Farewell Colin O’Brien

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A photo I took of Colin O’Brien alongside one of my favourite photos taken by him, at his retrospective exhibition ’65’ at the Oxo Tower Gallery in 2014

If this year isn’t remembered for being the year of Brexit and Trump, it will be for all the painful losses that we have suffered, of people who brought poetry and beauty to the planet rather than division and hatred. When David Bowie’s death was announced back in January I thought that the year had dealt its trump card too soon. But it turned out to have a deadly hand, with the actor Alan Rickman quickly following suit and Leonard Cohen being the latest of a long list of losses that are felt like personal blows to so many.

Among the very public English losses there was a more discreet and quiet departure back in August. Maybe appropriately so, as it was of one of life’s gentle observers over seven decades – the photographer Colin O’Brien. I was lucky enough to have had two close encounters with Colin’s work. The first occasion was at Chats Palace in East London, where I was first introduced to his East End photographs of the 1950s. His monochrome images of everyday Londoners resonated with me so strongly that I still feel a quickening of my heart as I recall that moment of discovery. The second time was through another exhibition, this time at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank, when I re-acquainted myself with those old friends, as well as being blessed enough to meet the person who had taken them – an experience which left such an impression on me that I wrote about it: https://anenchantedeye.com/2014/08/03/an-homage-to-colin-obrien/

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A young Colin with his first Leica

If Colin thought that he was going to slip away without for once being the focus of attention, then he was wrong. For last week the historic St James church in his childhood neighbourhood of Clerkenwell was filled with people who had known or been inspired by him and wanted to come together to celebrate his life and his work. There were reminiscences from lifelong friends as well as fellow documentary photographer Tom Mazzer; a moving reading of his personal reminiscences by the elegant and eloquent Dame Sian Phillips and some short documentaries. And of course there were the photographs – what a gentle pleasure it was to see those evocative monochrome images fading in and out before me as first a fiddle then a string quartet played, interspersed by photographs of Colin himself spanning right back to childhood when he already had a camera in his hand.

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One of Colin’s evocative photos, depicting London life

It was a heart-warming affair, full of love, appreciation and generosity, followed by drinks in the cloisters downstairs. One of the beverages on offer was, rather poignantly, blackcurrant soda in bottles decorated with photos taken by Colin on his final assignment. This had involved joining a coach-load of East Enders on a day-trip to Tudely in Kent to pick the fruit that we drank. His good friend and scribe “the Gentle Author”, who was with him that day, recalls how they plotted to slip off post-assignment to have a drink in the local pub, on the pretext of going to visit the local church. Strangely enough, on route to the pub they became drawn into the church anyhow, transfixed by the stained glass windows which turned out to be the creation of the great Russian artist Marc Chagall .

Colin was so preoccupied in taking photos of the light coming through those magnificent windows that those pub pints alluded them. I don’t know what his religious beliefs were, but somehow it seems befitting that probably the last photographs he took were in a spiritual place, capturing the work of another artist whose work will be a legacy for many years to come.

For I strongly believe that Colin’s poignant, tender and beautifully framed images of East London will be as an important a contribution to our country’s heritage as that of any other artist. Apparently he knew when he was taking them, back in the fifties, that he was recording something of value for future generations. He has also deduced that the best photography is often the work that hasn’t been commissioned. Those words resonated with me, because sometimes there is a sense that photographs are not of value unless you have been paid to take them. Instead of being frustrated by the devaluation in the currency of photography as an industry, I look at photographs such as Colin’s and remember that first and foremost, it is an art-form, not a business, and that those images should not be held in any less esteem just because they were taken for the love of expressing yourself, and recording the world as you see it, through the camera.

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Colin captured ordinary life, such as a young family window shopping

Rickman and Bowie were both Londoners, born in 1946 and 1947 respectively. Although neither grew up in the East End, I like to think that many of the photographs that Colin took captured what they too would have experienced – from its bomb-scarred cityscapes, to the fashions and ‘props’ of that post-war London stage. Which is why Colin’s photographs are extra precious. Because it is by recording the everyday present that we are better able to know our own culture, our people and ultimately our country’s heritage. Fortunately Colin did this beautifully and, like Bowie’s songs, his images will live on and continue to enchant, entertain and educate us. I’m as grateful for that as I am grateful that Bowie didn’t transport “Life on Earth” up to heaven with him.

