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This is Tory England

TOM SYKES went to Jaywick in Essex last summer and kept a diary. Here is an extract illustrated by his companion on that journey Louis Netter

WE’VE only been in Jaywick for an hour and we’re sure this is the most deprived place we’ve ever seen, at least in this country. The stats bear this out — 57 per cent of the denizens rely on some form of state benefit to survive.

Besides, you know your town might just be in a spot of bother when a United Nations poverty investigator decides to visit, which is precisely what happened here in 2018.

Professor Philip Alston concluded that Jaywick’s woes had nothing to do with personal idleness, and everything to do with years of public underfunding and the Tory government’s callous universal credit system.

Further back in time, when deindustrialisation was killing jobs across Britain’s mining and factory belts, the closure of the Butlin’s holiday camp nearby in 1983 condemned subsequent generations to unemployment.

Indeed, looking around it’s hard to fathom how an economy that consists of a few small shops and eateries could provide enough work to however many of Jaywick’s 5,000 inhabitants would need it.

Perhaps Jaywick is an omen for what the rest of this country will become as Britain’s economic slide continues amid Brexit aftershocks, a rising China and a floundering United States, to whose fortunes we’ve pegged ourselves for long enough.

We spot signs in windows advertising “Jaywick Sands Happy Club.”

Founded by local man Danny Sloggett in 2019, the club is run co-operatively, providing goods and services without money changing hands.

If someone needs a place to stay, they come to the club and find someone to put them up.

People also trade items there, from crockery to kids’ toys, not unlike the truck-driving drifters depicted in the film Nomadland who exchange motor parts at roadside get-togethers.

Volunteers organise games of table tennis and meet-ups for the lonely.

Born out of necessity, the club thrives thanks to a community spirit that has long evaporated from better-off neighbourhoods.

Half a mile west along the coast, whipped ever harder by the wind and rain, is Martello Beach Holiday Park.

Speckling the horizon are hundreds of chalets. Some are on stilts with arched front doors and porches, redolent of old US prairie homesteads.

The sombre, conical Jaywick Martello Tower — after which the holiday park is named — is a relic from another age of anxiety, though the anxiety then was about foreign invasion.

At the height of the Napoleonic wars, 74 such towers were built along England’s south and east coasts, and kitted out with big guns to repel Frenchmen.

Jaywick’s is now an alluring museum and cultural centre. Spurred by the same community ethos as the Happy Club, recent arts projects here have united local photographers, painters, musicians, historians and schoolchildren to creatively respond to the theme of flooding and curate an exhibition of beachcombed items from flippers to crabbing nets.

Beyond the protracted rows of chalets — eventually — is a zone called Seawick.

The homes here are generally smaller and more dilapidated than Jaywick’s. As with Jaywick, some facades have been eccentrically burnished.

Hand-written notes in marker pen on a front window read: “Let’s talk about England,” “OUR COUNTRY” and “America’s poodle.”

That afternoon, Nigel, the owner of my B&B, kindly shows Louis and I his collection of pictures and documents relating to the history of the Clacton region.

Nigel says he is particularly fascinated by the 1940s when “there was more of a sense of community. Nowadays people are just out for themselves,” he adds.

“Jaywick still seems to have a sense of community,” I reply, before telling him about the Happy Club.

“People in Jaywick have to take more responsibility for their situation,” he says. “They should make the most of living on a shoestring, like our grandparents did in the ’40s.”

In the 1940s, the state massively intervened to help the poorest people, the NHS being the paradigm, but I don’t see the point in arguing about it. His view is shared by others who are in a much better position to address Jaywick’s problems, but aren’t willing.

The local MP, the Conservative Giles Watling (who succeeded Ukip’s Douglas Carswell) has written that universal credit is “making sure it pays to work and [is] helping people to move into and progress within work.”

Watling, a former actor, starred in the ’80s sitcom Bread, about the travails of a hard-up Liverpudlian family on benefits.

As a devout Brexiteer, he has no qualms about losing European Regional Development Fund cash that has renewed ailing regions like this.

Nor does he appear to share concerns about flooding with his constituents at the Martello Tower, having often voted in Parliament against measures to stop climate breakdown.

In our all-too-brief time visiting Jaywick, Seawick and St Osyth, it seems the residents are making the best of a mess that is not of their own making.

Tom Sykes is senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Portsmouth, while Louis Netter is senior lecturer in illustration at the same institution.

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