By Vicious Collective
Nothing encapsulates the modern-day British High Street (and perhaps death of it) more than the bookies.
The Great British betting shop, whether in domiciliary suburban parades or pedestrianised town-centres, these stoic outposts have long been ubiquitous with the contemporary retail environment. While they may be seen often as a scourge on society, housed in once prime commercial real estate - now rundown - promulgating gambling and greed, they are also one of the last bastions for a specific archetype of working-class English masculinity. Hedging their bets on the dogs, horses, hat-tricks, with tips on slips slipping through fingers to the stained carpet floor. Banks of screens shout evangelistic sports commentary to the plastic-chaired poor.
In his latest project, London artist Conrad Armstrong has taken the foundational emblem at the heart of the bookmaker's promise of riches - betting slips - as a medium on which to explore fading identities of masculinity and the worlds in which they reside, repurposing the otherwise throwaway confetti in a way which seems especially poignant in the context of contemporary Britain.
Vicious Collective caught up with the artist to talk three lions, post-Brexit Britain and what it means to be a ladbloke in 2021.
First off, where did you watch the Euro 2021 Final? Thoughts?
i watched the final at my friend Ramage's house in Camberwell along with a group of old friends from school days. One major theme of the Euros for England seemed to have been about 'moving on'. Starting again, everything smelt anew and full of potential. As England, along with their football team are in a transitional state of redefining our identity in a new post-brexit / post-covid age.
A key word that seemed often repeated was 'Redemption'. England manager, Gareth Southgate carried the burden of being a symbol of England's past failures at crucial moments in major tournaments. The song the fans sing for him (Atomic Kitten's 'Whole Again') is a reminder of where he came from in terms of his past failure with every short repetition of the chant. ("looking back on when we first met, i can not escape and I cannot forget") The epitome of our well-established national myth in glorious defeat.
Up until the 2021 final, England had been systematically trying to put these old tropes and clichés to bed - and with some success. Beating Germany in a major tournament, a previous curse lifted. The men's team reaching a final for the first time since the 60s (although the women's team have had greater recent success). Now, one last historical shackle to rid ourselves of...to win on penalties. The start of a new age, with a fresh young team of principled and fun-loving 'ladblokes' that seemed to represent all the best of England, as a proudly multicultural land led by a lion in a rainbow captain's armband.
However, we all turned up to watch the game at Ramage's house that night in our old England shirts. Gascoigne printed on the back of one. My own shirt from Beckham's era (now in the royal box of the establishment), a shirt I hadn't worn all tournament, or even taken out from the bottom of the drawer it has lived in for the last decade. i often find supporting England or partaking in any form of English nationalism difficult to swallow, so there it sits in the the dark recesses of my closet. But here we were, our whites hanging off our shoulders, the thing we said we wouldn't do. The country went into full throwback mode. The streets ran wild with hooliganism, flares up arses and streaming piss. Casual xenophobia exchanged amongst friends, and full-blown racism beyond. This wasn't post-EU England, this was a cruel regression to pre-EU England.
If football came home, Priti Patel would deport it
In many ways i'm glad the England team lost, not for the players, i think the players were amazing. But the country proved they didn't deserve to win. If Saka, Rashford and Sancho had scored and we had won, would the country be any less racist? The victory in defeat continues. i take stock of the victories in the mass exposing of white supremacist bull dogs in the tory party and the culture war they have created, fuel, and will ultimately be destroyed by. If football came home, Priti Patel would deport it along with Sterling for being born in Kingston, Jamaica.
England has always manifested a culture of resilient dissidence whether it be Fawkes, punk rock, Brexit or football hooliganism. It's something of a national past-time, which can make us great, but also devolve into a curse on that road to 'glorious defeat'.
How do you see this aspect of the national psyche carrying us as nation in the post-Brexit, post-Covid, Pre-Climate Catastrophe world now developing around us?
i think I'd like to see the whole thing get dismantled. Nationalism is such a powerful religion in the spiritual void of our times. The mantra of nationalism is being used as a potent tool to divide people. i believe, as a reaction to the attempts to divide, it would be a surprise tactic to divide ourselves further. Into smaller and smaller fragments. Until there is no nation to die for or cheer on in the arena. Scotland will be free. Why not Cornwall, Wales, the North, London? Why stop at leaving Europe? Let's smash the whole thing up.
The cracks are showing and i'm more than happy to stick my crowbar in to help them open up further. Local polluters are usually dealt with by local communities. If corporations didn't have such large national and economic walls to hide behind and become faceless, would they be able to keep on jetting spaceship earth off a toxic precipice?
What is it about the Great British Bookies that so encapsulates the characterisations of this book?
