South Croydon. © David Secombe 2010.
Everyone has a ghost story. My brother told me of a menacing boarding house he once stayed at whilst playing repertory theatre in the early 1970s: anomalous knockings in the middle of the night, dried blood splashes on the wall behind the bed, a general air of foreboding. The place was such a forbidding environment that my sister, staying the night after going to see a Saturday evening show, fled at 3 a.m., unable to take the threatening atmosphere. As she put it: ‘Something terrible happened in that house’.
For her part, my other sister has her own story about haunted theatrical digs. She was staying in the modern wing of an old house, and her room was at the end of a long corridor that seemed to take an age to walk down. As the week wore on she had a feeling something was coming … in bed one night she heard a child’s voice calling her name in her ear. She later discovered that this boarding house had once suffered a fire in which a child had died. After that experience, my sister was troubled to hear that a little girl had been seen by visitors staying in her own house.
Other family stories concern an old house my parents once owned, situated in a beautiful but secluded spot in the Surrey hills. On one occasion, my brother was staying there alone one night when he was awakened in the small hours by voices and laughter coming from downstairs. Following the sounds, he went and stood by the door to the drawing room; from beyond it he heard the unmistakable echo of a cocktail party in full swing. He opened the door, turned on the light and – of course – the room was empty.
My girlfriend has a story about something she saw in a house in Brockley. Staying over after a party, she was sleeping on a sofa in the kitchen extension – where the original scullery might have been – and awoke to see a green figure standing in the room making an energetic motion which suggested ironing – but the motion was angry, desperate. As she watched, the apparition grew larger and less defined until it dissolved in a jade haze.
I first heard this story when said girlfriend told it to me in my own house in Brockley, just around the corner from where she had once spent a disturbed night. My place in SE4 was on a street which was struck by a V1 cruise missile in August 1944: according to ‘Flying Bombs and Rockets’, the rocket destroyed 6 houses and damaged a further 45 on Endwell Road, leaving my house as the end of a terrace. My girlfriend, my sister, my daughter and at least one other visitor independently identified a spot at the bottom of the staircase (a floor below street level) as, variously, ‘sad’, ‘eerie’, and ‘sinister’. In addition, they all reported the same sensation: as they headed up the stairs they felt that something was trying to catch hold of their foot. Nine people died in the V1 hit on Endwell Road; I never found out whether anyone was killed in my old house – but, for whatever it’s worth, my sister said that her impression of my basement was that there was someone trapped in it.
(But basements are always good copy: the best ghost story I ever heard relates to a club in Hoxton that had a persistent problem with its basement dance floor; but I told that story this time last year so I’m not going to tell it again.)
Needless to say, I have never had any supernatural experiences of my own. None. My existence has been so relentlessly quotidian that I would welcome an encounter with the uncanny. I have stayed in many houses that were said to be haunted and never sensed the presence of ‘the further realm’. Stanley Kubrick observed, when discussing The Shining, that all ghost stories are ultimately optimistic as they suggest the survival of the human personality. So laughter in a distant room, a inexplicably rattling doorknob, a child’s ball that bounces on its own, a voice in your ear in an empty chamber, may all be seen as comforting: they reassure us that the day-to-day is not all there is.
I was trying to think what images I could use to illustrate this piece and ended up digging out a selection taken in various locations around London in the late 1970as or early ’80s. Photography is a form of magic that we somehow take for granted: it fixes time and can resurrect the dead. These pictures of mine also present me with my younger self: an under-employed 20-something loitering on suburban streets, Leica in hand, hoping to find something worth photographing. Sometimes I’d get lucky but more often than not, not.
