THIS IS ESSEX
Photography and text by Danny Jackson
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Danny Jackson has captured the sometimes weird and often wonderful everyday lives of residents in Essex in pictures. As a passionate people watcher, in 2019 Danny started working on a portrait series called 'Eccentric Essex'. The Pandemic has given him the opportunity to go through his work, which in turn has led to the development of the series "This is Essex", and 'EccentriCity'. Both of these series focus on eccentric and interesting people. Why Eccentrics? Danny has asked himself that question quite a lot, and his main reasoning is that eccentric people seem to live life somewhat differently from the norm, they rebel or let their interests and passions determine how they live their lives.
When I was a child growing up in Basildon, a new town in South Essex, in the 80s and 90s, I became aware of a growing stigma attached to my county. The expression 'Essex Girl' had recently found purchase in modern lingo; a derogatory term that was used to describe women who were considered promiscuous or lacking in intellect. It was a stereotype that was compounded by the television programme ‘Birds of a Feather’ with its own archetypal Sharon and Tracy; vacuous characters who bumbled through each episode with dropped Hs and glottal stops galore. The Essex boys fared little better. They found their representative in Harry Enfield’s creation 'Loadsa Money.' Enfield’s depiction of a brash, up and coming man with oodles of money and no accompanying substance or class was a clear comment on the generation of young Essex men who had found lucrative jobs in the nearby city of London. And so it went on…Big Brother, Pop Stars, X factor and more recently TOWIE. Any contestant that hailed from the county of Essex inevitably conformed to the classic stereotypes of the pretty but vapid Essex Girl and the materialistic and loutish Essex Boy. Modern culture has been saturated with the media’s propagation of this unkind and unfair stereotype, but if we look a little deeper then maybe we will find that there’s more to the Essex species than these narrow and restrictive generalisations acknowledge.
Essex, as we know it now, has evolved and expanded over the duration of the last hundred years; a relatively short time. Before then it was mostly small farming communities and Victorian seaside towns. But after the Second World War and the devastation of London’s East End, the Labour government created a series of “new towns” across the country and Essex was the birthplace of two such towns: Harlow in North Essex and Basildon in the south. These new towns offered hope and fresh starts to a bruised and beleaguered generation of Eastenders. Massive council estates sprung up, the largest in Europe being one in Dagenham, and many Londoners flocked to Essex to join friends and relatives who had already settled here. Both sets of my grandparents originated from East London, as are my wife’s, and this is the same for the large majority of my friends too. So, to understand the nature of the people of Essex, we must first start with their forebears, the Eastenders.
Just as Essex has a stereotype, so too have the people of East London. Ask any one from around the world what a cockney or an Eastender is like and a list of attributes common to this Londoner will be reeled off: speakers of Cockney rhyming slang; consumers of jellied eels and pie and mash; images of The Artful Dodger, Dickens’s famous pickpocket from 'Oliver Twist', or the Kray twins (gangsters of 50s and 60s London) spring to mind. But just as the Essex stereotype is narrow and reductive, so too is this one. It’s important to remember what happened to the East End of London during the Second World War; German planes bombed the area relentlessly during “The Blitz” of 1940. Thousands of homes were bombed out and lives lost. Parents had to evacuate their children to the countryside to live with unknown families. My nan was one of those children, who with her two sisters, was sent to Norfolk and spent the war living with a farmer and his wife. The phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” can be said to embody the attitude of the nation as a whole, but it seems particularly pertinent to the East End. I believe that going through such hardship and embracing the ‘war-time spirit’ solidified in them those attributes of resilience, determination and kind heartedness and highlighted the importance of family and fun, even in the face of adversity. When broken down, what really is the idea of a ‘wartime spirit’? It’s a commitment to carry on no matter what; a conscious stance of thinking positively when times are hard; to move on and to move forward.
So who are the people of Essex now? Essex has a population of about 1.9 million. It borders Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, London and Kent. During the census a few years back Castle point in South Essex had the highest percentage in England of people identifying their ethnicity as ‘White British.’ Essex also has a very high percentage of over 65s, much higher than the national average. Much of the densely populated towns are on the coast where many older people go to retire; seaside towns like Southend on Sea and Clacton on Sea being a mix of young families and older residents. Leigh on Sea was recently voted the best place to live in England, with large 1930s family homes close to a classic British high Street and an old fishing village. Many Essex residents are tradesman or office workers who commute up to the City daily via the motorways or railway. And as for that perception of the people of Essex as being less academic; the University of Essex ranked 25th out of 130 in the most recent University League Table.
Regardless of where you are in Essex, there are some common strains that seem cemented in the Essex persona like the letters in a stick of rock: the people of Essex have a friendly, warm nature - if workmen enter their home they will immediately be offered cups of tea, and at the end of the job a tip or drink will be given as a thank you; “Get yourself a beer,” they might say. Essex people love a bargain, with a glut of Pound Shops punctuating most high streets and Sunday mornings frequently being spent rifling through the goods at local car boot sales. The people of Essex are: fun loving, neighbourly, sometimes eccentric, cheeky, money driven and confident. They can also drink far too much, burn in the sun far too easily, love a bit of gossip, are occasionally rowdy and sometimes vain. They love their fish and chips and English breakfasts, shop at Lakeside Shopping Centre and in the evenings many flock to Southend amusements or “Peter Pans,’ a theme park by the pier that’s been called Adventure Island for over 20 years but everyone still calls “Peter Pan’s Playground’. The V-festival is a yearly event where some of the biggest names in the music business come to play and for thousands across Essex this a must see event of the summer. Another place that every Essex resident is familiar with is Southend Pier, the longest pleasure pier in the world at 1.34 miles long. Built in 1830, this pier is very much part of Essex’s heritage, in fact to quote Sir John Betjeman (the English Poet and broadcaster), “The pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier.’
So in conclusion, when describing this collection of people…my people… it is clear that the people of Essex have a quirkiness to them, an eccentricity, a cheekiness. They have their own language - a mix of slang and colloquialisms - and they have certain habits that counts them apart from other people, much of this coming from their cockney ancestors. Their warmth and friendliness, family orientated attitude and gritty determinism have resulted in a can-do attitude and work hardy strength that comes from generations of tradesmen, dockworkers and factory workers. As a people they are strong, loyal and neighbourly. This is all a far cry from the crass ‘Essex Lad’ or the promiscuous and unintelligent ‘Essex girls,’ in fact quite the opposite. Maybe in time the idea of who the people of Essex actually are will change and develop and we will finally be allowed to transgress these reductive and disparaging stereotypes, however whatever happens I’m happy to be one of them and I’m proud to be able to photograph them and document the county I love.
All photos © Danny Jackson
You can read more about Danny's photography journey in his interview with The Pictorial-List here.