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David Bailey: “I like George Osborne. He makes sense to me”

The photographer on politics, the East End and his time as a debt collector.

How did you develop an interest in photography?

My first inspiration was finding out about Picasso. I used to draw and paint as a teenager, but my mother had a box Brownie camera. I started taking pictures because I wanted to take a picture of me looking like Chet Baker.

Up until I was 17 I did all sort of jobs, my last job being a bad debt collector on the Isle of Dogs. I was a gofer for Mickey Fox, a well-known boxing referee, in the East End. I then joined the air force and spent two years in Malaysia and Singapore.

It wasn’t until I saw a picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson that I started considering photography artistic. I liked the idea that a picture could come out of nothing. I used to pawn my camera so I could pay for the film.

You grew up in the East End. Has that part of London changed much, to you?

Yes, of course it has, it’s all gone.

I was born in Leytonstone; my mother was a real cockney, born in Bow. When I was about three and a half, the house next door was bombed. The first memory I have is of walking on glass, and I seemed to have been walking on glass until 1948.

I’ve been working on three books about the East End – one on the Sixties, another on the Eighties, and a third about now which includes 250 images, from which we’ve pulled 50 or 60 for Newham Council to be exhibited in the Royal Docks.

You’re 74 now. Do you feel that age affects creativity?

I’m probably more creative now because time is running out. You have to get a move on; you don’t get distracted by sex so much, or women. It’s easier to be creative because you’ve got all the tools.

Education is nothing. You can’t [change] somebody who is stupid. You can send them to university for three years, but they’re only ever educated, they aren’t intelligent. Education is political, it’s about politicians making themselves feel better about themselves. Why would I need a degree in literature to be a plumber? Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The only thing you can’t teach someone at art school is about art, because it has to come from inside.

You’ve spent a lot of your life photographing women. You obviously have a great knowledge of the opposite sex.

I certainly prefer the company of women, yes.

Is photography a craft, or an art form?

Anyone can be a craftsman. There’s no difference between taking a picture, or making a painting, or making a pot.

The most stupid phrase I’ve ever heard is “art photography”. Photography is an art, and it depends on whether the person doing it is an artist or not. What’s the difference between carrying a paintbrush and a camera?

Is it hard to take direction from editors?

I’m not an actor and I don’t perform like a monkey on a stick. You look at someone and sum them up. Within an hour, you suss them out. I see a man’s haircut, what watch he’s wearing. I watch their language and see what kind of space they take up. When Tina Brown, the editor I’ve worked with most over the years and who I love, used to say, “This bloke’s arrogant – can we show this?”, I used to say: “No, if I take a portrait of someone, it’s how I see them.” I’m not going to manipulate someone for some journalistic reason. How do you view the media today?

The media today are awful. They give people what they want. Journalism hasn’t changed; if you want the truth, never listen to the media.

Do you have any regrets?

No, what would I regret? If I had regrets, it would mean I had made some bad decisions.

Do you vote?

I’ve voted only once in my life and that was recently and that was for the Conservatives. I did sort of hate Blair for signing with Bush. I like George Osborne. He came here a couple of times; he had a sense of humour. He seemed to make sense to me. And I like Boris, because he brings a sense of life to politicians: the most dreary people in the world – who wants the country to be run by them? So Boris is a breath of fresh air and an amusement. He’s a bit of a joke, but he is a good joke.

Are we all doomed?

Yes. The biggest problem in the world is not some hedge-fund guy driving around making the world hotter. People are making the world hotter. The simple thing is that there are too many people and the biggest problem is population. Reduce the population and you’ll reduce pollution. The earth has a mind of its own: we will have plagues and wars because there are too many people. And history repeats itself – that’s why Blair should never have gone into Iraq.

Rebecca McClelland is photography editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.