“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 pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.