The Essex of the British popular imagination is often linked to vacuous plasticity and aspirational consumerism. Pay attention to panel shows and ITV comedians, and you'll know the county as a new-town hinterland populated by Day-Glo lads in jeans and sheux; hard-faced girls who start each day by running full-pelt at a MAC Cosmetics stand; and clammy-palmed UKIP campaigners.
But this narrative belies a less reported truth: one of political agitation, artistic radicalism and utopian living experiments.
Illuminating a rich vein of eccentricity stretching back to the 19th century, the year-long Radical Essex exhibition – a series of events taking place all over the county – seeks to reclaim its radical history, ignoring the cliches and exploring what Essex has offered in the way of counterculture.
"In the 1970s you had this wild shift in perception of what Essex represented," explains Radical Essex curator Joe Hill. "But that stereotype was only born 30 or 40 years ago. If you think about other county stereotypes – Yorkshire, for example – they're born of the industrial revolution. With Essex, we're talking about a new – and quite vicious – stereotype. With Radical Essex, we're trying to show that the county holds a far longer tradition of social radicalism."
The Peculiar People exhibition – part of the Radical Essex programme, now showing at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend – features a fascinating cornucopia of left-field Essex experimentalism that takes in the open door-policy Dial House at the edge of Epping Forest (still operated by ex-Crass members Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher); the bizarre 1930s Bata modernist "workers village" at East Tilbury; Southend Libertarian and Anarchist Broadsheet (SLAB) – produced, amazingly enough, by anarchist HM Revenue and Customs employees in the town's office – as well as myriad other examples of the communes, naturist colonies and visionary artists who have called Essex home.
"We're trying to show people aspects of the county that they may not have realised existed. Why Essex? Why was it open to all of these incredibly experimental people? Why did they come here?" continues Hill. "Partly, I think it's the landscape. It's hard to farm here. A lot of marshland: no big land ownership, not many estate owners. That's my theory, at least. Also we're east of London: down wind, down river. We feature the Dunton Plotlands in the exhibition, for example – this bizarre, chaotic, ramshackle bunch of free holdings in the 50s that was bulldozed, with Basildon built on top. They offered the plotland-ers new builds, but none of them wanted them; they just kept returning to the original free-holdings until they were destroyed. It's a social history that has almost been forgotten."
Pointing to the opening of the Access Credit Card facility in Southend in the 70s (who heavily pushed the "flexible friend" in the town, thus creating a culture of ostentatious spending) as the advent of the modern Essex stereotype, some of the alternative communities featured in the exhibition are nonetheless still thriving – and Dial House is one such place.
Started by poet, artist and former Crass drummer Penny Rimbaud in 1967 – and operating as a true open door building ever since – Dial House has long fostered creativity, freedom and political agitation, as well as acting as a base for Crass during the 1980s. I caught up with Penny to talk MI5 spooks, removing the locks and the turbulent Crass years.
VICE: Was an open door always the intention for Dial House?
Penny Rimbaud: When I moved here in 1967, I wanted a studio initially – I'd been teaching in an art school but became disillusioned. I'd been brought up in Brentwood and this place was incredibly cheap, so I came back to Essex. I had this strong feeling that I didn't ever want to get back into professionalism; the world of organised attitudes or "skills" or whatever else. I wanted to find out what happened if I didn't do that. I was acting completely on my own at first, but it has to be said that this is a pretty isolated place. You can more sensibly take the locks off the door living here than Stoke Newington.
It's a pretty powerful statement of intent, removing all the locks from the doors. Did it have an immediate effect on your psyche?
I felt liberated. Apart from removing all the locks, I got rid of everything too. I told everyone I knew that it was an open day over the weekend, to come and take everything. They took everything apart from a table and a little cooker. It was an empty shell with nothing but the basic requirements. After that I just waited – I didn't advertise or let people know about it. I was really interested to see what happened. Within six months there were probably seven people living here. Some I knew, some I didn't. There was none of the typical commune thing – rules about the washing up or, "Oh, everybody has to pay rent and here's the rota for cleaning." That's how it stayed. We just allow people to get on with it, and people have got involved in all sorts – filmmaking, permaculture, art, writing.
Does Dial House still operate an open door policy?
Nothing has changed; the door is still open, people still wonder in. We have workshops; we're actually trying to put the place into trust; that is our next big move and we'll probably try crowdfunding. Of all the dreams I've had in my life, that would be the most precious – managing to move this into some sort of perpetuity so that in 50 years there will still be people here, creating.
I'm interested in Dial House during the Crass years. Did you get loads of diehard fans turning up all hours?
