There have been two moments in my life when I have been embarrassed to admit I am from Essex.
There have been two moments in my life when I have been embarrassed to admit I am from Essex. The first was at a seminar at university in front of my classmates; they didn’t understand what I was saying during one of my readings. The second was on holiday when one of the entertainment staff, an orange tanned guy, started laughing at my exceedingly loud family.
‘My girlfriend’s from Essex,’ he later told me. It was at this moment when I realised Essex was probably not a proud place to be from. It reminds me of the grotesque image I have in my head every time my father jokes, ‘You originally come from Dagenham.’
It is only in the recent years that Essex has become known for certain traits, such as women dancing around their handbags, excessive fake tan, and an accent that is painful to listen to. If I were to interview someone from outside of Essex about the area they would more than likely respond with a quote from the reality TV show, ‘The Only Way is Essex.’
The programme attracts 1.5 million viewers and now has its own nickname ‘TOWIE’. Despite the programme being deemed with the title of reality TV it provides viewers with stereotypes of the working class; driving fast cars, obsessed with vajazzling and wearing fake tan until they look like umpa lumpa’s.
When I look out my car window in Hornchurch, a town in the South-East of Essex, I see no fast cars, no women in tight dresses and high heels; nothing like the people in the programme. Zizzi’s, Simply Blues, Il Bertorelli, Peking Garden – The restaurants line the left walkway into the main street. A hair salon, a florists, and a Block Buster shop line the right side. The hair salon, Headbanger, is busy inside, with two women sitting in thick black chairs. The material is leather as it is in most salons. There is a poster in the window; a close up of a woman with choppy blonde hair. Her head is angled to the right. Outside the florists, Tulipa, is a row of flowers in square trays. Plenty of green. I walked past them for two years and never went inside either of them.
The road splits into two with three zebra crossings; one to the right, one to the left and the other leads to the pub in the middle. A woman with a grey bob, dressed in a bright pink fleece and black tracksuit bottoms crosses the road. Following her on the left side of town: Peacocks, Smokers Paradise, Greggs, Clintons, 99p Store. Opposite Sainsburys.
It is here where I stop. The blue and yellow shop front of the 99p Store. People swamp the two tills just inside the automatic doors. This was once WoolWorths. There had been three bays for a Pick ‘n’ Mix section. This was my favourite part of any shopping trip. The big round cup was blue with images of clip art sweets. Those three bays have been replaced by a sweet aisle. Chocolate Limes, Chocolate Raisins, MAOAM strips, 5 pack Chewits, Vimto chewy bons bons, etc.
The thrill of choosing and mixing sweets has been replaced with package bags. Perhaps it is better and more hygienic. There isn’t any children licking their fingers after eating a sugary cola bottle and sneaking their sticky fingers back into the enclosed container for another.
I stand outside. Again I see no resemblance to the programme that inspired my visit into town.
‘We’re South East Essex,’ my father tells me, when I return home. ‘Chigwell is where they film. That’s where the big houses are. I once did some wiring,’ (my father worked for an electrician when he was seventeen). ‘It was for a butcher. Big bloke. Huge shoulders. He had this dainty, little wife; big hair, with the fake tan and the fake eyelashes. Proper Essex bird. He had this massive house; the first time I’d seen an indoor swimming pool.’
‘So, it’s really like that down there?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. Well, no. It’s not as exaggerated as they show it.’ It occurs to me that he thinks I must take the reality TV programme seriously. This is not true.
‘Did you know there’s a CD that teaches you the proper Essex accent?’ I change the subject deliberately. My father looks at me as if I’m pulling his leg.
‘There’s no such thing as a proper Essex accent.’