I can’t be certain, but it must have been around 1967. I had been to the Central Library – which, at the time, was perversely located about a mile from the centre of Halifax – and I was walking back to the bus station, down Hanson Lane. I had my camera with me (which was more of a creative investment back in those days when cameras were bulky, heavy, far from smart, and unable to make the simplest of phone calls), and I was anxious to capture something of interest. The fire engines, hosepipes and watching crowds provided me with just the opportunity I needed: a fire in Halifax.
The original shot was in black and white, but I couldn’t resist adding a touch of colour to brighten up my daily calendar on a very damp and monochrome day.
If you ask me where I come from, I will say Halifax: even though I was not born in the town. For the first five years of my life, I lived far away in Bradford, and we only moved across the border when I was five. Even though I wasn’t born in the town, and I have not lived there most of my adult life, Halifax is where I spent my formative years, and therefore my home. My son was born in Sheffield, and even though I managed to get him back to the Halifax area by the time he was five – and keep him here for those self-same formative years – by the age of eighteen he had gravitated back to the steel city. If I ask him where he comes from, he will probably wave his Wednesday scarf in the air and say Sheffield. I will often show him my old photographs and ask him to identify the location. If they are of Halifax, he will shrug his shoulders with the kind of indifference that only a non-native of the town can muster, and ask for pictures of that southern city he calls home. So, today’s calendar picture is for Alexander – where is this? It is somewhere in the city (or it was when I took it forty years ago), but where? I have removed the street signs so as not to give it away. (Note to Sheffield Council: when I say removed, I mean removed via Photoshop rather than a bolt-cutter and crow-bar).
My calendar today shows a scene I am very familiar with as it was taken from the front window of the house I lived in forty years ago. Some of the Photoshopping may be new, but the photograph, the moodiness, the compelling shapeliness of the scene, all date back to my time living in Oxford Street, Sheffield. The magnificent building is the Grade II listed University of Sheffield Arts Tower (1965) which used to dominate the view from the small terraced house where we lived. Some times the sun would reflect off its glass panels, sometimes it would fade into the Sheffield mist; always it was there. I sometimes imagined the great Gods of the Arts, residing in the upper floors, like some twentieth century equivalent of Mount Olympus. My life has moved on over the last forty years, but the Arts Tower remains. The inevitable little aches and pains that are such a part of one’s seventies, serve only to remind me of the carved aphorism on the wall of the Medical School which was just behind the Arts Tower, “Ars longa, vita brevis“
Artificial Intelligence (AI) colouring programmes are all the rage at the moment, and can be quite successful when it comes to adding yellow sands and blue skies to an old snap of Blackpool, or even a bit of colour to the cheeks of your Great Aunt Maude. The real test, however, is asking the AI wizard to colourise something a little more gritty, and a little less likely to feature in the coded algorithms of blue dresses and green leaves. As a test – and for want of something better to do whilst being half bored to death by a tedious goal-less FA Cup tie on the telly – I subjected one of my old photographs of Dean Clough to Deep Blue and his/her mates. The result is some mucky looking steam, enough browns to kit out a small army, and a few greys with smiley faces. On the whole, not bad! (Update: there were two goals in the last five minutes of extra time).
I was lying in bed last night thinking, the way one does, about neural pathways. I can’t be sure that is the correct name for the strange threads that connect memories together, but if it isn’t, it will do until a better one comes along. Like country pathways, they tend to avoid straight lines, and cannot resist going from A to B via J, Q and G. What started this thought journey off was the random choice for my daily calendar for today which is a photograph I took at the Halifax Labour Party Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Show some fifty-three or fifty-four years ago. Leaving behind the somewhat quaint vision of these fathers and mothers of modern socialism with their entries for best dressed dahlias and presentation plates of soft fruit, my memory was quickly striding off down every neural pathway in sight. Yes, that is the then Halifax MP, Shirley Summerskill, anxiously awaiting the presentation of prizes. The hall is, I think, the one that used to be below the Halifax Labour Party rooms in St James Street: my memory of the internal layout of the building is less than perfect, although I can remember those stage curtains and back wallpaper as if it was yesterday. From that hall, the neural pathways lead to all manner of people and places, and with the photograph on my desk for this coming day of twenty-first century lockdown, it will provide me with endless opportunities to go rambling in my mind.
In my mind’s eye there was always snow in winter when I was younger. That same mind’s eye observed week after week of uninterrupted sunshine during each summer. It is, of course, all nonsense: if your mind has an eye at all it is equipped with about as much memory as a Sinclair ZX80 computer. You don’t need a mind’s eye, however, if you had a camera and a decent archive of your old negatives – you can scan through winter after winter of snow and remind yourself just how tough life used to be when central heating meant a paraffin stove in the middle of a room and a foreign holiday meant a day trip to Blackpool (I have been reading too many Facebook nostalgia group posts over Christmas and I am beginning to be infected by their sickly sentimentality). The calendar photograph on my desk today features a photograph I took in the mid 1980s, when we were living in Sheffield. I think it was taken from the bottom of Blake Street in Upperthorpe, but I can’t be certain about that as my mind’s eye was never equipped with a geo-tagging facility. Now that was snow: boot-caking, door-clogging, welly-wetting snow of the finest variety. For a proper, nostalgia-fest approach, I would like to say that snow was like that in the good old days before we started flirting with Europe, but I will refrain in case I attract the attention of fact-checking services.
We were supposed to go out for a walk yesterday, but a single snow flake was spotted drifting over the field at the bottom of the road, so we played safe and stayed inside instead. It gave me an opportunity to scan some photographs of the good old days.
A wet day in Brighouse, fifty-four years ago. Full of memories – donkey jackets, mini cars and Timothy Whites chemist. More resonant in these difficult times, memories of crowded pavements and social interaction.
Sometime, all you need is a shape. Detail is superfluous when outlines tell a story. This is my mother, Gladys, fifty-five years ago. I probably mis-judged the back-lighting, but I like to think that I was concerned only with capturing a shape.
The trouble with filters is that they are addictive; they should carry some kind of Government health warning. Once you have painted the sky orange and the sea green, there is no stopping you – you become as incautious with your colour palette as a Government Minister with PPE contracts. I have spent the weekend experimenting with blue sheep, yellow brick roads and bright pink Victorian mourning suits. This morning I have made a pledge to stop; to return to the land of reality, to restrict myself to fifty shades of grey. But before I bundle all my Photoshop filters up and load them on the wagon, just one final one, for old times sake. This is from the same strip of negatives as the shot of Elland Bridge that started me on this road to self-destruction. The camera has pointed the other way, looking up the valley towards West Vale. The hillside was never this orange, nor the sky this shade of blue. But, as I said, it is one for the road.