Friday, 23 October 2009

Chelmsford, Essex

As most of you will know I am not a fan of my native Chelmsford or Essex. For those of you not familiar, Essex has a reputation, largely about Essex girls. This is not news. But it's been interesting to visit while being back in the UK to see friends and family, and I thought I should write down and explain the reasons why I dislike(d) it quite so much.

Firstly, I can't be too harsh on either town or county because that's where my friends and family live, and still live - for whatever reason, almost all of them still live there, so it's not quite as horrifying as say Darfur or Iraq. Also, as one friend pointed out, it's the place that's made us (our group of friends) who we are today.

That said, I've always felt I was a reaction against it - both Chelmsford and Essex have a thorough lack of culture, variety, things for young people to do, and anything cosmopolitan. This is reflected by its lack of cities, and the fact it's next to London, where many people work and have fun. The only thing that distinguishes Chelmsford from the county it's relatively safe and middle class, although this kind of confirms its thoroughly boring nature. Obviously I was always going to have a hard time for being an unconventional young person anywhere in the world, but as a whole, Essex is somewhere where ignorant youth and conservative old age manage to find common ground.

I'm generalising of course, and I should remind everyone that prejudice is a bad thing and it's important not to judge people you don't know. However, if we weren't able to generalise, we'd be unable to describe a LOT of things in the world; if we have to put caveats and exceptions in every statement we made, it would take a long time to actually say anything. Also I grew up in Essex, so there's nothing much "pre" about my judging ;) My point is, there is a definite culture in Essex where it's hard to be openly different, progressive, intelligent or left-wing. Use long words in the pub and you get funny looks. Walk up the High Street without slouching and you get a troop of kids in bling and track suits trailing you, doing impressions.

So ... what was my impression of Chelmsford the last few weeks? Has it changed? Yes and no, I think. Certainly it's different, mostly in the form of new developments - the centre is starting to look like a functioning town, rather than just a high street with some odd pubs scattered around. Sadly there's still a dearth of independent shops and cafes - I swear that for every £1 of investment in Chelmsford, £2 goes back out via the chain stores with their head offices and shareholders elsewhere. But there's still some hearty people putting on live music, and even a promising venue in the form of Barhouse, where I had a great night playing with other local acoustic acts and seeing friends. There's still interesting people hanging out on the fringes, which is good. I saw several foreign people while out and about in town too - not muslims, as you might stereotypically expect - which in my view is a promising sign in terms of having a cosmopolitan mix of cultures.
Overall, in general while it looks a bit different, I'm not sure the place has changed that much really.

The sad thing about Chelmsford is that a lot of interesting young people who like interesting things go to university and never come back. Then comfortable to well-off conservative couples move in because it's safe and a great place to have kids (apparently). Combine this with a large number of professionals working and partying in London, and you have very little pressure for the dynamic cultural exciting things that a large town should have. I say "should", I guess it really depends on your point of view. Also I should point out there are these kind of things going on - they're just not so many, under the surface and disconnected. You have to root around and get to know the right before to find them.

And of course, it doesn't help with people like me leaving and complaining, instead of staying and doing something about it. But sometimes tides are very tough to push against.

So there you go, a rather meandering and quite biased view of Chelmsford and Essex. I could go on and on with details of varying relevance, but a) thankfully I shan't, and b) I'd like to leave you with one of my lasting images of Essex. I was handing out anti-war flyers in early 2003 on Chelmsford High Street, and a girl no older than 10 walked past saying "I think we should bomb the cunts".

Some of you might not understand the many reasons why that moment still horrifies me so much, nor why I think it sums up a dominant streak in Essex culture. But hopefully you will.

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