Our band of weekend ramblers left south London early for the beautiful north Kent marshes. During the hour’s car journey east, we imagined a dash to a future airport terminal where a sprawl of concrete ramps and runways would take over the landscape – all yet to be built but ‘on the drawing board,’ as they say.
By late morning we were making good progress on the Saxon Shore Way, passing the exquisitely panelled Kentish rectory (more New England than home counties) at St Mary Hoo; then isolated clapboard farmhouses and the wonderful rusting hulk of an agricultural Nissen or Quonset Hut.
After another 2 downhill miles of estuary panorama towards the river itself, we stopped for a sobering lunch on the sea defence embankment, our backs to the Thames and its keen breeze to speculate on what might be in store for this lovely remote place, only 30 miles from the city.
Around us surely, was the argument against building the £50bn airport, planned to handle 150m passengers a year at nearby Cliffe, bordering an RSPCA bird sanctuary. I does have huge support, if not from the government – from London mayor Boris Johnson. But it would only be viable if Heathrow itself closed and just as with the former Greenham Common air force base – its Neolithic acres ironically returning to common use, its hamlet residents re-established, its own wildlife reverting to pure habitat.
As we chewed on home-made rolls and sipped imported London tap water, there was little to disturb our peace today. Some of us snoozed in the sun and others looked back across Halstow Marshes where interested young bullocks grazed near the runway-wide irrigation dyke may have been excavated many centuries ago. As we munched, we considered the Blitz, when Göring’s Heinkels lumbered overhead on their missions to bomb the city, the river serving as a Google Map to help find shipping and warehouses. In 10 years, we may return to see a very different place. Instead of oystercatchers there would be Boeings – replaced by a political deal to feed a hunger for runways.
There is still no aviation kerosene nor concrete ramps and taxiways here although behind us were the stark reminders of spreading heavy industry – white storage tanks of the Coryton refinery across the river while further upstream is the new Dubai-backed Thames Gateway container port. In the other directions are the chimneys of power stations such as Kingsnorth, the scene of passionate climate camp protests.
But airport land grabs or not, our wetlands are still under threat: In England in Particular (Common Ground, 2006) it says of grazing marshes, “The intensification of coastal developments and agriculture has significantly reduced grazing marshland, now estimated to stand at less than half a million acres. Two-thirds of the Essex marshland and half of the Romney Marsh were lost as grazing marsh between the 1930s and 1980s. What remains is drying out and suffering nutrient overload from fertilisers. Only 12,000 acres of unimproved grassland remain ..”
Just like Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), I’d like to say – although only in the spirit of this post – that I grew up out on the salt flats. But our own east Essex family branch is in fact traced to wizened agricultural labourers on the exposed Foulness Island, itself the site on Maplin Sands of a 70s airport plot though now only offering one firing range and one pub.
On our way home we left the cars against the stone wall of St James, Cooling, the location of Dickens’ dramatic opening scene. We might have brought the book along but a copy wasn’t to hand. Instead, we had to rely on an app (2013) and one of us stood with their iPhone over the lozenge graves of 13 unknown children in the churchyard – and read aloud:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea .. Beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river.”
.. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle ..”
Filed under: Books, cemetery, England, Landscape, Photographer, Photography | 1 Comment
Tags: airport, boris, dickens, great expectations, halstow, kent, marshes, rambling, walking, walks
Contact #102 of 136, Summer 1996 (click to enlarge).
Throughout the hot summer of 1995, during the latter stages of my wife’s pregnancy, I planned to make some form of diary – of written words and documentary pictures – during the first year of our first child’s life. A first thought was to add my own contribution to our family tree and create a visual document for the older person to look back on, to give – as a personal memento far beyond earliest memories of childhood – on its 18th or 21st birthday.
When a pink dawn broke across south London rooftops, I felt my legs give way and tears fall in the delivery room as our daughter came to us. Until then, we had we no idea if we were to have a son or daughter, healthy or not so the decision to photograph this tiny baby’s journey from birth to first birthday, as well as her mother’s adventure from expectant to actual motherhood, became a very uncertain project to explore.
Before I started the project that became ‘Ella – From Womb to First Candle’ the work that took a year of hard photography and 60,000 words of daily diary entries, the idea of tackling something more personal than any other personal project, was one of the toughest. If there was a story to tell about parenting, then I was also to discover my role specifically as a doting father. And not only that, I was endeavouring to be around whenever key moments unfolded: The visits; the registry book; inoculations; first haircut; first steps; outings and tears.
