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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In Light of Recent Events

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Well, the American Presidential votes have been counted and the number that was cast for a candidate whose campaign was built on inciting hatred and intolerance is, to borrow a quote from the day of the Twin Towers attack, “more than many of us can bear”.

When the then mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, spoke those words with such sensitivity and dignity I considered him to be a person of certain gravitas and felt sure that they would resonate with us for decades to come. How ironic that this same person should have been on stage following another iconic 9/11 date, which for so many was a day that filled people with as much shock and horror as they had felt 15 years ago.

Maybe you think that is an inappropriate comparison, but it felt to me like many Americans’ beliefs in their country, their fellow countrymen and their political system were dramatically collapsing before their very eyes. That a man who seemed so openly and proudly abhorrent, who had no political training and seemingly no interest in even learning the craft of leadership, should be elected leader of the country and, by default, effectively the leader of the world, was a catastrophe of the highest level. And just to show how upside down the world had become, there on-stage celebrating Trump’s victory after helping to orchestrate it was none other than the former mayor Giuliani – who had not so much as slipped off his pedestal as been ceremoniously thrown off in my eyes.

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But, ironies aside, where does this leave us all now that we have digested the news? Quite rightly, people are very worried. They are worried about so many good things that may well be undone – from Obamacare, to environmental and trade agreements. They are worried about things that are apparently going to be done, like the Mexican wall and the deportation of immigrants. And they are worried about a man who wasn’t considered safe with a twitter account having access to the nuclear codes.

All we can do is wait and see, which makes us all feel powerless and at his mercy.

As is common after a big shock, people are now seeking reassurances and answers. I wish I could say that it will be alright – because he doesn’t have a big enough mandate or he only controls one house (unfortunately, as the Republicans now control both houses he holds more power than Obama ever did). So, from doing my own soul-searching I have decided that the only thing that I, as a bystander thousands of miles away, can do is look to myself. Yes I can get angry at the apparent stupidity of those who voted for Trump, or I can get angry at the laziness and complacency within the Democratic party for not realising that they needed to put forward a fresh new candidate instead of old blood. But that doesn’t change the result. (And for the record, I don’t think so many Americans are that stupid, I just think that it is a very divided nation and that there are a lot of very desperate people choosing the only option of change that was put before them, even if it felt to the rest of the world a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas).

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In Britain we have had our own catastrophe in the form of Brexit and here too people are failing to understand how so many people could have voted to have all the benefits of European membership taken away from them. But again, people don’t make rational decisions when they are fed up with being at the bottom of the pile and feeling increasingly alienated and, in the case of some, desperate. Plus we have the impact of the media propaganda that has been openly churning out lies and inciting suspicion and hatred without any fear of punishment, as our press is self-regulated.

Comparisons have been drawn to the current political situation and the rise of Hitler. All my life it had seemed inconceivable that such a thing as happened in Germany could happen again. Until now. Shockingly, history does seem to be repeating itself – we are seeing refugees flocking from genocide while being described as vermin; media spewing out racist propaganda; and demagogues full of hatred being in a position of too much power. This has to stop.

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So, how do we turn back a tide that suddenly feels like a tsunami? Firstly we can turn our anger into action. Don’t just moan about the situation to your mates down the pub then move on to discussing Bake Off or Strictly Come Dancing. Don’t wring your hands over other people’s apparent stupidity while sleepwalking towards more national and international disasters. Focus on the things you CAN change instead of getting bitter about the ones you can’t.

No we can’t get rid of Trump, but that doesn’t say we don’t have a voice. Good people are working hard to protect people and produce small but significant justices. So, if you disagree with Brexit then sign any petition or poll going to show others that you don’t want it. MPs do listen to their constituents because they want to be re-elected, so ask them to vote against it, or at least for a soft Brexit – whatever that is.

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Sign up to campaigning organisations like 38 degrees, sum of us and Change.org and when they send you details of their campaigns, if you agree with what they are fighting for, help to influence the outcome by signing your name or writing to your MP (which literally can be done in seconds with their help). If there is an anti-austerity march, or anti-BREXIT march, or a march in support of refugees and it’s something you feel is important about then join it. It doesn’t make you an anarchist just because you show your support, in a peaceful way, for things that you believe in.

Be prepared to have those uncomfortable conversations with your friends, families, colleagues – or just anyone who says something to you that you disagree with. If someone blames our problems on the immigrants, challenge them on that; if they say that the European Union has been bad for the UK ask them in what way. If they quote something inflammatory that they read in a newspaper remind them that certain newspapers regularly lie. You don’t have to be offensive, but if people aren’t challenged over things they say because they have been fed misinformation by the media, they will never know that they are mistaken.

