Sauce For The Goosesteppers

Review of As A Man Grows Younger at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 19 – 23 February 2019

Calling out resurgent fascism is a recurring trope on the left. Some manifestations uniform themselves unambiguously: the National Front, the British National Party and Tommy Robinson among them. Others are opaque and conjectural – ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Universal Credit’, for example.

Howard Colyer’s one-hander, As A Man Grows Younger, is a visceral transport into the life of a writer struggling against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise. Italo Svevo is today best known for his friendship with James Joyce; the setting for this drama is 1920s Trieste where the two writers lived.

Trieste at that time bore the enduring stamp of an Imperial Free City – a cultural and commercial crossroads of plural ethnicities and an international identity. Fin de Siècle artists and thinkers were drawn to this Viennese seaport in an atmosphere far removed from Mussolini’s reactionary populism.

Svevo’s monologue describes the haphazard trajectory that has brought him literary success, and to the brink of psychological collapse. Joyce is invoked to sprinkle stardust and a couple of good gags. The real off-stage interlocutors, however, are Il Duce and the disintegration of a multi-ethnic supra-national state.

David Bromley delivers a kinetically compelling 70 minute, performance, brimful with the contradictions under which his character struggles. He dotes on his wife, but she is an enthusiastic fascist fund raiser. He fears the secret police, but goads the authorities in his work. His greatest success is stopping smoking – so he does it repeatedly.

The contemporary parallels are clear, although the take home is nuanced. Vigilance is vital when reaction pulls on its jackboots, but the gulf between a handful of thugs and the horrors of interwar fascism is mercifully wide. Recognising the difference is a genuine challenge. 

The play’s most resonant line, is the reported nostrum of Svevo’s wife. “When everyone is being foolish, it can be foolish to act sensibly”. That is surely a clarion call to those who might allow reaction to flourish in the benign glare of relativism? Reassuringly, such a thought-provoking performance as this is at least a modest bulwark against that possibility.

Double magnum: the conception of Robert Capa and photojournalism

Review of TARO, at the Brockley Jack Theatre 19 January – 16 February 2019

The defining moment of darkroom photo processing occurs in the tray of developer. In to this pungent liquid slides a white sheet of paper revealing no sign of infused light, or the anticipatory anxiety that wills its transformation. Seconds tick by before shapes and grayscale emerge. Form and detail often make an uncertain start, but eventually a semblance of that originally spied through the camera’s viewfinder appears in sharp relief.

It found myself reflecting on this antique process as I watched Ross McGregor’s TARO, produced by the Arrows and Traps Theatre at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.

The play tells the story of Robert Capa, the arguable father of photojournalism – or more precisely the Jewish exile couple who invented ‘American photojournalist Robert Capa’ as a disguise from behind which they could achieve better rates for both their work. 

The cast of eight conjure the story Gerda Taro and her relationship with Endre Friedmann through fragmentary scenes, choreography and conceit. Enjoyable as these are, I spent a good portion of the 95 minute performance wondering if this dancing collage of grey and white, dreamy episodes and moments of fantasy could possibly coalesce. But as the conclusion approached, the subtle beauty and power of the whole revealed itself in a distilled moment to equal those for which Capa himself become so famous.

Historical narrative supplies the play’s furniture, but its theme is identity and its capacity to be at once self-determined and rooted in our backgrounds. Capa, of course, was a figment from the outset, but there were plenty more. Neither Taro or Friedmann were observant Jews, yet heritage, and anti-semitism shaped their imaginations.  And though they played instrumental roles in creating modern photojournalism with its apparently shocking veracity, both knew well how sometimes deceit is necessary to tell a powerful truth.

Issues of dispossession, identity and representation animate contemporary life every bit as much they did in the middle of the twentieth century. If TARO has a shortcoming it is that this continuum is not clearly signalled. That does not detract from the quality of this work, however, nor of the energetic and eminently capable cast.

Today, of course, few darkrooms remain, and the revolutionary impact of lone photographers framing our world view is subsumed by a tsunami of phone-captured snaps.  A reminder of the human gaze behind every recorded image, however, is all the more impactful for focusing on a time when a single exposure could change the world.

Chief constable shoots the messenger as gun men roam free

Picture Northern Ireland’s most senior police officer, George Hamilton, settling down to watch the film No Stone Unturned. It must have left him worried, angry and possibly betrayed. It certainly landed a big decision in his lap. The documentary feature, made by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, and originally a BBC co-production, forensically unpicks 1994’s Loughinisland massacre and the woeful response of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The bones of the story are well known. On 18 June 1994 Italy’s footballers faced the Republic of Ireland in the World Cup. Deep in the Northern Ireland’s countryside, drinkers in Heights Bar, Loughinisland, were enjoying the match when masked men burst in and sprayed the bar with automatic gun fire. Six people died. Disgust was widespread, not least as Loyalist and Republican paramilitary ceasefires came within months of the shooting. Police and politicians promised justice would be swift and proportionate. In the days following the shooting, developments apparently went the way of the law enforcers. The getaway car, rich in forensic evidence, turned up in a nearby field. By a bridge close by, the automatic rifle was found. And within the community, most people knew the names of the killers within a month. They lived scarcely five miles from the crime scene. But convictions, there were none. Months became years, and then decades. The bereaved families showed a remarkable dignity in their mourning, but eventually, and quite rightly, they started to ask questions. Why had nothing happened? Twenty three years after the killings, Gibney’s film provided quite a lot of the answers. Based on a secret document compiled by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, it names the four Ulster Volunteer Force members who are the chief suspects the atrocity. It unpicks the police investigation which by turns was deliberately slow footed, woefully incompetent and orchestrated in collusion with the killers. It shows how the police destroyed evidence and, in one particularly shocking exposé, suggests that a Detective Constable pressured the gang’s leader to eliminate a personal enemy. As the narrative unfolded, George Hamilton could jump in one of two ways. The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s chief constable could have opened a new investigation to catch the killers and bring to justice the RUC officers whose bungling had landed this on his plate. Or he could pursue the journalists who had shone light on a shameful episode in the history of the force he joined at the age of eighteen. He chose the latter course. It was a terrible misjudgement that will, in time, bring further dishonour to policing in Northern Ireland and may yet bring his career to a premature end. Very early one August morning, a massive detachment of his officers, bristling with guns, burst unannounced into the Belfast homes of producer Trevor Birney and reporter Barry McCaffrey. Both had worked on No Stone Unturned. As the journalists’ families and neighbours looked on in horror, officers removed phones, memory sticks and computers and took the arrested men for questioning. For fourteen hours, Birney and McCaffrey were held and interrogated. Eventually they were bailed, since which time their bail has been renewed until March 2018. They are accused of theft, handling stolen goods, data protection crimes and offences under the Official Secrets Act. Such an assault on press freedom is an outrage in itself. But in a manner reminiscent of the original Loughinisland investigations, as many questions are thrown up as answers. Initially the PSNI said that it was acting on a complaint of the theft of documents by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That body has since made clear that it made no such complaint. The searches and subsequent investigation is apparently being carried out on behalf of Durham Constabulary which says that it is carrying out an ‘independent investigation’. Of what Durham’s investigation is independent is not clear – certainly not PSNI, whose officers were present at all the interviews. Then there is the timescale. The film makers told the PSNI that they intended to name the chief suspects in their film six months before its release. It was a deliberate move intended to allow the police to act if they thought that lives might be put at risk by such a public revelation. Injuncting the film, so that it could not be shown, would have been straightforward at that time. The police did nothing. Nor did they act when the film was released in November 2017. It was a box office success in Ireland north and south, but the journalists were not troubled until August 2018. Birney and McCaffrey are traumatised by the experience. They can’t leave Northern Ireland without giving the police prior notice, reams of data wholly unconnected with the film has been removed from their computer server, some highly sensitive, and theirs and their families’ property has not been returned. They have, however, been buoyed by the support they have received. The NUJ quickly came to their side, of course. We have organised screenings of the film and support meetings in London, Manchester, Belfast and Dublin. More are planned. In Westminster last week Birney and McCaffrey received a warm welcome from Labour’s Northern Ireland front bench, who promised to lend their support to the case. Other parliamentarians followed. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that their treatment was ‘outrageous’, and undertook to intervene on their behalf. Former deputy prime minister Lord John Prescott gave them a sympathetic ear, as did MPs from the SNP and Sinn Féin. Many asked if there is some back story that explains the Police behaviour. The best hypothesis is this. There is a political hiatus in Northern Ireland. As a result, efforts to deal with ‘legacy issues’ arising from ‘the troubles’, have foundered – save in one area. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has continued to do its work investigating complaints, current and historical, about the conduct of the police. Those who are emotionally connected to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the force that the PSNI replaced), have felt a spotlight on their past actions, that other communities have been inadvertently spared. That might be an explanation, but it is no excuse. The best thing that could now happen is for George Hamilton to admit his mistake, drop the case and get on with pursuing the killers. If that does not happen, then the more people who register their concern about this case, the better. Birney and McCaffrey are clear. This is a deliberate attempt to discourage investigative journalism – particularly when it concerns difficult subjects from the past. Whatever your feelings about the police, or the politics of Northern Ireland, or the conduct of the media, democracy is a risk if we don’t make our protests as noisily as possible. While I was with Trevor and Barry, I made this short film of them talking about their case.

Positive about The Negatives

Watching BBC’s Informer last night a snatch of music unearthed deeply buried memories. The song was ‘We’re From Bradford’ by The Negatives – a band who were together for less than a year, never performed outside Yorkshire and who released one single in a 500-copy pressing. It did not feature ‘We’re From Bradford’. How such an obscure track made it on to prime-time telly 39 years after I first heard it, I can’t imagine. Sometime around the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979, three friends and I happened, unprepared, upon The Negatives. Their set was basic, ram-a-lam-a rock of a kind familiar from the ’77 punk explosion, but yet to be rebranded as ‘Oi’. Several factors distinguished the band. They were incredibly tight and powerful with a lead singer, Dave Wilcox, whose wailing sneer and crazed delivery merited comparison with John Lydon. Just as important was their travelling band of fans. They were a melange of day-glo, studded leather, rip-shirted, glue-sodden, spike-haired, po-going, puking punks, united by Doc Martins, bondage and Special Brew. They dragged us into their midst for 90 minutes of glorious rucking as the band thrashed their instruments. Our tribe had claimed us. For the rest of that year, we saw The Negatives whenever we could. We may not have seen their every performance, but we came close. The only time I recall them disappointing was in a support slot for Stiff Little Fingers. The Negatives electrified the upstairs room of any pub, but struggled on the Queens Hall’s big stage. When the band split in January 1980 my friends and I were bereft. The guitarist, bass player and drummer went on to form the Mysterious Footsteps – musically more interesting, but less compelling. Dave Wilcox recruited a true-to-punk but musically inept backing band in front of which his increasingly wasted frame appeared somehow lost. The tight-knit scene dispersed. ‘We’re From Bradford’ was always a favourite in live sets. In its recent tv outing it animates the raucous wake of a right-wing thug. Politically and culturally that setting was a travesty. A lot of the Negatives gigs, possibly most, were Rock Against Racism benefits. The gang of fans were racially mixed and included women and men. Had they classified themselves politically, many would have identified as anarchists (several, myself included, would later turn up as early stalwarts of the 1-in-12 Club). What really characterised them, though, was openness and tolerance. Chanting ‘We’re From Bradford’ to a three-chord thrash – in the days before the Iranian revolution's fallout, before Ray Honeyford’s obnoxious fame, before Satanic Verses – was an ecstatic statement that locality and common interest defined us more than anything else. It was a moment in time.

No saviour at Godless West Ham

A memory of Billy Graham on the occasion of his demise in his 100th year. A version of this piece originally appeared in Nearly Reach The Sky by Brian Williams My one visit to Upton Park left me with a single overwhelming conviction: there is no God. I travelled to West Ham's then stadium to see the American preacher Billy Graham conduct a 'revival meeting' in 1989.  My attendance, however, was as a newspaper reporter not a seeker after salvation. Graham had a global reputation in the 1950s and 1960s.  A generation before tv-Christianity made household names of American preachers (many of whom gained a murky reputation for financial and sexual impropriety) Graham was the best-known charismatic evangelist.  He toured the States and well beyond spreading his gospel of booming certainties.  His was a faith that reduced the bible to homilies, promoted a belief in miracles and centred on an absolute conviction in being 'born again', stripped of sin and offering up one's soul to Jesus. I arrived at Upton Park to find its stands packed to capacity - that was my first surprise.  On the pitch was a stage in front of which was a huge empty area.  A parade of warm-up acts struggled to enliven the crowd.  The only one I remember clearly was the blues singer Paul Jones, whose scripture-infused set provided definitive proof that the devil really does have all the best tunes. When Graham finally took to the stage, however, it was clear that we were in the presence of a man who understood how to work a crowd.  Looking like a late-period Johnny Cash, he had the quality of an Old Testament prophet.  And simple as his stories were, he invested them with a fervour that resonated even at the top of the West Stand. The climax of Graham's sermons had always been the same.  'Come on down' he would demand - encouraging his audience to leave their seats and gather in front of the stage. Graham would then lead his congregation in a 'sinners prayer' - the cornerstone of born-again Christianity where all  would either reaffirm or embrace faith anew. So  it was at West Ham - although Graham did not rely on oratorical skills alone.  As his sermon reached its explosive conclusion and he called on us to come forward, a small army of stewards suddenly appeared among the audience.  Soon they were pushing and cajoling us down the gangways and onto the turf. In the interests of journalistic enquiry, I followed.  Now the stewards were tending to those of us on the pitch individually - 'are you ready to make a sinner's prayer' one asked me.  I declined, but noticing that those who did bend to their knees were being given a package of literature, I asked if, as a representative of the press, I might be given one.  'They are only for the converted', I was told. My professional instincts kicked in - that pack might be the key to a decent story, I figured.  So I picked among the throng and found another steward.  'I'm ready', I said.  The steward held my hands, pushed me to my knees and asked that I repeat these words: 'forgive me of my sins Lord, I accept Jesus as my Master'. Graham's performance had not really moved me, but now, bent down, hands clasped in the steward's sweaty grip, I knew that, if a thunderbolt from the sky was ever going to smite a cynic, this was the moment.  Seconds passed.  I opened my eyes, my fingers were released and I looked up.  The light momentarily dimmed as I was handed my information pack, but forked lightening — there was none. The moral, that I left with was this.  Like West Ham themselves, Billy Graham, on song, could put on a show with the power to transport crowds to different realm. If you are looking for miracles and evidence of the existence of God, however, you will have to go a lot further than the London Borough of Newham.

Roast Peanuts, how Charlie Brown introduced me to girls

June 1976 What I enjoyed about ‘Peanuts’ is hard now to say.  Charles Shultz’ strip cartoon appeared in The Observer’s colour magazine, which my parents bought on Sundays, and each week, I devoured the four-panel tale. Snoopy’s fantasy’s life as a pilot, Peppermint Pattie’s obdurate athleticism, and Charlie Brown’s fruitless quest to kick a football or hook up with the Little Red-Haired Girl clearly spoke to me at some level.  Perhaps it was as an oblique meditation on navigating the social order at the cusp between child and adulthood.  Its allusions to Vietnam, Watergate and the Russian space program certainly went over my head. I was 11 in the year of the driest summer for 200 years.  By the end of May, even the Yorkshire moors surrounding our town were parched.  The heather was brittle and brown, grassed public parks turned to dust and the stone walls and buildings radiated a baking haze.  For months, it seemed, the air was uncomfortably hot before I rose from bed and was roasting by the time I settled for the night. A half-term trip to Scarborough with my parents ought to have provided welcome relief from the searing weather.  The long drive there and back, however, was an ordeal, with short-trousered legs sticking to the plastic seats as my father’s car rarely got out of second gear on the traffic-clogged roads. My two memories of being in the seaside town, however, are happy ones.  We visited a ‘Dayville’ ice-cream parlour - my first.  Its American-diner decor affected film-set glamour, and the galaxy of possible ices contrasted starkly with Britain’s usual vanilla-only offering. Earlier in the day, I had been allowed to make a solo exploration of the sea-front shops.  These crammed emporia of novelties are an enduring institution.  Then as now, every inch of wall, floor and ceiling was festooned with pocket-money priced plastic eye-catchers.  Buckets and spades might have been their ostensible staple, but beyond the crab nets and postcards was a world of brightly-coloured gifts and gee-gaws among which seaside sauciness was alive and well. SnoopyCard2 After careful consideration, I purchased a half-sized pack of ‘Peanuts’ playing cards.  From the box in which they came, to the gloss of the cards and the reproduction of the illustrations, they were imbued with an exotic, American quality.  I have never much enjoyed cards, nor ever deployed this deck in any kind of game but simply owning them affirmed my enthusiasm for Shultz’s stories. I took my Peanuts cards to school, of course.  Toys branded with film and television characters were a rarity at that time, and I expected to gain kudos by displaying my booty. The beating heat made for listless lessons- particularly in classrooms built in the 1950s with acres of glass and little ventilation. Teachers struggled to stay on two feet, much less engage the class.  We entertained ourselves by flicking from our rulers chewed up balls of soggy paper in the hope that they would stick to the ceilings. As a geography lesson ground towards its conclusion, I handed my treasured cards around my friends for admiration.  Revere them as I did, though, my attention wandered.  By the time I looked up, my cards had passed from my immediate group of friends to a table of girls, now enacting a terrible scene.  I watched helplessly across the room as Deborah Carely drew a moustache over Charlie Brown’s lip on the outer cover.  My angry cry brought the class to attention, but before the teacher could intervene, the bell had gone and thirty ‘year sixes’ (in today’s idiom) crowded towards the door. My cards were handed back through the crush.  Holding them in front of me, however, the defacing was as clear as it was devastating.  I choked for a moment, and angry tears formed in my eyes.  I wiped these away as my temper rose. “I’ll get her for this”, I shouted, as my wits returned to me, and I started pushing my way through the packed corridor in pursuit of the vandal. Deborah Carely and I had been in the same class for the two years we had spent at middle school.  Clever, sporty and attractive, she was among the pre-eminent girls, at a time when social circles generally followed gender lines.  She had dark, bobbed hair and her uniform had a crisp, tidy quality that my cheaper, less well-cared for clothes never achieved. I had paid her little attention, save to notice that she could top our class with apparent ease.  By contrast, it required a rarely-applied effort on my part to keep up with the more able pupils. The main door on to the school yard disgorged, and the playground started to sort itself into its usual knots and cliques. I looked around, blood up, keen to exact revenge on my tormentor.  I saw her, standing with three or four friends at the same time as she saw me.  My rage must have been evident.  As I started to run, so did she. My pace was driven by fury, and I sniffed violence in my nostrils, but there was no doubt that Deborah was quicker.  Her navy skirt and sky-blue shirt disappeared across the playground and into the ball-game cages, as I got into my stride. By the time I crashed through the mesh door, she had charged through a lazy game of football and was on the field beyond. She turned and laughed at me from 100 yards distant as I joined her on the field.  As we tore over the grass, my lack of interest in games and PE started to tell.  Hurt was enough to keep my going, but I could soon feel the sweat running down the sides of my body, and I knew that if I stopped moisture would break out all over my face. We chased from one side of the field to another.  After a while the on-lookers and hangers on who had run beside us, hopeful of witnessing our denouement, gave up the game.  Now I pursued her alone.  Every now and then I would drop to a walk to catch my breath, and so would she - each time turning to give me a taunting glance. The field was dotted with groups of children - four or five girls were affecting to sunbathe, with their skirts pulled up as far as modesty would allow.  There were boys earnestly playing Top Trumps and a couple of groups defying the sticky torpor with skipping ropes. Cat and mouse continued throughout the break period, until, at the far end of the field, where there was almost no one playing, she dropped to walking speed.  We were in a corner, and I realised that she was trapped.  My jog remained purposeful until I caught up with her and confronted her face to face. I suddenly became unclear what exactly how I was going to exact revenge, now that she was within touching distance.  I reached forward and grabbed the front of her shirt, pulling her towards me. “Go on then, what are you going to do?” she said. I was relieved to stop running and, as I struggled to catch my breath, could conjure up neither suitable punishment, nor tart riposte.  Her dark eyes bore into me and a smile played across her face as my mind fumbled.  I opened my hand and let go of her shirt.   “I didn’t mean to upset you”, she said, before pulling away with a laugh.  Then she broke into a run back towards the school building. I made my way back rather more slowly, trying to understand what had happened.  Pushing my hands into the pockets of my grey nylon trousers, I found my Peanuts playing cards.  Then, looking down at the defaced image, I licked my right thumb and rubbed the blue mark above Charlie’s mouth.  The biro line smudged on my first pass, and was erased with a second. I gave Deborah little or no thought until June 1980 - when she was the first girl with whom I enjoyed a proper kiss.

Better by design

With nearly eighty bicycles on display, in the Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution exhibition, enormous variety is the initial impression.  Even among those created with a single purpose in mind – going very fast around a track for a short space of time – design technology has moved in leaps and bounds.

Cycle Revolution at The Design Museum

The bicycle on which Eddy Merckx set cycling’s hour record in 1972 is a simple affair, little different from the retro ‘fixies’ favoured today by cycle messengers and hipsters.  Indeed, the flat orange of its tubing and spare lines might turn heads in Hoxton.  Spotting any connection between Merckx’ bike and contemporaneously raging space race is impossible.  Even the sinuously curved frame on which Francesco Moser finally bettered the Belgian’s effort in 1984, is more Art Nouveau than jet age.

Merckx' record-breaking bike

Only with Chris Boardman’s Lotus Type 108 bike, on which he won gold in the pursuit race at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, does carbon fibre appear.  Its monocoque frame might pass for a prop from the set of Star Wars.  It is a look that is common to most of the modern performance bikes on display - most of which have done service in the professional peloton.  Tom Donhou’s ‘100 mph bike’ of 2013, however, has a dash of the home-brew aesthetic; It has the look of a bicycle welded to a steel pizza, so large is its front chain ring. The collection that hangs from the gallery’s walls encompasses designs intended to satisfy a far wider assortment of needs than that of speed alone. The requirement to transport luggage, children and groceries determines the form of the cargo bikes in one corner of the exhibition.  They have racks, bags, platforms, covered load carriers and, in some cases, even passenger seats.

A Christiana load-carrying tricycle

Jeremy MIles’ Boxer Rocket was shaped by its creator’s desire to transport his children and picnic necessaries from home to beach.  With an aesthetic that is somewhere between Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Jules Verne, he is clearly envisaging rather more dramatic journeys - at least of the imagination. The small wheelers include Bromptons, Moultons, two Stradas and a Bickerton.  They serve the cycling tribe who has benefitted from the some of the most exciting recent design advances. Sir Alex Moulton realised that dinner-plate sized wheels had advantages of weight and efficiency, Harry Bickerton created a market for bicycles that could be stowed.  And Andrew Ritchie, father of the Brompton, sustained brilliant and relentless engineering innovation over decades.  His now ubiquitous bicycles have a good claim to be the UK’s pre-eminent domestically-manufactured consumer good. It is not just the bicycles that are on show either.  There are accompanying displays of clothing - including a sample from Sir Paul Smith’s enormous collection of cycling jerseys and camping equipment used by Lawrence Bond while road testing his prototype cargo bike on a 5,000 mile unsupported global circumnavigation.  Urban design also gets a nod, in a series of profiles of cycling cities and most interestingly the suggestion from Lord Norman Foster that cycleways could be constructed above London’s railway lines to reconnect the capital for pedalling travellers. Inevitably, though, in a design museum, it is the manufactured objects that receive the greatest attention.  Yet, despite the diverse forms in this collection, take a step back and it is easy to make the case that these bicycles are actually remarkably alike. Taking the starting point of the Rover Safety Bicycle of 1888 - the only pre-1970s bicycle in the exhibition - it is intriguing to consider how much these machines have in common.  All but a couple allow a rider to travel in a broadly upright position, turning pedals below them on cranks that are that are mostly 17 cm in length.  Nearly all have handlebars to the front, two wheels and a saddle that looks pretty much indistinguishable - at least to those who are not bicycle-design obsessives. Indeed, despite 130 years of design innovation, nearly every bicycle here is powered by a chain, the links of which are exactly half an inch apart.  For all the bells and whistles, the Rover Safety Bike, perfected in Coventry by James Starley, has been an extraordinarily stable design. Might this explain why in two separate nationwide popular votes to decide what was humankind’s greatest innovation, the bicycle came out tops?   Perhaps it is its substance, simplicity and stability of design that has won it such dedicated devotees – qualities that the motor car, computers and electricity lack? Another possibility is suggested, or at least inferred, elsewhere in the Design Museum’s exhibition. Beside one of his somewhat impractical looking bicycles, a video plays of Danny MacAskill performing a palpitation-inducing range of tricks and stunts on collapsed walls and buildings of Epecuén – a former lake-side spa village near Buenos Aires in Argentina. From the 1920s until 1985, tens of thousands of holidaymakers packed into the boarding houses and hostels of Epecuén to enjoy the salty waters.  Then, freak weather conditions caused the village to flood and for quarter of a century, 33 feet of water immersed the buildings.  Since the waters receded in 2009, just one former inhabitant has returned. It was the same year that MacAskill shot to fame. With his flatmate filming him, he performed stunts all over the townscape of his then home town, Edinburgh.  He rode along the tops of railings, jumped between buildings and used apparently vertically standing trees as ramps from which to perform loop-the-loops.  His almost unbelievable acrobatics made him an instant YouTube star. What was hinted at in his preceding videos, is far clearer in his Argentinian outing.  His stunts are similar, but the effect of their being performed on the seemingly bombed-out remains of a human settlement make a more profound point than a mere daredevil display. He is using his bicycle to, reimagine and rehumanise this desolate place of destruction.  Impressive as his agility and athleticism are, it is in fact his reengagement with the ruined townscape that is most striking. MacAskill is an outlier.  But surely his high-octane antics demonstrate something more profound about the bicycle itself?  Whether it is built from mild steel, wood or carbon fibre, whether designed for speed, stealth or as a beast of burden, its real magic is the way that it allows us to connect with topography and townscape?  Whatever impulses drive the development of cities, however the countryside is criss-crossed by roads, the bicycle allows us to make those places our own and on our own terms.  Unlike other forms of mechanised transport, however, the bicycle remains a lesser part of the travelling experience than the environment through which we pass itself. Thrilling as is Cycle Revolution’s parthenon of cycling innovation, the best way to experience the bicycle’s real magic is to hire a set of wheels from outside the Design Museum and start to explore the riverscape and the dense network of streets that crowd its banks.  

BMW security let down by guards

Article first appeared in Amateur Photographer 8 April 2017

WITH A COUPLE OF HOURS between meetings one afternoon last summer, I walked the perimeter of BMW's Oxford plant. My hope was to take a photograph that somehow conveyed the idea of a contemporary car factory.

Amateur Photographer pageIt was not easy. A fence surrounds the facility. Anonymous modern sheds form one side. On another, dozens of resting workers sat on low walls - but without a car in sight.
Only at the back the plant did the scene in my picture present itself. It still was not quite what I had imagined, but there were plenty of cars, as well as shiny chimneys hinting at a modern production line within. I took a few shots through a wire fence, experimenting with exposure and composition. Before I noticed it there was a security guard at my side. "You can't take pictures here, I'm afraid?" he said - courteous but insistent. Surely I was within my rights while I am on a public road, I replied? "This is not a public road, it is owned by BMW and for that reason, I am asking you to leave", came his response.
I accepted his word and left. When I got home, however, I called Oxfordshire County Council to check the veracity of the guard's assertion. It confirmed my hunch: Transport Way, Cowley is a public road.
The problem on which I had stumbled is one that bedevils photographers professional and amateur - attempts to prohibit taking pictures where it is actually perfectly legal. Nick McGowan-Lowe, a press photographer who sits on the NUJ's national executive confirms that my experience is widespread. "Blurring boundaries between public and private space, increasing use of security guards and paranoia about social media is making all kinds of photography more and more difficult", he says.
Part of the solution is is to know our legal rights. There is a good summary in the FAQ section at epuk.org and another on this site. Professionals, particularly those interested in publishable, "candid" shots of celebrities, face a complex legal framework. For those with simpler aspirations it is much easier: in general, when in a public place you can use a camera without legal impediment. Even if you are asked to move on, no one has the right to summarily insist to see or delete your pictures.
Courteous insistence on our rights and careful documentation where third parties try to erode our liberties are the best antidotes to over-enthusiastic security staff, in my experience. These are freedoms that could be compromised in other ways, of course. A few months ago Amateur Photographer reported that Apple is experimenting with technology to disable cameras in its own devices in discreet locations. Other reports suggest that mobile phone manufacturers are close to being able to change device settings automatically to stop phones ringing in cinemas, for example. It is easy to see how the more connected cameras become, the more their control might be excised remotely, particularly to prevent pictures being taken at concerts, of celebrities or, indeed, around the back of car factories. Perhaps film photography's renaissance will reach new heights as chemical exposure is deployed to outwit camera-disabling networks? Meantime, six months after my trip to Oxford, I received a reply from BMW staff acknowledging that the road in question is indeed public and apologising for their over-zealous security. As a goodwill gesture they have offered me a free trip around the inside of their car plant - on the strict understanding that I take no photographs.

Photo cuts wound communities

This article first appeared in Amateur Photographer in December 2017

WHEN MY BROTHER DIED unexpectedly at the age of 40, my family was distraught. Like others struck by grief, we flapped around searching for ways to celebrate a life cut short.

[Cutting from Amateur Photographer]
A faded newspaper cutting celebrating his non-stop bicycle ride from Yorkshire to London and back, years earlier, provided one cue. The crumpled newsprint clipped from Bradford's Telegraph and Argus featured a monochrome shot of him, with his bike, holding a map and checking his watch. It is a classic newspaper feature: the image communicates the gist of the story, the caption provides the details. Hoping that a better print might comfort my mother, I contacted the paper. Its picture editor promised to check the archives. A couple of weeks later, I was amazed to receive a large, full-colour print; it has occupied pride of place in my parent's home ever since.
I reflect on this story whenever I hear about the wholesale cull of newspaper photographers. Newsquest, Johnston Press, Archant and Trinity Mirror have shed scores of snappers over the past two years.
Wasted talent and lost incomes infuriate me, as do tumbling standards in well-loved titles. But photojournalism requires more than competence with a camera. My picture was accessible only because it had been properly titled and archived. Today we take millions more photographs than we did 30 years ago, but few are properly captioned in the style that is second nature to newspaper photographers. The photographic databases of community life that newspapers accumulate are priceless troves. They provide granular evidence of important events, the composition of committees, what cases came before the courts and how built environments have evolved. Some documentary work continues. A friend who spent decades as a local newspaper photographer tells me that since redundancy and a move to freelance work, he has photographed much the same people as before and been published in the same paper. Now, however, the schools, health trusts and football teams pay his bills. As a result, organisations with budgets are recorded; individual enthusiasts, like my brother, are not. Newspapers have had a torrid time over the past decade, exacerbated by owners that prioritise profits over standards. There is some evidence, however, that the tide may have turned very slightly. Some local newspaper groups appear to have realised that stealing images from the internet can create problems that outweigh the ostensible cost savings. The days when a team of professional photographers documented life in every town and city are unlikely to return, however. The NUJ will continue to pressure newspaper groups like Trinity Mirror, Johnston and Newsquest to recognise professional photography's value. We will also call for local newspapers to be treated as community assets whose destiny should not be abandoned to remote, often foreign, holding companies that care little for community. For those of us who for whom photography is a passion rather than a profession, the lesson is to put as much effort into captioning as we do composition. Who knows what comfort today's split-second exposure might provide in the future if we do?