The Beauty of a Dream

all of the buildings, all of those cars
were once just a dream
in somebody’s head

dreaming of mercy st.
wear your inside out
dreaming of mercy

Peter Gabriel – Mercy Street (link to Iain Matthews cover)

In my frequent work trips to Bootle, Widnes and now Warrington, I feel I make more than my fair contribution to the 35 million journeys that take place annually along this stretch of the M62.  As I do so I often muse about the large luminous visage that peers down upon the traffic speeding past here on Merseyside and I’ve dreamt of the photographic opportunities that it presents.

Imagine my disbelief then, when having arrived for my first night in Warrington, I read a post from my fellow blogger Debra who posted her image of the sculpture on Vladography this week.

Expressing that disbelief to her she of course pointed out to me that there are many other angles on the subject, and so on finishing my work the following afternoon I determined to waste no more timing in unleashing my Canon upon the artwork. remarkably as I started my car, a drama called North of Riga on Radio 4 was telling the story of a mysterious stranger called the King of Winter who cuts a girl’s hair to steal her dreams.

Intentionally or not, Eoin McNamee‘s character, with his long black hair, immediately brought to mind the protagonist of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series.  This character Morpheus, is also known as Dream; a name shared by the tall, white voyeur atop the hill in St Helens.

Jaume Plensa‘s Dream is the North West’s answer to the Angel of North, and is equal in height, though to my mind less impressive when viewed from the roadside.  I’ve always seen the elongated head as androgynous from this aspect, but when you make the effort to climb that hill and meet her face to face she has just as much impact as her rusty cousin, in fact I found her slender beauty completely captivating.   Like the Angel, she stands on a site that was once better known for the dirty and deadly industry of mining, the faces of the men who worked here a stark contrast with the self-cleaning white concrete of the disembodied head.  Her pallor reminds me of the “engineers” of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus, a film in which an arrogant and jealous android “reads” the dreams of a woman who is in stasis for an interstellar journey. (The film also features a large disembodied head; both in reality and as a statue!) Our fascination with dreams will continue long into the future it seems.  Funny things dreams.



The beauty of a dream is you don’t let it go,
You don’t ever let it go.

Once in a while a girl comes along
And opens your heart like a spam tin
Just how long can it take?
A bow bends, a bow breaks
And then when it’s time to return the key
She’ll flash you a smile as she slams the door
But you didn’t have to do that to me
To show me just how cruel love could be
And cruel’s a show I kinda starred in before.

Thomas Dolby – Beauty Of A Dream

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Are you experienced?*

When your eldest daughter (who is a Classics undergraduate) mentions something about being excited to be going to an amphitheatre and seeing Arbeia, your first thoughts are that she is planning to do some field work at the end of term in Roman South Shields.

I say first thoughts, because that word “excited” should really have given the game away.  There was another explanation.  Her friend Neil who she works with when home from Uni and his band; Wood & Wire were playing a gig in South Shields in an open performance space naturally called The Amphitheatre.  They were sharing the bill with another band called Arbeia.  Which is why I found myself on a windy seafront with camera in hand.APW_4172

I wondered initially how much company I would have, but the place soon filled up, and being a free gig attracted a pretty mixed audience; kids with bikes and ice creams contrasting with those who’ve seen it all before; grey men in grey clothes mixing with those who were more overtly rock n roll.

Now this was never going to be top drawer concert photography.  An open air gig in full daylight, with large windows behind the band that at times needed a full two stops of exposure adjustment, and no electric lighting.  Consequently as the musicians moved backwards and forwards under the raised promenade that they were using for shelter in case of rain, so they moved from intermittent sunshine to flat shade.  Thus the fading light of the day, and what to me seemed like a strange piece of programming, meant that for me it was a show of decreasing returns.

Arbeia are a talented bunch of passionate musicians, but as headlining act didn’t really grab my attention.  For me there’s a difference between listening to a band’s music and then going to see them live.  You want some degree of spectacle, and Arbeia’s appearance at the end, when the light had dulled and they had nothing to compensate with, meant that for me they dulled too.

Wood & Wire were the sandwich filler, and played an interesting set including the Beatles‘ Helter Skelter, a song seen by many as a precursor to Heavy Metal, and by Charles Manson as a coded prophecy of race war!  An interesting contrast to their own song Protector of Man.  I enjoyed their set, but their inexperience showed.  Regular guitar changes from semi acoustic to SG copy, necessitated retuning after virtually every song, which meant that every time they built momentum, it was swiftly lost again.  You can get away with this if you have a front man who can entertain the crowd while your guitarist makes these changes, but when that front man is the one concentrating on retuning someone else must take the mic; I know, I have played in a band that suffered in the same way.  (Where are you now Primary Colours?!)  Peter Gabriel‘s stories are loved by audiences, but they also serve a purpose to distract from more mundane activities.

