Pig’s head still life, south London, circa 1982. © David Secombe.
From the Hern’s Tribe website:
Mid-Winter Solstice (Yule): Outdoor Ritual in London
A special ritual to mark the end of one Mayan cycle and beginning of another. Join us for the Journey of the Fool, and quest through the 4 Elements to consecrate a magical Talisman. Anoint the Yule-log (yes a real one) with your wishes & hopes for 2013, and place it in the ritual fire. Then feast with home made bread, mulled Wine, some woodland tribal cooking. Don’t forget the Mistletoe! There will be Wiccan elements to this ritual.
Date: Saturday 22nd December 2012. Venue: Coombe Lane (From East Croydon station, take the `New Addington’ branch of the Tram, and get down at `Coombe Lane’ stop).
Yule celebrations in Wicca date back to the late 1950s. Most Yule rituals will involve the casting of a circle, a ritual symbolising the rebirth of the solar deity, dancing round the circle and the feasting ceremony of ‘cakes and wine’. Other Wiccan covens might base their ritual on the passing of power from the Holly King to the Oak King – a concept derived from British folklore. The festival itself is entirely Pagan in origin. Echoes of old Druidic fertility rites survive in ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Santa Claus has been Christianized as Saint Nicholas, but the tradition of a gift-bearing man arriving at mid-winter can be traced back to Wotan (Odin) in Germanic folklore.
Feasting is a large part of all Pagan traditions and at Christmas this is still a principle element. The focus of the meal around a specific animal is certainly a residue of animal sacrifice, although the popularity for turkey is a modern development. We should not be squeamish about animal sacrifice, it simply meant butchering an animal for the benefit of the community with a small and usually inedible portion being ‘given’ to the gods. Modern sensibilities are usually too cosseted to even contemplate killing a chicken, so we should not condemn the past on our own rather feeble standards.
I would like to reassure my readers that the pig in the photo above was not the by-product of any crazed sacrifice, Wiccan or otherwise: it was prosaically acquired from a local butcher for the alleged purpose of making brawn, which was a fatuous attempt to disguise an equally fatuous artistic project. It was the early 1980s and I was an ambitious photographic student, my hunger for success exceeded only by the depth of my cluelessness. This porcine still life was shot on a cold December night in the back garden of my parents’ house in suburban south London, and was a study for – well, I wasn’t quite sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time … The transparency laid undisturbed for decades until it turned up in a cache of forgotten transparencies I found last month. I offer it here as a seasonal offering in a more-than-averagely bleak midwinter; we’ve still got a week to go before the solstice on the 21st, and if the Hern’s Tribe lot are anything to go by, the south London suburbs are going to be where it’s at if paganism is your thing. As for me, I’ll be indoors, watching an old Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube. Or perhaps this … (and I’m sure you’ll forgive the shameless plug).
… for The London Column.
Mural, Chaldon Church, Surrey. Photo © David Secombe, 1989.
When I was a boy, Halloween was a shadowy, elusive affair; the occasional carved pumpkin glowing in a window; the occasional fleeting glimpse of a reveller skipping away in a witch’s hat – usually some person you didn’t know and had never seen before. As a festival, it was upstaged by Bonfire Night, and I was frustrated by Halloween in those days. There was nothing you could buy, or be given in connection with it. Today, there is a great deal you can buy, as a result of the promotion of Trick or Treat, by which Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night and ghostliness has given way to mock horror. In the weeks before Halloween, Asda stores offer, amid a landslide of plastic tat; the Asda Squeezy Eyeball, the Asda Rat, the Asda Inflatable Coffin, the Child Grim Reaper Outfit (‘one size fits all’), the Adult Grim Reaper Outfit, the Inflatable Pumpkin Cooler (not for cooling pumpkins, you understand), the Skull Martini Shaker.
Asda is American-owned, and Trick or Treat came to us from America. The British folklorist Doc Rowe, believes that the Trick or Treat contagion began with a programme broadcast on BBC2 in the early ’70s as part of a documentary strand called Look Stranger. It depicted life on the American airbase in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and showed the children trick-or-treating. ‘Within two years,’ Doc Rowe told me, ‘all the tabloids were running features on how to dress up for the occasion.’ But his point is that this was merely the re-introduction into this country of a tradition rooted in psychology.
It helps to think of both Halloween and Bonfire Night as outgrowths of the Celtic celebration called Samhain, which marked the turning of their year and the beginning of winter. Samhain was associated with the lighting of fires to honour the dead, and defy malevolent spirits. The medieval church both denounced the festivals as diabolic and sought to appropriate aspects of them in the shape of All Saints Day on November 1st (on which the sanctified are honoured), and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a more democratic honouring of all Christian souls). According to Doc Rowe, ‘By tarring Halloween with an occult brush, by caricaturing it that way, the church made it an occult event.’ But while the original Halloween might not have been thoroughgoingly sinister, it did incorporate games and rituals of licensed naughtiness. All Souls Day, for example, was associated with Soul Caking, wherein poor Christians would say prayers for the departed relations of wealthier ones in return for food – and you can see how there might have been trouble if the rich didn’t play along.
