The Girl on the Wall.



For decades you looked out calmly from the wall
of a room that was frozen in time.
rarely visited,
never spoken of,
kept for Sundays.

All through my childhood as I learned and grew,
you watched as I took my time for granted.
perfectly serene,
gently composed,
safe from harm.

You looked enough like me to make me wonder,
although I knew that I should never ask,
lost in a half smile,
bow perfectly placed,
pinafore pristine white.

Everything else about you has been forgotten,
only a single image moves on through time,
your favourite games,
your special times,
the sound of your voice………..

all gone.

You have seen me muddle my way through a lifetime
while you waited behind your wall of dusty glass,
wasting chances,
taking opportunities,
snatching advantages.

Still and silent you are my eternal sister,
left behind while I move on to count the years.
You do not judge,
you do not feel pity,
you do not mourn or laugh.

The great aunt
who never grew up.


A snatched moment from life on the farm.

There are photographs like this one hidden away in tattered albums or pushed to the back of drawers in houses all over the country. There is nothing special about it, but it is a favourite of mine and someone once thought it special enough to be enlarged and mounted on card. It shows my maternal grandmother, Annie Maud Shipley and her daughter Edie. I am guessing from looking at my Auntie Edie that it may have been taken in the early nineteen thirties. A single daughter would have been a surprise to them as the husband and father of the family Robert came from a family of twelve but there had only been one baby born apart from Edie, George who did not survive infancy. My mother Nancy, Edie’s only sibling, was born twenty years later than her, well after this photograph was taken.

Edie is a much loved but uncosseted only child and she has been dressed in her best clothes, probably hand sewn. This was a farming family in a small hamlet on the Vale of York and having a photograph taken would have been an event in itself, something that you prepared for, talked about, and waited to see. Annie is also dressed in her best but that outfit is not new- the belt has seen some wear and the shoes are carefully polished but well worn. There was no money for luxuries. It is very touching how they have just taken a kitchen chair out into the yard, plonked it down and posed. These kind of shots would usually have been taken in a photographers studio but doing it this way was a way of saving cash and it made a charming second best when a special record was wanted. It is carefully posed- look at Annie’s crossed ankles and Edie’s hands behind her back- and this gives it a sense of occasion that belies the informal setting. There are other photos taken around that time- especially at harvest- so I think there must have been a camera around and someone who was interested in photography has been asked to make a special effort.

Most moving to me are the faces. My gran looks older than her years, although she didn’t change much. That’s what the hard work of farm life, both inside and outside the house does to you. There is a calm confidence in her eyes and a serenity that I remember well from when I was a small child. My Auntie Edie has the shy, kind look of a solitary young girl who doesn’t see people very often but who is willing to do her best and pose for her mum. She lived in another tiny village very close to where she was born all her life, doing a mixture of farm work and domestic service, married but remained childless, loved her half acre of garden, kept chickens and grew vegetables and never travelled very much. I think that you can see in her expression that she is going to stay close to home and live quietly. Family was very important to her and she stayed loyal. I was very fond of her and spent a lot of time with her later in her life, sitting quietly with her dog.


A moment in a Victorian farmyard.


This photograph shows my grandfather, Robert Shipley, in 1898, aged two, sitting on a horse in the farmyard in his embroidered dress, hat and boots. It is faded because it was enlarged and framed immediately and it has spent its whole life hanging on the wall. Anyone who came to our house (sixty years or so later) for the first time would be shown it by my grandfather and the question was always the same. “Who do you reckon that is then?” It was a tease. He was hoping that they would think it was a girl and many of them did. At that time dresses were regarded as children’s wear rather than girl’s wear and it was only when a boy reached about five that he would be “breeched” and begin to wear trousers. This sometimes happened even later- especially if the family were poor and the little lad had a lot of older sisters with dresses to pass on or a doting mother who was reluctant to see her baby boy grow up. It was a rite of passage and young as they were it was already a signal that most of them would be working before too long. It is hard to imagine that the boys didn’t mind (and I daresay some did) but on the whole it was just an accepted part of life and their mother’s wishes would have been respected.

Even without the family connection I find this photograph quite charming. There is no doubt about who is the star. Robert was the youngest of a family of twelve- the last baby- and this is a celebration of him. He was a strong, clever boy and his family are proud of him. That is a very fancy frock, undoubtedly his best Sunday one. Notice the way that he is looking towards the camera, frowning slightly, and putting his hands on the reins exactly as he has been told. He worked with horses all his life, farming with shires on the Vale of York, and there is just a hint of the skilled horseman that he would grow up to be. The brother and sister who have been sent out to the farmyard with him are just bit part players. They are in their ordinary clothes, not spruced up at all, and they are there to hold the horse and make sure that the dog sits still. Not that the horse looks as if he is going anywhere. He is a plodder, a farm workhorse who is not as young as he was but who is still well loved and carefully clipped- even if nobody has groomed him for the photo. In a muddy winter farmyard like that you could spend your whole life worrying about the lower half of a horse’s legs getting dirty, so they didn’t. The moving chickens provide a nice sense of immediacy as they go about their business unaware of the occasion. The brother has his legs carefully protected against the mud and his watch chain is displayed proudly. Jacket, waistcoat and hat were standard winter wear, he is not dressed up. He has simply been asked to interrupt what he is doing for a moment, “Hod us t’oss a minute while our Rob has his picture takken”. The sister has just put on a clean apron and walked straight out of the kitchen. She doesn’t look comfortable, unlike her brother, and she probably wasn’t. Photography was already a craze at the turn of the nineteenth century but it was something you went to a studio for, something a bit posh. For an ordinary farming family, being photographed standing in their own farmyard was rather unusual, something that they would have talked about. It was an event. My grandfathers delight in that event never left him.

