I wish it was the 60s, I wish I could be happy


“our minds reshape these memories, sending them through a rose-tinted filter that redefines them as “good times”. Experiences … can be reconstructed in our minds to seem better than they were, because they represent periods in our life that are now gone forever.” – (BBC science and nature article)

What is more English than a village fete? The Wikipedia entry for fêtes says:

Village fêtes are common in Britain, although their numbers are declining.

Their numbers are declining. So much pathos in fact.

Only in England features photography by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, both great capturers of what we call Englishness from a bygone era. The world always seems to change fast when you live in it, and makes valuable astute observers who can chart visual history. When your universe has disappeared, little is of more comfort than a picture of how it used to look.


I’ve been thinking about Tony Ray-Jones, whose photography isn’t just output from the 60s/70s nostalgia factory, produced to hang us together and stop us falling to pieces – Steptoe and Son and cream teas and piers and Morris Minors and stuffy churches and hot summers and so many cups of tea. It’s more than this: each image is complete with a set of utterly aligned characters, as if they’ve been moved gently into place and tweaked and tweaked again until some kind of timeless symmetry between humans has been established.


His contact sheets are on show and for most shots, it looks like he only took 2 or 3 gos to get it right. Hemingway churned out near-perfect work the first time, while everyone else floundered and wrote terrible first drafts they had to burn and bury in shame. When people say “a rare talent” I think they mean people who have to work less (not less hard) before they make something amazing.

Ray-Jones died when he was 30, of leukaemia. He wouldn’t have known how little time there was to create something special.

I wish it was the 60s, I wish I could be happy. Thom Yorke feels it, evokes it in 12 words, that longing for a past that’s impossible because it never happened that way, it never felt like that. At the time, it just felt like life. But history seems to have a heightened sense of romance to it, a specialness that we think we see when we look back.

It reminds me of the joke about how much more simple life was when everything was black and white.


(look at how magical Piccadilly Circus looks here.)

John Berger says:

“The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognised for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and it’s past.”

Wider history and personal history do this. They’re in cahoots to constitute what you feel when you see something.


Just try and unwire yourself. It’s impossible. Ray-Jones’ images spoke to me because they were taken when my mum and dad were in their 20s, in a world that is now gone forever, a place my mind has imbued with a hopeless romance.

His pictures remind me of another visual of a few decades before but also created in the 70s, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s children’s book Peepo!. Each view is what the baby in the story sees: a baby-eyed view. Every illustration is busy but expertly balanced, packed with tiny period details of wartime Britain (and more cups of tea.) It was one of my favourite books when I was little.


Some of the words are:

He sees the shadows moving on the bedroom wall
And the sun at the window
And his teddy
And his ball

, words that are comforting to me in their profound familiarity.

In the brain, an image kicks off a feeling. Ice creams from the van two hours before dusk. A pub garden. A trip to the pictures. A steam train chugging away. A picnic by a river, then the light fades. Times change fast and we cling onto the past to get a handle on the motion. But of course it’s gone; we can’t get it back.

Only in England is on at the Science Museum until 16 March


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