In the contact sheet above, it is now the following summer. Ella has been with us to Portugal where she has attempted some tottering first solo steps, the result of which was an immediate tumble onto hot sand and hotel grass. We guessed she was soon ready to walk properly under her own steam and I wanted to make a picture that showed leaving her first symbolic footprints. In the first and last frames I can see myself holding a remote trigger so Ella would launch herself, her mid-way totter between parents.
The perspective I saw from my position was at 90 degrees to the static lens so the processed photography showed an event unseen.
The resulting sequence tells us of Ella’s first independent steps, escaping from the clutches of her mum, 11 months after leaving the womb, of leaving safety. The 2 frames I marked (#27 and #31) and the one I liked best (#31, above) has better time and space. I like the evolutionary Homo erectus upright posture, the hominid’s mastering of balance and momentum.
Ending the year’s work came to represent for me as a father, a wonder. Published as a Mother’s Day essay in many countries, it also became a turning point for me as photographer.
This spread (using a horizontal chronology) ran in one of the last printed issues of LIFE, in June 1998. Three fateful double-page and full-page cigarette ads (“No Waiting! This is where you find satisfying taste at ultra-low tar.”) rings the death knell of this once fine magazine that I read myself as a child.
Ella is 18 soon and I want to mark her reaching adulthood by having this re-published somewhere. There may be a self-published book for her too.
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Tags: birth, childhood, contact sheet, development, documentary, family, parenting
Although he had just dismounted from the iron rooster that brought him to Liverpool Street station, St George of the Thames estuary was pacing breathlessly down Bishopsgate minus his horse.
Nearby Leadenhall Market seems to have become an annual gathering place for anyone with a smattering of patriotism, a nostalgia for old England in a red-themed tie and rose – suits from all corporations, supping English (and German) ales and assorted grogs. In the centre were the Ewell St. Mary’s Morris Men, a troupe of middle-aged Britons in baldrics and breeches, jigging and sweating under stove-pipe hats. Tossing them into the air at the finale of their folksy hopping, the men stretched up with hankies towards the bunting – a tribal worship to the national divinity like pagan prayers to the stars in neolithic Stonehenge.
I last wrote about England’s patron saint’s day in 2009. Then, office juniors were “pinching Wasabi chopsticks” and an Enzo that almost ran me over gave no clue of the gathering double-dip recession. This time I should mention how in the post-banking scandal era, the City is still enjoying its gluttony of bonuses and tax dodges.
But such was the scrum around the merrie band that I instead escaped for an espresso near Watling Street. There I spied an Evening Standard vendor’s tin shelter that is seemingly used a lavatory by perhaps the same young men who have crawled to the pub opposite.
The warmest day of the year lend a second good excuse to sink more booze and expel a public wee – a higher priority than a sense of national identity or moral duty.
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Tags: English, leadenhall, st george's day
The rain had lashed the City twice by mid-day yesterday and each time the sun shot back out, shards of white light reflecting green off the plate-glass.
At the crossing, lunchtimers paced with sandwiches and shopping bags back to their paused PCs before the second half of trading. The City was reliving its daily ritual, evolving since ancient times. Passing merchants, carts hauling the produce brought in from market gardens outside the city walls.
And along Poultry and Cheapside more workers emerged, a timed population on a mission before their hour was up.
Filed under: England, Landscape, London, Photography, Street Photography | 2 Comments
Tags: glass, population, streets, symmetry, work
As much as to free a stiffened lower-lumbar region than to breathe cold air on Monday, I walked through the urban countryside of Ruskin Park to central Dulwich.
Crunching along the still frozen paths of Red Post Hill that Ruskin may have been thinking of as “a precipitous slope, to our valley of Chamouni (after Shelley),” I passed the snow closed Charter School and the bridge over the unused pair of rail tracks that countless stranded commuters dreamed of riding.
In the Village the florist was open, closed blooms in buckets, an assistant brushing the slush. And a crowd in fur hats and big jumpers talked of creative meetings in the cold sun as if glugging Glühwein outside their chalet.
After the fine Georgian period homes on whose driveways were parked Mercs and Audis, that once accommodated Brougham carriages and strong horses from the City, I passed beneath the immense gates of Dulwich Park, a Narnia of icy and rutted tracks from the weekend’s family sledges.