Halfway to Paradise. Harry Hammond and the Birth of British Rock. Scarborough Art Gallery. Touring from the V and A. 14-03-13

“I wanted every girl in the audience to feel that I was there just to make love to her. And it was no act.” Adam Faith.

Poster for rock photo exhibitionThe exhibition of photographs by Harry Hammond at Scarborough Art Gallery, visiting from the V and A, is a fascinating look back at a vanished time. Many of the faces in them are familiar, as they became iconic figures and had long careers which stretched well beyond the period of the late fifties/ early sixties when the photographs were taken. These are the days of their youth and innocence, when everything was new and exciting. Many good looking and talented young people have followed the same path since but these were the pioneers. Their age group had never had a voice, money and influence before and in many of them they look as if they can’t believe their luck. It wasn’t just the music that the old guard found shocking- it was the simple fact that young people were asserting themselves for the first time rather than aping their elders. It was a revolution. A carefully staged revolution perhaps, but a revolution nonetheless. The producer Jack Good made sure that Eddie Cochrane wore black leather and Gene Vincent emphasised his limp when he appeared on television to make sure that they didn’t look too tame and polite, and there are many silvery suits and immaculate hairdos to admire throughout the exhibition. The young stars new status is recorded cheerfully, Cliff Richard stands beside his brand new grey Sunbeam alpine with red seats in 1959 and there is Lonnie Donnegan with his Riley Pathfinder in 1960. There is also a puzzling one of Lonnie standing in front of a quite large but ordinary suburban looking house with his wife and child that looks as if it may have escaped from the family album of an accountant. To get the point of these particular photos you need to remind yourself that young people had never had this kind of money before, unless they were born wealthy. There was a real wow factor in tasting success so fast and so young. There is a great shot of Cliff on his haunches looking thoughtfully at the poster for the first time he topped the bill at the Chiswick Empire in 1959. The girls are gorgeous, especially a teenage Helen Shapiro in the tiniest pair of shorts you have ever seen and Alma Cogan, always known for her frocks, hands on hips staring straight into the camera lens managing not to be upstaged by the fact the she is wearing a massive confection of lace and ostrich feathers which takes your breath away. Image was everything, just as it is today.

It is the shots from live performances which really hit home and make you feel the power of what was going on. These are young people using every ounce of their natural energy and there is both joy and danger in the best of them. Johnny Ray was known for his ability to work both himself and his audience into a frenzy of emotion and you can feel the power of his performance, even in the silence of a photograph, as he is captured really letting rip, holding a mike stand over his head as he wrings every last drop of emotion out of his song. My own favourite Billy Fury is shown in a large print clicking his fingers as his guitarist plays a riff and he is grinning all over his face- clearly having the time of his life and who could wonder?

There are a few simple portraits. The two best show that real star quality doesn’t have to be manufactured or mediated through a manager. Nat King Cole sang with great warmth, ease and honesty and the same qualities shine out of his face as he sits in his dressing room looking into the camera lens. Frank Sinatra can’t help looking relaxed and self possessed even as he leaves an aeroplane, glancing sideways at us in a trilby and carrying a smart flight bag. Nobody needed to tell him what was cool. He knew.

There is a great shot of a ticket office window with a mass of leaflets and posters for all kinds of shows. Looking round this exhibition really makes you long to be able to buy a ticket.

A portrait of my beach.

My home.

For the last fifteen years or so I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time each week walking on Filey beach with my dogs and observing the most beautiful bay in England in all weathers and all seasons. I always carry my camera and these shots are some of the results.

The Half. Photography by Simon Annand. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-05-11

For anyone who has been going to the theatre regularly for the last thirty odd years as I have this exhibition is completely enchanting. Simon Annand has had the privilege of being allowed to photograph actors at close quarters during the half as they prepare to go on stage for roughly the same period of time as I have been sitting in audiences and he has made the most of it. It is a highly charged time, full of nervous anticipation, a great subject, and he has produced a dramatic, intimate and varied collection of images which take us into another world, a world between real life and make believe. It brought back great memories for me of both productions which I have seen and productions which I wish I had seen.

