“It’s promoted Essex by defining it by its very worst qualities”: on growing up in TOWIE country

The 2018 cast of The Only Way is Essex. Image: ITV.

When I was a teenager, depending on our mood and who we were with and how old the most obviously under-aged among us was looking, my friends and I would frequent several different pubs in the Essex town where our school was.

There was the unconvincing Irish bar by the station, which was a bit out of the way, so you could safely assume you wouldn’t bump into anyone unwanted. There was the carvery next to the school, where we’d been going since we were 15, and where it would never have occurred to the bar staff that we were under-aged because we’d been going there for years and, anyway, what kind of self-respecting teenager would hang out in a carvery?

But sometimes, if we didn’t mind sharing a space with the shiny, sporty kids universally referred to as “the jocks”, and if we didn’t mind losing Chris, against whom the bouncer had developed a largely irrational prejudice, we would go to a different pub. The White Hart was a once-beautiful coaching inn on the High Street, with several different bars all framing a central cobbled courtyard. It was the oldest and, architecturally, by far the nicest of Brentwood’s main pubs, but of the three I’ve listed it’s probably the one I have least affection for: it wasn’t a place for a quiet pint with your friends, but for a night out, with lairy music and contact with strangers, and to be quite honest with you I hadn’t really got the hang of that yet. At one point, some bloke threatened to glass me because he’d taken the piss out of my hair and I’d answered back. That’s about all I remember of my time at the White Hart.

So it was never somewhere I felt particularly nostalgic for, and I never thought much about the place after I left. But then, a decade or so after I stopped frequenting it, the White Hart was suddenly famous: there were literally coach trips bringing people from other parts of the country to see it. Except it wasn’t called the White Hart any more: it was the Sugar Hut. And the reason people were so keen to see it is because of TOWIE.

***

I have, I should confess at this point, never seen an entire episode of The Only Way is Essex. I’ve caught a few scenes, so I have some sense of the tone (in one, two grown men were trying to set fire to their farts). And I have a vague idea of the format: I know it’s half-staged and half-real, though I have no idea of where the line between the two is, or indeed whether this is something you can detect by watching it.

I’m also familiar with some of the people it’s made famous, like Gemma Collins, who bafflingly showed up in a trailer for Orange is the New Black the other week, and Joey Essex, who had an equally baffling 2014 sitdown with Nick Clegg. At the end of the day, though, I’m a pretentious north London media type, who feels secretly flattered every time someone calls me a metropolitan elitist. TOWIE isn’t really my genre.

My lack of interest in the show isn’t just snobbery, though – or at least, it’s not just that kind of snobbery. The existence of TOWIE reminds me of everything I thought I disliked about the place I grew up.

***

By the early Nineties, Essex had come to mean something in the public mind. One half of the population was assumed to be blonde, promiscuous, covered in fake tan and not too bright, and was treated, quite literally, as a joke (“How does an Essex girl turn the light on after sex? She opens the car door”). 


The men, as ever, were treated better: the habits of Essex Man were pored over by psephologists trying to explain the Tories’ apparent hegemony. But he was still assumed to be, in the words of Simon Heffer, “mildly brutish and culturally barren”. Essex Man liked flash cars, money and conspicuous consumption. He didn’t like foreigners, formal education or books. The establishment knew this guy was important – but that didn’t stop them thinking him vulgar.

At some point, all this began to bother Essex Boy, in the form of myself. The Essex around me didn’t seem to be quite the one of popular mythology: not everyone dyed themselves orange, not all the blokes had earrings, and the girls were on the whole disappointingly reluctant to go to bed with me. It wasn’t especially lairy, either: the reason the incident in the White Hart sticks in my mind is because it was so rare.

All the same, I was a podgy, bookish kind of a kid, who liked science-fiction and maps. I preferred trains to cars, didn’t understand football beyond a vague understanding I was supposed to support West Ham, and my greatest sporting achievement had been to come last in the 100m front crawl after literally swimming the wrong way. Not everyone around me fitted the stereotype – hardly anyone did – but nonetheless, there was enough of that laddish, lager-ish, aggressively anti-intellectual culture on show in Essex to make me feel profoundly out of place.

So at some point, I decided that I literally was out of place – that I wasn’t from Essex at all. My own chunk of the county, the other side of the M25 from Brentwood, had been swallowed up by Greater London 15 years before I was born. Once I realised this, the world seemed to make much more sense. Of course I didn’t fit in in Essex, I would tell myself: I was from London.

This probably would have made a decent enough coping mechanism if I’d kept it to myself, but the problem was I started saying it out loud. Saying I was from London would have been a reasonable answer to give to someone from New York or New Delhi or even Newcastle – but I never met anyone from New York or New Delhi or Newcastle. And describing Romford that way to someone from Bethnal Green or Southend just made me sound like a tit – partly because it’s so tremendously unhelpful when trying to communicate my address to someone who lived three miles down the road, but mostly because Romford is the most Essex place in the universe.

