Essex, my home county. To many the word Essex is a byline for tacky; footballers wives, x factor contestants, white van men and girls with spray tans. What few people know is that Essex has long been a county where radicals dreamt of creating a new utopia, where, hidden away among the creeks and saltmarshes and on isolated islands, traditional ways of living were challenged.
The Peculiar People exhibition, on until the 2nd July at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on Sea, brings together a collection of art, literature, correspondence and film footage that documents the various communities that sprung up along the Essex coast.
From the plotlands of Dunton, where Eastenders tried to create a home in the country away from the city smogs, to religious groups like the Peculiar People and Othona where people created communities based on sustainability, acceptance and humility to the Hadleigh Farm Colony where William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army dreamt that the ‘submerged tenth’ of the urban population in danger of drug and alcohol abuse or falling into prostitution could return to a more natural way of life, tending the land and receiving free education.
The exhibition was both inspiring and relevant in a world where so many people seem disillusioned with the dominant ideology of our time to make money and buy more stuff. Communities like Othona where people could escape the rat run and regain some sense of what is real and important by living simply and working the land seem like a jolly good idea.
There seems that there was a time in this country when people still felt that an alternative was possible. Maybe the 100 years before Margaret Thatcher came and squashed out hope and ideology. Now, as we are told that the pursuit of profit is the only God worth serving, we seem stuck on a conveyor belt leading to the destruction of the planet and a loss of our own humanity.
But increasingly it seems that I meet people who just can’t follow this line. Who are falling, or jumping off the conveyor belt and saying ‘there has got to be some alternative to this.’ Maybe in the radical living experiments carried out in Essex we can find some hope that there is an alternative, that just by saying ‘no’ and living differently we can regain some sense of self and some sense of the divine.
As the poster says, we living in interesting times.