From the cannibalistic seafarers and witches of old to today’s reality TV stars and the brash City boys who commute in from the marshes, Essex has long been identified with the outlandish and excessive. As Tim Burrows explains in The Invention of Essex, it’s the New Jersey of England — a byword for vulgarity and rebellion “viewed as the nation’s id”. But his book is also a reminder of the area’s longstanding political, religious and popular disdain for convention and respectability.
Burrows grew up in Southend, “the destination of all Cockneys on a Bank Holiday Monday”, where crazed youth race their souped-up Ford Fiestas along the seafront. For him it’s a homecoming; for the reader, it may be a journey out into strange territory. On the eastern outskirts of London, Essex is developed but not tamed — “out there” in every sense.
The rest of the better-off south-east of England clutched its pearls at the exploits of the vajazzled, perma-tanned cast of “Towie” (the reality series, The Only Way Is Essex, was set in Brentwood, which can also claim the Peasants’ Revolt of the 14th century). And as Burrows writes, since the 1990s the county has become “a political shorthand and its own adjective”. But the othering of Essex went on throughout modern history.
The East End’s poor (or “London’s seepage”) trickled towards the estuary, becoming a flood during the Victorian era and after, when a plot in the fresh air tempted them to the “porous fringes” of the islands and inlets at the mouth of the Thames. They met disapproval — which the county’s denizens seem to have courted ever since.
I was delighted to find my only famous ancestor, the wizard Cunning Murrell, among vignettes of the occult ways that flourished in Essex after dying out elsewhere. The extreme Methodist sect to which my great-grandparents belonged, the Peculiar People, is cited alongside utopians and eccentrics who set up communities in hidden corners. Burrows visits a church with Satanic claw-marks on a door where a priest practised the dark arts, and a burbling spring that inspired a pre-Christian cult.
His odyssey was sparked by an epic walk from east London, and he weaves in subsequent walks with family, friends and local experts. Some of the “spongy vistas” of these trips are nature reserves built on London’s landfill: Bottle Beach and Mucking Marsh are names to conjure great ironies with, and Burrows does not disappoint. There is always another story, a myth concealing a reality “mysterious, unknowable and incongruous.” And he has a lyrical turn of phrase — after a trio of small-time gangsters are found dead on a dirt trail, the county, he writes, is portrayed as “despoiled and devilish and wanting more than it could handle”.
Like almost any book on English political culture, this one circles back to the troubled topic of housing, from the postwar new towns of Basildon and Harlow to woodland plots bought for DIY bungalows by his grandparents and so many other working people. As Burrows writes, “before Essex was a punchline, it was a dream”. This made it an electoral barometer in the late 20th century — first worshipping Thatcher’s brand of aspirational conservatism, then turning New Labour. He visits Simon Heffer, the conservative journalist of Chelmsford origins, who invented “Essex Man” in 1990, an archetypal voter meeting contempt as he tried to better himself materially.
No one could fault Burrows’ reportage but there is a bit too much censure of individualism — and Basildon’s swing-seat politics. The genteel fans of “Constable country” on the Suffolk border get short shrift. But the book’s portrayals of hedonism show he’s no prude: readers get a blast of the Southend scene which bred Depeche Mode and their kohl-and-leather-trousers rejection of the machismo of the coastal clubs. Terrifying pre-punk band Dr Feelgood tearing it up in the “acrid air” of industrialised Canvey Island make some of London’s fabled edginess look tame.
Like the author, I ended up “yearning for the salt marsh” and was grateful when his journey wound its way back to that eerie terrain: “a great gloop that can remind folk that they are never as far from the primordial as they think they are”. Eastward ho!
The Invention of Essex: The Making of an English County by Tim Burrows, Profile £16.99, 336 pages
Miranda Green is the FT’s deputy opinion editor
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café
Source: Financial Times