Wednesday 23 November 2011: London Nocturne
I was in London (city of my birth) for the past couple of days; partly to go to an group exhibition which featured a photograph of mine, but more importantly to just bathe in it again for a little while. I love London, especially at night: the sense of it being too big to ever shut down; always that incessant turning over, lives threading through lives, restless and slushing as the river. I get lost easily, having never made any part of this vastness my own (not for decades anyway). I stayed with an old friend, Barry, who lives out in Lee. I could have just settled there for the evening, chatting with him and his daughter, content to be aware of that thrumming in the distance. But I eventually ventured out, just as it was getting dark.
Once in the city, I took a familiar route from Charing Cross station to Hungerford Bridge. I floated up there awhile, pacing back and forth, taking in the lights, the rattling, chalk-on-blackboard screech of trains passing nearby, to notes of street musicians, the dark, ruckling water under my feet, the chugging tourist barges, the faint but definite swaying of the suspended walkway. Eventually I made my way down to the south bank: warmly lit, cosy, expensive. I spent far too long in Foyles trying to choose between Alice Oswald's new book (an interesting take on the Iliad), Christopher Reid's Selected or a book I hadn't thought of buying, Christopher Rick's True Friendship, looking at the poetic intercourse between Hecht, Pound, Eliot, Hill and Lowell (which is what I bought eventually). I had thought to head to a restaurant and begin to read it over a meal. But I noticed a fairground roundabout nearby so I headed over there to sniff around and see if I could find something to photograph.
It was like a miniature hamlet of huts (essentially garden sheds) whose tarpaper roofs were snowflaked in electric lights; each was a stall, a bright box promising food, sweets, clothes, leather goods... I stopped at the roundabout and shot a few frames (a girl in the ticket booth arranging her hair caught my eye) then continued past this bright-lit busyness, following the soulful twanglings of an electric guitar.
This turned out to be a lone busker, seated against a stretch of hoarding, backgrounded by tall, brightly-lit buildings. I didn't want to use a flash but thought there might be just enough streetlight to get what I wanted (the busker would be a small lone figure in the composition, barely more than a shadow). I thought I was innocuous enough, essentially across the road/walkway, very far from shoving my lens in his face. But he stopped playing and shouted at me 'Oi! (or did he actually say 'Boy'?), 'don't you take my fucking photograph!' I know such a reaction is hardly surprising, but in 31 years of mostly street photography I have rarely encountered it, and never before with such vehemence. I told him that all he had to do was ask nicely. He said that it was I that should have asked him. So began a heated altercation that had passers by turning their heads (probably the first time in my life I let my photography develop into a public row). It ended with me telling him he was paranoid.
I can empathise with people who do not wish to be photographed. We've all been there, in our unhappy private head-spaces where a passing c*nt with a camera would be unwelcome (to put it very mildly). However, I think that if you choose a tourist area to engage in a public act (busking, street-theatre, etc.) that deliberately invites attention (did I ask for his VERY LOUD guitar chords to fill my head?) and solicits donations, you might accommodate yourself to the fact that most people in your audience will have cameras of one sort or another, and a good number may wish to photograph the source of that music. Given all that, I think at the very least you might translate 'Oi, don't you take my f*cking photograph' to the shorter and less confrontational 'Excuse me, no photographs please' or, if it bothers you that much, put up a sign (why not?) stating your wish not to be photographed. That said, arguing about it is a waste of everyone's time and energy. And of course I could have just asked his permission, loathe as I am to interrupt street musicians when they're in full flow. Anyway, if it happens again I'll just walk away.
For a little while afterwards I was on a bit of a downer. When you're away from home and at such a loose end it's easy to feel rejected by a city. Then I found myself being drawn by another musician, back up on the south bank side of Hungerford Bridge. I decided to use the video this time, reckoning that if he didn't like being filmed he'd probably indicate this clearly enough. He was a saxophonist, doing a medley of various tunes (I recognised Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street). He really didn't seem to mind at all, and confirmed this when he took a break and we talked. He was from Kosovo (came to London eleven years ago; his family killed in the war). He even agreed to do a short interview. Later, on the north bank, I noticed this guy (maybe high on something) smoking a fag outside a little shop. I began to photograph him from the far side of the street. He saw me, but didn't seem to care; he may even have been performing just a little, exaggerating his gestures. I noticed the shopkeeper looking at me and went over to explain what I was doing. Before I even reached the counter another man started talking to me. He was from Mauritius and had a good deal to say about London and god. Normally, I have no interest in god-peddlers, but I liked this man's warmth and (what appeared to be) open-heartedness. When I asked if I could film him he agreed. So I now have enough footage for a little (maybe 5 minute) nocturne on London, a sampler anyway.