A while ago, I bought a book (a very nicely bound book, actually) entitled Boring Postcards. You may well have seen it; it is a collection of postcards collected over a long period by the photographer Martin Parr. The sort of book you pick up in the shop and can’t put down, so you end up buying it. And at first sight, they were extremely funny in their very ordinariness. I was completely absorbed by them, but what ultimately became most interesting about reading the book was the range of very different feelings which gradually emerged.
Initial hilarity was displaced first by an odd sense of guilt; wasn’t this all just a little bit patronising? A collection of postcards bought and sent with pleasure and pride and in good faith, and now the object of high-culture postmodern irony. Then again, maybe I couldn’t make such an assumption about how they would have been perceived then. Maybe even in 1956, some of the correspondents saw them as an ironic take on the golden post-war we-never-had-it-so-good era. Somehow, though, I don’t think so. But feeling uncomfortable about laughing at the popular aesthetic sense of an entire generation did open up for me new ways of reading the images.
The categories of subject were my first prompt: post-war suburban streets and multi-rise estates numbing in their sparse pristine cleanness; leisure facilities, Butlins and caravan parks; motels, service stations and airport lounges; power stations and refineries; civic buildings and shopping centres. The new post-war Britain. It became clear that these postcards were not ironic in the slightest; these were symbols of a new-found confidence, success and sense of national pride. Look what we have achieved, built, provided for our people! Out with the old, in with the new.
And when I examined the images even more closely, I was suffused by my own sense of nostalgic pride. Shell’s Stanlow refinery, adjacent to Thornton research centre where my father spent his whole working life. Crewe and Alsager teachers’ training college, where all the student teachers at my primary school came from. A north Leeds shopping centre still being spoken of with some hushed sense of civic pride even when I arrived in Leeds 20 years ago.
Photographed with pride, written with a sense of privilege and opportunity, received and read with pleasure. I can’t stop looking at them.