It is likely that these traditions, these precursors of Trick or Treat, were taken to America by Scottish and Irish emigrants of the mid-nineteenth century … so the Asda Inflatable Coffin is actually our fault. But Doc Rowe believes these customs are ineradicable in any case. ‘The more you suppress these things, the greater they become.’ Apart from the Church, he identifies the main suppressors as ‘the health and safety camp’. I know what he means, and I wonder how long it will be before the words ‘high visibility vest’ come up in a ghost story.
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Chaldon Church is a tiny and ancient (11th Century) church tucked away in an unnervingly isolated hillside location about a mile north of the junction of the M23 and the ‘Magic Roundabout’ (a.k.a. the M25, London’s present-day Roman Wall). The church is famous for its terrifying medieval wall painting, described by Exploring Surrey’s Past thus: ‘The mural on the west wall of Chaldon church is one of the earliest known English wall paintings – it dates from about 1200 and is without equal in any other part of Europe. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk. The picture depicts the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ together with ‘Purgatory and Hell’. Wall paintings of this kind were intended as a visual aid to religious teaching. The whole picture is in the form of a cross, formed by the Ladder and the horizontal division between Heaven and Hell.’ No photo can adequately convey the power of this mural, or the sense of unease I experienced whilst photographing it on a bleak, windswept afternoon 20+ years ago.The medieval imagination retains its capacity to disturb; and the thrum of traffic from the nearby motorways seemed very distant indeed.
See also: The Avoided House.
Solar eclipse watchers, Greenwich Park, 11 August 1999. © David Secombe.
In Hackney, Mare Street was as busy as on any normal weekday. People were shuffling about with plastic carrier bags or talking on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the sun was about to be eclipsed. We were rushing to get our errands done in time to get to the park for the main event, the kids equipped with arcane little things they could look through that they’d been given at school two weeks before.
The first glimmer of what was coming was a strange, translucent-but-heavy quality to the air, as if it were turning into some kind of gel. It felt suddenly harder to move through it. Then the light began to go a bit greenish. Everything slowed down. When we got into London Fields, the park was thronged with people on the grass, some with picnics, and the weird green heaviness in the air intensified; it was like being in a fishbowl.
At the height of the eclipse, the park and the pub and all the people were as if viewed through a thick glass coffee table. It was very strange. But the utter incongruity of the street scene – lorries and buses seeming to wend their way painfully through unfamiliar, viscous air – was never matched once we were in the park.
© Katy Evans-Bush.
Buckingham Palace, 1991. Photo © David Secombe.
David Secombe writes:
In 1991, the BBC produced a documentary to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 40th anniversary as monarch. It was produced by the doyen of BBC documentary filmmakers, Edward Mirzoeff, famous for his Betjeman films and his editorship of the flagship 1980s documentary series 40 Minutes. I was tasked with doing the stills. The access Eddie and his small team had been given was unique, but the stills photographer had to manage as best he could, ducking out of shot (or not ducking out of shot), not treading on the sound man’s heels, and generally trying not to get fired. This picture was taken on my first day of the project, and shows the Queen having her portrait painted by Andrew Festing. The grainy, lightly impressionist tone of the image is largely a product of the fast Fuji film I used for much of the project: more a product of desperation, looking for stock that would cope with the relentlessly low levels of light, than any conscious creative decision. (‘Braille photography’ was a phrase which got used on more than one occasion.)
Stephen Frears film The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren’s acclaimed turn as Her Majesty, opens with a sequence in which the Queen has her portrait painted. The look of the sequence betrays the research the production team invested in Eddie’s film, and some of the details are lifted from the above picture (when the image first appeared, I remember being asked a lot of questions about the Queen’s silver shoes – this obviously made an impression on Frears’ team). I have heard that Stephen Frears denies ever seeing Eddie’s film. How sweet.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.
Air raid shelter sign, Jerningham Road, New Cross, SE14. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
David Secombe writes:
Today marks the 67th anniversary of the worst single bombing incident of the 2nd World War – when a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on a Woolworths store in New Cross. The V2 hit Woolworths when it was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers: the official death toll was 168, but it was often said that the real figure was much higher – although it seems unlikely that a significantly higher casualty number could have been withheld until now.
