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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  

The Journey Eastward  

Piece written for Trawler magazine