England has never been exactly glamorous. For much of the 20th century, a sunny day was the perfect excuse to wear a knotted handkerchief on your head, stride around in plus-fours, and eat whelks. And that was just the women. In 2012, England’s leisure scene is so much more organised and sophisticated, and the nation is bursting with events of all kinds: festivals, regattas, country-house concerts, sporting fixtures, jollies and jamborees. Why, then, do so many of the English still insist on embarrassing themselves, wearing laughable clothing, eating terrible food and behaving inappropriately?
That was the question on the mind of photojournalist Peter Dench, when he set out on a photographic tour of England. The 40-year-old English photographer wanted to create a comprehensive portrait of a the first decade of 21st-century England. Dench didn’t want to produce a glossy, idealised brochure of a green and pleasant land: he wanted the truth, warts and all. No bizarre or outrageous sight would escape his view. He was perfectly qualified for the job, having already won a World Press Award for a candid series of photographs revealing the effects of alcohol on men and women across England.
Alcohol would inevitably feature prominently in this project as well – because whether you’re living it up at Henley Regatta or at a hen party in Blackpool, the nation’s favourite legal high is never far away. But perhaps more shocking is the food we see people eating in Dench’s pictures. In a nation where people buy billions of cookbooks, and TV chefs wage campaigns to educate supermarkets and dinner ladies, why are so many grown men and women – even the posh ones – still wolfing down all these hot dogs and burgers, meat pies and hideous mixed grills in public? You can almost whiff the aromas as Dench’s camera homes in on each paper plate of suspect nutrition. Perhaps it’s the food, the drink, the weather or something deeper, but so many of the people participating in England’s rituals look disappointed and confused, as if they can’t quite understand why they’re not having the marvelous time they were expecting.
The photographs take us to famous parts of the country, such as Lord’s cricket ground, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and Stonehenge – where Dench shows us a couple snogging with the ancient stones as a backdrop. But the pictures also introduce us to some of England’s more unusual events, such as the War & Peace Show in Beltring, Kent – which calls itself “the largest military vehicle spectacular in the world”, and gives civilians a licence to dress up as Nazi soldiers and drive around in tanks. Dench caught many of the uniformed shenanigans, but also, more poignantly, took portraits of women kitted out as 1940s British housewives, complete with a bemused real child in a vintage pram. And he went to Banbury, Oxfordshire, for the annual Hobby Horse Festival, which is attended by those who enjoy dressing up as horses for the purposes of morris-dancing. The looks on the faces of the Banbury public, as these equine impersonators trot and prance among them, are priceless. And many people who view these extraordinary images of modern England will have similar incredulous and amused expressions on their faces.