Winter Solstice – or The Ghost of Christmas Future.

Greenwich Park, 1993.Greenwich Park, 1993. © David Secombe.

This Christmas season has a peculiar flavour, distinct from any other I can recall.  The sheer weirdness of world events has imbued it with a sense of foreboding; and although I am old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War and the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction, what we are living through now seems uniquely tawdry and surreal. Everyone seems to be casting around for historical parallels to contextualize the strangeness of the present. Thought For The Day pieties don’t really belong on The London Column, so I won’t rehearse the obvious. But, given that so many are casting around for runes to foretell the future, we might as well invoke the pagan underpinnings of the festival that is now upon us.

The picture above was taken in Greenwich Park in December 1993; the roe deer skull in the photo belonged to my companion on the day, an art teacher who was taking it into her class as a subject for a still life. It was she who remembered that we were standing near the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple, and she produced the skull as an fittingly atavistic prop. In its day, the temple in Greenwich Park was an excellently situated facility; an ancient world insurance bureau, handy for any last-minute sacrifices you wanted to make to Poseidon (or whoever) on your way to the Kent coast. And by 400 AD there might have been a lot of anxious sacrificial blood-letting at this temple, what with all those hairy Saxons and Picts … The retreat of the Romans from Britain has always struck me as being as comic as it is poignant; I’m thinking of the Romanised Brits, all those comfortable farmers and aspirational merchants, watching in dismay as the props of civilization gradually disappeared. No wonder so much treasure got cached at this time, buried for safekeeping and then forgotten. I imagine a party of bewildered civilians standing on the beach at, say, Richborough, waving off the last Roman galley, saying that the lads wouldn’t be gone long and that normal service would soon be resumed. I wonder how long it took for the reality to sink in.

And on that note …

Happy Christmas everyone.

 


Dave Hendley.

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Piccadilly Line 2013. © Estate of Dave Hendley.

David Secombe:

There are times when The London Column feels like an obituary strand; and last week saw the death of another contributor, one who also happened to be a very dear friend.

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King’s Cross Station, 2011. © Estate of Dave Hendley.

Dave Hendley was many things: a photographer, a DJ, teacher, printer, art director, reggae fanatic, mountain bike aficionado, snappy dresser, record collector, record label founder, Leica collector, writer, seaside-dweller, bon viveur … yet he was never a dilettante, he was fully authentic in every one of his diverse activities. I knew him through photography. We were first introduced, sometime in the late 1980s, by our mutual friend the late John Driscoll, as we belonged to a scene that centred around the darkrooms, photographic suppliers and pubs of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. At that time Dave was a printer and sometime freelance photographer. I didn’t learn the extent of his involvement in music until much later, when he casually showed me a box of prints of portraits of reggae stars that he had taken in the 1970s. It turned out that this unassuming, softly-spoken Londoner was a very considerable force in the reggae scene and played a key role in the dissemination of the music. (Radio 1 Extra played its own tribute to Dave a few days ago, a broadcast that filled a few gaps in my understanding of his musical activities.)  Dave’s Jamaican portraits are wonderful and are their own testament to his devotion to reggae.

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It took me a while to catch up with developments but I gradually realised that Dave Hendley had become one of the most contented people I knew. His life on the north Kent coast struck me as nothing short of idyllic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so totally at peace as Dave was in his garden in Tankerton – or, for that matter, in the bar of the Continental Hotel. And, finally, his work was gaining wider recognition. His Jamaican portraits are being collected into a book and his street photography is being celebrated in Japan, and both of these developments were sources of great satisfaction to him.

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In St.James’s Park (early 1970s). © Estate of Dave Hendley.

Amongst Dave’s thousands of photos, this particular one is a special favourite of mine. A picture of two men on a bench in a London park that shows what photography is capable of revealing, or appearing to reveal. We don’t know what the actual relationship between the two men in the photo really is but Dave gives us a novel’s worth of speculation. It manages to be poignant, sinister and hilarious all at the same time, a Pinter play condensed into a twelve by nine and a half inch print.

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Dave Hendley in the ‘Tokyo Camera Style’ pages of Nippon Camera, Dec. 2014.

Everyone who knew Dave will have their favourite image of him: working in a darkroom maybe, teaching at St Martin’s certainly, DJ-ing somewhere, riding his bike in the Forest of Blean, wandering a city street with Leicas at the ready, and so on. But whatever he was doing he was always reliably, quintessentially Dave, and he was always exhilarating company. For me he was simply the perfect English gentleman. Decent, level headed, kind, understatedly elegant and elegantly understated, knowledgeable but unpretentious, modest but capable, gently melancholic yet wildly enthusiastic, local yet international – constantly, uniquely himself, whether he was in Tokyo, Trenchtown or Tankerton. He even lived in a bungalow, and you can’t get more English than that. We need more like him in the world; but of course there could only ever be one.

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Bruce Davidson, London, 1960.

