Identifying the territory of southeast England—minus London—is simple; articulating its identity is harder. Officially it includes Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Sussex, Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, the Isle of Wight, Surrey and Kent. But like most regions of the country, its characteristics become fuzzier the closer you look. The southeast counties incorporate many Englands: the Surrey of the professional, commuting class; the Kent of London’s working-class diaspora; the postwar new towns; the southeast coast; Oxford’s dreaming spires and so on. The region lives in the shadow of the capital and many of its inhabitants are ex-residents—but it is almost defiantly not London. At the end of last year I travelled to Surrey, Kent and Sussex and observed the aspirant working-class people who moved there from inner London. It was a timely expedition with a general election looming and renewed concern about the white working class.
In English Journey (1934) JB Priestley discovered rural, urban, industrial England, as well as a newborn nation partly conceived in America: an England of light industries sprouting on arterial roads to the Midlands. An England “of filling stations and factories… giant cinemas and dance-halls…bungalows with tiny garages… Woolworth’s… wireless… factory girls looking like actresses.” An England that expanded, evolved and is now left deflated as the first decade of the 21st century closes, covered in a veil of economic uncertainty.
The old Woolies stores await new life on the high streets of Bexleyheath and neighbouring Erith and Welling—the erstwhile satellite suburbs of Kent and greater London that fall within the borough of Bexley. I know these territories well. This is where members of my family bought houses over the past 30 years, after leaving inner London. I have relatives working in local schools, councils and shops—Boots, M&S, Starbucks—alongside students from Zimbabwe and Nigeria. The latter descend on the local library to study for accountancy courses before leaving for more central London homes.
In this part of greater London/Kent, on the Isle of Sheppey and the Medway Towns, relatively few school leavers move into higher education. Their parents and grandparents often made the voyage from the inner city to bungalowed roads in which residents are like expats harbouring memories of the mother country. Many of their parents voted Tory in 1979. Some returned to Labour in 1997 and there are quite a few Labour-held marginals here. Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, recently argued that “ordinary” people, such as those southeasterners who still think of themselves as working class, are the real “middle Britain.” And Britain’s median income still hovers around the £20,000 mark. “They are without university degrees,” Barber wrote. “And they are doing jobs that have less value than their fathers’ jobs.”
But if these truly are the people of England who have not spoken yet, few speak in the same tongue as the TUC. The southern working class has long since ceased to fit the stereotype that, even in the 1980s, still had resonance in the north. They are no longer the tower-block dwellers that maintained Labour’s vote in London; but equally they failed to become the graduates Labour hoped to educate into the middle class.
Southern working-class identity was always less based on industry than in the north. Even before the closure of the docks, southern collectivism was grounded as much in locality, history and kinship ties as in work. Those who migrated to the capital’s outer southern suburbs all told me that their communities were dismantled by mass immigration and new housing developments. These white Londoners—the subject of The Likes of Us, my book on the white working class—have often been seen by liberals as a blot on the landscape of multicultural London. And when their presence in the city could no longer be blamed for the failings of multiculturalism, their absence was. Lack of integration was due to “white flight.”
They fled to Kent, Sussex, Surrey and, of course, Essex. Oddly, the latter, which to many people epitomises the southeast, is too far east to fall into the official boundaries (as is Hertfordshire). But there is no distinction between the members of the working class that moved to Kent and those that went to Essex. The “Essex man” once thought to be the epitome of Thatcher’s Britain is the same species as the “Bluewater man” of Kent, who has emerged in the last decade.