After all, when people cracked appalling jokes about Essex girls; when commentators debated whether Essex Man might be willing to give New Labour a shot – they weren’t talking about the well-to-do, cream tea and East Anglian-flavoured  towns of northern Essex, places like Saffron Walden and Walton-on-the-Naze that would fit right in on Lovejoy. The Essex that lived in the public mind was the string of commuter suburbs stretching east along the arterial roads of the southern half of the county – Brentwood, Basildon, Billericay, Wickford. The places East Enders ended up after the war.

Romford may have technically been part of Greater London – but in so far as those Essex stereotypes described a real place at all, they described Romford as well as anywhere. “I’m from East London, actually,” I would say. Sure I was. But in Essex, pretty much everyone is from East London, if you go back far enough.

***

I’m over this now, of course. Partly because I’ve lived in proper London for over 15 years, partly because I’m getting on a bit and my god can you imagine if I wasn’t.

But also it’s because at some point I realised that a lot of the things I hated so much about growing up in Essex weren’t really about Essex: they were about growing up. Almost everyone hates the town they grow up in, finds it narrow and stultifying, and spends their adolescence feeling like they’ve been left in the wrong place and longing for escape. That’s what being a teenager is.

More than that, as I grew older, I realised that a lot of the things I thought were unique to Essex simply weren’t. The blokey, football-obsessed culture that I, deeply sensitive and embarrassingly pretentious child that I was, found so objectionable wasn’t specific to the place I grew up at all. You can find people like that everywhere, just as you can find people who aren’t, too. I don’t think, now, that my love of the tube map or a forgotten, long-dead scifi show called Doctor Who would have made me any more popular with the beautiful people in Richmond or Rotherham. Essex had never been the problem.

Oh – and, of course, I was being a snob: projecting those stereotypes onto the world around me so I could think myself above people who I found intimidating. It was a source of self-esteem at a time in my life when I didn’t really have any. But while looking down on the place you’re from is just about acceptable in a moody 17 year old, it’s a shitty thing to carry too far into adult life. 

So, I stopped. I still don’t think much of my home county’s politics (blue tending purple, and overwhelmingly pro-Brexit), and I’m not in any hurry to move back. But its people are rarely stuck up, and hardly any of them conform to those terrible stereotypes anyway. Essex was, I decided, no better and no worse than anywhere else in the country. It gave me a decent enough start in life, and I even started enjoying the fact I was from Essex if only because it tended to wrongfoot people. I got over myself.

And then TOWIE happened.

***

I’m aware I’m on thin ice here, because as I admitted up front I’ve not really watched it, and what little I know of those who’ve starred on the show suggests that they’re generally perfectly decent people who lept at an opportunity for TV fame and lucrative sponsorship deals because, well, you would, wouldn’t you? Good luck to them. Why not?

But while I’ve not seen much of the show I have seen the imprint it has left on wider media. I’ve seen the way Gemma Collins, Joey Essex and the rest have gone on to become celebrities, mini-industries in themselves. I’ve seen details of characters and plotlines that have filtered out to social media, and read reports which I have, curious despite myself about Brentwood’s sudden fame, clicked.

And the world I’ve caught a glimpse of is one in which there’s a lot of glamorous parties, a lot of beauty therapy and spas, and everyone has money but no one seems to have a job. A world in which the good people of Essex are in the midst of an epidemic of plastic surgery, and the only real problem any of them faces is who they are or are not currently sleeping with.

I’m not going to lie to you, but it doesn’t feel like the Brentwood I grew up in.

Maybe I’m wrong about this – maybe, like Love IslandTOWIE is actually the source of online community and important discussions about abusive relationships and so on. (I didn’t watch Love Island either, obviously, but this is what people kept telling me.) But from what I’ve seen of it, it all just seems so shallow. It suggests that success lies in money, fame, good looks and sexual conquests. It promotes a very boring standard of beauty, in which there’s a single, ideal look for each gender, and everyone is trying to reach it, with the result that everyone ends up looking like they’re impersonating each other and nobody is the colour of a normal human.

And it implies that, so long as you’re pretty enough or have good enough abs, intelligence and education and engagement with the world around you aren’t really that important.

I’ve always hated this sort of stuff – but there’s a lot of it about and the world is on fire anyway, so normally it doesn’t bother me. The reason it does bother me in TOWIE is because of that word “Essex”. It’s taken all those values, and nailed them to the towns and pubs where I spent my adolescence, and said that this is what those places are really like. All that stuff about Essex Man and Essex Girls was true, the show says – only now, it’s something to aspire to.

TOWIE has promoted Essex by defining it by its very worst qualities. Whatever the place I grew up was actually like when I lived there, this is what the world imagines it to be today.

And right now, there will be other awkward and bookish kids growing up in Essex, trying to work out who they are and how they fit into the world around them. I don’t imagine that this is entirely helpful.

My other problem with TOWIE is that Brentwood is a fairly boring commuter town, and the fact people are paying money to go on coach tours of the place is just really fucking weird.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared on the New Statesman as part of its retro reality TV week 2018 series. You can read more from the series here.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.