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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
Show Hide image

Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder