Folk Off, TOWIE

Having lived in Essex for most of my life, I am as much in love with the place as I am appalled by it. I’ve never wanted to leave, but occasionally I find myself wondering how I’m still here.

I am aware that this love-hate dichotomy is not unique to Essex; it’s just what happens when you live somewhere. You see good stuff, you see bad stuff. I’ve been in Nottingham on a Saturday night and it was horrifyingly ‘Essex’. Newcastle – more ‘Essex’ than I have ever got close to seeing in actual ‘Essex’. The wrongly patented ‘low culture’ of Essex can be found anywhere. Its localisation is a fallacy.

It isn’t helped by people continuing to stoke the stereotypes. There are comedians and public personas who do little to challenge the tired old Essex schtick and I’m always disappointed they don’t find more original thoughts; write newer jokes. Of course they will say that they’re just commenting on what’s around them, but I would counter that with: move in better circles then. Be more interesting.

But there are no worse ambassadors for the county right now than the effluence that gets polished up, put in tiny clothes and thrust on TOWIE. Why did they have to put Essex in the title? Couldn’t they have called it The Only Way You Won’t Want To Commit Homicide Is If You Switch Off Now?

It’s not a style thing. I don’t have a problem with the way they make themselves look. (Though the girls on TOWIE would probably rather douse themselves in Jagermeister and set themselves alight than go out looking like me, and that is fine; feel free, girls.)

No, what I oppose isn’t so much the clothes, the outlook, the lifestyle, the materialism, the shallow pursuits, the gauche pantomime of human relationships, the nurtured inanity, or the verbal excreta that is encouraged to spew forth untrammelled from the glossy collagen-puckered sphincter-holes they still call mouths in the name of entertainment. We, the world, have an illustrious cultural history of laughing at morons after all. From the court jester, to Shakespearean fools, to be-wigged Restoration buffoons, to Charlie Chaplin, to Norman Wisdom, to Morecambe and Wise, through to the beautiful slapstick of Miranda Hart. We will always love to chuckle at idiots. (It is worth noting though that those people are merely acting stupid.)

This column isn’t even about the damage the TOWIE lot (and by lot I do mean mostly the production team behind it, not its more arresting cast) are doing to impressionable viewers who think that the bilge they’re watching – the contrived lives of malleable models of social and intellectual ineptitude – is to be revered and emulated. Not even that today, folks.


Leigh Folk Festival is the country’s biggest free folk festival. It is a superbly planned, programmed, and orchestrated event in my home town – a beautiful fishing town near the mouth of the river Thames, under an hour away from the bustle of London – and there is so much wonderful stuff on offer. The artists that travel from around the world to perform there are masters of their craft and the reputation of the Festival is impeccable.

So when I heard that the dimwitted clothes-horses off TOWIE planned to stage a day trip, a diarrhoeic diaspora to film with the Folkies, I got a bit riled. BOG OFF, YOU BOTOX-CLOGGED NUMBSKULLS. We don’t turn up at the Sugar Hut with our tambourines and faded plaid shirts, so don’t come clacking to our folk festival because you think you’ll get some hilarious juxtapositional edits from your cackling vacuity rubbing up alongside a nice man named Brian playing his accordion, who’s worked his fingers bloody to get good at something. Don’t bring your cleavage beaming with the iridescent glaze of dried spunk as you totter along saying you didn’t even know music existed before they invented electricity. And don’t you dare even try to raise a botoxed eyebrow at the nice man who wears a top hat covered in flowers. He’s been being quietly quirky since long before your parents had their ill-fated fuck in a Clacton caravan.

I can hear the producer: “Hey, guys. Guys. Quickly, put the bronzer down and listen up. And you, girls. Right. There’s this thing, like, in Leigh? In the old bit, that smells of fish? I know. Grimsville. Anyway. It’s got guys playing guitars that aren’t plugged in and people singing nursery rhymes and stuff? I was thinking we could all go down there in white DJs and slutty LBDs and get some footage of you gyrating a xylophone? It’s a thing you bash with a stick? Anyway. I think it would be pretty reem and totes hilair. LET’S GET TOTALLY FOLKED AND RUIN EVERYONE’S FUN THEN TAKE SELFIES OF US LAUGHING ABOUT IT IN THE LIMOS ON THE WAY HOME! OMG, LOL, ROFL, LMAO, YOLO. Yeah?”

