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The classic British seaside: sands, sea, boats and buckets. It doesn’t matter where it is or when it is. It can be a precious day snatched from the steam-filled clutches of a Victorian mill, or an escape from a Corona-driven lockdown. I have photographs of my Uncle Frank and Aunty Miriam sat on a beach during World War II watching bombers fly overhead. If the sun is even hinting at the possibility of coming out, then we British will head for the nearest coastline. We are lucky; for most of us they are far enough away to be a change, but near enough not to be a challenge.
This is an old print from a cast-aside album. The photographer may have wanted to capture his (or her) Auntie Vi or little Ernest. What they actually captured was a small work of art, and the very essence of the classic British seaside.
Uncle Harry was the nearest you could get to a celebrity in our family. For a time in the early 1930s he “trod the boards“, being part of a concert party that did the rounds of the seaside pier halls of Britain. He was never top of the bill, his job was to provide piano accompaniment to true stars like Miss Dorothy Woodhill, “the charming soprano” and Will Kimber, “the well-known Yorkshire baritone“. His name just about lives on in the form of a brief review of the Silhouettes Concert Party in the Bognar Regis Observer of the 17th June 1931. You can find it on page 4, just next to the advert for grey flannel trousers at 14/11 a pair.
He was not understood in working class Bradford in the late 1920s and early 1930s for either his desire to become an entertainer, or, I suspect, for his sexuality. After a couple of years touring the minor concert halls of Britain, he was constrained into a job as a clerk in a coal merchant’s office, and marriage to my father’s sister, Annie-Elizabeth. If J.B. Priestley had been writing their story it would have no doubt finished with a jolly sing-song around a piano; but, in reality, it was more like an Alan Bennet Talking Heads monologue. Bennet would have made much play of that advert for grey flannel trousers, and Miss Dorothy Woodhall, the charming soprano.
Like anyone else, I can see the beauty in a natural landscape. Find me a photograph of craggy hills sweeping down to mirror-smooth lakes and I will swoon with the best of them. Get me a picture of ripe-rich grain swaying in an evening breeze against a bucolic green background, and I will pin it over my mantlepiece. But ….
But, I come from Halifax, and my West Yorkshire genes are programmed to find beauty in muck and grime. In the grey sky being reflected on stone cobbles. In black chimneys punctuating flat clouds. In mischievous curves creeping into twisted railway lines.
A sack-load of art on the back of an old wagon parked in the shade of North Bridge, Halifax. I took this photograph fifty years ago. It’s all been knocked down now and they have built a nice new Leisure Centre in its place. There are probably inspirational pictures inside the Leisure Centre of mountain paths and bright green fields.
This old photograph of mine dates from fifty years ago and it shows a mill fire escape somewhere in Halifax. The good old days, before all this health and safety nonsense, when your mill could catch fire at the drop of a fag end, and a swift exit down the fire escape would give you more thrills than a trip to a theme park; followed by a hundred foot plunge onto a stone cobbled lane. People weren’t mollycoddled back then; their bodies weren’t wrapped in cotton wool ….. just their lungs.
The French writer, Andre Gide, once said, “art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” (well Google says he said it). Gide died in 1951 and therefore he missed out on smart phone apps. If he had lived on and managed to download a handful of camera apps for his iPhone, he might have considered amending his little homily to, “art is a collaboration between Apps and the artist, and the less the artist does the better“.
My recent experimentation with smartphone apps leads me to question much of the accepted narrative of art history. Were the likes of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Monet artistic geniuses way ahead of their time, or did they have access to a Beta version of Adobe’s new Photoshop Camera App? There are enough conspiracy theories going the rounds at the moment and I am reluctant to add to them – but I think we are due an explanation.
Halifax in transition again: blocks of flats, mill chimneys and gas lights. I must have taken this photograph in the late 1960s, but as with so many of my old photographs, I can’t quite work out where I took it from. Wherever it was, it is Halifax in a stone picture frame.
