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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

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.