What made this more noticeable was that Wood & Wire were preceded on stage by a guy who wasn’t even billed to appear.  A solo singer songwriter with stage presence, immediately likeable songs, and who of course benefited from the early evening sunshine.  Jonny Boyle should have been topping the bill.  When you look at his history, it becomes obvious why.  And visually he looked the part; Ray-Bans, black T-shirt, and a battered acoustic with pin-up decal that could tell some stories of its own no doubt.

Maybe I just appreciated an artist who was like me a little older than the kids.

*Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?


An exercise in nostalgia

Meeting a friend for a drink in the Ramside Hall Hotel this afternoon, one of the topics we discussed was how as we grow older, roles reverse and the parents become the children that we must look after.  (I’m reminded of Peter Gabriel‘s introduction to Baby Man during his Still Growing Up tour at this point – is this neotony?)

I’m not sure where I lie on this scale, but the venue itself took me back to my childhood.

Considering her upbringing by the docks of the East End of Sunderland, my mother developed into a real snob during her lifetime, with a strong penchant for any outwardly visible displays of wealth; ostentatiously large diamond rings, couture mink coats, and Daimler cars.  This fixation extended to the garden, and when we moved from a very average semi-detached to a corner site bungalow with a commanding position on one of the main roads of the area, she had a blank canvas upon which to work.

The trouble was that those who have money do not necessarily possess the taste to go with it (now my snobbery makes its presence felt) and her “vision” for all of this space extended no further than having great swathes of lawn surrounding the property broken only by a large rockery area with impressive rocks and precious little planting.

Not any grass, sorry, turf  would do however.  It had to be sea-washed turf.

I have no idea where she got these fixations but it meant travelling miles to find just the right supplier.  Wherever we travelled in the country, if she spotted some particularly green and weed-free sward then it must be sea-washed, her horticultural nirvana.

My recollection is that we ended up buying from a supplier called Donald Ireland in Darras Hall (the area outside of Newcastle populated by lawyers, accountants, company directors and local football stars).  A quick google could find any trace of the name, so unless my memory fails me the business may have long since closed.  In contrast one of those places that fell foul of my mother’s demands still remains; A N Sanderson.

I remember this business because it had a magic ingredient.  The cottage home of Mr Sanderson was a thatched cottage that I can still picture in sixties kodacolor._MG_0434

Now to those who live elsewhere in the UK, a thatched cottage may be nothing special, there were certainly plenty about last year during my trip to Northants, but here in the North East you just don’t see them, and so placed alongside the main Sunderland/Durham road this was a pretty remarkable piece of PR.  _MG_0429-Edit-Edit


Everybody noticed it, everybody remarked upon it, and a sign by the roadside ensured that you knew who to associate it with.  _MG_0435

The business was founded almost 60 years ago, and for the last forty has specialised in supplying conifers.  Perhaps losing my mother’s business was just too much for them to continue supplying turf!  Those conifers are now used to screen the property from public view, the PR being left to word of mouth and internet I suspect.

I can understand the reasons for seeking a greater degree of privacy; they have always shared the site and entrance road with a small hotel.  A small hotel which over the years has grown larger, busier and now incorporates a golf course.  There is a lot more traffic, traffic which today included my friend, me and a bottle of prosecco, for though I’ve tried to give them a vintage feel, these pictures were all taken today.


More than this?

All this travelling back and forth across the Pennines of late has definitely cramped my photography.  Most of the interesting vistas I have encountered have been seen from behind the wheel of my car on a motorway where stopping to grab a picture is not an option.  Widnes was my destination once again, and apologies to those who live there, but aside from the Silver Jubilee Bridge that featured in my last post I have seen precious little to inspire me.  Maybe the weather has played its part; I’m not usually deterred by cold, wet and overcast scenes, but when I’m working and  dressed in a suit, it becomes a little less practical to be crouching in puddles!_MG_7361-Edit

Consequently I expected that Widnes was going to be a washout (if you’re reading this and know of somewhere that I should have been photographing let me know – whilst I currently have no plans to return, it’s always possible!).  Just as I was approaching my hotel however something caught my eye at the side of the road,  A detached building glowing in the gloom around it, but something else grabbed my attention.  Reticular activation system kicked in it seemed.  Was it ego that alerted me to this small business?  I could understand why you might think that, but this was an echo of an earlier picture.  What a strange co-incidence that having taken a picture in a side street in Sunderland that the image would repeat itself on the other side of the country.

I parked at my hotel, grabbed camera and tripod and returned to the scene to capture the image.  Dissapointingly there were no customers.  I had in mind a long exposure that might have given them a ghostly presence in the finished image.  Instead, if you look closely enough, I got a self portrait.  Maybe it was about ego after all?


more than this
more than this
so much more than this
there is something else there
when all that you had has all gone
and more than this
i stand
feeling so connected
and i’m all there
right next to you

Peter Gabriel – More Than This

In defence of Widnes I subsequently learned that I should at least have undertaken a pilgrimage to the railway station.  Not because it is famously photogenic, but because it is the spot where a young Paul Simon sat down and wrote Homeward Bound.  You learn something every day don’t you!

