As a teenager in Leicester in the late-1980s, stomping around to early house and techno in the city’s only good club, The Bear Cage, artist Robin Maddock never felt more optimistic about his country. “I remember feeling proud to be English. And it was nothing to do with Lady Diana, football or drinking tea,” he says. “It was just to do with the fact that we were making this the place to be.”
Almost 30 years later, those sweet, sweaty memories would motivate Maddock to make a visual book about his country, England!? les anglais ont débarqué! “If I wasn’t an old raver, I wouldn’t have cared enough to do this book,” Maddock adds. In June 2016, the artist was living in Lisbon, feeling rattled by the result of the Brexit vote. National identity had been a subject of his work for decades, but having lived and worked in Europe for most of his adult life, Maddock hadn’t always felt a strong cultural connection to England.
He felt an urge to go home and get to know the place and people he thought he knew. So, for three years, Maddock travelled by car, bus, train, bicycle and foot photographing people, protests, pubs and parties in small towns, villages and cities across the country.
“I sensed a great deal of loss,” Maddock reflects. “A loss of culture, loss of shops and loss of people in town centres.” In old industrial towns that once fascinated his idols – like Bill Brandt’s Halifax, Tish Murtha’s Tyneside, and Tom Wood’s Merseyside – Maddock didn’t find much to shoot, “Just a pile of rubble, a roundabout and a shopping mall.”
The project began as a “monstrous, one-off experimental scrapbook”; a mash-up of photographs, handmade collages, drawings and text, loosely organised around themes like sports, youth culture, tradition, and agriculture. “I wanted to make a book that collapses time and space,” Maddock says.
Some images are pulled from his archive, dating back to the ’90s. Others were made during lockdown, placed between poems and streams of consciousness written on the road.
There’s no order, chronology, or a single title to the book either. Instead, Maddock has a running list of hundreds of tongue-in-cheek titles, like Talking with your mouth full, Book now to avoid disappointment and Clocks run backwards. Each of the 750 unique editions are hand-titled prior to shipping.
It all sounds rather chaotic. But maybe it’s in this chaos that the work finds its strength, as a representation of the country in this very moment. We see the effects of austerity: homelessness, gentrification, increasing divisions between the left and right, the rich and poor, the old and young.
But, there are moments of humour and passion, too. A reminder of the collective spirit that backed England to the Euro 2020 finals, and the small liberties we got back when Covid restrictions were lifted, like gigs, festivals and garden shows. And there’s an odd sense of relief in the sight of teenagers drinking cheap vodka on park benches, or snogging in sweaty corners at a local club night – freedom for the young, at last.
And, it documents protests – a human right that is now under threat by Priti Patel’s new policing bill. Lots of political movements, for good and bad, gained momentum in the peak of the pandemic, like Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Reclaim the Night and Britain First.
Looking back on the year, these images sketch the joys and pitfalls of what has become a defining period in our national psyche. It’s best articulated in an essay printed in the back of the book by presenter and photographer Johny Pitts, who writes: “The current state we find ourselves in is represented well by Robin Maddock’s ambivalent photographs; this English mess, this bricolage of textures and fragments that form a postcolonial country still coming to terms with the things that it has done, and the things that it has become.”
England is a mess. After another year of uncertainty, division, and delusion – syphoned by a frighteningly right-wing government – Maddock’s book poses a number of questions about life on our little island: What do we value as a nation? What are we proud of? What does it really mean to be English?
But a monolithic image of Englishness doesn’t exist, and it hasn’t for a long time. “This idea of England was being evoked all the time during the Brexit campaign,” Maddock says. “Images of spitfires and white cliffs, you get that in bloody Lloyds Bank adverts… These visual stories are going on around us all the time. Mostly by the right, and by the world of commerce.”
Maddock’s portrait of England is unfiltered. It’s not patriotic or patronising, nor is it overly nostalgic. “This country is so much more complicated than that,” he says. Four years have passed since Maddock made England the subject of his work. “I still feel like I don’t know [it] very well,” he says. “That’s the issue. England looks small, but you get out there and you realise it’s fucking massive.”