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© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

D.S.: In 1960, the young American photographer Bruce Davidson made a lengthy trip around England and Scotland. He was on a magazine assignment, and his itinerary is a catalogue of characteristic British tropes: you get the seaside, old ladies playing bowls, fox hunting, the pre-clearance terraced streets of Northern towns, the absurdities of class distinctions, etc. But this visit was obviously important for other reasons: it’s as if he’s still trying to define his own style, which may account for the slightly shy, hesitant manner of some of the pictures. He seems more obviously in charge of his material when he returned later in the 1960s to photograph Welsh miners, but there is a touching and empathetic quality to these early British pictures, a terrific sense of time and place, and a genuine feeling for lives being lived.

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© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

Inevitably, those of us who weren’t alive in the ‘pre-Beatles, the black and white 60s’ (did George Melly coin that term?) mediate the era through film and pop culture; hence, for me, a couple of these pictures have a Pinteresque quality. The sailor  – The Pool of London still a working port in 1960 – and the bored girl in the pub could be bit players in The Servant, swelling the chorus of murmured non-sequiturs as James Fox orders another one at the bar. ‘I had a bit of bad luck today. A real bit of bad luck. It’ll take me a while to get over it.’ At any rate, it is a classic image of a failed bid for excitement, of last drinks drained or forgotten. It’s closing time and she’s still not having any fun. The girl in the Soho club (has to be Soho, look at those pin-ups) is also up for a bit of fun, but she looks like she has an invite to go on somewhere else: The King’s Road maybe, where Dirk Bogarde is throwing a party.

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© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

On the other hand, the image above seems eerily modern; it is one of a famous pair of photos taken during a long London night Davidson spent in the company of rootless young people much like himself. As a schoolboy, I remember an English textbook that used this image and invited pupils to make up their own story about the scene. Davidson has already given us a bit of detail about this encounter, but the picture still has currency as contemporary comment. It could have been taken last night.  These young people might be pioneer travellers but they aren’t gap year tourists. They are timeless strangers navigating another huge impersonal city on an endless journey through huge impersonal cities. No return tickets available. The melancholy of freedom.

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© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.

After that, the photo of the nannies in Hyde Park brings one up sharp, reminding us how long ago these images were made.  These women are old enough to have lost their sweethearts in the Great War, which might account for their choice of occupation. And those ‘baby carriages’ really look like they should be drawn by ponies.

For me, Davidson’s British pictures of this time evoke that nostalgia for something we haven’t experienced, something familiar yet impossibly distant. They have all the atmosphere and romance of travel, and all the greyness of English domestic life. (My father always commented on how grey things seemed in the 1950s – and that decade was conspicuously good to him.) Davidson’s shows us England just before it shed its post-war veil. Things were about to get a lot livelier, but who in these pictures knew? Maybe that girl in the club.

Thanks to ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica. ROSEGALLERY is exhibiting photographs by Bruce Davidson, Evelyn Hofer, Martin Parr and other other artists at Photo London, Somerset House, 19- 22 May. (Stall B7.) Bruce Davidson’s England/Scotland 1960 is published by Steidl.

See also: Pinteresque, London Perceived.

 

 


A suburban ghost.

Bridal wear display in a department store in Kingston, Surrey, 1982. © David Secombe.

Bridal wear display in a department store in Kingston, Surrey, 1982. © David Secombe.

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’.

Street scene in pre-gentrification Battersea, 1982. © David Secombe.

Street scene in pre-gentrification Battersea, 1982. © David Secombe.

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.

Hoarding in front of a building site, Camden Town, 1987. © David Secombe.

Hoarding in front of a building site, Camden Town, 1987. © David Secombe.

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.

Public art on a hoarding opposite the National Theatre, South Bank, 1982. © David Secombe.

Public art on a hoarding opposite the National Theatre, South Bank, 1982. © David Secombe.

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.

Slide, children's playground, Rotherhithe, 1988. © David Secombe.

Slide, children’s playground, Rotherhithe, 1988. © David Secombe.

(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.)

Suburban garden in November, Cheam, Surrey, 1979. © David Secombe.

Suburban garden in November, Cheam, Surrey, 1979. © David Secombe.

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.

Sundial, Hampton Court Palace, 1979. © David Secombe.

Sundial, Hampton Court Palace, 1979. © David Secombe.

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.

Entrance to Bank underground station showing an entrance to of the crypt of Hawksmoor's St. Mary Woolnoth, 1989. © David Secombe.

Entrance to Bank underground station showing an entrance to of the crypt of Hawksmoor’s St. Mary Woolnoth, 1989. © David Secombe.

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.

This week, our friend and sometime contributor Andrew Martin is presenting a series of ghost-themed essays on Radio 3. They may be heard here.


A thought for the Undead.

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Playground, Rotherhithe. © David Secombe 1988.

From The Lancet, August 23, 1884:

Burying Cholera Patients Alive 

It is not so much undue haste as inexcusable carelessness that must be blamed for the premature burying of persons who are not really dead. Such heedlessness as alone can lead to the commission of this crime is not a shade less black than manslaughter. We speak strongly, because this is a matter in regard to which measures ought to be at once taken to render the horrible act impossible, and to dismiss all fear from the public mind. If it be a fact, as would seem to be indisputable, that during the last few weeks there have been cases we will not attempt to say how many or how few of burying alive, a scandal and a horror, wholly unpardonable in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, have to be faced; and the sooner the full truth is known and rules of safety established the better.

