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?

#defendpressfreedom

In Hollywood blockbusters (and countries run by despots) attacks on the free press see journalists dragged to prison, presses smashed and tv stations forcibly shut. In Britain's liberal democracy, undermining our ability to investigate, and to express freely what we find, takes different forms.  And three pieces of legislation before the Westminster parliament this week are as deadly, and certainly more insidious, than bully-boy secret policemen and arbitrary edicts shutting down newspapers. First – the Investigatory Powers Bill will allow the police to track who a journalist has met with, spoken to and exchanged electronic communications with. The Police will be able to do this for their own purposes or when acting on behalf of public authorities. They will be able to do so in secret ­– as a result, journalists will have no idea that their communication data has been seized and will be denied the opportunity to oppose before a judge applications and thereby protect a source.  Despite concessions secured by the NUJ and others, the safeguards for journalists in the Bill don’t go far enough -  inevitably this law will be misused, as its predecessors have been on numerous occasions, such as here, here and here. The NUJ has produced a full briefing on this Bill. Second, a clause in the Digital Economy Bill will make a criminal offence the passing on of information that has not been 'authorised for sharing'. What journalist has not been given internal documents by a whistleblower to provide the basis for a story about corruption, bad employment practices or wasted public money?  In future, both journalist and whistleblower will risk criminal prosecution. And finally there is the Police and Crime Bill is intended to make possible the prosecution of stalkers.  Its implications for journalism,­ particularly photography, however, are chilling. It would criminalise taking multiple images of a person without their permission.  There is a public interest defence but, as the amendment is currently framed, an individual photographer might potentially be arrested and thrown in the cells before having the chance to make the case that their work was legitimate.  If the subject of the photography were wealthy and powerful, a photographer could find themselves pleading their case from behind bars, in the face of expensive lawyers trying to prolong their incarceration. The NUJ, other groups and our parliamentary allies, have been working on these Bills for several months and have obtained some significant concessions.  None go far enough however for a free press to be assured. Unless legislators hear our protests and unless they can see that there is a constituency that will defend press freedoms, then in the coming years these new laws will be used to keep secret corruption, intimidate those who would shine light into dark places and lock up those who would expose the misdeeds of the powerful. I urge you now, if you care about press freedom, and the ability of journalists to do their work, email your MP now, whatever party they represent, and call on them to speak up for your interests and the interests of all journalists. For more information on any of these Bills, either contact me directly or email: campaigns@nuj.org.uk

Shopping drama: retail divas RIP

A tribute to Pete Burns, and many others Late ‘70s Leeds was monochrome, hacked apart by urban motorways, choked with disused factories and fringed with bleak system-built housing. It was a metropolis of lost purpose – at least in my recollection. Nevertheless, every Saturday, my bus ground into the centre, past shops with names like “We Buy ‘Owt”. It transporting a couple of friends and I to a secret, alien outpost – X-Clothes.  Fluorescent spandex, zips, bondage straps, bum flaps and Tom-of-Finland inspired iconography marked it out as Yorkshire’s premier punk outfitters. It was a place of adoration and worship for those of us with spiked hair and safety-pin pierced septums. On an early visit, I pushed past the mohair jumpers and brothel creepers to the counter intending to buy two pairs of neon socks. I planned on wearing contrasting hues on left and right feet. Before requesting the hosiery, however, the accessories beneath the glazed counter caught my attention.  Flushed with unexpected self confidence, I enquired: “why are those bangles so small”, indicating a selection of variously-sized plastic loops. The young man behind the counter narrowed his heavily kholed eyes the better to fix me with a withering look. He flicked a curl of inky hair and pouted slightly. PVC trousers encased his stick legs and his nipples were revealed by a top fashioned from netting. His face appeared to have been dusted with flour.  “Not bangles, dearie, those are cock rings” he shot back at me, nasal high camp buttressed by northern vowels. He was Marc Almond who two years later would top the charts with Tainted Love.  I was fourteen. The incident emerged from my mental recesses when I read some of the Tweets lamenting Pete Burns’ death.  Long before Big Brother, cosmetic surgery, pop stardom or his spooky all-black contact lenses, Burns, it transpires, was the legendary Saturday boy at Liverpool’s Probe Records.  Nervous customers would approach him carrying their putative purchases only to be ignored, scolded or excoriated for their poor taste.  Luckier shoppers were dispatched back to the record racks with recommendations of which Burns approved.  So forbidding was his reputation that many customers attest to hanging back rather than asking Burns to ring up their goods. Almond and Burns were by no means the only shop assistant superstars of that era.  In every city with an independent record shop or clothing outlet, striking, bewildering, provocative-looking staff tempted, taunted and oftentimes terrified those who crossed their thresholds. Many were performers enacting tableau of attitude and fashion innovation against cramped retail backdrops. Doubtless they earned peanuts, but they were scene-defining artists preening at the subcultural apex. It is a phenomena that almost certainly existed from the late 1960s. Johnny Moke had an early incarnation as a shop assistant at Granny Takes A Trip, on the Kings Road, before becoming an influential shoe designer.  Vivian Westwood seemingly employed half the faces of punk London at the shop she and Malcolm McLaren ran on the same street, Chrissy Hynde, Glen Matlock, Sid Vicious and Jordan among them. I long ago departed the youthful milieu.  My sense, however, is that the days of such independent shops and their exotic staff are largely gone – save in a handful of outposts.  Little wonder.  Punk and its progeny was long-ago appropriated by the mainstream.  Newspapers once shocked by the Sex Pistols, today gush over trending tropes the moment they surface.  And the internet provides shopping arcades, hangouts and conversation spaces to nurture niche interests whose enthusiasts once relied on physical congregation. I might shed tears for the bedroom divas and fashion mavericks like Burns and Almond for whom retail once provided a stage.  Since the advent of YouTube, however, anyone an ounce of imagination and strut in their soul is pulling moves for an audience with smartphones. Video channels provide those who swim against the mainstream a scarcely comprehensible range of opportunities to create and share. Pre-teens, and many others beside, feverishly upload vlogs, videos and craft their personal brands in bandwidth-busting volumes. Am I envious?  Perhaps.  But I would not trade all the ‘likes’ in the clickosphere for the heart-pounding experience of entering a space of unfamiliar smells and sounds, to deal with luminous emissaries from a distant, magical planet to which I dared myself to imagine I might one day travel? Not likely. Rest in peace, shop idols.