Within the uniform streets of these places—on both sides of the Thames estuary—a semblance of community persists. I recall the elation when Ken Livingstone was defeated in the 2008 mayoral election. He was held responsible for rebranding the capital as a multicultural utopia that airbrushed white Londoners from its past as well as its present. Support for Boris Johnson was greatest in Bexley and Bromley (72 per cent) in the south, and Havering and Redbridge (63 per cent) in the east. Last year, at a meeting of the Labour pressure group Progress called “Winning Back London: how does Labour regain the capital,” Livingstone’s campaign manager Tessa Jowell acknowledged that his administration neglected these voters. Its appeal was to the urbane middle class of central London and ethnic minorities—the multicultural capital in which, in 2009, 2.5m of the 7.6m inhabitants were born overseas. The BNP, meanwhile, notched up votes in the London assembly election held at the same time, winning 24 per cent in Barking and Dagenham, 16.8 per cent in Havering, and 12.7 per cent in Bexley. These are territories where many people own their houses or are self-employed, suggesting that support for the BNP is not solely about housing and jobs.
Bigotry among whites in these postcodes is no greater than that of any other ethnic group elsewhere. It is just that white Britons in the working and lower middle classes have been tested more by the changes imposed by multiculturalism. Moreover, they were familiar with it long before many of the journalists and politicians who are now most vocal about its benefits. Like myself, these former Londoners spent their lives in the streets, estates and schools that were a testing ground for multiculturalism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Some of us took black boyfriends into the parental home and up to the bedroom before our teen years were cold. In The Likes of Us, I point out that the white working class knew non-whites as “lovers, muggers, husbands, killers, wives, victims, neighbours, rapists, friends, foes, attackers, carers.” We never had the luxury of seeing the settlers as exotic, defined by curries and carnivals. We had to accept that the good, the bad and the ugly were as much among them as ourselves. And in these mainly white areas, a tolerance persists. The people I spoke to do not wish to live on the fantasy island that Nick Griffin proposes—they’d settle for an England they recognise and understand.
It was the murder of a black teenager a few years ago that last propelled the Isle of Sheppey—home to Sheerness, Minster and Leysdowne—into the national consciousness. Sheerness was once the first port of call for a coastal break for south Londoners. But Sheppey’s island status has shifted in recent years. The new Sheppey Crossing opened in 2006, built on the back of plans for the expansion of the Thames Gateway, where a population the size of Leeds is expected to form in the next 20 years to relieve the housing shortfall in the southeast. The stretch of Thameside being overhauled—43 miles long and 20 miles wide, split between marshes, derelict industrial wasteland and a few historic towns—reaches to Southend in the north and Sheerness in the south. But progress may be jeopardised by the recession.
Since the closure of Sheerness docks in the 1950s, a major source of employment had been the import of foreign cars. Both young and old are keen to work locally, even though a train will get you into central London in under an hour. “There’s a saying that islanders never shake the mud of Sheppey from their boots, no matter how far they move away,” said Julie Jarvis. In her early fifties, and vehemently blonde, Jarvis was born and schooled on Sheppey and has no desire to be elsewhere. She has a front-of-house role on reception at the local newspaper. “The circulation reaches as far as Australia,” she said, proudly, “because nine times out of ten, islanders that leave want to keep abreast of what’s happening here.”
In Sheerness, I was told a shrine materialised on the high street in April 2006 for 18-year-old Christopher Alaneme. The black teenager was living in a local hostel to escape the gang culture of south London. A six-foot Nigerian, he had on occasion been the victim of verbal abuse, according to friends. The fact that his murder was thought to be racist interested the national press (the gang responsible also stabbed a white man who was with him; he survived). A Guardian reporter was dispatched to find racism and rednecks in this “strange little society.” The Daily Express and Evening Standard descended on Sheppey too, to the chagrin of the islanders.
“Everyone was really angry, because they made us out to be inbred yokels,” said Jarvis. Locals I spoke to had nothing but sympathy for the friends and family of the murdered teenager. But, like residents of Bexleyheath and Welling, they were irked by the status of “hate crime” ascribed to the murders of black victims that isn’t given to those of Jimmy Mizen and Robert Knox: two white teenagers stabbed within weeks of each other in Lee and Sidcup in 2008. As I left the high street an elderly woman, an islander since birth, caught me and whispered: “They weren’t Sheppey people you know. The people that murdered him were Londoners, and it was about drugs. But that never got mentioned.”
