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CJ Clarke’s Magic Party Place
Photography CJ Clarke

Capturing the essence of growing up in working-class Britain

In pubs and clubs, at house parties and on the street, CJ Clarke shares a series of photos taken over a decade spent documenting his hometown of Basildon

“This is our Friday Night Big Night Special!” Those are the words that Essex–born photographer CJ Clarke remembers most vividly from an evening spent photographing a group of teens in his hometown of Basildon. He sets the scene: “four boys, 18 years old or thereabouts, are gathered in a small back garden. Sitting around a table on white plastic chairs, they drink beer, smoking and trading insults at each other”. As the evening wears on they become increasingly rowdy, and it's not long before they hit the streets, turfed out by irritated parents. Sound familiar?

It’s just one of many situations Clarke found himself in while documenting the lives and habits of the town’s community for his decade-long project Magic Party Place. He explains that the title (which seems particularly fitting for a place known colloquially as ‘Bas Vegas’) came from a neon sign he saw while walking in the town at night. “It was completely deserted and there was this sign, lighting the street up in yellow and proclaiming life and activity when there was none”, he says. “It had the perfect irony”.

Beyond growing up in the town himself, Basildon intrigued Clarke because of its social history. “The town has always historically voted for the most successful party in terms of seats in general elections and as a result, a media caricature of the town’s populous called the ‘Basildon Man’ was born”. He explains that the town became a sort barometer for the mood of the nation, and a steadfast signifier of aspirational working-class England, looked to by media pundits to see which way the country would vote. “To win the heart and mind of the Basildon Man – and Woman – is to win elections”, he emulates. With all eyes on Middle England then, what exactly are the preferences of the people that hold the so-called key to electoral success? It’s this question that drove Clarke to spend the next ten years documenting what life is really like in an average British town like Basildon.

Along the way, Clarke says, he felt particularly confronted by the chasm between old and young and refers to “the massive generational disconnect” that is mirrored across the country. “The older, pioneer generation that moved to Basildon when it was first built have a strong sense of civic pride and connection with the town, but this hasn’t trickled down to the younger generation.” The kids he met view the place completely differently to their elders.

“I spent small, intense amounts of time with various groups of young people over the years, meeting them all in different ways – friends of friends, friends’ younger brothers and one particular group of lads I met through a chance meeting with one of their mums.” Some, he says, dreamt of leaving as soon as they could, while elsewhere – “for the ones that didn’t do so well in school” – the world was decidedly smaller, “because society is not really set-up to help or incorporate non-conformists”.

“It was completely deserted and there was this sign, lighting the street up in yellow and proclaiming life and activity when there was none. It had the perfect irony” – CJ Clarke

Some of the kids he met were savvy of the often-hackneyed view of working class teendom and “understood the nuances of representation, having been on the raw end of media ire because they would not quietly accept the hand dealt them by society”. Shunning the tired stereotypes thrust upon them, Clarke’s lens focused instead on the raw energy and resilience of the youth tribes he encountered along the way.

In towns just like Basildon across the country, where “young people grow up in a drinking culture”, Clarke found that Friday and Saturday nights remain king. Unfolding against a backdrop of pubs and clubs, at house parties and on the street, Magic Party Place offers an honest and uncompromising look at the grit and spirit of growing up in working-class Britain.

Magic Party Place is available to buy here. Also, see more of Clarke’s work here