Roger Mayne in Context

Image: Boy playing conkers, Addison Place (N. Kensington), 1957© The Roger Mayne ArchiveCourtesy of Bernard Quaritch Ltd.

This is the paper delivered by Selina Todd at Roger Mayne in Context, an event held recently at The Photographers’ Gallery.


Roger Mayne’s work belongs to a longer tradition of social investigators, journalists, academics, going into the so-called ‘slums’, and asserting that their expertise was   mapping and illuminating these places for outsiders. Southam Street is one such area. Mayne was an outsider here, and it’s worth remembering that in the 1950s it was still considered outrageous for working-class people to seek to speak for and represent themselves in the cultural sector. In 1956 John Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger created a storm at the Royal Court, but his protagonist, Jimmy, was lower-middle-class, and Osbourne himself had been privately educated. When, two years later, Shelagh Delaney’s play A Taste of Honey premiered at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East – Joan Littlewood’s stronghold – it provoked a very different reaction. Like Osbourne, Delaney’s play caused fury and horror in the press and among some of the theatregoing public. But as a young working-class woman from Salford, Delaney was also dismissed as a terrible writer, whose work had been entirely revised by Littlewood, or whose play was simply salacious nonsense. Delaney retorted that her play was based on facts, but like Roger Mayne, she eschewed the tag of social realism: ‘my work is 80 percent imagination’ she said. That, too, was greeted with incredulity. She could either write about life, or be accused of fabrication. Working-class artists were rarely allowed success, and they certainly weren’t allowed to be imaginative. That’s an important context to hold in our minds as we reflect on what Roger Mayne achieved, and what he was allowed to achieve, as a middle-class outsider.

Those allowed to speak for the working class were men from outside it. Even Richard Hoggart, author of the bestselling, semi-autobiographical The Uses of Literacy, published in 1957, had moved on from his Hunslet background to become a university lecturer. Hoggart waxed lyrical about working-class women’s parochialism, content to create a ‘burrow’ for their men and children to return to – and Roger Mayne’s representations of working-class life echo some of Hoggart’s preoccupations. His women and older men rarely look at the camera, but neither are they staring into a distant space. Instead they tend to look down, or at children, or somewhere else in close proximity; often, we can follow the line of their gaze to its object; they and their interests are held completely within the photograph, and if they aren’t, they are somewhere down the same street. The impression is of an enclosed world, a parochial life, limited horizons; and we inevitably contrast this with our own, we, the more sophisticated viewers, who are able to view ‘their’ world while also inhabiting our own. And of course such photographs suggest Mayne’s own claim to expertise, as someone able to move across these boundaries.

Presenting working-class children as innocent victims has a long tradition, and some of Mayne’s photography fits into this. Little girls playing against dirty closed doors of tower block lifts or houses, or on street corners where there’s nobody home, are central to his photographs. What we don’t get a sense of, because we rarely see them with their mothers, is what repositories of dreams and postwar indulgence these children could be. Before the Second World War, working-class families short of food or clothes gave the lion’s share to the breadwinners. After the war this changed. Partly people were a bit better off, and there was more to go round thanks to near-full employment and the welfare state. But those new benefits also gave people hope in the future. They invested in the future; the size of families started to drop, and investigators found that parents of all social backgrounds desperately wanted their children to get the best education possible, and to have a life more interesting, more comfortable and more secure than their own had been.

Some of the mothers who aren’t present in these photos would have been out at work, for the proportion of married women out at work shot up in the 1950s. The Times ran a series of disapproving leaders about working mothers, claiming they were only doing it to spend money on fripperies. And it was true, if you think that toys, books, dresses and scooters are fripperies for working-class children. Unable to afford fridges or cookers or a house or a car, mothers invested in their children. The bobble in a girl’s hair; the new or nearly new coat she’s wearing mark her out as completely different from her mother, twenty years earlier; they show that money and care has been invested in her appearance: she’s a symbol of hope, clothed in the few crumbs of postwar affluence to which her family would have had access by the late fifties. But these are not the elements to which Roger Mayne is drawing our attention. He’s telling quite a different story to that which his subjects would have told – and that’s worth bearing in mind. This is an outsider’s view, and that has drawbacks.

