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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, September 30, 2003
    On English eccentrics
     
    All day I've been sitting in this house, radiators glowing hot, wearing layers of gear normally sufficient for winter mountain walking, including my wooliest hat, determined to sweat out this cold. Taking in heady cocktails of cough mixture, hot water, herbal tea, lemon juice, paracetomol and brandy may not put me in the same league as David Tibet or the boys from Coil, people who have depended on chemically altered states to create their majestic musics. But, should you venture this on today's evidence I'd have to agree with you: like them I have the appearance of one of England's eccentrics.

    To make myself feel better as I fried on the settee this evening, I put on Martin Parr's Moving Pictures video, which made me feel by no means alone in this folk category, it being a wonderful record of eccentricity the country wide. Parr has captured the English at play - bored young people in one-pub towns, optimistic trampolinists on a windswept East Anglian beach, stallholders at sodden West Country village fetes, karaoke singers in Liverpool bars, picnickers at Henley Regatta, Bank Holiday travellers queuing for toilets at anonymous service stations. And in doing so he's unveiled a wealth of eccentricity, daftness, and many other offbeat definitions of Englishness.

    I love the bubbly blonde on a Liverpool market stall who can't pronounce (let alone understand) Parr's word 'characteristic' and who on the prompting of her giggling friends describes herself as an "English Rose" after the floral pattern on her dress (And then exclaims, "Oooooer! Ey mate, you filmin' my cleavage?"). I'm embarrassed by the inverse snobbery of a group of Scouse alehouse radicals as they tell of their amazement that on holiday once they got talking to a group of people from Hemel Hempsead, of all places, and discovered that "they were all right - they were just like us really."

    I'm humbled by the enjoyment of simple pleasures ponderously expressed by a couple sat eating full roast dinner at a Weymouth guest house, only a couple of hours after a full English breakfast (see clip). And whenever I watch it I'm always cheered by the shots of extreme weather on Blackpool prom, groups of short-skirted girls clinging onto each other and taxi doors to avoid being blown away by the vicious wind, stallholders watching their stock of plastic ducks, Kiss-Me-Kwik hats, buckets and spades washing down the street, and, in better weather, a chubby young woman proving that the saucy seaside postcard does indeed have its basis in the ribald sense of fun of real people at play. If you want to see what I mean, brace yourself and download the extract here.

    [You can see Martin Parr giving an excellent illustrated hour-long lecture on his work here]