Finding Suburban Queerness in Essex

Cover art from Laindon 2 Maz Murray

Essex-based artist Maz Murray self-published the novellas Laindon 2 and 3 just a little more than a year ago the sequels to their 2018 short film of the same name. They follow the journalist Felicity on her perilous journey into the cultural wasteland of Laindon, Essex. There she investigates a mysterious portal inside a shopping centre scheduled for redevelopment. The portal connects Laindon to a queer utopia, a literal over the rainbow, where the striking miners were all retrained as renewable energy experts and all names are gender neutral.

When I read the two booklets, at the beginning of the first lockdown, I was not sure what to do with them. Not because they were difficult or inconclusive, but the fantasy of a queer community that was conjured up in the books felt impossibly far removed from a world where gathering in groups is both violently policed and publicly condemned. For all the justified discontent with austerity measures and increasing levels of inequality in the last decade and now that some have more free time than ever it suddenly seems that the only choice is silent compliance with healthcare guidelines, not public protest. If a trans tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear her, does she really make a sound?

The breakneck pace with which the books progress makes it difficult to find time to ask the right questions: with the snappy cuts of a Charlies Angels film and a blatant disregard for credibility worthy of Candide blending sci-fi, satire, and social critique in an untidy mix the reader is left short of breath trying to keep up with the story. Searching for a simple lesson to take from the books would be to miss the point.

But the Laindon series is about a specific location: one of those places where socially engaged artists go to try to help out; and also where Murray is from. The tension between the image projected on Murray as an artist and trans activist and that of their hometown is what drives the story. Depending on the readers point of approach, the plot becomes something of a modern Billy Elliot drama: where the culture of the economic elite is meeting its other, but here Northern accents are replaced by those now synonymous with reality TV and women who are not taken seriously:

"oH hi babe."

If you're a discontented queer, theres a simple solution: go downtown. Queerness is often given a metropolitan quality, and urban cultural superiority finds its foil in the backwards outside. When one of the contestants on the UK version of Drag Race recently shared their experience of growing up in a working class area, they said that they had not had any queer person around to learn from. Most viewers likely found this easy to believe.

Murrays work wants to show us that there are indeed trans people who live outside the capital and not just because they have nowhere else to go. But its a tricky job: Murray is well aware of how easily an attempt at addressing anything marginal gets transformed into the fetishization of the working class artist, or the trans artist. And when Laindon 3 introduces 3 artists working in participatory practice, who have come down from London to look for local art stuff to signal boost, Murray makes it clear that we shouldn't be looking to the professional art world to lift this cultural stigma from the suburb.

But as comically as this criticism plays out in the books, the question remains what to do with it? The British director Joanna Hoggs two most recent films (Exhibition and The Souvenir) were full of painfully funny observations of privileged art people, both receiving 5 stars in The Guardian. But if the same people who are supposed to be criticised, are also the ones funding and enjoying the work. This makes for an odd dynamic. Murrays work doesn't attempt to avoid this question, but it doesn't provide an answer either.

The fictional Essex is not a glamourized idyll the utopia on the world behind the portal plays that role but it isn't all that bad either. It evokes the unfulfilled potential for community: but a community for whom? And on whose terms? The story is hopeful, the comical style reassures the reader that nothing really bad can happen even as one of the artists sacrifices themselves to save the others in what is described as the best social practice that anyone could ask for.

In Murrays Laindon theres a community of old trannies and faggots, young queers, taxi drivers and people in high boots. And well-meaning outsiders are forced to pick sides. Although this becomes less of an active choice than about bringing them to the realization, that the system employing the eager artists is only using them as the vanguard of a gentrification project; happy to dispose of them as soon as they are no longer useful. Such an idea of community is most definitely over-simplified. If I were to judge the novellas only for their ability to raise Marxist consciousness, I would probably not look at them so favourably.

But they succeed in something else: in redescribing how we might look at such an incoherent grouping of identities that is mostly ignored by the popular narrative of queerness and class. Murray tries to sketch out a lineage where this experience can fit in: one that includes the AIDS crisis, witches and a continuous fight for security and rights a fight that continues after the plot ends. And, in doing so, the stories allow us a hopeful glimpse of what it might mean to have a queer identity that does not just act out metropolitan independence. From underneath a blanket of continuing pandemic isolation, such dreams of a future community may just prove consoling, even to those who have made their home under the lights of the big city.

Maz Murray, Laindon 2 & 3, is selfpublished, available in pdf (£1) and hard copy (£3) through this link


This text has been written and edited as part of het AICA-mentorschap