Heavy weather: climate change divides the TUC

Much of the time, Trades Union Congress’ annual get-together is reminiscent of a revivalist meeting – true believers gathered in the certainty of salvation.  Nearly every motion is endorsed by unanimous acclaim, the General Council’s opinion on each proposition is received with earnest appreciation, and every speaker is generously applauded. It would be missing the real picture, however, to imagine that naturally disputations trades union officials take their annual sojourn by the sea as an opportunity to rest their argumentative reflexes.  Congress’ public sessions are but the tip of the iceberg that is the TUC’s decision-making process. Wrangling behind closed doors is intense, with protracted disputes over the wording of composites and the judgements to be expressed on behalf of the General Council.  Only occasionally do these spill over into actual debate.  Last year, for example, RMT delegates became inflamed over attempts to redact a call for ‘generalised strike action’ from one of their motions.  The railway workers got their way, on that occasion, to their raucously expressed satisfaction. One might have imagined that Brexit would have sparked impassioned debate?  Most British trades unions campaigned for a remain vote and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady batted impressively for the EU in one of the pre-referendum televised debates.  A handful of unions, however, took a diametrically opposed view – although they were a curious appendage to the right wingers and Tory opportunists beside whom they rallied. When it came, the TUC’s debate on two Brexit-related motions appeared no more controversial than those on the sustainability of the NHS or issues of food poverty. More surprising still, Congress adopted, without opposition, a Unite motion calling for a Universal Basic Income.  The essence of this idea is that all existing benefits are abolished and every adult is provided with a flat monthly payment by the state.  Taxes would rise, of course, and many basic-income schemes envisage abolishing the entire mechanism of administering benefits.  It is an idea that has been doing the rounds for decades, and has won some significant adherents in recent years.  For the biggest voluntary movement in the UK to lend its weight to such a proposal might well signal its move into the mainstream? The only debate to really divide the hall concerned climate change.  Some unions – the NUJ among them – have taken up the agenda of a campaign group that styles itself One Million Climate Jobs.  According to the motion, Jeremy Corbyn has already committed to its principles. Its vision is as radical as to some it is challenging.  To make Britain a green exemplar it proposes shutting down all UK’s carbon-intensive industries – among them mining, oil extraction, power stations and car manufacturer.  The government would then plough money into creating a million ‘climate jobs’ to employ those whose industries are gone.  It was clear from the outset that its proposers, the Transport and Salaries Staffs’ Association and the Communications Workers Union were facing an uphill struggle with a motion that called for, among other things, an end to airport expansion. Unite and the GMB rolled out their big guns and the pounding began.  “Worker would be set against worker, industry against industry”, one warned.  “Tens of thousands of jobs in west London would be lost”, said the next.  Tony Kearns, the CWU’s deputy general secretary responded with a stark warning: “there will be no jobs on a dead planet”, but it was not enough.  The motion was emphatically voted down. The lesson from these two debates, might be this: it is the details that derail. One Million Climate Jobs has made an impressive attempt to imagine how a profoundly greener Britain might be achieved.  It is hardly surprising, however, that the prospect of closing down entire industries at a stroke alarms those unions whose members they employ. Universal Basic income in no less radical, but its proposers provided scant detail.  Had there been more, it might have been less rapturously received.  Surely someone would have fretted about the extra tax required to fund such a scheme or how 'equality' be weighed against the complexities of 'fairness'?  That Unite’s motion avoided negative attention possibly shows that where TUC decision making is concerned, it is as well to keep two thirds of your proposal unseen – call it, the iceberg principle. ***** The NUJ’s two motions – on surveillance and blacklisting, and on the rights of freelances and atypical workers, were passed.  Every member of the delegation took a stand at the rostrum and all were persuasive in their eloquence. The benefits to members of passing these motions will take time to manifest, but the advantages of having the rest of the movement backing our causes will provide dividends in time.  The Surveillance Bill, for example, will soon be on the statue books, sadly, but the constituency reigned against it will be growing in size and significance.  Likewise the campaign for freelance rights – being able to count the UK’s 6m trades unionists as allies will always be an asset. Photo © Tim Dawson, Unite executive member Mohammed Taj addresses Congress – the photographer pictured is Mark Thomas.

