Essex is Britain’s most misunderstood county claims the cover of Gillian Darnley’s book Excellent Essex. Certainly the media has appeared fascinated by the county since Simon Heffer’s profile of Essex Man, aka “Mrs Thatcher’s bruiser”, appeared in the Sunday Telegraph in 1990. The Towie phenomenon of the past decade has only increased the image of bling and vulgar excess.
But in Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex, his new exhibition at Firstsite in Colchester, the Ilford-raised Landy has chosen to embrace the county’s brash image. “I see myself as a mirror,” says Landy, who celebrates the dodgy heritage of Essex, while also making the viewer aware that journalists have been pretty lazy in reaching for Essex caricatures whenever a story about the region crops up.
A giant cut-out of Edward Collet’s original Essex Man cartoon dominates the foyer, with the words of the original Simon Heffer piece on the back. The spirit of Thatcherism looms large, with a wall display of Margaret Thatcher meeting the owners of the first council house to be sold in Harold Hill and a tarpaulin with the logo “Essex Man has seen off socialism.”
Riffing on the fact that Essex was described as “the dustbin of London”, Landy has mounted 1990s TVs on wheelie-bins surrounded by bin-liners of rubbish, The TVs play clips of Sir Peregrine Worsthorne and Simon Heffer talking about Essex Man, news items discussing Essex Girls and white stilettos, a Towie vajazzle session, Brexiteer MP Mark Francois, boy racers on Southend seafront, Time Team on the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon Prittlewell prince complete with bling grave goods, and music from Depeche Mode, Ian Dury and Billy Bragg. All in front of giant posters of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character and the Towie cast. In a homage to Towie a large sign reads: “Warning this archive contains flash cars, big watches and false boobs.”
The Joy of Essex appears in a glass cabinet, complete with Michael’s yellow stick-it notes still in place. It’s alongside a piece I wrote for the Guardian back in 1991 entitled “Awoight on the night,” discussing the cockney hybrid argot of Essex. Like many hacks, my own work has contributed to the mythology of Essex.
Reflecting estuary Essex’s industrial heritage Landy has hung tarpaulins from the roof emblazoned with media headlines such as “The bonds of Basildon”, “Sexy Saxons the Essex girls of old England” and “It’s Hollywood… near Brentwood”. There’s even one headline claiming that in uncultured Essex more people use Firstsite as a toilet than as an art gallery.
Landy has also had great fun with the Dagenham Idol, a 4000-year old wooden figure that was unearthed on Rainham Marshes. Gloriously for the county’s Essexual image, it was thought to be a phallic appendage suitable for either male or female use. Landy has created his own version of the Idol and covered it in gold, burying it in a spoof archaeological excavation pit in a separate room at the exhibition
The walls of the vitrine room are covered in press features on Essex. The Sunday Telegraph asks if Brentwood is the worst address in England, the Sun claims there are no virgins in Essex and the Daily Mail berates Shami Chakrabarti for patronising Essex Man. The Essex Man stereotype was in fact quite complimentary, argues Simon Heffer, since it was celebrating the aspirational character and achievement of working class East Enders who had moved out to the country. Certainly the sharp wit of Essex folk and their willingness to debunk pomposity has proved popular on reality TV shows.
The Essex Girl phenomenon of the 1990s has fared less well and was nothing to do with Heffer. Landy devotes a cabinet to Essex Girl jokes and they come across today as rebooted sexist jokes about ‘slappers’, perhaps stemming from a male fear of women who knew what they wanted both in bed and done-up Ford Cortinas. Similarly the video of the Spitting Image song Essex is Crap now appears simply patronising.
There are certainly two sides of Essex — the East End overspill towns and the more Suffolk-like country areas beyond the A13. Landy knows this and as part of the preparation for this show he took me for a walk on the Essex Way across a beautiful pastoral landscape before looking back in Ongar for the bus home. One bonus was that he didn’t destroy our OS map (Landy is the artist who famously destroyed all his possessions in 2001).
This exhibition does make you wish for a more nuanced media view of Essex. But then again there was always a grain of truth in the Essex Man stereotype and perhaps it’s better to celebrate the county’s image rather than be too offended by it. Essex is nothing if not in your face. Bling and brashness are not the only way in Essex — but the media have got plenty of arterial road mileage out of it, as Landy perfectly illustrates.