I grew up sixteen miles from Dublin and at least once a year until I left Ireland I was taken into Dublin to buy new shoes. I hated the shoe buying, but I loved being in Dublin. I always thought it would be great to wake up in the middle of the city every morning, though I never got to do it until about fifty years later when all my family had faded away and I was free to explore Dublin and the rest of my native land without causing terminal offence. You know what the Irish are like. I may have grown up with the Irish Sea to the east of me and the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains to the west but I was born to be a city person.
From January 1954 London has been my home. I came to go to art school and live with my father for the first time. He was a retired colonial policeman, who celebrated our joyful reunion by doing his absolute best/worst to make me unwelcome. So I spent as much time as possible away from his flat near Kensington High Street. I was at college all day, of course, and at evening classes there three nights a week. I met Sally Boswell on my very first morning at the Central School of Art, in the life drawing class. We were an item by lunchtime. Still are. At the weekends I wandered the streets by myself, or went to galleries, cinemas, parties or wandering about with Sal and student friends. I found it was Dublin to the power ten. I became a Londoner. I enjoy other cities too, and the occasional field or mountain but I am always glad to get back to London.
No photographs in those days, of course. They came after the Central, National Service and a couple of years full-time employment but began in earnest when I became a freelance designer/photographer in 1960. Sal’s father, James Boswell, also a freelancer who was editor of Sainsbury’s house magazine, asked me to help with the design and perhaps do some of the photography. I did the design for the next twelve years. The first photographic job, even before this, was a survey of all the developments on the south bank of the river around their head office near Blackfriars Bridge. The Shell Centre was being built – by the Irish; one of my pictures found its way later onto a Topic LP Paddy in the Smoke. Elephant and Castle was also being ‘developed’ - though so grimly that they are only too happy to do it again after only 50 years.
Sainsbury’s must have had 50 or more branches in London, perhaps still do, and I must have visited most of them in the 24 years I worked for them, many in hitherto undiscovered parts of the city, which most of my friends haven’t heard of to this day. In the sixties a neighbourhood Sainsbury’s was an old-fashioned grocery shop with staff in aprons and spectacular tiles on the walls. The first ‘self service’ shop was in Croydon in the late fifties, a half-and-half job with perishables still behind the counters and tins and packages on the self-service shelves. Proper supermarkets came along steadily (lots of work for me) but the counter shops hung on until 1982 when Rye Lane, Peckham, closed. Nostalgia had set in at Sainsbury’s by then and I was kept busy photographing them for the archives through the 70s. I tried to salvage some tiles myself but nobody could get them off the walls without breaking them. They are probably still there behind the trendy décor in many a shop or restaurant!
I did plenty of other jobs around London. One concerned Alexandra Palace in the early seventies intended for a centenary book that never happened. We live nearby. In 1980 I covered the mighty fire which damaged much of it. Then later I worked for the architect who repaired it. I worked in four London prisons. I spent several days at Heathrow, free to go anywhere on the airport for the BAA annual report. Building the Thames flood defences, including the Barrier near Greenwich, was fascinating. Five simultaneous slide/tape shows for Christie’s (in three weeks) was exhausting but let me into many auction room secrets and early acquaintance with several Antiques Road Show megastars. And so on...
There are some of these pictures here, but not many because they are in other people’s archives (or in their bin) or they didn’t seem appropriate. Obviously I will have done all the well-known sights at one time or another, if only for the files. If you wonder why they are not here Google Big Ben, Tower of London or Buckingham Palace, click on ‘Images’ and you will see why. Most photographers have no imagination whatsoever and just do what is expected of them - but that goes for the people who use their pictures as well. Another reason is that the city changes daily, so almost every London picture you see on the page is out of date – until it matures as history decades later. Many of the pictures here are fifty years old. There are steam trains to be found and shipping and warehouses on the Thames near where Tate Modern is now. It was still Bankside Power Station then. You couldn’t get near the river in those days; now there is a walk from Lambeth Bridge all the way to Greenwich.
In this London collection the Customs, Bridges and Illustrations all appear again in the sections devoted to those subjects. No need to write about them here. The final section is pretty well my very quirky take on London. I have thousands more like these. Mostly they were done for my own amusement, but some were part of commissions, two even for advertisements. The Creighton School pictures were for a very popular deputy-head who was leaving to be head of another school. The school is now called Fortismere and parents buy houses in Muswell Hill so that their kids can go there. Also in North London I did 6/7 years of work for Chickenshed Theatre in Southgate, until 1993 when I gave up taking pictures altogether. I admire Mary Ward and Jo Collins, who founded the theatre group in 1974 (in a disused chicken shed) as much as anyone I have met in my life and I really enjoyed photographing those kids and the fact that half of them are still there 25 or more years later helping the present generation of ‘Shedders’, who include a large number of their own offspring.
Of course there were lots of other interesting things around London, some to photograph, hundreds to just enjoy – if you can get into them. Concerts, theatres, museums, restaurants, galleries, are endless. I did a few years photography for the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the late seventies, when Jasia Reichardt was director, and even had a small exhibition there, admittedly when a scheduled show was called off at the last minute. It was a set of pictures entitled Londoners but I have completely forgotten which Londoners were on the wall. Not celebs, though. Real Londoners.
For the last few years Sal and I have been exploring the streets on foot. No cameras. It is amazing how different familiar streets look when you get out of the car or bus. The tube gets you there but it is absolutely useless if you want to see anything other than glum people staring at their iPhones. On wheels you get the general idea, with a camera you certainly look hard but it is more for the picture than the place. Now we are consumers who just enjoy this wonderful city. Certainly we explore the more obvious parts Mayfair, Soho, the City, the parks, the River Thames, and we have walked the Regent’s Canal from end to end, but not all on the same day. If we want to enjoy a bit of foreign we can visit the West Indians in Brixton or Tottenham, the Portugese in Stockwell, Turks along Green Lanes, Arabs up the Edgware Road from Marble Arch all the way to Cricklewood, Brazilians at the south end of Harrow Road and Somalis further up, West Africans have taken over Peckham and Koreans New Malden - you get the idea. We enjoy the galleries, and museums and all the other amazing facilities, but the streets of London are the thing.
We walk for miles and miles, but when we get tired we get on a bus. There is no better free show in the world than the view from the top of a London bus. We have had to kill sometimes to get the front seat. When we can’t get up the stairs any more life will be over...