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My London Diary for July 2016

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Only a month late, July 2016 is now completed on My London Diary, and I’m beginning to think about starting August. I’m feeling just a little challenged at the moment about days and dates, realising just after I’d sealed the envelope yesterday that I had just signed several prints and documents and dated them 1/9/2016 that it was actually only the 31st August.

I decided it didn’t really matter, though it perhaps might give the recipient an impression of a far more speedy postal service than we now actually enjoy. Long gone are the days when you could put a postcard in the post at lunchtime to say you were going to be late back for tea that same afternoon.

I started the month with Jeremy Corbyn in Islington, with a picture that attracted some interest on sartorial grounds, with some newspapers suggesting he had been splashing out on a designer jacket, though personally I thought it more likely to have come from an Islington charity shop. The event was against the post-Brexit vote race hate spike, and several other events in the month also reflected the referendum vote, and both this and the continuing attacks on the Labour leader made me and many others reflect on the nature of democracy in a country where the media is largely controlled by a handful of billionaires.

The end of the month was for me dominated by more personal concerns – the funeral of and old friend and my elder son’s 4oth birthday and wedding. I considered whether to include these in my public diary, and have done so because they are of interest to a rather wider circle than those family and friends with whom they have already been shared, but with only a small number of pictures and an invitation to those who want more to contact me personally.

The first picture below shows cleaners and supporters backing the strike by workers at 100 Wood St in the City of London on the 50th day of their strike. I was pleased around ten days later to hear that another protest planned had been called off because the action had been succesful. Obviously the determination of the workers and their union, the United Voices of the World was the major factor in this, but the very public actions like this one, shaming the companies concerned, are important. Protests and the media coverage they can get do work – if not every time.

July 2016

Cambridge, Raihanah & Sam
Solidarity with Rampal protesters


Reinstate the Wood St Two
Sam at 40
Townly’s Funeral


Stop Trident emergency protest
Peoples Assembly/Stand Up to Racism rally
EDL march and rally
Cleaners Flash Mob at CBRE London HQ
End Austerity, No to Racism, Tories Out!
Falun Dafa march against Chinese repression


Defend our NHS
Solidarity for Wood St cleaners
Trident Mad Hatters Tea Party
Disabled PIP Fightback blocks Westminster
NHS Bill protest at Parliament
PIP Fightback at Vauxhall
Harmondsworth Moor


Focus E15 Occupy Police Station


Brixton stands with Black victims
Green Park Brexit Picnic
Europe, Free Movement and Migrants
East End Sisters Uncut-Domestic Violence
Housing Protest at ‘Progress’ conference
Garden Bridge ‘Progress’ protest
End the Israeli siege of Gaza
Stand Up for PrEP!
Blair lied, Millions Died – Chilcot
NUT Strike Day March
Supporters Stand Up for Israel


Al Quds Day March
Arms dealers out of LT Museum
Jo Cox banner of love
16-17 Year olds demand the vote
Rally For Europe against Brexit
March For Europe against Brexit
Love Islington – NO to Hate Crime

London Images

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Marc Riboud (1923-2016)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Everyone will know at least one image by Marc Riboud, even if his name will be less familar outside of photographic circles. He took the truly iconic image of protest against the Vietnam war, 17 year-old high school student Jan Rose Kasmir holding up a chrysanthemum in front of a line of young soldiers with fixed bayonets  stopping the protesters from reaching the Pentagon October 21, 1967. Apart from that, he is best known for his extensive work in the Far East, particularly Vietnam and China, though he photographed around the world, including here in the UK.

Back in 1954, the year after he gave up work as an engineer in a Lyon factory to become a full-time freelance, when Riboud was a young photographer unknown in the UK, his mentor, Robert Capa, who had sent him to London to learn English, came to visit him. Len Spooner, the editor of Picture Post, came into the hotel bar where they were drinking and Capa twisted his arm to give the young photographer a job. The magazine had just completed a series on ‘the best and worst of British Cities’ bu nne of their photographers had wanted to go to Leeds, all thinking it was too depressing. Capa told him that as Riboud came from Lyon, a manufacturing city like Leeds, he was just the man for the job, and Riboud spent three weeks photographing there.

But when Riboud arrived back in London to hand in his pictures, he was met with the news that Capa was dead – and he felt utterly devastated, as he says “like an orphan” and forgot about everything including the pictures he had taken.