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London’s Little Scandinavia

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (www.sharedcity.co.uk), which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

SharedCity conduct several tours around London where you can immerse yourself in different cultures ranging from South Indian to Italian to Latin American. The three hour ‘Norway & Finland’ tour costs £25, which includes the Norwegian lunch. I strongly recommend trying one of their tours, particular as a pertinent reminder that it is London’s multiculturism that helps make it such a vibrant, fascinating and popular city!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My deer

One of the many things, in my totally biased opinion, that makes London special is its wonderful parks. And some of these are wilder than you can imagine – such as Richmond and Bushey Park, both of which have some rather special Royal residents – the Queen’s deer.

This autumn I boarded a ridiculously early train from Waterloo and braved the first of the chilly mornings in order to venture into Richmond park. I was there during the rutting season when the deer are more visible and, dare I add without upset my readers too much, it also helped that it was just before culling season, so they were at their most plentiful!)

It was a fascinating experience being so close to these wild and yet seemingly tame animals. Having joined another photographer and driven into the park as soon as the gates opened pre-dawn, within minutes we saw a huge stag staring into the car headlights seemingly unfazed by our vehicle – as if to remind us that we were merely tolerated visitors in his territory.  As dawn lifted we saw more and more of his clan and were able to get very close without them being the slightest bit fazed by us. It made me laugh to see how some tourists went stupidly close, as if they hadn’t noticed those huge antlers and stopped to pontificate on what damage they could do if their owner got slightly fed up by their intrusion; while at the same time regular visitors to the park cycled, ran or rode past chattering away to each other seemingly oblivious to these magnificent animals inches away from them.

I don’t know which response perplexed me the most, because I felt like I was on a safari and my heart beat that little bit faster every time I saw a deer peering through the grass . Maybe if I had this park on my doorstep I too would take them for granted and the camouflage would work on me as well.

But I like to think that I won’t, because I still catch my breath whenever I see St. Paul’s cathedral illuminated at night, or London’s new corporate cathedral – the Shard – shimmering under the sun’s rays, even though I see them practically every day. And I still marvel at what a wonderful place London is – to have white Portland stone and glistening steel on my doorstep, and majestic wild animals just a short train ride away.

That sea of blood

 

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There has been a bit of a poppy frenzy going on in London, by virtue of the “sea of blood” filling the moat at the Tower of London to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. The ‘blood’ was made up of thousands of ceramic poppies – one for each Commonwealth soldier who lost his life during that great war. The installation process began in the summer and slowly grew each day to mark the soldiers who fell until the last poppy was planted on Armistice Day by a young army cadet.

With the addition of each flower it seemingly captured more and more of the public’s hearts until it became London’s biggest tourist attraction. People flocked to do ‘selfies’ of themselves with the poppies; they marvelled on how beautiful they looked on-mass and many rushed to buy them, post-installation, at £25 a pop. No doubt they will make a good investment and some wily people, fully aware of this, were already trying to cash in by selling them on Facebook before the display had even been dismantled. I had mixed feelings about it all.

I wondered if the soldiers would have approved of their barbaric, needless deaths being remembered as something to ooh and aah about and a backdrop for selfies. And more worryingly, I wondered if the act of creating a thing of such intense beauty was glorifying and romanticising war or, at the very least, accepting it as an inevitability. By turning those tragic deaths into a glorious work of art it was almost as if their deaths had formed some kind of artist’s palette; albeit a selective one. Why should we just sigh and shed a tear over those poor ‘Tommies’ while forgetting that war continues and that hundreds and thousands more lives have been lost then, right up to the present day with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Armistice Day ceremony also unsettled my mind. By inviting both Chelsea war veterans in their splendid red jackets and a young army cadet to the ceremony is it not suggesting that war is an inevitability for every generation; and by placing them against that beautiful backdrop where they are made to look so stunning in their uniforms are we not glorifying war just as much now as our forefathers did a century ago when young men were sent to their slaughter with such glorious fanfare?

I am glad of my camera sometimes because the mere act of trying to take photos stops my brain from chattering too much with their nagging doubts. Though I’m aware now that by posting my photographs I am helping to perpetuate that notion of a “good and glorious” war. It makes me wonder about the conscience of photographers, as artists, and where we draw the line. I remember an interview with a conflict photographer, Robert King I think, in which he was asked how he could photograph the atrocities that he has seen in conflict zones such as citizens with freshly amputated limbs. He replied that your mind becomes that of an artist and you try to capture the pools of blood and the decimated body in the most aesthetic way possible. It isn’t that you don’t care, but just like a doctor doesn’t spend time wondering about the life of his patient while you try to save that life, you concentrate on the job on hand and think about it later.

