Kev Byrne has been a language teacher in Italy for over 25 years where he still lives today and a photo-enthusiast for perhaps 30 – a term, we will discover, that he is not too keen on. I would say that I have known him since the late 80s when we both lived in London and we have, thankfully, stayed in contact ever since collaborating frequently on my personal and academic projects – many of which are discussed below – as well as spending lots of time together in Italy.
Those of us that have been friends with Kev from that early part of his life up to today will all testify to the fact that he always has (and has always had) a camera in his hand, is always doodling, daydreaming – the usual stuff of a “weirdo” as he likes to call himself, although, I’m a firm believer that these are the tell-tale traits of the wonderfully introverted, the gifted, and the constantly creative mind. And yes, OK, a little bit weird too, I admit it.
Subsequently, seeing his more serious foray into the world of digital photography over the last few years (and particularly his series of brilliant interviews with international photographers), I thought it would be nice to give him some of his own medicine and put him under the lamplight of scrutiny by producing this collection of his work, comments, interviews with the idea of garnering some of the insights, understandings, and his unquestionable wisdom (he’s not too keen on that either) that we have shared over the years regarding the world of photography amongst other things.
Now, for those who don’t know him, it’s not always easy to get him to agree to do this type of thing – he’s just so typically English, so awkwardly reticent at times, so annoyingly humble – that I was pleasantly surprised (as well as eternally grateful) that he was up for the daunting task of organising all our interactions with such relish and willingness. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that we have been friends for years and have collaborated on various projects being a clearly contributory and relevant factor in his enthusiasm, it is still nice when we can be surprised by people we are close to and those we think we know well.
This compilation has been put together into a roughly chronological structure (over the last couple of years) from various sources ranging from snippets of phone conversations, numerous emails, letters (how antiquated is that?) and juicy pub chats, to lengthy recordings of our discussions, project work, and (often heated) debates for some of my university research. I have tried to keep the format conversational and informal as to avoid the overly scholarly register of which I am so often vehemently accused of producing and to try to recapture and maintain the original spirit of our more informal exchanges when appropriate. I have, however, included and lightly tweaked some of our university work which will remain in a slightly more formal register.
I set out with the intention of, primarily, just trying to get to know and unveil his philosophy and thought processes behind his photography better. However, it ended up being an often alarmingly revealing yet always entertaining roller coaster ride into the gloriously turbid and tempestuous mind of a creative person, a photographer in denial (my words), a cantankerous modernist, a polychromatic Cancerian (his words), and – above all – a warm, loving old friend. Unsurprisingly, it also turned out to be a rather cathartic experience for myself too.
It, perhaps annoyingly, reads rather episodic but Kev was quite adamant that he preferred that style to the alternatives (even the unfinished or lost parts of his interviews or our chats and were to be left unblemished by harsh editing – no creative rewriting at all) and emphatically compelled me to stick to it and nothing else – which I have earnestly done. Believe me, the last thing you want to do – especially when they are in such a generous mood – is to antagonise the tetchy and recalcitrant artiste!
Interview with Kev Byrne (KB)
Conducted by Robert Avery (RA)
In front of a select audience
At the interviewer’s studio in East London, UK
April 4, 2012
The following transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Kev Byrne on April 4, 2012. The interview took place (with a very select audience of guests and students) in Hackney, East London, and was conducted by Prof. Robert Avery for the Archives of American Contemporary Art, Coleman University, San Diego, California.
KB: …should I? Better to turn it off now, then, right?
RA: Okay. Let’s start. Hello, this is the Archives of American Contemporary Art, Coleman University, graphic design program, an interview with the English photographer Kev Byrne on April 4th, 2012, at The Avery Studio in Hackney, East London, in the UK. The interviewer is Robert Avery.
[Interruption in recording]
RA: OK, shall we…
KB: Sorry, Rob, can I just interrupt you there for a minute, mate?
RA: Yes, of course.
KB: Erm, sorry, just for the record, I’m not a “photographer” – I use photography, you know, I think that needs to be cleared up from the off. And why do you feel the need to emphasise “English”? Can’t you all tell from the way I speak? [laughter]
RA: As you can see ladies and gentlemen, we are off to a flying start! [laughter] Yes, yes, you’re right! Forgive me. So how should I refer to you from now then, the artist?
KB: Oh, dear God, no. Rob, just Kev will suffice. [smiles]
RA: OK, fine. So why don’t you like it then?
KB: Hmm? Like what?
RA: Being called a photographer? It’s not that derogatory a term, you know? There are probably worst things you could be called.
KB: Yeah, I know, it just feels wrong to me, that’s all.
RA: How come?
KB: Well, basically, if I were to use that term to refer to myself, wouldn’t it imply that it’s my profession and I’m some sort of trained professional, or that it’s my livelihood or something? Which, as you well know, is most certainly not the case.
RA: I see what you mean, but, you have studied photography.
KB: Mmm, yeah, it just doesn’t sit well with me, that’s all. Look at it this way: If you loved history and read history books all the time and followed history blogs, wore history t-shirts, watched films and documentaries about it, and, you know, your friends respected your evident competence in history – let’s say for argument’s sake it was, I don’t know, French history. Yeah? Everyone knew you were the best at French history on quiz night or whatever, Trivial Pursuits, yeah?
RA: OK. So you’re saying you couldn’t really say you were a historian in the academic sense of the term?
KB: Exactly. That’s what I mean – you love history, you are passionate about history but you’re not a historian. It’s the same thing with photography for me.
RA: OK, OK, that’s a good point. So, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call you a keen amateur? An enthusiast? A prosumer or some such?
KB: Erm, yeah, I suppose so, enthusiast sounds about right, an aficionado, a hobbyist – although I’m not too sure what a prosumer is to be perfectly honest with you?
RA: Ah, basically, it’s a person who loves good tech, Kev, not a professional as such, but probably would like to be? Yes, just like an aficionado really.
KB: Huh, right, OK. I love my tech, but not interested in being a professional.
RA: OK, so now we’ve cleared that up, shall we crack on with the interview?
KB: Yeah, let’s do it. [laughter]
RA: Shall we start at the beginning, or…?
KB: Whatever you like, Rob.
RA: Great. So when did you first get into photography?
KB: Well, my earliest memory of using a camera was a camera that my nan gave me in the early 80s – probably about 1982 I think. It was a great plasticky Olympus which I took everywhere with me – built-in flash, electronic meter – lovely little thing it was. A true point and shoot – a glowing green rectangle lit up in the little viewfinder when it hit focus, loved it.
RA: So you probably weren’t doing your abstract shots, taking pictures of lines and shadows back then?
KB: No, I don’t remember anything like that. It was mainly used when we went on holiday, or when friends stayed over, that kind of thing – normal stuff.
RA: Have you still got it?
KB: What the Olympus, you mean?
KB: Oh, Christ, no – that got broken years ago. An old friend dropped it when we were on holiday in Spain – I wasn’t angry at the time – although I’ve never really forgiven him. I do remember a brilliant trick he played on me and some mates with the camera flash back then. Do you want to hear it?
RA: Go for it.
KB: Well, it was something that I used to do when it was pitch black in a room, my room with the curtains drawn for example. You had to wait for a while till your eyes were used to the dark, but you still couldn’t really see anything.
RA: What, like when you’re stargazing?
KB: Yeah, that’s it – about 10-15 minutes or so. Then, pull a funny face or something and take a picture while someone was looking in your general direction – doesn’t take much to set up. The flash would freeze your silly face on the other people’s retina – quite spectacularly. The face would be frozen in what felt like the centre of your brain for a good 30 seconds or so till it starts to fade.
RA: Brilliant trick.
KB: Oh, it’s not finished yet. This old friend asked if he could have a go so I let him.
RA: What happened?
KB: You know what he did? Instead of taking a shot of his face, the bastard took a picture of his private parts…
KB: Hahaha, yes. Just imagine, there was this horrendous image literally burned onto our retinas and it wouldn’t go away! You couldn’t escape it! Legendary. [laughter]
RA: You never told me about that…
KB: Didn’t I? Maybe it was too traumatic back then. But like I said, later on he broke it which was unforgivable, unlike this silly flash trick which is –
KB: Ha, yeah, the muppet. Anyway, that was the glorious end to the Olympus. I did use another compact camera for a couple of years after that – can’t remember what it was though – but it wasn’t ’till I went to college that I, er, started to use a “real” SLR camera – you know, with a pentaprism, decent through the lens viewfinder – a workhorse of a Yashica I think it was – and began to learn how to develop rolls of film – negatives, messing about in the darkroom and that.
RA: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that. I mean it was there that you really got into…
KB: Yep, that’s where it all started really.
RA: What were you studying there?
KB: I did a couple of courses, one on art and design, the other was, er, on graphic design.
RA: Graphic design – hence this interview today, guys. [looking at audience]
KB: We used a lot of mixed media – you know, sculpture, textiles, but it was photography that really got me, it just seemed to click with me straightaway – so to speak – I spent ages in that darkroom. I used to work nights very often back then and would turn up to work stinking of vinegar from the fixer tray and stop bath! I loved it.
