The magazine of the photo-essay
April 2017 back issue
Magic Party Place An exploration of what it is to be white and working class in post Brexit Britain
by CJ Clarke
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
I confronted the town as a stranger, somehow I hadn’t expected to be back. But there I was, documenting England through my remarkably unremarkable home town of Basildon in Essex. A new town built after the Second World War, it is a manufactured community, its social statistics are close to the national average. The town is largely culturally homogenous, with many of the town’s residents able to trace their roots to similar parts of London. I walked Basildon’s streets, my journeys mapping the contours of my own past, reacquainting myself with that which I had forgotten or never bothered to perceive whilst I busy growing up and getting on. I poked my head into shops, social clubs and private parties and sensed the mood. I stood on endless streets and listened, becoming engulfed by a silence so vast that time seemed to have disappeared.  On such days, it really does appear like nothing has ever happened or will ever happen in the town. Stasis. Time moves slower. Imperceptibly, change creeps. Thoughts reconfigured and radical ideas become accepted but so slowly that everyone thinks they were always there to begin with. There are no radical breaks, no revolutions, no conflicts.
The great failure of Britain’s new towns (and perhaps a great majority of English social planning) is the idea that a community can be balanced, fixed. Nothing ever seems to change so it is supposed that nothing really ever does change. Here, as Orwell wrote, English civilisation is “continuous” stretching “into the future and the past” there is “something in it that persists,” importantly adding, that it does so “as in a living creature” in a constant state of flux — not that anyone notices this, however. Mutability is to be feared. Change, whenever it is noticed, is usually “for the worst”, “what we had back then” was, somehow, better. Our morals defined, our community stronger. The great failure of the political class then, over the past quarter century, is not to address the concerns (real or perceived) of a great majority of English people, which has led to an ever growing chasm between politics and between the two. Resulting, the idea (the reconstructed fiction) of a once great England, has grown ever stronger: we gather around the flag, our fierce cries hiding a hollowness in our hearts. Brexit was the ultimate expression of this discontent.  For the political class, the ‘Leave’ vote is to be feared; it is the collective snub, the people have spoken and what they are saying cannot be acknowledged: ‘we don’t need you.’ Such thoughts can only be derided and pushed to the margins; after all, working class people are stupid, aren’t they? Such a perception is ever present and was something I set out to address when I began Magic Party Place. I wanted to explore the lives, habits and environment of ‘Basildon Man’ – and Basildon women – to see what that might reveal about the state of contemporary England. I wanted to go deeper, to go beyond this media constructed name as such nomenclature belittles the subject, it is a way of objectifying the working classes and delegitimizing their opinions and aspirations.
The working class have been greatly photographed, but how many of these stories, projects or books deal in stereotype or in ‘extremes’? Such work reinforces the great patronising middle class attitude that the working class are only relevant and interesting if they are drug addicts, criminals or ‘salt of the earth’ types who know their place. This doesn’t reflect the reality for a majority of people who would label themselves as working class and it certainly doesn’t reflect my reality coming from and growing up in such a community. What is it then, to be white, working class and English? What happens to those pushed to the margins? What happens to their children? Margaret Thatcher once famously claimed, “There is no such things as society” people “must look to themselves first.” That insularity is certainly evident in 21st century England, perhaps even more so in new towns, places like Basildon, where stratified housing estates clustered around central shopping districts have proved particularly apt to facilitate this fundamental shift in society. As civic identity crumbles, our focus shifts to the interior, to the family, to what we can own rather than what we can be, a world in which we are consumers first and citizens second. Magic Party Place is a reaction, an attempt to assess who we are now and where, perhaps, we are heading. Photography is often defined in terms of moments. It is about stopping time and preserving reality. Cinema, on the other hand, is about the manipulation of time, to make a film is to time-travel. As we can no more stop time than we can preserve our towns demographies, populations or culture (real or imagined) - I have sought an aesthetic which exists somewhere between the two. These images are scenes from an unmade film: photographs which seek to acknowledge the existence of time and embody a sense of constant motion, the endlessly repeating cycle of daily life within a framework that slowly edges forward. We are constantly arriving where we started, but each time this point is slightly different, imperceptibly changed and subverted. Working on this project for the last decade has created the space and time for reality to reveal itself, allowing me to capture those never ending truths which remain implicit and unspoken. As the great film critic Raymond Durgnat put it, “It’s not what people say to convince you that reveals them, so much as what they assume there’s no need to say.”
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