Unlike Sheppey and its Medway neighbours—Gillingham, Strood and Chatham—Rochester is a historic cathedral town whose population have tastes once thought middle class. “When I opened here 15 years ago, you couldn’t sell a croissant or a cappuccino to anyone,” said Tony Lorenzo, proprietor of a coffee house and patisserie. “Everyone wanted tea, ham and eggs back then. Now everyone wants lattes.” He puts this down to people having travelled more, having more cash, credit and cars. Consumerism has emancipated the masses and introduced them to wider cultural experiences.
Despite its (disputed) reputation as birthplace of the word “chav” and a place where tattooed girls knock out Burberry-clad babies for adolescent fathers, nearby Chatham has only its fair share of teenage pregnancies, workerless households and fake brand names. Yet even fellow Medway residents indulge in the caricature. One of Lorenzo’s customer told me, “the staff at Chatham Tesco’s don’t know what a courgette is.”
In Chatham’s dismal 1970s Pentagon shopping centre the upmarket brands were less eye-catching than the downmarket statements on clothes and accessories. The words “YOU WOULD WOULDN’T YA” emblazoned on a skintight T-shirt on a supersize figure were surpassed by the T-shirt of one man on rusty crutches who was accompanied by his wife and young son: “I EAT PUSSY LIKE SOME MEN EAT CAKE.”
I visited Chatham on the 25th anniversary of the closure of its docks. The dockyard is now a museum staffed by the dockers’ descendants. Swish apartments head skyward at the marina, and Dickens World—with a facade that owes more to Toys R Us—offers visitors an “authentic 19th-century experience” next door to Nando’s.
At Strood, there was little sign of the redbrick municipal buildings that were once the heart of the town’s civic culture. Recently, many pubs—the last vestige of that era—have disappeared. “Six pubs in this high street have gone in two years. And they were proper working men’s pubs,” Pat, a retired widow, told me. She was born outside the town centre, in a setting she recalls as farmland. The sepia photographs in her front room show the town at varying moments in its past, along with pictures of her family who live nearby. Like many locals, she attributed the death of the pubs to the smoking ban—a symbol of her disenchantment with the priorities of the state and today’s activists. The ban was met with the same shake of the head as the green protesters that sat-navved their way to the Medway to descend on nearby Kingsnorth power station.
The seaside resorts of Thanet bring to mind classic Dickens (Broadstairs) or clashes between Teds and bikers (Margate). Here the legacy of the planners of the 1960s and 1970s is apparent, as at Chatham. Margate towerblocks dwarf a Dreamland amusement park that will never rekindle its youthful verve of the 1950s.
Local employment has been boosted by the production of Viagra at the Pfizer works in Sandwich, and the ever-expanding Saga empire, capitalising on the grey pound and colonising the coast from its publishing base in Folkestone. Government ministers who worry about the three Cs—communities, culture, cohesion—offer grants to transform empty units into art galleries or cafes. Broadstairs has not succumbed to the creative classes. The upgrading of its ancient milk bar to a restaurant is the one sign of formulaic gentrification. But in Margate, where the new Turner Gallery will open in spring 2011, every available unit from the husk of Marks & Spencer to the huts on its jetty have become a venue for art exhibits. Whatever the interest on the part of the native population, the pull for outsiders has been sufficient to deliver the town’s first boutique hotel, The Reading Rooms on Hawley Square.
Not everyone believes the rebranded Margate will succeed. One dissenting voice came from a young builder (Broadstairs born and bred, to Italian parents). “Ramsgate has come up a bit in the last couple of years. They’ve got the bar Portobello’s and a new hotel, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen with Margate. If you want to see a place that’s gone downhill fast, its Cliftonville down the road. My dad says it started to go when the Jews moved out and the money went. Now it’s all immigrants. Don’t know if they’re legal or not.”