RA: That’s great. Erm, OK, I think we’ve got a couple of slides here…
KB: Oh, yeah?
RA: Most of them are yours – would it be OK if I just put them up for reference during our chat today?
KB: Don’t see why not. These the ones you emailed me about?
RA: Yeah, that’s it. Hang on let me just… Let me see if I can, just… [fiddling around with his PC and projector]
KB: You’re not gonna embarrass me are you? Some of our old shenanigans from yesteryear?
RA: Oh, yes, absolutely! [laughter]
KB: …[groans and rubs head] …why did I agree to do this?
RA: Ahah! Can you imagine that? Right. Here we go. Can you all see that OK? Yeah? [referring to audience]
KB: Blimey. That seems like ages ago…
RA: So, you took this, then developed the film?
KB: Yes, a fascinating and almost magical process – the first time that is, can get a bit frustrating after that. It’s a lot of work but ultimately worth it, as you well know, Rob.
RA: Yep. Do you still do any film photography or…?
KB: Not really, couple of rolls a year, something like that, but I don’t do any developing myself – I send them off to some local studio.
RA: What you using nowadays?
KB: Well, I use Olympus OM-D cameras – compact mirrorless system cameras on the digital side. But, as I say, I don’t use film so much but when I do I use my dad’s old Pentax K1000 with a standard F/1.7 lens.
RA: A classic. You know they were in production for more than 20 years?
KB: Oh, yeah, it’s a brick – feels so good in hand though – never lets me down really.
RA: Fully mechanical too, right?
KB: Yes. No need for any electronics – save the light meter, but if you know the basics of exposing a photo, aperture, you don’t need it. And the noise it makes when you press the shutter release? The way the mirror slaps up? A mechanical orgasm, Rob, unbelievable racket.
RA: Ha! Not exactly inconspicuous – maybe not the best candid street camera?
KB: Yeah, need to use a zoom really – to hide away and shoot. You know, so, that’s a camera that will always turn up. I don’t use it enough…shame really, I kind of miss all that tangible, that tactile relationship of, er, analogue photography.
RA: Do you?
KB: Yeah, like I said, there was and is, a magical, I mean it’s chemical – I’m not deluded – but, you know? There’s a magical feeling to it – seeing those images slowly appear you can’t beat that. From the moment you compose the shot in the viewfinder you know, the idea in your head – to the moment you hold the final print – that you made, it’s all a series of creative steps – pure creative processes from start to finish. It’s definitely special. It’s hard work, but you learn so much – you learn how to think about each shot, care for them – there’s nothing like that first time though. Kind of like, I suppose it’s like your first joint, first kiss or whatever, you’ll constantly be looking for that initial buzz but you’ll just never get it again, you’ll never really find it, it’s unique. A one-off, and you always try to get back there. Not the best analogy but…
RA: No, no, I know exactly what you mean.
KB: Wait, you mean you’ve actually kissed someone before?
RA: There you go ladies and gentlemen, Kev the comedian’s here today! [laughter] We must’ve booked the wrong one. The photographer – oops, can’t call him that – the other one was busy!
RA: No, seriously, we do try to get our students at uni to use the darkroom as much as we can.
KB: Yeah? They like it?
RA: Well, those that we convince to try it almost always keep it up, so yeah…
KB: Ah, that’s great. I mean, it’s a little costly, but it’s something that anyone who loves taking photos should try at least once in their life – just to get another perspective on how it can be done, of where modern photography actually came from – that in itself is – erm, validation – validates it, I think. It also justifies photo editing too, seeing as the whole process of developing a roll of 35mm film is, you see, constantly being treated, modified, manipulated somehow – always has been. The first photographers touched up their images, you know, it’s an important part of post-production, isn’t it? There’s no better way to see that than in, erm, a darkroom. That’s my take on it anyway.
RA: Ah, no, absolutely. I mean, we’ve spoken about this for what seems like years, haven’t we? Post-production and image manipulation isn’t a crime. It’s a choice, a fundamentally important one, a creative one at that.
KB: Yeah, it’s…
RA: Like anything, how far do you want to take it? How far do you need to and why?
KB: And why not?
RA: Yeah. An aesthetic preference or necessity? A stylistic exuberance? A lazy untalented abhorrence? Haha. An embellishment? You could go round and round forever justifying these choices.
KB: Well, yeah, which I think is a good thing – debate, let’s talk.
RA; Oh, yeah.
KB: Nothing wrong with talking about it. You know, get to the reasons behind these choices. What harm can it do? Surely it can only help bring things to light – even if there is no sound intellectual reasoning for the photographer – does there always have to be? There might be, I mean, there will be a meaning for the viewer, the audience and that’s probably none of the photographer’s business anyway, but I still think it’s beneficial, useful to talk about it.
RA: Hmm, indeed. OK, you wanna talk us through this one – this was when you lived and worked in London, right, or…?
KB: Yeah, while I was still studying, I worked nights for a cleaning company on the Underground – down at Seven Sisters and Northumberland Park. Must’ve been around 1994, maybe ’95, I think.
RA: Yes, I remember that. You used to try and get away with not paying by flashing that suspect travel pass they gave you.
KB: Ha, yeah, didn’t always work, we just pleaded ignorance though and we usually got away with it most of the time. Of course, it depended on the inspector though, what sort of mood he or she was in. We used to think we were part of the same team. We weren’t, they, like so many people in society, hated us, thought they were above us, which is pretty shitty really.
RA: Agreed. So what about this photo? What’s going on here?
KB: Nothing really. We’d finished work and were getting cleaned up – not much to it.
RA: Mmm, that depends on how a viewer wants to read its meanings, surely? On that point, I got some of the students here to study some of these shots, Kev, with an eye on interpretation, from a semiotic point of view, and they may have a few questions for you…
KB: That’s cool. Fire away.
RA: Erm, OK. Anyone? [looking around at audience]
D: Hello – David.
KB: Hello, David.
D: Er, Can I, er, I’d like to ask you – it’s not really semiotics. Erm, can I ask you about the composition – the framing you used here?
D: Do you think you consciously framed this in a balanced way thanks to your time at college or…?
KB: Is it balanced? [squinting at projector]
RA: It is nicely framed, I’d say.
D: It is.
KB: Well, that’s interesting – who is to say? You know, you could break this shot down and blatantly critique or challenge it – or even champion it – it depends on the criteria of the analysis. And, to be honest, looking at it with today’s eyes, today’s mind, it is – I mean – it’s not a badly framed shot at all. Did I do that on purpose back then? Maybe. I don’t think it’s all down to my studies.
RA: There’s an instinctive sort of gift here tweaked by the more formal studies done later?
KB: Well, yeah, I think so. Isn’t it always like that with art?
RA: It certainly can be – often is, yes – but as you say – there are plenty of factors to consider, never that simple, it’s not just black and white.
KB: Er, Rob, this is actually black and –
RA: Argh, don’t. Comedian’s back! Very funny.
KB: I think there’s a nice combination of, well, formal study versus the more intuitive nature with this framing. Hard to say though, probably better to agree that, in this case at least, there’s a bit of both going on – it’s not just one thing. It was a while ago, I really don’t remember if I was aware of the rule of thirds or whatever…Might be just luck too though. I think the more interesting thing is the concept of a right or wrong photograph, as John Baldessari cleverly and controversially pointed out years ago with that self-portrait of his, you remember? The one with the tree appearing to come out of his head, kind of – what was it called – Wrong? This is Wrong? – something along those lines.
RA: Yes, it was called Wrong, mid to late 1960s, yep.
KB: Very clever shot. The tree was intentionally placed there in his framing. Then he wrote the word “wrong” on it –
RA: Just under it…
KB: Ah, was it?
RA: Yes, there’s a white border, big thick one around it.
KB: Anyway, just brilliant. The way he brought up the contention of what is an incorrect picture as opposed to what is right. I mean, why is my photo “balanced”? Compared to what? Is there a universal aesthetic sensitivity? Would someone from Siberia see this photo as a drastically different thing to someone from, er, I don’t know, Spain? From South America? I’m thinking they would. What about class difference? Education? Who’s got dibs on what’s right and what’s wrong anyway only the educated?
RA: You make it sound like it’s bad thing having an education.
KB: Well, yes and no. Of course it’s not a bad thing, you’re hopefully developing critical awareness and sensibilities, broadening horizons, building foundations, all that, yeah. But when that knowledge turns into smugness? It does happen, you know it does more than anyone.
RA: Hmm, surely that’s more to do with personality that being learned?
KB: True. I just feel we don’t always have to conform to what is the excepted, or current belief system, or popular theory – especially with art seeing as it is so subjective, so personal. “This photo is wrong!” How weak and shallow is that? Who’s to say our way of viewing the concept of correctness or wrongness – you know, and not just regarding photography either – is the right way or even the only way? Pretty presumptuous really – quite arrogant when you think about it. The western world only seeing things from a western world’s point of view. Which is understandable – we were born here, doesn’t make it the only way to think, feel, or do things, does it? Am I rambling?
