Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery


An exhibition of photos by ‘social documentary’ photographer Shirley Baker, showing at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 12 September, depicts Manchester and Salford during the housing clearances of the 1960s and 70s.

After the first few black and white shots of scruffy children playing on derelict streets, I was thinking I’d seen plenty enough. But a series of photos taken in Hulme, a suburb of Manchester, provided some lighter fare, perhaps simply because they are in colour and a touch more varied but more likely because her subjects seem more cheerful, as if the photographer has brought some spring sunshine into their grimy lives.

My indifference melted, I was ready for the remaining ranks of black and white images. Children fill up most of the frames, though some feature women, often large and pinafored like Les Dawson in his northern battleaxe drag outfit. Fewer men appear. They are frequently solitary, seated for a portrait. We sense they have the leisure of the unemployed.

A photo meriting more than a few moments’ contemplation shows a boy in Salford, 1964. Broken glasses are slipping down his face. An especially tiny boy stands on steps behind him, facing sideways and staring intently at something. He is quite cute in a first-day-at-school way. I can’t be the only person who liked this shot: I later discovered it was chosen for a record sleeve by a band called The Jazz Devils.

The perspective is not always wide enough to add deep context. Yes, we can see these people are poor, but we ought to know that anyway. More revealing are the photos in which we can see tower blocks rising behind terraced housing. We’re forced to consider the demolition of these humble but still cherished terraces and their replacement by soulless blocks which will bring their own sets of social problems in the years to come.

The question of photography as an art form continues to nag me. At what point does a photo graduate from illustrating a journalist’s words to earning its keep on a gallery wall? So I was interested to read Shirley Baker quoted in a newspaper article on display:

“If there is any art in photography, it surely lies in the ‘candid’ snapshot… opportunities for this kind of photography are unlimited”

It seems spending time with people in their environments, time that you would need if you want take a large number of photos and gain the trust of the subject, yields the possibility of a compelling and timeless image. Note in her modesty (“If there is any art in photography…”) the hint of doubt about photography’s status. Photography’s power lies in getting as close as you can to the heart of the subject, and that way too lies its art.

Photographers' Gallery

The travel bug



Being a touch unwell reawakens happy memories…

Three weeks ago, on the first night of my short stay in Weybourne, on the Norfolk coast, I woke up in the early hours feeling a little sick – a curious, special kind of nausea which I’d only experienced during my travels in India and Mexico. More a taste than a feeling: sour, pungent, redolent of solo breakfasts far from home when the sight and smell of spicy food both attracted and repelled my post-sickness, fragile self.

My Norfolk nausea never really developed, thank goodness. Yet those subtle traces of my Indian and Mexican sicknesses, or maybe memories – they are not the same thing – lingered on throughout my day’s cycling.

The sun that glared down on East Anglia undoubtedly helped to scramble my past and present senses. Far from numbing my perception of the world, the torpid heat intensified it.

This sensibility lasted. Two days later, back in Sussex, I was walking in the woods after rainfall on a humid afternoon when I was struck, not by a taste-feeling, but by a scent, a sort of eau de wet undergrowth. It reminded me of wanders near the village in the Himalayan foothills where I lived for a time in late 2010. I looked up at the leaden English sky: no mountain mist, but enough greyness to take me right back to that all-pervasive dank murkiness that had enveloped my village for so many hours every day.

pink temple

Temple in Kalimpong, India

The art and graft of photography


On reading about celebrated photographer Steve McCurry’s recent project

Ahead of his appearance at the Hay Festival next week, Steve McCurry was interviewed in the Daily Telegraph about a new book featuring photographs taken in coffee-growing communities around the world. Apparently, he made trips to eight countries over ten years, returning several times to each location to get to know the people he was photographing.

The time and energy that went into producing his images, some of which were reproduced beside the article, impressed and surprised me. There I was, naively thinking a photographer arrives in town, strolls around, spots the perfect shot, and snaps away. Or goes up to a local and asks him to pose for a photo portrait. That, I always reckoned, was more or less it. It’s not as if taking a photo is like settling down to work with pencils or watercolours, is it?