It's funny, the most significant growth of interest has actually been in the past five years. That said, back in the day there were a lot of young fans who turned up. They hadn't necessarily got a lot to say; they just wanted to sit here, really. They were always accommodated. I remember two lads who brought a tent down – I discovered them hiding in the bushes because they were too nervous to come to the door. They spent a week at the bottom of the garden playing Crass on a ghetto blaster and sewing a Crass symbol on a sheet that they then gave us when they left. They didn't engage with us particularly or even look around much; they spent most of their time listening to Crass – but that wasn't atypical.
I can't think of any other bands that operated along such open lines.
One of the effects was that we realised the responsibility we needed to take for what we were doing. I mean, we could've created some form of army [laughs]. But we were very cautious indeed about how we should go ahead. We knew that half of our audience were young kids who'd been inspired to think for themselves, who suddenly realised that you were allowed to think for yourself, if you choose to make that allowance. The other half were more experienced in various underground movements. But it was the young kids that we had to be careful on behalf of, and if we hadn't run the open house – if we hadn't been exposed on a near daily basis to the people we were affecting – then we wouldn't have been able to make the responsible decisions that we did. It prevented us from taking on the ivory tower role. In music, so many people become completely isolated, not engaging in the everyday, shutting out humble common sense.
What has the local Essex community made of Dial House over the years?
We were always – and still are – referred to as the "students over the hill" [laughs]. But we became well respected after a big planning battle for land that included not only the house, but also about 700 acres that rises up from the village and was also pencilled in for development. Within the village it was opposed and Dial House became a centre of activity. We got printing presses and all the rest of it. At that point I suppose we moved from being the "students" to being respected residents of the village. We produced a newspaper that was delivered to every house.
Prior to that we've always been good gardeners and we'd enter the local competitions. We've always engaged in the village and, although we've always been known as being eccentric, there has never been any form of aggro. We actually had a very good relationship with the local police. I taught the local copper's daughter to play the drums, for one thing.
Crass attracted some pretty serious attention from M15, though – you were seen as a serious threat to the government during the early 80s. What was that like on the ground?
The local copper used to come down and it was obvious that he was keeping his eye on us, but almost in a tongue-in-cheek way. For instance, he'd often turn up when the women were over at Greenham Common, specifically to let us know that he knew that they were over at Greenham Common. MI5 was a different story, though. We were thoroughly investigated, constantly under surveillance. It was so obvious that they were on your back. The phone would make funny noises; the mail would turn up opened. They didn't try to hide it – in fact, they wanted you to know that they had their eye on you. I first experienced that when I was investigating the death of my friend Wally Hope [which Penny believes was at the hands of the State]. When I was doing that investigation it certainly wasn't the local police that came round. They started the conversation with, "You're a writer, aren't you?" Well, at that point, I wasn't. They were stating that they knew I was writing the book about Wally; that was the start of it. If you look at Wally's fate it's not surprising that this place should be under surveillance as well.
Was that ever unnerving?
I never minded that much. It was a sign that we were doing it right; if we weren't of any interest to them then we wouldn't have been doing our job. I've got no complaints about it and still don't – I don't think they give up, though. I reckon we're still "on the books", so to speak, but almost certainly in the lower league, having at one time been at the top. It got fairly heavy at one point, but it was almost like we were being inspired to take dangerous steps forward. We took that licence at every single point.
I wonder if you ever had undercover turning up at Dial House.
We must have had undercover turning up at various points. The whole "Thatchergate" thing [a hoax conversation between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, produced by Crass] had to have been exposed somehow. Nobody knew about it. It was done in the utmost secrecy, locked up every night, and we absolutely did not speak about it. So we were quite possibly bugged. But we always felt the best thing to do was go for it. Sometimes there was fear and trepidation, but it was a very self-supporting situation. We were supportive of each other – we had that strength – and there was a tight solidarity stemming from living together, eating together and sleeping together.
Do you ever crave individual space?
Over the last 30 years I've practised meditation and I can pretty much get to a state of complete solitude anywhere. I dearly love people, but I don't always engage on a psychological level, and ever since I've lived here – well, it's none of my business why people come here. I don't try to make it my business. They're free to move and I'm free to move, so I don't feel limited in any way. I can get tired sometimes. The expression is "peopled out", I suppose. Real solitude is a funny thing, though; you don't need to be on top of a mountain. I think solitude is actually about being yourself, and if you're yourself then you're not getting drawn into all the tempestuous dramas that go on in life.
My role as the creator of the idea of the space has been not to engage in that. If there are conflicts, I won't engage unless I'm asked. I don't try to prevent anything happening. I attempt not to give unsolicited opinions because I want it to grow in its own way, not because I've tried to have an effect on the place, because so have the hundreds of people who've come through here. They come back and they look for their spot, you know? They get pissed off if it's not there [laughs].
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