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If there isn’t an outside body regulating the press we need to do it ourselves. How? By cutting off their oxygen. The media relies on advertising to survive, so if we persuade companies not to advertise in the press that are openly telling lies and inciting hatred the papers will lose their income and will have to start reconsidering their editorial stance. An organisation called Stop Funding Hate is circulating petitions to persuade companies to do just that. And momentum is building, with results. Lego has just announced that it will no longer advertise in the Daily Mail, and the Co-Op is reviewing its advertising policy. I feel sure that this is just the beginning and that many more companies will follow suit, if we promise to boycott them, through these petitions if they don’t. Because they do listen to their customers if profits are at stake.

What else can we do? Well, as Voltaire put it “let us take care of our garden”. I don’t mean that we should forget about the world’s problems and just get ourselves an allotment. I mean that it is easy to get angry with others and blame the world’s problems on them, but what if everyone decided to work on themselves instead of just criticising others? We don’t have to emulate Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa (though god knows we could do with a few more of those) but there is room for improvement in all of us and if we all work on ourselves and our own ‘gardens’ how great the world could be!

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So in that vein, as the President elect prepares to make his own pledge of allegiance here is mine – to myself and the planet.

  1. I pledge to be kind to other people. That doesn’t just mean just not being unkind, it means that I will make a conscious effort to be kind – through my words and actions.

  2. I will speak out against injustice and prejudice, even if that makes me unpopular. I will not keep quiet if someone says something offensive, whether it is wilfully or through misinformation and ignorance. And I will support those who speak out too.

  3. I will buy fair-trade produce wherever possible and will not buy new clothes that have been produced through any suffering or exploitation. I will only buy from charity shops or from companies that I trust are paying a fair-wage and providing decent working conditions.

  4. I will be kind to all creatures on this planet. Which means I will not ignore cruelty in farming and will not see animals as mere ‘products’ as opposed to living beings like you and me. I will only buy meat products that are animal welfare approved or free-range and I will pay a fair price for food products, especially those that are animal-related, because cheap things always come at a price somewhere down the line.

  5. I will nurture my talents and seek to use my skills as a writer, photographer and communicator to educate, inform, challenge and to help inspire change where it is needed

  6. I will value all that I have been given – whether that is my good health, a roof over my head or the freedom to go where I choose. I will recognise that, even when things look bleak, I am one of the very privileged ones.

  7. I will dedicate a portion of my time to helping others more disadvantaged than myself.

  8. I will not let the world situation overwhelm me but I will be informed – because ignorance and apathy creates an opportunity for the powerful to push through injustices.

  9. I will question and challenge anything that does not seem right and I will not accept that it cannot be changed.

  10. I will maintain my faith in humanity and will seek to understand why people are doing things that I disagree whether rather than just condemning them for it.
    DSCF6445(Photos taken on a trip to Miami at the start of this year, when everything still felt fairly normal).

In Time of the Breaking of Nations

It is still less than a week since the British referendum result. And yet it feels much longer. So much has happened since then that I can’t a recall a time in British history so tumultuous. I feel that we will look back asking not “What were you doing when Brexit occurred?” but rather “Which way did you vote?” For I cannot think of anything that has divided our nation so much – not only geographically; even within the Conservative and Labour parties there have been divisions so great that staunch Labour supporters have found themselves on the same side as the leader of the Conservative party. And now both of our main parties are at war, as the nation itself is, with themselves.

To get some sense of inner peace amongst the chaos and drama I went on a couple of walks – first on the day that the results came out and again yesterday. Both were typical British summer days – not particularly hot, but not unpleasant either. There was a break from the usual rainy days that we have been subjected to recently (as if the weather itself had echoed the bitter tears of half the population) and I was at least able to benefit from the lush, verdant beauty of early summer.

I walked through some of the greenest areas of London, and also in some pretty affluent streets (which I couldn’t help thinking up new names for – “Lucky Bastards Avenue” and “Fat Cat Alley” sprang to mind). As I ambled the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ kept playing in my mind, particularly the line “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”. I remembered how I had not been allowed to include this hymn at my wedding ceremony because the priest considered it too jingoistic. I was a bit annoyed at the time, but now I was starting to wonder if he had a point. After all it is based on a Blake poem suggesting that our land was so magnificent that Jesus must have walked on it.

Maybe Brexit is just about us getting a bit ahead of ourselves with our collective opinion of how great this country actually is. How we conveniently forget minor reality checks like the fact that our national football team this week could not even beat a country with a population smaller than most of our cities when called upon to do so. Maybe if we took ‘Great’ out of our name, banned Jerusalem from ever being sung again, and had a slightly less trumped up flag, then it would help us to have a more balanced view?

