The English, Seen

I’ve been sneaking a peek at photographer Simon Roberts’ work-in-progress We English. He and his family have hit the road in a campervan; he’s documenting scenes from English life to produce a photographic journal of life in England in 2008. You can follow his progress on his blog here.

After a stint in Russia – which produced the startling monograph Motherland – Roberts is turning his lens homeward. In impulse and in method, his English journey reprises the Anglocentric turn of culture in the mid twentieth century moment, when the British Empire’s sun finally set and ravaged by German bombers, English culture began the anxious work of reevaluating, reinterpretating and reconstructing in pursuit of a national identity it seemed to have mislaid.

What’s interesting about Simon Roberts’ work is that his English journey seems so anachronistic. Taking in Cromer Fair, Midhurst Carnival and lawn bowls at Weston-Super-Mare, Roberts’ aesthetic is squarely rooted in the mid century moment. Roberts cites scenes from English life first seen in the work of Bill Brandt, Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. And this is no criticism of Roberts’ endeavour; what his shooting itinerary highlights is how these elements have become a visual grammar of Englishness. On the present, what these archaisms reveal is the pervasive nostalgic feedback loop at the heart of the English cultural imagination.

The same was true of the mid century period during which this photographic lexicon first emerged. As now, these depictions of English life were already old photographs of the present day. Ray-Jones’s knowing archaism, his black and white pathos, was, in his words, the attempt ‘to record the “English way of life” before it becomes more Americanised’. Again, there’s this sense of shoring up a frail culture against its immiment demise.

Ray-Jones needn’t have worried. In Roberts’ (and others’) representations of Englishness, we see that Americanisation is no match for good old English nostalgia, indeed, these archaisms are England – at least in our imagination.


Beachy Head and Beauty Contest, Southport by Tony Ray-Jones

Wot, no Momus?

Inclement weather has stopped play this Whitsun Bank Holiday Monday, so take a look at Caledonia Dreaming, BBC4’s documentary about – ahem – the “hidden history of Scottish pop music”. There’s been moaning n’ groaning elsewhere about this doc’s obvious omissions and its rather strange chronology. If, like me, however, you get excited when stuff you like is on the telly – or you’re dead fond of BBC stock footage of post-industrial malaise – you’ll be keen.

Perhaps skip through its disproportionate focus on “Blue Eyed Soul”, though, unless you’re really into Marti Pellow.

Some delicate, if hasty, dishes


Before Heston Blumenthal there was Eduardo de Pomaine, a French scientist and food writer, whose Cooking in 10 Minutes adapts French Edwardian cooking to the pace of modern life in postwar France. The slim volume, published in 1948, reads something like Delia Smith (in …Cheat mode) via Raymond Queneau.

de Pomaine’s food science is pragmatist – not nouvelle – cuisine (faggots and French onion, not foam and emulsion), but as a moonlighting bacteriologist, his recipes have an unsettling touch of the Frankensteins. His no-nonsense bark makes a pleasant change from Nigel Slater’s ever-priapic food poetics.

It’s his cantankerous interjections, however, together with gross-out, austerity-era recipes, delivered with a scientist’s lack of squeamishness, that really make this funny food-novella. What’s more, de Pomaine’s convenience cookery is not the stuff of “cash rich/time poor” Sunday supplement quick suppers, in fact, he’s quite the old romantic:

My book is meant for the student, for the midinette, for the clerk, for the artist, for lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers and scientists, for everyone who has only an hour for lunch or dinner and yet wants half an hour of peace to watch the smoke of a cigarette whilst they sip a cup of coffee which has not even time to get cold.

Modern life spoils so much that is pleasant. Let us see that it does not make us spoil our steak or our omelette. Ten minutes are sufficient – one minute more and all would be lost.

His profile, from the Pasteur Institute where he worked as a physician, is here.

There is a homosexual pancreas in the closet

Usually it began like this. Two spindly women clattering in their stack heels give chase. Julie’s garb is the ammonia-smelling wardrobe of the junkshop. Celine is one of those dangly women, made of lolling lips, feathercut and bosoms.

I tried to write a thing about Jacque Rivette’s lovely, extravagent Celine and Julie Go Boating. At the moment, it’s still stuck in that not-yet-ready stage: gross generalisations and cod mysticism. For now, there’s plenty of ponderous Deleuzing elsewhere on the ‘net.

I wish I had Paul McCartney to help me

May Jacqueline Taieb‘s 7 Heures du Matin soundtrack your walk to work:

For me, French-Tunisian Taieb’s jaunty lament about the tragedy of having to get out of bed in the morning is yé yé perfection. It’s winking insolent chatter, interspersed with – talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation – fragments of the early pop meteorites of The Beatles, Chuck Berry and The Who. Yé yé was France’s cultural call-and-response to the British invasion and American rock and roll, ventriloquised via a rotating assortment of ingenues. What’s different about Taeib’s Sept Heures du Matin, is here she’s actually singing along to Swinging Radio England, miming yé yé’s influences straight back into a hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror.

A warning: the English version – as with so much – is a bit of a let down.

Of course, a post about yé yé couldn’t possibly be complete without a quick Gainsbourg anecdote:
When France Gall, singer of the Gainsbourg-penned Les Sucettes, caught wind of a possible second meaning behind his ode to aniseed lollies their partnership (which also resulted in Eurovision winner Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son) immediately dissolved. Gainsbourg, the vaudeville iconoclast, riposted: “It’s the most daring song of the century”.

Well, see what you think; there’s winking and hair twiddling aplenty here:

The English translation is here.

Hmm.. this feels like to lead-in for something much more involved about sex and ‘baby pop’. Later, I think.

For now, there’s Yé Yé Land and news of a new Jacqueline Taieb album here.

Project for the Sinking of East Anglia

This story of Michael Claytonish econoia has been bubbling over at the Eastern Daily Press since they published leaked proposals put forward by Natural England to allow the sea to breach coastal defences along the nine mile stretch between Eccles and Winterton on the Norfolk coast. An entirely reasonable panic has spread throughout the letters pages of regional dailies. In a region this close to sea level, coastal erosion (or “realignment”, thanks Natural England!) is always hot topic.

Back in 2002, the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change research seemed optimistic. They produced virtual reality simulations of Norfolk’s coastlines, overlaying the projected results of climate change Norfolk countryside. The thought was that if residents and councils could see the results of climate change for themselves – albeit grafted onto some hokey, computer-modelled Norfolk vistas – they might be more willing to act. Ah yes, that sepia-toned period of recent history when this kind of thing seemed like slightly mediocre vamping for some far flung FuturePanic.

Still no closer to a solution, then, but now with some big emoting from subeditors – Neptune cometh and we shalt surrender to the briney blue. Nonetheless, this story has all the ingredients of a very modern ecodrama: class (commentary oscillates between cynicism and melodrama, depending on whether the North Norfolk chattering classes or Olde Anglian peasantry are providing human interest), the housing market, paranoia and faceless quangoish conspiracy.

Sentimental postscript: similar stuff at the unlikely surf bunny mecca and Hodgson family holiday destination (1987-1992), Cayton Bay.

Eastern Daily Press Q & A
See Happisburgh (pron. “Haysbrough”) here