Expats’ Guide to Essex

 

I’m not strictly an expat, though coming from Lancashire and living down here I sometimes feel like one. When I go home to visit, they all think I talk posh; down here they all think I talk as if I keep ferrets in the bath. Hey ho!

Let me be quite clear. I like Essex. I’ve lived here, or just over the border in Hertfordshire, for over 35 years. Contrary to popular belief, not all of Essex consists of coastal mudflats and horrible dormitory towns. There’s some lovely countryside, some coastlines to rival lots of other places in the UK.

Yes there are some horrorshows. Anywhere in the area of Dartford/Grays for example. Horrid. And for the purposes of this little work, I’m going to reinforce some stereotypes.

Some years ago, I worked for a company based in Salt Lake City in Utah. One of my co-workers had to come to the UK, and for logistical reasons got stuck here for a Bank Holiday weekend. I ensconced him in a hotel in my lovely home village of Stansted Mountfitchet.

On the Friday we went out for lunch at my local, a mere two minutes walk from my house. A lovely Victorian pub, duckpond just visible up the road, open fields over the fences, a couple of thatched houses also visible.

My friend was clearly unsettled. ‘I just don’t get it. You hear all these stories about Essex, and Essex man and Essex woman, and just look at this… Just don’t get it.’

‘Tell you what. It’s a long weekend, you’re stuck here. A (my wife) and I will take the weekend out to entertain you. Three days of aversion therapy. Could be fun. Don’t worry about taking up our time; we probably won’t do anything we wouldn’t do. Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves why we live in Stansted.’

Saturday

A and I decided on the itinerary, and felt that to set the mood we should go firstly to Harlow. Captain Scott wrote in his dairy, ‘God this is an awful place.’ It’s widely assumed he was describing the Antarctic. In fact he was in Harlow, visiting the many Poundstretcher shops to stock up on lip balm and bargain basement canned goods for the journey. He also bought some very cheap razors, which is why he and his team grew such impressive beards. Then he popped down to CashConverters to pick up a reserve dogsled[1]. Then he went to Yates’s Wine Lodge for pie and chips, a couple of schooners of the draught sherry they use to revarnish the tables, and a good fight.

There is a school of thought that says time travel is not possible; if it were there would be loads of people from the future around, and there aren’t. Well sharpen up. Harlow is full of people from the future that H G Wells envisaged. Unfortunately all the Eloy were too busy running around in the sunshine, laughing and singing haunting folksongs. The Morlocks took things a bit more seriously, and buckled down to the task in hand when they found the Time Traveller’s time machine. They figured out how it worked, emigrated en masse from their troglodytic existence, and live now in Harlow.

That may even be a bit unfair to Morlocks. Harlow town Centre is full of the ugliest people in the world. And they have bad attitudes too. Glaswegian neds give the place a wide berth as being too threatening.

The neds find the architecture depressing too, and when you consider some of the Glasgow tenements that’s a pretty damning indictment of the people who designed the place. You have never seen so much pre-stressed concrete in all your born days. Plus the layout of the Town Centre is a simple, easily navigable grid, which seems to have been purpose designed to catch any slight breeze and funnel it down the pedestrian thoroughfares with a force that can knock over anyone unsteady on their pins.

‘Hey. I’m beginning to see your point,’ said my Utah friend. ‘But there sure is a lot of green outside the centre.’

‘Yes, but the only way to get round it is by a series of paths and cycleways.’

‘Sounds fine to me.’

‘Except the paths cross the roads by underpasses. Great idea. Except at night all the lights have been shot or stoned out, and they’re full of needles, condoms, and some pretty accomplished muggers. It isn’t quite as genteel as central Salt Lake City. I’ve felt safer in the Bronx after nightfall. That’s’ why the bus services are so good. Nobody dares walk anywhere.’

‘Gee. That’s bad.’

‘Seen enough?’

‘Yep, guess so.’

So we hied ourselves down the road a few miles to the market at North Weald.

I can’t understand why the police don’t simply throw a cordon round the whole market and arrest every body for selling or receiving stolen goods, copyright infringement, or counterfeiting. Nothing is what it seems, unless it seems bent, schneid, or knocked off, in which case it’s just what it says on the tin.[2]

The people aren’t quite as horrible as they are in Harlow, but you wouldn’t invite many of them to a dinner party. For men, dodgy Abercrombie and Fitch, or Adidas, or Nike clothing is pretty much de rigueur. Failing that, a tee shirt emblazoned ‘Same Shit. Different Day’ will suffice. For accessories, you need a beer gut, a builder’s cleft, a load of tattoos, some heavy gold(ish) bling, and a dog the size of a donkey on the end of a piece of chain.

For women, more is more. Gold lame, and lots of it. Leopardskin Capri pants. Gold high heeled mules. Makeup and hair more suited to a nightclub.

