The Whole and The Part


I wouldn’t look down so smugly from that Ivory tower
You were a disorganised mess before you met me
You have relinquished so much of your binding power
But it’s not like you have been replaced by divine decree
So stand up a bit no need to lie down and cower
Past former glories aren’t any guarantee
For liberty

It’s not like you are much different to them either
Still the manager, guardian, the custodian of eloquence
Yours is but to contain while you think I take a breather
I’ve been validated by monks through illuminated elegance
Don’t forget yourself or this tired forgotten weaver
My evermore fruitless relevance
In arrogance

This delirious electronic dance that we all seem to do
Unhinges but couldn’t ever leave you behind
Still orthographically clarifying their oral stew
A structural metamorphosis if you were so inclined
To redefine ourselves once more anew
No ages dark of once maligned
Or resigned

Maybe you were better off with the continuous script
I know you still pine the awful murdered calfskins
In blood ink and Guttenburg’s curse you were dripped
Images inverted to help underline their sins
Dulled light of ignorance will return us all to the crypt
Through idiocy glorified – the easiest of wins
It begins

The incessant duel with what is said and written
Crosswiring meaning with form hinders much
By the rabid dog of travesty, we were bitten
Decontextualised perversity or some other such
Enticing those with whom they are smitten
Shivers deep and sick to the touch
Their clutch

Still, you kept me warm when nights were cold
No prisoner bound by your gatherings so rich
Affectionate quires interlaced and bold
Our longevity and transcendence still bewitch
Sacred perusals of that which have always been told
And will surely outlive this temporary glitch
Our hitch


Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine a slightly calmer toned-down Philip K Dick getting together with a slightly less chilling than normal Michel Faber – with a subtle sprinkling of Ray Bradbury, and that is (for me at least) exactly what this wonderfully creative book is.

I noticed his name in the end credits to After Yang the 2021 film and thought I’d give him a go. I’m so glad I did. I’ve always loved short stories and the rich, fleeting, and tricky to get right glimpses they offer the reader, and this collection is no exception and right up my street.
If the likes of Bradbury, Faber, Dick, Gaiman, China Miéville, Le Guin, and the glorious Primo Levi all float your boat, then this book – without a shadow of a doubt – is for you.

Expertly and gracefully written too; full of imagery with rich, vibrant, and quite gloriously flawed – yet easily relatable – characters. Plots glide effortlessly and powerfully throughout these stories, and they grip and hold the reader (at least this one) right till the very last page without any convoluted undercurrents or affectations just for the sake of it. Dystopian, dark, frighteningly tangible and, I’d argue, most definitely and disturbingly plausible (hence the connection to P.K. Dick’s work). A short story collection crafted with great skill and style, and there was no hesitation before ordering his more recent short story collection Universal Love: Stories which I am very much looking forward to reading!

I could count the times I’ve immediately re-read a book on one hand – but I really had to reprocess/re-enjoy this one again straightaway. I look forward to letting it go cold and then diving in again later this year to see if it (hopefully) gives me something else; I have a sneaky suspicion that it will do just that. But it’s perfectly fine if it doesn’t too: it’s already become an instant classic for me.

View all my reviews

The Balls of Piss

The Balls of Piss 
Thought we’d give the balls of piss a miss 
Not as safe a place as you’d think anyway 
No climbing frame claim to fame this 
Or subverted rage game to block what you say 
Just a cage full of balls of piss 
The other day 
Said you’d try the jump from up on high 
I didn’t believe you’d actually do it 
Your boisterous boasting arcs towards the big sky 
Spectators like clouds to your proclaimed shit 
As you steady yourself to fly 
Into the pit 
The jeers and taunts work their magic on you 
I can see your eyes light up 
Part of me wishes that you do it too 
But the rest of me hopes you fuck up 
Trembling ripples before the queue 
In your vanity cup 
The older ones push their way to the top 
They steal your presumed win 
Sinews much older and bolder do pop 
And white smiles and cheers begin 
With no fear of the drop 
Or broken chin 
The sound of cracking can still be heard 
From Walthamstow to Finsbury Park 
Your forgotten bravado now seems absurd 
And we pretend this won’t leave a mark 
Glowing screens become quite blurred 
As we embark 
Why didn’t they ever take it away 
Build something less unforgiving 
I guess these lessons and games we play 
Are all part of the game of living 
We might say what we lost that day 
Is perhaps a kind of giving 
The plastic balls no longer seem like a safe place 
No more the alluring bliss 
Scarred from afar and with an older face 
I remember that park did this 
But brave silhouettes eternally begin the race 
Into the balls of piss 

Into The Balls of Piss  (alternative layout thingy)
Thought we’d give the balls of piss a miss 
Not as safe a place as you’d think anyway 
No climbing frame claim to fame this 
Or subverted regret game to block  
What you always say 
Just a cage full of balls  
Of piss 
The other day 
Said you’d try the jump  
From up on high 
I didn’t believe you’d actually do it 
Your boisterous boasting arcs towards the big sky 
Spectators like clouds  
To your proclaimed bullshit 
As you steady yourself  
To fly 
To die 
Into the piss-stained pit 
The jeers and taunts work their magic on you 
I can see  
Your eyes light up 
Part of me wishes that you do it too 
But the rest of me hopes you fuck up 
Trembling ripples  
Before the queue 
Shine In your vanity cup 
The older ones push their way to the top 
They steal your presumed win 
Sinews much older and bolder do pop 
And white smiles  
And cheers begin 
With no fear of the drop 
Or broken chin 
The sound of cracking can still be heard 
From Walthamstow to Finsbury Park 
Your forgotten bravado  
Now seems absurd 
And we pretend  
This won’t leave a mark 
Glowing screens become quite blurred 
As we embark 
Why didn’t they ever take it away 
Build something less unforgiving 
I guess these lessons  
And games we play 
Are all part of the game of living 
We could say that what we lost  
That day 
Is perhaps a kind of giving 
The plastic balls no longer seem  
Like such a safe place 
No more the alluring bliss 
Scarred from afar and with an older face 
I remember that park did this 
But brave silhouettes eternally begin  
The race 
Into the balls  
Of piss 

The Killing Machines

These Mythopoeic Stills

There’s a fly trapped in here. I can hear it. It’s over there.
I wonder how it got in. The buzzing used to annoy me, but it doesn’t anymore; you get used to it as it becomes just another part of the day – if this is what a day even is. Can it feel me here too? I wonder if it hated my noise at first too, or maybe it has got used to me too, it suffers me as I suffer it.
Should I kill or let it out? But if I try and let it out won’t another one simply fly in and we’ll be back to square one just like the last time this happened? And if I kill it? But why would I do that? It’s just trying to get through life like everything else is too, I guess. Maybe I’ll try and let it out then – that seems like the right thing to do.
There, I felt the air tickle my cheek as it flew past me. It must be a big one. Wait. What if it’s not a fly? What if it’s a hornet, or some diabolical wasp. What if this all gets out of hand? It just wants to get out, maybe I should hurry – set it free before it gets mad. I’m confused, or am I mad? Am I going mad?
And that’s when I realise that I don’t have the faintest idea how to even get out of this place either.

[1] The Three Fictions and that One Tiny Fact
There’s one of those black and white mosquitoes behind me. I can hear it. Although its low buzz tells me it’s already full of blood – so am I safe? I guess it will just stab me for the fun of it like its great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother did last year.

(2)Three Facts and a Fiction
The cat was a killing machine that’s for sure – although it had always been nice to the girl. I guess it loved those bits of speck she would give it in the early hours. She’d never heard a cat eat and purr at the same time and the first time it happened, she thought it was dying. It did die though, but that had little or nothing to do with speck.

BREATHE character sketch thingy

Character Sketch for “Breathe” 300-500 words; totally imaginary; not me – trying not to put myself in it – so much harder than you think. But not impossible. (the Ideal Method according to Novakovich) 28th April

She really hates corporate America; lives on the streets of NY; angry, wise, shifty, a little paranoid and insecure even if she comes over as incredible confident. Hates technology. Has a notebook – writes in code. She’s secretive really. She’s very loud; swears, uses uncomplicated speech – appears dense, but is far from it; shouts at people who touch her involuntarily; speaks her mind, strong moral code – unforgiving; never lets go once she’s gotten hold of something/someone. She’s dirty but pretty. Short, lithe, fit. Fierce eyes, raven hair, high cheekbones and she struts as she walks; picks at the skin around her thumb. Enjoys fidgeting. Rocks slightly when she sits; bounces her foot a lot. Possibly Italian origins. Lost two fingers in a car accident – does just fine all the same. Better than us, arrogant, annoying but very alive. Sleeps with men and women without any preferences (they’ve gotta be cute at least).
She has a secret. A dead man’s secret. She needs to tell it to the press who have got the dead man’s story all wrong up to now (they accuse him of drug-trafficking!) It is her mission. Clear his name; and redeem herself for how she mistreated him before he died; incriminate the dead man’s Lady friend as much as she can: her real mission – make the Lady pay. Why? She’s jealous. Vindicative. But not violent. Talks to herself, running invasive monologue that tries to calm her down when she gets upset/angry; which is often. Has arranged interview with press but hates herself for having to talk to them. But has to get the truth out. Only way. Then she’ll be free. He’ll not be forsaken. The Lady will be ruined; shamed.
The interview is tomorrow. She’s nervous, ranting. But she has to do this. She checks the facts and starts to walk, monologue going mental in her head: “Come on, you can do this. Stay calm, girl. Breathe. Keep walking, it’s this way. Focus, idiot. Breathe.”

Something along those lines anyway. That’s all I got for now.
My word, I didn’t think she was this complicated (aren’t we all tough?) when I first met her in my mind. I’m looking forward to getting to know her, see what she does, see where she goes – where she takes me. I think I’d be a bit intimidated to meet her in the flesh though, to be honest…

I Saw Him Sniffing Glue Late One Afternoon in Highbury


I suppose I’ve never really forgotten about him and the weird attractive rebelliousness of what they did that summer. Saw them all do it so many times, now I come to think about it; even though, thankfully, I was too chicken-shit to try it myself.
Him, like a god amongst men, with steely blue marbles glistening like dark ice in his eyes that slowly turned to red embers while I looked on in a kind of rapture, like a kid at the circus – which I suppose I was, in some ways. Sniffing Tipp-Ex, cigarette lighters or nasty bags of yellow glue never appealed to me as a clever thing to do – maybe I was just lucky that I wasn’t made the way he was; he couldn’t be that perfect and not have been broken or flawed in some way.
Late afternoon, we sat in the pissy bike sheds next to the Arsenal and he passed the bag around with a fake maturity that didn’t affect me at all as I just took some pictures of the trees, the sky, some ants nearby; my uncle had given me a Pentax K1000 that I didn’t really know how to use properly, but I loved to carefully try and snap away at the world around me anyway, with the beautiful spontaneous innocence of the young and uninitiated; inexplicably, stupidly even, I never took one of him – something I have never been able to forgive myself for.
One by one, their eyelids crept slowly down over their eyes as the smell tickled my senses, but didn’t tickle my fancy. Afternoon turned to evening and I knew they’d fall asleep there, strewn around him like disciples, lost within their intoxicated dreams of being grown-ups or whatever else went on in their minds – I couldn’t’ve cared less really. In truth, like anything prohibited, there was an attraction, a gnawing type of curiosity that floated around at the time but never seemed to settle on me – not until much later, of course; my friends had always hated me for having such a vivid imagination that I had no need of acid of ecstasy or anything else, but little did we know that I would become well acquainted a little further down the line when I began to run away from everything – when I thought I was looking for something.
Highbury drifted away as we grew up leaving those memories of summer days and the stench of glue and fags far behind, and I never saw him or those blue marbles again; however weird it seemed at the time, I still have fond memories of those days; amazingly, I still have one or two of the shots I took from back then – I have one right here of that ants’ nest: it seems a little abstract now as it catches the peculiar dusk light tonight, but this picture still tells me its story, and I get a kick out of going back there from time to time – even if it was a tumultuous and dark period in our lives nonetheless.