In a remote sense that is what I am doing too. I photographed those “pools of blood” in the most beautiful way according to my capability, then shared the photos. My conscience is slightly troubled by the fact that I am helping to perpetrate war as a thing of beauty by doing so, but at the same time I am recognising another artist’s stunning creation and wanting to share it. Maybe I would feel happier if the actress Shelia Hancock’s suggestion of bringing a tank onto the moat to crush the lot of them had been taken up. That would have been a more fitting finale, rather than letting people own a poppy as a piece of artwork or, dare I say it, an art investment. I would have been there to photograph that for sure.

One thing that comforts me while I pontificate over all this is a wonderful act of nature that I was fortunate to observe. The local birds around the Tower of London had accepted and adapted to the presence of these artificial flowers by quite happily perching on them. I found this very comforting when I thought of what each poppy represented. The birds weren’t using the poppies for PR purposes or political gains – they just enjoyed being amongst them. I can’t help but think that this, probably unexpected, sideshow of the whole installation, was the truest and most moving. It brings to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy written during that ‘Great War’, entitled ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’.

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

With Damien Rice at the London Palladium

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This is a slight deviation from my usual postings. But I think it’s justified. Because on Friday I had the opportunity to sing with the international recording artist Damien Rice, at the London Palladium. Which is not the kind of invitation you turn down!

Anyone who knows me will be forgiven for re-reading that last sentence; it’s not a statement they probably ever expected to come from me. So I will explain. I was singing with the community choir London City Voices; and we joined Damien on stage for his finale – the exquisitely beautiful and powerful song Trusty and True. You probably haven’t heard of it yet, because it comes from his new album released literally just this week. But you will.

Forgive me for sounding clichéd but I can honestly say that it was one of those experiences that has you pinching yourself, even now two days afterwards. Every minute dedicated to that moment has been an absolute joy! From singing the song endlessly in the few days leading up to the event (and loving it more and more each time); to meeting him during rehearsal (what a lovely, totally grounded, warm-hearted guy); and then practising with him – as if that’s the most perfectly natural way to spend your Friday afternoon!

Then finally there was the excitement of us all creeping on stage and standing literally right behind him while he sang one of my all-time favourite songs, The Blower’s Daughter, live to an audience of over 2500 devoted fans. And as we silently stood there, our hearts pumping, we looked out on the crowd of devotees who had waited nearly a decade to hear him play live, and we revelled in the electricity; were deafened by the roar of their applause; and felt the growing butterflies in our stomachs. Because we knew that in minutes, now seconds, we too were going to open our mouths, and our hearts, and sing.

Finally, Damien asked the mikes to be switched off and started gently strumming his guitar. It was the start of what was, for this night at least, “our song”. The audience listened attentively and breathed in the delicacy of it, oblivious of the crescendo to come. The song slowly built and built in volume and intensity, until it was time for the secret to reveal itself. The male members of the choir softly started joining the chorus; we heard some quiet gasps from the audience. They had no clue what was going on, as we were standing in total darkness. As the intensity built up another notch it was finally the women’s turn and, as we joined in, simultaneously we were all illuminated. The response was something that is hard to express: the crowd whooped, cheered and clapped; the cameras began flashing in front of us in greater numbers, and the electricity seemingly increased tenfold.

And we sang. Oh how we sang! For this was our moment, and for a few precious chords the audience was ours as well as Damien’s. He was sharing the thrill, the excitement, the passion, the pride, the enormity of it with each one of us.

And did we let him down? Absolutely not. We did all we had been told to do. We were with him all the way, standing right behind him and giving it our all. We sang our hearts out. We did it for the crowd; we did it for Damien; we did it for Richard, our wonderful choir master; and we did it for ourselves. Because we may never get an opportunity like this again in our lifetimes, and we felt at that moment like the luckiest people on earth. The song’s intensity grew and grew and our voices grew louder and more intensely with it – until it reached that crashing, deafening, whooping climax that had the crowd on its feet! Then gently we brought them all back down again with our soft, gently humming to Damien’s final chords and words.

As the lights lifted and the applause finally faded, we trooped back to our dressing rooms; some of us in tears. Within minutes Damien was there too, for he had rushed to thank us. Because that’s the kind of person we had discovered him to be. And well, because thanks to that magical combination of a wonderful song that had just given birth; a beautiful singer; a fantastic and dedicated choir master; and a group of people determined to give it our all, we really were rather good! And he wanted to express his gratitude for that.

