In 1983 Paul Graham published A1 – The Great North Road, a book of photographs taken along Britain’s longest road. Connecting London with Edinburgh, the road passes through North London, Peterborough, Doncaster, Leeds, York, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne; Graham chose to photograph it in colour, at a time when black-and-white dominated, and his work made a big impression on Peter Dench.
“Since viewing Graham’s book, I knew it was a journey I would make one day,” says the British photographer. “36 years after he made it, Brexit seemed a good time and reason. Plus I only live one mile from the A1; it’s a convenient tendril to the nation, a road that connects as much as it divides, through a nation on the verge.
“It is towards Britain that I consistently point my lens – it’s my home and my passion, and the people are the ones I want to understand most. Brexit is the next significant chapter, and I was inspired to get out as soon as possible to explore the mood of the nation.”
Dench, who is known for his quirky, colourful and humorous images, says photography wasn’t what he originally set out to do. Cricket was his first passion, but he could never quite get over “the nerves of striding out to the middle of the pitch with the real possibility of immediate and unblinking failure”, and eventually found it so debilitating that, aged 14, he sold his sporting gear. Asking his father for a camera for Christmas, he soon unwrapped a secondhand Pentax ME Super.
“As youth beat a retreat and I continued to be fired from positions of responsibility by the people I was responsible to, only photography remained, so I thought I’d better make a career from it,” he says. “If you can travel the world, make people laugh, think and have a few drinks along the way, that didn’t seem a bad way to live.”
Tracing the same route that photographer Graham took in 1981/82, Dench’s A1: Britain on the Verge was shot over six weeks over the spring of 2017, with no particular guiding principle. “It was basically, grab my Olympus camera kit, get in the car and go,” he says. “One of the hardest things as a photographer, is to keep swinging your legs out of bed, leaving loved ones behind to spend money you might not have for no determinable financial reward.
“I tend to trust my instincts and get on with it. En route along the A1, I’d pull over in as many interesting looking cafes, lay-bys, truck stops and shops and wait for the people of Britain to pass through.”
A woman named Babs sits proudly in her roadside cafe that she has owned now for 27 years. A fruit and vegetable vendor fears his business will suffer as a result of Brexit’s rising transportation and import prices. Further north, a man called Matthew sells animal sculptures from Kenya.
“Most people don’t mind being photographed; I try not to jab the camera in their face and dash,” says Dench. “I explain quickly and clearly if they want to collaborate. Most people have an opinion they want to communicate.”
And at this particular time, it seems opinions are running strong in the UK, with the population still divided over the implications of the 2016 vote to leave the EU. “The Labour voters I met along the A1 said they were doing okay. The Conservative voters I met said they were doing okay. There was a stoicism…that Brexit was going to happen, and it was a time to reflect what they had, what they may need to survive, and to get on and do it.”
Peter Dench’s A1: Britain on the Verge is on show at Project Space, Bermondsey Street, London 16-20 January 2018. https://project-space.london/event/coming-soon-a1-britain-verge-exhibition-peter-dench-2-2