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Billericay Mickie: Michael Landy At Firstsite, Colchester
John Quin , August 6th, 2022 07:23

John Quin returns to England’s most misunderstood county

Michael Landy, Essex Man (after Collet), 2021. Based on an original drawing by Edward Collet. Michael Landy, The Essex Way, 2021. Installation view, Michael Landy’s 'Welcome to Essex', Firstsite, 2021. Photograph by Anna Lukala

I’m not from Essex. Michael Landy is though, and the place confuses him as much as it does me. I’m from Glasgow but my family moved south in the late 1970s. My parents left me up north when I was sixteen and lived in rented places all over the county: Silver End, Clacton, Holland, Tollesbury, and Jaywick. Jaywick had street cred of a sort: Paul Theroux, writing in The Kingdom by the Sea (1983), his scabrous travelogue of the UK, thought Jaywick “a shantytown … like … a seaside slum in Argentina”.

My folks soon escaped Jaywick though and finally secured a mortgage on a modest semi in Coggeshall. Michael Landy has a thing about semis – see his Semi-detached from 2004, a full scale model of his father’s home. Coggeshall is a pretty town known for its manufacture of isinglass for clarifying beer but I’d learn it was a good deal more infamous for making fish bladder products. Coggeshall, like Glasgow, had an underbelly of spectacular violence (more of which later). One of my brothers went to school a few miles to the east in Colchester and knew Graham from Blur. My brother has got an Essex accent to my Weegie. It’s all a bit odd.

When I first came to visit the folks in 1980, the differences between the two locales were stark: Glasgow was rain-sodden, voted Labour; Essex was sunny and dry, voted Tory. Unemployment was skyrocketing in Glasgow and there was significant poverty; Essex was wealthy and populated with shysters, soon to be parodied by Harry Enfield with his odious ‘Loadsamoney’ character. Glasgow was grey and we had serious sectarian tension and swords; Essex was bright with light but had racism and shooters. The county was a glossy dream of consumerist excess. But the English elsewhere seemed to hate the place. Like Enfield, they mocked Essex. So, here, at Firstsite, what does Michael Landy make of the county now and its ambiguous reputation framed in the 1980s?

Landy is famed for Break Down (2001), a project where he trashed everything he owned, all 7,227 of his possessions. He now turns his attention to the baffling public image of Essex. As you walk into Firstsite you are immediately confronted by a giant sculpture: Essex Man (after Collet) (2021), an eight-and-a-half-metre high colossus. Essex Man is based on an original drawing by Edward Collet accompanying a 1990 article by Simon Heffer in the Sunday Telegraph. It is a compendium of clichés. Note his bloated face, his mullet, his bullfrog neck; he wears a shiny suit and there’s a can of lager in one hand. The original illustration in the newspaper had Essex Man’s newly bought council house in the background, complete with Sky satellite dish. A Ford Escort XR2 sits outside.

You walk around the figure and see that his back is coated with Heffer’s original text. Heffer, Chelmsford born, writing for the Tory Oberkommando, seemed to approve of Essex Man, despite the character’s vulgarity, his homophobia, his greed, his glamorous links with criminality. You can almost hear the avant-garde of the Right thinking: as long as he doesn’t come to Glyndebourne, Essex Man is fine. Here, then, is the stereotype, as hymned/excoriated a bit later in song by Blur themselves. But is Essex Man for real? Is the reputation of the county being traduced? Is it all a bit… unfair? This is Landy’s subject here. This is what he interrogates.

An earlier iteration of Landy’s work at Firstsite featured vitrines filled with lists of Essex Girl jokes such as: What’s the difference between an Essex Girl and Mount Everest? Or: Why do Essex Girls wear blouses with shoulder pads? You can guess at the punch lines: think sexist, think gross. Landy lays bear the misogyny, the cheap snobberies. One headline in The Sun from 1992 read: There are NO virgins in Essex.

So what is the truth about the county? Is it all that bad? No, and again, no. Essex has some of the most secluded countryside walks in England and it has a seriously lengthy stretch of silent seawall that feels a million miles – not fifty – away from the City and its rapacity. The county too has a strong reputation for both radical leftist politics from its University and amazing modernist architecture. It’s an interesting place!

Then there is its natural world. On one of the curved walls of Firstsite we find another Landy work: The Essex Way (2021). This is an enormous wall drawing – 140 metres in length – inspired by walks that Landy has completed with various figures associated with the county. This is a personal project, and one that majors in Essex’s wonderful natural glories, as with its birdlife – the waders, the avocets, the lapwings – and its edgeland marshes. Gillian Darley’s wonderful Excellent Essex book is referenced, as is Nikolaus Pevsner’s guide to the buildings in the county, some of the UK’s finest.

Darley brings an abandoned boat to Landy’s attention on Benfleet marina and he’s reminded of a £6 million yacht found in Tenerife that belonged to the ‘businessman’ John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer. Palmer ‘owned’ 122 companies, many registered offshore. He swindled 20,000 people out of £30 million. In 2015 he was shot dead outside his family home in Essex. The police think his killing had “all the hallmarks of a professional hit.”

I, too, found some truth in the gangster stereotypes – I met not a few ducking and diving types in Coggeshall. And there were other murders in and around the town. The antiques dealer Wilfred Bull, who we somehow knew to avoid but not why, shot his wife, Patsy. Then there was Diane Jones, wife of our family GP, Dr. Robert Jones, reported missing nine days after a night at our local, The Woolpack, later found murdered. The case is now officially ‘cold’. Most gruesomely there were the White House Farm killings – five murders in one family – in nearby Tolleshunt D’Arcy. The famous restaurateur Peter Langan owned an eatery in Coggeshall and tried to immolate his wife only to fatally inflict 70% burns on himself. And then there was Jimmy Bell, champion clay pigeon shooter, who also shot his wife before turning the gun at his own head. These crimes, all from the Thatcherite 1980s, recall the murderous misogyny of the Essex witch-hunters, Matthew Hopkins and his ilk from the sixteenth century. It was if they had been revivified. The place was wild, frightening…

But what to make of Essex, and the Colchester of Firstsite, in the twenty-first century? The area around the prize-winning gallery has truly seen better days. Many of the local people look beaten, done-in. Those BT shares of theirs have long been sold off. Those shiny flashy suits are gone; the thin shell variety now predominates and they look worn and tatty. The income gap appears utterly stark. Heffer’s once proud ‘magnificos’ now waddle from pawning at the Cash in Hand to a trudge around Poundland. Those vast differences I saw in 1980 between Glasgow and Colchester are now utterly minimised. Who, or what, is to blame? Online trading and the decline of the High Street? Brexit? Coronavirus? The Government? All of the above?

Essex today may be a lot of things, positive and negative, but overall, how does the county fair now? You could ask Joyce and Vickie. They’d moan it ain’t like old Billericay Dickie. They’d tell you, tearfully, it ain’t like Ian Dury’s master brickie. Essex 2022: it ain’t doing very well.

Michael Landy, The Essex Way, is at Firstsite, Colchester until 31 December