If Britain sails gaily away from the European Union, as Boris Johnson would have us do, it is tempting to wonder what we will take with us. As we shuck off the shackles of regulated banana bunches and sustainable fishing quotas (as well as the chance to moan about such bureaucratic regulations), I wonder what we’ll be able to stitch together into a fig leaf of ‘national character’. For while few of us feel European, I suspect even fewer of us could put our finger on what it is to feel British.
In the eyes of twenty-three international photographers, whose work is gathered at the Barbican by Martin Parr in the exhibition ‘The Strange and The Familiar’, the land- and cityscapes of the United Kingdom are interpreted by the outsider. To its credit, the curation of the exhibition ensures that it sweeps much of the country – from London’s swinging sixties’ streets, to the poverty and camaraderie of Welsh mining villages and Glasgow estates, to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, to modern day high street shopping. These views of Britain largely fall into two neat halves: the realities of grim grinding poverty, and the surrealities of twee stereotype.
There’s not much new to say about poverty; its causes and its changing effects: yes. But its imagery does not change. It is all the same, the world over. Desperate, closed-up eyes; twisted dirty bodies; bloated bellies or groping hands of hungry children. To some extent, these photographs perform the familiar in this exhibition, I suppose: the child beggars of Dickens transmuting into East End urchins, and the grimy chimney sweeps romanticised in Mary Poppins growing up to wear the dusty knuckles of Thatcher’s striking miners. It’s easy to slide over these images with a weary eye, clutching your purse-strings and closing up your heart.
One photograph that did arrest me was a picture of my own road, Gee Street. (Thus we remain resolutely parochial in our concerns, even in the face of suffering.) It was by Edith Tudor-Hart. Hart was a Communist sympathiser who fled Austria to settle in Britain, and who later helped to recruit the Cambridge Spy Ring – her code name an unsubtle ‘Edith’ – and still found time to visit the East End slums. In this frame, shot only sixty-five years ago, six children, two women and a washing line occupy in a tiny brick-walled outdoor space – one could not call it a garden. The houses are cramped together and soot-black, children crammed into the tiny play area beneath the laundry. Nowadays, there are two beautifully-kept parks within
a hundred metres and a subsidised leisure centre with a pool, whilst today’s children (perhaps the descendants of those in the photograph, occupying the same social housing) ride mopeds up and down the street and smoke weed in the stairwells. Now that’s progress.
In another arresting and ghostly image by Tudor-Hart, children stretch out like angels in front of an ultraviolet light in a hospital, encouraged by sinister goggle-wearing nurses, to cure their rickets. Imagine spending your childhood in such smoggy darkness that you need a remedial dose of sunlight. Whilst, in my opinion, the wealth gap in this country remains iniquitous, the transformation of the lives of many poor families cannot be denied; no one goes dirty anymore.
In an exhibition where much is miniaturised, taken as a fleeting street snap without a prolonged engagement with the subject, Bruce Gilden’s huge, blown-up portraits transfix. Each sitter’s face has been magnified to grotesque proportions so that a single pore seems a bore-hole into a soul. A blotched underground network of red veins spreads across an old man’s nose; the map of a thirty thousand pints. A badly drawn rim of black eyeliner wavers around the guarded, piggy eyes of a fat teenage girl; a shaky pot shot at beauty. Much photography seems to sympathise with its subject – this is simply unrelenting. You can see the burst dreams scratched into skin; in their anaemic faces, the shadows of the tower blocks these people must have been born in to live in to die in. Gilden’s pictures are stunning and shocking, stirring up that mixture of fascination and repulsion that has ever been Britain’s uneasy relationship with its working class.
The other side of the coin – the positive side – preserves, sells and sanctifies our now-vanished eras. We hark back to our music, to Beatlemania, to rock & roll, to punk, to our sixties’ mods and mini-skirted girls, our eccentric fashion, our successful creatives, even our eccentric crowds. Caught in royal fever, Henri Cartier-Bresson, the pioneer of street photography, turned his lens onto the crowd flocking to the coronation of King George VI, capturing the mood. At first it all seems familiar. Here’s the woman covered in flags, beaming with monarchical fervour; the lady getting a leg up from two men in uniform; the drunkard passing out in newspapers. At the screening of William and Kate’s wedding in Trafalgar Square I too got swept up in the excitement and stridently waved a Union Jack flag. These adoring crowds climb up the lions in Trafalgar Square just as the protestors did twenty years before – as a site of public gathering, it remains unchanged.
But as familiar as Bresson’s pictures, and those of Londons past, taste initially, further reflection brought questions as to whether much of this truly persists, or whether we but dream that it does. The hats have evaporated from our modern heads, the uniforms have changed. The miniskirts of Carnaby Street don’t seem so ‘mini’; the girls who wore them are old now. A book released late last year – The Great British Dream Factory, by Dominic Sandbrook – insists (to varying degrees of success) that Britain’s main export nowadays is our dream of a stereotype of ‘Britishness’, which we flog to the rest of the world. We win big at the Oscars with films of our monarchy – like Henry V or The King’s Speech – and win huge ratings with TV series set in country houses or quasi-Victorian streets – as with the mammoth Downton Abbey or Sherlock. Even the wildly popular Harry Potter series exports a particular dream of British boarding school – just spiced up with spells. But the foreigners who photographed Britain for this exhibition don’t seem anywhere near duped or seduced by stereotype. Spanning over seventy years, it ends up illustrating only how quickly our landscape, our fashions, our trends, our cities and our customs change, as seen through a photographer’s lens. ‘What is there that remains?’ it asks in the face of Sandbrook’s suggestions, and Madame Tussaud’s. Is there anything beneath the flickering surface that stays ‘British’? Perhaps it’s the postbox.
Catalogue (Prestel): £35 hardback