The migrants do create a conspicuous tableau in Cliftonville. People thickened by layers of clothes, as if they expected to have to move on any minute, were perched on doorsteps picking at plates of food, while children sat on the kerb. The foreignness was heightened by the backdrop of former guesthouses in faded Bertie Bassett pinks and yellows—a reminder of a bygone high season in a landscape of winter gardens, piers and Dreamland. The pleasure park that put this resort on the map, the nearest southerners got to a taste of Blackpool, now has listed status. The stretch where it stands is flanked by exhausted amusement arcades which I was told were the bounty in a turf war between Russian mobsters.
Margate may not have been the seaside town “they forgot to close down,” that Morrissey sang about, but there are several contenders along the Kent coast. There is little to distinguish the stretch from Dymchurch to Dungeness, but for the Martello Towers at the former and the power station at the latter. Artist Derek Jarman is buried at St Clement’s church in Old Romney, under a black tombstone. “He wasn’t a parishioner,” a cemetery gardener confided as he deadheaded roses. Jarman’s love of the English coast brought him there, and Romney became his home. The railway that took me past his celebrated garden also ushered me past houses customised to their owners’ tastes, from mock Tudor to wild west.
But long before Jarman put the name of Dungeness in the Sunday supplements, the deco houses and country piles amid the former hop fields and market gardens of Kent had become home to Noel Coward, actress Sybil Thorndike and writers like HG Wells and Edith Nesbitt. It is now a pull for directors, producers, comedians and chatshow hosts. “Noel Coward’s old house, Goldenhurst, belongs to Julian Clary. The one at the top of the hill is Paul O’Grady’s farm. Well, he calls it a farm, but it’s not a working farm,” a woman at St Mary-in-the-Marsh told me. Her husband had been the local policeman for years—the archetypal bobby on a bicycle. Celebrities moving in and not mixing with the villagers was one thing, but this… She pointed to a building that seemed as if it had suddenly arrived like the Tardis, and looked as alien next to the church, pub, tiny cottages and the glorious marsh itself. “Londoners,” she said, between pursed lips. “They’ve been built to house problem families. And they’re not all problems, but some of them have been nothing but trouble—the children. Not many fathers. It’s changed the mood of this place.”
Further along the coast, near Hastings, I found caravan sites in which retired couples have formed communities that thrive throughout the seasons. As I walked past I could smell Sunday roasts cooked up in makeshift kitchens, eaten off tables that double as beds. I talked to an elderly couple, former market traders, who return to Camberwell every few weeks to “collect our pension and pick up our prescriptions.”
Why settle for the discomfort of a cramped caravan in all weathers? He said: “We don’t recognise our neighbourhood in London anymore. We know more people on the camp than we know there.” She said: “Touch wood, the maisonette has never been turned over while we’re away. We got grilles, locks and alarms.” They chorused: “But nothing worth nicking.”
Like the former Londoners living like expats in bungalowed suburbs, like the shoppers at Chatham, they too were nostalgic for a capital, a country that no longer exists—if it ever did. But none of the camp dwellers wanted to return to an austere past of three television channels and one-bar fires. And many of them were quick to tell me how well their children had done. Some had set up home in the middle-class commuting territory of Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells in Kent (“my son also has a home in Greece and an ashfelt business”). Some had even progressed to deepest Surrey, and the Wordsworth Avenues that Reggie Perrin passed each morning. And, later, travelling through those places, it was not obvious to me that the middle-class recession had bitten. The train companies report no sharp fall in demand for season tickets. Waitrose and M&S food halls had not been forsaken for Lidl. Houses remained as detached as their inhabitants, hedgerows were high, even if salaries and property prices were diminishing. The greener it got, the longer the driveway, and the less chance of finding a black cab parked on it.
In his essay, “England Your England,” Orwell said the future could be glimpsed in towns like Slough, Hayes, Letchworth and those just outside major cities. Today’s equivalent is the Bluewater shopping complex and its imitations that flourish on the outskirts of towns, as high streets become dominated by empty retail units, one-stop benefit shops and advice centres. And in Surrey, contrary to the county’s image, you will find smart, modern industries such as mobile phone companies and computer games giants. Guildford is one of the centres of “Britsoft,” as the computer games industry was dubbed in the 1990s. The new England that Priestley was writing about was just beginning—and it’s uncertain if we are seeing the rise or fall of the current one.