Highbury Fears

I suppose I’ve never really forgotten about him and the weird attractive rebelliousness of what they did that summer. Saw them all do it so many times, now I come to think about it; even though, thankfully, I was too chicken-shit to try it myself.
He was like a god amongst men: brooding, cocky even, with steely blue marbles glistening like dark ice in his eyes that slowly turned to red embers. I looked on in a kind of rapture, like a kid at the circus – which I suppose I was, in some ways, enthralled by it all. Sniffing Tipp-Ex, cigarette lighters or nasty bags of yellow glue never appealed to me as a clever thing to do – maybe I was just lucky that I wasn’t made the way he was; he couldn’t be that perfect and not have been broken or flawed in some way.
One late afternoon, we sat in the pissy bike sheds next to the Arsenal and he passed the bag around with a fake maturity that didn’t affect me at all as I just took some pictures of the trees, the sky, some ants nearby and anything I wanted – perhaps that has always been my way of not facing what is front of me: to find solace behind the camera’s viewfinder. My uncle had given me a Pentax K1000 that I didn’t really know how to use properly, but I loved to carefully try and snap away at the world around me anyway, with the beautiful spontaneous innocence of the young and uninitiated; inexplicably, stupidly even, I never took one of him – something I have never been able to forgive myself for all these years later.
One by one, their eyelids crept slowly down over their eyes as the smell tickled my senses, but didn’t tickle my fancy. Afternoon turned to evening and I knew they’d fall asleep there, strewn around him like disciples, lost within their intoxicated dreams of being grown-ups or whatever else went on in their minds – I couldn’t’ve cared less really. In truth, like anything prohibited, there was an attraction, a gnawing type of curiosity that floated around at the time but never seemed to settle on me – not until much later, of course; my friends had always hated me for having such a vivid imagination and that is why I never needed acid, ecstasy or anything else; but little did we know that I would become well acquainted a little further down the line when I began to run away from everything – when I thought I was looking for something.
He looked at me through half closed and suspicious eyes and slowly shook his head.
“Why won’t you even try it?” he said leaning forward and focusing his attention on me which I found thrilling but unnerving at the same time.
“I don’t need any of that. And we’ve had this conversation before.” I replied taking another picture of the busy black ants, pretending to be above it all, pretending I was as strong as he was.
“Yeah, OK. But why not, though? Why are you so scared?”
“I’m not scared-“
“Yeah, you are, I can see it in your eyes.”
“Oh, really? So you’re the lucid one now, are you? Surprised you can see or understand anything after doing all that stuff.”
He smiled, looked at the camera and then back to me shaking that handsome head again, “Definitely proper scared though.”
“Ah, piss off. What do you know anyway?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, a slight frown creasing his golden brow.
“I dunno. A mate of mine in Tottenham says that people who do stuff like that are the ones who are really scared.”
“Wha-? Your mate from Tottenham? Well, if he’s from there he’s gotta be a total prick then – no two ways about it, mate. You and your ‘scum’ friends from over there. Oh, my days.”
I’d always hated the blind hatred that local rival football fans had for each other, and I never got involved. There was pleasure in appreciating the sport as opposed to tribal worship, although all my friends said I just lacked the balls to commit, and that’s why I was annoyingly always sitting on the fence – in fairness, and in hindsight, I suppose they were right; maybe I just wasn’t attracted to – or didn’t understand – the need to feel part of a group like that, too much of a one horse chariot to fit in with the crowd. Or maybe I was just scared after all.
“No, I reckon it’s true; it’s like some people need to fill the emptiness they suffer from, and drugs and crap TV are the best ways to do that.”
“Bollocks, mate, I tell you that for nothing. I like you Sammie, you’re defo weird though; but you, or your mate from scumland, are chatting shite.” He leant back and closed his eyes whispering something about something that I couldn’t quite catch and I wondered if deep down he really agreed with me; and I wished I could’ve seen what we was looking at behind those closed eyes. He opened his eyes suddenly and although the whites were bloodshot, the blue of his irises seemed bluer than the sky he intently stared at. He’d lit up a cigarette and I realised that I’d never even noticed.
“Apart from the obvious fact that you are well scared -“
“No, I’m not!”
“Apart from that, I suppose everyone’s a little bit scared of something, right?” He exhaled a slow stream of smoke and I watched it rise and fade away above us.
“Another mate of mine,”
“Better not be another Tottenham geeza.”
“No, she’s not, she’s-“
“Wait, what? You know a girl?” his smile shone out at me and I could only laugh. “What’s her name then? When are you gonna introduce me? Sammie, you utter bastard!”
Even if I would have gained loads of points from him for bringing Sarah along on one of those summer days, I also knew that he was already pretty prolific when it came to partners, so there was no way I would’ve asked her to come and meet him – not in a million years, besides, she was busy studying. His devastating good looks would have trapped her straightaway, I’m quite sure of that. I’d like to think that it was because of my love and respect for her back then that had made me decide that way, but most probably, and if I’m totally honest with myself, that wasn’t the case at all.
“Listen, she says that fear – being scared of things – is a sign of intelligence and not something we should be afraid of admitting.” He blinked a couple of times and I could see he was thinking about it.
“Well, yeah, of course: if we hadn’t been scared of the dark and whatnot in the olden days, then we most probably wouldn’t be around as a species today, but that’s not the type of fear I was thinking of.”
“No.” He lent forward and taking the last drag of his smoke before carefully stubbing it out he exhaled his answer to me.
“I was thinking more about that unspeakable fear you get when you are all alone in your room in the dead of night. You know, when we become totally aware of what you think you are; just lying still, staring up thinking about nothing, thinking about everything – thinking about the fact that we are just stardust that has become aware of itself and shit like that, and then that frightening feeling comes slowly rising up from the pit of your stomach and tightens slowly in your chest. The sensation of falling. The feeling of helplessness, of hopelessness that consumes you from within and you feel like you want to up and leave – to start running away from all of it but then perhaps realising that you are simply running away from yourself. The fear that makes you double over and not want to get out of bed; the fear of someone finding out that you are not really what you appear to be and that you have always felt like an imposter, a fraud, a prematurely born freak that your own parents never even wanted to have. You know? That’s the type of fear I mean.”
Whether the drugs were talking, or helping him to talk, it mattered little: I knew exactly what he was talking about and yet for some strange reason I didn’t open up and talk about it with him. Perhaps I was simply too scared of that too and all I could offer was my humour, my avoidance, as is so often the case.
“Jesus Christ, mate. I think you might’ve done too much of that nasty stuff today.”
“Yeah, maybe…”
He got up then, kicked his friends awake, and I knew it was time to leave.
“I still think you should try it though,” He said, looking down at me. “Might help sort that funny head of yours out, mate. See ya tomorrow, Sammie-boy.”

Highbury drifted away as we grew up leaving those memories of summer days and the stench of glue, fags, and philosophical musings far behind, and I never saw him or those blue marbles again; however weird it seemed at the time, I still have fond memories of those days. Amazingly, I still have one or two of the shots I took from back then – I have one right here of that ants’ nest and it makes me smile to see my so very young hand of yesteryear in the photo too – a stark contrast to the trembling crumpled up one that now holds it. It seems a little abstract now as it catches the peculiar dusk light tonight, but this picture still tells me its story from time to time; even if it was a tumultuous and dark period in all our lives, I still get a kick out of going back there nonetheless.

Lucky Alignments

The Lucky Line Up

People often ask me what I see in all these lines, those bold shadows, coarse textures, or striking reflections that I tend to photograph and I often don’t really know how to satisfactorily or conclusively answer that. And, quite frankly, nor do I feel that I really have to either: I don’t have to bloody fucking well justify myself to anyone when it comes down to it, do I? Why? Many brilliantly talented photographers out there take pictures of their breakfast and they never seem to feel that they have to justify that, right? Not that I would know – maybe they do give their reasons – I don’t even look at that type of photography let alone delve deeper into the wheres and the whys of it – I just don’t give a shit. The photos I take are for myself (and my family); what I see (and why) is simply what I see (however shallow and dismissive that may actually be) and just feels wonderful when I do it – I’m in my element. Why should I feel any pressure, any urge to justify, or intellectualise it? Although, perhaps revealingly, that would appear to suggest that I have never thought about or reflected on what I’m doing when I see, compose – see again – and then capture a photograph – or that I shy away from debate or critical analysis of my photography. That may very much have been the case thirty-odd years ago when I first started taking pictures but is definitely not what is happening with me and my photography nowadays. I feel much more aware of the processes when capturing an image although I make sure that doesn’t get in the way of the more instinctual and spontaneous photography I often try to do too.

