© 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.
Enoch Powell, Eaton Square, 1984. Photo © Derek Ridgers.
Irrespective of his ridiculous views on race relations, Enoch Powell was certainly one of my strangest ever subjects.
I was commissioned to photograph him by the NME and, together with the writer Mat Snow, we turned up at his very grand flat in Eaton Square to meet a guy who seemed determined, for some reason, to try to make us laugh. For someone who achieved a starred double-first from Cambridge University, and who was often referred to as the greatest political mind of his generation, he struck me as a bit of a twit. To start with, he began by deriding my accent and the way I talk. He enquired as to whether I might be an Australian? I’m a Londoner, born and bred and though my accent isn’t of the typical gor-blimey cockney variety, it’s never (outside of the US) ever confused anyone before. Then he asked me about the origins of my name and started to try to find something funny about that. Next he spoke to a woman who had been detailed to bring us some tea and called her “dear” and invited us to speculate on what his precise relationship with her was (it was his wife). All the while he was grinning at us like Sid James in a Carry On film.
His desire to trivialise the situation must, I guess, have been some sort of bizarre tactic to make us forget to ask him anything remotely serious. It was a little patronising of him and it didn’t work. Mat Snow was far too canny an interviewer for that and he managed to ask him all the questions I’m sure he would rather have not been asked. Mat Snow writes “being interviewed as he was by New Musical Express, rather than await my questions he launched straight into an interminable monologue about Nietzsche and his philosophy of music, and seemed rather put out when I tried to get the interview back on track by asking him if perhaps his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ UK race war prediction of 1968 was perhaps a tad wide of the mark as things had panned out by then.”
Enoch Powell was a proud man but, in my judgement, by this stage of his political career, a little sad.
© Derek Ridgers. From The Ponytail Pontifications.