There's a photo of Harlow New Town. Oh, there's the Subway in Oldham. There are some split-level houses in Cumberland, the BR tourist information centre in Fort William. And then, over there, I can see a grey-haired man with neckerchief and sunglasses in a beach-hut in Bexhill-on-Sea. I think I might even be able to see some flowery dresses and blouses hung out to dry in a back street somewhere in Lancashire. Didn't they demolish all the streets like that outside Granada Studios some time around the middle of 1967? The first four of these photos celebrate the unafraid rush of progress, the latter two an ancient, decaying proletarian culture. The first four are mildly glamorous in their optimism, the last two are desperately understated and outmoded. Except that the first four were taken several distant decades ago, and the last two were captured in the late 1990s. How and why did this come to be?
Martin Parr collected and compiled all the former; he took both of the latter. The latter is a tribute - covered in layers of irony and detachment - to the England that the former seemed, in its own time, to be consigning to history. How has Time been twisted in this way? You cannot work out such contradictions in only a few paragraphs, and perhaps you never can. Perhaps I'd never want to.
The book of Boring Postcards, published in 1999, is a wonderful compendium; we all know that much already. The postcards are undated, and there is not a word of comment, but I can instantly date each postcard to within a year or two; the late 50s / very early 60s ones, often in black and white and capturing such places as the Monks' Rest Tea Gardens, Worlebury, Weston-Super-Mare, and the Reception Hall at Butlin's, Bognor Regis, look far more conformist (cars inevitably bulbous-shaped, everyone dressing exactly the same, still an unnaturally "jolly" environment), while the early colour ones from the first half of the 60s look more relaxed, though still with exaggeratedly light blue sky and a touching-up that doesn't seem to have been applied to the mid-70s images; as each year of the 60s pass you can see the postcards looking more like it surely actually looked and less unnaturally bright (this also happened with the exaggerated effects, leading to subsequent fading, in the early days of colour TV). Typical subjects are libraries, technical colleges, hotels, airports; the ethos of progression and the ideology of modernity. But somehow it's the shopping centre images that are the most memorable of all; in the early 60s we see the Precinct in Coventry with "Police enquiries and information" written in an elegant italic typeface which you'd more easily associate with, I don't know, "Next week in Radio Times" or "Go to work on an egg", and Queen's Square in Crawley, the colour of a young girl's green summer dress exaggerated beyond all hints of reality. By the highpoint of the whole vision - the late 60s and very early 70s - we have the high spikes circling around the Wulfrun Centre in Wolverhampton, the wonderfully mainstream psychedelic colours of the Market Square in Burnley, and the "abstract expressionist" mosaic frieze of the New Shopping Centre in Preston, all aesthetically perfect, not one ingredient missing. Some 60s precincts - especially the 1963-ish Carlton Court in Westbury, Wiltshire, and the 1969-ish set of four images from Basildon - are so pure, so unsullied, so interrupted, that I could weep. It's as though the planners' dreams of what humanity could become were far more noble, far more committed to the cause of betterment for the whole of society, than humanity ever has been, or ever could be.
By the mid-70s, the ethos of progression was in decline, as the public gradually became more cynical and lost their faith that, whatever happened, things would get better; the people seem less automatically respectful and more casual in the New Shopping Centre, Burton-on-Trent, circa 1974, and the Transport and General Workers' Union Recuperation Centre, Littleport, circa 1977 (in the latter picture, we even see a copy of The Sun, future house organ for all the most cynical aspects of the 80s). But there's still some great stuff here; with the huge orange sofas and brown checked carpets of the Fortes Corley Service Area on the M1 and the orange armchairs and pink and white ceiling of the Central Library, St Nicholas's Way, Sutton, we get a perfect account of 70s interior design, and when we see the kipper ties, white jackets and checked shirts of the Lounge Bar at the Devon Coast Country Club, Paignton, circa 1975 / 76, I can convince myself that a frustrated Reginald Perrin is about to walk in, desperately attempting to escape the predictability of this life. When we see the orange-and-brown WH Smiths in the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, west London, and the Quadrant Arcade, Swansea, and the kids outside in their skinny white T-shirts and flares, we can see the heart and soul, the single animating force, of that long-despised, endearingly low-rent 70s pop aesthetic that Lawrence Hayward so loves; Creme Brulee might well be playing in town that night.