So what is really going on? What is any photographer thinking of when they visualise in their mind’s eye – when they see a shot reveal itself and subsequently shoot it? But come to think of it, how could we ever really know what any one person is really thinking when we think about what they think they are thinking about? There has to be something more there, right? How wrong is it to even naively think that the need to capture a photo, to create an image could ever be reduced down to simply one thing anyway? I mean, what is a gut reaction based on? Is it memetic or culture-bound within us? Could it be a Pavlovian response? Perhaps it’s synaesthesia – that loopy/glorious cross-wiring in our brains. Is it the learned and careful thought processes as well as a self-conscious criterion that I am actually applying to my photography? Is it those Fibonacci numbers? Can it really just be a question of pure instinct? Was I inspired when I first saw the work of Rodchenko, Maholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, and their development of the Constructivism approach (I definitely was, and still am!)? Was it Cubism, Dadaism, Bauhaus, Surrealism that invaded my mind and influenced my eye for the unusual? Maybe it’s was simply Man Ray and Duchamp that sparked my interest in the more graphic design of things around me? It might well have just been M.C. Escher’s glorious creations, or even Hopper’s stark, eerie beautiful worlds that turned me towards the Art-side? Or, more than likely, it’s Caravaggio’s fault – the master of studio light before studio light was even a thing…stunning. Who knows? Maybe it was Tolkien, Andel Adams, Rusty Springboard, Stephen King, Tacita Dean, Paul Auster, Nina Simone, Neil Gaiman, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elliot Erwitt, Tomorrow’s World, V.S. Naipaul, George Lakoff, Fabio Celenza, the twisted bough of a tree, Bill Sienkiewicz, Helen Ficher, Asterix and Obelix, Vivian Maier, Edward Weston, Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye, Looe, The Mother Red Cap, Mario Rinvolucri, The Just So Stories, Paul Strand, Walt Simonson, Fay Godwin, Ronaldinho, Alan Moore, Brassaï, Portishead, Scott McCloud, Philip K. Dick, drum ‘n’ bass, Joseph Conrad, Iain M Banks, The Smashing Pumpkins, Harry, Callahan, Ben Elton, The Book of Kells, Mona Khun, Uncle Tungsten, Impressionism, Bukowski, The Odyssey, Giles Peterson, Witty Ticcy Ray, Yann Tiersen, Joan Armatrading, Franco Fontana, Klimt, a Pentax 50mm F/1.7, Alberto Breccia, Roland Barthes, Gillian Lynne, Brian May, José Saramago, Christopher Hitchens, Walker Evans, Radiohead, Ishiguro, Margaret Bourke-White, Flickr, Sue Murray, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Andrew Wright, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Pie, the sound of the wind, Erik Satie, Jean Loup-Sieff, Michelangelo, Stevie Wonder, Douglas Adams, Mary Shelly, Doom Patrol, Michael Lewis, Sir Ken Robinson, Cornish pasties? I’ll stop there. What a waste of time. Well, no, it was quite nice to revisit some of those names in all honesty, but trying to get to the reasons behind someone’s ‘talent’ for a particular ability is, perhaps, entertaining but ultimately absurd. Contemplating this is like the same kind of agony I feel when someone asks me what my fave film is or what my favourite book is. Maybe fun to compile such a list but it will only be put together from where you are in your head at the moment of being asked, right? Or how effective your memory happens to be on that day. Being a language teacher (and constantly looking for non-threatening ways to engage learners’ minds) I have had to refine and tweak such questions as these into (hopefully) something a little more personal and manageable like: “Give us three films which made you laugh; a film you always enjoy seeing again (and why); 2 films that made your skin crawl; some films that you originally disliked but grew to like/love (and why); two films that emotionally touched you, and so on.
How many times have I thought back about a list and realised that I’d missed out this that or the other and that there are simply too many to broil down to a finite few? By the way, I have absolutely nothing against lists – I use them every day – I am aware of how useful they can be for short term goals and the like, but not as a possibly stress-inducing put-me-on-the-spot type of activity, you know?
The pointlessness of such an impossibly incomplete list as the one above is exactly the point: there can never really be one thing behind the creation of something “graphic” – whether conceptual or tangible – but more an amalgamation, a culmination of factors (known and unknown) leading to a peak, a critical moment; an alignment of shapes and form that is an unstoppable although not completely unconscious impulse in me that has to be satiated through the deliberate (and often with my photography: fortuitous) act of making something visual – the production of anything visual.
Photography, for me, works in its immediacy and its alacrity: a fascinating, rapid process from its inception, the prediction and the envisioning of a scene or the unfolding of an idea to its physical or digital creation and consequently its reading forever (and inevitably) condemned to a future interpretation – all seemingly achieved in the blink of an eye, a blink of the mind. Perhaps Henri Cartier-Bresson hit the nail on the head when he likened taking a photograph to an immediate or instant drawing. I suppose we could class a photograph as a quick fix, a short cut when compared to drawing or painting. I must admit that, personally, I don’t draw half as much as I used to since I really got into photography although I still love a doodle. I feel like there are very different processes going on and that drawing or painting shouldn’t be compared to photography at all – I certainly feel different when I do one or the other. It seems to me that drawing, doodling, painting as well as writing all have that layered, methodical, reviewable, readjustable, and calm approach to their creation as opposed to the almost violent manner of capturing a photograph. I mean, just look at the language we use to talk about photography: take a photo, a snapshot, a photo shoot and to capture an image – so much faster (and violent) language than we originally used with the almost unimaginably slower chemical photography of over 160 years ago.