Rigged competition: how EU law works against freelances

“To know better your enemies is to better chances of your eventual victory”, wrote Sun Tzu in the Art Of War.  So an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with one of the European Union’s competition tzars provided provided a rare chance to understand the frustrations placed in the way of unions working on behalf of freelance journalists. My encounter came at the concluding conference of “The future of work in the media, arts and entertainment sector”, a two-year project to consider the challenges faced by our sector and organised by the European Federation of Journalists, the International Federation of Actors, the  and  the “international” for media technicians.  It took place in Brussels on 8 – 9 September 2016. Needless to say, the trades unionists found much to worry about: employment displaced by freelancing, scarcity of work and downward pressure on remuneration. There is a good deal about which to be hopeful too – much of it set out in the excellent booklet produced by the project. Perhaps the most disturbing revelations catalogued concerns about the work of national competition authorities (every EU national has one, in Britain it is known as the the Competition and Markets Authority).  Several have used EU competition regulations to rule that freelances are micro businesses whose unions’ attempts to regulate rates are anti-competitive and illegal. Tobias P Maas works for “DG Competition” in the European Commission.  In that capacity, with others, he strives to ensure that articles 101 – 109 of the Treaty On The Functioning Of The European Union are enforced. He came to the conference to persuade a hundred or more disputatious trades union officials that their worries were groundless.  He did not get an easy ride.  “Collective bargaining is outside competition law”, he reassured.  “If cases do arise, it is easiest to resolve them in court – a case-by-case approach serves everyone best”, he suggested. His opening speech was just long enough for the big artillery in the room to get him in range.  Their fusilade was relentless. “Collective bargaining is a human right that precedes national law”, stormed Esther Lynch from the European Trades  Union Congress.  Irish senator, Ivana Bacik suggested that Maas was proposing a needless job creation scheme for lawyers.  And NUJ Assistant General Secretary Seamus Dooley told the conference that: “court is open to all just as the Ritz hotel is – deep pockets are required”. Dooley had the hall cheering him on, but his quarry was unruffled.  “There have been so few cases in this area, that this is hardly an issue”, he said, oozing emoiliance.  Was this a skill learned at one of the three universities from which he had obtained degrees or while practicing law?  We did not learn.  It was a bravura performance, nonetheless. The unions pointed to cases where their members had been affected.  In Denmark the Completion Authority ruled that freelance journalists were self-employed and that minimum rates advice suggested by their union was anti competitive.  A legal tussle between their union, Dansk Journalistforbund and Aller Media improved matters slightly, but subsequent judgements had not all gone the workers’ way. The price paid for photographs by Aller Media has fallen from around €90 each to €25 each. Maas ploughed on.  “Court is an easy place to sort out the tiny number of issues that arise”, he suggested.  “Or you could arrange a friendly chat with your competition authority”. The response was quick-fire: competition authorities behave as absolute monarchs rather than elements of a democratic polity. Bacik returned to the fray, citing specifics of the Irish case.  Was not DG Competition advising the Irish government on the amendments that they should insist on to the legislation that Bacik herself had successfully initiated?  Maas feigned unfamiliarity with the detail of the case – although this was one area on which he shifted his ground. Indeed when Senator referred to her Bill, which proposes exempting groups of freelance workers from the provisions of competition law, Maas revealed that he had seen the proposal and did not agree such an exemption was necessary., The plight of freelance orchestral musicians in the Netherlands was cited.  The European Court of Justice has ruled that they were actually “false self employed”, thereby allowing their union to negotiate their rates.  The Hague Court of Appeal had subsequently ruled that this judgement applied only to the orchestral musicians, however, thereby forcing Dutch unions to return to law for each discrete group of freelance workers whose rates they wished to set. As the session closed, a Brussels insider told me that Maas was a rising star of his department and was thought to be one of the true believers, for whom the promotion of competition laws is an article of faith.  Whether that is true, I have no idea; as a representative of a zealous creed, he does quite a job. He might not have crumpled at this encounter with those of use who represent freelances’ interests, but his very presence, and the meeting’s location in European parliament, was symbolic of the European establishment taking our case seriously. Most critically, though, the trades union movement is at its best when forced to counter the intellectual challenge of its opponents head on, rather than arguing among ourselves. Tools sharpened through purposeful work will serve the workers best. All photographs © Tim Dawson Top: Tobias Maas; Middle: Séamus Dooley; bottom: Ivana Bacik

