Essex Man: The bonds of Basildon

Twenty years ago tomorrow, the term ‘Essex Man’ entered the language to describe a brash new figure on thecultural horizon. But that was just the beginning of the story, argues Pete May

Essex Man is 20 this week. Wanna make something of it? Well, yes actually. Twenty years on, something strange has happened, and is happening still. Essex still has one |of the most distinctive images of any county in the UK – but these days |its essence is everywhere: from Chantelle Houghton to Russell Brand, via Gavin and Stacey, Phill Jupitus, Alan Davies, Ray Winstone (home bar, gaff in Essex), Alan Sugar (offices in Brentwood) and recent films such as Made in Dagenham and Oil City Confidential. You might even say (or whisper) that the county is in danger of getting well cultured.

For 20 years we’ve been fascinated by the Thames Delta, as Dr Feelgood memorably termed their Canvey Island hinterland. Could there finally be something more than a good joke involved?

The first reference to the term “Essex Man” was in a piece entitled “Maggie’s mauler” on the Comment pages of The Sunday Telegraph, then edited by Peregrine Worsthorne, on 7 October 1990. There was no byline, although we now know the author was Simon Heffer, a right-wing iconoclast who has lived in Essex all his life.

The Sunday Telegraph profile described Essex Man as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”, and of course, “breathtakingly right-wing”. He wanted to own a rottweiler and didn’t like foreigners or books. The accompanying illustration featured a bull-necked young man in a shiny suit standing outside his bought council house with a satellite dish on the roof and a new motor outside.

Essex Man was useful shorthand for why Thatcherism was successful, thought Heffer: “The barrow boy who uses instinct and energy rather than contacts and education... He is unencumbered by any ‘may the best man win’ philosophy. He expects to win whether he’s the best man or not.”

It described a real cultural phenomenon. Aspirational working-class East Enders had made a bit of dosh and moved out to Essex, leaving war-damaged London homes behind for Heffer’s “Stalinist” new towns like Harlow and Basildon. As manufacturing and dock jobs went, the children of the old East Enders had found jobs in the City and the used car lots of the Southend Arterial Road.

Heffer had made his observations travelling home on commuter trains: “When one walks through the City most evenings the pools of vomit into which one may step have usually been put there by Essex Man, whose greatly enhanced wealth has exceeded his breeding in terms of alcoholic capacity. The late-night trains from Liverpool street are not lacking drunks, though Essex Man’s sense of decency means he is usually sick before boarding.” It was a brilliant piece of journalism, snobbish, overstated, but with enough truth for the phrase “Essex Man” to enter the Oxford English Dictionary. And having grown up in Brentwood, it seemed all-too familiar to me, too.

Of course, Mrs Thatcher certainly valued Essex Man. In the event of a nuclear armageddon in the 1980s she even planned to retreat to her bunker in the heartland of the county. As Ilford-born Richard Littlejohn might say, you couldn’t make it up. Today the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is open to the public, complete with a waxwork Maggie in the studio from which she would have broadcast to an irradiated nation.

Before long, Essex Man jokes became a national craze. And his missus was Essex Girl, blonde, wearing white stilettos, and the subject of gags such as: “How does an Essex Girl turn off the light after sex? She kicks shut the car door.” Today newspaper ran an Essex Man cartoon. In one, our hero asks a fellow passenger on the train if there’s a buffet. There isn’t, so Essex Man declares, “Well, you’ll just have to go thirsty then, mate!” as he sips his can of lager.

The country became gripped by Essex mania. Ten days after Heffer’s Essex Man piece appeared, the broadcaster Phill Jupitus (then known as Porky the Poet), the fanzine editor Richard Edwards and myself made it on to BBC South East News having formed the spoof Essex Liberation Front, whose motto was “Liberty, equality, Tiptree jam!”

