Essex culture

Essex – What counts as the county’s culture?

Chelmsford Weekly News
March 19th 2010

On Wednesday evening a panel discussion in Chelmsford considered this question as part of the Essex Book Festival. Dave Monk of BBC Essex chaired the meeting which listened to two well-known writers and broadcasters, Germaine Greer and and Sarfraz Mansoor, and Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Essex University.

We listened to their first impressions of the county: Germaine Greer compared our capacity to welcome newcomers with the stuffiness of Cambridge and its academic community, Colin Riordan had imagined that the whole of the county resembled Thurrock and Sarfraz Mansoor had watched “Birds of a Feather” on television.

It was good to be reminded that our three panellists were all immigrants; Australia, British army postings in Germany and early years in Pakistan provided their first homes. Now they watch others moving and trying to fit in. Germaine Greer spoke of the travellers she had befriended in the north-west of the county and Colin Riordan spoke of the excitement of welcoming students from all over the world at the university. Sarfraz explained how he no longer blended in back in his native country when his freckled, English girlfriend accompanied him.

It was Germaine Greer who spoke of an eastward tide across the county and I was reminded that when Ilford hosts a cricket week it is always Ilford, Essex; murder only seems to occur in Ilford, East London. Two years ago I asked the army if I could research their recruitment methods. I was sent to their recruitment office in Ilford, one of the best in the country where many local youngsters realise at sixteen that life for them on their local streets would lead to trouble whereas some time away in the army would keep them usefully occupied until they had grown beyond the reaches of street culture.

I suppose the question is, what is it that has reached Ilford and beyond? Earlier moves into Essex, Scots farmers after the First World War, Jewish families in the 1930s and teachers from Wales after the Second World War, all seemed to have a sense of  purpose, and adapted to life here without abandoning the culture that they brought with them.

If there is a fault-line in Essex culture, a threat to something special, where is it? Do we see it in rural areas where rubbish is dumped from passing cars, or middle-aged – no longer new, towns, where troubled hospitals are in the news? Do we find it in what passes for country areas, where broken down buildings and abandoned enterprises form rural squalor and where once productive land becomes an eyesore or is buried under concrete around Stanstead? Does it lie in over-developed holiday resorts which sprawl in their misery next to a wonderful coast line?

Like the folk here on Mersea, Germaine Greer enjoys a part of Essex that is clearly on one side of this line, wherever it may be. Saffron Walden is her bailiwick and she spoke of local kindness and a willingness to involve her in the community and obviously knows enough of Mersea to comment on its sense of independence.

I first encountered this culture, this capacity for good-natured nosiness when my parents moved in the early sixties, from Romford to a village near Dunmow. Mother got on well with her new neighbour, a local character of long-standing, who had a very sharp eye for the way things were going in neighbours’ gardens. Mother had to remember to speak very sharply before going on holiday. “Mrs X,” she would say, “you can pick rhubarb from my garden if you want but you must leave the blackcurrants strictly alone.” And there they would be upon her return.

The immigrants from whom the county gets its name, the East Saxons, caused earlier arrivals, the Romans, to build the forts of the Saxon shore. Much later Napoleon frightened us and Martello towers, like the one across the River Colne sprung up. In 1940 our parents’ generation built gun emplacements here in brick and concrete.

I think the panellists would have approved of my favourite Essex icon, Dudley Moore; at Dagenham County High School he insisted on playing jazz for school assemblies. Perhaps it is the friendly directness and determination that Germaine Greer seems to appreciate that enables us to welcome people here despite difficulties in the past. After nineteen years away from the county I have found again the same warmth.

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