In return I’d like to thank Damien Rice and Richard Swan of London City Voices. You fulfilled many dreams that night; you gave me personally an experience that never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine occurring, and you created memories that will stay with us. Now our strides are that little bit springier; our heads that little bit higher and our smiles that little bit wider. We have sung at the London Palladium a song so beautiful that it’s destined to become the soundtrack to many people’s lives across this planet. And we sang it with Damien Rice. How can we possibly ever feel quite the same again?

I’ve included some behind the scenes pictures as we prepared for our performance. I think they convey how excited we were, and how beautiful we all looked (including Linda and Anne-Marie, featured, old friends and new). Because joy brings beauty. And besides, for that night at least, we were all stars – singing at the London Palladium!

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You can hear the song here: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=359335290&m=359414466

And hear us singing it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecaIZTTThdo&feature=youtu.be

Plus here’s a picture of Damien singing that I took with my i phone just before we stepped on stage, and one of me on stage during the rehearsal – just to remind myself that it really happened, and finally one of us all with Damien Rice – I’m the one standing to the right of him looking deliriously happy! (Photo courtesy of Mark Doyle, who has posted more pictures and clips on twitter: https://twitter.com/markcoyle65/media)

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Damien Rice

Rock Star

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This photo was taken at a car boot sale in Spitalfields, East London. I don’t know if the Rock Star jacket was placed there deliberately because it so aptly matched the colour scheme of the graffiti backdrop, or if it was just a happy coincidence. But it somehow makes the car seem almost unnoticeable, and the whole scene just feels complete, like the jacket is part of the street art and not a random addition. I love serendipity like that.

The Boy with the Balloon (in colour)

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I found out yesterday that this photo has been selected for a photography exhibition in Bristol. The judge is a winner of the Deutsche Borse photography prize (considered the most prestigious European photography award) so I was pretty chuffed that he considered my image worthy of inclusion.

I’ve previously included a monochrome version of the photo on the blog: https://anenchantedeye.com/2014/07/07/boy-with-the-balloon/ but to celebrate I thought I’d now include the original, which is how it will appear in the exhibition.

John and George continued

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It seems that my post regarding John and George touched a few hearts. And quite rightly so as it’s a wonderful story of someone turning their life around thanks to talent and also the help of a rather special four-legged friend. I was very excited to be reuniting with them both again at the Howard Griffin gallery in Shoreditch, though I didn’t really know what to expect.

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Anyone familiar with London will know that Shoreditch is a very trendy, artistic area in the East End that feels like a rough cut diamond – it’s a bit grotty, to some extent deliberately so, but art and innovation is at its core and that makes it a very exciting place to be. I wasn’t surprised when the taxi pulled up outside a gallery that would not have looked out of place during the Blitz bombings of London. I was glad that I had dressed down in jeans. What did surprise me was that John, my companion Sam, and I were to be the only people wearing jeans that night! The whole place was full of suits and cocktail dresses who had bravely ventured outside of the City walls in order to open up their wallets for a good cause. Now I understood why the guest list was so particular – the idea was to bring in people with money!

We snuck in anyhow and bumped into John escaping for a breath of fresh air as we were doing so. I couldn’t help wondering if it was the intense heat he was trying to escape from, or the people. After braving it out for a few minutes we too joined him outside. He introduced us to his family and I told him that I’d written about him on my blog. “I saw it!”, exclaimed his sister-in-law. “Remember John, I told you earlier that someone had blogged about you.” I like to think that this revelation gave us a little bit more cache with John and his clan. I may not have a fat wallet but I was genuinely interested in him and my friend and I were not just there for the Cabernet and canapes.

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But it was Sam who later got the warmest reception, from the other star of the show – George. We realised that we hadn’t seen him so we asked where he was. “Follow the trail of the canapes” we were told. And so we headed downstairs to where they were being dished up and there was George staring at the serving staff as if his life depended on it. “He’s eaten so many I’m surprised he hasn’t been sick” exclaimed one, as she gently popped another one into his mouth. It seemed that George was quite easily adjusting to the life of a celebrity. As I came empty handed, he ignored me, but when Sam called him he trotted towards her. We were sure it was because he remembered her giving him water on Columbia Road last Sunday. He hadn’t forgotten this act of kindness from a stranger when, to all extents and purposes, he was just a sad and beaten up street mutt, not A list celebrity in doggy world.

