked for these same qualities, often by the very same political classes who praise its authenticity.
Essex types are often recruited as comic staples of reality shows such as Love Island, First Dates, Big Brother, X Factor and, of course, the show that re-energised the stereotype in 2010, The Only Way is Essex. Towie, the 24th series of which started this year, follows a rolling cast of tanned and toned twentysomethings as they act out relationship breakups and holiday romances on screen. The show helped propel Essex to global fame in 2014, the Oscar-winning American actor Jennifer Lawrence declared herself addicted and refined the Essex caricature into an extravagantly vapid parody of itself.
But before Essex was a punchline, it was a dream. A place that offered hope to working-class Londoners in the form of new towns such as Basildon and Harlow, which were built by the state to meet dire housing, sanitation and civic needs after the second world war. As the century progressed, however, parts of Essex came to represent the dismantling of this dream, as Thatcherism, the UK arm of the global new right movement that believed in lower taxes and lower public spending alongside deregulation and privatisation, became indelibly linked to the county.