We traveled from East London in a Zipcar, beating the traffic bound for Lakeside, the out-of-town shopping center. The pier car park was sparsely filled with cars. Abandoned in a corner was a statue of the Virgin Mary the size of an umbrella stand. Out of season, the Essex archipelago lures only the most hardened. By October, the weather is spitting and icy, and its landscape is too bleak and monotonous to qualify as ruggedly beautiful. A Wikipedia entry had told us there are nineteen islands off the coast of Essex, most of them owned by the British Ministry of Defence and contracted to private companies testing ammunitions. The individual entries were nearly all stubs, waiting to be filled in. An archipelago struck a curious exotic note in a place associated mostly with commuting, military test sites, and, most recently, “constructed reality” television.
American import Jersey Shore inspired The Only Way is Essex, a show similarly centered on the intricate love lives of pneumatic people living in an area derided for being culturally bankrupt, despite its proximity to one of the most exciting cities in the world. Jersey’s Essex County was even named after the UK’s own historical Essex, in 1683. Maybe there’s no need to make analogies between the UK’s Essex and anywhere else because its reputation is internationally bad, and we don’t defend it. The county town Chelmsford, where I was born, was voted eighth best place to live in the UK on the prerecession property-porn show Location Location Location. Residents promptly rang in to call it soulless; flashy on one hand and tedious on the other, like a nouveau riche neighbor with dull preoccupations. Read More