Nevertheless, he is also up to something new, which is making working-class people visible in a more positive way than in the past. In the fifties, journalists, novelists, social investigators and artists are, for the first time, suggesting that there’s something intrinsically valuable about working-class life. And they find an audience receptive to this, because there’s a new generation of working-class young people coming through who’ve benefited from free secondary education (though rarely at the socially selective grammar schools which masqueraded as meritocratic talent spotters). In 1957, Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy became a bestseller; Tom Courtenay could, five decades later, still recall where he was when he first read ‘about people like us, about the fact we had a culture’. In the same year, Michael Young and Peter Wilmott published their anthropological study of Bethnal Green; Family and Kinship in East London was another immediate bestseller. Up in Manchester, Granada Television took on the new ITV’s north-west franchise, determined to make programmes by and about local people. In 1960 their new soap opera, Coronation Street, becomes the country’s most popular television programme.

For some of these middle-class artists, this is a Britain where working-class life represents an authenticity, an earthiness, that is lacking in public life. It’s the era of the atomic bomb, of what the historian EP Thompson called Natopolitan culture, when politicians of all the major parties suggested that the world we lived in was the best possible world; that the threat of terror from the East meant we could not afford the dreams of equality to which the Second World War had given rise; that politics was a science best left to the experts, while out in the suburbs the women got on with baking and the men kept to business as usual. Areas like Southam Street weren’t just ignored, they were airbrushed out; poverty was dead and gone, not ever-present, and where it did exist it was caused by ‘problem families’, who didn’t know how to make the most of the good times available to all.

Thompson was rightly critical of artists like Mayne and investigators like Michael Young who suggested working-class life was always and inevitably about ‘community’. He pointed out that other strands of working-class life: work, solidarity, political engagement – were completely lost. Instead, working-class people were the guardians of moral virtues that politicians could no longer afford in the atomic age: of honesty, authenticity, a down-to-earth vitality. It was, suggested Thompson, a romantic view; one that suggested that working-class people only deserved consideration if they didn’t get angry about their situation, and if they conformed to the picture that middle-class viewers wanted to see. They were objects of pity or admiration, but never agents of their own destiny.

In this context, discussing working-class people and their lives at all represented a riposte to political orthodoxy. Showing the deficiencies of working-class neighbourhoods was illuminating, and suggesting that change hadn’t, after all, come very quickly and that postwar consumer capitalism didn’t deliver progress for all, was radical. This is what Roger Mayne did. Many of his photos show people consumed with love and friendship and solidarity, who are more interested in talking than shopping, and more concerned with playing, laughing or arguing together than maintaining a stiff upper lip and pretending that life was a pastiche of happy housewife advertisements.

Yet while they capture how little life has been transformed since the war, Mayne’s photographs also suggest there’s a whiff of change in the air. The closed doors and dilapidation in his photography are a reminder that these slums are closing down themselves, due to be cleared out, or gentrified. The new concrete tower blocks which dwarf his subjects in some of his photographs are part of a town-planning exercise led by planners who never consulted those for whom they planned. Like Michael Young and Peter Wilmott in their study of Kinship and East London he suggests that much is being lost by ‘modernisation’. He asks us to question our notion of progress, and who defines it.

There is, though, always a hopefulness to Mayne’s photographs. The teenager is the symbol of change; the young man or young woman, affluent enough to wear fashions that speak of engagement with a world beyond their neighbourhood. He’s capturing, in fact, the arrival of the postwar teenager. In the late 1950s, ‘public opinion’, by which I mean the kind of middle-class opinion bandied around in the media, was divided on this group. The broadsheets and the Tories condemned Teddy Boys as juvenile delinquents, made indolent by the welfare state and lawless by neglectful working mothers. But in 1958 Keith Waterhouse, then a columnist at the Daily Mirror, offered a more positive view, when he christened them ‘the Beanstalk Generation’. They were the babies born in the final years or just after the Second World War, the beneficiaries of the welfare state. By the time Roger Mayne started photographing them they’d had the free school milk and orange juice, the secondary education that, according to Carolyn Steedman, growing up in a working-class South London street, ‘told me I was worth something’. They’ve got a sense of entitlement to a better life than their parents had known.