Since then, there have been many extensions of the Essex Man caricature, such as Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, White Van Man. It’s possible that Essex Man made it permissible to laugh at the white working class again and led to chav jokes and Little Britain’s satire of Vicky Pollard. But none of these labels has stuck quite like Essex Man.

The seed of the idea had been germinating for many years. Earlier in 1990 Mick Bunnage (later Loaded’s Dr Mick) described the county as “the Jacuzzi of the soul” in a piece for Arena magazine entitled “Essex, innit?”. This writer also has a claim in early Essexology. In January 1989 my feature “Essex appeal” appeared in Midweek, a free magazine for (sometimes vomiting) commuters. The strapline read: “Darrens, Sharons and the enduring charms of the A13... Essex is to culture what Bob Monkhouse is to sincerity.”

It cited the nightclub Hollywood Romford, stilettos worn without tights whatever the weather, David Sullivan, and right-wing Billericay MPs Harvey Proctor and Teresa Gorman: “Politically most residents of Essex think of Thatcherism as a temporary left-wing aberration that the Tory party will soon discard in favour of public executions and compulsory repatriation.”

A year earlier Harry Enfield had produced his Loadsamoney character, a plasterer hollering: “Oi you! Shut your mouth and look at my wad!” When Loadsamoney drove into the countryside and shouted, “Oi! Get this place developed up!” it could only have been in Essex.

Perhaps it was the great Ian Dury who first identified the Essex Man in 1977 with songs like “Blockheads” detailing “premature ejaculation drivers” and “Billericay Dickie”, on the sexploits of a libidinous brickie: “Had a love affair with Nina in the back of my Cortina/A seasoned-up hyena could not have been more obscener”.

Whatever the origins of Essex Man, he’s no longer seen as exclusively nasty, brutish and short. He’s cuddlier today, no longer exclusively right wing, having flirted with Blair and the Coalition, and also a lot funnier. Self-deprecating Essex humour is in the ascendant. The environs of the A13 (a road immortalised by Barking’s Billy Bragg in a spoof version of “Route 66”) and the conflict between new money and lack of cultural nous has produced many top comedians.

This year, Southend resident Russell Kane won the Edinburgh Comedy Award. His act includes rewriting Shakespeare in Essex-speak – and he talks about his working-class father with “neck muscles so strong he can climb stairs with them”.

Basildon-born Russell Brand – a reformed Essex addict and Billericay Dickie clone – fulfilled the ultimate Essex Man fantasy when he persuaded girlfriend Katy Perry to pose in a West Ham basque at the MTV awards last year.

Meanwhile, Phill Jupitus and other Essex comedians including Alan Davies and Lee Evans are fixtures on our TV screens. Davies recently achieved great comic mileage by returning to his mockney Loughton roots and meeting up with one of the “Debden Skins” who terrorised his middle-class mates. While even Matt Smith on Doctor Who ended up too Essexy for his Tardis, lodging with James Corden and playing Sunday-league football in one episode.

As in so many areas, low culture is infiltrating high culture. You might expect Saffron Walden resident Germaine Greer to be horrified by Essex Girls, but in 2006 she wrote in The Observer: “The Essex girl is a working-class heroine surviving in a post-proletarian world... Chantelle and Jodie Marsh both did the Essex girl proud in the Big Brother house, Jodie by refusing to droop under relentless bullying and Chantelle by winning. Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities.” No wonder, then, that in Heat magazine, ITV is advertising for contestants for a new ITV2 docusoap The Only Way Is Essex, offering a prize of an “Essex makeover” for entrants.

While over in the world of film, Essex noir has arrived. Recently we’ve had Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll (a biopic of Ian Dury), Oil City Confidential (about Dr Feelgood) and, most recently, Made in Dagenham, about the women who went on strike for equal pay at the Ford plant in 1968.

In literature, the hero of David Nicholls’ Starter for 10, which also became a film, is Brian from Southend. These days coming from Essex is almost a standard literary device to suggest an unsophisticated Mr Darcy who drinks too much during Freshers’ Week and then has many comedic moments trying to bed a posh bird with middle-class bohemian parents.