While some photos here may have been taken in the early Thatcher era - the Frenchgate Centre, Doncaster, and the lounge at Manchester Airport both seem to come from about 1980 - the wind-down really comes in Frimley High Street, Surrey, round about the summer of 1978; the kids are still playing, by now wearing checked shirts and skin-tight jeans, the Leicester Building Society still looks wonderfully utilarian, they're servicing with a Smurf and seeing the airport's smiling face, but the spirit has drained out, the people are acting out the moves without any more believing any of them, and the mortification brought about by Thatcher's election victory in 1979 was inevitable.
As an account of evolutions in British corporate and graphic design from the mid-50s to the late 70s, Boring Postcards is incredible; as a document of how we really felt about ourselves over a 21-year period beginning with "never had it so good" and probably ending the autumn before "Crisis? What Crisis?", it is unsurpassable.
But Parr's compilation of his own recent photographs, Think of England - part of a wider project that also included a film shown in BBC2's Modern Times series in April 1999 - is at the opposite end of the scale of progress. Using particular methods normally used only with medical photography, which exaggerate the close-ups and brighten the colour to give it an effect descended from that on the early 60s' Boring Postcards, he has compiled a set of parochial, provincial English images that were supposed to be swept away by the brave new dawn of Arndale and Bull Ring; an agricultural show in Frome, Somerset, a box of men's handkerchiefs in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, a polo match in Windsor, a young huntswoman in Burniston, North Yorkshire, an array of teacosys in Taunton. And these are only the reassuringly pleasant, quaint images; other photos, such as the beer belly in Bexhill-on-Sea whose owner is himself carrying three pints, the shaven-headed England football fans and tattooed chests in Scarborough, or the balding man peeling in the sun in West Bay, Dorset, are quite hideous, making it ultimately as depressing a book for me as Boring Postcards is uplifting. In context, these images summarise everything that has often made me feel doomed to the land of my birth.
He's playing about with imagery; commeting on it, turning it into a narrative based around a myth, and Gerry Badger speculates fascinatingly on what exactly Martin Parr means with these images - how many layers of meaning might there be, and how far it goes into post-modernity - in his introductory piece. But ultimately it reads like an epitaph for a dying world, and when you see the final image - a road sign indicating a video camera in Hemel Hempstead, as if to imply that we're all being watched and, in the end, this will eliminate the old culture - you have to conclude that it was intended as such.
The Think of England approach - identifying specific mythologised signifiers of Englishness like seaside pubs, Royal Ascot, country fetes and suburban semis, and then attempting to create a whole new multi-layered mythology around them - can have its flaws. Charlotte Raven has persuasively argued (http://www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,3860547,00.html) that the attempt in Parr's TV film Think of England to somehow "define Englishness" seemed to limit pluralism, choice and freedom: "Far from finding evidence of small-mindedness depressing, Parr appears to believe that lack of curiosity and limited horizons are quintessential English traits ... we were supposed to warm to the Raymond Briggs couple who said they would never leave the country. Their fears of various ill-defined perils were presented as essentially charming, even though they were not so far away from those of the racist who said we should 'do what Enoch Powell said and send them all back'. The two attitudes are related but Parr overlooks the connection, so committed is he to fetishishing one type of ignorance ... when people were asked about Englishness they weren't referring to themselves but to an already established cultural consensus. They therefore gave cliched answers."
Interviewed in Sleaze Nation magazine in 1999, Parr waxed lyrical about how much more unsophisticated but nevertheless more welcome and charming people were once you got beyond the metropolitan areas, and I instantly sensed that he would find me an unwelcome rogue presence, a threat to his mental picture (for these are the flaws of Romanticism; people mentally freeze a perfect, idyllic picture of a certain place in their minds, and then find it hard to cope when some of us come out of that place and refuse to conform to it, become something else entirely).
My own theory is rather more cynical. It is that each era gets the images it deserves. If, back then, we were confident, forward-looking, and assured of our future, then the Boring Postcards pretty much reflect their own place and time. If we are now uncertain, afraid, endlessly reinvestigating and reanimating our past, incessantly playing games of national self-definition in an attempt to set off the uncertainties that lay beneath Blairite consensus, then Think of England reflects its own place and time, in all its nostalgia and reassuring removal from the modern world.
But this is only a guess, and I'm not sure whether I really know where Martin Parr is coming from. I don't want him to reveal himself, don't want him to start writing his own forewords, dating his images, using his books as a means of marketing himself. I want him to show me images of unafraid progression, to cherish their beauty, yet to remind me that the happiness therein was, often, simply the happiness of the nursery, the mindset of the cradle unhealthily clinging with certain people halfway to the grave. I want him to make me wonder how we can fuse the general public faith in a better future that existed in the 60s, with the more cynical and questioning attitude that dominates now (and which, in principle, I welcome). And I want him to make me squirm at the outdated, backward image that is the rest of the world's idea of the place in which I live, remind me why I once thought I could achieve nothing here (elderly ladies reading the Sunday Mirror, grotesque beer-bellied Midlands holidaymakers with "ENGLAND" tattoos, military parades, village fetes selling postcards of steam trains and kittens and poodles) while also reminding me why I've now set myself on creating and promoting a more progressive English ruralist image, why I've realised that my previous approach was the most cowardly of all.
In short, I don't want to know the answers.
For Parr - who is really a spiritual brother of Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Jonathan Stedall, the producers of early 70s BBC2 series Look, Stranger and Bird's Eye View, a lost lineage of deeply evocative English culturologists, and who might be accurately described as John Betjeman's globalist, modernist great-nephew - to evoke anything other than ambivalence would be an insult to the emotional fragility and beauty of his work. It would imbue it with certainty, and that - despite being the overriding characteristic of both the (I hear a new) world of the Boring Postcards and the (living in another) world (from New Labour and, really, from all progressive people, wherever they are in Britain) of Think of England - is the opposite of what I want to feel from his work. For all the worlds he portrays have their good and bad points, and to ignore either would ultimately be to ignore everything worth knowing.
Robin Carmody, 10th December 2000
An addendum: I think I spoke too soon when I said I could date every image to within a year or two. Darren Giddings tells me that the postcard of Basingstoke in the book - which I had vaguely assumed to date from the mid-late 70s - is in fact from as late as 1989, or possibly even 1990 / 91; a friend of his in Basingstoke had assured him that it came from a series of postcards designed to showcase the town at the turn of the last decade, one of which (though not the one in the book) certainly portrayed the reaction to a fire in the town in 1991. Given that most of the people in the photo are old, and would therefore have a dress sense less influenced by fashion, and the few young-to-middle-aged people are dressing in a certain kind of late 80s "sports casual" style - shell suits, etc. - that seemed to dominate in Gravesend and Dartford back then, this seems quite plausible.
And, frustratingly, I can't quite make out the registration number of a car in the background of the Frimley postcard which I dated to the late summer of 1978, but it looks more and more like a Y registration, which would mean that the photo would have to have been taken after 1st August 1982; my poignant analogy-building has been seriously questioned by the hard truth of unquestionable historical fact (even if it's a V registration, the only other real possibility, it would still have to be after 1st August 1979, i.e. after Thatcher was elected). I've learnt a lesson here; it's so tempting to see Thatcher's 1979 election victory as a watershed that you forget how much of Britain still looked like that - not felt, but certainly looked - into the mid-80s, and my early childhood. A week after writing that piece originally, I saw a BBC documentary filmed in Lincoln during the summer of 1985, and the dress of the kids was not noticeably different from in the Frimley photo.
Robin Carmody, 19th February 2001