THE JOURNEY EASTWARD ANDREW BRANCH
In the ghostly light of Canvey Island’s long vanished Chapman Lighthouse, Joseph Conrad’s fictional nomad, Marlow, negotiates the River Thames and its estuary as a powerful metaphor for recalling imperial journeys into the darkness. That journey eastward is one well travelled, not only by artists seeking inspiration but also by people seeking a better life. Conrad’s rich and complex tale has often been indicted on the grounds of its portrayal of the ‘savages’ but following this thought is to do Heart of Darkness a tremendous disservice. Yes, it should be remembered that Conrad’s representation is largely one-‐dimensional, with indigenous peoples functioning in his narrative primarily as a mirror in which the privileged subject of Empire witnesses his own moral decline. Nonetheless, the author’s own trans-‐national identity remains paramount: how appropriate that the corrosive discourse of British imperialism is exposed in an ambivalent text written by a Polish-‐born, former Russian subject. Conrad’s thematic concerns interest me, living here in 21st Century ‘Estuary Essex’, because they speak to the contemporary moment, with new forms of colonisation invoking the fear and loathing permeating his novella.
A new life The promise of new housing adjacent to the A13 -‐ the road from the capital to the coast -‐ was part of a bigger project: William Beveridge’s 1942 report informing Aneurin Bevan’s post-‐war Labour housing policy, one fuelled by the drive to mitigate the social injustices inculcated in pre-‐war class divisions. For many people now living in south Essex, that journey eastward was in part a cultural project to create a new ‘east end’, premised on bleached memories of an earlier moment; new monochrome communities trying to recreate old rituals, often in spaces that prohibited the expression of such a collective impulse. Fearful incumbents, irrationally consumed by concerns about being ‘overrun’, did not welcome them. The artist Sioni Richards has explored some of these tensions in his work -‐ between the urban and pastoral, the aesthetic and the functional, the utopian and the dystopian. During what now feels like a period of prolonged, post-‐1950s, acquiescence to suburban aspiration -‐ vibrant youth cultures apart -‐ the estuary subject only really resurfaces in the public imagination with the arrival of free-‐market Conservatism in 1979. Margaret Thatcher’s promise to facilitate new material opportunities for those willing and able to embrace more mobile forms of selfhood was an advertising scam par excellence, of course, predicated on eradicating job security and encouraging selfish individualism by dividing communities already marginalised. This latter concept always a troubling one when used to homogenise. ‘Let’s make lots of money!’
the Pet Shop Boys sniggered, as they fetishised the new ‘east end boys’ from afar. Damon Albarn did much the same ten years later: Essex suburbanites pathologised as reactionary, with their conservative yearnings for either respectability (‘the suburbs they are dreaming!’) or thuggish, hyper-‐masculine racism towards new ethnically Other migrants, held up as evidence: UKIP voters one and all, the speculative charge. Women, too, mocked for their alleged tastelessness, vulgarity and lack of moral virtue. The psychological complexity of Conrad’s Marlow withheld from such ‘ordinary’ folk and the author’s theme of resentment a lost opportunity to inform new dialogues. The history of that journey eastward, then, has been a history of working-‐ class people seeking new opportunities whilst trying to retain an idealised – misplaced and ill-‐defined – identity. Trying to resolve ‘magically’ contradictions not of their own making, as the scholar Phil Cohen put it in his landmark study, Subcultural Conflict and Working-‐Class Community. Conrad’s Other has always been with us, actualized in new forms of positioned inferiority with each migration eastward. However, rather than be intimidated by, and fearful of, the Other’s alterity, we should embrace it and in doing so confront our own dispositions: to recognize ourselves in the habits of the Other.
Andrew is an academic and writer @andrew_branch