Let it be once for all decided that measures shall be taken to ascertain the fact of death before burial. Why not revert to the old practice, and always open a vein in the arm after death, or pass a current of electricity through the body before the coffin is finally screwed down? It may be held that these unpleasant resorts are unnecessary. We do not think they are. In any case enough is known of the possibilities of ‘ suspended animation’ to render it unsafe to bury until the evidences of an actual extinction of life are unmistakable ; and, as it is impossible to wait until decomposition sets in in all cases of death from infectious diseases, it would be prudent to adopt what must certainly be the least of evils.

… our obligatory Halloween post. See also: London Gothic, Halloween, The Haunted House.  


Urban Myths. No.1: The Supermarket Spider.

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Hillyfields, Lewisham. Photo © David Secombe 1999.

Deadly spider eggs found in supermarket bananas *

WHEN Heidi Slopes did her weekly food shop she picked up an innocent looking pack of bananas – little did she know that between the yellow fruit lurked a nest of spiders. The 53-year-old, who is scared of spiders, had the shock of her life when she spotted the white furry eggs.

“I usually buy a bunch of bananas but, ironically, I thought buying packaged ones would eliminate the chance of any creepy crawlies!” said Heidi, who lives in Lewisham with her husband Laszlo, 53. “My husband opened them and put them in the fruit bowl. I looked down and saw little white balls and suddenly panic stations were all go!”

Heidi wanted to get the suspicious package checked out, and after a phone call to health and safety at Lewisham council she was advised to take them back to the supermarket. “It took almost five hours of numerous phone calls to get hold of someone at the store, only to be told that I would need to bring the packaging and the receipt in for a refund,” said mother-of-three Heidi.

RSPCA animal collection officer Terence Whipps subsequently confirmed that the eggs were those of the Brazilian Wandering Spider, listed in the Guinness Book of Records a the most venomous animal in the world. It’s scientific name is Phoneutria nigriventer – the first element is Greek for ‘murderess’ – but it is also known as the banana spider because of its habit of stowing away in shipments of the fruit.

A supermarket spokesman said: “We want to reassure customers this was a very unusual and rare occurrence and we are really sorry for what must have been a real scare”.

Heidi is unmoved. “My little Juanita recently watched the film Charlotte’s Web and told me that there can be 64,000 eggs in one nest, so that made me even more paranoid! I just thought of my kids and how a spider bite could have changed things completely. I’m just so relieved they didn’t hatch. I wasn’t about to go rifling through my recycling bin just to claim £1.49 back. I was surprised that they were more concerned about the packaging than deadly spiders in their bananas.”

Mr.Slopes commented: “It gave us a real fright and no mistake. Supermarkets should be more careful. Horse meat I can cope with, but venomous spiders are another matter.”

* NB: not real news item … the above was drawn from The Daily Mail, BBC News website, Cardiff Online, etc. The first in an occasional series … 


In St. James’s Park. Photo: Dave Hendley, text: David Secombe.

St. James’s Park. © Dave Hendley 1973.

Photography is concerned with appearance rather than truth, and occasionally, one comes across a photograph so mysterious that one is stumped for any sort of comment. One thinks of the Andre Kertesz photo of a shadow behind glass on a balcony in Martinique; of Robert Frank’s picture of a girl running past a hearse and a street sweeper on a drab London street; or Elliott Erwitt’s shot of tourists in a Mexican charnel house, all acknowledged masterpieces. I think the above photo by Dave Hendley has a similar power. Dave offers no insight: he shot it quickly with his Leica as he walked past the men, then moved along before they had time to register that he had taken their photo (‘I was more ruthless back then, I don’t stick my camera in people’s faces any more’.) But it invites speculation, so I am going to offer mine.

There are few clues in Dave’s photo as to the exact period, but somehow we know it belongs to the past: in fact, it is the early 1970s – but it evokes a time slightly earlier than that.  I am reminded of the ‘black and white’ 1960s, the lost era of Victim, Pinter’s The Servant, and, especially, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mister Sloane: a world of furtive encounters afforded a desperately genteel gloss (“the air round Twickenham was like wine”). But I don’t know whether my interpretation is correct and it probably isn’t. More than one photographer has got into trouble because a photo suggested something about its subjects that was misleading or even libellous. Whatever the reality, the picture is simultaneously comic, poignant and slightly disturbing. The sharply assessing gaze of the man on the left is unnerving enough, but I find myself worried by the man on the right, his too-tight tie and his inscrutable smile somehow just wrong. (I am also reminded of this painting.)

As with the photo we ran yesterday, this photograph is a precious survivor of a cull of Dave’s early work which the photographer carried out with youthful ruthlessness. That was many years ago and, needless to say, Dave now regrets this; fortunately, this image survived as a print which Dave recently discovered in his mum’s attic.

… for The London Column.

See also: Welcoming Smiles, Robert Graves.