RA: No, Kev, you make a valid point – that’s why we are here – to undermine why I do what I do! Thanks. [laughter]
KB: No, I didn’t mean it like that.
RA: Haha. You know, challenging, going against the grain, it’s arguably one of the greatest influences for creative thinking as is appreciating and welcoming diversity. In fact, Baldessari also rejected a lot of, er, notions, mostly on aesthetics, and particularly rebuffed the right to authorship – I mean, if I remember well, he didn’t even write the word wrong on the photo but got someone else to print it on – you know, he challenged the whole art set up at the time – a pioneer in conceptual art, really, thinking of when this all happened as well.
KB: Right. Loved his project with those red balls – what was he doing – trying to get four of them in a line or something? That was him, wasn’t it?
RA: Yes, although it was three and I think they were orange.
KB: Arrrgh! Were they? I could’ve sworn they were red – nah, they were red, he…
RA: Nope. Well, yes, he might have used red balls with another project though, you’re right there, I think.
KB: OK, OK, doesn’t matter. I mean, your orange might be my red or vice versa.
RA: Pretty similar on the colour spectrum, yeah. I’m pretty certain though. You know he had a subtitle or note to the project that read: “Best of 36 attempts” because he only used one roll of 36 exposures to get the shots.
KB: Ha, like it.
RA: Kev, I’ve got another shot here from the same – well, you wrote that it was the same negative – let’s take a look.
KB: Wow, we were so young!
RA: I mean, this one is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?
KB: Yes, kind of.
RA: Or is there more here than meets the eye as there arguably is with every picture?
KB: Hmm, well, as far as I’m concerned, not really with this shot. I’m not too keen on this one, to be honest – too staged for my liking, it was fun at the time, but I much prefer the more candid, spontaneous shot. The subject or subjects don’t even know that they are being photographed – I love that. That appeals to me so much more than the planned, smiley, cheesy snapshot ethic that seems to permeate society – not a new thing either, just think of all those old American advertising billboards, advertising in general – think of the 50s and 60s advertising. Ugh. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the artwork and graphic side of those ads, it was more the false connotation of the happy families, shiny cars with smiling kids in the back, all blonde and Aryan, you know? Glorifying booze and cigarettes. They even had babies attempting to coerce mothers into having a fag before scolding them to help calm her down…Really? It was that side I disliked, the crap they were trying to get us to believe in.
RA: Oh, yes, crazy times – kinda worked though, didn’t it?
KB: What the dumbing down of the masses and the headlong dive into consumerism? Oh yeah, they won.
RA: Hmm. Still, it just goes to demonstrate the power, the collective relationship, that shared cultural knowledge is key to understanding or reading an image – however it may be presented to the viewer, although that can and does drastically change its meanings, of course, as Barthes points out. The fact that you dislike this snapshot tendency is just as revealing about yourself as it is about the society we live in. But surely you still have an emotional response to seeing a shot like this – especially as you were there – you created it in all its phases?
KB: Well, yes, of course, I do. It was a very important part of my life – I learnt a lot about myself, learnt to – it was hard, it helped me develop character, or rather, a part of my character. These are all things that are – that I have within me and that are triggered when recalling this moment or by seeing this shot. Still, you know, that reminds me of what Freud said about photography and how it – much like music – is rooted, fundamentally, in the power of recollection – it’s just memory. Amazing really. Any photograph will always be a slice of the past, eternally denied this present moment, and, conversely, will always be viewed in the future.
RA: Ha, nice. So, what your implying is that a photograph – or any image really – can never be of the present? An elusive time traveller that never gets off here.
KB: Well, not the content of the photo, no, that will forever be locked in the past, right? Any photo is of the present – the present moment that is was taken in. It’s just not this one?
KB: I mean, the photo exists in the present, is seen, read, interpreted in the present – whichever way it may be presented as you just mentioned, but it is not the present. It can never be the present just as a photo of an apple isn’t an apple – it’s an image of one, Magritte’s pipe sort of thing. It’s the trapped past eternally locked into a tiny rectangular shape, or square or years ago in a circle that will be seen in the future – it’s destined to be viewed after the moment it’s captured never at the actual moment of conception, or creation.
RA: OK. So, you’re saying it’s more like a frozen part, a segment of a previous “now”?
KB: Yes, I believe so. It’s a present, but, yes, not this present here and now – one before this one if that makes sense?
RA: And that previous now is brought to life by the viewing in the present now?
KB: Yeah, haha, brought to life – it’s not Schrödinger‘s cat, you know! But yes, it takes on a new life maybe? Doesn’t it? I mean, if there’s no one there to look at the picture you could argue that it isn’t even a picture and doesn’t even exist.
RA: Mmm, that’s interesting.
KB: But this photograph, the physical thing itself, the technical aspect – doesn’t do much for me right now, not like the bathroom shot before – that one works on more levels for me than this one does.
RA: Being candid…
KB: Yes. The bathroom image was a shot I quickly snapped but it wasn’t a quick snapshot.
RA: Or a staged tableaux.
KB: Or a staged shot, exactly. Look, the guy with the helmet on here, on the other hand, is too contrived. Dunno, it’s a real knee-jerk reaction, I know, but that’s how it makes me feel. It might make me feel differently – might be more evocative to me tomorrow, next week, in a couple of years, I can’t say. But right now? No, don’t like it.
RA: OK. Incidentally, where’s that from, the Freud thing?
KB: Erm, I think it’s from the Civilization book he wrote? Yeah, I think so…
RA: Ah, yes, OK. Ready for another one?
KB: I am.
RA: There we go. Ah, look at this one – I really like this one.
KB: Yes, me too.
RA: No knee-jerk with this one then?
KB: Haha, no, not this one. Or maybe a different type of knee-jerk, I suppose you could say.
RA: So tell us about it.
KB: I can’t remember where we were – I think it’s when we went on an excursion up to the museums in London – I think this was outside the Tate? And, the thing I vividly remember about this photo is that it was probably the first time I got what I now call: that feeling. At least it’s the first time I can remember having it – no doubt I’d had it before but this was when I believe I became conscious of it – felt it for the first time.
KB: Yeah. When I’m wandering around looking for a shot, or you could say that the shot is looking for me? Anyway, if I see something that just seems to light up my brain, parts of my brain fire up, some sort of alignment of graphic cues, a converging of forms in front of me – Fibonacci, Golden Ratio – whatever you want to call it, whatever they are, then I get an excited tingle run through me. A nervous kind of glee, you could even call it. Is that weird?
RA: No no, not at all! Please, carry on.
KB: It’s like a trembling expectancy, I suppose you could call it, a tremendously visceral thing that takes over and I become intensely focused on capturing the shot, getting that image. It’s quite scary, yet exhilarating at the same time.
RA: You know, I’ve seen you, I wouldn’t say zone-out but rather more like zoning in on whatever it is you’ve lined up in your crosshairs! It’s certainly serious that’s for sure.
KB: It’s stronger than me. Many times, I’ve felt this deflated, erm, like depression come over me, a sort of come-down if I’m not able to grab the shot I’d seen, you know? It almost hurts – however absurd that must sound. It’s almost physical to me – it is physical.
RA: Fascinating. Like your brain was disappointed with you for missing its suggestion?
KB: I know it sounds mental, but yeah…
RA: Noooo, are you kidding? Sounds intriguing! And you felt that tingle, as you put it, when you took this shot?
KB: I definitely did with this one. I even remember excitedly telling, er, Paul, I think his name was – smashing lad – telling him that I’d nailed it, got the shot of the day. I just knew. Something inside – probably a lot more than just one thing, I’d bet, some sort of broken synaesthesia – something inside just seemed to “see” this shot and, nutty as it seems, then “told” me or used me, even, to get the shot.
RA: Remarkable. Almost like a secret weapon, isn’t it? Do you think this is your super-power, Kev?
KB: Possibly, yeah, could be. Thankfully, it never lets me down and is always on the hunt! I realised that through photography – and not because of it – I could harness that vision, bring that feeling to life so quickly through the immediacy of photography that I lost interest in drawing. In fact, I no longer feel the need to draw – such a time-consuming act – lovely and relaxing, true, but a lengthy process nonetheless. That’s the same way that Cartier-Bresson felt about his photography too. I wonder what he would have thought of the digital approach to photography?
RA: I have a sneaky suspicion that he would have hated it – especially all the editing.
KB: Possibly, yeah.
RA: Amazing insight, there. Thanks for that. Erm, any questions about this one? [looks at audience] Yes, Giulia?
G: I liked what you said about how you feel when you don’t get the shot, that almost physical feeling you have.
KB: OK… Yeah, it can be alarming.
G: It happens to me too.
KB: Oh, right.
G: Yeah, I don’t know about you, but if I don’t get the photo that I had in mind, then it torments me – I’ve even had dreams about the missed photo.
RA: No, really?
KB: That’s brilliant.
G: It gets to a stage where I have to go back to the same place – usually at the same time as when I first noticed the possible shot, I write everything down so I don’t forget – and I set up, and won’t leave till I get the shot – or a least a shot resembling my initial idea.
KB: Wonderfully obsessive.