If I am haunted by anything it’s by my own photographs. I’m not just talking about the good ones, or the ones where I was consciously trying to capture atmosphere; all of them are fragments of a past life, people and places lost to me. (For example, the misty garden in the picture above no longer exists; nor, to my dismay, does the fir planting seen in the Hampton Court photo.) Cartier-Bresson said that if he tried to calculate the time his shutter had clicked over the decades, all those 60ths and 500ths of a second, it would probably only add up to a few minutes. Photography can take over your life but what are you really left with? Just a few moments. The upside is that those moments give your life back to you, not always accurately, but in ways that allow us to recreate the past in a way that suits us. Photographs let us become our own ghosts. D.S.
Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, 19 March 1939*:
Apparently no Hitchcock interview is ever complete without Mr. Hitchcock’s latest idea for a picture he would like to make – some time. Today he has in mind a picture built around the English Derby – Derby Day. “Can there be anything more exciting or dramatic than a million people all gathered together in one afternoon – all sorts of people, from top to bottom – just to witness the running of a race? I always liken it to the Judgment Day. Well, I should like to sift, say, a dozen characters from that crowd and, within the limits of an hour and a half on that fatal afternoon, tell their stories, climaxed by the finish of the race.” It sounds like a great idea – maybe too great, because, unfortunately, Mr. Hitchcock never seems to get around to doing those pictures he dreams about.
DS: Tomorrow sees the running of The Derby at Epsom, the original Derby anything, founded in 1780, and still the richest horse race in Britain. Once run mid-week, since 1995 it has been a Saturday fixture, the rescheduling an indication of its decline as an event. No-one seems entirely sure why it has lost its popularity. Hitchcock’s comment reflects the notion of the Derby current in the Victorian and Edwardian eras: London on the Downs, the city decamping en masse for a day at the races. This was the Derby Day of Dickens, William Frith, or the doomed suffragette Emily Davison. As a schoolboy in Epsom during the 1970s, I recall the frightening volume of humanity that appeared on the first Wednesday in June … but that excitement and sense of occasion has simply withered. These images are of Derby Day in 1991, taken whilst working alongside Eddie Mirzoeff’s documentary team (see below) and show only the elaborately hatted zone of the grandstand. The modern version of Frith’s Victorian painting is a glorious documentary by Charlie Squires of the 1970 Derby: I have hunted YouTube to locate this but to no avail. I would dearly love to see that film again: instead, here is footage of the 1970 race, won in legendary fashion by Lester Piggott on Nijinsky:
The 1991 Derby was won by ‘Generous’, ridden by Alan Munro. From Elizabeth R, prod. E, Mirzoeff, BBC, 1992 – video no. 3 in sequence:
* Thanks to The Hitchcock Zone.
© David Secombe.
July, 1978. I am 16. I am serving out my final days as a pupil at a comically inadequate private school in Surrey’s lush commuter belt. I am bailing out before ‘A’ levels because it has not been a happy three years and I am taking the earliest opportunity to escape. To mark the end of my final term I take my camera to school. There are some interesting things to photograph.
The shrine in the locker above (it wasn’t my locker) consists of pictures cut from the pages of the sacred music title of the day, New Musical Express. The photos of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, the young Bob Geldof, Ian Dury and company were most probably the work of NME stalwarts Pennie Smith, Chalkie Davies and Kevin Cummins, and would have accompanied articles by the likes of Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Charles Sharr Murray, Nick Kent, etc.. By the summer of 1978, Punk was mainstream enough to be embraced by all but the most fastidious privately-educated schoolboy, even if the irony of its acceptance by future mid-management executives was lost upon the lads themselves. (Although it is worth mentioning that the much-worshipped Joe Strummer had been a pupil at a neighbouring private school a few years earlier, where he became a friend of my brother. Joe – or John – swapped his camera for my brother’s drum kit, and later credited this exchange as furnishing him with his first musical instrument. Since I first got into photography by using my brother’s camera, you could say that Joe Strummer’s Minolta got me into photography – except that he also said that his first instrument was a ukelele.)
© David Secombe.