That’s what I can’t stand. Their intentions. Their intention was not to go down to a nice fishing town that appears in the Domesday book, that sent men in their little boats to Dunkirk who never returned, to muse on the sea or the silent swollen history of the Thames. Their intention was not to have their minds opened by nice music they’ve not heard before nor to spend time in the presence of people different to themselves. They weren’t even going to contrive a nauseating segment where an ailing on-off cast ‘relationship’ is rekindled by the moving strains of a ukelele orchestra; their souls temporarily transformed by some arcane melody of a sea shanty as old as the sea itself; they weren’t going to finish the episode with a thought-provoking epilogue where Dickhead #1 muses to Dickhead #2 that they’ve had a really nice day not being in a club or salon, and that life really is richer the more hues are woven into its tapestry, before trying to play Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses on some recorders that appear magically from an unseen runner’s hand.


Their intention was to get cheap laughs for their relentlessly turgidly awful programme. Their intention was to steal focus from people who had turned up to perform in a modest beautiful honest way, and to distract people who had come to watch something artful and accomplished that didn’t involve gemstones being glue-gunned to a bald pubis.

I know I sound a bit harsh. I’m sure they’re not all completely deplorable deep down. Some of them are probably even a bit alright. I hear ‘Joey Essex’ in particular is quite cute and a bit heartbreaking. But by god’s great balls I would wrestle him to the death in a vat of cold beans to wrest my county’s name from his moniker for the greater good.

After spending time they didn’t really have deliberating over TOWIE’s request to film there, the Leigh Folk Festival committee politely declined.

And the saying no is important. No to the wrong kind of exposure. No to the telly company’s dirty dollar. No to the faff it would have involved accommodating their gauche arrival, no to the distraction from operations that the organisers have spent all year working hard towards, no to the diversion from what the festival is actually all about.
The no is important. Essex gets maligned and misrepresented enough. Essex gets taken over by lots of forces we can’t control, quite often by the wearying potency of television, and it’s important to defend and exercise what power we have when we can.
We are not the tired old tripe, the blinkered lazy stereotype. We are not the shit on the box. We are not that Essex. No.





Birthday Numbers

Somewhere in its sixty second expanse, during the minute of 1:23am this morning, I turned thirty-four years old. The 1-2-3 of the time of my birth has always satisfied me. It makes it seem like things started orderly, even if they didn’t stay that way.

I would have been considerably less pleased with myself if I had chosen to be born at the same time in the afternoon, because that would have been 13:23, and that’s officially not as orderly. You can’t get more orderly than 1 2 3, except of course A B C, which isn’t a time at all so you can’t be born at it, but other than that they are pretty similar. Everybody knows that. The Jacksons told us. And they should know about maths and numbers because they’re probably always counting stuff. Cars, houses, lawsuits… Siblings. (La Toya’s probably always counting her body parts too to make sure none have fallen off somewhere. “Did I have a nose? I thought I had a nose. Tito, have you seen my nose?”, “Not for a goodly while, Miss La Toya.”, “Hmm. I’ll just stick this edamame bean here for now, maybe it’ll show up.”

I know I was born at 1:23am not only because my mother distinctly remembers the time that she ceased feeling like an alien life-force was trying to colonise her from the inside out, but also because, as a child of the 80s, (the first year of that decade no less), I have one of those blue and white wall plates with a stork holding a baby bundle in its beak that gives me some vital stats. The plate says 1:23 and you can’t argue with a plate; it’s inanimate – it’s not worth it. The plate also says I weighed 7 pounds 11 ounces, but those numbers don’t please me as much as 1-2-3. 7-11 sounds like an extremist bombing or a defunct convenience shop, not an orderly birth.

I have lived at the following house numbers during my life: 99, 20, 12, 104, 60, 20, 58, 40, 26, 60, and now 77 so I definitely favour round even numbers, at times even repeating them. It might be worth noting I started my life odd and have returned there. But it also probably might not.