We run through here every Saturday morning, giggling at the platoon of bullied BMMs (British Military Masochists). Our own loop takes us from Herne Hill and out past up to the Dulwich College toll gate then back home via the Greendale summit that reminds me of scaling Great Gable during Outward Bound in 1976 – that’s right, the notorious heatwave of seventy-six.
On this day, my boots cracked on even the virgin snow whose crust held my weight for a moment before letting me sink into its soft centred-depth. Apart from a few wandering south Londoners, the landscape seemed more a Christmas card of rustic paysage and on the outer circle, one of London’s great trees, the Turkey Oak spread its centuries-old boughs over Dulwich pooches.
Not far from where Barbara Hepworth’s bronze Divided Circle once impressed us before its brutal execution, a Peace Pillar between two Cabbage Palms with the words ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’ – looks overwhelmed, a Hiroshima-inspired memorial being buried in the depths of a nuclear winter. And it was absolutely silent there. No aviation seemed to be tracking this way, the snow doing that muffling of acoustics that often makes us stand in quiet contemplation, just as we do on any 11/11.
On my route back from the whites and off-whites of Ansel Adam’s Zone System I slipped down Court Lane. But before the plague pit burial ground I noticed a plaque recently installed by the Dulwich Society – a memorial to Ethel Cartwright, 55; James Cartwright, 59; Peggie Gould, 20; William Gould, 58; Emily Holland, 54; Patricia Holland, 6 and Joseph Stone, 59. Seven fellow-Londoners and neighbours killed together on 6th January 1945 by V2 rocket number MW 20826 whose 323km flight from the Karlshagen launch pad on Peenemunde, landed a few yards from here at 17.06. (See also And We Were Young).
Twenty-eight thousand pounds of warhead falling just weeks before war’s end.
One witness remembers the devastation. Especially “.. a wall and chimney were still standing. High up on the chimney, still in place and unmoved by the blast was a picture of Christ ..”
Filed under: England, history, Landscape, London, Photographer, Photography, warfare, ww2 | 2 Comments
Tags: Dulwich, herne hill, hiroshima, park, v2
From the top of the 36 bus that had brought me from Camberwell to Hyde Park Corner, I could smell the noxious smoke – then see the flames.
The lone Mercedes abandoned by the wall of the palace’s northern perimeter was burning well, melting engine parts popping and frothing. Samsung at the ready, a taxi driver steered past one-handed, snapping photos to show the wife later. To this Londoner, it was just another ordinary moment in the life of their capital. And Dutch tourists uploaded the drama to their Facebook pages thinking this an interesting holiday incident worth reporting too. A cyclist steered around the cordon and pedaled on unimpressed towards Victoria, this road again reclaimed as it was during the summer triathlons.
In context with the last two thousand years, nothing has really changed in this city of antiquity. The previous night I had closed Peter Ackroyd’s London, The Biography for the last time. His epic reportage of life-stores and myths through the millennia was exhaustive and leaves the Londoner with a fatter appetite for their capital’s heroic sagas.
When we walk over a worn footpath, our own boots add to the prints left by our ancestors, but when we criss-cross the streets and narrow passages, we leave no hard trace on this ancient city’s modern pavements apart from how we add to the same day-to-day theatre and the occasional emergencies that our forebears way back took stopped to gawp at. For the regular watchers of executions then, we stop today to read the floral memorial poetry to an unfortunate pedestrian.
Everyday street spectacles: Tragic fires or the rioting mob, there are countless, similarly documented events in this century that bring nearer the sum total of an organic metropolis. Throughout the ages London has itself repeated – scenarios forever rewound. In the aftermath of the Blitz, bomb sites reverted to nature with species not seen since genteel Tudor times.
When the black smoke from the car’s plastic fascias blew towards us bystanders, I moved on. Crossing the resulting gridlock of Park Lane then northwards past Stanhope Gate and beyond I was astounded at the irregular street ends. Described by Ackroyd as “.. A remarkable physical token of the past – streets laid down upon the pattern of the old acre strips of a village (field) system of the Saxon period.” So where drivers sat drumming their fingers in stationary white vans and Chelsea Tractors, a lost world of pastoral serendipity lay metres below. Amid the asphalt rather than the meadow, the topography – albeit buried – remains unchanged.
