August 16th, 2008 admin

In a recent post, Jennifer Hodgson, a commentator on English culture, observed what she considered to be the anachronistic nature of this project.  She thought that the events I had chosen to photograph, and the components that constituted them, were archetypally English, drawing on nostalgic visual codes and serving to underline an imagined view of England, one that was not necessarily rooted in contemporary reality.  This raises many interesting questions. 

Firstly, perhaps there is the presumption that any attempt to record Englishness is part of an attempt to re-construct it or re-define it, as opposed simply to recording what one finds.  In other words, I don’t have an agenda, as Tony Ray-Jones did, for example, when he set out in the late 1960s to record the English way of life before it became more Americanised. 

Indeed, a selection of the ideas for this project have come from my website, where people have posted up their suggestions of events for me to photograph.  This is important, as the photographs reflect a generalized, hopefully widespread visualization of England, not just my own vision.  These events do, however, reflect people’s conception of and notion of Englishness.  Many of them are traditional fetes, fairs, races and sports activities, which can appear rather mundane, or unimaginative; English life at its most predictable and stereotypical.  But this is not a kind of unconscious national attempt to consolidate a frail notion of English identity. It is, I believe, a simple reflection of local life for the majority of people. 

On the whole, people are doing what they have always done; they congregate in open spaces, on the beach or beside lakes and rivers, they eat food and drink and spend time with friends and family.  They play sport and listen to music; they really do converge on the village green or the nearest playing field.  Seen from this perspective, we may appear, as a nation, to lack diversity in terms of how we express our preferences and interests.  Additionally, there are a number of traditional English elements to an event, for example, Punch and Judy shows or Morris Dancing that are enjoying a revival.  The current enthusiasm for fetes, fairs and festivals is a reflection of changing fashions and such events are definitely in vogue once again.

This is my personal, grass roots experience.  There is no doubt, however, that county councils and large organizations are utilising traditional ideas and references to market their events. This is a point that I want discuss in more detail in a later post, however, I just want to highlight one such example now. In many ways the Gloucestershire cheese rolling festival could be seen as an extreme example of Englishness being bottled and branded, with television coverage, a press compound and a £300 fee just for a photographer like me to record the event.  I chose not to do so because I felt uneasy with the cynical self-consciousness on the part of the organizers to present the world with what they believed was typical Englishness (or maybe the event has just become a victim of its on success). Clearly, the cheese rolling has become a media circus and bares very little relation to ‘normal’ life.


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