England My England
16/11/12England My England
This essay documents the creative journey I have undertaken in consideration of my English national identity. It is about what Englishness means to me personally and the body of photographic work I have produced as a result of my conclusions.
I have approached the project essentially in two of ways. Firstly, I have researched how the subject has been previously undertaken photographically, in order to show both my influences and how I arrived at the decision to commit to the imagery I have produced, acknowledging the issues around my approach. Secondly, I have attempted to document the problematic nature of defining English nationalism as discussed by writers and academics outside the sphere of photography while simultaneously weaving in my own thoughts and observations using diary entries and personal memories.
When I was a child my brother and I frequently spent Saturday nights at Nana and Granddad Rankin’s. After tea, which for me usually consisted of a dippy egg, soldiers and a Cadbury’s mini roll, I would sit with my Granddad Rankin and watch their black and white television. I remember watching Dixon of Dock Green, the acceptable face of late 60’s British policing while my Nana washed my socks for no apparent reason. George Dixon, the well spoken friendly bobby, solved all problems with a wise and purposeful rationale. He had the respect of the community in which he served. There was, I remember, the occasional gun crime with guns brought back from the war. George somehow persuaded the assailant to hand the gun over and all would be well. I must have been about 11 or 12 years of age. Safe within the bosom of my family, growing up in a vibrant forward looking sixties Britain this was England, my England.
I am now 46 years old and it’s just over a year since I took voluntary redundancy after 26 years of full time work in a job I didn’t care for. I wasn’t particularly happy, essentially working hard until retirement and hopefully having enough time and pension to enjoy the rest. So I embarked on a different path. What struck me quite forcibly when I left work was that I lacked a clear sense of my own identity. I’d never really thought about who I was, where I belonged and what I am part of? My logic therefore, on embarking on this project about Englishness is that by discovering a sense of my nationality and its identity I will at the same time discover something of myself. That personal identity is intertwined historically, geographically and politically with the country of my birth and upbringing within my own family. That I am both product and protagonist of what makes England what it is and who we are?
However, the more I researched and pondered the subject of English identity and nationalism the more problematic it seemed to become. I am not alone. As a subject it is nothing new. It continues to be tackled by academics, politicians, anthropologists, sociologists, artists, photographers and others in various ways. My research seems to agree on one thing: the problematic, peculiar and elusive nature of searching for an English national identity. The academic Krishan Kumar states
“Few scholars today would approach the subject – if they dare approach it at all – with such blithe confidence. Their self-consciousness about the diversity of ‘our islands’, together with their sensitivity to nationalist feeling within them, render them modest in the extreme, if not actually speechless in the face of such terminological and cultural complexity”. (Kumar, 2003)
As far back as 1944, the time of the Second World War, when one would have thought England would have a very clear sense of its identity; George Orwell attempting to define the English speculated
“Is there such a thing as the English character? Can one talk about nations as though they were individuals?” (Orwell, 1944).
This essay attempts to document the creative journey I have taken, of what being English means to me; my research, thoughts and feelings on England, My England.
Photographic Influences – Don McCullin
If the search for an English identity is problematic academically, then my primary question must be how do I approach the issue visually? How do I produce a body of photographic work which in some way reflects a notion of Englishness both to me personally and to a wider audience, a body of work which follows and adds to past lines of enquiry on English national identity but yet is not derivative?
My earliest photographic influence Don McCullin had the same anxieties I have, when he returned from the war zones of the world in the late 70’s,
“So much of my war reporting had involved watching national identities take shape that I began to ask myself who I was. What were the English and what did they represent? What for that matter did I represent? “(McCullin, 1990).
It was not his images of conflict overseas that appealed to me, as shocking and stunning as they were, but the images he captured on his travels around England. Here was a photographer who had captured not only a certain eccentricity but also a body of work which expressed anxieties about the England that we were living in,
It is not surprising, given McCullin’s experiences at the front line of so many conflicts, that his images of England are imbued with a pessimism and darkness that he himself admitted too ( see Appendix 1). In that sense they reflect an essence of his personality. Paul Hill states,
“As a photographer you record what is ‘out there’ in the world, and so you have to select from all that wealth of material the specific motifs that can act as vehicles for your inner feelings.” (Hill 1982)
In my approach to this project I am conscious that my images should reflect my own feelings about national identity.
Ethnic Origin – “We set out from Killamarsh tha knows!”
A few years ago I was in the local veterinary clinic. I was in my work clothes, my identity card hanging around my neck, my name clearly visible. An elderly man sat waiting with his Jack Russell looked at my id card and declared that we shared the same surname of ‘Greaves’. Chesterfield my hometown is, apparently, the world centre for ‘Greaves’, “Appen me and thee are related?” he suggested in his broad Derbyshire dialect. I agreed, it was quite possible, that through the many branches of my family we could indeed be genetically linked more closely than we are to the rest of the world’s population. “We set out from Killamarsh tha knows!” he continued. Killamarsh being not more than about ten miles away I imagined the clan Greaves’ setting out on some kind of pilgrimage and establishing a homestead in Chesterfield. Clearly we haven’t travelled far in all those succeeding generations.
The truth, of course, is less romantic but it did indicate to me that for some English at least, they see themselves much rooted in the English soil as a pure ethnic group of people. It does not occur to them that despite living on an island, which surely has impacted on the national character, their genealogy is a little more complicated; that a DNA sample would reveal much more of where we have come from. It may alarm some English people to know, that as Paxman states
“Any sensible reading of history would have to conclude that for the English to talk of racial purity is whistling in the wind; there is scarcely a family in the land which has no Celtic blood in it, to say nothing of Romans, Jutes, Normans, Huguenots, and all the others who have added their contribution to the national bloodstock. Defoe was right. The English are a mongrel race, and it has taken the development of communities living in England that are visibly different to demonstrate the point”. (Paxman, 1999)
“A eugenicist would have to conclude that in strictly racial terms, the English are a lost cause. Despite the long period of relative insulation, they remain an undistinguished looking lot” (Paxman 1999).
Photography - Sir Benjamin Stone
If McCullin was searching for an English identity then he was following a well trodden path harking back to the earliest days of photography. Politician Sir Benjamin Stone (1838 – 1914) was interested in national identity. Being a photographer (amongst other things) he was keen to document the country both for historical and educational purposes, believing photography to be both a permanent and undeniable witness. Long before the American Farm Security Administration Project Stone set up the National Photographic Record Association (NPRA) (see Appendix 2). If nostalgia, sentimentality and melancholy are a big part of the English psyche then Stone’s endeavours were to express these anxieties and concerns visually.
While researching Stone I was surprised to find the image which by chance I seem almost to have repeated in my own work in the summer of 2008, while exploring imagery for this project.
Diary Entry – 5th February 2009 - National Identity as Constructed Myth
Today’s news item prepares the nation for a further cut in interest rates to an all time low of 1%, to be announced by the Bank of England at lunchtime. The BBC’s financial pundit informs the nation that the Bank of England and the Government want us to go out and spend in order to “kick start the economy”. We are made to feel it is our national duty.
I’m dismayed at this news and not for the first time I have to think carefully about my own Englishness in relation to the national events. It does not surprise me that Sir Benjamin Stone the politician was interested in national identity. It’s at a time like this ‘economic crisis’ when it well suits politicians, the Establishment and the Monarchy to talk in terms of “pulling together”, to appeal to a sense of nationalism and unified national identity. Those who wish to maintain the status quo of power, wealth and religion can perpetuate the notion of a shared national identity. Kumar comments,
“The political nation is, first and foremost, a political (not an ethnic) community. It puts stress on willed, active citizenship, and on civic participation. It is an artificial, deliberately ‘invented’ community, brought into being to fulfil certain desired purposes of the political life.” (Kumar 2003).
Indeed it is generally accepted that the political nation was invented in the nineteenth century, mainly from the French Revolution, by those for whom it was imperative to establish a unified sense of political nationalism. Marxist theory goes further than Kumar by suggesting that ‘nation’ is an ideology perpetrated and imposed from the top down, that is, by the ruling class in order to exercise power. The social geographer Benedict Anderson proposes in his book ‘Imagined Communities – Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 1991) that nations are imagined political communities. That they are constructed from political and cultural processes and those members of even the smallest nation cannot know all of its fellow members. The problem is that these academic theories are constantly open to debate, and revision even by Anderson himself would seem to be far too simplistic. As human beings we need to have a sense of belonging, an identity and label which we attach to ourselves over and above our own individual identity, a group belonging. We may accept that the nation is imagined, a constructed myth, but simultaneously determine its necessity as a way of binding us together in the absence of anything else. Rather than the political nation it is perhaps what Kumar describes as the ‘cultural nation’ which is the most important factor,
“The cultural nation is defined by what it considers really binds people together: not the ‘superficial’ ties of political citizenship but the deep ties of history, language, literature and religion” (Kumar 2003).