Camera wobble: Sky’s photo contest misses its subject

“Taking a picture is to take away, not to put in, otherwise it is mediocrity”, the gruff Oliviero Toscani barked at a contestant on Sky Arts Master of Photography last week.  It is a gnomic gem he has dished it out, with slight variations, to many of the hopefuls competing for the show’s €150,000 prize.  Alas, had he taken his own advice, he would have stayed on the side of the camera where his reputation was made, rather than hamming it up as a Box-Brownie Simon Cowell. A camera-skills-based reality contest over six episodes was a promising tv prospect.  Like cooking, baking and singing, everyone now uses cameras, yet a gulf yawns between snapping and photographic proficiency.  Drawing an audience to fresh ideas about image making via the stories of those trying to improve their photo skills, ought to be straightforward viewing to deliver.  Sadly, Sky Arts’ Master of Photography’s dependence on the cliched tropes of its form approaches parody. Establishing shots of the disused factory that we are invited to believe is the filming location are endless.  Ditto the camera that pans over the contestants’ heads as they sit awaiting instructions beneath swinging industrial detritus.  Each edition sees one of the contestants asked to leave – cue frowning faces and long pauses that aspire to create tension. Past episode flash backs are frequent, with previews that are as extensive.  At least a third of Master of Photography's screen time is devoted to such devices. Its contestants are the program’s greatest asset.  They include amateurs and professionals drawn from all over Europe.  Weekly assignments form the basis of each edition – among them: the beauty of Rome, nightlife in Berlin, backstage at a London theatre and Ireland’s landscape.  There is much contrivance, as street photography with a tv crew in tow will always require.  And its easy to see why the contestant who is drawn to naked self portraiture impressed the producers.  With the final this Thursday (8 September 2016), however, I care sufficiently about the remaining three to want to watch. Their assignment will use film for the first time in the series, I gather. There are some deeply odd features, though.  Isabella Rossellini presents the show: but creates the impression that her links for the entire series were recorded in a single afternoon.  Much is made of the unnamed ‘special software’ that allows contestants to ‘crop, tweak exposure and adjust the colour balance’ of their work. Whenever contestants ‘contact sheets’ appear on computer screens, though, they have the words ‘HP5’ (a brand of analogue film) unaccountably running along their tops. Leica provided the equipment.  Contestants are dispatched weekly to the equipment room, but the suitability of kit used goes unremarked.  Was it the right choice of lens?  Exposure too long? Might a medium format have delivered better results?  Or would a rangefinder have aided discretion? Not a word. At the core of the program’s issues, however, are the judges.   Rut Blees Luxemburg, is a fine artist.  Toscani and Simon Frederick have largely made their reputations shooting 'edgy' advertising.  Their judging criteria rest entirely on unexplained notions of originality, self-expression and the creation of obscure narratives.  Whatever the pedagogic talents the threesome possess, they convey little from which an armchair enthusiast might learn in this program.  A documentary or news photographer among them might have offered critique with slightly more democratic roots. Master of Photography provides the sparest glimpse of what a tv photography competition might deliver, while leaving the field open for a more imaginative program maker.  It could benefit photography enormously if someone did. Meantime, Sky Arts is casting about for other pursuits to which to apply its method. Guitar Star follows an identical format to its photographic sibling, portraiture and landscape painting have a show apiece, while Art Of Survival pits a cellist against a painter in a race from Athens to the Edinburgh festival. Apollo turns tricks in the House Of The Rising Sun.