G: Yeah, it annoys the hell out of my friends, family and my partner too!
KB: Not to worry, the shot matters more.
G: I know, right? [laughter]
RA: OK; Giorgia, thanks for that. Erm, did you have a question or…?
G: Oh, yes, sorry!
KB: It’s fine.
G: Erm, yeah, my question was: Were you aware of the statue in this image? I mean, did you know what it represented? Is that why you and your friend got this shot there because of the significance of the historical reference? Or was this just an off-the-cuff moment and you were unaware of the statue’s meaning?
KB: Er, that’s surely more than one question there, Rob?
RA: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing! [laughter]
KB: No, it’s all good. It’s just that my mind can only remember the question about us being aware of the statue’s significance, was it? So I’ll start there if that’s OK with you?
G: Yes, of course.
KB: Erm, no, is the short answer. Like I said when he jumped up onto it, the looming statue and his positioning just seemed to line up in my mind’s eye – and they still do when I look at it – the feeling came and I told him to freeze. But, if we were aware of what the statue depicted at the time, then I don’t remember now. Who is it?
G: It’s Perseus with Medusa’s severed head.
KB: Ah, yes, when he was fighting off that monster, the Kraken or something, and turned it to stone?
G: Yes, he was saving Andromeda. It was the sea-dragon Cetus though in the original myth.
KB: Ah, OK,
RA: You’re probably thinking of the film?
G: You see, our interpretation – we studied this in a little group – was very different from what you just told us happened that day. Bearing in mind we had no idea if you knew or not the story behind the statue, but we assumed you did, so…
KB: Opps, sorry. But it’s great, you know, the viewer’s observation of an image is equally, if not more important than the original idea that the person had when they created the image.
RA: And certainly no less important anyway. It goes back to what you said before: if there’s no one there to look at it…
KB: Sure. OK, Giorgia. I’m pretty curious now – and a little nervous, what was your take on it?
G: Well, as I said there were a few of us who sat down and discussed it.
RA: Was this done while we were still in the U.S. or did you get –
I asked Kev if we could repatch this text in some way, but he said, quite understandably, that it would be far too much work with the end result not being worth the time needed – and that we would never really be able to correctly and successfully complete this transcript. Not wanting to turn it into a creative writing session, or be accused of making things up, we had to consequently and rather disappointedly (at least for me) let it awkwardly stand as it is. Frustratingly, for anyone who wasn’t there, you’ll have to do your own creative exercise and let imagination take its course, I’m afraid. There’s simply no closure here with this one.
We’ll probably never know what Giorgia and her team thought of the image or how they interpreted it seeing as both Kev and I don’t really remember. But then again, it was only one interpretation, one point of view. The above images – as with any image – through polysemy can be read and enjoyed (or not) over and over again. The ambiguity of signs within a photo is there to be extracted through cultural-bound bias, careful and informed analysis, or through the enchanting multiplicity of human preferences, feelings and taste whether that be the knee-jerk reaction that Kev mentioned or the emotional response that any given image can incur from any given viewer. How an image is presented, its viewing context, undeniably, affects the interpretations – the same goes for the connotations of any accompanying text. This plurality of meanings is the observers’ right as it should be the creator’s delight. Whatever the observer’s take on an image is – be it love or despair – will be the creator’s pleasure or pain, and yet this take should always be a prerogative to be respected and savoured without prejudice however difficult that may often be.
Robert Avery, London, 2019
University, C., 2020. Information For Former Coleman University Students. [online] Coleman University. Available at: <https://coleman.edu/how-to-obtain-transcripts> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Northumberland Park Railway Station. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northumberland_Park_railway_station> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
JOHN BALDESSARI. 2020. JOHN BALDESSARI. [online] Available at: <http://www.baldessari.org/> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. 1000 Lausanne: Ava Publishing SA.
Mathsisfun.com. 2020. Golden Ratio. [online] Available at: <https://www.mathsisfun.com/numbers/golden-ratio.html> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Freud, S., 1930. Civilization And Its Discontents. p.18.
Averystudio.com. 2020. Avery Studio | Leather Designed By Craftsman Linda Avery. [online] Available at: <https://www.averystudio.com/> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Fox, A. and Natasha, C., 2012. Behind The Image. Lausanne [Switzerland]: AVA Pub, pp.31-104.
Theoi.com. 2020. PERSEUS 2 – Argive Hero & King Of Greek Mythology. [online] Available at: <https://www.theoi.com/Heros/Perseus2.html#Andromeda> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Higgins, J. (2013.). Why it does not have to be in focus. 1st ed. London: Quintessence Editions.
Cotton, C. (2009). The photograph as contemporary art. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
Byrne, K., 2020. Pilgrims Teacher Training Blog. [online] Pilgrims Teacher Training Blog. Available at: <https://pilgrimsteachertraining.wordpress.com/> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Fried, M. (2008). Why photography matters as art as never before. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press
Byrne, K., 2016. Kev Byrne 1971, Being Meanderings of the Photographic Type. [online] Kev Byrne 1971. Available at: <https://kevinbyrne1971.wordpress.com/> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Barthes, R. and Heath, S., 2007. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, pp.79-124.
Aaa.si.edu. 2020. Oral History Interview With John Baldessari, 1992 April 4-5 | Archives Of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [online] Available at: <https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-john-baldessari-11806#transcript> [Accessed 21 April 2020]. (Thanks for the inspiration, guys!)
Bright, S., 2011. Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson, pp.157-173.
Byrne, K., 2008. [online] Flickr. Available at: <https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinbyrne1971/> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
Renemagritte.org. 2020. The Treachery Of Images, 1929 By Rene Magritte. [online] Available at: <https://www.renemagritte.org/the-treachery-of-images.jsp> [Accessed 21 April 2020].
An excerpt of the original accompanying text for the two underground photos used in this post. Reproduced by kind permission of the author. The complete “underground” text will be presented in a future post that we are currently putting together. Thanks again to my dear friend for his patience.
“Travelling on the London Underground was one thing, actually working for them was another. I remember when I started working at the Northumberland Park depot on the famous Victoria Line, there was an exhilarating feeling of being somewhere you shouldn’t be, like sitting in dad’s seat in the car, or going into a door which says no entry, authorised personnel only. It felt naughty – but you could do it, you had permission. There was a boyhood wonder for me being able to look, and actually walk around, inside the driver’s cab. To finally see all the knobs, switches, lights and unknown things that the drivers knew so well, and were probably sick of. Must have been pretty boring though, cooped up in that dingy little box for however many hours they drove for. Thing is, technically, they don’t really drive at all, the trains are basically automatic and drive, do all the breaking and accelerating themselves. In fact, the only thing the driver really has to do is open and close the doors by pushing down a couple of buttons! If nothing drastic happened, like someone jumping under the train, the drivers could read the whole paper from Seven Sisters down to Brixton. They would get through a book or two a week, or even, as a friend once told me, get some sleep, or better still, take a friend along with you, preferably of the opposite sex – or whatever floats your boat. They were numerous stories of drivers getting their oats in those cabins, doing some deviously risqué antics which had a certain amount of attraction about it and added to the almost mystical quality of the cabin as you tried to imagine how the hell they got away with that in those tiny little things. One driver, while catching forty winks, used to wear black sunglasses so no one could see his eyes as the train came hurtling into the station, and even had some alarm clock, or a stopwatch or something set to the various different distance times between the stations, so he could wake up and push the door buttons just as the train pulled up and the passengers hungrily got off or on. Now, how cool is that? The alarm clock system didn’t always work for some drivers though and quite often passengers had to tap on the window of the driver’s cab to wake them up. Not so cool. Sometimes a supervisor even had the pleasure of doing this, which wasn’t all that good for the driver and we were lucky if we ever saw them again. Not that they were killed or anything, at least, I hope they weren’t.
I knew some of the drivers, and one of them even let me ‘drive’ one of the trains as we left the depot once, on our way to the first station, I’ll never forget that. It remains one of the most favourite memories to this very day. To tangibly fulfil one of my childhood dreams ranks as one of the top things ever done in my life. Yes, small things please small minds. There I was, grinning like a little baby from ear to ear as we cruised into the station, with the driver just sort of looking at me with a quizzical face. I checked to see if there was anyone on the packed platform that I knew, but there were just too many people. But that didn’t really matter, I didn’t need anyone to confirm that I was there, I knew I was there. I even feel that I’m still there sometimes when I get down, I just drift back to that moment and smile and let the train soothe me as we rumbled through the black tunnels of London Town far beneath the calamity above, an illusory, but sweet, raison d’être. Just one of the many tricks I use to find some peace and quiet from time to time, I suppose.
For an annoyingly inquisitive mind like mine, it was also great fun looking under the train itself once it was stabled and getting to see all those things that you never usually saw. Things such as the terrifying ‘shoes’ which touched the positive and negative tracks – or bars I think they were called – and that you did well to steer clear of, even if there was no current – you could never be too sure. Things like the compressor and the motor, which to me looked like a Scalextric car turned upside down, you know that spinning dynamo-type thing under the car, which was gold, or maybe red and white, I can’t remember now. It all seemed like an inflated Mechano model, which I suppose it was, really. I say that, but it’s not like we ever lifted up the many alluring floor panels throughout a train – something that was strictly forbidden – and had a good look at what was underneath. No, no, not us, don’t be silly.