Photography – Mass Observation
According to David Mellor in ‘No Such Thing as Society’(2007) the legacy of Stone and the NPRA was to lay the foundations for a strong documentary tradition, in essence, going out into the country to capture everyday life; the cultural nation. This was continued by the Mass Observation formed to document everyday life in Britain in 1936. The surveys’ chief photographer Humphrey Spender set out to document the working class of late 1930’s Bolton.
Spender amassed a large body of work. However, according to John Taylor in ‘A Dream of England. Landscape, Photography and the Tourists’ Imagination’ (2007) he found this kind of street reportage intrusive and difficult. He was acutely aware of class differences between observers (Spender) and observed (the working class of Bolton).
As a photographer I have always enjoyed the challenge of ‘street reportage’ work as part of my practice. However, while I do not feel a class consciousness I do have reservations about this approach for my project. As can be seen from another of my initial images compared with Spender’s image I’m not sure I can add anything further to this particular line of enquiry or quantify what national identity means to me personally.
Diary Entry – 6th February 2009 - Match stalk men
My wife Kate and I drive over the Peak District to Manchester. The Peak District is covered in snow. Hundreds of miles of dry stone walls stark black against the white of the drifted snow. For Kate the wild beauty of the Peak District and the natural landscape represents an essential aspect of her Englishness.
It’s our first trip to the Lowry Gallery in Salford’s multimillion pound regeneration complex. We’re here for a talk given by photographer Jem Southam whose latest work follows in the footsteps of L S Lowry’s coastal images, the seldom seen coast which surrounds the Lake District. Lowry was probably the first painter I discovered as a youngster. For me Lowry is a very English artist and I particularly like the painting. It is an image I decide which may align with my own approach to my sense of Englishness.
Lowry is a very English artist. The Industrial North, the detached nature of his honest abstract landscapes appeal to me. Lowry shows no romantic notion of the English cottage garden or village scene. One of Lowry’s paintings in the gallery Manchester City v Sheffield United is particularly relevant and nostalgic to me.
In his lecture Jem Southam is self deprecating and he touches on the Englishness of his work which addressing environmental concerns has a melancholy and nostalgic quality. On his trips Southam met many men walking their dogs; men who’d been made redundant, too young to retire and too old to ever find work again.
My own working life began in an Unemployment Benefit Office at the time when huge numbers of Sheffield steelworkers and coalminers were being made redundant. It is only now that I’m beginning to realise just how much the area around my hometown Chesterfield has had a profound effect on my political thinking. My Englishness has been forged closer to home than I realise.
Diary Entry – 7th February 2009 – United against Racism
I’m at the local derby football match Sheffield United v Sheffield Wednesday. It’s my first visit to see the United this season. Football, an English invention, is a complex social phenomenon relying on a type of religious fervour and partisan loyalty for its continued success. There is tension in the air. This is not an occasion when the city comes together in joyous unity. There is a heavy organised police presence with most of them in full riot gear. The crowd is predominantly white. There are one or two black faces but rarely does one see any Asians despite the ground being in a largely Asian area. Banners and advertising hoardings reading “United against Racism” declare the clubs commitment to stamping out race discrimination in football, a policy supported by the Football League and FA. Both sides contain black players some of whom are English by birth. The only racist comment I hear comes from a supporter behind me who incensed with one player’s performance declares the player useless, ginger haired, Irish and illegitimate or words to that effect.
I cannot identify with discrimination and racism in searching for my national identity although I don’t deny it exists. There is no doubt that immigration has and will continue to cause problems as the country seeks to adjust itself, but xenophobia is not part of my Englishness and I believe strongly that I share this belief with the majority. As Orwell states
“English people in large numbers will not accept any creed whose dominant notes are hatred and illegality” (Orwell, 1944).
For me the presence of diverse cultures represents what Kumar describes as
“ the new hybrid, multicultural Britain, humming with new kinds of food, music, clothes, literature, religions, marriage patterns, family styles and, potentially at least, a new politics.” (Kumar, 2003).
I am increasingly aware of the multi faceted nature of English society and to capture this photographically is problematic. Susan Sontag (1984) argues that photography can create either a false sense of unity or show a world of alienation. I wish to do neither; my work can only be my version, my bias, and my personal reflection on Englishness.
Photography – Tony Ray-Jones and the American Influence
Tony Ray-Jones (1941 – 1972) sought to continue the work of Sir Benjamin Stone but was equally influenced by the directions taken in American photography and practitioners such as Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. On returning from America, Ray-Jones was keen not only to document Englishness in a new way but was concerned for what he saw as the gradual Americanisation of the country ( Appendix 3). By expressing these concerns we again see an anxiety for loss of culture and national identity in his work.
