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The big picture: lie back and think of England

Tim Adams
·2-min read

There was a time when a day out in the Derbyshire dales did not come with the risk of drone surveillance or police sting operations against coffee-sipping walkers. Barry Lewis took this picture of a dozing foursome in a Peak District car park in 1978. It comes from his book, Being British 1975-2005, and captures that mostly forgotten habit of sleeping off a long lunch in the car before heading home. Nostalgists will note how full advantage is being taken of both of the decade’s most desired motoring innovations: the reclining seat and the integrated sunroof.

The image is bookended in Lewis’s collection of pictures by other unmistakable portraits of national character. Teenagers belly-flop off harbour walls, kids wrestle and fidget on table seats in packed intercity trains, neighbours gossip in passing at the corner shop. Some of the pictures, even this one, might cause an involuntary wince in our socially distanced times: there are boozy arms round shoulders in closing-time pub sing-songs, tweedy toffs packed into hare-coursing crowds and more than one family group picnicking together in cow fields.

Lewis’s five decades as a photojournalist have taken him all over the world. He charted the collapse of Soviet communism in Romania, Albania and Moscow, made books about Miami and Cuba, but he has retained an unerring eye for the ironies and the eccentricities of the British at play, capturing various shifting tribes of pleasure-seekers in Blackpool, Glastonbury and Soho. That documentary impulse began in his first job on leaving school in 1966 when he worked as a kitchen porter at Butlin’s Bognor Regis and “developed an odd affection for this enclosed, parallel universe”. The phrase, and the idea, might serve as a description of his way of seeing these never-less-than peculiar islands ever since.

Being British 1975-2005 by Barry Lewis is published by Cafe Royal Books