The citizens advice bureau in Sevenoaks says that it has seen a 60 per cent increase in requests for advice on debt and repossessions in the past year. The numbers of chief executives and directors claiming jobseeker’s allowance has risen sharply, according to the Office of National Statistics. According to the shadow secretary for work and pensions, Teresa May, Jobcentres aren’t geared up to offer the specialist help that is required by the professional classes.
The southeast (minus London) is strongly Tory—of its 111 constituencies (including Essex and Hertfordshire) 79 are Tory. But there are also plenty of now marginal Labour-held seats in places like Gillingham, Chatham, Dartford, Dover and Hastings. Most of these will swing to the Tories but both Ukip and the BNP expect to pile up the protest votes too.
If the recession-hit middle-class vote in the southeast is more Tory than ever, Labour seems to have alienated those who moved into the lower middle class through cash rather than education. The people that Labour pollster Philip Gould wrote about in The Unfinished Revolution (1998), when referring to his native Woking, Surrey as the land that Labour forgot: “Labour had failed to see that the old working class… had outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car park.”
This argument resonated beyond Surrey to Sussex, Kent and Essex. In the 1980s, Essex man was a figure of fun, the oik that made it into the nouveau riche. Three decades of consumerism, along with the great leveller of information technology, has made Bluewater man more savvy. He has the same references, goes on the same holidays, as his middle-class contemporaries. Yet he is a cultural hybrid, rubbing the noses of others in his origins and his status as a self-made man when it suits him.
The England of this hybrid has a postwar American feel: the suburbs where shopping malls flourish, where DIY superstores and cinema complexes rise from empty quarries and where the residents are early-adopters of new technology. And at the golf clubs scattered from Box Hill to Banstead and beyond, you find plaques dedicated to the likes of “The Bermondsey Boys”: a nod to the turf wars and football terraces of their working-class youth from a team of well-off, middle-class golfers. They have made it into the middle class without an education, and they have jobs that would have made their fathers proud. I was a stranger at a 40th birthday party here, where middle-aged men in football tops did the rude boy stomp to Madness hits—One step beyooooooond!
Crawley, in Sussex, has done better than the other two postwar new towns—Stevenage in Hertfordshire and Harlow in Essex—built to relocate London’s working class. The presence of Gatwick airport nearby has brought it industries that are absent in areas like Stevenage. Even during the recessions of the 1980s, the percentage of those out of work in Crawley was one of the lowest in the country. And now the success of Bluewater has inspired the town to expand as a retail centre.
Bluewater has pushed the capital away; the Ebbsfleet International train station, a pitstop for Eurostar, has brought the continent closer. Brand, spanking new England is found here, in a quarry in north Kent where the first new town of the 21st century, and the nation’s first “wired” community, is under construction. What distinguishes Ebbsfleet is that it’s a suburb of Bluewater rather than a satellite of greater London. Yet since December, passengers can also be shuttled from here to King’s Cross in 17 minutes. This alone makes the future look bright for Ebbsfleet, upping its appeal to middle-class commuters. It is quicker to reach central London from here than to travel across it on the underground.
By 2012, Mark Wallinger’s 50-metre high concrete and fibreglass white horse will reach completion, becoming the south’s version of the “Angel of the North.” Leaving the A2 by car, passing the site where the statue will stand, my young companion spoke for the 60m travellers expected to witness this spectacle annually when he asked: “How big d’you think its cock is gonna be?” “As big as Aintree,” I replied.
The acreage of Ebbsfleet is many times that of Hyde Park but, like the Thames Gateway, the 20-year timeframe for the complex has been extended due to the current economic limbo. Some first-time buyers in their twenties, most of whom commute to the capital, have returned to their parents’ homes and rented out their properties. Dan, a trainee broker who is about to turn 23, has moved back to the family home. He has just splashed out £22,000 for a new car. He knows his generation, reared on assured creature comforts, with every whim and whimper documented on social networking sites, would feel the pinch more than that of his parents.
