……….. Although Scotland will always be “home” to me, I’ve lived in Essex now for longer than I ever actually lived in Scotland, and so I think of it very much as my adopted home – and a place I love. For a few years my family lived in the Wirral while I lived here because of work and commuted up and down the M1 and the M6 every weekend – I’d say the Wirral has a much better reputation than Essex and we loved it, but we don’t love Essex any less now that we’re back!
I know it’s a got reputation for being a bit of a laughing-stock from things like “Essex girl” jokes and then the current TV series “The Only Way Is Essex” but there’s much more to it than wannabes, fake tan, hair extensions and the sharpest accent this side of the Black Hills of Dakota! (And anyway I like the Essex accent!). It’s a beautiful county, it’s got some great places to visit and the people who live here are (mostly!), warm and generous and often very witty! But sometimes I know it doesn’t help itself either and it kind of plays up to that image.
As this is a blog mainly about books and music I’ll start there. Glossing smoothly over Olly Murs (my daugher likes him and went to see him in concert – I despair!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), Essex has given the world of music Damon Albarn of Blur, Depeche Mode, and the wonderful, magnificent Bard of Barking himself, Billy Bragg (below is a very early and very young video of billy Bragg on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing the Milkman of Human Kindness, which is one of my favourite Billy Bragg songs). As well as Ruth Rendell having been born here (and I always liked Inspector Wexford books) – there are also a couple of books I love that are set here. Dickens “Barnaby Rudge” was a book I read before I ever came to Essex (maybe even before I’d ever heard of Essex!) and is one of my favourite Dickens novels, and the whole story sets off with a tale told round the fire at an inn in Chigwell in Essex. But a book I really loved and which is set in Essex is Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. The story is a real tear-jerker – it’s meant to be – but that didn’t diminish it in my eyes. It’s a lovely but desperately sad tale of the friendship between an artist and a young girl nursing an injured snow goose back to health as the rumble of the Second World War looms ever louder and ever closer on the horizon. It’s set on the Essex marshlands and though it’s a rather bleak, wild setting, it suits the story perfectly. I still have to this day my old battered and oft-read copy with Jenny Agutter on the cover! (If I’m honest I think I bought this second-hand in around 1973 and Jenny Agutter on the cover certainly influenced my purchase!). So it’s one of what I call my “Old Campaigners”, books I’ve had with me virtually all my life and it’s link to Essex means it’s a bit of an extra-special Old Campaigner!
On Wednesday night I watched “The Apprentice” with my family, who love the programme. The task for both groups was essentially to buy rubbish from a warehouse, sell it on at a profit and then re-invest the takings in more rubbish! When both teams were required to find a location to sell this stuff they chose Essex! One team bowled up in Romford and the other split their selling between Ilford and Pitsea, which is part of Basildon. (and was where Essex Council housed me when I first came to live and be a teacher in Essex – and I know the perceptions and reputations and all the jokes about Basildon, but I kind of liked it – note “kind of” though!). Anyway as if Essex didn’t have enough of a reputation for all things “fake” (hair, nails, eyelashes and more!), what did they find was their best seller – cheap fake tan! The lot selling in Romford had sold out by mid-morning and people were queueing and waiting for them to re-stock! And what other delights were they palming off onto the good people of Ilford, Romford and Basildon?! Mainly, a little toy cockroach thing that scurried about, some mops, and hair clippers which didn’t go that well when marketed as beard trimmers so they changed their marketing to trimmers to keep bikini lines neat or something! It was funny but kind of sad at the same time.
However that was topped off as a statement on all-things-Essex, when I drove back round the M25 yesterday morning from the school run. Now my fellow school run participants in Essex seem to favour the 4×4 – there are hundreds of them here – and it seems to me that the Range Rover, particularly in black, is the car of choice of the more well-off school runners! Most of these have personalised registration plates – which I’m not knocking, because I can’t, because we do too! But this morning, between the A12 and the M11 junctions, I was passed by a Black Range Rover with the best registration in Essex – “ESS 3X”. I laughed out loud and I sort of admired whoever it is. After all my ideal reg is “C 54 COT” which might not make that much sense till you realise it can be re-cast as “CS A Scot!” Anyway a quick trawl of t’Internet tells me that this reg was actually bought for over £6500 by someone in Chelmsford in 2010. And what’s more the story goes that the buyer was prepared to go as high as £20 000 to secure this “heart on the sleeve (bumper”) statement about their love for their home county. Mind you it’s easy to do it with a car reg plate if your home county is Essex – not so easy if your home county was say Clackmannanshire!
So fake tans and the ultimate Essex number plate take care of the fads!
Ugley is a village near here – we drive through it on the way to Saffron Walden. It’s just one of those place names that inevitably stick in your head – like “Crawfordjohn” in the Borders which I pass on the M74 on my way home to Glasgow, or Crianlarich which seems to be in every conceivable direction around Loch Lomond – it kind of feels like all roads lead to Crianlarich and so you expect something pretty spectacular when you get there (prepare for slight disappointment!). Anyway Ugley ought not to fit somehow with the “beautiful people” image of Essex in one sense but I think it does – it says that it’s a place where anybody can fit in – even Glaswegians! and says much about the rich history of Essex as Ugley was apparently first recorded as Uggele in 1041 and as Ugghelea in the Domesday Book. It’s got a beautiful church, where the vicar blogs as The Ugley Vicar . Now admit it, that’s confident and witty, which is something I think the people of Essex and Glasgow have got in common – everybody else might laugh a bit at our expense but we hold the upper hand because we know how to laugh at ourselves! That’s my theory anyway and I’m sticking to it!