The Games That He Plays 
Olympus E-M5MarkII, OLYMPUS M.12-40mm F2.8, ƒ/2.8, 28.0 mm, at 1/250, ISO was: 200;
Perplexingly, NOT a double exposure. A reflection: conscious and fortuitous alignment abound herein.

This picture came about quite by chance but appears to be incredibly structured and composed, in hindsight. I opened a door (which has huge glass panels) into a small foyer and noticed how the reflection on the door seemed to meld together with the view through the window just to the side of that door. By moving the door to compose this overlapping scene, I noticed how the palm tree’s trunk aligned wonderfully with the column in terms of girth or thickness so as to almost be a perfect match: the tree seems to come out of the column; serendipitous and incredibly satisfying to the insatiable need of my mind’s eye or whatever’s going on in there (as mentioned above). This was my focal point for this photo and once I’d “captured” it, the intensity of mind, the single-mindedness of obtaining it ebbed away. I thought nothing of it until I later looked at it again on a computer screen where I noticed a few more interesting things that I – at least consciously – hadn’t seen the first time around. This is, and has always been, a fundamental part of the selection process of photography – deciding what needs to be cropped out and focused on in so-called post-production editing phase – and, as with this shot, it can be an enlightening practice as new points of interest, new worlds reveal themselves to the photographer. I feel this editing aspect of photography is somewhat analogous to painting and drawing in the sense that it is a reflective process and can allow us to tamper with and alter what we are looking at. However, it still feels different to me.
Analysing it again, I started to see more examples of alignment: the way the horizon and distant landscape to the centre seem to link up with the green of the garden to the right; how the reflected railing seems to line up with the wall behind the column and the small structure in front of the garden as do the reflected bushes too.
On further scrutiny, I realised that there is a reflected car merging its side windows almost uncannily with the circular concrete structure to the bottom right of the photo. How had I not seen these things before? Maybe I had. Was this some kind of subconscious intervention aiding and abetting my compositional storytelling? Or is it only determinism? Could it really be just pure chance and happenstance?
As The Critical Drinker often asks: So many questions…

Con-Textual: Weaving Together

context (n.)

early 15c., “a composition, a chronicle, the entire text of a writing,” from Latin contextus “a joining together,” originally past participle of contexere “to weave together,” from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see con-) + texere “to weave, to make” (from PIE root *teks- “to weave,” also “to fabricate”).

I think the first time I really thought about the relationship between text and image was reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics – an enlightening read on many levels and especially how he looks extensively at meaning through iconography. Although I think I really encountered it properly reading Roland Barthes’ seminal collection of essays published as Image-Music-Text (first published as a collection in 1977). His essays approach photography (amongst other things) more from a semiotic perspective and what is signified within an image and how text (or a title) can influence an image’s reading. A fascinating insight. It reminded me of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images – undeniably brilliant works themselves – and how they toy with the clearly interwoven as well as often confrontational meaning that text can – and does – bring to an image.
It’s quite a modern relationship, though, isn’t it? I mean, text working together with an image as opposed to text as image which presumably goes way back to hieroglyphics, early Chinese etc (etc: really meaning things I have absolutely no knowledge of, unfortunately), but that’s not what I wanted to focus on here – however fascinating that may actually be.
Barthes, in his essay The Photographic Message (Barthes, 1977, pp25-27) points this out in a relatively comprehensible manner (a lot of his essays I often find a bit tricky to get my head around – and, I’ve heard, that’s not just me!): “Firstly, the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifieds [whatever they are!]. In other words, and this is an important historical reversal, the image no longer illustrates the words; it is now the words which, structurally, are parasitic on the image.” All of which I find fascinating. He goes on to mention that: “..the relationship that now holds, it is not the image which comes to elucidate or ‘realise’ the text, but the latter which comes to sublimate, patheticise [never heard of that before] or rationalise the image.”, and, “…today the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination…” I like that: burdening the image or perhaps burdening the viewer of the image. It’s almost as if there’s an excessive weight of responsibility to an interpretation which feels ominous to me and yet quite alluring too (although – just to clarify – it doesn’t keep me up at night); a suggestion or contrast, a challenge or confirmation of meaning which is tightly bound up within the sociocultural background of that viewer, as well as, fundamentally, how the image and text are presented to a viewer: a tiny image with some text (the size, say, of a  postcard) is perceived very differently to the same picture and text presented dramatically taking up and dominating a whole wall. Size matters.