I have lots of other numbers. Most of them dull. I can recite my national insurance number which I’m somewhat prouder of than my lazy girl’s 2:2 from uni. I don’t know what I weigh because I prefer to maintain a consistent level of self-loathing about my body irrespective of weight fluctuations, but my height is 5′ 7″ and rarely changes. Something constant at least. I have 8 fingers, two thumbs, ten toes. Two arms, two legs. One head. Internally it’s anyone’s guess, but I’m hoping it’s all alarmingly average in there. The normal number of everything. Lucky. For now. Who knows what might drop off or fall out.

And that’s it isn’t it? Who knows? Numbers are the things we know, and the things we do not know. The charted facts versus predictions. Numbers are what are, and what’s been, but they are not what will be. Not yet. The most gifted freaky mathematicians in the world can often predict things no better than Mystic Meg.

I am 34 today. An even and nicely sequential number. 3-4. What fraction of my years will that turn out to be. Half? Two thirds? Seven eighths?

My house number might change. My weight, definitely. My height may lessen as I, with the grace of extra time, shrink. As my figure depletes, as my digits crack, my numbers wind down to zero. Ward number. Bed number. Plot number. Dates on stone. 1:23, 16-06-1980 to … What? The hour, the minute, the second that my numbers stop.

And that, while sobering for a moment or two, or five or fifty, is the only fact you need to know to make yourself seize a happy day. I know what I’m doing today, I’m meeting my mummy for lunch. Two bagels, two teas, nice and even. But I don’t know what will happen. And there’s a certain sense in that too.


Kate & Amy & Matt

“Write about us!”, said Kate. “Yeah!”, said Amy. Matt was easy and shrugged. Rolled a fag.

My bookshop pals and I were in the pub, lounging around in shabby leather armchairs, the kind that quality establishments now shamelessly wrest from skips to achieve their desired ambience (I pause to picture midnight showdowns at the tip – gastro pub bosses rolling up their cuffs and cracking their knuckles like gangsters, check-trousered sous chefs squaring up to nonchalant Polish bar girls, circling the Lazee-boys and Chesterfields and chintzy pouffes like prey).

We’d been selling books all day; we were tired, our patience was thin, and our fingers were bleeding. (The public are obviously a constant joy, but books are surprisingly violent beasts behind the scenes. It takes years of training to learn how to grapple a stack of Terry Pratchetts into a becoming display, for example. Mischievous little blighters.)

It’s one of the few times in the last few months that I’ve said yes to going for a drink. A drink for drink’s sake – not a meeting, not a rehearsal or photoshoot with a pint worked in, not a gig or a mate’s show, but a drink with friends. For the purpose of just being together, and talking. I’ve turned into something of a dreary girl, and being sociable makes me feel a bit guilty now, like I’m shrugging off ‘work’, like everything will start sliding into disastrous inertia if I take my foot off the gas. (Also, I can’t drink like I used to, and society isn’t as quick to embrace outdoor pyjamas as I’d like.)

So there we were flopped out on ripped leather and setting the world to rights, with that languor that booksellers adopt to hide the fact they are all undiscovered geniuses. I’d just mused out loud that I had to finish up and get home. I had a column to write and it never goes down well with my editor when I write them tipsy. I always witter on about body parts, disgraceful acts, or general weird stuff – and apparently readers don’t like that.

“Write about us!”, said Kate. “Yeah!”, said Amy. Matt was easy and shrugged. Rolled a fag.
“I could do, I suppose.”, I said. It would be better than writing about the mole I accidentally picked off the other day. (I think it’s growing back, but it doesn’t seem happy.)

I stared at my bag hopefully like it might float up and carry me out, and home to my columnist duties. Then I ordered another pint. I was enjoying being there. With Amy and Matt and Kate. Amy who I’ve sold books with since 2006. We sing and dance and do stupid voices and bump each other’s butts. She’s like a sister. Matt, who I’ve known for maybe five years, with whom I have shared surreal meandering silliness, heavy talks of subtle unspoken understandings about a big sad thing we have in common, who helped me move flats, who is always calm and fun and cool. And lovely Kate, a new girl to the shop who has fit in like she’s always been with us. Much younger than us, a recent graduate who dreams of going back on her travels. I used to teach her and her best friend years ago. I love her for her 20s. I want to see her use them and make them shine.

It was nice being there with them, talking, just being. I decided to stay a bit longer. Do my column later, or in the morning.

“Write about us!”, said Kate. “Yeah!”, said Amy. Matt was easy and shrugged. Went out for his fag.

So I did.


Walls & Peace

I am writing this from the mossy glow of our bedroom. We’ve just painted it a very adult colour. We had been calling it olive green, but I didn’t want that to become the defining shade in case I ever take to licking the walls when in need of a dry martini. I’m not ready for wall-licking yet. I want to save that for when I’ve had a breakdown in my forties. You’ve got to earn that sort of behaviour first before you can pull it off properly.

Have you noticed that paint colours seem to always comprise an attitude or emotion and a buzzword from nature? Exuberant Sunshine. Sassy Pebble. Indecisive Hawthorn.
We need to root our colours in the natural world rather than believe someone has created them for us in a paint factory. More than that, we want to seize nature for our own control. We are secular in our home improvements. We want to believe we’ve done it. I have never seen a Goddy White or an Allah Beige. Even the most pious amongst us wouldn’t want a deity taking the glory while we’re pushing a squeaky trolley round B&Q. “If you’re so great, why don’t you make these chuffing wheels go in the same direction?”, we’d huff as we slipped in some creosote.

In lieu of a concrete colour term that works for us, we’ve taken to calling it ‘peaceful’.
“It’s so peaceful. Isn’t it peaceful?”, “It really is. It’s so peaceful.”, “Sigh. Yes. Peaceful.”
Which I imagine is the kind of conversation that older couples have in their newly-purchased static caravan in Dorset. Before getting bored, rowing over a crossword, and ending up in A&E after a demi-tin of beans gets ‘accidentally’ launched across the kitchen cubicle, which is frankly asking for some sort of mental showdown. “I told you these cupboards wouldn’t stretch to full-size tin cans, Roger.” “IS THIS PEACEFUL ENOUGH FOR YOU, DEIRDRE? I’M BLEEDING.”

No such meltdown has occurred within these walls. It’s still so sickeningly peaceful. We’ve blu-tacked a tester strip of wallpaper to the chimney breast to see how we feel about it. It’s got birds on it. I wanted the retro motif of Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi holding their boobs with boxing gloves on, but Matt opted for what I believe are nightingales basking in the embers of a summer’s day. I’m too blissed out from all the green to argue.

I can tell I like the green because: a) I walk out into the park opposite every morning and loyally think the trees look a bit rubbish in comparison, and b) I haven’t wanted to put my pictures back up yet. I’m a bit fastidious with pictures. They are the first things I tackle when I move into a new place. Key goes in, kettle goes on, incense gets lit, pictures go up. They are the rules.

But it’s nice lying here with bare walls, sniffing the crisp newness of the paint. I don’t want to fill the expanse with old things yet. This room could be anything.

It reminds me of when I was about to leave for university. Mum had wanted to paint the room because I was passing it on to my little sister. I’d sniffily peeled off the years of painstaking collagery I’d hormonally applied to the walls. The TakeThat (first time around), the Bennetton, the arty semi-naked man with baby, the grungy dudes from bands, Bob Dylan, Cindy Crawford and her sexy mole. My ‘things’ had been packed up; removed. The room was white. Bright white. I slept on my futon in this bright white room with just a lamp and some books. So terribly adult. And – contra to my sulkiness and fear – so peaceful. I had no idea what would happen to me after I left this white room. I’m glad I didn’t.

Every newly painted room always feels a bit like that. Like you’ve created yourself a newness and are waiting to see what happens.

“Ah, man! It’s so freaking peaceful I could be a bit sick!”
“Yeah. So peaceful. Like suckling at mother nature’s pap itself.”

A long and peaceful pause.

“Shall we have a row, just to balance it out?”
“You’re not going to put all those rubbish pictures up again are you, Sadie?”

Verdant silence.