A thought for the Undead.

Rotherhithe playground

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.

Spider

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.


Rotherhithe. Photo & text Geoff Howard (3/5)

Carnival, Southwark Park, London, July 1974. © Geoff Howard.

Geoff Howard:

I photographed the people and places that caught my attention, shooting from an interest in, and a curiosity about, what was there and what was happening, happy to be working without the restrictions which often accompany commissioned projects. People have asked why I shot with flash – in those days, most photographers would only use available light – shades of Cartier-Bresson – but in the disco pubs, it was really dark – and I wanted to see, to show more clearly, what it was like, what was happening; less atmosphere, but more information. I stopped photographing there so intensively when I felt I had done the things which demanded to be photographed, and I didn’t want to make the same pictures over again. Then the whole area, the whole character of the area, changed – with redevelopment, new building, the yuppyfication of docklands; there were lots of photographers documenting the new docklands, and if I had continued, it would have been a different story, so it seemed like a natural end, a natural place to stop. I have been back, a few times – I was there last year, to try and check some locations when I started putting this book together; it was interesting, frustrating, indeed perplexing trying to identify places I used to know well, and now so changed.

[Rotherhithe Photographs was published in 2008, although images from the project had previously appeared in the legendary Creative Camera magazine in 1975, and  a selection of pictures was also exhibited at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1978. Seen from the vantage point of 2012, Geoff’s photos capture the half-forgotten ‘interzone’ between the dock closures and Thatcherite redevelopment and demonstrate, yet again, that there is nothing quite as remote as the recent past.  D.S.]

Rotherhithe Photographs: 1971-1980 by Geoff Howard is available direct from the photographer at £25.