Putting the ‘culture’ into Essex is no joking matter

Essex wants to change its image – from white stillettos to ‘high culture’.

Among all the whimsical public service appointments for which The Guardian’s recruitment pages are celebrated, one recent example stands out. There, nestling among the earnest requests for lesbian outreach workers to step forward and reach out, and for promising obesity co-ordinators to declare themselves eligible for service regardless of race, colour, creed or sexual preference, is an ad that is by comparison shameful and preposterous.

Shameful because it is a cowardly betrayal of a heritage, preposterous because it flies in the face of reason. Placed by the Essex Development and Regeneration Agency, itself a risible organisation whose absence would be neither noted nor regretted, the ad is for a project director. And the nature of the project? To transform the image of Essex from a county whose women wear white stilettos and whose men vomit freely as the mood takes them, into a “significant cultural destination”.

So Essex man and Essex woman are to be disowned by the apparatchiks of the county that bred them. What ingratitude! If it were not for the nationwide influence its population has exerted – and without benefit of officialdom – Essex would not be where it is today, in the vanguard of popular culture. Where Billericay and Romford lead, Bolton and Redcar follow.

Without any help from Kent or Sussex and without a word of encouragement from Norfolk or Suffolk, not to mention the bland indifference of Devon and Cornwall, Essex has single-handedly won the class war.

The long-running battle between the bourgeoisie and the working class has ended in the total capitulation of the middle classes. Today we are all Essex men and women. The first citadel to fall was the BBC: once the very essence of Middle Britain, with its slavish addiction to received pronunciation and thirst for self-improvement, the corporation now effs and blinds its way through the schedules with a healthy gusto. Its flagship programme, EastEnders, is an allegorical myth that celebrates the revolution. The East End it depicts no longer exists, its inhabitants long since departed. And where have they gone? Why Essex, off course.

As with all successful campaigns, the crushing of the middle class was made possible through a combination of manpower and money. The working class always had strength in numbers and the will to fight (visiting London in the 17th century Casanova observed that “a man in court dress cannot walk the streets without being pelted with mud by the mob”) but it is not until our time that they acquired the wherewithal to exert their will.

With money in their pockets, the proletariat proved an irresistible force. With scarcely a whimper the middle class not only surrendered but quickly mimicked the ways of their oppressors. Today, the shaven-headed specimen in tribal costume relishing the rancour and hatred of a football match is as likely to hail from Pinner or Rickmansworth as from Pitsea or Rayleigh, and the family on the train munching their aromatic burgers regardless of other travellers are as likely to be headed by lawyers or doctors as builders and truckers.

There can be no denying that the post-war settlement has been a unifying force. Liberated from the straitjacket of conventional morality and manners, the erstwhile middle class have enthusiastically adopted the language of Billingsgate and mastered the single-fingered gesture that denotes an independence of spirit. Today we as a nation are as one in our fickle worship of celebrity and our love of what used to be thought of as vulgar. We all patronise the same tattoo parlours, shop in the same malls, plucking at the coatrails to the sound of hip-hop; we all drive our cars with the healthy aggression that comes of being a free-born Briton who knows his rights; we all weep and sob and lay flowers when national sentiment requires; and, at times of national ritual, such as our exit from the World Cup, we all fly the flag of St George.

Never in the long history of our island nation have we been so indistinguishable one from another. We even sound the same. Estuary English, or mockney, is the received pronunciation of today. Soon regional accents will disappear entirely and we shall communicate easily and naturally in the cadences of a Jonathan Ross. Is it too much to hope that we shall see a kind of Pygmalion in reverse, with every duchess aspiring to better herself by speaking like Janet Street-Porter?

And for all this we have Essex to thank. Which makes the conduct of the Development in Regeneration Board as reprehensible as it is inexplicable. It is as if the Vandals having successfully sacked Rome were to stand amid the smoking ruins and say: “Hold up, that was totally out of order. What was we thinking of?”

You think I exaggerate? These are the words of a spokesman for Essex County Council: “This [regeneration] project is about engendering a sense of pride in the area. One concern in that this Essex image may have an economic effect on the county if we don’t act to change it.” Not without a sense of humour, he adds that Southend has “unappreciated attractions”.

Have you heard such nonsense? That a trail-blazing county, which through its efforts alone has transformed the face of Britain, should speak the language of the defeated enemy is nothing short of sedition.


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