Friday, May 16, 2014

Darren Carlaw: Blinking Eye: A Photographer's Story

Blinking Eye: A Photographer’s Story By Darren Carlaw

My sight is failing. Some would say my eyes are on the blink. Blinking eyes. I thought the doctor at the R.V.I. was having a laugh. 

“What job do you do, Tom?” he asked in that snooty ding dong tone you get down London. 

I sat picking at the stitching of the surgery chair.

“Photographer,” I said. “Isn’t that just my luck?”

An uncomfortable pause. He didn’t look like a lad
who liked a joke. 

“How long before I’m blind then, doctor?” 

He pulled that doctor’s face that says the news isn’t good. Gave me some spiel about optic neuropathy. Optic what? 

“Soon then?” I cut him short.

He nodded.

And that was it. I was out on the street. Catching the bus back to Gateshead. 

Gateshead. Not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever known. More like your Aunty Gladys. A bit spikey if you cross her. But she’ll always pour you a cup of tea and make you feel at home. Like it or lump it, Gateshead’s my town. And just like Aunty Gladys, she’ll treat you canny if you know the right way round her. And I’ve gotta admit, I love the old lass. 

That’s why I’m here now. Out on the street recording this. Getting laughed at like a right silly bugger. 

I want to remember her. Right?

I want to remember Gateshead before she slips from view. Before I cannit see her.

So me mate had this idea. And gave us a portable tape recorder. 

Portable?” I says.

It’s like a bloody brief case. And here’s me humpin’ it around the streets

 It’s 1966 man. You think they’d a come up with something a bit smaller. 

Anyhow. Enough about that.

I don’t just take photographs at weddings and that. I always like to be out and about. Pokinme camera lens in shopkeepers windows. Takin’ snaps of people at work: The lads heading down to the railway yards. The lasses coming out of Shepherd’s department store with their makeup done. Aye. The buzz of the street, that’s my thing. 

When I’m blind, all those photos I took will be just cold paper in darkness.

But if I walk with this recorder and talk about what I se
e, well...

When I listen back to them tapes, I’ll be my own lamplighter, I’ll light up that dark world. 

Walkinmemories, sonna. Walkinmemories. That’s what I’m up to at the minute. 

Is it on? Aye. There’s the red light. This tape’s getting me goat like.I’d take a camera shutter release over a record button any day of the week. But beggars can’t be choosers, can they? 

Right. October 12th 1966. It’s a Wednesday. And this is Gateshead. This is how I see Gateshead. 

It’s Autumn and the last orange leaves are still clinging to the branches. One frees itself and comes circling down and gets trapped in the scrub. 

Up above six crisscrossy telephone wires string between the buildings and cut up the grey sky. 

North east weather, eh? Baltic as always. 

I’m outside the Essoldo cinema. 

When I first started taking’ pictures, I brought my camera here to the corner of the High Street and Sunderland Road. 

Something about this picture house always reminded us of New York. Maybe a photo I’d seen of the Flatiron Building or something. The old place was built in a fan shape and it had glitz. 

Aye, its flagged for demolition now. It’ll be gone next year. The council are putting the flyover in right through here. 

An’ the’ call that progress? 

Across the road, Geo. Wilkess furniture shop. A squat buildin’ with its half wheel motif above the top floor windows. A remember me mam buying a three piece there and thinking she was dead posh. 

Right, let’s get started – we’ll cut up the back lane of the High Street. 

‘Round the back of the pork butcher’s, I spy a well built lad liftin’ half a pig carcass from a two-tone Ford Thames van. Its cold skin presses into his shoulder: white porcelain ribs separated by fleshy membrane, and a limp, dangling trotter waving goodbye. 

He brushes straight past an old fella with a pepper coloured beard who is sweeping out the doorway. The fella’s tired broom darting between the delivery lad’s feet. 

Dietz the German butcher had hell on during the war. Always did a canny sandwich though. 

In the quiet back lane I like to look at the workings of the High Street. It gets you out the crowd. Old fruit and flower boxes from all over the shop stacked high against the walls. 

I took a great photo of Carol here standin’ by that red brick wall. We were walkinback from the Scala Picture House and a had me camera with us. She was wearin’ a black fitted mini dress and this tooled metal belt with turquoise stones. I remember she rolled her sleeves up to the elbow and gave me this defiant pose. Hands on hips. Aye, Carol...quite a stunner. 