In 2008, the poet Lavinia Greenlaw wrote an acclaimed punk memoir about her Essex adolescence, The Importance of Music for Girls. It featured poetic descriptions of youths in motors driving much too fast down country lanes on their way to Dr Feelgood gigs.

The old stereotype is hard to shake off. Labour MP David Taylor was recently in trouble for asking Tessa Jowell if Olympic events such as “Throwing the White High Heels” and “Putting the Medallion on” might encourage Essex people to participate. Yet today Essex can laugh at its image too. This year Basildon erected a huge tongue-in-cheek Hollywood-style sign on the A127.

Any visit brings some comical “only in Essex” moments. Since the death of my parents, I’ve been revisiting my childhood Essex haunts to test the beer at places like the aptly named Thatchers Arms in Brentwood. Here, there was a man in an Eric Bristow darts shirt declaring: “I tell you when I sell that house I’ll be fucking rich!” While visiting the bluebells this spring at Norsey Wood in Billericay, my wife drove a little too slowly past the gated mock-Tudor properties and promptly received a one-fingered salute from the car behind. She didn’t mind too much as she was born in Chelmsford.

It might be an unsubtle place, but it does seem the wider world is succumbing at last to Essex appeal. Which isn’t surprising, as the sons and daughters of Essex Man now run much of the media. Public school might teach soft skills, but in Essex hard skills such as drive, hunger, humour and a refusal to worry if you call the drawing room the lounge have bought big rewards – and indeed bonuses for turning the banks into upmarket bookies.

And remember, too, that Essex is where the city and country merge. Away from the Thames Delta, Essex has wide skies, sea, marshes and estuaries. It’s possible that the grandchildren of the old East Enders might be getting a little more sensitive too. Simon Heffer put it nicely in 2006 when he referred to Essex’s “down-to-earth people, ex-denizens of the East End and old sons of the soil, who rub along in a remarkably affable way, unpretentious and welcoming. Who could want to live anywhere else?”

Unpretentious is a good word to use for today’s Essex. It’s what viewers liked about Chantelle Houghton on Big Brother. She had the street suss to bluff her way on as a planted “pretend celebrity” but later proved genuine enough to win over the nation – and The Daily Star – through her real emotional turmoil over former lover Preston.

In the hit sitcom Gavin and Stacey, partly set in Billericay, the characters also embody what the public wants to love about Essex. Gavin’s mum Pam, played by Alison Steadman, is blonde and strident, but also welcoming and doing her utmost to expand her cultural horizons with veggie sausages and differentiating between “men gays” and “lesbian gays”. She and her husband eat in an upmarket Italian restaurant rather than a burger joint, although this being Essex there is always the chance they’ll run into Dawnie and Pete trying to set up a “threesome” to spice up their sex life.

Like most Essex men, James Corden’s Smithy has gone slightly upmarket too. When something traumatic happens such as West Ham losing the play-off final or discovering he’s the father of Nessa’s baby, he retreats to the golf driving range. Yet when it matters, Smithy does the right thing and decides that he’s going to be a good father and wants to see his kid even it means dressing up in a Batman suit. Smithy is a bit like Essex as a whole. A bit rubbish, but genuine.

And Gavin and Smithy even hug in public. Today’s Essex Man is a much more subtle beast than the cropped rottweiler-holder of 1990, more Cameron’s cuddler than Maggie’s mauler. Through comedy, film and literature God’s own county is making a real contribution to the cultural zeitgeist – although in Essex you’d probably still get a slap for using such a phrase.

Twenty years on, you might even be able to share a vomit-free train journey home with Essex Man. It seems we’ve learned to love Essex as well as satirise it.

Pete May is author of There’s a Hippo in my Cistern (Collins). He blogs on Essex at thejoyofessex.blogspot.com

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