A Cultural Guide To South Essex

Over the years "Freelance Informer" has published articles on contracting in various parts of the globe. Some have extolled the virtues of the USA's West Coast and others have described the delights to be had by the contractor in less far-flung locations, such as Belgium and Switzerland. Recently, a reader wrote about prospects for freelancers in the West Country. In this article I'll provide some cultural insight for those considering taking the plunge and accepting a contract in South Essex.

It has always been fairly easy to travel to South Essex. In the 1840s the Eastern Counties Railway built a line out to Shenfield, a small village on the outskirts of Brentwood. This town, recently awarded borough status, has been in the news as the most boring town in Britain. Why Brentwood was singled out for this particular award is beyond us residents - the reasons quoted are the very qualities which led us to settle here! Development of the railway from Shenfield resulted in one line to Chelmsford, Colchester and beyond and another terminating at a hamlet at the south end of Prittlewell.

For a small town, Brentwood has an impressive portfolio of potential contract opportunities, including the Ford Motor Company (UK and European headquarters, plus its finance subsidiary Ford Credit Europe), Hambros Bank and, soon, British Telecom. It's ideal contractor country for, in addition to the previously-mentioned railway, there's easy access to the M25. House prices, like the beer, are "reassuringly expensive", or were before the property slump. Successful contractors should aim for Hutton Mount, a labyrinth of private roads within BMW distance of Shenfield Station. But Brentwood has a dark secret - it is at the northern edge of the territory wherein lives Essex Man, known to scholars as Homo Essexensis. Whatever you do, don't call him this to his face - you'll probably end up being "glassed".

Typically, Kevin and his partner Lisa live in a 3-bed semi in Laindon with their daughter Kylie and son Wayne. Kevin wears a gaudy jacket for his job on the floor of the LIFFE (London International Financial Futures Exchange). Lisa wears what she considers to be a "smart suit", but with rather obvious make-up and jewellery, for her part-time job at the estate agents in Basildon. There she sends out mailings of totally-unsuitable properties to anyone silly enough to leave their name and address. Kylie, ear-ringed from 3 weeks old, and crop-headed Wayne wear "designer kidswear" for school, whenever they can be cajoled into going. At weekends, Kev and Lise wear "leisurewear", usually elasticated pastel-hued adult versions of the Babygro. Kylie's in "little-princess" flounced dresses and Wayne won't be separated from his miniature football strip, new versions of which seem to come out at least twice a year.

On Saturdays they'll drive to a shopping mall, such as Basildon's Eastgate or Thurrock's Lakeside. Kev buys CDs for himself, more obvious jewellery for Lise, football videos for Wayne and a heavily-advertised toy for Kylie, such as a My Little Pony Abattoir. On Sunday mornings they seek spiritual renewal at one of the many open-air gatherings. In communion with thousands like themselves, they wend their way through makeshift stalls, set out with the detritus of modern living, each a shrine to the consumer society.

Kev reckons that he and Lise will get married someday, but not before he can help it. He thinks that his older brother Jason has just about got it right. Jason, with more tattoos than intelligence, works on building sites, stripped to the waist, and wears builder's "cleavage" trousers. He and the rest of the gang shout the traditional mating call "whooaaadarlin" to any attractive female whose path unfortunately takes her past these sub-humans. A passing anthropologist once asked Jason the meaning of this cry. He inarticulately said he "dunno" but his father and grandfather used it before him and he was carrying on the tradition.

Jason lives with his Mum in Aroldill, a suburb of Romford. He doesn't believe in steady relationships with women but bonds closely with his "mates". On most nights they're to be found "up the pub", swilling copious draughts of a fizzy cold drink they call "laaaargah". After about ten pints of this adult lemonade, Jason will spot Shal, Maur, Trace or one of the other "gewlz" that he was at school with. These ladies were all each others' bridesmaids, ten or so years ago. They're all related after a fashion, having shared the same pool of "boyz" as husbands and each having married and separated from at least one other's "ex". As a result, they don't want lasting relationships any more than Jason does so, in return for a few Malibu-and-Cokes, they're happy to let him take his brief pleasure later that night. They, however, are never impressed by his drunken efforts.

Surprisingly, considering their respective positions in life, Jason's school attendance was better than Kev's. This had less to do with academic ability than the fact that their father, an ex-dockie and an East-Ender of the old school, ensured Jason's attendance by liberal application of a two-inch wide leather belt. Sadly, the Old Man died before Kevin reached the "difficult age" and played truant at every opportunity. But, as Kev says, the sums he earns doing deals on the trading floor shows he "don't need no education!"

Kev knows that he can't last much longer on the trading floor - he's already one of the eldest there. No matter, Lise's Dad's already asked him to join his swimming-pool installation business. It'll mean working rather than shouting for a living but Alf and Bet get a new Merc out of it every few years, so it can't be bad.

There we must leave our fictional family, but first some words of caution. You'll probably make some good friends while contracting in South Essex but, remember, you're the visitor and you must respect their culture.

© Brian Smith 1995

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