Martin Parr is taking a picture of my breakfast.
With an impish smile, he glides behind our chairs, leaning over our shoulders to neatly frame pale yellow eggs, fat sausages, grilled tomatoes, and racks of thin, evenly toasted slices of bread. The 12 photographers gathered in the dining room of the Northbank Hotel —eight men, four women; some professionals, some enthusiasts—study him eagerly. We are on the Isle of Wight, a roughly diamond-shaped piece of land in the English Channel, for an educational weekend with Britain’s pre-eminent documentary photographer. Occasionally Parr discusses technique and technology with individual members of the group, but mostly we learn by watching him. The lesson is simple: Photograph what you love.
In Parr’s case, this means traditional breakfasts, seaside resort towns, dazed tourists, English people caught being their unguarded English selves. Parr’s photos are suffused with nostalgia for the postwar country that he grew up in, a make-do, working-class world of garish entertainments, greasy meals, and unapologetically frumpy homes that he captures in brilliant, saturated color. (Often, he adds a blast of flash in broad daylight, making his subjects paler than usual.) At times, his pictures veer toward the grotesque, and he has been accused of misanthropy. His career is bigger in continental Europe than in his home country; with Brits, he says, “I can confirm all their worst nightmares.” In a recent monograph, a critic writes that Parr’s work betrays “amused disappointment” and calls his subject “the human effects of globalized corporate culture”; his depictions of English food are “close to hatefulness.” But on the Isle of Wight, I detect more amusement than disappointment—he seems to be perpetually smiling—and he tucks into a glistening rasher of bacon, cooked on the Northbank’s Aga stove, with gusto.
Our weekend with Martin Parr is one of the inaugural events of London’s new School of Life, the brainchild of Sophie Howarth, formerly a curator of public programs at the Tate Modern. Howarth’s mentor and collaborator is writer Alain de Botton, whose books, such as How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Art of Travel, invented their own genre: literary self-help. The school’s courses—on such broad-stroke subjects as “Love,” “Work,” and “Family”—encourage enrollees to seek self-improvement in the writings of Plato and Rousseau rather than the pages of Real Simple. But the organization’s brightest idea might be its “holidays,” which pair marquee-name writers, artists, and scholars with weekend destinations that complement their chosen trades. Howarth asked Parr to lead the school’s first holiday to the location of his choice. The quintessentially English Isle of Wight, with its taffy-colored towns and seasonal vacationers, was a natural fit. Parr and his wife, Susie, take a yearly trip here—”usually on a bank holiday,” he says.
The Northbank Hotel is located in Seaview, a small village on the northern coast of the island. “Remember,” Parr tells us on Friday evening as we gather in the nautically themed hotel bar, “we’re back 20 years. You think it’s 2008, but it’s 1988.” A short distance away—out the sliding doors, over a canted green lawn with a flapping Union Jack and tables shaded by umbrellas marked with the Pimm’s logo, across a thin stretch of shingle—is the Solent, the branch of the English Channel that separates the island from the mainland. (A 20-minute ferry ride connects Portsmouth and Ryde, the nearest large town to Seaview.) Day and night, ocean liners and shipping vessels glide past the hotel.
Most of the clocks in the Northbank Hotel have stopped. In the lobby, a framed portrait of Winston Churchill sits atop a table next to a rotary telephone and a particularly large marrow, a type of gourd that seems to be the island’s signature crop. On the side lawn of the hotel, inexplicably, is a weather-warped piano. Everyone remarks on the sunshine—after a cold, wet summer, England is experiencing an unusually warm September—but the inside of the hotel has the legendary briskness of English hotels. We wear our jackets. Before going to bed, I turn on the heater in my room, an electric grate with glowing-red coils and fake coals that light up. In the morning, I stand before the tap with my little pink stick of Pears soap, waiting for the water to run lukewarm.
Parts of the Isle of Wight haven’t escaped modernization—on a bus ride inland, I spot a Staples, a Tesco supermarket, and a few other chains. But Seaview is seemingly untouched by time. Walking up the high street, past a tea shop and a small store that sells “provisions,” I think of Marianne Moore’s poem “The Steeple-Jack”:
Dürer would have seen a reason for living
in a town like this …
… with the sweet sea air coming into your house
on a fine day, from water etched
with waves as formal as the scales
on a fish.
On the ferry from the mainland, a video plays commercials for some of the island’s attractions. There is a castle in Carisbrook where Charles I was imprisoned. Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s magisterial summer residence in East Cowes, is open to the public. But Parr stresses at the beginning of the weekend that we won’t be going anywhere near these tourist sites. I ask him if we’re going to see the Needles, three mountainous rocks that jut into the ocean and are the island’s primary postcard fodder. Nope—too obvious, too overdone.
Instead, our group spends the weekend crisscrossing Wight in a minivan, in search of what Parr calls “Britain at its absolute best.” The Brighstone Holiday Centre, for example, is pure Parr-World, a self-catering campsite on the southwest coast of the island (otherwise known as “the back of the Wight”). When we arrive, a silent culture clash takes place. The photographers, bulky cameras swinging from their necks, fan out to take pictures of the camp’s rows of miniature chalets with their Mondrian-esque, primary-colored doors. The campers, resting in folding chairs on a perfectly green blanket of lawn, watch the photographers skeptically. Two chickens dart around the site, ducking under mobile homes—or “caravans,” as they’re called over here—to escape the pursuing camera lenses.
A little while later, Parr directs us to the Haylands Horticultural Show, an annual event held at a church in Ryde. Local farmers have displayed their largest and most shapely products, which are judged by such criteria as condition and uniformity. (To taste them would mar their appearance.) Potatoes, apples, raspberries, shallots, cranberry beans, cabbages the size of human heads, and marrow—marrow is everywhere—are embossed with prize pins and displayed on paper plates on tables that run the length of the church hall. Cameras at the ready, Parr and his acolytes dart up and down the aisles, snapping both the carefully arranged vegetables and the crowd, who stand in clusters and contemplate the harvest. One might wonder, judging from the median age of the horticulturists—a man in his ‘90s, a regular contestant since 1978, won prizes this year for 20 of his 24 entries—if this is an English tradition on the verge of extinction. But I’m betting that the Haylands Horticultural Show will live on for years to come. The Isle of Wight seems quite un-self-conscious of its eccentricities and fogeyisms. It’s quite happy being its changeless self.