Before we begin, I ought to make this clear: I am an Essex girl. Recently, there’s been a great surge of interest in my home county, with reality TV shows and self-styled ‘Essex celebrities’ hitting our headlines daily and nowadays, the word ‘Essex’ is enough to turn some of us on, but a lot of us off. As counties go, it’s probably the most maligned and ridiculed in the UK and there’s no escaping the stereotypes: lager lout wide-boys with flashy watches and bleach blonde ‘glamazons’, complete with fake tans, false nails and fast morals.
Although some might think this ‘Essex-mania’ is a recent fascination, the ‘Essex Man’ cliché has been in circulation since the 90s, with journalist Simon Heffer labelling him “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”, more interested in his flash car and Rottweiler, than art or literature. And so, with Issue 110 of Litro Magazine focussing on Street Fiction and representing where you’re from, I thought it was high time I stood up for my home county and wrote a blog proving that Essex isn’t all about ‘vajazzles’ and mangled vowels. Far from being “culturally barren”, for art and literature lovers, Essex is an exciting place to be and below are just some of the things that ought to make us celebrate, rather than censure this home county. Who knows, maybe I’ll even convince you that perhaps the only way is Essex after all!
firstsite – Colchester, Essex
As you may have learnt in English History lessons at school, Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town and home to plenty of Roman, Norman and Saxon artefacts and sites of interest. Once upon a time, it was the capital of the country. When Luke Wright, in his hilarious poem The Company of Men, wrote the lines “You see, I grew up in Colchester/Where very little culture stirs”, he obviously hadn’t been lucky enough to visit firstsite, a brand new, innovative cultural and social space with contemporary art at its heart, reinventing the traditional art gallery and exhibition centre. The striking crescent-shaped building, inspired by its Roman heritage and covered with a unique golden alloy, is not only a cultural landmark but also home to many exciting new exhibitions from international contemporary artists Michaela Eichwald, Aleksandra Mir, Karin Ruggaber and Danh Vo, as well as pieces by Turner and Andy Warhol. As the name suggests, firstsite is the first of its kind and, currently, you’ll only get a cutting edge creative space like it in Essex.
Essex Book Festival – Various locations in Essex
Held in March, Essex Book Festival 2011 may be over, but anticipation for next year’s festival, one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK, is already mounting. Notable authors who have attended recent festivals include Sir Andrew Motion, Germaine Greer, Penelope Lively, Margaret Drabble, Rose Tremain, Alexander McCall Smith and Martin Newell. The writer and journalist, Francis Wheen is also a patron of the festival and, in an interview for Essex Life Magazine, he pledged his support for the festival, asserting “I go to literary festivals all over the country, and abroad, and I know of none which is as diverse as ours…It reaches an incredibly wide range of people. Outsiders have the idea that Essex is some kind of philistine, illiterate swamp. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s extraordinary how literary Essex really is.”
‘Constable Country’ – Dedham Vale and Stour Valley, Essex
Picturesque villages, rolling farmland, big skies, rivers, meadows, ancient woodlands and a wide variety of wildlife combine to create the inspiration for many of the most beautiful works by the English romantic painter, John Constable. For those lucky enough to have visited Flatford and its surroundings, you’ll know how tranquil and charming the area is and why Constable openly admitted that it was these Essex “scenes [that] made me a painter.” I defy anyone not to feel inspired by the lush scenery of this Essex countryside and I can think of no better place to take a good book to read or even a creative journal and craft your greatest work to date.
Creative Writing Courses – University of Essex and other various locations
For those with a keen, enquiring and creative mind, the University of Essex can boast an excellent undergraduate BA course in Creative Writing. Even more exciting, the Professor of Poetry is none other than Derek Walcott, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and, more recently, the 2011 T.S Eliot Prize for White Egrets. For those who aren’t prepared to commit a full three years to the undergraduate course at the University, a quick search will bring up many other creative writing courses across Essex, aimed to inspire and help you on your creative path.
So, please, next time Essex is mentioned in the news, and a certain image forms in your mind, remember that there is much more in the county just waiting to be discovered.