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Last time I had seen George he was in a sad state, but now he was apparently back to his old self. He was clearly a very warm, gentle dog – but also one with a bit of East End attitude. He strutted around the gallery, ate the canapes as if they were dog biscuits and cocked his leg up outside a lamp post as if he was a celebrity and he didn’t give a toss who saw him misbehaving. John was a bit more bashful and I sensed that his dog was adjusting to the limelight slightly quicker than himself.

By the time that we had left that evening we’d found out a bit more about John and his relationship with George (for example he was ‘bought’ from a friend in exchange for an extra strong can of lager); fed George far too many canapes; photographed them both; bought John’s memoirs hot of the press; received another sketch of George from John plus I bought myself an early birthday present of John’s favourite picture of his best friend (seen in the background in the first picture of them both).

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As we headed for our bus home we saw an elderly homeless guy with a very little dog in his arms. We stopped to say hello and he turned out to be a lovely softly spoken gentleman whose sweet dog, Pixie, couldn’t hold back from jumping up and licking us.   I wondered if maybe we would have just walked on by if it were not for our recent encounter with John and George. Together they had taught us an important lesson – that things are never quite what they seem, and you should never judge a man by his appearance or by his current misfortune in life.

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John and George

 

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Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do things like this blog. Don’t get me wrong – I love sharing my photos, and I love getting feedback even more! But if I wasn’t sitting at my desk publishing my photos I could be out and about in the streets of London forever meeting fascinating characters. People like John Dolan and his wonderful dog George.

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I spotted George before I saw John. I was captivated by the sight of this dog with begging note and bowl and thought what a clever idea it was to dress a pet up in a jacket and get him to do the begging for you (though it turned out that the jacket was only on him because he was cold). But I soon discovered that George was more than just a characterful dog; he was a lifesaver. And his best friend happened to be a pretty good artist who was busy sketching his faithful friend while he was earning his Pedigree Chum. And John was more than just an artist – he was a man with an incredible story, whose life had been turned around thanks to this dog in front of me.

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John didn’t need much encouragement to tell his story. It  turns out that he is a former petty criminal who has been in and out of prison more times than George has shaken a leg; he is also an ex-heroin addict and has spent far too many years living rough on london’s streets than was good for him. It was George that got him off the crime because John realised that if he was sent away again he wouldn’t be able to look after him. (Incidentally, the affection between the two is palpable and the intense pleasure on George’s face when his master goes to pet him is so evident that I doubt John can bear to be away from him even for a second). So he switched to begging instead. But he found the process so demoralising that he decided to place George in prime position so that the focus didn’t fall on himself. But he had to do something to entertain himself while George was doing his job, so he returned to the one thing that he had been good at at school – art.

John gradually re-found his groove at drawing and, as generally happens when you have visible talent in the streets of London, he was eventually discovered. What happened next is like the script of a feature film. John got himself off the heroine; got himself an exhibition (his collaborative prints sold for up to £50k each); his book is about to hit the streets (which he assured us would be a bestseller); he’s a regular on TV and there is now an LA stamp in his passport.

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Like George, who was sadly beaten up by some other dogs the night before and was looking very delicate as a result, John still bears his physical and emotional battle scars. And while there was no doubting his talent I could not help but wonder just how much of what he was telling me was true. I enquired how much it would cost to buy the sketch that he was working on. “They usually sell for £50 but I’ll let you have it for £20” he replied. I didn’t have that much on me and I was so distracted by the conversation and in taking photos of George that I forgot to pursue purchasing it. But I did tell John that I’d love to photograph him. “I tell you what, I have an event at Howard Griffin gallery in Shoreditch on Thursday” he replied. “Come along!” “Ok, give me the details”. With that John drew me a little picture of George and said “That will get you in”.

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After saying our goodbyes I decided to view the gallery website just to check that the event really was taking place. Sure enough a rather impressive exhibition of John’s works was just coming to a close. But there was no mention of an event, so I phoned the gallery. “Yes there is a reception,” the employee told me, “but the entrance policy is very strict so you really have to prove that you have been invited  to get in.” So I sent them a photograph of John’s sketch and  a nice response came back saying that my friend and I were now indeed on the guest list. I felt rather honoured to be included, but also rather churlish for not having taken up John’s offer of his latest sketch of George for just £20!

Well least I still have his little sketch in my notebook, which had already felt rather special, but now has an extra monetary value that I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time!