So I have a refreshed respect for the minds behind the lenses. John Berger may have pointed out in Understanding a Photograph that unlike the painter the photographer makes only a ‘single constitutive choice’, which is when to click the button, but I don’t think this belittles the photograph in the slightest. After all, he does also imply that it is as meaningful as any other art form once the viewer has ‘lent’ it a past and a future.

The practice of photography has been demeaned of late, I feel, because it is ubiquitous. A photo is so easy to take. You whip out your digital camera and blast away. It doesn’t matter how many potshots you take as there’s no film to waste. And you get to see the results instantly, even if it’s only on a tiny screen.

Of course, instant results aren’t exactly new. I remember using a polaroid camera when I was small. Out of the front of the device popped the finished photo. But the paper it was printed on was still a commodity of some value, and had to be replenished (by Dad, not me), so I wasn’t encouraged to be snap happy.

The recent World Vinyl Day was a reminder of the pleasures of valuing music, which like photography is all around us and all too accessible. Vinyl-buying returns us to the days when music could not be downloaded for free, and walking out of a shop with a new record under one’s arm, anticipating its first play, was a necessary but enjoyable ritual to be performed. By getting your hands on a real object (in this case, a record) you feel a connection with what it is you have purchased, deepened by the physical act of placing the record on the turnstile and moving the needle – and perhaps, as vinyl enthusiasts claim, by the quality of the sound too.

Taking photos and acquiring music: both pursuits are more satisfying if we devote more time and effort to them, and if they compel us to interact with people and things around us.

camera film

On being a curator



There are words you have to be careful of using, because people no longer know their proper meanings. Disinterested is in grave danger of losing its ‘unbiased observer’ sense, with most of us thinking it’s synonymous with uninterested. And ‘refute’ is in a sorry state, shorn of all usefulness by people who utter it when they really mean ‘deny’.

At the same time, specialised words are reinventing themselves for all-purpose, popular usage. This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing, because language is always evolving. But the speed at which the internet scatters new usages into all areas of anglophone life is disorientating.

Take the verb curate. These days it can mean programming a music event or concert series, but also the simple act of adding stuff to your blog. I recently read of a new restaurant where the food ‘will be curated in a very stylish way’. Back in the day, you’d only be curating if you worked for a museum or art gallery and had ‘curator’ printed on your business card. I wonder if those curators who are the real deal mind that their job title, earned after years of diligent study, is being taken over by riff-raff with none of the right university qualifications?

Variety in listener choice is music to the ears


Radio 3, which I happened to write about in a post last autumn, has decided drop its breakfast show listener phone-ins. From the very first day they introduced on-air listener babbling I saw it as a pretty worthless flirtation with ‘accessibility’, so I’m pleased to see the station controllers acknowledge that these things don’t boost audience numbers.

My first thought was that this turnaround is a rare example of dumbing down and then dumbing back up.

Except the phone-ins weren’t quite an example of lowering brows. Many of the callers were articulate, and they didn’t always outstay their welcome.

It’s just that the phone-in grated as an intrusion into the agreeable Radio 3 cocoon of knowledgeable presenters and quality, varied music. As often happens when commercialisation gets the better of good judgement, or when there’s a scramble to appeal to an unrealistically broad spectrum of people, an unnecessary flavouring is introduced which, like spooning sugar into a claret, alters a pure product for the worse.

I don’t actually mind the changes Radio 3 has made in recent years. For starters, I think jazz has found a natural home there. But an important segment of the output, the morning show, tried to become like so many others. We see this in TV programmes, and of course mass market films too, and my dismay in all cases centres on what the point is of having more of the same. Why would Radio 3 try and become Classic FM?

Being Classic FM is something Classic FM already does, rather well. This is, in fact, why the BBC Trust, mindful that the corporation’s output has to be different from commercial channels if it is to justify its public funding, nudged Radio 3 into ‘resting’ its phone-in.

