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Val Perrin’s Brick Lane

December 19, 2014
by the gentle author

Photography has been a lifetime’s hobby for Val Perrin. Yet it is apparent from this selection of his pictures of Brick Lane Market, taken between 1970-72 and published here for the first time today, that he possesses a vision and ability which bears comparison with the Magnum photographers whose work he admired at that time.

While studying Medicine at University College, London, Val visited East End markets with members of the University Photographic Club, but Brick Lane drew his attention. Over the next two years, he returned alone and with fellow students, with whom he shared a flat in West Dulwich, to document the vibrant market life and surroundings of Brick Lane.

Born in Edgware, Val moved to live near Cambridge in 1976 and now photographs mainly wildlife and landscapes, but the eloquent collection of around a hundred photographs he took of Brick Lane in the early seventies comprise a significant and distinctive record of a lost era.

Photographs copyright © Val Perrin

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Friederike Huber, Book Designer

December 18, 2014
by the gentle author

Friederike Huber by Patricia Niven

You may not be aware that there is a common sensibility which links four out of the five books I published in the past eighteen months. It is that of Designer, Friederike Huber, who has been responsible for devising the formats, and selecting and sequencing the pictures in each of these photography titles superlatively. Yet the irony of Friederike’s work is that she hopes you will not notice it at all.

Fred - as she is affectionately known by everyone that works with her – has taught me that it makes all the difference in the world how you place photographs in order. While most photographers will admit they cannot select their own images, Fred has an infallible eye which tells her which pictures to pick and how to arrange them. When you look at the books she has designed, it appears natural, even inevitable, which picture follows another in sequence and which picture is small and which is large. When all these decisions are made correctly, the book flows like a piece of music and the balance of pictures and white space, modulated by the turning pages, becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

Such is Fred’s talent that I never make any prescriptive brief, I simply ask her to design a book that is the best manifestation of the material in hand and I know she will produce something wonderful. Apart from Spitalfields Nippers, in each case there was a living photographer with a collection of pictures and it was Fred who worked with Colin O’Brien, Phil Maxwell and Bob Mazzer to arrive at the ideal selection of their photographs. This is why these books all turned out so distinctive and so different from each other, because the form and style of each book reflects the diverse visions of the respective photographers – and thus is also testimony to Fred’s remarkable lack of ego.

Obviously, none of these compliments are in any way influenced by the fact that Fred always has a plate of delicious Portuguese pastries on her table whenever I go to a meeting at her house with a photographer. Once I have made the introductions, I leave them to it. I get the treat of seeing the cover and sample pages but – for the most part – I am not party to the intimate emotional drama of photographer and editor, and this suits me very well because the photographers are in expert hands and I know the outcome will be exemplary.

These days Fred works upon a continuous chain of commissions at home, in the modest house and garden that she shares with her two daughters, designing books in a small room off the living room while family life revolves around her. Curious to learn how she became one of the most-respected Book Designers, I paid Fred a visit recently and she talked to me about the evolution of her work, while I ate Portuguese pastries.

“In 1991, I did a Foundation Course at what was then called the City Poly in Aldgate and I remember photographing ‘OPEN’ signs in shops Brick Lane that were closed down.

When I graduated in Graphic Design from Central St Martin in 1996, I worked for a lot of different design companies, but then I showed my portfolio to the Art Director at Random House and she gave me a cover to do, and I just continued doing covers for them until 1999 when I became designer for their Pimlico list. Doing book covers took over and I realised what a beautiful thing it is to create books. It was a really nice time and Will Sulkin was a good editor to work for.

I was still working freelance and in those days they had so much space that I could always go into the office and there was a spare desk and computer where I could work. I remember going in there and sitting at the keyboard with my daughter Lottie strapped to my chest. Between 1999 and 2005, I did a lot of covers but then I was approached by Mark Holborn to design the inside of a book and I worked closely with him on the Don McCullin books, In England, Southern Frontiers and In Africa. I learned so much from him about editing and sequencing. The books were supervised by him but I did the layout and design. It was about paying attention to the book as a whole, not just the cover and inside. That was when I discovered my love of doing photography books.

