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Meme Politics and Apathy in UKIP-on-Sea

It's pretty apt that a funeral parlour off a roundabout in this town on the north-east coast of Essex could well be considered the spiritual home of UKIP.

Frinton-on-Sea

Endgame in Frinton-on-Sea. It's got a reputation for being an endgame kind of place, a green-and-pleasant cradle for the nearly departed. It is apt that a funeral parlour off a roundabout in this town on the north-east coast of Essex could well be considered the spiritual home of UKIP.

Jeffrey Titford, former leader and current president of UKIP, used to run a franchise of funeral homes on the east coast. A seemingly mild-mannered presence to Farage's mania, who could have played a kindly friend of the family in an ITV drama, Titford retired at the age of 59 to embark on a life of golf and a spot of fishing, but instead found himself playing a big part in popularising UKIP as the anti-EU party during the 1990s and 2000s – "spreading Frinton's worldview," as the Guardian put it in 2001.

So, what is the Frinton worldview? Beverley, the woman behind the counter in the bookshop on Frinton's main drag, Connaught Avenue, says there used to be a saying: "You don't have any flash Harrys in Frinton. There was quite a strong etiquette about who came. I don't know how they managed to control it but there was always little rumours." The town was a late developer as far as English seaside resorts go, designed and built by Sir Richard Powell Cooper between 1890 and 1900, who made sure he built the reserved nature for which Frinton is famous into its fabric: no amusements, no pier, no shorts at the golf club and certainly no public houses.

Retired stockbroker nirvana: they built the golf course before anything else. Unlike Walton or Clacton, the day-tripping cockney was not to be catered for, unless post-class lobotomy. Frinton grew in prominence during the 20th century, until it became known as "the Bond Street of Essex".

Frinton is part of the Clacton constituency, whose MP is UKIP's famous former Tory, Douglas Carswell, the man who likes to take Radio 4 news presenters to Wimpy for lunch to prove himself to the common man (even though they probably won't be listening to Radio 4 anyway).

There is no Wimpy in Frinton. There was a row when the first chippy opened in Frinton in 1992 and the town centre was famously pub-less until 2000. One of two Indian restaurants politely justifies itself with its cosily colonial title, British India, and there's a gollywog toy in the window of one of the bric-a-brac shops. "There is a strong trend of keeping things as they are, so it's a battle between being welcoming and contemporary without losing the values that made Frinton," says Beverley.

Frinton's values are reflected in endless clubs – residents', rotary, lawn-tennis, war-memorial, bridge, yacht. The town was showcased in the BBC's 2008 documentary The Curious World of Frinton-on-Sea , notable for documenting on film the residents' anger at the plan to replace the manually controlled, 19th-century gates at the level crossing with a modernised crossing overseen from a control room in Colchester: "If there wasn't a gatekeeper to be with the gates, then you wouldn't be able to influence control and order. And if you haven't got order and control, then you have chaos," said David Foster, president of the Frinton Gates Preservation Society. In the end, modernisation in the form of electric gates was forced upon the town, the old Victorian gates taken away under cover of darkness .


The Triangle Shopping Centre, Frinton

It could be said that Frinton's raison d'etre was to create order out of chaos. Essex and East Anglia was once the land of farm labourers. An article in the first ever edition of The Essex Review, published around the same time that Frinton was being built in 1891, outlined the depravity of rural households in Chelmsford and Maldon, southwest of Frinton.

"The air space in the sleeping rooms is found to average very little over that which is found in the worst slums of Manchester," it reported. The Essex peasant lived in damp, rotting structures that were freezing in winter, giving way to rheumatic and chest infections. Out of six parishes, only 65 had a public water supply. Thirst was quenched via ponds or by collecting rain from roofs, and there was no public drainage: "The almost invariable plan is to dig a deep hole, called a 'bumby', conveniently near the cottage, into which all house refuse and slops are thrown... the effluvia from the rotting vegetable and animal matters pollute the air, and the filthy fluid percolating through the earth pollutes the groundwater which frequently furnishes the sole supply for domestic purposes."


Suburban Frinton

Frinton and other well-heeled towns surfaced where villages once were, providing an antidote to rural squalor. In their wake came suburbia, built to house people moving to the new towns, which itself signified a different kind of chaos: the blurring of the town-country dichotomy, the decanting of ordered England into a disordered, post-imperial landscape. In the end, suburbia's third way triumphed, and was replicated until it came to represent English life itself. JG Ballard called it the "TV suburbs", a lifestyle of estranged communality that is currently embodied by its own kind of endgame, the watching-people-watching-telly of Gogglebox.

George, the happy-go-lucky son of former Gogglebox stars the Gilbey family from St Osyth, Clacton, once articulated a commonargument for the UK's exit of the EU while on the show, likening the nation to a business that can manage its own affairs, while spread out on the sofa, picking his nose. Nigel Farage made a programme with Gogglebox's sloshed poshos Steph and Dom in the couple's B&B in Sandwich, East Kent, in which he got drunk, smashed a glass, and described the loss of one of his testicles to cancer.