The atmosphere of those distant, final days was a strange admixture of gleeful anarchy and leafy English pastoral; exams done, the highlight of each afternoon was the illicit visit to an abandoned theatre, a crumbling, doomed edifice in a lush wooded hollow. This imposing structure offered wall area large enough to proclaim as loudly as one was able the primacy of favourite bands, whilst the surrounding greenery furnished a sylvan setting for ritualised smoking sessions.
© David Secombe, 1978.
© David Secombe, 1978.
The following year, the theatre and the grubby enchantment of its grotto was cleared and a monumental circulatory system took its place, thus wrecking a perfectly inoffensive little suburban town. Years later, when the thunderous circle of the M25 imprinted itself upon the green hinterland of the capital, the course of the motorway took it within a few yards of the school, destroying at least one of its favoured – and, by some of us, much-hated – routes for cross-country runs. Still later, the school was hit by a scandal attached to one of its teaching faculty (not present in my time), which made the national press and prised skeletons loose from various closets. I was able to revisit a decade or so ago, after suggesting to a director friend that it would make a good location for an episode of a TV detective series he was filming. I visited the unit on location; and it seemed to my 40-year old self that the entire school had been demolished and replaced with an 8:10 scale replica.
The late 1970s have become subsumed into the nostalgia business, and there is something absurd and not a little nauseating about the era being trumpeted as some kind of lost eden.But the youth we are given is the only one we have; as some Facebook wag said recently, Punk was for my generation what World War 2 was for our fathers’. (And what did we get afterwards? The New Romantics. That has always struck me as an indication of cultural failure.) I felt largely out of sync with my time then and, predictably enough, have felt largely out of sync with it ever since. In any case, these 35-year old photos strike me as being better than they have any right to be, and almost persuade me that I knew what I was doing when I took them. This is what our memories should look like: a flattering improvement on reality – and they are dedicated to anyone finishing school this month. Someone like my daughter, in fact.
© David Secombe 1978.
… for The London Column.
Tom Sharpe, Cambridge, 1992. Photo © David Secombe
Farewell Tom Sharpe … the author of Wilt, Porterhouse Blue, The Throwback, Riotous Assembly, etc. has died at the age of 85.
As an adolescent, I loved Tom Sharpe’s books. In his 1970s pomp, his fierce, majestic and paralysingly funny satires were a cause for great joy, and even made one proud to be British. But it can be a tricky thing to meet your heroes; and driving to Cambridge in the company of a nervous Spanish journalist (on his first ever visit to the UK) to interview the great man, I was fighting off my own attack of nerves. The interview started a bit awkwardly, as my colleague tried a line of questioning about the power of literature, during which he asserted: ‘Madame Bovary changed my life’ – to which Tom replied, ‘Well, you can’t have met that many doctors’ wives’. Things settled down after that, and we ended up going to a local pub – driven there at high speed along wild Fen roads by the author himself – where I finally got my chance to tell him that I thought Chapter 4 of The Throwback was the funniest thing I had ever read.
We discussed contemporary comedy and literature (he wasn’t much impressed), film version of his books (he hated the Smith/Jones version of Wilt but loved Channel 4’s Porterhouse Blue adaptation) and indeed photography, as he had once been a professional photographer and had pleasingly trenchant views on the subject. (When we came to do the photos, he insisted that I use his own tripod for the purpose of making the above picture, as he wasn’t convinced that mine was up to the task.)
The interview was for the Spanish edition of Elle magazine, as Tom had a strong following in Spain, and he eventually went to live there. He ascribed his popularity in Spain to the surrealism Spanish readers found in his books; but his own offering of an example of ‘typically English humour’, as requested on a Spanish TV interview, did not go down too well. He told the story of a troop of Tommies marching to the front line on the Western Front, and an exchange between a young soldier and a sergeant at a posting on the way. ”Ere, Sarge, when do we get to have a rest, been marching all day!’ ‘Don’t worry son, you’ll be dead in half an hour’.
My recollection of the day has a kind of glowing quality: it’s not often you an encounter someone whose work you love and in whom you discover someone who feels like a friend. He struck me much as he appears in the photo above: elegant, droll, mischievous, and as English as a Tudor manor house. We have lost another great one.