There are many stories that I recall from that period of my life, some told wonderfully by others, which we all enjoy hearing when we get together, and some less pleasurable, and it’s not my place to tell here. However, there is one I can share, one that feels so surreal in my mind that I often doubt that it even happened, just a manifestation of suppressed fears, or something I once read or saw and has become entangled and interwoven between the realms of fact and that of fable and anecdote. But that can’t be the case, it did happen. A train rolled meekly into the depot one afternoon amid much commotion and our boss was urgently called saying we had to get a cleaning crew down there as soon as possible: there’d been a suicide, a “jumper” as they are ingeniously known to the underground workers. It was the first and, thankfully, last suicide I ever saw at Northumberland Park.
Once we’d been briefed on what was happening the boss asked for two volunteers who were needed to get down into the pits under the train (the underfloor access) and clean off the residual of the jumper. Wow, I’m quite sure I don’t remember reading that in the advert for the job. After the nervous, slightly disturbing glances from everyone, big Luke piped up and stepped forward. I suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised by his apparent detached indifference, he was as strong mentally as he looked physically, but still, I was slightly taken aback by his blasé attitude. Maybe it seems like false bravado to anyone else, but that was never something Luke really worried about – you don’t know someone that long and not know when they are full of shit or not. He looked at me with that famous glint in his eye – that was impossible to miss, and almost impossible to refuse, so I stepped forward too: no way I was going to let my best friend do this alone. I won’t go into the gory details of what we saw there that day (and it was gory), but, as Luke said at the time, you’ve just gotta clean it – after all, we were cleaners, it’s what we were paid to do. Such apparently earnest integrity regarding his work was most probably covering over or concealing some seriously unsettling psychosis or something. And trust me, I still know him well enough to know it’s there. I mean, it’s not that weird: we’re all broken in some way, right?
It’s funny, cleaning remnants of someone’s brain off of the underside of a tube-train is definitely something you never forget, and yet it almost feels like it’s someone else’s story, a memory from a film I was in, like a stage performance or something. It’s like the mind has projected the memory into a more theatrical setting, perhaps to legitimise it, to counteract the repulsion – the trauma – of what really happened (if it did happen at all that is). Fascinating how the brain protects itself like that, isn’t it? Well, for as long as you can, ahem, keep it inside your body that is.
I wonder if there’s anyone who still remembers those codes or acronyms that you could see near the vents or old maps – on the old rolling stock, just above the windows? Like little letter transfers they were. Things like TVIC? Com.VIC? DV, CV and EPV? Maybe GEN, and SS too if I remember well? And who could forget DIC? No one? Well, I remember them fondly and in my creative playfulness back when I lived in London, I was totally convinced that some kids had tagged nearly every carriage on every train on the London Underground. I saw those acronyms everywhere – they were ubiquitous. Quite ridiculous when I think about it now, but back then it seemed so outrageously real to me and, from that perspective, it was.
From the days when I first travelled on the Tube as a little kid, I remember being fascinated by those little letters. No one else seemed to know what they were or care or even to notice them at all. How strange was I and all that? Why don’t you just read your book? I didn’t care, I’d associated each transfer “tag” with some sort of warm reverence, or a profound respect for how dedicated these kids must have been to attempt such an ambitious task. I was in awe of them, they were larger than life, and, not disturbingly at all, I brought them to life too.
I imagined VIC as the bold one, the extrovert – the founder of this project – you didn’t mess with VIC, he was the top-dog. He owned those carriages. His tag was the most common but, on occasion, he would let other mates join his tagging revelry. I remember feeling twangs of envy about that, why couldn’t it be me? I wonder what it would feel like to be in such a cool gang? There were quite a few other lucky ones and, as far as I could tell, people who you never really saw all the time but they popped up more on the older trains. There was CV, which I never worked out, but could have been Chris and VIC, just friends, maybe lovers. Perhaps they were older brothers or ex-girlfriends and the like or maybe they’d fallen out of favour, been kicked out the group. Good riddance then if they couldn’t cut it, who’d want them in anyhow? There was “Terry” who would join VIC on his missions (TVIC), strange though, I never saw T on his own. He got kudos for being tight with VIC but he was obviously not brave enough to tag on his own – needed VIC to exist. Weak. I didn’t really like him. DIC, on the other hand, was clearly second in command, and I had a lot of time for him. I won’t lie though, I did think that DIC originally started off as an insult by VIC to the world: his rebelliousness uncontainable. Then, I thought how silly could I be, it would’ve had a “K” added if that were the case, right? I mean, VIC couldn’t have been a fool – far from it. Or maybe he was just playing it smart – sneakily making the insult look like a name? No, for me, DIC was a bit of a legend too and I often saw his tag all on its own, just dominating a whole strip – the whole side of that carriage having been irrefutably declared as his own. And he was pretty prolific as a tagger too: from the Central line to the Northern line, from the Bakerloo to the Piccadilly – you would see him, almost on a par with VIC. Almost. I often wondered if they had a rivalry between them, or if VIC created one, set it all up to give the others a sense of belonging. What a leader this VIC must’ve been…
They’d elegantly lay their claim to that strip above the window whether it was wooden, aluminium or plastic – they didn’t care – they didn’t discriminate; their impressively strong stickers resided quite comfortably in impressively organised dignity, sophisticated territorial pissings. I mean, how did they manage to diligently get them so well-placed? What type of guidelines were they using? Which criteria were they adhering to so faithfully? Just how serious were they about this tagging? Imagine how expensive those transfers must’ve been? How many of them were in this club? It was ultimately irrelevant how many, there was only ever VIC. Probably the best testament to this, if ever that had been in doubt, was the omnipresent Com VIC tag. I’d seen it on basically every tube train I’d ever been on. What a tag that was. How appropriate that the leader, the instigator, this commander would prefix his name with that term, just brilliant, sublime. Who knows, these taggers may have been the inspiration for my own love of tagging that came later in my teens? Was it thanks to these ghosts and their haunting that I was driven to meet my own vanity, my vainglorious need to be seen, my graphic cry for recognition? Absurd, yet kind of charming too, I suppose. I still, to this day, feel like the only person who ever saw them. Maybe I am. Perhaps it was just all in my head. Perhaps it was a way to deal with things back then. Affected or possibly disappointed with those around me I simply went up in my head, and, for better or for worse, I don’t think I’ve ever come back down.
Well, I did come down with quite a bang when I finally found out what those transfers really represented. I still remember the awkward, nervous little laugh I blurted out as the overhaulers explained to me that they were actually acronyms for machine parts and isolating cogs (IC) and the like, positioned throughout the carriages as a reference guide for technicians…Oh, yeah, of course, that’s what they are. What else could they be?
I can’t lie, I was heartbroken as well as a little ashamed. But how could they do that? Why would they do that to me? They would never know that they had inadvertently murdered VIC and his gang? Just wiped them away in an instance – snuffed them out with their ruinous acronyms and cold reality, something that I will never ever forgive them for, I could never let that go.
But with all those childhood dreams fulfilled (or destroyed), the joy of being on those trains soon lost its novelty, and turned into another routine to be slotted into and dealt with, like all the rest of it. Surely the art of happiness is being able to stay tuned in to those original untainted pleasures by never giving in to the ambivalence that can follow?
I started off on the London Underground as a graffiti control officer, no pretence, I was simply a cleaner, although it sounded impressive. I found myself taking off some of the most spectacular pieces of graffiti I’d ever seen; precious works of art which had been plastered all over the side of the trains, and sometimes inside, with uncanny skill and speed. One of my duties was also to photograph the larger murals with a polaroid and pass the photos on to my boss who then passed them on to the Metropolitan Police. I felt a little guilty thinking that in some way I was grassing up the artists to the police, but, I was just doing my job. Disappointingly, I don’t have any of those photos anymore and I wish I’d been more careful with the ones I did keep for myself (perks of the job, of course), and it’s only now, looking back, that I realise how photography has kind of always been with me. It’s such a shame that I only have a few Polaroids from then but just not of those impressive murals. I must admit, it hurt to take those beautiful things off the trains. What a waste. Still, they lived for a while, shone for a furiously intense moment, just like we do and, I suppose, that has to be enough.
Although, stripping those masterpieces off didn’t hurt as much as the suspect chemicals that the Underground had us using, rotten stuff it was. We had to take a break after ten minutes of using it or there was the likelihood of you passing out, even with one of those heavy rubber masks, like the ones they used in warfare. No, I’m not kidding at all. God knows what the chemical actually was, but it didn’t look very nice. It was like an orange jelly type stuff, that looked a lot like jelly come to think of it, but you certainly wouldn’t want to stick it your mouth or mix it with peanut butter, I can tell you. For four hours’ work, you needed two pairs of quality rubber gloves, so it must have been pretty corrosive gear. It came in these awful looking rusty silver tubs that looked like something Greenpeace should be trying to stop existing. It was probably illegal, and judging by the state of the tins, they’d been dumped in some storeroom until the cleaners came along and decided to use it for the graffiti removal. Free iffy chemical is cheap iffy chemical. It was probably toilet descaler or something and not meant for taking graffiti off trains at all – that might be why, over time, the surface of the trains started to darken, and take on a marvellously scorched effect as if the train was denouncing us, disapproving of the treatment. Not nice stuff. Wasn’t our problem though, they told us to scrub the thing clean, and that’s exactly what we did. We do what we’re told, we’re told what to do.
