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 Island, TOWIE 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.
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.