How intimate can text be to a photo though? Does it accentuate, or duplicate the image? Is it a reinforcement, and amplification of it? Does it add a new slant, a different perspective? Can it distort and transmute the intended connotation(s) and how so? Do we still, even today, view the photograph as a historical document depicting objective reality (whatever the hell that may be!) thus imbuing it with a more familiar and comprehensible meaning? Or, conversely, do we romanticise photography as a work of art – much like the aesthetic movement of Pictorialism asserted over a century ago – which frees it or distances it somewhat from reality allowing more subjective readings?
Does text retroactively project onto an image? This is something I find very powerful and I love to [try to] experiment with: text which challenges the cultural-bound interpretation of an image – much as John Baldessari, Duane Michals, Sharon Ebner – as well as many others – have done. Just think of a large image of a smiling man next to a car (already loaded with layers of meanings/presumptions/connotations). You flick your eyes over this image and then you look at the text underneath it. This is the critical moment when the text influences (sociolinguistically) the image: If the text reads – Modern man and his love for the automobile and how we can’t live without it – then we douse it with nuance, we coat the image with meaning that has been totally influenced by the text. It was started by the text and filled in – or completed and complemented by the viewer’s socio-cultural knowledge (of what the relationship of man and car connotes). If, however, after scanning the picture once more we then look at the text underneath and read: His passion for speed was ultimately his downfall. Again, the image seems to retain some meaning from the first reading, but now the text appears threatening and invites further reading: speed re the car or meaning amphetamines? Downfall – financially, emotionally, or professionally?
And if we were to add further ideas, we can see what happens to the possible readings (keeping the same smiling man and car image in our heads):
Father of four dies in a high-speed car accident.” “This picture was taken five minutes before the fatal attack.” “Look what you could have won!” “He used to beat me every single day.”“Reliability is our middle name!” “Proud father gives son best present ever!” Or whatever, you get the idea.
What I find intriguing is the way our brain flits back and forth between an image and text. So, we see the image first, then we read, then after processing that text, we look back at the image but we rediscover it anew, we see it differently from the first glance; we then might re-read the text again – flicking our eyes with curiosity back at the picture as we read on more intrigued. It makes me think of when I am enjoying a new book and, as I get further into it – fall more in love with it, I find myself looking back affectionately at the cover as if for the first time carefully taking in the reviews, reading the title, author’s name, and the even reading the blurb again; I gently run my hands across the material, the cover, the spine, turning it over in my hands (careful not to lose the page of course) palpably rediscovering it with an undoubtedly different feeling to when I first glanced at it and picked it up: a kind of visceral tessellation seems to be going on – is going on. It is intimate, entwined, and quite beautiful.
And, yes, unsurprisingly, I am one of those that smells his books.


So how does this picture work for me? I suppose it’s not fair as I know what this is, I took it – but that doesn’t mean I can’t still read it as an image, or re-interpret it again, does it? How much is authorship relevant? Am I just kidding myself if I imagine that I could detach myself from something I have seen (in the mind’s eye as well as physically) and then captured in a photograph? I mean, I’m definitely not the same person that took it – it was taken in the past I am from this present not the photo’s one. Every photograph will always be condemned to experience a future interpretation of its content (the past moment captured) and that we once called present: any photo’s future reading is every photo’s eternal paradox.
Anyway, what does this night scene say to me?
This picture gives me a feeling of tension: the light and doorway guiding the eye into the inviting glow away from the night. It feels balanced and works as a square crop even if the door and wall light may not be perfectly centred between the bottom windows. Now, the word DARKNESS written underneath works, at first, to validate the image – consolidate it: a picture taken at night, in the dark, you know, no surprises there really. But after some thought, it could mean more; the barred windows on the house suggest fearful inhabitants, could suggest a violent neighbourhood and dangerous dwellings. In this case, darkness may refer to the feeling of living in this area; perhaps it implies encroaching darkness of what is to come, or what is actually in the house itself. Who is to say? Should we analyse this as pragmatics, semiotics or semantics? And how much of this interpretation is my actual personal feelings or memories or imagination of the concept of darkness – all of which is influenced by the society I live in and, also, how I live in that society (psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics)? Imagine someone from an Inuit tribe seeing this, or someone from a nomadic Romani community – how spectacularly different and intriguing would their opinions be? What happens if we play with this title and imagine it as the name of the house? What if this is the only bright place in this street (the incredibly powerful phenomenon of what is not in the photo and why the photographer has chosen to leave other elements out of the frame) and yet it is ironically called Darkness?
It might just be random. Perhaps it’s the borough, or street name, an album cover, or book cover. Conceivably, it might even be a noun made from the union, the love of two people: Dark being the surname and Ness being the diminutive of Vanessa, Agnes or something. Then it all seems a little more understandable, reasonable, and no longer so sinister, right? Probably still a little odd all the same.
The moment we set this image (and text) into a familiar or socio-culturally accepted situation (within our understanding) then we experience it in another much safer, non-threatening way, and maybe some would argue, a bland and dull way – although, personally, I wouldn’t. The fear of the unknown evidently permeates so deep within us that we don’t even realise that it’s there; we’re not even aware of it just simmering away below the surface constantly whispering to us, eternally guiding us in secret until it manifests itself through the plethora of phobias that accompany us along our way. Who’d’ve thought that interpreting a photograph, reading the meaning within one would be so tricky and profound?