Diary Entry – Sunday 8th February 2009 – Nostalgia and the rural idyll.
The English love of nostalgia is the key to the popularity of the BBC’s ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ and the monetary value we place on it. Following this the safe Sunday period drama ‘Larkrise to Candleford’ set around 1895 tells the story of Oxfordshire folk through the eyes of young Laura. The imagery and photography presented in this drama is the romantic notion of England, the rural idyll. The ‘chocolate box’ England we are led to believe existed before the great industrial upheaval at the turn of the 19th century. These semiotics are frequently used to define national identity and a shared sense of unity. As John Taylor points out in ‘A Dream of England’,
“The need to sustain the rural idyll derives from the need of the English to define themselves and remain united as a nation” (Taylor 1994).
Diary Entry – Tuesday 10th February 2009 – They!
On today’s news on BBC Radio Four the former bosses of the two biggest UK casualties of the banking crisis have apologised for their banks failure. The Royal Bank of Scotland simultaneously announces it is to make 2,300 job cuts. The Leader of the Opposition David Cameron takes the opportunity to suggest the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, make a similar apology. If cynicism is an English quality then I have it in abundance for I find all this public show of committee meetings, apologies, claims and counter claims merely “spin”. In my younger days I had a youthful idealism and couldn’t comprehend why others did not engage more in the political process. “They are all the same” was, and still is, a familiar refrain, but as I get older I find myself agreeing with these sentiments. Orwell surprises me at how English I sound,
“English political thinking is much governed by the word ‘They’. ‘They’ are the higher-ups, the mysterious powers who do things to you against your will. But there is a widespread feeling ‘They’, though tyrannical, are not omnipotent. ‘They’ will respond to pressure if you take the trouble to apply it” (Orwell, 1944).
Following the photographic tradition – Searching for my Englishness
Early on in the project I found it easier to pinpoint what I didn’t want to produce rather than what I did in terms of photographic output. There’s an awful lot of photographic historical context to go at but while this is obviously relevant, interesting and of influence to my own practice, for me personally there was something missing. Going out into the country to capture what a recognised interpretation of Englishness may yield results but ultimately just look derivative of past approaches. To reproduce the aesthetics of Stone, Spender, Ray Jones and McCullin would reveal nothing of my own thought processes Furthermore I am aware of the limitations of art and photography in expressing identity. This is best summed up by Liz Wells,
“Thus art may be seen as feeding our need for a clear sense of identification and of cultural belonging. This is a continuous process of apprehension and reassurance, since identity is neither uniform nor fixed, and is constantly subject to challenge and shift. In other words, any sense of self location acquired through the contemplation of the photographic image is temporary. Indeed desire for reassurance may be one of the factors propelling us to keep on looking at images” (Wells, 2004).
Diary Entry – Wednesday 11th February 2009 – Super Students
Brookfield Primary School in Shirebrook, Nottinghamshire is in a very working class area, although I dislike how English society classifies itself this way into Upper, Middle and Working. Shirebrook is a small town which expanded rapidly at the turn of the century when its underlying coal was mined to feed the countries rapid industrial expansion. Shirebrook Colliery no longer exists and on the site now is a massive warehouse dedicated to selling sports clothes over the World Wide Web.
It’s a special day at the school. Approaching half term some of the pupils are to be rewarded with special certificates and many family members, who have the time, are in attendance. The ultimate reward of “Super Student” is nominated and voted for by all the teachers. The whole school routed for and celebrated those students who’d worked hard enough to merit the badge they wear so proudly on their chests. Working in education these days is extremely taxing, but the Headteacher’s creative thinking ensures the curriculum is both challenging and enjoyable. There’s a strong sense of community in this school and it is here where I begin to feel a real sense of my Englishness and formulate how I wish to approach my images.
English humour and satire – ‘Till Death us Do Part’
Dad believes humour, the ability to laugh at ourselves is a unique English characteristic. I credit him with my sense of humour. I was brought up on Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Will Hay, Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, Morecombe and Wise and other national favourites. One comedy I was allowed to watch although at my young age I couldn’t possibly have fully understood was ‘Till Death us Do Part’ which centred around the sexist, bigoted and racist Londoner Alf Garnett whose weekly tirades left my Dad in fits of laughter. The English are particularly good at satire and this was satire at its best; holding a mirror to prevalent attitudes of the time.
Photography and satire - Martin Parr.