Fourth World

Travelling home from work today I was listening to Digital Human on the radio and in particular a piece about Chris Kirkley’s search for authentic music in West Africa, and his discovery that a fiercely independent music culture such as that in Mali had developed surprising ways with the advent of technology.  Using pirated software bands are recording songs in MP3 format and then sharing them actively using bluetooth file transfer on their mobile phones.

The music remains staunchly sub-Saharan, but the method of broadcast shows the intrusion of western technologies, but on the Malian’s own terms.  The bonus of the programme was that there was some great incidental music, the downside, that it didn’t come with a track listing!

I’m no expert on world music, but it has always exerted some hold on me.  Long before Paul Simon’s controversial Graceland, the music of other cultures enthralled me.  Milestones in this musical journey have included much of Peter Gabriel‘s output, the Burundi drums of Joni Mitchell’s The Jungle Line, an album of Himalayan Melodies by Sarangi that I recognised in the alleys of Kathmandu from a hearing at a restaurant the previous evening, and of course:

Jon Hassell/Brian Eno – Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics.

Cover of "Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible ...
Cover of Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics

This was an album bought by a school friend purely on the basis of having Brian Eno‘s name on the label.  His collaboration with trumpeter Hassell paved the way for the masterpiece that Eno would record with David Byrne; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.  Featuring all manner of electronic treatments on a trumpet that sounds nothing like the horn you might expect, my friend hated this album and it eventually found its way to my collection.  I too found it a bit of an oddity, but over the years it has grown in appeal, and other works by Hassell have come my way.

Whatever the method, our sharing of music helps define us wherever we are in the world.

Appropriately enough my portrait today is of a young West African man, Kenneth.  Another Nigerian, I asked him to teach me how to say goodbye in his dialect, which I’m ashamed to say I promptly forgot, and all attempts to find the phrase in Hausa or Yoruba have failed me, so I must resort to Kiswahili and wish him kwaheri and assante sana.

Reflections on a great man

In the autumn of 2011 I took part in a Leadership Enterprise and Opportunity programme through the auspices of Northern Recruitment Group, and through it I met a man called David Johnson.  Actually, Professor David Johnson to give him his full title, a psychologist and business coach who was one of the consultants delivering the event.  Together with his wife Janette, he ran a business called Venture to Think where he provided a range of services to support business enterprise.

In the few days we were together I was immensely impressed by David’s demeanour and professionalism and I warmed to him immediately; we were of similar ages, each loved food and cooking, travel and Italy, and both used psychometrics in our work. (My other life as an organisational development consultant, rather than as a photographer!).

It came as a complete surprise when a week ago today David died suddenly despite being fit and healthy, and today his funeral took place in Durham.  Whilst I live some 20 miles away, and barely knew David, something compelled me to attend this gathering of his friends, family and colleagues, where I heard a series of heart-warming anecdotes that showed how deeply this gentle man had touched the lives of others.  I was not alone in wishing to be there – the crematorium was too small to hold those who attended, as were the ante rooms on either side, so many of those there stood in the lobby, unable to see but enthralled by the words they could hear.

I was lucky to be able to see the slide-show that was part of this humanist service (like me David had rejected his early religious upbringing in favour of atheism) and I realised what really united us.  We were both fascinated by people in our own way – David viewed people through their behaviours and the character reflected in those behaviours, I do too to some extent, but also look to find that character in the portraits that I capture.  I loved the pictures – they underlined every word that had been spoken about him.

David was a great music lover and this was also reflected in the service (is that the right word – for all the sadness this felt like a celebration of David’s impact upon so many).  Gill and I recently discussed what I would have played at my funeral, and it’s an easy choice; Peter Gabriel‘s “I Grieve” for the way in which it reflects the pain but almost imperceptibly becomes a song to dance to.

Life carries on

In the people I meet

In everyone that’s out on the street

Peter Gabriel

On my way home I needed to call at a hardware store, where I met one of those people who are interesting to those of us who are observers of life.  I’ve been calling into B&Q in Sunderland on a regular basis for many years, and at times have had some pretty shocking service.

The man who I photographed today might superficially appear to be the sort of person you’d be reluctant to approach; shaven head and gold earrings certainly make an impression, yet in contrast to some of his colleagues Gary has been a polite and helpful assistant in this store for 13 years.  As soon as I spotted him today I asked for his picture and he agreed.  Appearances can be deceptive, but study an individual more deeply and you’ll find more beneath the surface.  Look at Gary’s face and you see the real man, who just happens to be bejewelled and bald!

There is a place in the world for nice guys, though there is one fewer in the ranks now.  My thoughts are with Janette and their children.  Life carries on.