There are some lovely contrasts to enjoy. There are two Miss Adelaides from Guys and Dolls, Jane Krakowski at the Piccadilly in 2005, a beautifully lit thoughtful introspective study of concentration, and Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre in 1982, looking straight into the camera and posing gleefully in full costume on her way to the stage. Two pantomime performers are also portrayed very differently. A moving, timeless image of  a melancholy introspective Spike Milligan sitting staring into space preparing to go on as Spike the Stupid in Babes in the Wood at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985 is set against a lovely image of Roger Lloyd Pack in full dame make up and padding, just lacking a frock. He is clearly preparing to go out and have a blast on stage in Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006, grinning happily and striking a pose with his hand on his hip. There are two Hamlets, Simon Russell Beale at the National in 2006, all nervous agitation seen through his dressing room window from a distance, and Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic in 2009, hair over his eye and flirting outrageously with the camera.

Some of the images are much more sombre. Nobody could ever describe preparing to go on in Rockaby, Samuel Beckett’s short but quite terrifying one woman play as preparing to have a blast and Billie Whitelaw’s portrait seen through her dressing room mirror at the Riverside studios in 1989 is a stark image of mortality. Her pale ghostly face is matched by what looks almost like a death mask next to her- the photograph of her face fully made up that she is using as a guide. Max Wall is preparing for another Beckett one man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, a huge challenge, and he is deadly serious and alone with his thoughts, already a world away.

It is sometimes easy to guess which actors enjoyed the moments of company and attention and which of them would probably rather have been left alone. Sarah Kestleman smokes a fag and grins knowingly at the camera before going on in Bussy D’Amboise at the Old Vic in 1987, while Alison Steadman looks up balefully from her script, interrupted in her preparations for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Arts theatre in 2001. There is a lovely sequence of images of Jane Birkin, who is wonderfully expressive, captured as she talks and gesticulates clad in a simple white vest.

Sometimes the performance is already fully there and ready to hit the stage and sometimes it isn’t. Helen Mirren’s portrait taken as she strides down a corridor on her way to the stage at the National is most definitely of Phedre rather than the actress, while Daniel Radcliffe is still very much himself as he sits on the shelf in front of his dressing room mirror before a performance of Equus in 2009, still in his day clothes, with the beginnings of a soft fluffy beard and moustache shadowing his face. It is a touching portrait of a boy becoming a man, and it mirrors the enormous challenge that he had set himself by choosing to play a high profile, challenging stage part after enormous film success. He made himself very vulnerable by making that choice and took a great risk and this is all there in the portrait.

Sometimes it is the details that are moving. Perhaps a frozen moment, as in the portrait of Michael Williams where he completes his transformation for Two Into One at the Shaftesbury in 1984 by putting on a bowler hat. Two Into One is a Ray Cooney farce, but there is only a quiet wariness visible as he confronts himself in the mirror, while his wife smiles out from the wedding photo sitting next to him.

If you love theatre make sure that you see this exhibition. Even f you don’t you will still relish the skill of a wonderful photographer who uses the light and mirrors of the dressing room cleverly to illuminate and frame his subjects. I am glad that it had a showing at the V&A in London before coming up north to Scarborough. It was richly deserved.

An Old School Photograph.

I find this photograph very moving.  I can’t help comparing it to today’s school photographs showing groups of confident beaming children, sure of their place in the world and ready for anything, and feeling saddened. These children are well cared for by the standards of their day. The girls are all wearing clean aprons, their hair is tidy and there is an impressive row of strong shoes dangling from the front row.  Some of the boys are a little scruffy but they wouldn’t be junior age boys if they weren’t. They are obedient too, all of them have their hands clasped in exactly the way that they have been told or their arms resting straight down by their sides. Their teachers would have been very pleased with them. Many children of their time were doing a lot worse. All the same I am not convinced. Take a moment to look at these faces, the little boy fourth from the right on the back row, the little girl in front of him, any of them really. These are faces who don’t assume that the world is a safe, warm comfortable place. They don’t assume anything but hard work and unpredictability. Things are tough in their world and they don’t trust that man with the camera one little bit. There isn’t a single face that isn’t scowling, sharing their unhappiness and uncertainty with us so many years later. Some of them look stoical, some resentful, some close to tears, but not a single one looks happy. It may be just that they are afraid in an unfamiliar situation as having a photograph taken was an event rather than a routine for them, and they are young- probably around six years old I would guess- so it could even be the first time some of them have seen a camera, but it could also be more than that. Great photographs, and I do think that this is a great photograph even if it is by chance, have a way of looking deeper into reality and finding the truth which is hidden beneath the surface. These children had a lot to be wary about, and a lot to cope with. They had good evidence that the world was not always on their side. I don’t know their names, except for one, and I don’t know what happened to them, but their opportunities were limited and it isn’t hard to make an educated guess. The girls will  wash, sew, gossip, cook and bring up large families ( a reality for most of them rather than an insulting stereotype) and the boys will face long years of hard physical work in fields and factories. This future will come to them sooner rather than later as most of them will have just a few more years at school. Next time you look at a smiling confident face shining out of a modern school photograph on someone’s mantle piece remember this little group who deserved so much more than they were probably going to get.

And the one whose name I do know? She is sitting second from the left on the front row. She is one of my ancestors. Her name is Alice Pooley and she died from meningitis less than a year after this photo was taken.