We’re all going on a summer holiday

As the travel photography competition season draws to a close, what can the winning images teach us about escapism?

Summer is the season of frivolity in the art world. It’s a season for crazy golf atop Selfridges and story time on the Thames. It’s a time when any discerning curator will rebrand their latest “exhibition” (how dreary) with the ever more titillating title of “festival”.

In among all this hoopla is an event that never fails to perk up pleasure seekers: the annual travel photography contest, an almost obligatory undertaking for any publication considering itself photographically savvy.

The godfather of the tradition is National Geographic, whose 24-year-old competition garners worthy prestige, with over 12,000 photographs submitted this year alone and winners announced in late summer. Another 2012 favourite was The Travel Photographer of the Year, an independent contest set up by photographers Chris and Karen Coe in 2003, whose winning entries are currently exhibiting at the Royal Geographic Society. The Guardian, the Times, the Independent and the Telegraph each host their own respective versions throughout the summer months. 

So, what trends can be drawn from this year’s crop? Aside from technical prowess, it’s safe to say that pandering to a few tried-and-tested, peculiarly British escapist fantasies is sure to earn you a few points as well:

I’ll (try my very best not to) be your mirror

Skyscrapers and subways are ubiquitous. So try travelling further! Mongolia, Madagascar and northern Norway are all good choices. Preferably, portray the sort of lifestyle assumed to have gone bust with the invention of the internet: reindeer herding, sewing your own clothes, riding trains and stopping to talk with your neighbors are all considered especially quaint.

Wetter is better

Taking into account that the last great natural wonder many of us saw could be summed up by the equation “rain x month x 2 = drought “, there’s nothing like a grand old geyser to remind us that water can do so much more than spoil picnics and soak pageants. Don’t forget! Water is also the reason we have things like monumental glaciers, thousand-meter waterfalls and forests in South America where no one seems to mind that it rains all the time. Oh, and they also make beaches, too. Remember beaches? In some parts of the world they’re used for sunbathing.

Animals are beautiful people

Britain is rich in many things (jam, manners, hedges, euphemisms), but awe-inspiring wildlife is not one of them. The child-like delirium which gripped the nation upon reports that this was a lion suggests a country with a serious case of exotic-animal-fixation (aggravated by scarcity). Hence the fascination with belugas, tree snakes and Tibetan wild donkeys, an everyday reality in some parts of the world.

On the road

Photographs involving all variations on the theme of “open road + means of mobility” have proved popular once again. Be it “bicycle + Kansas motorway”, “sledge + snowy slope” or even “over packed black taxi + rugged Himalayan mountain trail”, the conclusion’s all the same: picturing a journey is often as good as portraying a destination. The appeal of the expedition is eternal - it’s a narrative of adversity, of rewards made sweeter by the pains of struggle. It’s the same narrative that makes us weepy when we watch marathons or around-the-world sailing competitions. If you can catch it on camera, so much the better.

Bagan Bliss: Peter DeMarco's photo of a livestock farmer in Burma was a National Geographic merit winner (PHOTO: Peter DeMarco)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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