Martin Parr speaks at the Derby Format Festival 09 of his “love/hate relationship” with England. It is a feeling that I have come very much to associate with since embarking on this project and my own considerations. Parr’s early work particularly, followed in the path of Tony Ray-Jones but was much more direct and intrusive in its approach. Parr it would seem has a very cynical view of Englishness. He is much more prepared to show the country as divided and fractured than his predecessors. The problem I find with Parr’s work is that it takes the stance (although Parr is English) of an outsider looking in. There seems to be little engagement with the subjects themselves in an attempt to understand the lives of the individuals. It could be argued that Parr is often holding England up for ridicule for the benefit of a section of our society that does not see itself in the same mould. Val Williams touches on this aspect in her book on Parr (see Appendix 4).
Parr makes us aware of sections of our society that others are either unaware of or choose to ignore. In this sense his work calls into question a collective national identity and unity, showing England divided and fractured. It is a point that can be illustrated in one of my diary entries.
Diary Entry – 16th February 2009 – Stranger in a strangers land
Walking around the centre of Derby there is nothing I can identify with. It’s been a slow realisation; nothing I want to buy and nobody I particularly want to talk to or engage with. I feel a like a stranger in a city full of strangers. At one point I walk past a teenage youth who’s with his mother or carer and some smaller children. He’s scruffy and wearing a hooded track suit top pulled up over his head and he’s agitated about something, “you can have me sectioned if ya want to, I don’t fuckin care” and he proceeds to kick out at the bus shelter he’s walking past. Nobody is alarmed by this outburst. Later at home I speak of feelings of isolation in Derby to Kate who nods with understanding. At this stage I’m still finding the notion of an English identity problematic. My feelings are mixed and often contradictory. There are times when I feel a like stranger amongst people who, on the face of it I have nothing in common with, but yet I am supposed to share a common national identity with. At other times I am comfortable amongst friends and family who give me a sense of who I am and where I have come from.
Diary Entry – Monday 16th February 2009 – Flying the flag or not!
As a youngster a trip to Sheffield on the train was my first attempt at independence. Known as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, Sheffield stood up to the Thatcher years as best it could. Sitting in Sheffield’s Winter Gardens I take a coffee and a slice of carrot cake in an attempt to observe Englishness. Sat next to me are a young lad and his grandmother eating a pack of sandwiches they’ve just purchased from Marks and Spencers. The plastic wrapping around the sandwiches has a small Union Jack on the label to reinforce that this is ‘locally produced’. It is the only national symbol I see all day. England is not a country for overt national symbolism, and given my current cynicism of nationalism as constructed myth, I’m quite relieved. Paxman shares my view,
“What does this paucity of national symbols mean? You could argue that it demonstrates a certain self confidence. No English person can look at the swearing of allegiance that takes place in American schools every day without feeling bewilderment: that sort of public declaration or patriotism seems so, well naïve” (Paxman 1999).
A short walk through the gardens brings me to the outdoor Peace Gardens which have recently been renovated. I am drawn to a modest plaque which reads “These cascades are dedicated to the memory of Samuel Holberry Sheffield Chartist Leader 1814 – 1842. He died in York Castle on the 21st of June 1842 (aged 28) after suffering two years imprisonment for his part in the Sheffield rising of January 1840. He gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England. A democratic society that would guarantee freedom equality and security for all”.
It is twenty five years since the Miner’s Strike. The BBC is marking the occasion by exploring the after effects of the year-long dispute which for those living in the affected areas is self evident. It is a period (1984) which in many ways shaped my political thinking and subliminally my ambivalence towards nationalism as promoted by politicians. Margaret Thatcher had no thoughts for national unity when she described the striking Miners as “the enemy within”. I resented this for the way it attempted to segregate a section of society in the national consciousness, when it suited a politician to do so.
Influences – Daniel Meadows, The Bus and Portraiture
The idea of traveling around the country on a Double Decker bus has always appealed to me. Not surprisingly therefore, is that the first photo book I should own is Daniel Meadows ‘Living Like This’ . Meadows was and continues to be concerned with Englishness (Appendix Note 5). This work and his subsequent companion piece, ‘The Bus – The Free Photographic Omnibus 1973 – 2001’ plus the Lowry image discussed earlier have been influential on my own body of work for this project.
What appeals to me about Meadows work is the environmental portraiture approach he uses. Furthermore whilst returning in the late nineties, re photographing as many of his original subjects as he could find, interviewing and documenting their life stories, Meadows is aware of the limitations of photography. A single image cannot fully document the lives, hopes and fears of its subjects. Acknowledging that, as Liz Wells points out “identity is neither uniform nor fixed, and is constantly subject to challenge and shift” (Wells, 2004).