Friends laughed at me when I told them what I was doing, not because it was a shit job, although it certainly wasn’t what you’d call sought-after work either, but that it was some kind of divine justice, as they put it. You see, for years I’d put graffiti all over North London, on hundreds of buses, literally thousands of walls, bridges, lampposts, you name it, I’d hit it. I wasn’t as good as these guys, who created beauty, no, I was just into tagging everything that was taggable. Such insecurity, such a self-loving need to be accepted and recognised; it would be entertaining if it weren’t so sad. Still, everything that goes around, as they say, and, in my intimacy, I can always lovingly blame it all on VIC. Thing is, although it was such wonderful work, and as much as it hurt to take the damn stuff off every night, and it was every night, I couldn’t help wondering if they had anything better to do. I suppose they kept us in a job. The glamour of being the graffiti control officer didn’t last. Bodies were needed on nights to do special night cleans or something, and me and Luke, like the eager new kids that we were, said we’d love to do it.
Nights were a completely different kettle of fish from the day shift. There was no canteen, no visitors, no day time noises to help you keep a grip on reality, keep you anchored, just the echoing clangs and bangs of the overhaulers working under the trains, in the big shed next to the cleaners’ shed. We didn’t miss the sun though. During the summer, it got real hot in those sheds, and you used to cook. You couldn’t work for longer than ten minutes inside the train. I think we measured the temperature once, and it was about 145° (62°C) in there. The sun never touched the train itself, but the huge aluminium, or metal shed, got roasted by it all day, so come fourish, you had to call it a day, or die. The nights were hot, but nothing like the oppressive daytime onslaught.
Our boss had asked us what we wanted to do on nights, we had the choice of two things: one was sweeping the trains that come in from their hard day in London; which meant basically getting all the newspaper and shit that the commuters had dropped on the train throughout the day, and bagging it up and chucking it out. The other option was cleaning the train windows. I’d always fancied myself as a bit of a window cleaner, so me and Luke chose the second option. Idiots. Little did we know what was in store for us. People on the night shift, especially the overhaulers and technicians, seemed to be far less sociable, than those on days. Everyone just wanted to get the night over and done with, work through it, and make it go as quickly as possible, which you can understand. The night shift was full of African fellas, who seemed to effortlessly float around knocking their work out. They were on another level: powerful, silent and very efficient. They were a much friendly bunch than the moody overhaulers and soon made us feel like part of the gang, accepted us into their group. A lot of them were working in the day as well, for a different company, or studying. I don’t know how they did it. They must’ve had some ulterior motive for punishing themselves like that. Although, how could it be punishment when they were bettering themselves? I know a lot of them also sent money home for their family in Africa, which must have been some sacrifice, but clearly underlined their sincere and admirable sense of duty something that was occasionally lacking in the 20-cups-per-day-tea-drinking English lads.
The window cleaning was a nightmare of a job, an absolute bastard of a graft. It has its own name, the D-clean, short for dummies, dickhead, desperation, destitute, something along those lines. Me and Luke weren’t put together for the D-clean, and I started working on my own with this huge beast of a man called Alf. A strong, quiet and reserved man from Ghana who showed me the ropes, put me on track, so to speak. We had a whole train each, which for those of you who don’t know, that’s eight carriages, or units as they are technically called. Each unit was just over 52 feet long (roughly 16 meters in length), and 8 feet wide (a little over 2.5 meters) and had its own stock number on the side, 3058, or 3055, for example. You needed to know these numbers, so you could clean your specially allotted units. Those numbers became important as there were certain carriages that were easier to clean. Some people even liked a particular unit because the numbers were like important birthdays in the family or a lucky number, and what have you. Ridiculous in hindsight, but quite important at the time – as well as simply a harmless way to make the toil easier. There’s no shame in that.
That was fine, and made it all tick along quite nicely, until some dozy prat who was in charge, gave you the wrong job, or train, or the train was still out in service. Or it was there, but they’d just written it down wrong, probably because they were getting the numbers mixed up with their bloody golf scores from the weekend. You didn’t have to be thick to work there, but it evidently helped. The D-clean wasn’t simply cleaning a few windows as I’d thought, it was more like a psychological battle with yourself and the train, a battle of wits between you and the sheer concept of glass. Or perhaps it was a duel with the universe itself.
Each unit possessed fifty-four windows, awkward, filthy, and unsympathetic things they were. Let’s try to break the numbers down so we can come to terms with how daunting an experience it was. To each unit, there were 12 sliding doors: 8 in the doubles and 4 singles – and 2 connecting carriage doors, that’s 14 doors in total; these were accompanied by 4 end-of-carriage windows (the bulkhead) – we only had to clean the interior panes. Unfortunately, that was not the case with the 12 dividing windows, they were double-sided so giving us 24 actual panes to clean – but these were easy, quick things to knock out – we liked them, there were like a break-time. Not quite the same with the 12 large windows behind the seats (in groups of four between the sliding doors). These were the heart of any unit clean, the most time-consuming of them all and the most back-breaking to deal with. Technically 36 pieces of glass per carriage once opened up: 12 internally facing, another 12 once hooked up, and 12 eternal windows (but not the outsides of these). Not at all confusing, is it? So that’s a total of 54 windows – meaning 78 panes per unit if we include the double-sided windows to be cleaned – which we can multiply by 8 giving us a grand total of 432 actual windows but 624 panes per train in an 8-hour shift. For £4.20 an hour.
The hardest part, once you had taken in the numbers was hooking up those 12 windows to the handrail in every unit, itself a quite daunting task as they just seemed to get heavier and heavier as you went on, and the hooks were fiddly bloody things that took ages to get used to. But with time, these things become muscle memory, habitual and less challenging. Soon enough, me and Alf got into a reasonably smooth system, where he would go through hooking up the windows, and I’d follow him down dusting them. You had to dust them, or your water would turn black in seconds once you started cleaning them, so it was better to spend a bit of time wiping them down with a dust rag to save yourself the agony of carting those big, unpleasant buckets back and forth along the even more unpleasant cleaning platform, which was some type of rough – and what seemed unfinished – concrete surface. The hooking and the dusting done, we’d prepare the water. We’d use the big annoying buckets with dodgy wheels, and fill them up with piping hot water and a touch of detergent, and just a bit of degreaser as well. The big, unpleasant buckets had a mind of their own and used to go off in their own direction and you needed to use so much physical effort just to get them to go in a straight line, which was so hard thanks to the treacherous uneven floor, not to mention the often defective wheels which – regular as clockwork – robbed you of a quarter of your chemical in the buckets. It was relentless – a real test of your mettle. It was a war you ended up fighting whether you wanted to or not.
I still remember the first night doing the D-clean. The train had never looked so long. In fact, when you looked down the middle of the train, with all the interconnecting doors open, it seemed endless and eternal. Like an unforgiving plastic and metal vanishing point, a gateway, a tunnel straight through hell. Curiously, when I’d first started on days I can still remember how beautiful that tunnel of open doors looked however odd that may sound to someone who has never witnessed it. I mean, how can interconnecting carriage doors be at all attractive? Well, they were for me. There was a calming symmetry to that tunnel, an equilibrium of some sorts, an inviting stability, that you just had to walk down the first time you saw it. But none of that mattered anymore. Any of the remaining novelty of being on a tube train not as a passenger soon wore off; the excitement of being where it feels like you shouldn’t be, the fascinating attraction of that which is normally prohibited – even the tragic glory of VIC and his magic, all of these things, soon fell away and were replaced by dust, windows, and a mild begrudging respect, although, perhaps, hatred would be a better word.
After the hooks, Alf would start hitting the windows, soaping them up, and I’d come along behind him with the squeegee – by far the best things about cleaning windows. Water used to drip down your arm and onto the seats, and we had to try and soak it up as quick as possible. You used to get water running down your arms and into your eyes and down your flanks as we cleaned the windows that were hooked up, completely killing the joy of squeegeeing. Unpleasant and relentless it was, there was no escaping it. Every window had to then be wiped with a clean cotton cloth to get rid of any possible runs: couldn’t have any runs, you’d get shot if the inspector found any runs. We noticed that sometimes, the water hadn’t gotten rid of all the grime on the window, so we started adding a bit more degreaser to the water, which killed just about everything. And let me tell you, we found everything on those windows. I would’ve loved to have seen the dick-heads who put so much crap in their hair that we needed industrial degreaser to get it off. The next job was to close the windows, clean them, thankfully we didn’t have to dust the external ones, lock them and then wipe down any marks or runs, that you’d carelessly dripped on to the seats or floor. I can still feel the panic spike that went through you once you closed and locked the window (an awkward operation in itself as not all the locks worked smoothly) and then you spotted a run you’d missed. Terrifying feeling. You would get seriously told off for leaving drips on the seats too, the public wouldn’t have that, couldn’t accept that, as they nonchalantly dumped their newspapers and waste all over the floor. I remember how some of the supervisors would try to make you feel bad about things like not keeping things in order and keeping a check on timings, your language, and making sure you had your high-vis and protective gear on, but those were banal and unimportant, things that you knew and did instinctively after the initial induction. More importantly, there was an unseen almost secret code of ethics that we had there, a hidden glue that kept everything together: good old pride.