In Mayne’s photos they’re in dance dresses, standing in youth clubs as well as on the streets, and often they’re on the move or about to set off somewhere out of the frame, either on foot or a bicycle. Some of them are black. Occasionally he even shows us them at work, which was very unusual, at a time when the outsiders’ gaze on working-class life tended to focus exclusively on streetlife. There’s a reminder that work is what really shapes your place in this society, not whether or not you clean your front step or speak nicely to your neighbours. And the goods they are making connects the subjects of his photos to their viewers. These workers are not other-worldly, but very central to the world in which all of us live, manufacturing the bicycles, televisions and radios on which the postwar boom relies. The teenagers are producing and consuming these goods, they’re carving out a new sort of life to which cultural consumption is central. As Raymond Williams said in the late 1950s, working-class people were constantly treated as if they were outside British ‘culture’; at best, they were admitted to have their own culture. In fact, said Williams, we make British culture, we’re the majority. Whether Roger Mayne was interested in the capacity of working-class people to make culture is doubtful; some of his photographs are reminiscent of a colonial class observing the exotic, simple foreigners. But his photographs nevertheless hint at intriguing connections between the viewer and the viewed that go beyond condescension.

These photos of the teenagers offer us a sense of late 1950s Britain on the cusp of change: a place of slums and poverty, forgotten by a Conservative government staggering on after almost a decade in power; but peopled by a younger generation who are smart and sassy. There’s a lot of that about in the popular novels of the late 1950s and early 1960s, full of young men on the make like Joe Lampton in John Braine’s Room at the Top, or rebels like those in Alan Sillitoe’s work. But Mayne’s photography presents us with young women as well as young men, and often with groups rather than with exceptional individuals swimming against the tide. He’s suggesting there’s a generational change afoot, and that it’s starting here, in Britain’s working-class neighbourhoods.

In Mayne’s photos, it is most often the children and the teenagers who look straight at the camera – they are the ones who are looking beyond the world in which they live, confident enough to take on the viewer at their own game, scrutinising the outside world and deciding whether they want a piece of it. Young people fashion dreams of a different future out of the tools most readily at their disposal: clothes, makeup, hairdos, music; a laconic stare, friendship. They don’t look like us, and they don’t look like middle-class spectators would have looked in the fifties and sixties. They don’t just want the world beyond the camera; they’re making a world all of their own. Given the chance, they’re going to take the camera and make their own art, as many of the working-class children of the 1950s – memoirist and historian Carolyn Steedman, and photographer Ian Beesley among them – would indeed do in time. The pictures they offered of working-class life would be very different from those to which Roger Mayne’s work contributed.

I’m not altogether uncritical of Roger Mayne. I think he might have done more to let his subjects speak for themselves, and that his take on their lives was not always reflecting their own. I find it interesting and revealing that more people know his name than know, for example, the work of Ian Beesley, which offers a radically different, certainly more innovative, approach to working-class life, and of the place of working-class people in Britain. But I live in Manchester. On Monday, walking home from a Shirley Baker exhibition in the city centre, I went past the MEN Arena as young women queued for the concert there, excited, loud, waiting to see an assertive young woman tell the world that she and they matter. In a world where young women are silenced simply for being young women, the value of Roger Mayne’s photography endures. ‘It is just possible’, wrote John Berger, ‘that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.’ For Mayne, these young people are not objects of pity, derision, or prurience; they demand respect, because they are the future, and harbingers of hope.

— Selina Todd

Selina Todd is a social historian, focusing on working-class life and women’s lives. She is fellow and vice principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford and the author of Young Women, Work, and Family in England – which won the Women’s History Network book prize – and The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010.