For me, his methodology is a more dignified response to the subject. The environmental portraiture approach has always appealed to me and is a way of working I like to adopt. On the one hand it is a posed portrait; the subject is self conscious and has an element of control over their appearance. This runs the risk of the image being viewed as artificial. On the other hand, the sitting has been negotiated with the subject and as photographer I feel a responsibility towards them. Paul Hill states,
You have a closer, more direct relationship with the person, which leads to a more responsible attitude towards them as a subject, rather than a ‘victim’. (Hill, 1982).
Jo Spence elaborates on this sentiment in ‘Cultural Sniping - The Art of Transgression’ by stressing the desire for reciprocity in documentary photography. That an exchange of knowledge and information is necessary around the subject otherwise an imbalance of power exists and the transaction is unfair. It is these considerations, the work of Daniel Meadows and my own personal reflections of Englishness which have pointed me in the direction of photographing family, friends and close acquaintances in an environmental portraiture style. However I am aware of the ambiguous nature of the portrait in defining identity. It is important to remember as Graham Clarke points out in ‘The Portrait in Photography’
“The photograph displaces rather than represents the individual. It codifies the person in relation to other frames of reference and other hierarchies of significance.” (Clarke,1992).
Diary Entry – 17th February 2009 – Whatever you do take Pride!
I’ve arranged to photograph Heather, the landlady of my local public house, for my project. I’ve reasoned that the pub is an essential part of Englishness and furthermore plays a part in my own national identity. The English like to drink and always have done. My decision to photograph Heather in an environmental portraiture style reflects my thoughts on Englishness and on the concerns for portraiture previously discussed.
My Granddad Greaves liked a pint of beer or two in his local, The Steelmelters Arms. According to my Aunty, it’s where a lot of his money went. In my younger days friends and I would regularly search out pubs listed nationally in the Good Beer Guide produced by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). CAMRA a very English organization was formed to protect both the English pub and the skilful art of producing locally brewed beer. Heather at The Gate owns her own pub in which she serves a selection of Real Ale from different parts of the country, Black Sheep from Yorkshire, Everards Tiger from Leicester and London Pride from London. The pub is welcoming, homely and has a real fire; it’s a very English establishment. By photographing Heather in this way I feel I am capturing an essence of England, my concerns and an aspect of personal history.
England: The Personal and Family History
My Mum and my Nana were in Maryport near Carlisle the day the end of the Second World War was announced. They’d gone to see Mum’s Aunt Lucy and Mum remembers Nana overhearing the locals talking about it. For my family and many more across the country the War didn’t end for several more months until my Granddad came home from the Far East where he had been held for three years as a Japanese Prisoner of War. He never spoke of the horrors he must have witnessed, but there are those who have. He came home to an uncertain future, no job and an England that desperately needed rebuilding. Discussing the Second World War Paxman states how a war supposedly brings a nation together,
“Because World War Two and its aftermath was the most recent occasion on which the English had a clear sense of common purpose” (Paxman 1999).
In quiet moments of contemplation I often think of my Granddad Rankin. He died of cancer in 1976. I’ve thought about him a lot during this project trying to define my own Englishness.
Granddad Greaves was a Derbyshire Miner for over forty years and for his services received a small ‘gold’ medal. A small and extremely robust man he died when he was 94, an unexpectedly old age for a retired miner to reach.
Aunty Marion is my Godmother which was very important to her and a source of much pride. Aunty Marion and Uncle Jim go to church every Sunday to the 8.00am service; they are Church of England. They have seven grandchildren and I am shown a photograph of each and updated about their well being and individual personalities. This is what photography excels at and as practitioners we should remember this fact. The credit crunch is affecting their savings; debt is anathema to my Aunty and Uncle. We talk over a cup of tea and a slice of homemade lemon cake. My Aunty tells me, “Your Grandmother always used to say, politicians feather their own nest first”. Cynicism it appears runs in the family and I still find I’m drawn to areas of protest.
Diary Entry – 21st February 2009 - Nine Years Nine Ladies Protest Site
Nowhere is a sense of Englishness more evident for me personally than at the Nine Ladies Protest site near Matlock, Derbyshire. For the past nine years a small community of people of all ages have camped and lived in all manner of makeshift accommodation determinedly protesting at the proposed quarrying of this beautiful part of the Peak District and the resultant desecration of the Nine Ladies Stone Circle on Stanton Moor. The site and its members encapsulate all those positive qualities of Englishness which have hitherto concerned me; cynicism of politics, a realistic and unbiased sense of the history of this country, a dogged determination and resistance to those who Orwell describes as “They”. The protestors have won their nine year David and Goliath struggle against the landowners. The Secretary of State has revoked the license to quarry at the site which existed prior to the forming of the Peak District National Park in 1951. It was important for me to get to know the protestors in order to document the camp. They are polite, erudite, intelligent, eccentric, pragmatic and as one would expect on first meeting amongst the English, a little reserved. Nevertheless, they understand and support my photographic intentions and treat me warmly. It takes time and trust before I can undertake some portraiture work for my project.
