Land of Cockaigne: Travels Through Brexit (2016 - 2019)

On June 23rd 2016 a narrow majority voted for the UK to leave the EU. In the wake of this vote mainstream British politics has polarised in a way most of us have never seen before.

For some years I had intended to walk from my home in Hastings along the coastal route all the way to London. The original idea was to take photographs of everything except the sea itself, to show the effects of the sea on the landscape and the built environment, but to avoid the customary dramatic seascapes so traditionally beloved of photographers and painters.

I began the project in September 2016. As I started planning the route it became clear most of my walking would be through Sussex and Kent coastal regions which had voted solidly for Brexit in the referendum, and as I began the walk itself, I realised the referendum result had changed my attitude to the coastal landscape I love so much. As I walked, Union flags seemed much more prominent than I recalled previously, the multitude of Keep Out and Private signs which had always been there took on a sinister air, and the irony of walking for many miles on land closer to France than it is to London became overwhelming. For the first time in years, Englishness and the English landscape began to feel alien and forbidding to me, and during the two and a half years the walk took me, the country lurched deeper into crisis, chaos and an ascendant far-right authoritarian populism.

As I write this, at the beginning of September 2019, three years after beginning the walk, a new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is trying - so far unsuccessfully - to resolve the issues raised by the referendum by crashing out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. I, like so many others, am exhausted and fearful, as all my certainties about the triumph of decent liberal values – tolerance, respect, internationalism - come crashing down around me. Most of this walk was made in anger at what the referendum has revealed about much of English politics, its small-mindedness, its failure to accept its diminished role in the world, its arrogant contempt for other nations. I don’t think that anger will ever abate, but this project is a small attempt to come to terms with it.

From Wikipedia: "Cockaigne is a land of plenty in medieval myth, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist."

These photographs were first exhibited in October - November 2019 at Hastings Arts Forum, as part of the 2019 PhotoHastings Festival. A book of the project is available from Silverhill Press.

Gallery: Hastings Arts Forum, 36 Marina, St Leonards on Sea TN38 0BU
Dates: October 29th – November 10th 2019

14 of the pictures were chosen as part of the inaugural Towner International exhibition, held at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne in 2020/21.

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