The V2 was unlike the earlier ‘Vengeance Weapon’, the V1 (A.K.A. ‘doodlebug’, a cruise missile) in that it was impossible to detect – let alone intercept – before it exploded. The first impact in Chiswick in September 1944 was first thought to have been caused by a gas explosion. Their sudden deployment was a source of grave concern to Churchill, and prompted the construction of deep-level air raid shelters in Bloomsbury, Clapham and Stockwell. South and east London received a disproportionately high number of V-strikes, largely because of a British intelligence coup: the double agent Eddie Chapman managed to convince his Nazi ‘handlers’ that V1s were overshooting the centre of London (they weren’t), hence the rocket launchers recalibrated and bombs began falling on Brockley, Woolwich, Deptford, Catford, Barking, Ilford, etc., and across Kent and Surrey.
The literal impact of these weapons may still be seen in London, where pockets of undeveloped bombsites remain – like the dead spot on Tottenham Court Road opposite Heals, final destination of a V2. South London is peppered with anomalous green spaces or abrupt changes in architectural style on a residential street, characteristic traces of Vengeance weapons. Perhaps the most bizarre legacy of the V2 campaign was the subsequent career of the project’s architect, Werner von Braun. The majestic Saturn V rocket which took Neil Armstrong towards the Moon was von Braun’s creation, the end result of his wartime experiments in rocketry and ballistics. As for Woolworths, they’ve put up a plaque. There is an Iceland store there now.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.
© John Londei 1998.
John Londei writes:
This photograph features Chelsea Pensioners – or ‘Gentlemen’ to give them their correct title – and was taken in the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Armistice that, on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, brought the First World War to an end.
Charles II founded the Royal Hospital in 1681. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building. The painting of the Resurrection on the domed ceiling of the Chapel, by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci, dates from 1714 and it’s believed to be a donation from Queen Anne. Back then compulsory services were held twice daily in the Chapel.
Seventeen of the Gentlemen in the shot were jokingly called ‘The Spice Boys’ because they always volunteered for such events. Nine days earlier they’d taken part in the Lord Mayor of London’s annual parade appearing on a float depicting The Royal Hospital’s history. But for me the real ‘star’ of this photo was Albert Alexandre, the last veteran of the First World War still resident at the Royal Hospital [the centre row of floor squares point directly to him sitting in the 1st row].
Albert was born in Jersey. Both his parents died when he was six, and he went to live in an orphanage. In 1917 Albert, who looked older than his years, lied about his age (he was 15) and enlisted in the Guernsey Light Infantry. He saw action at Passchendaele, outstanding among the battles of the war not only for its cost in life and limb (almost half a million allied casualties), but also for the weather. In the heaviest rain for 30 years, men, horses and pack mules drowned in the deep shell holes caused by constant bombardment. He witnessed men being blown to pieces all around him, and took part in hand-to-hand fighting. A phrase from one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems sums it up: ”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”.
Albert was discharged in 1919, but re-enlisted into the Royal Garrison Artillery serving in India during World War Two. When Alfred’s wife died in 1992 he moved to the Royal Hospital where he remained until his death in January 2002 aged 100.
A large framed print of this sitting now hangs in the Gentlemen’s Ward at the Royal Hospital. With the passing of time that print, like those old soldiers therein, will just fade away…
© John Londei 2011.
Tony Hancock in a pub near Elstree Studios, 1966. Photo © Harry Secombe/Willinghurst Ltd.
[Tony Hancock committed suicide in Sydney, Australia on June 24th 1968.]
Tony Hancock by Harry Secombe*
Comedy is the business of a comedian and laughter is the prerogative of its audience. It follows, therefore, that whereas a comedian must deliver his comedy, the audience does not have to give up its laughter. He is then, at the beginning of his act, in a state of conflict with his audience.
Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column. But if he is one of the few greats, he leaves behind a legacy of laughter when he is gone, especially – and such is human nature- if there has been an element of tragedy in his life.
Tony Hancock was one of those rare ones who are bedevilled by success. He was never completely happy in a variety theatre; the strain of doing the same performance night after night and trying to invest it with an apparent spontaneity was more than he could bear. That was why he took to television so well; it removed him from the treadmill of the music hall and the twice nightly revue and gave him new situations in which to work his magic.
Of the rampaging, drunken, self-destroying Hancock depicted in so many stories, I knew very little. I have drunk with him and been drunk with him in the days when we were both young and inexperienced comics fresh from the services, but it was all good-natured tippling then. I met him many times later and at one time stood in for him on his radio show. But I will always think of him as he was, pristine and shining with ambition at the threshold of his career. What happened to him subsequently is for others to chronicle and argue about. I found him gentle and self-mocking then. The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him, but he served it well. If anyone paid dearly for his laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest.
* First published as the preface to Roger Wilmut’s Tony Hancock ‘Artiste’, Methuen, 1978.
© Secombe Estate 2011