In fact, during the 6th decade of each century since medieval times, Ackroyd tells us, London has suffered adverse architectural change – in particular, the great fire of 1666 but more generally, the 1760s when the surrounding Roman walls and gates were pulled down to allow greater trade to enter the city’s inner sanctum; the great Victorian building projects of the 1860s that helped the urban sprawl – and the disastrous town planning of the 1960s high-rise estates. And so London may suffer again in the 2060s, to erase the remnants of the 20th century!
My appointment that day was with a client in Paddington and after our espressos and handshakes I walked back south to see for myself another of the book’s revelations. At the southeast corner of Connaught Square W2 (passing the armed police who guard the home of Tony and Cherie – round the clock, I think we say nowadays) I stopped to consider the original swinging Londoners at the corner with Seymour Street, considered by Ackroyd and other authorities to be the site of the Tyburn gallows.
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Tags: ackroyd, history, psychogeography, tyburn
We had arrived at the coast late though the drive from London was quite easy once we’d left behind a capital going into Olympic lock down, already under Games Lanes rules. Try as we might, the crunch of intruders’ sandals on shingle interrupted what tranquility might have completed the moment.
Maggie Hambling was commissioned to create the sculpture that became Scallop to honour Benjamin Britten, choosing a piece of work to occupy the stones between Thorpeness and Adleburgh (pronounced Awlbruhh, please people). After the sculpture’s amphibious assault on the beach, NIMBYs were quick to compare it to both Nissan hut and a kitsch mantelpiece ornament. In the first three months it was twice vandalised with poured paint but the local paper’s poll showed 2,163 to 738 in favour of keeping it.
Hambling chose to puncture lines from the Peter Grimes opera into the edges of her 12ft interlocking steel bivalve molluscs:
I hear those voices that will not be drowned,”
Adding, “ .. Where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.” I defy anyone to stand alone on a still morning, to read those words without feeling a lump rising in the throat such as when Our Jess was in the final bend of her 800m at 8.35pm on 4th Aug 2012 – suburban decibels rising.
In the Olympic Park a week later, I read a poem by Lemnn Sissay, commissioned to address The Games and in ‘Spark Catching’ he writes:
.. Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow
In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon ..”
Along with Sissay was John Burnside’s Bicycling for Ladies (quoting HG Wells’ “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia”) and then the political broadside ‘Translating the British, 2012′ by Carol Ann Duffy:
.. We’ve had our pockets picked,
the soft, white hands of bankers,
bold as brass, filching our gold, our silver; ..”
Ooof. Google the poem and read the hate mail! ‘Beyond excrescence!’ wrote the Rev Dr Peter Mullen (Tory) of Duffy’s (lesbian) Guardian-published work, reviewed (in the Telegraph), “We are not charmed by this but sickened. Go away, madam..”
Which is what I wanted to scream at the people in my pictures. But with the wind and waves, they wouldn’t have heard me.
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Tags: adleburgh, carol ann duffy, lemn sissay, maggie hambling, poetry, sculpture
Stratford, both dated 13th July 2005
A week after London was chosen to be the 2012 Olympic host, I got a message from Flair in Italy who wanted me to sashay over to Stratford and show what was there before the compulsory purchase orders were posted and bulldozers moved in.
The last time I’d worked for them was a mad, mad story about Viagra-ville where the fumes from the nearby Pfizer factory were reportedly overcoming the pensioners in Monkstown, Co Cork. So the East end of the future Olympiad seemed a natural progression in industrial contagion.
The first thing I remember seeing outside the station was the Zeus-sized statue of Athens wonder woman Kelly Holmes though at first I thought my arrival was too late until I realised she was in fact being slowly dismembered – a good omen for this grand tour of Olympic Lilliput. In its place would be the steps leading up to the new Westfield shopping mall – an early example of things to come where the messages of health through sport inevitably now yields to the branding of Big Macs.
At some point during Dame Kelly’s removal, Londoners paused for a minute’s silence for those killed in the 7/7 attacks, the day after the IOC announcement and I see I used the Mamiya 6×7 before continuing with the 6×6 .
It’s so interesting after these years to experience the photographer you were and that which you are today – how you saw and reacted.
Later that day, I seem to have walked north to Clay’s Lane where I met a traveller (captioned Kenneth Harrison) in his caravan where he told me their site would eventually be cleared for the £93m velodrome and their community split apart. And then back south for the first of many walks along Carpenter’s Road, where car breaking businesses are now wiped from the map.
