White Bicycles.

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N16. © David Secombe.

Christopher Reid:

White Bicycles

In London these days, a not uncommon sight,
but something Mexican-macabre about it all the same:
lashed to a post, or to railings, a bicycle painted entirely white –
white handlebars and frame,
white gears, brakes, wheels, spokes, pedals and chain –
and decked with florists’ bunches, satin-bowed and in cellophane.
There may be cards and messages as well. Toys, too.
Often a doll or a teddy.
But it’s the white that’s so striking. What does it mean to you?
Ghostliness? A skeleton? A bicycle being skeletal already…

Oh, get over it, it’s the vernacular now; and what’s not to like
about ‘Out with the whited sepulchre! In with the whited bike!’?

Christopher Reid, © 2016


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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The Day They Left.

Surrey Steps, off Strand Lane, north of the Embankment, November 2014.

Surrey Steps, off Strand Lane, north of the Embankment, November 2014.

… by Tim Wells:

The first thing I noticed was that the beigels had gone

and there was a run on fried egg sandwiches.

Katie Hopkins became a nice person.

The free newspaper on the bus had actual news in it.

It turned out there actually was £350 million for the NHS.

Farage said he’d buy those of us left a pint,

which was fortuitous ‘cos Wetherspoons had cut their prices.

No more forelock tugging for us, Squire,

‘cos what with all the empty houses

each and every one of us got a luxury flat,

each of which came with a rent cap.

The radio could have been better. They’d decided no Kate Bush,

no P.J Harvey but there was a hell of a lot of Coldplay.

Employment was a doddle. I’d always wanted to be a doctor,

or a plumber, or have me very own fish and chip shop,

and these days all the education was free so it was

certificates all round. Gilt edged ones with a crinkle cut at that!

At the job my working day had been halved, pay doubled,

holidays extended. The light began to dawn.

© Tim Wells. Written after the United Voices of the World picket of 100 Wood Street, 29 June 2016.

Photo © David Secombe.

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.

 

 


The Empty Office (for Peter Marlow).

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Empty Office, Clerkenwell, 2002. Photo © Peter Marlow.

Katy Evans-Bush:

The office as its redundant workers move out is spotted with relics of human degradation: that is, of the letdown from future perfect to mere life.

The screw stuck in the wall, reminder of that award for the old campaign that no one still here now remembers – although it was great work and targets were exceeded – surrounded by nails that hold their heads proud, knowing they held up the proofs of its successes.

Comfortable tea stains, paper clips wedged where the desk didn’t quite meet the wall, a blotched photo of Sarah who worked here half a decade ago, with a small child; she’d be wanting that back, if anyone knew where to find her now. Bits of phone chargers. A chocolate egg in foil. A bit of silk ribbon, some one-legged scissors, a dusty old bottle of Bristol Cream: why is it blue? Are they really that colour? A sad pile of paperbacks no one will ever read: Windows for Dummies and guides to blogging for businesses. Blu-Tack smears where no one thought they’d matter. Sticker-marks on the phones, where someone put the new supplier’s number. Dirt on the sills from the plants the receptionist had to water, because optimism always wins out. Optimism and sheer daily labour.

Things can’t stay clean forever. People are people and every negotiation will be tarnished. Its spreading spots will eat at your blind belief in silver and grey and the functional streamline that bypasses doubt and loops back to the bank, via mobile phones, and suits with reinforced shoulders, and platinum cardholders.

Forget your cheap tiles screaming masculine thrust from the Carpetland down on the roundabout. This office was made for pink fluffy sweaters, cake crumbs, to-do lists, pictures of cats, the darkening water in a vase, nail files and overstuffed folders.

… this is a reprise of one of The London Column’s early posts, from June 2011, in tribute to the  English photographer Peter Marlow who died last month.

See also: Point of Interest (2),  Point of Interest (3).


At the Zoo.

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© David O’Shaughnessy.

David Secombe:

My old friend David O’Shaughnessy has an exhibition currently on show at Stour Space, Hackney Wick (part of Photomonth, the east London photography festival). David’s show is called Zoo Logical, and is a study of the habitats of zoo animals in New York, Dublin and, as showcased here, London.

 

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© David O’Shaughnessy.

The key word is habitat: the animals themselves are absent. The viewer is confronted with a series of disconcertingly empty rooms reminiscent of deserted stage sets: which is, of course, the point. The animals are expected to perform for our benefit, and their man-made surroundings either mimic their natural environment or display them as specimens in an alien setting. (As beautiful as Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool is, the birds themselves hated it.)

 

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© David Shaugnessy

Walking round the exhibition last weekend, it struck me that David has selected the perfect location for his show. For those unfamiliar with the locality, Hackney Wick is a kind of giant guinea pig cage for hipsters. A stone’s throw from the Olympic Park to the south, and within sight of the looming bulk of Westfield shopping mall, the area offers an environment as fitted to the needs of well-heeled young urbanites as any zoologically engineered habitat.  All the key elements are in place: retro-fitted brown field decrepitude, bars and cultural spaces sprouting from light industrial units, towpaths to cycle on, and a sprinkling of riverside new-builds. Anyway, this post is written in haste as Dave’s show ends on Monday: so allow me to suggest that you treat yourselves to a visit to Hackney Wick this weekend. Enjoy the exhibition, drink a craft beer or two and look at the men with funny hair.


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.