According to anthropologist Kate Fox (2004) I discover certain English traits in the way I am getting to know some of the site members. My ‘English’ patterns of behaviour I’ve adopted from birth are naturally taken for granted. It takes an anthropologist like Kate Fox to write a detailed, humorous and acutely observed book on English behavioural patterns. We are it transpires, private, reserved, self deprecating, ironic and we have a whole host of characteristics and social rules which make us what we are. It takes time to get to know people in this country, information is not mostly readily given and I am just as reserved with them initially, as they are with me. English identity has many facets.
Diary Entry – 26th April 2009 – The London Marathon
There are few occasions when I do not feel as profound a sense of being English as I do on this day. The London Marathon is one of the most popular, emotional and inspiring events of the sporting calendar. This is the day when 36,000 runners from all sections of society, who have trained hard through the long winter months make the streets of London their own, and despite the ‘credit crunch’ have raised over £46 million for a vast array of important charities. For every runner there are thousands more people who have sponsored and supported them. The challenge of running 26.2 miles is immensely hard and should not be undertaken lightly. It is events like this and Red Nose Day that demonstrate just how generous ordinary people can be. I am reminded of my friend ‘car boot Annie’ who gives her energy and time to run a weekly car boot stall, the proceeds of which she donates to our local hospice. It is people like Annie who epitomize my own personal sense of Englishness and draw me to my conclusion.
‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho is an allegorical novel essentially about Santiago, a boy who goes on a journey to find treasure only to arrive right back where he started, to find exactly what he had been looking for at his own home. I have photographed my family and friends because I find myself at much the same point. After months of research and deliberation I am driven to the conclusion that my own ‘English’ identity is deep within me, symbolically at my own front door. That my own identity and that of being English is as much shaped by my own personal history as it is by the Englishness defined by any academic notions of the subject; the country’s aspects of climate, social, political and cultural history. To ignore our own personal history is to ignore not just an essential part of who we are as individuals but what makes us all collectively English. We probably all have our own idea of what being English represents. I do not deny that English nationalism exists but it is difficult to deny that the nation state is not constructed by those it suits best: the politicians, the Established order, the monarchy, and the Church. Also that national identity is both multi faceted and continuously shifting. If I sound cynical and ambivalent it is because my own personal experiences, readings and education have ingrained within me this opinion. In many ways I am proud to be English and I could not envisage living anywhere else in the world, this is my home, but sometimes I am equally ashamed to be English. Nobody can deny that the English, or should I say British (and herein lies another complication), have had a lasting and profound influence on the rest of the world, but neither can it be denied that our history both at home and abroad is littered with barbarity and cruelty. For the ordinary person, those who would define themselves as working and middle class, our history has been one long struggle for rights and privileges. But is this opinion that I hold not a quintessential part of my Englishness and one of the very characteristics ascribed to the English?
As photographers we are often outsiders looking in and, therefore, only expected to respond visually to what is in front of us, backed up by the necessary research. While those photographers discussed in this essay have all concerned themselves with Englishness I felt there was another side to the subject which had not been shown or discussed. My research led me to approach this piece from a more personal viewpoint; to consider my own psychological Englishness. During this project I have felt the burden of being on the inside looking out, having to consider those aspects of Englishness, the mass of cultural, historical, political ‘baggage’ that an Englishman would necessarily take for granted and an outsider would be unaware of. Here is the dilemma which I feel, and in many ways leaves this project unresolved with scope for further investigation.
If at times I have anxieties about being ‘English’, if at times my Englishness is not part of the mainstream, that I have doubts about a perceived nationalism and unity, I take heart from Paxman in his conclusion, who seems to be in agreement with my own findings. That nationalism is much closer to home than we realise,
“The new nationalism is less likely to be based on flags and anthems. It is modest, individualistic, ironic, solipsistic, concerned as much with cities and regions as with counties and countries. It is based on values so deeply embedded as to be almost unconscious. In an age of decaying nation states it might be the nationalism of the future.” (Paxman 1999).