Since Ballard wrote about the TV suburbs in the 1970s, social media has further extended it out to other screens in other rooms, on desktops and on laps. This move from TV suburbs to wherever we are now – the Faceburbs? – goes some way to explaining the curiously mediated entity of Farage, a man whose direct manner, coloured tweed and pints of ale seem made for meme-politics. UKIP are more popular on Facebook than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.

Late afternoon in Clacton. Luminous amusements burn bright in the still gloom. Ron, the Scottish-born landlord of the Lighthouse pub, a real-ale-centric establishment in Clacton, moved here from London 30 years ago. He ran a hotel for a decade before the pub and was a part-time coastguard until he retired recently. "The media perception of Clacton is a joke," he says. "[Channel 4 docu-soap] Bouncers was filmed 250 yards from here. Here it's a Saturday night, Friday night thing, which you get everywhere. In Windsor, you've got reprobates and drunks as well."

He looks around his pub where people are drinking and chatting into early evening. "But walking in somewhere like here doesn't make good telly."

Ron describes the local switch to UKIP after Douglas Carswell's defection from the Conservatives last autumn simply: "It was a farce... a fiasco created by the media. I think it will be a lot closer [this time] and that's just me hearing people talk." He talks of the yo-yo fortunes of Clacton. "It's changed for the worse, it's changed for the better, it's changed for the worse again, and it's starting to change for the better again. There are a lot of nice people in Clacton, believe me – it's like anywhere. You go to Frinton, you'll get the dregs there as well."

The Clacton he prefers to acknowledge is the one he saw many times when he was a coastguard: the delight in the eyes of the busloads of kids on day-trips from the East End who had never seen the sea before.

This small stretch of the east coast is a topographical visualisation of that Cleese-Barker-Corbettsketch about class from the 1960s: from Frinton to Clacton to Jaywick, aspiration falls into abandonment like a tumbling Alka-Seltzer. Jaywick is a sprawl of plotland developments, built in the 1930s for east Londoners to holiday and retire in. Much like the Victorian ruin-seekers visited Dunwich, Jaywick's dilapidation has long fascinated artists and writers. In the 1980s, Paul Theroux likened it to a seaside slum in Argentina and Mexico. In 2013 it was pronounced the most deprived place in the UK. On the way back to Clacton, the car pulls past a drunken daytime fight between a man and a woman, a crowd gathered round. It's said Jaywick is voting UKIP, which is no surprise, for it's this dissolution of hope and solidarity that the party has tapped into.

Looking out to the sea's horizon, thoughts turn to where we stayed last night, further up the coast at the port of Harwich. We were told about how Warner's Holiday Camp at Dovercourt was used to house refugee children saved during the Kindertransport mission that rescued almost 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from the Nazis in 1938, the first party of 200 arriving in Harwich that December. It was a mission that acted in anticipation of the horror that was to come.

In February, 2014, Artur Doda and Leonard Isufaj died after they jumped off the ferry from Harwich that was deporting them.There was an inevitability about how the story was reported in the populist, right-wing press, but the online headline of the Express was still oddly graphic: "Illegal Immigrant Sliced to Death by Propellor After Leaping from Ship Deporting Him". The Mail went further, describing the propellor as "machete-like."

These minor details betray an ever more sadistic language that's also seen in the rhetoric of media-made fascists such as The Sun's Katie "cockroach" Hopkins. Readers are tenderised by this casual violence directed to the spectre of the immigrant, prodded rightwards until numbed by the common-sense philosophies of Murdoch, Dacre and Desmond.

The night before at the Alma pub in Harwich, a cover band of 60-somethings called DK and the Mustangs played loose, explosive rock'n'roll. The place was heaving, the scene a familiar sight in Not London: pub cover bands represent England's true folk music. A young bloke in a parka of not more than 21 stood in front of the stage, arms aloft, singing along to every word of Del Shannon's 1961 hit, "Runaway".

Afterwards, Hayley and I talked to the guitarist, Vernon. He grew up in a prefab in Dagenham, but moved to Clacton 30-odd years ago. He says Clacton's all right, but that he wouldn't be seen dead in Frinton.

Vernon's a classic fallen Labour man. He was elected union representative at May and Baker's pharmaceuticals at the age of 18 – the youngest in the country, he says. As unemployment rose under Thatcher, he started an artist's co-op in Clacton, but he's not interested in politics any more and won't vote this time. He's fed up with corruption, with politicians like double-glazing salesmen. He worked variously as a taxi driver, a builder, a haulage man, and second-hand shop owner until he retired with 35p to show for it.His union, now, is his band and the people he knows: his community, who he can trust. Here is the tale of English apathy. Among the crumbling, privatised promises and fabricated, mythic realities, people find their own way out.

@TimBurrows

Read the rest of the Adventures in UKIP Country series here