Saturday 11 June 2016

John Claridge's East End

For my money the best photography book of the year so far is East End by John Claridge. More than two hundred images taken in the 1960s of a community and culture that has now largely disappeared. The images are compelling, absorbing and in many cases very moving.

The book opens with a series of painterly shots of the Thames and misty atmospheric images of the docklands  that could easily have been taken in the early 19th century. Atget comes to mind. Cranes loom above the still waters like herons.

He captures better than any photographer I know the textures of old buildings before the demolition or (worse) botoxing effects of gentrification. His shopfronts are mouldy, encrusted, peeling and scabby, paving stones are cracked and you can smell the dank cellars, the musty back rooms. Old shops are sheeted with corrugated iron and a few small sole-trader businesses barely holding on. And the faces! Weather-beaten market traders, boxers, bouncers, old dears, tough girls, street drinkers and derelicts. Many of them must have lived through the Blitz.

Much of what John Claridge photographed has long since been swept away as the old East End is purged, the communities dispersed and property developers plunder the district. Aldgate, which Ian Nairn said was the portal to the East End, is now a bleak simulacrum of Dubai. Farewell, Tubby Isaacs.

It's hard to muster adequate superlatives for this collection. Diane Arbus comes to  mind, and the great New York street photographer Garry Winogramd. What I especially admire about Claridge is his unabashed affection for the East End, his keen eye and compete lack of condescension or sentimentality. There a current exhibition (click on the link to see some images). You can buy the book from the publisher here.

In connection with the exhibition I'll be contributing to an evening of East End documentary films on Tuesday 14th June at a club called Vout-O-Reenees. The films have been selected by The Gentle Author no less, and I'm delighted and honoured to have been asked to say a few words about The London Nobody Knows, an extraordinary film released in 1967 and directed by Norman Cohen. Invited to write a few words in advance I came up with the following:

Look up The London Nobody Knows on the International Movie Database and in the section devoted to ‘plot keywords’ you’ll find the following: River Thames, chains, whip, pub, dancing, lavatory, haggling, catacombs and (somewhat more respectably) ‘reference to Christopher Wren’. That last reference is – we shall discover at the screening on 14th June – wrong in every detail. But the other words give an idea of what a very very strange documentary this is.

I know of nothing remotely like it – imagine Ian Nairn’s topographical excursions directed by Ken Loach. Presented by the Huddersfield-born Hollywood leading man James Mason, this 1967 short was briefly circulated as a support feature to the big screen version of the BBC television comedy Till Death Us Do Part. What audiences keen to hear Alf Garnett’s bilious rants made of it at the time is hard to imagine. Apart from a couple of heavy-handed slapstick sequences what we get, for much of the time, is harrowing reportage: we encounter the buskers and dossers and meths drinkers of Spitalfields, we enter the squalid slums around Fournier St and meet the inmates of the Salvation Army hostel. It's heartbreaking, and instructive.

The spectacle of Mason strolling through street markets as heads turn, or loitering in a dank Holborn urinal, or uttering a fastidious ‘yick’ at some modern blot on the skyline is one that will stay with you. He is brilliantly empathetic when sharing a mug of tea with hostel inmates, wonderfully sad in the wreck of the mouldering Bedford Theatre. How he came to be involved in the project – well, you’ll find out at the screening. That the film today has something of a cult following is hardly surprising.
Other plot keywords for The London Nobody Knows are ‘decay’ and ‘Camden Town’ – if Withnail and I had been shot as a documentary it might have looked something like this.

Stop Press: Thanks to OVERWHELMING PUBLIC DEMAND there will be a second screening at the same venue on Tuesday June 21st . . .

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