As with Canary Wharf and Docklands, the Kentish Channel tunnel rail link route and possibly Battersea in the future, I do find it difficult to guess exactly how the enclosed fields and fenced in wastelands will one day be transformed according to those developer’s fantasy graphics.
Whereas the 6x6cm format that gave us contacts needing only the naked eye (no loupe) to view the narrative, at the time of shooting, the square frame seemed better suited to such landscapes. Anyway, the top contact I think proved better work and the art director went for 4 frames from that in the final layout – then one from the 6×7 sheet.
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Tags: 6x6, 6x7, contact sheets, film, kelly holmes, London, london2012, mamiya, Olympics, stratford
Apart from missile system exhibits (destined for Olympic tower blocks, I expect), one of the biggest buzzes at the Farnborough Air Show this year is about Space: Russian, Chinese and Virgin Space.
I was watching the quickening rush hour at Waterloo station en route to that ark of aerospace, when a large man sat down next to me: White stubble, white trainers and even whiter socks with a sky blue air show lanyard around his wide neck. This, he was very quick to mention meant he was a Virgin Galactic astronaut: ‘I’m from Vegas .. in automobiles’.
It has been 5 or so years since the Guardian Weekend writer Simon Hattenstone and I witnessed the unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo space vehicle in New York. Speaking with some of the first paid-up Virgin Galactic customers, we sniffed discontent between the space pioneers. Who would be on the very first flight? Would the Branson family or worse, red carpet celebs jump the queue? The original Buzz – Buzz Aldrin – was there too to talk of final frontiers and distant neighbours.
Ron, my platform bench companion sipped his vento and calmly announced that he, he was to be on one of the first flights. He was a Founder, he continued – one of the first 84 to sign the Galactic contract. But he’s had to put his life on hold. It has been 8 years ago now when originally, he thought it would be 3 before he could float free from his buckle for the few precious minutes of orbital sightseeing. Handing over his $200,000 he still doesn’t know exactly when he’s climbing the galactic stairs, whether he will have a pressure suit or oxygen at his feet – or if SpaceShipTwo’s composite bodywork will come apart mid-flight.
As worrying for him and other citizen skyriders is the prospect that family members will be too close, too distracting when it matters most while mingling at the New Mexico Spaceport hours before the flight, when the nerves and doubts really kick in. Space for tourists is still a big unknown and official answers can be hard to come by.
Some appear to have already pushed their own envelopes. Ron once went to the old Soviet republics armed with handfuls of $100 bills to pay for $6,000 flights in old Migs whose instruments didn’t work. He has also tested his body to discover if the g-forces that SpaceShipTwo imposes on his bulky frame won’t induce an embolism. He’s done the centrifuge thing and I imagine his Action Man figure spinning around inside a roulette wheel, suppressing a gut full of Starbucks. Space for tourists appears to be a physical gamble too though that didn’t stop Colonel Aldrin walking over the Sea of Tranquility when his habitual unit consumption was legendary.
Mingling in the hall with the cosmos club at Virgin’s corporate announcement yesterday, there didn’t seem to be a stereotypical Virgin punter. Some were already flagging but many others looked the right side of 40.
Per Wimmer looks like a young NASA graduate in bio-sciences but is actually a self-made magnate of the Virgin mould, another of the Founders who hopes to become the first Dane to enter space. The CEO, adventurer, global financier, entrepreneur, adventurer, pioneer and philanthropist’ who has already tandem skydived over Everest, is currently distracted at having his Titanic dive postponed by the Russians.
Edwardian travellers on the grand tour managed at most to climb Giotto’s bell tower of the Duomo in Florence and maybe a daring dip in Lake Como. Tourists these days with swelling heads and purses can go to the lowest and the highest places on earth. They have an urge to enter orbit for a brief holiday with an obssession for photocalls.
So far there have been 528 humans who have gone beyond the Ionosphere and although the new breed of aeronauts have little in common with Buzz or Yuri, cult Branson have just cashed the cheque of their 529th day-tripper.
One fortune, two signatures and you too can call yourself Spaceman. Amen
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Tags: airshow, alternative, astronauts, branson, defence, Farnborough, FIA2012, galactic, richard, space, tourism, virgin