A video tells the story of how these pictures, some not even developed, were rediscovered almost 50 years later in a London lab and then became the subject of a project and exhibition in the much changed city where they were taken. As well as in the film, some of the Leeds pictures are on the Magnum website and on his own web site, Mark Riboud – 60 Years of Photography.

Riboud’s explanation of why these pictures were forgotten came in an interview for a video around 50 years after the event, and while it undoubtedly expresses his recollection and feelings, it fails to account for the practicalities. Though the death of Capa (and also that of Werner Bischof, killed in Peru 9 days earlier, the news of whose death reached Magnum’s offices the very same day) shocked the photographic community, but would not have prevented Spooner from getting Picture Posts’s rolls of film from the photographer they had commissioned for an extensive assignment in the Spring of 1954.

Riboud, interviewed in by Russell Miller for his 1997 book ‘Magnum – 50 years at the front line of history’, states he met Capa in London two months after being given the Leeds job (and presumably well after its completion), shortly before Capa left for Japan and the fatal trip to Indochina and late in May. I have no inside information, but it seems most likely that Spooner had the lab develop one or two rolls from the Leeds assignment and seeing them decided to spike the story, storing the rest of the rolls – which the magazine would have owned – in case the story seemed significant at a later date.

Riboud joined Magnum at the start of his professional career in 1953 and   they continue to represent him and have a large collection of images, from early work – including many pictures of London and elsewhere in the UK up until 2006. You can also see his work on many other sites across the web, including Lensculture, American Suburb X and ICP, and there are a number of obituaries already on the web, with more appearing as I write.

Riboud’s family were one of the leading families in Lyon, and his older brothers became well-known in various fields; Antoine was one of the two founders of Danone, Jean became chairman of Schlumberger and Jacques a town planner. Marc took his first photographs with a Kodak Vest Pocket camera that was a birthday present from his father when he was 14. Although after the war (when he was active in the Resistance) he took an engineering degree and went to work as a factory engineer, he soon found his heart was not in the job, and lived for the weekends when he could get out and take pictures.

A chance connection through one of his brothers who had been nursed after being liberated from Buchenwald by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s sister had led to a brief meeting with the photographer, and when he decided he was ready to become a full-time photographer, he jumped on a train to Paris and went to the photographer’s flat – only to be told HC-B was away for six months. He went back again six months later and showed his pictures, and was advised not to leave his profession as an engineer, as photography was such an insecure living.

Despite this, a few months later Riboud decided to leave the factory and went again to Paris, this time searching out another of Magnum’s founders, Robert Capa. It took considerable persistence to find the man, but when he did, Capa looked through his pictures and told him ‘OK’ and he was in Magnum. Things were very different back then.

Marc Riboud died 30 August 2016 following a long illness.

Weekend Photographer

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Frank Larson (1896-1964) was not a really great photographer, but was a dedicated and very good one, whose work during his lifetime seems only to have been shared with his family and friends and with the local photographic society, never becoming widely known. After his early death (a consequence of ill heath because his lungs were damaged by mustard gas in World War 1) his negatives, mainly taken with his Rolleiflex, but with a few 35mm, laid forgotten but carefully packed in a cardboard box for 45 years.

In 2009 his younger son’s widow came across them in an attic and showeed them to her son, TV news cameraman/producer Soren Larson, who was “truly shocked at the quality and range of the images, as well as the effort, dedication and love (his grandfather) brought to the task” and realised they were “like a trip back in time, back to the New York of the early 50’s.” He decided to set up a web site to show them “to whomever is interested – lovers of New York, of the decade of the 1950’s, or just those who admire a good photograph.”

Frank Larson spent around 40 years working in a bank, ending up as an auditor there until he retired in 1960. Although he’d been a keen photographer since the 1920s, it was after his two sons left home by 1949 that he bagan to leave his home in the commuter suburb of Flushing at dawn virtually every Sunday and travel into the centre of New York to take photographs. After he retired in 1960, he and his wife moved around a hundred miles away from New York to Lakeville, Connecticut, and his regular photography there presumably ended, so the photographs cover roughly the decade of the 1950s.

Larson’s work was noted on the web and in the press, with an article in 2011 on PetaPixel, and in the New York Times, and an exhibition at the Perfect Exposure Gallery in San Francisco, and in 2012 at at the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing. More recently they have feautred on My Modern Met and Creative Boom.

It would be wrong to think (as a few have done) of Larson as another Vivian Maier, but both of them do illustrate the wealth of ‘unknown’ photography that there is out there, some stored in attics or storage units, but probably most now in landfill (perhaps to be excavated by archaelogists of a future civilisation arriving from a more advanced planet that has avoided the extinction which our own species now appears dead-set on.)

Neither Larson or Meier produced work of any significance in the history of the medium, but both have images of interest. Clearly Maier was a more adventurous photographer, following so many trends, but Larson’s work is that of a craftsman who has found his way to work and sticks with it. I’m not surprised that he did well in some photo club competitions – and I say that both positively and negatively.

I still remember Peter Turner (then editor of Creative Camera) coming to the camera club I was then a rather rebellious member of and being treated with anguished gasps and stony silences as he laid into the works of the most highly respected club members (many with FRPS to their name and several past Presidents of that ancient body) and sheer disbelief at his appreciation of images that had come at the bottom of the member’s votes.

Unlike Maier, there is little or no mystery about Larson’s life and work, no law suits or struggles about copyright and ownership, and relatively little money being made. His grandson, according to the web site, is making and selling ‘archival inkjet prints’ prints (though only to US addresses) at prices that seem very reasonable – less than one tenth of dealer prices for Vivian Maier prints.

Not Notting Hill

Monday, August 29th, 2016

Today I’m missing Notting Hill. Not just that I’m not going to London’s biggest annual event, but missing the noise, the dancing, the sheer enjoyment on the streets, the crowds, the costumes, the display, the heady atmosphere often thick with the smell of grass, the alcohol, the energy and everything.

If I went I know I’d enjoy it for a while. Sounds at a level that makes the tarmac throb and your internal organs dance with the beat. So much to attract the eye both in the masqueraders and the crowds. Its perhaps the only truly large event in the capital that retains a lively chaos and anarchy, with large parts of the carnival route full of people rather than sheep herded behind barriers. And while it has become much more commercialised and circumscribed there is just too much energy for it to have been contained.

But I know that before long I’d be wanting to find somewher quiet, to get away from the noise and the crowds. Perhaps half an hour of carnival would be fine, but a day there would wear me out, leave me shattered for days after. I used to enjoy dancing along with the second line with a camera, part of a noisy jostling crowd all having fun, but there are some things you grow out of.

And of course those crowds can be a little frightening, and could set off a panic attack. At times they can be dengerous, though probably your chances of getting robbed or stabbed aren’t a great deal higher than on most other days in London, one of the safer cities in the world. Just that every incident at carnival makes the headlines, while everyday muggings seldom even get a mention in the local.

For years those headlines kept me away from London’s greatest festival, but then I went and saw for myself and for years nothing could keep me away from it, not even the several days of headache and partial deafness that were the inevitable consequence.

If I lived closer, I’d probably drop in for that half hour, join in the crowds at the north end of Ladbroke Grove, and then make my way out. But the trains are in what is now their normal Bank Holiday meltdown, and what would normally be a less than an hour’s journey would today take me twice as long to get there and also to get back.

So this year I took my Notting Hill early, sitting quietly with a can of Red Stripe and thinking about those times I enjoyed in the past. THe pictures here come from a show I was part of in 2008, English Carnival, where you can see a few more of my black and white images from Notting Hill Carnival 1990-2001, along with work by three colleagues from more typically English events.

Of course it is a very colourful event, and it may seem perverse to photograph it in black and white, but doing so enabled me to concentrate more on what interested me most, the people rather than the costumes and razzmattazz, though they are still often there. And I did photograph it in colour too – most years until 2012, and there are colour pictures from most years from 2002 for each August on My London Diary.

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Perpignan Looms

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

In Jean-François Leroy on Photojournalism on the Magnum site, the founder of Visa pour l’Image gives his opinions on still photography sandwiched between publicity for some fine photography from Magnum photographers Lorenzo Meloni in Yemen, Jérôme Sessini in Ukraine,  Carl de Keyzer in Cuba, and Chien-Chi Chang’s winning 1999 Visa d’Or photo study of New York’s China Town.

It’s all great photography, but does rather tend to hide Leroy’s message delivered in several short paragraphs in the article. He acknowledges that now everyone has a camera the first images from events will normally come from those already there with their phones taking pictures and recording videos, and that photojournalists have to be the “best second witness.” Its soemtimes the case, but as the Magnum work shows, much of the best photojournalism isn’t breaking news but from longer projects where photojournalism becomes more documentary.

He goes on to say that there is wider issue in the way that the press works, quite simply that “They are not buying the stories anymore … are spending less and less and less every day. Photographers are producing, they are still working.” He also identifies the fact that very few organisations now employ photo-editors, saying that photographers “are the worst editors in the world, and I think that photo-editors were really important for them.

There is certainly an element of truth in this, though I think the best photo-editors have often come from being photographers, and many of us are pretty expert at editing the work of others, even though our emotional involvement makes it hard to judge our own images objectively. But perhaps more important is that the lack of photo-editors has led to images often being selected by people with little or no visual intelligence, and usually working to very tight deadlines, who snap up the first snap they see.

We now work in a business where being a good picture hardly matters, and many rather poor pictures, even those taken by competent photographers, are used. Picture research is minimal and what matters now in  earning a living is not quality but speed and an agency that gets work fast onto the image feeds.

Visa pour l’Image, the premier International Festival of Photojournalism, runs from August 27 to September 11, 2016, with the Professional week from August 29 to September 4 in Perpignan, France.

If like me you won’t be travelling there you can follow it on the web site and blog, as well as on Facebook.

Football at White Cube

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

One of the things that attracts me to Class War is that their actions are unpredictable – and that usually they are fun. It’s a kind of agit-prop street theatre designed to attract attention, and a different world to the rather dour marches and pickets that usually pass unnoticed and have perhaps often failed to attract support even to the most worthy of causes.

And while they are sometimes accused of being frothy opportunists, they have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity in following up various issues – which the over 30 protests over ‘Poor Doors’ adequately demonstrated.

Gentrification is of couse a key issue for Class War, and I’d gone with them in December when they had ‘opened a new front’ on the issue in Bermondsey with Class War at Gilbert & George ‘Banners’.  So I was keen to be there for another round of the protest on Bermondsey St with Class War Footy at White Cube.

You can read more about the actual protest at that link on My London Diary, but it turned out to be rather difficult to photograph. People playing football tend to be some distance apart and the ball often moves rather quickly, and many of my pictures turned out to be rather empty.  And unlike real football games there were no goals, though the police and security standing in front of a wrapped sculpture at one corner of the yard did get to field a few balls.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only art-lover present who felt that this particular sculpture was rather improved by its protective wrapping – certainly something the White Cube should consider on a permanent basis.

There were some highlights – including Ray Jones performing a new song written for the occasion, ‘any chance of a sub?’ dedicated to Damien Hirst,  as well as a spirited rendering by Jane Nicholl of an old favourite,  a traditional English bawdy song which could be the Class War Anthem, ‘The Finest F***ing Family in the Land’  (various partial versions of the lyrics appear on the web; Oscar Brand recorded a version which totally lacks the élan of Jane’s delivery around 1970) – and of course there was the appearnce of Rita the Raven.

But the highlight was undoubtedly the fire-breathing, and it was this that caused the greatest photographic problem.

It was a dull January day, and a bright ball of fire presents an enormous challenge, with a dynamic range well outside that of film or sensor.

In the frame before the image above, without the ball of fire, matrix metering gave an exposure (At EI 1600) of 1/320s f7.1, while with the fireball, the metering changed to give 1/500s, f9, which I think is around one and a third stops less, but the fire was still highly over-exposed (I had set my usual -0.3 stops compensation which I find gives better results in most situations.) Careful work in Lightroom brought it down to give the result shown, where there are still some areas without detail where the sensor was simply maxed out. In bringing it down I’ve also increased the saturation, and taken it rather too far, which gives an exaggerated effect, particularly with the rather subdued background colour. I rather liked the effect when I did it, a kind of comic-book look, but would probably tone it down if I had to output another file.

With many of the exposures, there were much larger totally overexposed areas of the flame – even though the background was seriously under-exposed. As might be expected, the worst results were those where the sheet of fire was largest, and those where it was just starting or had died down were best. Fortunately I’d taken enough that I could simply delete most of these and still have a number of usable images. As well as the extreme exposure range, a second issue was that of colour temperature, with the flame generally giving a far warmer light than the cold winter gloom. Although this generally adds to the image, some corrective work was needed.

As I walked away with Class War, some stickers began to magically appear on estate agents and other suitable surfaces along the road.  My only regret was that I had to leave them outside the pub to visit a party at an old friend’s a short train journey away, and missed photographing the after-protest celebration with Rita.

Class War Footy at White Cube
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More on Bursaries

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016

Today The Guardian revealed leaked Department of Health documents which revealed that civil servants were giving health minister Jeremy Hunt the same advice and warnings about his plans to implement a “truly seven-day NHS” that junior doctors and others  were saying when they spoke at another health protest I photographed in January, against the plans to axe NHS bursaries for student nurses and others, and which I wrote about in a short and hurried post (I had a train to catch) a week or so ago.

The government responded to the leak by pretending that these documents were merely exploring a ‘worst case scenario’ but few if anyone could believe them. They expose a government misleading both public and parliament and pushing through their plans to privatise the NHS and enrich themselves and others with financial interests in private medical companies.

The NHS needs saving” say the lyrics held up as the National Health Singers performed the Junior Doctors Protest Anthem ‘Yours’ also needed quite a lot of saving in Lightroom. Of course I know that even with Nikon’s matrix metering a lot of bright sky is going to mean underexposure, and that with subjects in shade like both the words and the woman’s face I really needed to use some fill flash, or at least dial in a stop or two extra exposure. But working at speed I just took the picture and hoped I’d be able to fix it in post.

The version you see here was also produced in haste, wanting to get images online as soon as possible, and has the same Lightroom treatment as the larger file that went to Demotix on the day of the protest – but exported with a preset that cuts down image size and jpeg quality and adds my watermark (as you can see with the incorrect year.)  I’m sure I could return to the image and do a better job.

Among those supporting the students protesting against the planeed axing of the bursaries were trade unionists, including Len McClusky, General Secretary of Unite, here looking worried and standing next to a Unite flag, as well as many health professionals and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

But it was the student nurses, none of whom will personally be affected by the cuts, which will only apply to students starting on courses in future who are the organisers of the protest. They know how vital the bursaries are to themselves.

They also know – as do all who work in the NHS, that the NHS is already a “seven-day NHS” so long as patient care and junior doctors are concerned.  The government soundbite isn’t a sound basis for policy and changes whichNHS budgets can’t afford.

NHS Bursaries March
NHS Bursaries rally before march
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Isleworth & Syon

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

When I began my recent post Olympics, Mo and Me I was intending to write rather more about Isleworth and Syon, but as usual my mind wandered in other directions, stopping when I realised I had been going on far too long and it was time for lunch.

Isleworth & Syon School, or to give it its full title, Isleworth & Syon School for Boys is now an Academy and also takes girls into its sixth form. It got Sports College status in 2003 as the lead school for Physical Education and Sport in the London Borough of Hounslow. When I went there it was a voluntary Middlesex County Council school, Isleworth Grammar School, with several nearby Secondary Modern Schools.

A short distance away next to Syon Lane station was (and is) The Green School for Girls which my elder sister attended, on a part of whose playing fields it had a rugby pitch – and the posts suggests it still does. The two then Grammar Schools were linked in other ways, including annual performances by their joint choirs of Bach’s various oratorios in which I performed first as a soprano and later as a tenor, though my heart was more with Buddy Holly and later with Miles and Trane.


Building for the Blue School Foundation in Isleworth in 1841 by C F Maltby

Isleworth Grammar was really on the edge of Isleworth, in Osterley, though its roots lay in Isleworth, and the Blue School Foundation dating from 1630 when Elizabeth Hill gave £20 a year for the education of poor girls and after her death the use of her house in Lower Square for the purpose. Over the years there were other charitable donations for the education of poor children of both sexes and in the 1880s an upper boy’s department was set up which eventually became Isleworth Grammar, while the lower school kept the name the Blue School as a co-ed primary.


Maltby’s design shows some similarity to Syon House

Middlesex County Council provided the grammar with a typical 1930s school building which I attended for seven years in the late 1950s and early 1960s at the top of Ridgeway Road, in Osterley, a little over a mile away from the centre of Isleworth, at the top of a slight hill leading up from Spring Grove, which I cursed for years as I cycled up it. And at least in my case it was still fulfilling part of its founding aim to educate the poor, though I only really became aware of the Blue School link through a small grant – 50% more than the founding donation – for my first year at university. It was withdrawn after that following a less than glowing report from my tutor; £30 then was a tenth of the maintenance grant that I got from Middlesex County Council for the year, so it was something of a blow.

