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Only in England: no longer

October 13, 2017

It’s time to say farewell to Charlie and Sarah Hannah Greenwood. This elderly brother and sister couple, living their hard life with dignity, have been an almost palpable presence in the gallery over the summer months.


Sarah Hannah Greenwood at Thurrish Farm, Crimsworth Dean. ©Martin Parr / Magnum Photos


The images by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr which make up Only in England have become like family to me. I have spent more time with them than I have with any other collection of photographs and, there’s no denying it, they got under my skin. I shall miss the man with the monkey snuggled inside his jacket, the mouse man and the cabbage man, the grumpy family huddled under umbrellas eating bananas in the rain. 


Tony Ray-Jones, Brighton, 1967 © National Science and Media Museum


I wonder what became of the boy hiding behind the war memorial spraying imaginary bullets from his plastic machine gun at an outdoor congregation. Whatever happened to the girl on Brighton Beach? She had it all: the portable record player and a stack of 45s, the Julie Driscoll haircut and eye makeup, the watch, the shades, the leather jacket.


Three local chapels combine to have an outdoor service, Halifax. ©Martin Parr / Magnum Photos


Tony Ray-Jones, Brighton Beach, 1967 © National Science and Media Museum


Photographs, with their aura of authenticity and truth-telling, are often presented as the answers to questions but they beg questions of their own. We believe we are shown what happened at this moment, but are compelled to ask what happened before this moment and what happened after this moment. In the absence of answers we are forced to construct our own narratives, to become authors. The act of seeing becomes one of creation. 


Martin Parr’s photograph of a butcher’s shop in Mytholmroyd is a case in point. For me, the image communicates an indefinable melancholy. Two people share the same space and yet seem so distant from each other. (Both Parr and Ray-Jones are masters of capturing images which show people occupying the same physical space but who seem to be entirely apart, unconnected.) This distance, however, is most likely my own construction, an interpretation of a frozen moment with no before or after context to inform my authorship. A brief film might show this moment to be but an atypical instance from an afternoon filled with conversation and laughter. The power (and the danger) of the still image is its abstraction from the flow of time.


Mytholmroyd. ©Martin Parr / Magnum Photos


The flow of time is, however, inexorable. The past is ever more distant and with distance it changes. The England of these images is not the one I remember from the 60s and 70s. I don’t recall a monochrome stoicism, but a colourful time of discovery and excitement. The year in which Tony Ray-Jones photographed a dismal-looking summer was the year in which Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I remember where I heard it for the first time as a pre-teen. I’m no synaesthete yet I cannot but hear this album in full colour. As Martin Parr recorded the vanishing way of life of the nonconformist communities of the Calder Valley in the long hot summer of 1976, my peers and I were listening to Dylan’s Desire and the Thin White Duke crooning Tiomkin and Washington’s Wild is the Wind. There is not one past, there are as many as we live, recall and construct.


As I write, the man with the chair on his head at Brick Lane Market, the boy in the hole dug on Margate beach and the Blackpool sun worshipper wearing his suit and tie with his handkerchief tucked over his eyes behind his spectacles are moving on in time and space, heading south in an unmarked lorry to their final venue. Next spring, after overwintering at Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth these photographs will be taken from their frames. They will be minutely examined by conservators and packed away in a carefully monitored and environmentally controlled place of storage, safe but unseen. There, while we continue to reconstruct our memories, they will remain. Unchanging.




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