Those seemingly insignificant runs, the small details, as if by wounding that deep-rooted pride or making us feel a sense of dignity and duty towards the job, these minutiae would make us do our job better however demeaning the job was. I mean, that worked for most of us, of course, probably those who were a little more OCD than most, I guess. There were a few people who just didn’t give a shit – and that’s to be expected – law of averages and all that. No, the worst possible thing that could happen to you (obviously excluding injury and death) was losing respect from your peers, and that clearly goes for any occupation. The fear of not wanting to appear sloppy, negligent, incompetent – yes, even regarding such trivialities as drips and runs on a windowpane – kept everyone on their toes. I’ll never forget it. A ridiculous yet effective way to guarantee, paradoxically, a constant high level of quality from the consistently lowest-paid workers that, unsurprisingly, the management wasn’t even aware of – something to brainstorm in the next AGM. It was purely a question of pride between us workers, foolish, misdirected, endearing even – you could classify it however you like – but it was pride nonetheless. I remember it vividly and I still apply it today even if I’m just wiping down a work surface, cleaning a whiteboard, might as well do it properly and with a little bit of pride, right? I suppose it gave us something else to take away from the job as opposed to just the risible financial aspect of it all. It made everything easier to swallow, less taxing on the mind and, in its perversity, it worked. Fine, OK, maybe I was just a tad more OCD than the rest of them.
Me and Alf would alternate with these little roles we had just to make the slog less monotonous, just to see if we could mix it up a little, make it easier to cope with. But it was a ruthless monster, and, even though I gave it a good go, I’m not afraid to admit that it beat me in the end. Alf stuck with it stoically and I can only marvel at his strength, and not only his god-like physical power but his obvious mental prowess. I think that the only other possible reason that someone could stomach that kind of job for very long, excluding desperation, of course, would have to be because they, quite simply, liked it. But that would then mean that they were obviously completely insane, and Alf, withdrawn and silent as he was, certainly never portrayed any tell-tale sign of being a fruit cake, or touched by madness. But who’s to say we’re not all touched by some form of madness and the frightening beauty it can sometimes bring? Still, he’ll always have my respect for how he was permanently unruffled, never seemed fazed by the task at hand.
Luke went back on days before me, as there were no places when I’d asked to be moved back, so I had to stick with nights. I was put on the B-clean or the sweeps as they were affectionately known. Infinitely easier than the notorious D-clean, the B-clean mainly consisted of cleaning the driver’s cab, getting all the rubbish bagged up, sweeping the units, and then a bit of dusting. Nothing too strenuous, I thought, that was until Friday and Saturday night came along to ruin everything. I could not believe the amount of shit left behind by the public, and I was beginning to hate them even more than before. Looking down the already familiar and intimidating inner tunnel of the units with their doors open, was like some sort of festival aftermath, a multi-coloured paper war between the mass of thoughtless pricks, and all the pissheads of London. I think we really do need someone, and something to hate, makes it all so much easier, doesn’t it? Conversely, there was a tremendous joy that would come over you when you got on one of those trains, maybe towards the end of the shift when you were exhausted, and as you got on you noticed that there was, inexplicably, hardly anything on it at all. Indescribably beautiful feeling it was, like magic, such a welcome respite. It was amazing how quickly and how easy it was, though, to start to passionately detest everybody that used those damned trains. Yes, it was so wrong – pathetic and puerile as well, but it felt so good at the time. I wonder if that’s the same feeling politicians have about the electorate.
I got into a steady habit and knocked out the work each night, which was usually about six or seven trains each, five if you were lucky. There were a lot of ups and downs with the night sweeps. You had to keep busy, and you had to keep thinking. You could easily flip if you let your mind turn blank, and sleep would soon be upon you, claiming its rightful place, you just had to keep thinking and moving. That was easy for me – being an only child – I was quite used to being on my own with my thoughts as I still am. I’d always made up games as a kid and was always invariably looking for some excuse to kick a ball around somewhere – and the trains were no exception. Now, ball games were obviously not permitted in the depot – but humans are great at adapting to challenging circumstances, and we managed to create impromptu football matches almost everywhere. One of the best places for a quick game – or even just a couple of shots – was at the north end wall of one of the huge service sheds. There was a marvellously complex array of pipework plastered all over it and, fortuitously for us, some of these pipes just happened to be roughly the same size as an actual goal. We made balls out of anything we could find which were most usually thick paper or crushed cans. No one believes me when I tell them that I’ve scored some of the greatest goals in history wearing steel toe-capped protective footwear and volleying an empty Coke can in off of a water pipe crossbar from 25 yards! We had some glorious games there. But it was on my own, during the sweeps, that I really got the most out of this recreational distraction as I like to call it. After the main job of picking up all the rubbish, bagging it, and cleaning and disinfecting any vomit off of the train deck (the atheist would become a devout believer when they found no vomit on the fabric seats, I can tell you), then it was time to dust down surfaces which were mainly the window ledges and seat rests. I loved this part of the job – as much as anyone can love any part of that job – as it was quick and easy to do, only took around 10 minutes or less, and I could play some seriously enjoyable football. It was a simple game that slotted in perfectly with the swift walk down the whole of the train; back through those open interconnecting-doors (that had returned to being wonderful again) and then back up the other side dusting those ledges and rests as you go armed with just your cloths, the ever-present spray bottle and a couple of makeshift balls (these were the upgraded balls – lovingly compressed by hand and then wrapped in an elastic band of two – formidable thing). The game was simple: by the time you had dusted three-quarters of one side of one unit – and having chosen which team went first – you could release your shot – had to be a volley – to try and score by sending the ball sweetly and gloriously into the next unit through the open interconnecting doors. It was strictly forbidden to step into the last quarter of the unit and shoot as it was too close, too easy – no challenge there, and if you did, then that team “lost the ball” and couldn’t shoot. Are you still with me? Then, you simply repeated the routine until you got to the last quarter of the next unit releasing your volley as the other team this time. All of this for eight carriages. So, technically, four goal attempts per team going down dusting one side, then another four attempts each on the way back up as you dusted the other side – the so-called second half. Now, if you had the standard five trains, that meant you could organise a mini-tournament of, say, two semi-finals played over two legs on the first four trains, and the final would be played on the fifth train – although other combinations could’ve been used. With six trains I often just played the four quarter-finals the regular way and the semis would be played on just one train. So instead of one dusting walk down the train being half of a game, it became a whole game – just to fit it all in. When you had seven trains I preferred to play four quarter-finals and then there would have been two epic semis to decide the final. There were times when I just played random games though, just for the sheer pleasure of thumping those volleys. Shame I can’t specifically remember any of those games – I’ve played too many to remember that far back – but I’m sure they were amazing though. If that is not all that clear, rest assured, it was a lot more fun playing it than trying to explain it, trust me.
I always did it. In fact, I always have, everywhere I have ever lived, I’ve managed to create and play this game. Every single bedroom I’ve ever had, although not when staying as a guest I’d like to point out. There’ve been quite a few modifications such as using sponge balls (to not wreck the room/house I happen to be in), one bounce half volleys to playing with five touches and rebounds included. I once lived in a tiny room in Wood Green with no room to swing a leg for a shot and even there, unbelievably, just using my knees to direct the ball (a makeshift shelf unit goal) I managed to complete leagues and tournaments – the headers were out of this world too, I mean, they had to be. It has always been part of my switch off (or switch on?) time, my break from studying, or reading – just a need, a way to move to think. Maybe it was just a good way to keep fit, or even, as is more likely the case, to ensure that whatever I was working on, studying or writing about got placed into the right places within the brain.
I’ve only ever told a few people about this over the years, and those I have told have loved the idea of it. Some mates would argue that it just wasn’t real though, and how could I believe it was a football match. I would counter with how can you say that your video game is real either? If anything, my fantasy Home League Football, as it became known later, was just as real if not more so than those video games, and it was certainly not any less real than those games – at least I was moving around. I’ve even got around thirty years’ worth of stats and league tables from my first tatty notes in London bedrooms to my more recent slick colour-coded Excel sheets. The Home League is now officially known as North East London Districts Home League. Granted it’s a bit of a mouthful, but I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks, it’s mine. I remember feeling quite embarrassed to tell anyone about the tables at first, years ago, but I soon got over that. It’s not that weird, right? Although, sadly, I don’t do it much at all nowadays, getting old – hurts too much.