Most of us respond positively to a challenge. I don’t mean serious, grown-up challenges such as dry rot in your floorboards or your wife running off with the milkman, but life-enhancing challenges such as climbing a mountain or collecting matchbox labels. For some people it is pedalling a bike backwards up a very steep hill (good morning, Martin), for others it is skiing blindfolded down a precipice (how are you today, Ian); but for me it has always been dating old photographs.
For some reason, for the last shot on this particular strip of negatives, my attention was caught by a row of posters. The photograph may be of limited artistic interest, but what it lacks in creativity it more than makes up for with temporal significance. What us date-spotters love more than anything is a watershed, and what better watersheds have there been in the modern era than decimalisation. Back in February 1971 the world changed, and that transition from 12/6 to 62.5p provides nerds like me with endless pleasure. We therefore know that the photograph predates decimalisation.
There are dates on the posters, but no years, but dates themselves can be a useful tool in pinning down the exact year. The wrestling poster features a contest between Mick McManus and Mick McMichael, which, in itself, isn’t much use, as they seem to have fought each other on a weekly basis for more than a decade. But if they wrestled on Wednesday 13th August it must have been either in 1963, 1969 or 1975. The first of those dates is too early for most of my photographic activity, the last is after the introduction of decimal currency, and therefore we are left with August 1969. The qualifying round of the British Speedway Northern Riders Championship at the Halifax Stadium on the 9th August is the clincher, the detailed records held on the Official Website of British Speedway confirm that the event took place that night in Halifax in 1969 (Eric Boocock was the winner, by the by).
So, there we have it. I took this photograph in July or August 1969. Now that is settled, where’s my bungee jumping cord?
My weekly instalment of a photograph from each year of my life is an appropriate one as, on Fathers’ Day, it features my father, Albert, and me. It is doubly appropriate because his birthday would have been next week – he was born on the 25th June 1911. Happy Birthday, Happy Fathers’ Day.
My dear wife bought me a rock tumbler for my birthday. It’s not just any rock tumbler, it’s a National Geographic Variable Speed Professional Rock Tumbler! It is designed to stimulate my curiosity, occupy my stagnant mind, fill the empty hours of lockdown, and open my eyes to a world of beauty I had never known was there. Having watched my fill of box-sets and scanned my way through a lifetime of old photos, this new hobby – “a fascinating hobby for all the family” – is designed to keep me out of mischief.
If you are thinking of taking up rock tumbling as a way of coping with the trials and tribulations of modern living, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of before you embark on this enthralling hobby. First, it is by no means a fast-track to instant gratification. As soon as I took the machine out of the box, I got a warning of what might lie ahead. There are two dials on it, one to adjust the speed and the other to adjust the time of the tumbling cycle. The latter dial deals only in days! Further investigation suggests that a normal cycle would be about five days tumbling with Grit #1, followed by 8 days with Grit #2 …. etc, so by the time all the various grades of grinding grit have been used you are talking about weeks if not months of constant tumbling. That may not be a problem for everyone, but if, like me, you are advancing in years, you need to ask yourself whether you or the rocks will be ground down the first.
The second potential problem results from the grinding process itself. The rocks, along with the grit and the water, sit in a robber sealed container which is constantly turning. Now I am deaf, but even I am aware that it makes a considerable amount of noise. It is currently sat at the other end of my desk, tumbling away, making so much noise that my desk is vibrating. Lucy the Dog can hear the noise and has now abandoned my study. Neighbours from up the street are beginning to gather – observing appropriate social distancing measures, we are, after all, a law abiding neighbourhood – and discuss the possible source of the noise coming from the bottom end of the street. Birds have abandoned our garden, and cows in the fields further down the main road are lying down in the field in the middle of the day.
I am sure it will all be worth it, when, in a month or three, the results of my first experiment in rock tumbling emerge from the tumbling tank. The instruction book warns me not to be impatient, after all, it cheerily tells me, it takes oceans and rivers millions of years to achieve the results I will be able to see in as little as a year or two. Beautifully polished stones that are as stunning as gemstones. We shall see! I will keep you posted about the outcome.