Last March I walked with my elder son from Kew Bridge to Whitton on a less than direct stroll which took us through Syon Park and Isleworth, with one of the highlights being the footpath through Mogden Sewage Treatment Works, another Middlesex County Council project, now run by Thames Water, one of the largest sewage works in the UK, 140 acres which treats the sewage from about 1.9 million people in North and West London – discharging water,  usually fairly pure – into the Thames at Isleworth. The guide used to drink a glass at the end of the tour, but at times of heavy rain the plant certainly used to be overwhelmed and release sewage into the river.

Bushes along the footpath now screen much of the extensive range of large open tanks from sight, though not from the nose, though the smells are now rather less than in the past; ten local residents were awarded damages following a court decision in 2011 that failure to manage odour effectively since 1990 was a violation of their human rights.


The Duke of Northumberland’s River provides water for cooling

Middlesex had proposed to site the sewage works in Syon Park, but ‘public outcry’ (and perhaps the influence of the Henry George Alan Percy, 9th Duke of Northumberland, then perhaps appropriately Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Lord Privy Seal) as well as opposition by the chair of the council forced them instead to choose Mogden Farm, next to the Mogden Isolation Hospital.

The smell (and clouds of foam which used to blow away when people changed from soap powders to detergents in their washing machines) made Mogden a bad name, and the hospital became South Middlesex Hospital in 1948, closing in 1991. The area is now called Ivybridge, a name with no known previous local history given to the London Borough of Hounslow estate widely seen as a sink estate. It still shares the Mogden smell.

I’m not the only person to have walked through Mogden – the path is a useful and popular cycle route too, and supporters who want to avoid the Twickenham crowds use it as a longer route to the stadium just to the south from Isleworth on match days. Mogden Stadium perhaps doesn’t sound as good as Twickenham, if geographically more precise.

In John Rogers‘ film ‘The London Perambulator‘, Nick Papadimitriou stands in front of Mogden in the introduction and speaks about it there and later (at around 16-18 minutes) in the 45 minute documentary – while Russell Brand, Will Self and Iain Sinclair make their comments about him. It’s a fascinating study of a modern eccentric who says “This is the end result of years of therapy – Mogden Purification Works” and later comments on the opening of the works by Sir Montagu Sharpe, described by Diana Willment as ‘The Forgotten Man of Middlesex‘, Chairman of Middlesex County Council for many years, and a cofounder and Chairman of the Committee of the RSPB from 1895-1942.

You can see more of my pictures from the walk in Syon, Isleworth & Mogden, as well as pictures from the start of the walk in Brentford in Riverside Brentford and Riverside Brentford Panoramas.

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Colin O’Brien (1940-2016)

Sunday, August 21st, 2016


Colin O’Brien stands where he photographed Traveller children at London Fields

Sad news. RIP Colin O’Brien (1940-2017), a fine photographer of London for over 65 years – he started when he was only 8 – who died suddenly from a heart attack on Friday.

I didn’t know him well and only met him a few times, but loved his pictures in his book ‘Travellers Children in London Fields’, some of whome came to the book launch. There was a beautiful warmth of feeling in much of his work and in the man himself.


Some of the Travellers at the book launch

There is much to look at on his web site, which contains well over a hundred of his best images and more in the news section, and you can see and hear him talking about 65 years in photography in videos on his web site including one made for the publication of his finely produced book ’65’. In it he explains why he continued to work in black and white because it enabled him to control the whole process from exposure to print.

You can also read the two posts on this blog about the Travellers Children book launch, Colin O’Brien: Traveller Children, and More on Traveller Children, though the latter is more about my then new toy, the Samyang 8mm fisheye for the Fuji-X system, than about Colin, though it does include two pictures taken with it of him talking at the launch.

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Olympics, Mo and Me

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

I was rather pleased to be away from home and largely out of range of mobile signal and WiFi for the last week and thus missing most of the Olympic hoo-ha, and though I was within spitting distance of the start of the modern Olympic movement in 1850, I didn’t quite manage to follow the Olympic trail though I did get rather lost in a forest on nearby Wenlock Edge.

I always think it a shame that the the Olympics have become such an occasion for nationalistic fever, with an ethos very different from that of the founding years (and certainly of the 1850 event in Much Wenlock.) The famous quote from the man who really got the whole thing going, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who visited the games at Wenlock in 1890, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well” is now just a pious platitude, with success in the games (and that silly medal table) being as much a matter of huge investment as individual achievement. The Russians did it by doping, we do it by lottery funding.

Part of Coubertin’s inspiration for the games came from the English Public School system and in particular Thomas Arnold, the great head of Rugby School, and he held firmly that athletes should be amateurs, though supporting financial support for loss of earnings for when they were competing and certainly opposed the discrimination against the working classes in British sports such as rowing, something which remains a feature of many sports in England and Wales. Dr William Penny Brookes, who began those games in Much Wenlock which were criticised by many amongh the amateur altheltic elite for encouraging the working classes to compete, also organised the first London Olympics as a national competition at Crystal Palace in 1866, and was the man behind the introduction of physical education into the school curriculum, first at Much Wenlock National School and later across the whole of state education. If you hated your PE lessons, he is the man to blame.

I wasn’t keen on much of PE, and my occasional confusion between left and right sometimes led to a certain amount of derision from teachers (sometimes expressed with the help of a plimsoll to the backside0 as I raised the wrong arm or thrust out the wrong leg. Wall bars and ‘horses’ were largely objects of torture, though I came to like climbing the ropes – though climbing trees out of school was always more fun -there was no view, no revelation in seeing the gym from a height. But my real love was in running.

I was fortunate in my choice of secondary school, though going to the grammar took me away from many of the friends in my streets. The school was proud of its tradition of maths education, but perhaps failed to ackknowledge its athletic achievements, although these were together with all the rest of its sporting results, the high point of the daily assemblies. But as a grammar school, what really counted was rugby, and athletics would surely have been a poor second fiddle to cricket if the school had not, a few years before my joining it, appointed John Disley to head the PE department.

Disley’s career as a runner is perhaps rather forgotten, despite his bronze medal in the 3000 metres steeplechase at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, rather eclipsed by the trio of Brasher, Chataway and Bannister involved in the first four minute mile, though Disley had been closest to Bannister on one of his earlier races where he broke the UK record. Disley decided he not quite fast enough on the flat, but set a world record and five British records in the steeplechase as well as four British records at two miles, and Welsh records for six different distances.

I think it was at the end of my first year at Isleworth that Disley left to run around mountains, going on to bring orienteering to the UK and later, also together with Chris Brasher, to establish the London Marathon. But his memory lingered on in Isleworth, with every PE lesson beginning with either a ‘short circuit’ or a ‘long circuit’ road run around the neighbourhood, unless the rain was heavy enough to make drowning a possibility. Winning times were recorded, and for some years I held my year record for the long circuit, which I think was around a mile.

I was never a great athlete, not quite fast enough for the 100 yards, but represented my school at the Middlesex championships at the 220 and 440, though my best result ever was a third place. Once in the Borough Youth Sports I did give the two timekeepers a shock by coming in first in the quarter mile a hundred yards ahead of the rest of the field at a time close to the UK record, but only because the idiots running the event had put the finishing tape in the wrong place. I was hugely annoyed, as it was a perfect day and I’d felt on top of my form and was fairly sure that otherwise I would have recorded a personal best – only slightly faster than Mo Farah achieved on his last lap after having already run 9,600m.

There were two reasons why, despite my overall lack of interest in the Olympics, I was pleased to hear of the two gold medals for Mo Farah. First because like some others who won medals he was a migrant to the UK, coming here from Somalia to join his father who was working here when he was only eight. It’s good to see anything possible in the media about any migrant. He was not a refugee; his father, of Somali origin, was born in London and grew up – like me – in Hounslow, and had the right and intention to bring his family here, but illness and confusion in Somalia meant only Mo came. Being a migrant did come with problems for him, and at 14 he had to turn down the opportunity to compete with a British team in Latvia both because Latvia would not let him in and more importantly because our racist immigration system would not have allowed him to return to the UK.

Secondly because perhaps something of the Disley legacy still lives on at my old school, which by the time Farah went there had become the comprehensive Isleworth and Syon School, where his running ability was recognised and encouraged and his winning career began. I like to think it was perhaps during those short and long circuits that he showed his mettle.

But it was also at that school that my own athletic career came to an end. Another aspect that Disley had encouraged was cross-country, and when as sixth-formers whose interests had developed along other lines, it was an option we adopted for the compulsory afternoon of sport. It took us a few hundred yards north of the school across the Great West Road to Jersey Gardens, a small park with a secluded small roofed seating area at the top of a rock garden where we sat talking and smoking until it was time to rejoin the small band who had actually covered the three and a half mile course, trailing back to the changing rooms behind them.