The Epsom Derby is one of the biggest events of the English summer. I’d heard it was quite lairy, quite boozy. So, since I was documenting the drinking habits of the English, I thought I’d head there for the day.
People hire open-top buses and come in from all over Surrey and beyond. They start celebrating early, sometimes at nine in the morning. I went to where all these buses park. There was a lot of activity there.
I shoot wide and I shoot close. A zoom lens is lazy. I like to hear my subjects, respond to them if they want to talk. I saw this scene happening from a long way away and thought: “My God, that looks great!” I ran as fast as I could, until I was within 2ft, skidded to a halt and framed up.
I only got the one shot, because when the flash fired, the man noticed. He peeled away from the lady and wagged a finger at me in the way that people often do, saying that picture had better never be published. To date, I think it’s been exhibited in over 80 countries. Why did I go against his wishes? Well, I was an accredited member of the press. And I think if he was being indiscreet, then at least be discreet about it – get on the bus or go round the back.
I was quite intrigued by the chap in the background, too. He was being sick. I went to look at the pile of pink at his feet and noticed strawberry pips. I was shooting a reportage on alcohol and this seemed to sum up what alcohol can do. Drink the right amount and you might get lucky with a lady. Drink the wrong amount and you’re the guy in the background bringing up his breakfast. It also says that alcohol is ultimately classless: whether you’re drinking White Lightning on a park bench or champagne at the races, overdo it and the result is the same.
I took the shot in 2001 and continued with the booze theme until around 2008, when I saw a shift away from the likes of alcopops and binge drinking. So those images are a visual record of that decade, a time when the English were drinking longer, faster, more cheaply and more dangerously than ever before in history.
I never subscribed to the National Trust view of England as a green and pleasant land. I come from Weymouth, a working-class seaside resort. What I saw growing up was shagging and fighting and drinking. The population tripled in the summer, with Brummies and Bristolians coming down during factory shutdown. There were four holiday camps, too, and a navy base that deposited horny sailors into the town. It was a great place to grow up – but it was fuelled by alcohol and violence.
I was back at Epsom recently. It’s still not what the TV ads portray it as. It’s not the slow-motion waving, classical music grand day out, with the posh frock, the gentle bet and the nice ride home. There’s testosterone, anger and passion. It’s enjoyable – but brutal.
Peter Dench’s CV
Born: Weymouth, 1972.
Trained: Photographic studies at the University of Derby.
High point: “Getting to travel extensively.”
Low point: “Invoicing. Chasing invoices.”
Top tip: “Trust your instincts.”