… for The London Column.
Tandoori restaurant, Deptford. © David Secombe 2001.
It is 1975, I am 13 and, like most white British people of my generation, my experience of Indian food is limited to a small, local curry house. Remote, distant Cheam in the remote, distant 1970s offered few opportunities for culinary experiment and a trip to an Indian offered the prospect of an exotic night out. Visits to The Partition of India – or whatever it was called – were made in the company of my two elder siblings; I was taken there with some ceremony by my sister and no ceremony at all by my brother. (I was never taken there by my parents, who were not attracted by its charms.)
The suburban Indian restaurant is one of the cultural phenomena of post-war British life, signifying social change, and a broadening of the scope of what is considered our national cuisine. But the 1970s offers very few excuses for Proustian reverie; even as a teenager I was aware that my local Indian didn’t cut it, as the food was barely adequate and served by staff who seemed either torpid or desperate. I also knew that part of its appeal was its very inability to deliver the experience you were looking for; it confirmed my adolescent conviction that the suburbs were a pale shadow of the real, yet-to-be-discovered world. (Incidentally, the restaurant in question appeared to be popular with adulterers. This was my brother’s theory, and we would giggle at furtive couples in corner booths, whispering as best they could over the sitar tape whilst poking at bits of Bombay Duck. Adulterous or not, these couples were also seeking a dining experience that was clearly not forthcoming.)
By the early 1980s I had arrived in the flesh pots of south London; just a few miles away from provincial Cheam, yet Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting were home to tempting, ‘authentic’ Indian restaurants which delighted in their specific regionality – Nepalese, Goan, Bengali. Fabled establishments like The Concert for Bangladesh, Midnight’s Children, and Sherpa Tenzing offered dishes worlds away from the generic beige goo I knew from my sheltered youth. But you could still get caught out: during a meal at an unfamiliar establishment in Battersea, circa 1985, an ordinary-looking lamb passanda arrived at my table and, before anyone could say anything, the waiter produced a can of UHT whipped cream and sprayed foam all over it. It was a brilliant comic gesture, but it was supposed to be my dinner. Despite such misadventures, my local dining preference remained the curry house; I bypassed Nouvelle Cuisine and other foodie trends and stayed true to my suburban roots.
The ubiquity of Indian restaurants has generated an urban mythology particular to them. A sudden closure was darkly ascribed to the discovery of a skinned dog in the kitchen. Tales were told of a legendary establishment which offered a Chicken Bastard, a dish so hot that it was not intended to be eaten. ‘Witnesses’ spoke of an unwise party who took the challenge, goading the waiters who brought him his order, forcing it down with Carlsberg as kitchen staff emerged to watch, and of the ambulance that was summoned to take him to A&E. Such stories were clear evidence of cultural antagonism, but my own favourite tall tale is actually quite sweet, and is very possibly true. I knew a pair of Egyptian brothers who were my schoolmates at a boarding school on the outer fringes of London. It was said that at the end of term, they went into Leatherhead, ordered three dinners from the Siege of Delhi, packed them in their luggage (did they order poppadoms?), got a cab to Heathrow, flew to Cairo, and consumed the congealing banquet with their father as a festive, homecoming dinner: the ultimate Indian takeaway.
After decades of enjoying Indian food in almost every postcode within the M25, my love affair with it ended in a way my brother might have predicted. I became romantically involved with someone who remained very slightly married, and our lunchtime venue was a classy Indian in St James’s. The Cawnpore Massacre is one of London’s best restaurants, but its convenience for my beloved made it a kind of hell for me. As the months dragged on, I became all too familiar with the delicacies on offer, and the wonders of its kitchen paled against the looming inevitability of my defeat. To paraphrase Robert Shaw in Jaws, ‘I’ll never order Rhogan Josh again’.
© David Secombe 2013.
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.