Maybe it's because I live in the quieter part of the world directly beyond it, but I can't think of another county I've heard more people apologise for being from than Essex. Which is slightly odd because, in the early 21th century, Essex is arguably enjoying its most celebrated era since a couple of thousand years ago, when its capital, Colchester, was also the nation's. The Welsh-Essexian sitcom Gavin and Stacey, the reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex, and the fame of Russell Brand and Jamie Oliver have put it at the forefront of British popular culture. It's surely this, rather than its underrated countryside and quirky tourist attractions, that led Robson Press to commission Pete May to write a travel book about it.
The Joy of Essex opens with a lengthy chapter that recaps the first four series of TOWIE, which feels jarringly like it has been asked for by an editor worried about the book's populist appeal. May does soon get moving, travelling along what the pub rock band Dr Feelgood called "the Thames Delta". Here, the car is king, and arguably more hair salons exist per square yard than any other place in Britain.
May is an exiled Essexian himself, long relocated to London. The Essex Man he remembers is the one journalist Simon Heffer called "Maggie's Mauler": working-class, industrious, right-wing. May finds that Essex Man still exists, possibly even more driven than ever. Only now he's less racist and homophobic, and probably shaves his chest.
May's style is very much "good-natured mid-Nineties Loaded journalist writing to a tight deadline". What sustains the book is May's obvious enthusiasm and warmth for his birthplace and his new appreciation of its quirks and history. He finds a railway station with its own spray-tanning booth, a secret nuclear bunker, the town where Paul Simon got unlikely inspiration, and one of Britain's most underrated gardens, whose elderly owner booby-trapped her daffodil beds and carried a revolver in her handbag. "Sometimes you're so busy trying to escape, you miss what's there," he says. Writing of his own sense of loss, he leaves you with one too - for the other, more personal book that lurks somewhere within this one.