It seems that I wasn’t the only one who found creative ways to get through those long arduous nights. I’ll never forget the remarkable story of one of the African guys called Jerry and his uniquely brilliant strategy for making it through the sweeps.
Jerry – who knows what his real name was – had real charisma and never seemed sad or showed that he was down, maybe he was just good at faking happiness, I can’t say, though I doubt it. He was always telling jokes, laughing and singing as he wandered around the depot, we need people like that in the world. I had plenty of time for him and not just because of the fact that he held down two jobs and was studying (as so many of us were doing at the time) but rather the way he kept that jovial spirit up, it was amazing really. Just as I had my volley game while doing my work, Jerry had his own idiosyncratic way of coping with the dusty nights on the B-clean, and an arguably more intellectual pursuit, or so I thought. Ah, Jerry, you absolute legend.
While you worked on your train, you could easily see the other trains next to yours as they were all lined up in the shed lanes. While you were on working on your train, there wasn’t really all that much time for banter between the other cleaners there, save perhaps for the odd obscene gestures and the like – just as a laugh – but Jerry always found time to pull a face or just give you a friendly nod – all precious stuff when you worked away in isolation. I usually looked over to the other trains just to check to see how far behind or how far in front of the others I was, there was a healthy competitive pride there too. I would often see Jerry working away and then, every 10 minutes or so, he would just stop, dead in his tracks. On closer inspection, I saw that he had opened up one of the many broadsheets freely available to us and was leaning on a pole reading away. Wow, what an intellectual. There I was smashing volleys around the train like an eight-year-old with paper balls – however excellently crafted and however Tony Yeboah my volleys actually were – and yet, when compared to Jerry and his high-brow reading time-out activity, it just didn’t cut it. As always, my mind ran riot with creative hypotheses and thoughts about the commitment to furtherment and his studies, his desire to keep the brain active, the unshakeable dedication to the acquisition of knowledge that Jerry clearly had, he was becoming my hero. It was only after a few weeks that I discovered that he wasn’t reading at all – he was having a cat-nap, the sneaky bastidge.
Jerry used to have this amazing ability, or else it was some kind of magic that he possessed, of being able to stop sweeping, and with his broom and sweep bag in hand, fall bang asleep with an arm interlocking one of those vertical poles keeping him upright and creating the illusion that he was just having a quick read. Now, I like to pride myself on my perceptiveness, but I would never have known if the supervisor hadn’t told me what was really going on, so good was his ruse. Hats off to Jerry, the happy, smiley chap and clearly more of a sly old fox than he first appeared to be. What was so good about it was the way he effortlessly slipped from one state to the other. One of the supervisor’s told me to always keep an eye on Jerry’s reaction when someone else would get on his train, and it was true, he couldn’t get busted. When a technician or supervisor got up onto the train through the driver’s cab and the moment he did the train would lurch or shift slightly but that would be enough for Jerry to feel it and then snap away, turn the page, or fold the paper up and glide seamlessly back into his work. Was he doing it as Michelangelo apparently used to do – little power naps to keep you going? Was it the fact that he left our depot in the morning – slept on the outbound train – and then went directly to another job? And then, in the afternoon, off to college as well? Or was he simply a covert lazy-arse? We’ll never know, and it changes little anyway: the skill he had, the quasi-theatrical performance of his antics was not only effective it was also entertaining.
The sweeps did different things to different people. Some of us endured it silently, some hated it with a passion, some of us accepted and suffered it with song, laughter, or volleys: we all had our own methods in managing the madness. But there was one thing that unified us all and that we all enjoyed and looked forward to on those demanding night shifts, and that was the freebies. Probably the greatest perk of the sweeps was all the amazing things you could find on the trains. It wasn’t only paper and crap that the conscientious tube traveller left behind; the generous, warm-hearted commuters even left bags, gloves, jumpers, books, walking sticks, full fag packets, lighters, clothes, wallets, and the like behind. Careless so-and-sos. As you can imagine, it was the wallets and the purses that carved a wicked, vindictive, immensely pleasurable smirk across your face: justice. That’ll teach ’em! These simple humble victories are just another phase of the job that kept you sane in the insanity of it all, kept you smiling. My only regret really is that I missed out on the mobile tech that proliferates our world today. We would find 90-minute blank cassettes, the odd broken throwaway camera, but that was about it. We usually found quite a lot of coins on the floor, and if you could be bothered, there were riches to be had down the sides of the seats, and it was, more often than not, worth the hassle. It was a simple technique, where you knelt down near the slit between two seats, and applying your full body weight there, would widen the slit and enable you to use a key or lolly stick or something (your finger if you were brave enough), to fish the shiny little bleeders out of hiding. There were even stories of a few of the guys getting hold of some of the special Allen keys that the overhaulers and technicians used to unlock and lift up the seats. And, if you happened to get on with a couple of those technicians, they would even let you know when the next overhaul was due so you were able to get to those hidden coins before they did. But only if you were lucky enough to have someone complicit, someone on the inside, and, I know nothing about any of that – no, not me, officer.
It was wonderful when one of those coins paid the bus fare home when you were skint or shattered as we almost always were back then. We even got the odd cab when the findings and gods were particularly kind and gentle to us. On average, you were guaranteed fifty pence to one pound a night during the week, and an almost certain couple of quid over the demoralising slog of the weekend shift – you’ve gotta take the rough with the smooth.
I’ll never forget the time that I found a small red bus pass with some Asian kid’s big brown eyes smiling back at me. Poor sod I thought, take better care of the next one though, won’t you, mate. As standard procedure with this sort of finding, I promptly had a good nose through it, and found fifty fat quid! You didn’t really think I was going to go on about taking it to the lost property office, whatever that is, now, did you? You do realise that such a place doesn’t even exist except in the fake bureaucratic façade of political correctness. I remember one driver who found so many gloves, umbrellas and hats during the sweeps that he actually opened a market stall at the weekends which he would run all winter! Lost property? Yeah, right, it’s over there somewhere, I think. Good luck with that.
A fifty-pound note! A nice big browny-orange thing it was, and something I’d hardly ever seen. Naturally, I thought it was a fake, but some of the guys on sweeps said it was real, and it did feel real. It was tough and rough in my hands, and it was mine. The following morning, I took it to one of my friends who worked in the local sweet shop near home, and lo and behold: it was fake. My friend put it under the ultraviolet light thingy that they use, and it shone like a neon light, with the radioactive Queen and her smile even more knowing and vulgar, denying me my littlest of victories.
I did find some great, and unusual stuff though, most of which I’ve still got: a quality leather Baseball glove, enamel badges, loads of books, a Lacoste sweater, a leather jacket, a penknife, a gold Parker pen, a wig, a silver ring, a watch (Cartier) and so on. Certainly gave you a little lift while you were slaving away on those trains. Problem was, you had to be quick, because most of the drivers who brought the trains into the depot, used to walk back through it before getting off, so you could only get half a train checked by the time you met the driver in the middle if you got on at the back as soon as it came in. There was a fair bit of tension between us and I’m sure they felt the same about us though, and that we’d robbed them of whatever was in the half we’d walked through if anything, of course. Nobody really respects a cleaner and this gave them something else to hate us for. There we go again, we all need someone to hate. It wasn’t always them against us though, and there was a hell of a lot more good guys than bad guys working there. To be fair, most of the drivers got off straight away, instead of walking back through the units, probably knackered, and the thought of staying on the train longer than necessary was just plain stupid. I suppose it was one of the perks of the job that they didn’t really worry about and more often than not left it for us. But I like to think that they occasionally thought of us when they got straight off and intentionally left us to it, I really do. It was great when the odd driver that I knew, like the one who let me ride into Seven Sisters with him, brought a train in and looked out for me, giving me a wink and a nod, letting me know that I could walk through the whole thing, but they were few and far between.
People often ask me what I really got out of my time on the underground, and I don’t think that it’s even that easy a question to answer and I’m not always sure how to answer it, to be honest. Perhaps I picked up on the positive vibes from the experience simply because I’m a born optimist and only saw the positive side to it all by being drawn to people who are also that way inclined. Or, perhaps, there were just too many things going on in my life back then for me to clearly identify with any real certainty the key points, any salient moments to underline from that job and they most probably seeped in unconsciously. There were too many, I think, and perhaps I have already attempted to point them out with the above anecdotes and observations. There is, of course, the possibility that it was just another job and I got little to nothing out of it – except for black nails and proof that my immune system worked. But that feels wrong, too reductive for me.
One thing is clear though, at least for myself, that the power of the mind, the adaptive quality of the brain and especially the wonder of creativity to guide us through adversity, is something truly magical to witness, to behold, and to experience. How many of us found (or created) enjoyment in the experience there, leads me to speculate on the eloquent and, perhaps, at times, elusive and overlooked skill we all seem to have of being able to make the most of a situation. Being able to find pleasure in the mundane and commonplace, surviving what life throws at us is, evidently, an important and gloriously fundamental aspect of what being human really is.
Ha, but what do I know? At the end of the day, I’m just a happy, makeshift-ball-volleying and glorified cleaner.“
– Kev Byrne, 1997