Because the problem is that even I, who felt physically sick when I heard the referendum result and cried angry tears that this could have happened, couldn’t help feeling a little bit comforted when I walked my city’s historic streets and parks and took in their beauty. And I knew that, however much the aggrieved 48% have threatened to revolt, in reality we will probably gradually accept the change and comfort ourselves by grumbling about it and telling everyone “Don’t say we didn’t warn you!”

Something else that came to my mind during my ambles was the Thomas Hardy poem ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, written at the start of World War I. Hardy’s poem depicts how life goes on the same in England, in spite of the carnage taking place across the channel. The land is still farmed; people still fall in love. The poem was written in response to a request from the government to Hardy to comfort and reassure people. Conjuring it up now doesn’t comfort me; it reinforces my gut fear that we will not take a stance against tumultuous changes like Brexit when we have newspapers to misinform and mould us; and football tournaments and Facebook posts to distract us from the bigger picture.

I did not mourn our departure from the European Cup. I was glad. Because I wanted some of those who voted for England’s much bigger exit to share some of my pain, if only for a fleeting moment. And I wanted them to be reminded that we are not that great a nation anymore, just like we have not won a major football tournament in fifty years.  We haven’t found a winning team and we haven’t been fixed. We’re just a confused, deflated and divided country, wondering who our next leader will be and what our next ill-conceived tactic will be to try to restore those glory days we misguidedly think we deserve.

Here is Hardy’s poem:

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.

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Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

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Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War’s annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Margate Gems

This week I was invited to photograph Margate for the local tourist board, while joining them on a whistletop ‘fam tour’ of the town. I like to think I know Margate well, as I divide my time between my flat here and London. But I have to admit that most of the places we visited had previously been off my radar. I can now say that I’ve ventured down the shell grotto (a cave decorated with shells ‘recently’ discovered in 1835 but no-one knows why the shells are there and who put them there); stepped inside the beautiful Tudor House, which I have previously only admired from the outside; done time in a prison cell – now Margate History museum, and hopped on-board the bus cafe at The Old Kent Market.

I’ve come away now knowing that the shell grotto has a fantastic gift shop; that Tudor House was nearly demolished by the council because they didn’t know what historic gem was quietly lying underneath a rough plastered facade (a lesson for us all perhaps…); the Old Kent Market bakes lovely huge teacakes on the premises, that are effectively Hot Cross Buns but without the cross. (So you don’t have to wait until Easter to eat them); the History Museum is housed in a former gaol and is really large and that Helen Shapiro, who sang at the Winter Gardens, was actually Columbian (a random fact gleaned from the history museum).

I also got to have a private tour of Dreamland amusement park on the first anniversary of its new incarnation (sadly the rides were not operating during my visit – I guess only the Royals get that kind of private tour) and discovered that the park is now free to visit (you just have to pay for the rides).

I also got to see the latest exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery, which is basically centred on all things round; and popped into a few shops and bars including the lovely Morgans, which I returned to later on so that I could enjoy the sunshine from their beautiful seaview terrace.

Next week I’ll be joining them on another fam trip and photographing the local Kent villages. I can’t wait!

Nice to Know You

It’s virtually impossible to do a blog post on Nice in France without some kind of pun in the title! And in truth I have been getting to know Nice, in spite of the somewhat inclement weather.

My first day was one of those hazy, muggy, dreary, drizzly days. Not with the dramatic kind of rain that suddenly gives way to bright sunshine offset against black skies and maybe even a rainbow for good measure, like a ‘forgive me’ card for having been a bit mean. No, the only pleasure I enjoyed was that lovely essence of damp honeysuckle and roses. Which is great, but unfortunately not something you can photograph! So my late morning traverse up the hillside to look down on the bay – which sounds more interesting than it actually was as it mostly involved just crossing from one side of the windy road to the other, dodging cars careering around the corners – resulted in something so ‘blah’ that I didn’t even bother getting the camera out.

After lunch I decided to give it another shot – at sea level – by walking to the old town and port. My guidebook warned me this would take around an hour, but I had a cunning plan. I would hire one of the ‘Velo Bleu’ bikes from their starting blocks by the sea. This was a bold move by me as I’m a bit nervous about the (so-called) ‘Boris bikes’  back home, but I told myself this would be so easy in comparison – the terrain was flat and I couldn’t possibly get lost when all I had to do was keep the sea to my right. So, I registered my bank card, got my bike and was good to go.

Except now it was raining! But that didn’t matter – a little rain wouldn’t hurt me. Well, actually it could, because I saw not one but two people come a cropper by skidding on the wet surface. I hadn’t realised I was partaking in a dangerous sport….But somehow I made it to the port in one piece and was now ready to lose the bike so that I could explore the old town. I was even feeling very smug because this had all been achieved in less than half an hour, which meant my journey was gratis. Well it would have been, except I couldn’t get the docking screen to switch on to register the bike being returned and lock the bike. I tried every free docking slot but to no avail. So, I had no choice but to get back in the saddle and try another dock – except that didn’t work either. Or the next one. By this point I was practically back to where I started from and wondering just what it was I was getting so terribly wrong. Eventually I swallowed my pride and phoned the help number, and was informed that the docks don’t generally work when it’s raining, only on sunny days! As if I wasn’t being punished enough by the weather, it wouldn’t even let me ride a bleeding bike!