The lane comes out here on Chandless Street. My great granddad used to live down there. It used to be a long row of terraces before they knocked it down in the late fifties. Replaced it with them tower block flats, the Chandless Estate. Bloody eyesore if I say so meself. 

Me an me old man used to drink in The Olde Fleece right here on the corner. A pint of double diamond. Bella the barmaid always had it ready on the bar as you walked in. 

I remember one night my old man had crossed words with a top class local boxing champion. ‘Course he didn’t know that at the time. They decided to settle it outside. Queensbury rules and all. Me dad soon saw the error of his ways. Always a bit gobby he was. 

Right. Out onto the High Street. 

Two leggy lasses waft by in a cloud of perfume and hairspray. They’re eyed up by a lad in a ‘Surf City’ t- shirt and ice blue denim who’s hanging around outside the chippy. The one with runny eye liner shoots him a hacky look. 

In the flats above the shops there’s a sash window open. Someone’s listening to the Stones at full belt. Can’t get no satisfaction? Aye, tell us about it, son. 

Along the road there’s Law’s Herbal Supplies. Have a look through the window. It’s still got the same marble bar I used to sit at as a kid. Me and Terry would always come here after we’d been train spotting and get a big browny-red glass of sarsaparilla. By the looks of things the bairns still do the same thing. Happy days, eh?

The Phoenix is right next door. A bloke with red bristling sideburns and a white shirt lurches out the bar and leans against the wall. He stares down at his worn brown brogues and spits out a chesty smokers cough. With a shake of the head, he gets a packet of tabs out his pocket. A cellophane wrapper curls to the gutter. “Aye” he says wearily under his breath. “Aye, Aye”. 

I always liked taking snaps of these fellas when they weren’t looking. Mind you, if they caught you youd better scarper quick or else. You’ve got to watch yourself in this game. 

Turning left at the Met, I walk along Jackson Street. 

There’s a couple of Mods admiring an aqua blue Vespa propped on its stand. One’s wearing a spear pointed button down collared shirt and a grey four button tonic suit and thinks he looks the business. A granny in a headscarf with a bag full of shopping looks at them suspiciously. 

If you want to avoid bumping into someone you know, avoid the Co-op. It’s full of busybodies. Just the other day Mrs. Tweddle said to me mam: “Tell your Tom to get a haircut.” Turns out she’d seen us on the High Street and thought I looked a right state. 

The Co-op’s a cracking looking building though. What’s it say up there? 1881? Look at them sandstone columns. On a sunny day the old masonry gives out a proper warmth. 

I could look up at this place for hours and still find something new. 

I mean, look at that, the Co-op coat of arms in a circle right at the very top. Some fella with a hammer and chisel sat and worked on that for weeks. But does anyone look up and notice? Do they wattle. 

Right. Let’s push on. 

As I turn right onto West Street, there’s St. Joseph’s where I was christened. I never stopped crying me mam said. I never did like water. 

Saying that, I’ve always liked the church’s slick black welsh slate roof when it rains. 

And I remember how the wild roses twisted around the black wrought iron railings of the presbytery. And how the housekeeper’s cat would slip between the overgrown planters every time I peered through the gate as a young ‘un. 

Up West Street, I head towards Shepherd’s. Past the schoolgirls feeding the pigeons and brickies with concrete dusted overalls. 

Lot of building work going on here at the minute. They’re busy putting up some sort of car park and shopping centre. It’s massive. Ugly anarl. 

Here’s Shepherds on the corner of Ellison Street. I remember in 1946 when this place burned down. Took them about three years to build a new one. The swankiest shop in town. They even have their own money.

Look in the shop window. Someone’s filled the whole display with white sand. At the back a hand painted scene of palm trees and seascape. A couple of inflatable beach balls. Mannequins in bikinis all sporting bobs. And a sign that reads: “From here to there, it’s faster by air: Fly BOAC”. I bet the travel agent is making a killing. 

And then there’s my reflection in the glass. The kink of a broken nose. The smudge of a mole. The diagonal of a chipped front tooth. There’ll be a time when I won’t see this face aging. When the skin will be no more a changing texture under my fingertips. It’s blurring. The image. It’s blurring even now. 

Blinkin’ eyes. Right Tom pull yourself together, lad. 

Ok. Note to self and anyone else who cares to listen: Out of sight, out of mind is an old lie. Never think otherwise. Never forget the town in front of you. Remember these images. Even in darkness. Hold on to them. The town is here for you. Part of your Gateshead is here. Right here on this tape. 

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