Britain Before Brexit: a portrait of southwest England and its people
The Independent’s photographer Richard Morgan is examining his own country in the midst of Brexit’s chaos, scrutinising the contrasts of contemporary Britain and the ambivalence of modern Britishness. This week: southwest England
Britain is divided, by 12 regions, a statistical arrangement designed to help governments see the life of the population in graphs, charts and tables. I’m looking at Britain through these regions too, but not statistically, not through numbers that ignore the brilliant details of everyday life, but through the lens of my camera, on the ground, up close.
I take the 55 bus from Swindon to Royal Wootton Bassett on the centenary anniversary of Armistice Day and find uniformed men, women and children forming up in a car park behind Iceland. The town has come to represent modern Britain’s loss after its inhabitants came out en masse to mourn the 345 repatriations from Iraq and Afghanistan that passed through its high street in hearses between 2007 and 2011. I follow the marchers from the car park to the high street, its pavements lined with onlookers. We reach the cenotaph, where a two-minute silence is impeccably observed – sombrely, rigidly – save a few gasps when a veteran and a boy scout faint and fall over.
I attend the church service and hang on the vicar’s every word as she treads a tightrope between war and peace. A procession of primary school children lay hundreds of poppies – one by one – on a wreath by the altar. They’re being taught a lesson about the concept of sacrifice on which the whole meaning of the armistice ritual turns. And as we sing “Abide With Me”, I daydream about sacrifice and wonder why it is so central to the stories we are told and tell about this country.
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For it is not only the meaning of the armed forces that pivots on the notion of sacrifice: it is there too in the church and Christianity and the selfless death of Christ; it is there in austerity politics, where things have got to get worse before they can get better; it is there in urban regeneration, where towns and cities across the country must take one step back before taking two forward; and it is there, even, in the very season of remembrance, where the autumn leaf, reddening, dying, and dropping to the ground, rests and rots along with millions of others so that the whole – the tree – can survive winter’s war and go on living.
In Yeovil I suffer a crisis on the high street. I’m conflicted. On the one hand I am dismayed and depressed that once again on my journey through modern urban Britain I’ve found an uninspiring, grey, pedestrianised zone, lined repetitively with the usual shops and businesses that say absolutely nothing about where I am, about this town, about this city, about Britain.
On the other hand, I feel that such characterless zones are in fact Britain, that what I’m observing time and time again is not a boring bruise on the skin of the nation that might repair itself in time, but a lasting, authentic, and emblematic feature of the country’s contemporary condition, and that by walking down the high street – a high street, this high street, any high street – I am looking at modern Britain straight in the eyes.
Suddenly I’m distracted by the facade of a betting shop. I take a photograph because it sums up three crucial elements of the high street – of modern Britain more generally – in a single image. First, “F*** Everything” is inscribed into dust: an emotional cry of despairing indifference, from the bottom up, against all that is broken and wrong, against the status quo, against existence and reality itself, which, if it cannot be changed, must be rejected and insulted instead.
Next, “BETFRED”: one of many betting companies whose shops now line the high street, cajoling people all over the country, more so in poorer areas, to play with chance and make forecasts, as if the only meaningful way to engage with the future these days, the only way to make tomorrow count, is to bet on it. Last, “Hi Mum”: a touch of ironic, tongue-in-cheek family togetherness, of light and sweet childish love, punctuated by a heart, still beating, among people and within communities.
In Bristol I attend a talk at the Martin Parr Foundation by Bruce Gilden, an American photographer whose brilliant work is drenched in suffering, pain, anger, confrontation, power, control and intimidation. Photography is a form of therapy, helping him come to terms with and make sense of the suffering he has experienced in his own life.
His friend, Martin Parr, also speaks about his own photography as therapy, not to deal with personal trauma, however, but with the less violent, evolving experience of coming to terms with his British national identity. By photographing Britain he is able to simultaneously express and sooth his ambivalence towards the country. Parr finds Britain beautiful and ugly, admirable and condemnable, charming and offensive, and it is precisely this oscillation between opposing impressions that makes the subject matter so tantalising for him, that keeps drawing him back to Britain, like an addict, time after time, again and again, for just one more look.
There is a confusing sign by Totnes train station: “BREXIT IS A CRIME SCENE”. Is it accusing those involved in the referendum of unlawful behaviour? Is it describing the current political situation as a messy, bloody, unsightly wreck? Or does it suggest that Brexit is an exclusive, cordoned-off zone, from which the public are now excluded, and in which so-called experts forensically, painstakingly, pick apart the details?
When I get to Plymouth I forget all about Totnes and Brexit and whatever it all means. From the train station a symmetrical system of four tunnels takes me under a roundabout and into the centre, each one containing a solitary silhouette sitting with its back to the wall. I walk underneath the huge blank television screen at the end of the high street, broken for months, where a university student sits silently in solidarity for victims of suicide in the UK.
At dusk I get as close to the water as I can, stand on the steps by the deserted lido, and drink a bottle of beer in the face of a brooding and punchy sea, pounding and smacking the concrete. I remember two frescoes I’d seen earlier on the front of the Palace Theatre, the first depicting the Spanish armada setting sail, the second its defeat, and think how Britain is stereotypically proud of “ruling the waves”, as if they were an extension of its land, but how to me, a British individual, the sea feels like an alien and foreign power whose waves are tonight a magnificent reminder of how little control I have.
For more of Richard Morgan’s work you can visit his website here