My series of images attempt to capture, by means of environmental portraiture, my feelings towards my nationality, a personal reflection of Englishness. The images are of friends, family and close acquaintances through which I also attempt to show a quintessential Englishness. The images are less about the subjects themselves, although I did aim to capture certain aspects of their personalities, but more about how I define my national identity. They are of people who in many ways have shaped and represent my current thinking on Englishness and have in a sense brought me, like Santiago, back home.
Extract from page 9 McCullin Don, (1987) Perspectives, London, Harrap
“I’m not an optimist. I’m a terrible pessimist. I suppose that’s why my landscape skies are so dark and why my pictures are so dark – It’s part of my pessimism. I do not offer much hope for a better society in the future. There are far too many complications at the moment with four million unemployed people with nothing but time and despair on their hands”
Don McCullin, 1987
Extracts from Customs and Faces. Photographs by Sir Benjamin Stone 1838 – 1914. Bill Jay. Academy Editions. London 1972
He wrote “I look upon photography as being especially useful in correcting history. It is marvellous how soon after an event a clear, accurate account of it is possible to be obtained. If a photograph were taken of it, and the names of the persons engaged were clearly added to the photograph, it would be a permanent and absolute witness”
Quote from Morning Leader September 1899
Sir Benjamin’ photographs were taken “always with the same object – to show those who will follow us, not only our buildings, but our everyday life, our manners and customs. Briefly, I have aimed at recording history with the camera, which I think, is the best way of recording it”.
“there is a great deal to be done in the direction of everyday things around us … I have myself been interested in taking records of ancient customs which still linger in remote villages. These have an important bearing on the earlier history of our country, and indicate in a remarkable manner the true source of many epoch making incidents in the story of British freedom and progress”
Extract from A Record of England – Sir Benjamin Stone & The National Photographic Record Association, 1897 -1910
In July 1897, in a flourish of publicity, Sir Benjamin Stone – Birmingham industrialist, Member of Parliament and passionate, almost obsessive collector, announced the formation of the National Photographic Record Association (NPRA).
Extract from Tony Ray-Jones by Roberts Russell
‘My aim is to communicate something of the spirit and the mentality of the English, their habits and their way of life, the ironies that exist in the way they do things, partly through tradition and partly through the nature of their environment…For me there is something very special and rather humorous about the ‘English way of life’ and I wish to record if from my particular point of view before it becomes more Americanised. We are at an important stage in our history, having in a sense just been reduced to an island or defrocked and, as De Gaulle remarked, left naked.’
Tony Ray-Jones, Creative Camera, 1968
Extract from Williams Val, (2002) Martin Parr, London, Phaidon Press Ltd
“The problem with Parr’s photography one might suggest is not with the pictures themselves, but with its crucial core audience, a raft of critics, art directors and commissioning editors who see themselves (like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited) in Parr’s photography something that both delights and terrifies them: he greasy fingered tabloid reading people who eat in their cars, who shout and brawl, and who are apart from European culture. Parr has shown, both gently and violently that the British are the most fascinating of cultural barbarians. Perhaps innocently, perhaps not Parr has pandered to people’s fears of themselves, their wish to be anything but British”
Extract from Daniel Meadows – The Free Photographic Omnibus 1973 – 2001, The Harvill Press, London.
“As a photographer my principal subject matter was – and remains – the English people. I’m not interested in celebrities, just ordinary folk. In 1973 I was an incipient hippie, contemptuous of “straight” society. Like many of my generation I grew my hair long and wore my bell-bottoms wide. I wanted to explore “alternative” ways of living. I genuinely believed that by doing so I might be able to help change the world.”
“What I am trying to achieve is a social document of what ordinary life is like. Newspapers, to a certain extent document what life is like in England, but it’s more by accident than design; because they tend to photograph the sensational things, the exceptional things, whereas I want to photograph the ordinary things we do every day and in life;
“The best portraits are always collaboration. They rely for their success on a creative tension between the photographer and his subject. The person being photographed tries to show off his or her best side, whereas the photographer tries to get beyond this performance, beneath the surface”
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Grimston Jack, (2009) Cure for the Facebook Generation, The Sunday Times, 1st Feb, P. 3
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Macintyre Ben, (2008) Private. Snoopers/good neighbours keep out, The Times, 27th Nov, P.37
Malvern Jack, (2009) We are open – just pay in the honesty box, The Times, 2nd Jan, P.8
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Phillips Dom, (2008), Tribute to an unlikely hero. The Times times2 Artsscreen, 20th Nov. Pp 11 -12
Power Helen, (2008), Woolworths stores to close after Christmas. The Times, 27th Nov. P11
Purves Libby, (2009) Saturday drunks and disorder…then at 3am the trouble starts, The Times, 19th Jan, P.21
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