Sources 2020. Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, History And Meaning Of English Words. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 6 May 2020].

Barthes, R. and Heath, S., 2007. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang (pp25-27).

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics. 1st ed. New York: HarperPerennial.

Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. 1000 Lausanne: Ava Publishing SA.

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.

Fried, M. (2008). Why photography matters as art as never before. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Take Us All Back There

Close that bloody mosquito net
And come inside – it’s filthy out there
You’ve left it open again, I bet
And put something on – comb your hair

You done all that homework yet?
Well, then why are you on your phone?
You don’t even break out in a sweat
You think this is how you run a home?

Can you pick that up, please?
Or is that too much to ask?
Youth, it’s like a fucking disease
You think I’m the one wearing a mask

You feel the needs of this world broken
You say you wanna do your bit
Feigning to be that voice so outspoken
While you sit on your arse – you lazy little shit

So turn that off and go outside
I’m sick to death of looking at you
Stuck in a web you think is worldwide
While saying there’s nothing else to do

What’s the point of learning something like this?
School isn’t the end, it’s where you start
No, I don’t mean your first kiss
Or how easy it is to break your heart

Well, how would you know if you’ve never tried?
Can’t be any worse than the here and now?
So how about you swallow that pride
And get a fresh perspective somehow

No, I can’t help you, I’ve gotta go out
Ask your mum to do it if she’s around
She’ll be too busy no doubt
Well, you can grind her into the ground

It was different when we were younger
We’d never be allowed to get away with that
You think your needs are the only hunger
Hope you starve, you selfish little brat

I can’t, I’m busy, got something else to do
Just give us a hand and put it over there
Don’t be silly, of course I love you
Well, who ever said that life was fair

No, I refuse, use your own money
That has nothing to do with it
The last thing I think it is is funny
Don’t you dare call me a hypocrite

Of course she loved you, you silly sod
You know I don’t believe in no afterlife
What would I say if I met God?
Why would you take away my fucking wife?

Yeah like you’ve never made a mistake
I’m the arsehole all of a sudden
All we need is another lying fake
Like they ain’t already ten to the dozen

I never doubted you could do that
In what way? Of course, I’m proud
Not like it’s the first exam you’ve ever sat
And since when was taking the piss not allowed?

Anyway, it’s not so bad to be on your own
I don’t wanna be just like all the rest
The hatchlings appear all settled and grown
Why did I push them to fly the nest?

Can’t wait to see you – when’s the big day?
No, I’m gonna leave her safe at home
So you can pick her to pieces like a free gourmet?
Some sort of rabid dog on a bone

Oh shit, did I really forget again?
I swear to god that I wasn’t told
Well let’s see you take the strain
Of those marbles lost when you get this old

No, don’t, I don’t need your pity
Fucking leave it – I can get it myself
As if I’m not already feeling shitty
Like an unread spineless book on the shelf

Is she? I could’ve sworn you were her
What do you mean she’s been gone thirty years
I dunno, maybe, it’s all just a blur
Come closer, it gets hard to see through all these tears


We’ll never forget the joy you gave to us
Christ, I don’t think I’ve ever been so sad
How you told me not to make a fuss
And that you’ll always be our dad.

No regrets, dad, no point at all
You always said we were too clever by half
And I take it back you were never a fool
Just like there was never a day you didn’t make us laugh

She’s got your eyes, you know, it’s scary
You’d’ve loved them as they would’ve loved you
She’s calmer though nowhere near as lairy
Although he’s just a nutter like you through and through

I still hear the echoes of you say sleep tight
Squeeze my feet, tuck me in, and brush back my hair
The gentle caress at morning’s early light
Oh, I’d give anything to take us all back there


A Photographer in Denial


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?
RA: Yes.
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…
RA: …no.
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 –
RA: Unforgettable!
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]

RAvery 1

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!
KB: Ha.
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?
KB: Alright.
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: Sure.

RAvery 2

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?
RA: Uh-huh.
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.

RAvery 7

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.
RA: Feeling?
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: Hi.
KB: Hello.
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]
G: Sorry.
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?
KB: Yeah.
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 –

[recording interrupted]

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.
Cheers, Kev.
Robert Avery, London, 2019

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Fox, A. and Natasha, C., 2012. Behind The Image. Lausanne [Switzerland]: AVA Pub, pp.31-104. 2020. PERSEUS 2 – Argive Hero & King Of Greek Mythology. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 21 April 2020].
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Byrne, K., 2020. Pilgrims Teacher Training Blog. [online] Pilgrims Teacher Training Blog. Available at: <; [Accessed 21 April 2020].
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Barthes, R. and Heath, S., 2007. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, pp.79-124. 2020. Oral History Interview With John Baldessari, 1992 April 4-5 | Archives Of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 21 April 2020]. (Thanks for the inspiration, guys!)

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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