Doing yoga on church property



For some, yoga and Christianity are incompatible…

It’s just as well that ones of the benefits of yoga is stress relief. Those helping others to discover the discipline are increasingly burdened with searching for new venues for classes – never an easy or inexpensive task – as church councils decide to bar them from their halls.

Yoga as practised by non-Hindus here in the UK is promoted as a form of physical exercise, and only ‘spiritual’ in the sense that it can induce feelings of inner calm, rather as strolling in the woods, fishing or any number of other leisure activities do. Is it right to see it as a spiritual rival to Christianity?

I’ve read an objection on a Catholic website to a yoga mantra which sounds like ‘so-hum’ and means ‘I am He’: this merging of the divine into the human self is a definite no-no in some people’s holy book.

But Christians believe that God is everywhere, and knows everything. And I know this because I’ve looked at the ‘Christian beliefs concerning God’ section of the BBC religions web page. So even if a yoga practitioner does want to start connecting with the divine, can there be any objection to God becoming part of the ‘self’ during a yoga class?

Pantheism – essentially the belief everything is a part of God and that God equals the universe – is a feature of Hinduism, but it’s not unknown to Christianity. No less a theologian than St Augustine, writing in City of God, asked, “In brief, why is God angry at those who do not worship Him, since these offenders are parts of Himself?”

Unless we are going to say that no activities, unless incontrovertibly Anglican, can take place on church property then I reckon the yoga mats should stay put.

After all, who knows in what spiritual directions a watercolour artist’s thoughts bend in the course of a church hall art class?


West meets East: St Paul’s Cathedral, Kolkata


Impressions, facts, and not thinking things through


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Here’s an anniversary for fans of chicken nuggets to celebrate: it’s been 50 years since the first KFC restaurant opened in the UK. For me, it’s merely an excuse to air a point about impressions versus facts.

KFC is not an outlet I notice very much. It doesn’t seem to be as ubiquitous as MacDonald’s or Starbucks. I think I’ve only eaten at a UK branch a couple of times in my life, the last occasion being a decade ago.

Yet when I was in India in 2013 I spotted quite a few, and even had supper in one (and before anyone thinks ‘how could he – with so much tasty Indian food around him?’ – in my defence it was a five week trip, I had proper Indian food for virtually every other meal, and just thought it might be a way of giving my stomach a break from spicy temptations).

So I picked up the impression that India and KFC have a fairly solid relationship, and that branches pop up all over the country..

But the statistic that counts is how many branches there are per head of population. And in a chart recently published in The Economist on the worldwide distribution of fast food chains, the KFC figure for India is just 0.2 per million people, compared to 12.2 per million in the UK.

It just shows that I, and others too, drift through our daily existences, brains on default mode, idly taking in the information we are fed and expending as little mental energy as possible to arrive at a conclusion which is highly misleading, and not backed up by the actual figures.

Now, having implied above that KFC’s reach in the UK is not as extensive as its American burger chain and coffee shop cousins, I’d better check the stats….

Well, my guess was partly wrong, partly right, but mostly wrong. While the 1200 odd branches of McDonald’s do indeed outgun KFC’s 800 or so, there are more of the fried chicken purveyor’s outlets on our streets than Starbucks coffee shops (which number around 640).

It’s not hard to find a reason for my erroneous India presumption, even if it doesn’t excuse it: I spent more time in the more prosperous, city centre areas that are likely to have Western fast food outlets than in those (much more numerous) poorer swathes of urban areas (and indeed rural ones) which are notable more for crowded masses of humanity than for their tourism potential, and are of course bypassed by KFC.

chicken burger

Regional variety adds spice to Mexican life


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Continuing my reflections on the Mexico trip…


When it came to sampling Mexican food, the availability of a range of regional specialities pepped up my spirits in the same way that certain green chiles shook my tastebuds awake.

Some specialities are better described as hyper-local, such as mole de Xico, a thick smoky sauce which I enjoyed with chicken in the small town of that name not far from Xalapa.