This side of the river didn’t benefit from Canary Wharf, which moved the city further into the east end. Kent was not identified with the conspicuous consumption of Essex man. Nor did it have the old money of corners of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. Confirmation that new money had touched these parts only came with the creation of Bluewater.
Bluewater’s pearly domes dominated as I drove in from Ebbsfleet. Its ambition was to import a touch of Bond Street to this landscape, to capitalise on the cult for designer names. It couldn’t be further from the utopian visions of 19th-century Fabians or 20th-century futurologists. The “final reduction” notice at Armani Exchange was one of the few hints that the recession was being felt at Bluewater, which was riotously busy for a midweek afternoon. A defiant Ted Baker declared it was “Backing Blighty.” At Eat, there was unrest when a girl found crème fraiche in her salad. Her objection seemed to be over maintaining a size zero figure, on which a crop-top rose and Gap leggings fell. “If I saw her in the street, and I was in a car, I’d give her a cheeky little beep,” said my companion, finally diverted from the horse’s genitals. “She’s trim.”
He is an 18-year-old relative from the generation that was born in these parts, with no connection to the urban working-class neighbourhoods of their parents. That day, he sported a Manchester United top and an oversized rosary—a look he described as “niche.” He left grammar school with three A-levels, and is on the internet daily, looking for office junior jobs. In quick succession, he offloaded a CV on the cashier at River Island, Top Man and Foot Locker. He fears that his age group will miss out on all that Dan the Broker’s generation took for granted. What if his future is filled with little more than Facebook, the television show The Inbetweeners, drinking Jagerbombs and watching “midget porn” with his mates?
“I wouldn’t have stuck with it if I’d gone to university,” said the teenager, sliding the crucifix between his teeth. Football is his thing. He was checked out by scouts from Charlton and Millwall and plays for local teams. At the Apple store, the last port of call for his CV, he took me through a gallery of potential girlfriends exposing themselves on his Facebook page. “Her mum bought her new tits for her 20th birthday.” “What did she do for her 21st,” I asked. “Put her on the game?”
The word “Dad” is tattooed on his forearm, in the same curlicued-style found on the lower back of the waif in Eat. His father died when he was an infant. He has the hair of Frank Lampard and the monobrow of my late brother. The eyes of George Best are upon him.
Leaving Bluewater, it struck me how differently its story and that of the town emerging around might have been. In Crawley in 2004, a trio of middle-class British Asians took up the Islamist cause, with plans to blow up Bluewater and the “slags” at the Ministry of Sound in London. Had this happened it’s doubtful that Ebbsfleet would have risen from the dust, blood and ashes. Yet it wasn’t only potential terrorists who saw Bluewater as the epitome of western decadence. “Many of us share the Crawley terrorists’ dislike of Bluewater,” wrote Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett. “But that is not to say we have any interest in their plans to improve it.” In the London Review of Books, Ian Sinclair wrote that visitors to Bluewater “wander… under the soft cosh of muzak, feeling the life-force drain. These are the retail undead.”
When the 7/7 bombers succeeded in London, much was made of the diversity of the victims, and the horror that the target should be a multicultural city—as though, had it been a shopping complex in Kent where most of the punters were white, “retail zombies,” it would have been less of a tragedy.
The orthodoxy in recent times has been to mythologise the capital as a cultural melting pot, favourably compared with the dumb, white, consumerist middle England that surrounds it. It’s a notion that brings to mind the “chocolate city” and “vanilla suburbs” that US funk groups sang of in the 1970s. Southeast England, at Bluewater and beyond, is where you find this now. The “vanilla suburbs” house native urbanites who fled to the suburbs as soon as they got the chance.
There are still as many southeast Englands as Priestley discovered 70 years ago. Many, but not all, of its occupants have benefitted from the economic high tide of the past decade. Many more believe that their voices have been silenced as the state intruded further into their lives, and as the political class marginalised them. These issues, as much as the economy, are focusing their attention and rattling their silence. Come election time you might just hear them roar.
words: michael collins