I could see that the woman on the end of the phone was trying to get rid of me because firstly I was a problem she couldn’t resolve and secondly she was tired of trying to give me instructions in her broken English. So, when I saw another person crazy enough to hire one of the bikes I chased him down and asked him how I was supposed to return mine. “Come with me” I’ll take you to a dock that works” he beckoned. And so we peddled together through the old town of Nice and I began thinking how this would be a great start to a romantic novel, until I was rudely interrupted by him swearing upon our arrival at the chosen docking station: “Merde! These aren’t working either!” He then went on to instruct me to just lock it up, note the number and write to them, before disappearing into the drizzle.

So, my bleeding bleu bike was unceremoniously abandoned and my bank card is depleting with every hour because there seems to be no means of writing to them (the form doesn’t work, nor do the texts and there is no email address).

Apart from that hanging over me, things got better the next day when the blue bike was replaced with blue skies. So I promenaded along the sea front, climbed a hill to a park for some great views and revisited the port and the old town on foot. I also had a rendezvous with my French partner who just happened to be passing through Nice on route to the Cannes film festival, where I join him tomorrow. Well you can’t be in France without enjoying a bit of French romance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of hibernation

Summer came to town yesterday!!! Just as the trees were putting on their new green jackets we were all stripping off the layers and I was basking in the sun wondering if I was already in the South of France? Oh, did I mention that that’s where I’m heading next week – just for a few days in Nice followed by, drum roll, my first Cannes film festival experience?!

In case you’re wondering how that came about, well ostensibly I’ll be supporting my partner, Fred, who will have a couple of films there that he’s worked on. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, it’s just one of those tiresome things you have to do for someone you love. I could be doing something much more interesting instead – like sitting on a crowded underground train, painting my bathroom or unblocking the drains, but it is my duty to be there for him – on the red carpet if needs be; or even at that cocktail party on the beach. Sigh!

Not convinced that I would drop everything for love to endure sunshine, sand and celebrity soirees in the south of France?  Well, actually I may well be doing my own little bit of networking there, as I’ve also taken a bit of a cinematic detour myself over the past year. Yes, I admit it. I’ve been neglecting important duties like this blog because I’ve been caught up in the intoxicating world of movie making. More precisely I’ve been dabbling in stills photography; publicity shots; premieres and actors’ portfolio pictures.

It’s been a lot of fun – especially getting an insight into the process of a film being made. One documentary that I worked on meant leaving London just as winter was taking a grip, to spend two months in Paris and Rome photographing the likes of Roman Polanski and Wes Anderson. I do keep making these sacrifices I’m telling you!

Anyway darlings, my shrink (everyone in the movie business has one don’t ya know) tells me that I need to keep things real and not neglect my original fans just because I’m now mingling with celebrities (well not exactly, but I did go to Tom Hanks film premiere last week, does that count?) So, I’m picking up the blog again – just to keep my feet on the ground and because, joking aside, what’s the point of taking photos if no-one sees them?

So, hello, is anyone still out there??? For anyone that may still lingering on, here’s a sunrise photo taken in Miami earlier this year. Well, it’s a new dawn after all…

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Aperativo break at the Venice Carnival

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I wasn’t able to make it to the Venice Carnival this year as I’m in a play and can’t miss the rehearsals. So, I’m post photos from previous years instead.

I love the expression on the gentleman’s face on the left. He doesn’t look too happy. Maybe his wig is itching him, or he’s wishing he was drinking an Aperol Spritz like his companion. I felt a bit like a time traveller watching them both anyhow – was it really the 21st century?!!! The wonderful thing about Venice is that the backdrop looks so historic, and there are no cars, so once people step into period costume you really can start to believe that you have stepped back in time.

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

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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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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Colours of Columbia Road

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On Sunday I organised a photography excursion for my female photography group to Columbia Road flower market. This is such a great location for photos because not only do you get to see the flowers of course, but also so many interesting people – from the die hard Eastenders to the ‘hipsters’ that have invaded this part of town and of course people flock from all over the world. Then there are the buskers and the cools cafes and the lovely shops selling handmade or vintage produce.

With all this around me, naturally I made sure I found time to whip out my own camera! I’ll share some photos here this week, including some people posts and more flower pictures. But first I wouldn’t to give you an idea of the vibrancy of the market, even on an overcast Sunday morning with a whiff of autumn in the are

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