Another plunge into the pool of the unknown. Somehow I acquired an album of photographs from the 1920s and 30s. Photographs of people I don’t know in places I have never been. Photographs that captured an instant in time, which eventually faded into a memory and then was lost forever. Not quite forever: this tiny photograph has been found, restored, re-shared with the world.
The only information I have is that another photograph on the same page in the album was captioned “Sulby Glen”. Sulby Glen is near the village of Lezayre in the Isle of Man. We can assume that this party of walkers were taking a rest and a photo opportunity whilst exploring the glen. Where they came from, I don’t know. Where they went to afterwards is equally unknown. But for a brief instant – as brief as the click of a shutter – we can join them in the glen and share their world.
You could still walk down Shaw Lane, Halifax, today and see little change to this view I took over fifty years ago. The mill buildings are still there, the cobbles are still set into the street. The wooden shed and railings are gone, the stone is a bit cleaner and there has been a bit of tidying up; but little has changed to the exterior of the building. Step inside the mill buildings, and it’s a different story (or it was before lockdown and, hopefully, will be once again post lockdown). The rattle of looms has been replaced by the calming quiet of art galleries, the cheerful chatter of cafe patrons, and the frenzied exertions of keep fitters.
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The nose was supposed to be “awash with red apples and ripe melon” I got that, but I also got the slightest hint of a freshly opened bottle of Tippex as well. After a moment it was supposed to “drift into hot porridge topped with brown sugar“, which it did, but perhaps with a nod in the direction of liquorice roots as well. The taste was said to be “full bodied, round and rich“: and it certainly gets a tick for each of those – as full bodied as a sumo wrestler, as rounded as my lockdown waist, and as rich as my Auntie Amy’s third husband was supposed to be. Unlike Uncle Joe, it didn’t disappoint. The finish was reputed veto be “long, warm and dry” – the perfect recipe for a Covid winter.
As with all of my old photographs of Halifax, the two questions that arose as soon as I scanned this old negative were time and place. Place, in the broadest sense, is relatively easy: that is clearly Halifax in the background, and using a similar approach to the way forensic scientists track a bullet’s trajectory, it was taken from somewhere up Southowram Bank, looking over Halifax in the direction of Boothtown. However, Google all I can, I have been unable to identify the exact spot from which I took the photograph. As for time, one needs to use a Halifax Buildings Checklist. Square Church was still there, and so were the cooling towers, but the Hayley Hill flats had already made an appearance. Burdock Way wasn’t but Mack’s offices were. My guess – around 1968.
The origins of large-scale public sculpture in Halifax go back even further than the magnificent Striding Concrete Man (aka Burdock Way). Who can forget the monumental plastic bowling pin of a decade earlier? Built on a scale to rival Charles Barry’s town hall, for much of the sixties it stood like a beacon to cultural imperialism in the land of crown-green bowling.
Some people say that photographs today are as cheap as chips. This is untrue, as anyone who has been to a fish and chip shop recently will know: a bag of chips can set you back the best part of £2. Photographs, captured on smart phones and shared with friends are essentially free goods, and like all free goods, we tend to take them for granted. We can snap a selfie, and if it doesn’t hold up to our glorified self-image, we can dump it quicker than a political adviser.
Go back 150 years, and that was not the case; photographs were a rare thing, something you had to save up for, pose for, and frown for. Nobody was willing to pass up their one chance of immortality in exchange for a cheap grin or a cheeky gesture. If you go back thirty or so years ago, however, back to the late pre-digital age, it was the era of the photo booths. You could put a coin in a machine and produce four portrait poses: one serious one for your passport or driving licence, and three silly ones just for the fun of it.
So how would our perceptions of the Victorians be changed if they had coin-in-the-slot Photo-Me booths? Perhaps we would be left with more than endless portraits of serious and unsmiling faces. Modern technology helps us to test these theories out, so here is our Victorian lady relaxing in front of the Photo-Me camera …. with a little help from Photoshop’s new Neural filters!
In recent years, large scale outdoor public sculptures which create enduring landmarks have become popular. Examples are Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North in Gateshead and Andy Scott’s The Kelpies in Grangemouth, Scotland. Few people realise that Halifax was a pioneer of this artistic movement, with its monumental sculpture completed in the early 1970s. We called it Burdock Way.
In these strange and difficult times, we are all in search of a meaning to life; an explanation and a guiding principle that we can chalk up on a banner and carry it forward with pride and the hope of a better future. We can find inspiration in all manner of places: the smile of a new-born baby or the glorious colours of Autumn. I found mine on a beer bottle label.
I have no idea where the beer bottle came from, it was in my fridge and, last night, was next in line to be opened. Opened it was, and the contents consumed – remarkably tasty, new wave American IPA at its best – and afterwards, as the sun set over Bradley Bar Roundabout, I started to read the label. It goes, as follows:-
“The beer in your hand has achieved what we all hope for ourselves; to be made new again. There is freedom in burning down the house of expectations and it confers an undeniable lightness to being. We didn’t invent these truths; they invented us. Beer speaks, people mumble.”
Oh you can keep your Spinoza and Kant, embrace your Nietzche or Wittgenstein: give me a bottle of Lagunitas Daytime Session IPA any day.
I can’t quite pin down the exact location of this photograph I took back in 1974. It is Halifax, without a doubt; that is Beacon Hill, more than likely: but the scene must have changed over the decades, and I can’t pinpoint it on Google Earth. It might be that I have scanned the photograph back to front, the hills might be the other way around, the house roofs might be rising not falling. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter – even with a bit of added colour, it is a different time and a different place.