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Suited and booted: Martin Parr’s chronicles of the Great White Male

Martin Parr’s vision is simultaneously a celebration of the nuances of tribal behaviour and a gimlet-eyed stab at pretension and earnestness.

When I first encountered Martin Parr’s work in the 1980s I felt I had found an artist who articulated something about being British that I had never seen before, at once affectionate and teasing. I adored his cheeky records of dying working-class communities and scabrous portrayals of Thatcherite consumers. His way of looking at the world is now part of my way of looking at the world. He has achieved that Holy Grail of photography, a visual voice so distinctive that it has become an archetype. Parr-esque is now a burgeoning genre. His vision is simultaneously a celebration of the nuances of tribal behaviour and a gimlet-eyed stab at pretension and earnestness. He is an ideal chronicler of the Great White Male partly because he is one. He understands every detail of the code. He can turn the most nondescript character into a rich grotesque. He makes us laugh at the rich and powerful quaffing champagne and feel empathy with the underdog alone in his staffroom. No one can hide from the lens of Martin Parr – especially not Default Man. 

By Grayson Perry

 

Shrewsbury School, Shropshire (2010)
Martin Parr writes: Recently, I’ve been shooting in schools: the pupils’ noise can be briefly escaped from in the staffroom.
 
Karen Country Club, Nairobi (2010)
The British left Kenya more than 50 years ago, but pockets of colonial life are still to be found because, unlike in Zimbabwe, the whites have been allowed to stay and flourish. The Karen club in the capital is a good example of this colonial hangover.
 
Henley, Oxfordshire (2013)
The sanctuary of the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta. This is probably the most genuine part of “the season”, as it hasn’t been taken over by the marketing people. It really is like stepping back to the 1950s – and the bonus for me is that rowing blazers are very photogenic.
 
Cambridge United FC (2005)
This rather lowly football club, in League Two, is more accessible than the Premier League, where photographers are virtually banned.
 
Polo at Sandbanks, Dorset (2013) 
The British have great skill in attending sporting fixtures and not actually seeing the game or match in question.
 
George Osborne, London (2007)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer before he made the top job. This photo shoot for GQ magazine was highly orchestrated – but the PR person did not spot me shooting the last-minute tie preparations.
 
Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh (2011)
Some visitors to this summer fixture in the Scottish capital are, by nature, posh. Here, the crowd watches a parade. In the cattle pens, the atmosphere and personnel are very different: farmers from across Scotland come to this national event.
 
Art Basel, Miami Beach (2008)
This annual Florida art fair, which launched in 2002, is always a terrific place to take photos. There are never-ending possibilities for combining audience and art. Habitués of the art world are always entertaining.
 
Butler School (2001)
In deepest suburban London, a school grooms young men to become butlers. On this educational trip, they venture to Dunhill in the West End to learn the finer details of what makes a good smoke.
 
Salaryman, Tokyo (2000)
Japan’s salarymen are well known for being hard workers and enthusiastic drinkers and socialisers. Here, one takes a well-earned nap in the spring sunshine of the city. The Japanese are skilled at falling asleep anywhere and programming their waking to resume duties.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear