Quick and dirty. That is how Martin Parr describes his basic method of taking a portrait. A tour around London with him is remarkably fast; all the more impressive given that Parr now moves with the help of a walking frame, following cancer treatment in 2021. He is both unassuming and hyper-alert, good-humoured and unnervingly blunt; and deadly accurate with his Canon 5D Mark IV. Stand there. Hold this. Don’t smile. Point. Click. Flash. Is that it? Yes and here is your soul back, thanks for the loan.
‘You have to photograph what you believe in,’ he says. ‘If you’re doing serious photography, you’ve got to nd an aspect of society or nature that you identify with.’
What Parr seems to believe in is the British people. At 70, he is perhaps the pre-eminent documenter of our nation and certainly the most prolific, with more than 80 books of photography, 100-plus exhibitions and a photography foundation to his name. If you asked me to explain Britain to a foreigner, I would probably bandy about a few clicheÌs before sending them in the direction of Parr’s pictures of our grimy seaside frolics.
His particular specialities include jubilees, bank holidays, days out, street parties, races, beaches, fairs — anywhere our grim determination to have a good time is in evidence. The clicheÌs are there, sure. But it’s the way his subjects inhabit them, embrace them, remould them, insist on their realness in spite of them. Royal street parties are particularly glorious, Parr says. ‘The things people have made. The effort that people have put in. Everyone enjoying it. It’s all good stuff!’
So we thought he’d be just the person to take the temperature of the capital on the eve of the Coronation of King Charles III, London’s biggest celebration since the 2012 Olympics. Parr tends to stay out of the centre on days like this. The crowds make it hard to move around. Londoners are a bit too ‘middle-class’ for street parties these days, he laments. But the sheer multiplicity of the city makes it an endlessly inspiring subject. ‘You’ve got all these different communities from different countries. Different classes. That’s what makes it so good, really.’
As it happened, this is what just about everyone we photographed said they liked most about London, too. And amid this diversity there was surprising uniformity. Everyone praised London’s beauty. And in a city that is often depicted as apart from the rest of the country, I heard not one republican sentiment. I did hear lots of hopes expressed that after the divisions of Brexit and the isolation of Covid, the Coronation might just present a chance for unity.
‘I was just amazed that everyone was happy to hold the Union Jack,’ Parr marvels. ‘Not one person refused.’ Recent work by Martin Parr will be on view at Photo London, Somerset House, 11-14 May (somersethouse.org.uk)
Anderson Garcia Rodrigues, Punk, Camden
All my life I wanted to be a punk rocker. I saw punks in my hometown in Brazil when I was young and I was like: who are these people? I listened to this music and recognised myself. My mum was so pissed off when I tattooed my face. Wow! For hours, she shouted at me, called me every name. But now she understands. I am who I am. I burn to be who I am. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Amy Winehouse: this for me is the legacy of Camden Town. Everyone comes here to see and feel this energy. It is a place of freedom. I love this place. I love this bridge. You know I was at the Jubilee celebration? I was one of the punks who was invited to celebrate English culture. Some punks said, ‘It’s bullshit.’ But for me, I came into life to show that punk’s not dead. I came to England to save punk rock. It’s not about fascists on television. It’s not about toxic bullshit on Instagram and TikTok. It is about real life, outside, now. It’s still amazing.
Tracey Spencer, District Line Controller
My thing is to get people places. Like this morning, we had a problem at Richmond. It’s about getting the service rectified as quick as possible. Talk to the drivers, talk to the signallers. It’s fun ’cos I have an impact. I went on Eurostar for the first time a few weeks ago and it shocked me that it only took a few minutes to get to France under the sea. But then I realised we do that every day on the Tube and you just don’t think about it. I feel like a lot of us don’t take advantage of where we are. I went to St Paul’s the other day for the first time in my life and walked to the top. Don’t do it — it’s a lot of steps. But I was thinking to myself: I’m 50 years old and I’ve never done that. There’s so much beauty in London and we don’t appreciate it. I’m going to stay out of central London for the Coronation. It’s going to be busy. I’ll probably end up watching it on TV at home with a bunch of friends, just chilling. I don’t mind Charles. He’s done his bit. I’m a Diana fan too! She has the same surname as me.
Michael Lynch, Head Butler, Claridges
I was in hotel school in County Tipperary and we were brainwashed. Two of the teachers came here to work in the summer and they said there’s this one hotel in London and it’s amazing. So I came to Claridge’s in 1976. I thought: oh my God, how am I going to blend in here? I ran away back to Ireland but I soon realised I’d made a mistake. I said I want to go back to Claridge’s! My mam said: hot nor cold won’t please you! I rang the head of room service and begged to come back. Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. So the second coming was the 10 June 1977. The Silver Jubilee year. And I’ve never left. I love being on the front line. You need a sense of humour to be a butler. You mustn’t take things seriously. You must enjoy your job. And you’ll come across some wonderful people. I have a great love of this hotel and for the city. London is full of life. It’s a mixing bowl, it’s the United Nations, it’s every Tom Dick and Harry, it’s fantastic.
La La Joy, Uroco Kimono, Spitalfields
I arrived from Japan in 1999 and worked on Portobello Road. London had a different energy then. It was funkier. Sparklier. Now it’s much more calm. It’s not less or more. It’s different. I like this type of energy as I’m getting older. In Japan I was a black sheep. People thought I was weird. Here I’m more natural. I am part of this cosmopolitan city. This is what I most like about living here. I see so many different people here. I think I will watch the Coronation on television because why not? I am part of this society and it’s important to know what is happening to this country. I will watch it. Curiously.
Danny Newland, Owner, Poppies Fish and Chips
My dad, Pat, started all this. He was about 11 when he got his first job in a fish and chip shop — peeling potatoes, cutting the newspaper. Now we’ve got three of these places: Spitalfields, Camden, Soho. My dad always said, ‘I was the poorest boy in the street, now I’m the richest.’ We still live in Stepney. I always wanted to work with my dad. With him, you didn’t have a choice, you just had to do what he said. He said to me, if you want a day off, get a death certificate. He died last year and I lost my dad, my business partner and my best friend. I love London. You can’t get me out of here for love nor money. But I do think it’s changed. There’s still some family that have been here since my childhood but not many. For me, a lot of people just live in London. They’re not Londoners. I’m a real Londoner. I’m a real original cockney. I’m the Real McCoy, I am.
Ananta Kripa Das, Hare Krishna Volunteer, Soho
I came to London from France in 2018 to participate in one of the biggest Hare Krishna festivals, the Rhata Yatra, which happens here every summer. I loved the idea of a parade: chanting, dancing, a festive atmosphere. And I stayed here. It is difficult to find people who really care about you. People who don’t want recognition. There’s a lot of things happening in the world right now, you know? So to find this community of simple people with this connection makes a big difference. Did you know the Queen read the Bhagavad Gita? Being a president or a monarch is very much linked to the divine, because you must have very good karma to be in this position. In the scriptures, the King is meant to be leading the people. He is looking out for the welfare of everyone, not only materially but spiritually. Whenever a great man comes, people will follow.
Lisa Seymour, Taxi Driver, Paddington
People ask me, do you cabbies still have to do the Knowledge? It makes me laugh. The Knowledge will always be here. It took me three years and 10 months. I went round London on a moped to learn all your routes. If you don’t love London, it would be really hard to do it. It’s the people that make London. And we’ve got some amazing landmarks. Driving over Waterloo Bridge at night, you’ve got the South Bank and the London Eye lit up and the City of London and Canary Wharf on the other side. That’s quite stunning. And there’s history behind that bridge. When it was built way back when, the majority of the workers were women, so they call it the Women’s Bridge. That’s one of the things I learned on the Knowledge. I’ll be working on the Coronation. I’m sure there’ll be lots of tourists. I was definitely a fan of the Queen. King Charles… what can I say? I feel like there’s a lot of expectation, in regards to him taking the place of his mum. But I’m sure he’ll be fine.