Why promote my home county as the site of the peasants’ revolt rather than birthplace of the vajazzle? Money, of course
What’s the first thing an Essex girl does in the morning? Gets up and rebrands her home county as very different from the sexist and snobbish stereotypes of it that sadly prevail in the rest of Britain.
Admittedly, this is even less funny than the original punchline – which, if you grew up near Chelmsford, like me, you’ve probably heard before, and which triggered a BBC internal investigation a few years ago when someone told it live on Radio 1.
It is, however, very much of a piece with Essex council’s efforts to rebrand a county that – how to put this? – may not previously have topped everyone’s travel bucket list as a tourist destination. Forget the world of blindingly white teeth and “no carbs before Marbs” so artfully brought to life by the reality TV show The Only Way Is Essex. Instead, adverts featuring scientists, Michelin-starred chefs and Boudicca’s campaign of resistance against the Romans will form part of a £300,000 campaign portraying the county as an undiscovered oasis of culture, wine (as in rolling vineyards, not as in getting hammered on pink prosecco) and oysters for lunch on the coast at West Mersea.
This forgotten Essex is the bucolic landscape immortalised by Constable, not the place you go to grab a selfie at Sugar Hut, the Towie crew’s nightclub of choice. All of which is technically true, of course. It’s just that the old, rackety Essex is the one I actually loved.
This is not the first attempt to posh it up. Although, having just made a nostalgic pilgrimage back with old friends for someone’s landmark birthday, I’d say the poshing up quietly happened a while ago. The steady exodus of the priced-out-of-London over the last two decades means the comfortably scruffy countryside we grew up in is commuter land now; the muddy farms are spruced up to within an inch of their lives and the pubs in which we drank furtively, underage, have long since been converted into expensive-looking houses.
Even the towns we remembered as a cheerful riot of white stilettos and fights in nightclubs are now all smart new shopping centres and sleek “riverside eating experiences” – which no longer seems to mean eating crisps while contemplating the shopping trolleys abandoned in the murky depths of the River Chelmer, but dressing up for brunch. Pretty much the only place so unchanged as to be instantly capable of transporting us back in time, as we wandered around arguing about where the Wimpy used to be, was the park where as teens everyone drank cheap cider and threw up in the bushes.
Well, that’s just progress, or maybe middle age. You can’t go back to the past and expect to find it preserved in aspic, or even (judging by the estate agents’ windows) expect to be able to afford to live there now. But the row stirred up by this latest rebranding exercise is really about class rather than money.
As the Towie star Gemma Collins indignantly told the Sun: “To say we need to change our ‘reputation’ is an affront to every hardworking person from Essex who has grafted to make something of themselves.” There was always more than one Essex – rural and town, the metropolitan bit that bleeds into London and the wilder marshy fringes, kiss-me-quick Southend and genteel Frinton – but its public face is brash, aspirational, emphatically working class, and not to be messed with or sanitised even in the name of flogging staycations.
In her book Essex Girls, an intellectual attempt to reconcile that image with her own feelings about growing up in Chelmsford, the author Sarah Perry argues that there is a thread connecting Boudicca to Collins – and that it’s one of defiance.
Essex girls have, she writes, for too long carried “the loathing and anxiety of both sides of the political spectrum, and all points in between” on their spray-tanned shoulders, having been not only slut-shamed or dismissed as airheads down the ages, but portrayed as heartless Thatcherites to boot – although it was “Basildon man” who was always said to have delivered the county for the Tories, as if “Basildon woman” (who also swung to Margaret Thatcher) was somehow too dim to get to grips with voting. The Essex girls Perry celebrates in her book are edgy and radical, from the 19th-century abolitionist Anne Knight to two suffragette sisters from Ingatestone, and the argument she constructs makes sense. But I gave up on the book halfway through in frustration, because my Essex isn’t to be found in literary essays.
My Essex is a pancake-flat, dead ordinary hunk of East Anglia that has ingeniously vajazzled itself up into something much more interesting by leveraging the idea of Essex as a cheeky, sexy, loudly inappropriate cultural and economic phenomenon. That idea, much like Towie’s heavily scripted idea of reality, treads an admittedly hazy line between truth and fiction. But my Essex makes the most of its assets without pretending to be what it isn’t, and attempting to rebrand Brentwood as the historically significant birthplace of the peasants’ revolt – rather than as the home of the beauty salon that introduced a goggle-eyed nation to the concept of sticking jewels on your bikini wax – is its antithesis. How do you reinvent a place that has already reinvented itself in ways no other county would dare? Try it, and the joke’s on you.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist