Which of your books has more of an Essex focus?
Undoubtedly The Joy of Essex, which was inspired by a piece I wrote for the Independent on the 20th anniversary of Essex Man. Essex has also received a few mentions in my other books, particularly those on West Ham and my memoirs There’s A Hippo In My Cistern and Whovian Dad (which includes an Essex Book Festival Doctor Who event in Loughton).
Which aspects of Essex do you write about?
The Joy of Essex is about my relationship with the county where I grew up, and, after the death of my parents, returning to Essex and realising what a formative influence it had on me and also that it was a county with much more to offer than just a few stereotypes, a place of great contrasts and surprises. I tried to explore both Estuary Essex where the old Eastenders had moved out to and the older bucolic Essex of places like Tiptree, Maldon and Saffron Walden. I also included Romford and Dagenham, because even though they’re now part of London they were once Essex and still felt spiritually part of Essex. What I also tried to get over is that there’s a genuine warmth and honesty to the people.
Why do you like writing about Essex?
Essex has had a disproportionate effect on British culture, from utopian communities in Victorian times to Mrs Thatcher’s Essex Man and the ‘Basildon factor’ in general elections and then The Only Way is Essex. Apart from Yorkshire, I can’t think of any other country that has a stronger image.
Are there books about Essex you’d recommend?
Enjoyed the Little Book of Essex by Dee Gordon for Essex trivia, while David Nicholls’ Starter For Ten begins in Southend. I once appeared at the Essex Book Festival with Syd Moore, author of Witch Hunt and The Drowning Pool, ghost stories set in Essex and dealing with the time of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins from Manningtree.
Name your favourite Essex place, person or whatever.
My favourite spots in Essex include the Roman Balkerne Gate at Colchester (Essex’s version of Hadrian’s Wall), Colchester Castle (the site of the temple sacked by Boudica), the Wilkin & Son jam factory at Tiptree, the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, Southend pier, the Hollywood-style Basildon sign on the A127 roundabout, the bluebells at Norsey Woods in Billericay, Tilbury Fort, the SSSI at Canvey Island, the railway gates into Frinton, the riverfronts at Wivenhoe and Maldon, old Leigh-on-Sea and Miss Willmott’s garden at Warley Place (in Great Warley, where I grew up). Essex people that I’ve written about in The Joy of Essex include Phill Jupitus, Billy Bragg, Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, Grayson Perry, Ian Dury, Russell Brand, Jamie Oliver and Amy Childs and Lucy Mecklenburgh from Towie.
One tip for writers who want to write about people and places
Often the best subjects are close to home and the indigenous people of Essex can be just as interesting as those in the Pacific islands. And don’t be put off by getting knocked back. The Joy of Essex was rejected by several publishers and I wrote most of it without a deal because I believed in it. So thanks to Iain Dale at The Robson Press for eventually taking a chance on my book.
Pete May’s latest book is Whovian Dad: A Doctor Who Fan’s Travels through Time and Space, available as a Kindle Single