The Grim Reaper must have passed me by of late, for it seems that he has cast his shadow recurrently in recent days but in surprising ways.
My cousin, Ann, died recently. She left the North East over 40 years ago and never returned, yet the influence she has had upon my life has been enormous. My adoptive family were very working class. Highly ambitious yes, but nevertheless had roots in the poorer parts of the region in the early decades of the 20th Century, so from the background it was surprising to find that Ann should develop into something of an intellectual. She studied the arts, played a role in local politics, and was a passionate campaigner for human rights through her work with Amnesty International. She was inspirational, non judgemental, and always welcoming. She was also an MS sufferer for her last 20 years. I shall miss her.
Also this week I watched a documentary made by the photographer Rankin. I’m not a fan. I’ve never been especially moved by his work. He’s highly competent, but truly great portraiture surely demands more than that. Having lost both of his parents in recent years, his thoughts have turned to his own mortality, and the documentary followed the creation of his recently collection ALIVE: In The Face Of Death which is on display in Liverpool. The work is a collection of portraits of those who have been told that they have a terminal and incurable medical condition, portraits predominantly of everyday members of the public, but with a couple of celebrities too in machine gun guitarist Wilko Johnson, and writer Diana Athill.
And then as I was driving home from Ann’s funeral ceremony in Wantage yesterday, I heard a news item on Radio 4 (a pleasure that I shared with Ann) about primary school age children taking part in a project run by the Marie Curie charity where they were asked to befriend terminally ill cancer patients. Depressing stuff you may think, but each of these skirmishes with death was particularly uplifting. The children had given the cancer patients a new joy in their lives but also gave the children a greater understanding of the issues of illness and death; something they will all face in their lives at some point.
The Rankin film was poignant as you might have expected, but full of a surprising vitality that made it at once tear jerking, amusing, and inspiring.
Ann’s funeral was a Humanist ceremony, free from any religious influence, and celebrating more important factors; the fun, fortitude and above all friendship that brought so many together to remember this special woman.
My eldest daughter Megan accompanied me yesterday, and we spent the morning in Oxford to pass an hour or two before joining the celebration of Ann’s life. Famed for its dreaming spires there was plenty to satisfy my camera, or so I thought.
This time humanity was the issue. There was just too much of it.
Each building that I wanted to photograph was swathed in tourists. It wasn’t a complete write off, but there was so much more that I could have worked with on a quieter day.
In the end I reversed goal and decided to shoot people instead, finding Barbora, a Slovakian working at the pub where Meg savoured a pink Pimms before we left.