England, My England
So perfect is the composition and the cacophony of the photograph above that on your first glance, you can almost wonder whether it is all staged. In his photo of holidayers at Blackpool, perhaps the best known of all the English holiday resorts, the photographer Chris Steele-Perkins delivered a masterclass in revealing the allure and the absurd behind deceptively simple surroundings.
The milieu was very British; the weather is gloomy, and the beach is littered. Blackpool’s omnipresent donkeys with their silly bows looked as if they have wandered into the wrong photograph. A muzzled dog urinates against the windbreak. But the central character of the scene looks imperturbable amidst the beaches’ sights, sounds and smells. The lounging man, his lunch lying next to him, is still wearing his formal socks as he rests yards away from the sea. He has ostensibly come to the beach to enjoy the elements, but his attire and demeanor suggest that he is as cocooned from the nature as sandwiches he has carefully wrapped away in aluminum foil. Beneath all his stoicism, his sense of discomfort is palpable. It was Steele-Perkins’ commentary on “Britishness” that invokes the best works of the satirist William Hogarth.
Chris Steele-Perkins is best known for his very first work “The Teds”, an immersive documentary on London’s Teddy Boy gangs, that captured not only the gangland culture but also fashion and life in the 70s London. His subsequent career recorded rural life in Durham, the Cumbria World Gurning Championships, life at St Thomas’ hospital and inner city racial conflicts. His current work in progress documents the often challenging lives of carers and the cared for. Chris presents a sweeping, unique mosaic of what he thinks makes England truly English. In his work throughout the 1980s and the 90s, Steele-Perkins offered a deeply pessimistic view of the British pursuit of pleasure. To him, this hedonism is not confined along class lines, noting his pictures “have nothing to do with celebrity or fame but of everyday-ness and how that can be special”. This view is reflected in a series of photos such as ‘Fightin a Night Club, London’, ‘Hospital Visit by Postman Pat and His Cat’ or ‘Juliana’s Summer Party, London’ collected in his aesthetically pleasing and cultural intriguing “The Pleasure Principle”. But ‘Blackpool Beach’ which was also included in the book is different; an ahedonistic tour de force, it is still, for millions of Britons, really is ‘the English at home’.