A few days later I ordered the better-known mole poblano during my stay in Cholula, just outside the city of Puebla which gives its name to this interesting sauce consisting of fruit, nuts, chocolate and perhaps a range of other flavourings which, like the Coca-Cola recipe, must never be divulged.

Again, I had it with a chicken leg, its usual plate-fellow. In looks and consistency, the sauce was similar to the stuff you might pour over ice cream. It was both runnier and more chocolatey than the barbeque-esque Xico variant, yet by no means sweet, and certainly not overpoweringly so. I could still appreciate the chicken. A generous scattering of sesame seeds added a toasty, nutty contrast in taste and texture.

I was most impressed.

I didn’t take a photo, but if you imagine a roasted chicken leg, and then imagine chocolate sauce or custard, you’ll pretty much get the picture.

Here in Britain, the local food scene has taken quite a battering as we hasten in pursuit of a more mobile, less geographically tied future. What’s available in Devon is generally available in Kent and Buckinghamshire too.

But it seems to be a different matter in at least one country on the other side of the Atlantic. I’ve vowed that if I ever find myself anywhere near Puebla between the months of July and September, I’m going to have my fill of a dish that’s not only regional but seasonal – not in terms of ingredients but suitability for the time of year, like hot cross buns at Easter. I’m talking about chiles en nogada, which incorporates the green, white and red of the Mexican flag and is generally eaten in the couple of months leading up to Independence Day in September.

Taking the shine off the Golden Age of Travel



I saw much to marvel at – modern, not-so-modern, and awesomely ancient – during my travels around Mexico last month.

If I ever began to believe I would be having a deeper and better experience if I was travelling in the 1940s or 50s, in an age of fewer tourists, and long before Mexico joined the globalised world, I would soon be brought to my senses by the realisation that I was lucky, travelling in 2014, to have so many of the comforts of our era.

For the book I took round with me (I’m not yet so modern that I carry a Kindle) was The Lawless Roads, Graham Greene’s account of his 1938 visit to the country to report on the persecution of Catholic priests.

Leaving most of his belongings in Mexico City, he finds himself holed up in the south of the country, struggling with the hot tropical nights in those non A/C times, with his only entertainment Trollope’s Dr Thorne, which he is enjoying but is coming close to finishing. He has to ration himself to twenty pages per day to make it last. At a crucial point in Trollope’s tale, a fault in Greene’s copy of the book means a chunk of pages is missing. And when it’s finished, he has nothing to do but sit in his rocking chair, waiting for the storm clouds to break up and a small plane – his best hope of escape – to arrive.

Greene is no natural traveller in the rugged mould of Wilfred Thesiger. He pines for England, and can finds virtually nothing likeable about Mexico (which seems strange, even if we make allowances for his natural anger against the forces that are driving his adopted religion underground). But in the 1930s remote really meant remote, whereas today if we don’t like a place we can get out of it soon enough, or buy whatever it is we need to make our days more tolerable.

I know that wherever I go in the world, somewhere there’s a way out, and a mobile phone connection to the outside world. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would be prepared to leave the comfort zone of home.

cover of The Lawless Roads

Being regular


A minor detail in Christopher Howse’s Daily Telegraph column has taught me something I think I should have known: that the word ‘regularly’ need mean little more than ‘at uniform intervals’.

If I say that my aunt is a regular churchgoer, you would imagine her turning up at her local House of God most Sundays. But if by regular I mean she consistently joins worshippers on Christmas Day every year, and on no other day – that’s a different proposition entirely. The apparently Christian aunt is transformed into the aunt who makes the effort only for Christmas, probably because she likes hearing carols and feels attendance is suitable atonement for the overindulgence of the season.

I could turn this sort of lexical fastidiousness to my advantage. I shall give up alcohol for the first Saturday and Sunday in February each year, but other than that brief hiatus carry on my gin-and-tonic habit. In a few years’ time I will be able to impress my heavier-drinking acquaintances with talk of my ‘regular’ booze-free weekends.

This talk of Christmas reminds me that this will be my last blog post of the year: I’m off to Mexico very shortly, returning as 2015 dawns. So Merry Christmas to you all.


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