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.
Brunel Road, Rotherhithe, London, July 1979. © Geoff Howard.
The rest is silence by Charles Jennings:
This car is following me. No, either it’s following me – dark blue Golf – or it’s as lost as I am and just happens to emerge and re-emerge round corners and at the ends of roads and roll silently past me, the driver painstakingly not looking my way but screwing up his brow as he lunges off up another sidetrack which I know will bring him out twenty yards ahead of me. This is paranoia all right, and I’ve only been here 15 minutes.
Another thing: after a lot of ducking and weaving, I shake the car get onto the street that runs down by the river, two apes start following me, cropheads, bomber jackets, you know the sort, bouncers. Didn’t say anything, mark you, just kept their distance 30 feet behind. Nice sunny day, but I still felt that unease. So I jinked behind a litter bin, doubled back round a newbuild block of flats, nipped out on Salter Road, turned round a couple of times, lost them. Close though.
I don’t normally act this way, but Rotherhithe is not on the level. It was a perfect day, breeze blowing, sun shining, operatic clouds billowing up from the south-west, and yet such is its emptiness, the untenantedness, the shortage of humanity around Rotherhithe a lot of the time, that I can’t remember the last occasion I felt so alone in the big city except when I was last down the wrong stretch of Wapping, the sister city across the Thames. Here they were, of course, Wapping and Canary Wharf, I could see them standing golden in the sun on the north side, while kids combed the shingle beach for pounds.
Alone and lost. Just me and ranks of newbuild properties – little three-bedders with oak-effect doors, new wave flatlets topped off with pointless metal triangles and overturned D’s; refashioned warehouses on the river; fake Georgian tenements – once in a while interrupted by a canal or dead creek with tide heights marked in Roman numerals up the side, all doubling back on themselves, leading in and out of nowhere.
Not even any shops to get some sort of bearing, apart from a pair of bolted and shuttered takeaways next to a Stop ‘n’ Shop and the The Compasses pub. I clung to this last for a bit, going round in circles, afraid to lose it and myself again – before I realised that I had to be somewhere else in an hour and a half and that if I didn’t start looking for a way out, I’d never leave in time.
So it was off to the Dan Dare tube station where I thought I’d arrived a lifetime earlier, and back over the scrap of wasteland – where I finally saw a couple of people, trudging into the distance, carrying bags. And then a terrific racking cough, like a bomb going off, and this wrecky old geezer lurches out from a bush and makes for a bench. I was going to hail him, winkle out the secret of Rotherhithe, the two worlds. V-reg cars penned in behind security fences (“Specialist Dogs and Tactics” it said on a notice on one) versus the tough old estates left behind, but then another of those blokes appeared – no. 1 crop, Crombie, pit bull on a string. I thought “Hallo,” like you do, and bunked off quick.
© Charles Jennings.
[Charles’s copy was originally written for The Guardian‘s ‘Space’ supplement and was published in April 2000. As such, it is almost as much of a period piece as Geoff’s photos. D.S.]
Go-go dancer, The Lord Wellington, Rotherhithe, London, June 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Smut by Tim Wells:
much of it
catches my eye.
the bar top,
in her drink.
© Tim Wells.
Carnival, Southwark Park, London, July 1974. © 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.]