You can find out more about John Dolan and George here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/john-dolan-homeless-addict-to-artist-and-author

and see his pictures from his exhibition at Howard Griffin here: http://howardgriffingallery.com/exhibitions/john-and-george/

The event I am attending is in aid of Wrap Up – a charity that donates coats to the homeless. (John’s life may have moved forward in incredible ways, but he hasn’t forgotten where he once was, and could still be now, if it wasn’t for that rather special dog called George).

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Dress rehearsal

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Here’s one I took earlier – a Queen’s Guard in his scarlet best. He was photographed in June just before the Queen’s Birthday parade rehearsal – back when summer was still full of promise; not dolefully bowing its head to make way for the scarlet leaves of autumn. I’m sure I will be dazzled by the autumn colours this year, as I always am – but I wish I could bring June back again.

 

The lost Elvis

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Something that I have always loved about my area of London is all the free music festivals. And also the fact that you can pretty much guarantee that if you go to one you will see ‘the two Elvises’ giving it everything on the dance floor. I’ve seen them strutting their stuff for about ten years now and I can’t tell you my delight when I came back from having been away for five years this April to one of the first festivals of the season to see them there on the dance floor as if I’d never been away. It felt so reassuring – as if the clocks had stood still in my absence.

But at today’s festival something was amiss. Only one of the Elvises was dancing! The other one sat looking incredibly forlorn just watching on from a deckchair. He did not try to hide his misery – their was no stoicism about him. It was like his reason for being had ceased to exist. His partner was trying to take up the slack by giving it all she had but it was not the same. She would never be one of the two Elvises – she knew it, we knew it and he damn well knew it.

“What is going on?” I kept asking my companion. “Why is he not dancing? It’s like he has become suddenly disabled, and yet he is tapping his feet so he can’t be.” “Go and ask him” she said. But she didn’t understand. You don’t talk to the Elvises – it would ruin the whole mystique. They danced; they let you take their photograph, but they didn’t talk.

However, fate intervened and as the final band was packing up the still active of the Elvis, to my utter surprise, approached us and offered us his Churros (a kind of Mexican donut) that they hadn’t eaten. This was the most surreal thing ever for me. It was like Elvis himself had suddenly decided to rise from the grave to converse with me. I seized the opportunity to ask him what the hell was going on. Why was his friend not dancing?! “His knee has mysteriously swollen up” he replied. “He’s devastated.” As I watched him later hobble away with his friend and his partner supporting him it was one of the saddest scenes I had witnessed. I wanted to take a photograph because the scene was so poignant but the battery on my camera suddenly died. It felt apt really, as if he shouldn’t be recorded that way.

The guy lying in front of the free entertainers is John, whom you will probably guess was rather drunk. My friend and I watched him with fascination as he attempted to stand at the end of the event; wobbled on his feet somewhat; gazed to the sky as if for inspiration then went crashing through the barriers in front of the stage and lay prostrate for several minutes. We brought him over to sit with us and tried to prize the drink off him, offering to trade it for coffee, but he wasn’t having it. He turned out to be a very sweet person who worked as a litter picker (it took him several attempts to say that) and kept asking us what football team we supported, as if that was the only important thing in life really (he was a West Ham supporter). As we packed up to go home he asked to take a ‘selfie’ of us. We agreed and on the count of three we both kissed him on the cheeks. I have no doubt that the whole concert will soon become a total blur to John, but I smile as I imagine him looking at his photo maybe on the way to work and thinking “Crikey! I must have had a really good weekend!” Unlike the poor forlorn ‘Elvis’, who was missing his blue suede dancing shoes.

 

 

Columbia Road people – and pets

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As promised, here are my people photographs taken at Columbia Road on Sunday morning, with the occasional dog thrown in for good measure. There is a slight nod to two very different street photographers – Martin Parr and Vivian Maier – in them, especially in the final two pictures (no prizes for guessing who features in the last one!)  I think the photo of the lady smiling with the flowers looks slightly out of place amongst all the other more somber pictures, but I included it because of the contrast with the homeless guy in the background looking on rather dejectedly. And yes he is the same guy featured in two other pictures. I don’t think he was having a very good day so he moved around a lot.

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Colours and shadows

 

DSCF3510-4It was a glorious evening earlier so I took a quick stroll along the South Bank to practise some camera settings – in a bid to get those colours even more vibrant, and those shadows even more intense. It was probably hit and miss, but if you don’t try these things out you don’t develop.

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