The quiet desperation of the provincial English

Philip Hensher `We've lost a crucial degree of pride, civic and otherwise, and gained nothing much in its place'
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THAT SPLENDID photographer Martin Parr has turned his attention from original transcriptions of the awful English to their own versions of themselves. What he has focused on are the dreadful postcards of civic amenities, which used to be produced by those local councils that may have been filled with hope, but who suffered from a serious deficiency in self-awareness.

Conscious that their less scenically challenged neighbours were pumping out vast numbers of postcards depicting the local waterfall, mountain peak or floral clock, the municipalities of Slough and Basingstoke vowed to match them in quantity, if not in quality.

Parr's ceaseless and inexhaustible research has unearthed a fascinating number of postcard views of caravan parks, nuclear power stations, the regional headquarters of Thomas Cook and even, unforgettably, the underpass in Croydon. Just once; but once.

The result, Boring Postcards, published by Phaidon, those fine people, is an incomparable assembly of hideous objets trouves. Every page reeks of the decisions of aldermen, insisting that the expenditure approved on the bar at the Old Folks' Trade Union Recreation Centre must surely justify a postcard to be sold at the reception desk of the New Town Hall.

And so, circa 1974, a hapless photographer, who happens to be the husband of the president of the Women's Institute, is dispatched to capture the effects of light falling on the second biggest roundabout in West Derbyshire. His efforts are subsequently printed on stiff card; and 20 years later, as the meagre stock languishes unpurchased, they find a sort of immortality under the knowing eye of that incomparable collector, photographer and all-round cynic, Mr Parr.

It's difficult to describe how retchingly funny the result is, and what a beautifully telling account of the quiet desperation of the English in the provinces this book amounts to. There is gem after gem to be found here, and it can surely only be a matter of months before some smart young British artist focuses on one of Mr Parr's finds and transforms it into a canvas in oils, 10 feet by six, redolent of the alienation inherent in urban life today, or something.

But, to tell the truth, the photographs are enough; the magical capturing of English uncertainty the second a human figure wanders into shot and sees the camera; the beautiful, desperate, sloping compositions, the unforgettable sense of misery and shame.

The last photograph in the book, Rain Clouds as Seen From Southend Pier is, in one sense, appallingly funny because, like everything else in the book, there is no sense of why anyone might have chosen to take a photograph of this thing, at this moment rather than any other moment. There have been, are and always will be rain clouds to be seen from Southend Pier. Just as there are thousands of caravan parks, of housing developments,of roads near Porlock with a bend in them.

The blissful fantasy of this blissful book is of an innocent, a yokel, a pure and lovably holy fool setting himself up behind a camera and not quite understanding that a butcher's shop in Basingstoke, swathed in scaffolding, fulfils none of those 18th-century conventions of beauty that the picture postcard demands. It is merely the sort of sight that every one of us sees every single moment of our lives, and therefore not, quite, interesting.

No, not interesting, and yet it holds the eye and grips the brain. At one point, hooting through this superbly funny book, I came across a postcard view of Tolworth Tower. Now, I grew up near Tolworth Tower, and it was a regular sight on our drives to the shops, or to pick up my old granny for Sunday lunch. I don't say the tower isn't hideous, or utterly like every other municipal sub-skyscraper in the country, but it was certainly something my dad, every Sunday afternoon, made a point of pointing out to us. I suppose there was an element of civic pride in it, and, if you grant that civic pride, you have to grant that it isn't unreasonable to take a picture of it, and ask for a bob or two from punters who have come into the Town Hall to shelter from the rain.

And when there are more obviously admirable institutions held up to mockery, you start to see how complicated Parr's intentions are. Churchill College, Cambridge, is quite a different sort of proposition from a windswept caravan park; the ironic, mocking gaze packs them in together. And as you go on, you start to wonder who, really, was the innocent in all this - the man who built a building, then admired it enough to photograph it, or the man who shoved it into a book, and could laugh at someone else's ambition.

We've lost a crucial degree of pride, civic and otherwise, and gained nothing much in its place. Maybe all we have is irony; and that won't do to hold even Croydon together, and make the buses run.

The odd thing about Martin Parr's magnificent collection is that, pretty soon, you stop laughing; pretty soon you start to feel an emotion not far from admiration for someone who could feel so proud of their local underpass, bus station, or 10-storey car park. We've lost something. We really have.