‘Jeepers.’

‘Hey, you’re seeing it at its sartorial best. A few years ago you were nobody unless you had a shellsuit.’

‘Jeepers!’

‘There was enough static here to power most of the stalls. And a flashover fire from a burger van? Don’t even think about it. They’d have taken days to damp that down.’

Burger vans. I forgot those. Lots of them. 100% beef burgers. Well, yes, perhaps, but I don’t want to think too hard about what that means. There are lots of bits of a cow you may not want to eat. So the air is redolent of fried onions, cheap meat being grilled (or burnt, as we call it in English) and the horrible smell of knockoff perfume. It’s like trying to breathe oniony acetone.

‘Enough?’

‘Yeah, I guess so.’

Sunday

‘So what’s the plan for today?’

I let A fill him in.

‘Mudflats, candy floss, slot machines, and fish and chips. We’re going to the seaside.’

‘Oh wow.’

‘Not something you see a lot of in Utah.’

We took a circuitous route to Southend via Canvey Island. Hmm. You all know what Southend is like, so I’ll spare you. Then to Clacton. We missed out Walton, which is not a bad place at all, if a bit tired. Burnham on Crouch for the mudflats, which was a bit unfair, since Burnham is a lovely little town, but I deliberately missed that out. A quick visit to Jaywick, officially the most impoverished place in England. This has the advantage of making the fish and chips very cheap indeed, and also very good.

‘Holy moley.’

I took pity on him, and meandered back to Stansted via Wethersfield, down a back lane to Great Bardfield, and then doubled back to Finchingfield, where we had tea in one of the many pleasant, if twee, cafes.

‘Well?’

‘Jeepers.’

‘And there’s still tomorrow.’

‘Holy cow.’

Bank Holiday Monday

What does Essex Man do when he isn’t dragging a dog the size of a small horse around North Weald’s notorious thieves’ kitchen of a market?  What he does is go watching banger racing in the wilds of the Essex countryside. So that’s where we went.

For those of you who have had a sheltered upbringing, banger racing is motorsport at its most primitive and yet purest. All you need is a 75 quid MOT failure from a scrapyard (we saw a few of those on the Sunday) from which you strip all the trim and glass, and to which you add a sturdy internal stiffening cage (real Essex Man fabricates this from scaffolding to avoid the need to weld anything). Then you go and drive it as fast as you can around a very small track with more other nutters than you can shake a stick at.

Subtlety plays little part in the life of Essex Man, and so it is with his motorsport. If NASCAR racing in the US is the automotive equivalent of sumo wrestling –  extremely violent but more skilful and subtle than it first appears – then Essex banger racing is more akin to a bar room brawl. Favoured vehicles are mid 80’s Ford estate cars This is not for the extensive dealer support network, but for the extra protection afforded by the greater mass of metal behind you. This is needed because although deliberate boring through the ruck is frowned on – though not actually illegal – it is expected that if there is a car in front you lean on it instead of bothering with the niceties of using the brakes. With a field of 25 cars this means the guys in the lead going into turn 1 get leaned on a lot, and a car that started life the size of a Thunderbird ends up looking like a badly wrapped stock cube pretty quickly.

This is a sport where fine tuning involves the use of an angle grinder and a 7lb hammer, and race preparation consists of checking that the car has four wheels pointing in roughly the same direction, and that the engine isn’t boiling over or actively spewing mechanicals or oil.

Essex Man takes along the entire family (they will be referred as ‘The missus’ and ‘The sprogs’, Essex Man being one of the last arch proponents of radical anti-feminism). The vehicle they arrive in has the words ‘Future Race Car’ written all over it. The toys that the children play with while Daddy is out behaving badly give a further insight into the workings of the Essex Man mind. The best I saw on that Monday was a set of toy cars where you could interchange the front and back halves – just like Daddy does at work.

My mate from Utah absolutely loved it with a passion. At one point, one of the racers got black flagged. This meant that the course officials have decided you’re not behaving in a reasonable fashion. As you may imagine, in banger racing the definition of ‘reasonable’ is pretty broad. Even after the black flag waving, the bad behaviour continued to the extent that the driver lost it on the slow down lap, hit a bank, and rolled the car into the commentary box. Mr Utah was beside himself


[1] This is not too much of an exaggeration. The only place I know with a more eclectic selection of tat in CashConverters is in Barking, which is also fringe Essex

[2] The only people who would escape prosecution would be those stallholders selling copies of famous perfume brands. They’ve got a great weasel. You read a little card that says ‘Chanel No 5’ and think ‘Oh no it’s not>’ But look closer and you’ll see the small print. What it actually says is ‘If you like Chanel No5, you’ll love this.’ Not misleading at all. Except it is, because you won’t love it unless you like the smell of bubblegum and something vaguely floral. They all smell the same

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