The bookies are just a great vehicle. It could also have been equally been a London pub. Both spaces historically have been forbidden zones for the underage, the eyes of the child are those closest to the eyes of the heart, and I wanted to capture this view of the bookies and the culture around them as I saw it growing up. The strange culture of men as seen by a boy. man child, lad bloke.
The pub and the bookies have also been a male dominated space. That gender binary has obviously been shaken to some extent in the pub culture, as the pubs have evolved with the times to survive. But still to this day, the only women i have seen in the bookies have been workers behind the protective glass. A glass i'm sure helps shield you from the reek of skunk and farts as much as the pounding fists of an irate gambler or would-be robber after the takings.
The 'Great British Bookies' is also an elegiac symbol. I find it funny that things that were considered shit in their time become cherished pieces of nostalgia in the future. The High Street bookies are a living temple of nostalgia, in every detail down the the newspaper info pinned on the walls to the musty smell of the carpet. Flat caps and tracksuit bottoms, Bensons and Carling, while emerging establishments next door sip kombucha between yogic breathing with polished laptops and wooden floors. I know which side the tax-man favours.
The fact that I have even bothered to print this book, is itself a eulogy to a culture. There was a time when these little paper trinkets of sub-culture were prized collectors items...now they are just physical things to be carried in cardboard coffins every time we move. Just give me a PDF to download, or I've already seen it all for free anyway on your Instagram so why would I bother supporting something so non-essential. Wallow in your superfluousness you Ladblokes.
Where did the inspiration for this project originate from?
I don't really know where my inspiration comes from, as most things I do are just an accumulation of ideas developed over time, that eventually boil over in projects, or trigger chain reactions - one giving rise to another.
I've generally always had London as my subject matter, and betting shops have always been everywhere in London. They are also convenient symbols of disappearing culture, the death of the high street, the move online and gentrification.
I've also been investigating masculinity and identity for some time, especially in what would be described as 'working class' culture. A definition that feels relegated to the past with every boarded-up betting shop window in terms of its usefulness. There are also a hilarious skateboarding crew called 'Blokes' who have bought, a distinctly anarchic, fun, rough, DIY and British flavour to a scene dominated by try-hard American ideas of capitalist-cool. I enjoy them.
Ladblokes is an appeal to the heart.
After 6 years on the losing side of the culture war, and with no particular feelings to support anyone on either side of the political spectrum, I decided to stop making work about ideas and ideologies, and just appeal to the heart. Make work with no other purpose than to invoke an emotional response. Whoever you are, whatever side of the war you've been on and remain on, i'm not preaching to either side anymore. The mind of Britain is in a state of confusion, the conversation both internally and externally is muddled and disjointed, only the heart beats with any truth. Ladblokes is an appeal to the heart.
The future of the British High Street seems like a void. Croydon Council recently announced that the Westfields in development over the last decade is no longer going ahead; that project was the death knell for so many independent retailers in the town during that time.
How can these public spaces facilitate social cohesion going forward with the movement to online, work from home etc., when it seems to be more important than ever?
Retail space, both used and unused are huge assets to the local community. When you trip around England every High Street has been engulfed by chain stores and cafes. The spaces are rendered so meaningless to their local people. The High Street needs to be reclaimed by the people - for the people. That's the only idea that should be projected.
If people want knitting shops, pet shops, tea rooms and doyley design centres in their local area then that's what they should have. If they want artist studios, event spaces, cafes and anarchist book shops then that's what they should have.
The High Street needs to be reclaimed by the people - for the people
Make the space available to people and see what they do with it. Only the big franchise chains can afford the rent, so reduce it and regulate the corporate High Street. Otherwise, why will locals choose the High Street or amazon if there is no connection or sentiment for them to do so?
In the wake of COVID and the bittersweet Euro defeat at Wembley, what does it mean to be a ladbloke in 2021 England?
In Lord of the Rings, another pillar of the creation myth of England, when Gandalf the Grey finally shoves the Balrog off of its perch and down into the abyss, it lashes out one final time with its furious fiery whip, dragging him down with it. Just when he thought he had won.
There is only one place i see all of the more monstrous and gruesome aspects of British 'lad culture' going, and that's into the abyss of history. The march of progress will continue, the England team will only become more gloriously diverse and reflective of the truth with every new addition.
However, those grotesque aspects of England shown in our violent nationalism, the self centred greed of our covid response, lets us know we can never assume the monster is gone just because it seems defeated. When we least expect it, that furious whip will scorch from the darkness and drag us back down with it.
It's a new day for many in England, but it's the same day on repeat for many others in England too. You can't beat a monster with violence, as you then just take its place. Being a ladbloke is alright, and should be an inclusive space for all, rich, poor, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, whatever. Ladblokes have a chance to run a new grand national, with much more favourable odds.
Ladblokes is available to buy here:
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