When I worked with Bob Mazzer on Underground, he brought prints of all his photographs and we spread them out on the floor. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do with all these pictures.’ So I said, ‘Let’s sort them by colour.’ We realised that a lot of the groupings coincided with the colours of the different tube lines and that structure carried through into the sequence of pictures in the book. Now with Colin O’Brien, I worked with two screens and had everything on the computer. In Colin’s Travellers Children in London Fields, I arranged the photographs so that a child who is in one picture is also there in the next, telling a story with the pictures. Phil Maxwell supplied me with hundreds of his pictures of Brick Lane in chronological order and we chose to arrange them in the book without any white space to evoke the intensity of images you encounter when you walk up Brick Lane.

I recognise a great responsibility to show the photographers’ work to the best advantage and I feel I get very close to these pictures. It’s very intense and I forget time while I am working. It’s like you want to extract the personality of the photographer and show that to the readers, and give them a way into this life and these photographs. Sometimes you can show a photographer things in their own work that they haven’t seen before. It’s about taking it away and giving it back, and I can see they need to really trust me – and I’m glad they do.

I take big care of things and I take a long time. I’m slow because you can’t rush these things.

It’s not a job for someone with a big ego.”

Fred Huber’s cover design for Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Fred Huber & Colin O’Brien at Aldgate Press by Alex Pink

Fred Huber’s cover design for Brick Lane

Phil Maxwell’s photograph which featured on the cover of his book

Double page spread from Brick Lane

Fred Huber’s cover design for Underground

Bob Mazzer’s photograph which featured on the cover of his book

Double page spread from Underground

Bob Mazzer’s pictures spread out on Fred’s living room floor

Fred supervises the printing of the cover for Underground at Butler & Tanner

Bob Mazzer & Fred Huber at Butler & Tanner by Arthur Mazzer

Fred Huber’s cover for Spitalfields Nippers

Fred Huber by Patricia Niven

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David Pearson, Designer

At The Christmas Eve Meat Auction

December 17, 2014
by the gentle author

I am publishing my account of when Colin O’Brien & I went along to the Smithfield Christmas Eve Meat Auction as a timely reminder for those who have yet to bag a roast for the big day next week

The carnivores of London converged upon Smithfield Market, as they do every year for the annual Christmas Eve auction staged by Harts the Butcher. At ten in the morning, the rainy streets were almost empty yet, as I came through Smithfield, butchers in white overalls were wheeling precarious trolleys top-heavy with meat and fowls over to the site of the auction where an expectant crowd of around a hundred had gathered, anxiously clutching wads of banknotes in one hand and bags to carry off their prospective haul in the other.

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien met me there. He grew up half a mile away in Clerkenwell during the nineteen fifties and, although it was his first time at the auction, he remembered his father walking down to Smithfield to get a cheap turkey on Christmas Eve more than sixty years ago. Overhearing this reminiscence, a robust woman standing next to us in the crowd struck up a conversation as a means to relieve the growing tension before the start of the auction which is the highlight of the entire year for many of stalwarts that have been coming for decades.

“You can almost guarantee getting a turkey,” she reassured us with the authority of experience, revealing she had been in attendance for fifteen successive years. Then, growing visibly excited as a thought came into her mind, “Last year, I got thirty kilos of sirloin steak for free – I tossed for it!”, she confided to us, turning unexpectedly flirtatious. Colin and I stood in silent wonder at her good fortune with meat.“We start preparing in October by eating all the meat in the freezer,” she explained, to clarify the situation. “Last night we had steak,” she continued, rubbing her hands in gleeful anticipation, “and steak again tonight.”

Yet our acquaintance was terminated as quickly as it began when the caller appeared in a blood-stained white coat and red tie to introduce the auction. A stubby bullet-headed man, he raised his hands graciously to quell the crowd. “This is a proper English tradition,” he announced, “it has been going on for the last five hundred years. And I’m going to make sure everybody goes away with something and I’m here to take your money.”

His words drew an appreciative roar from the crowd as dozens of eager hands were thrust in the air waving banknotes, indicative of the collective blood lust that gripped the assembly. Standing there in the midst of the excitement, I realised that the sound I could hear was an echo. It was a reverberation of the famously uproarious Bartholomew Fair which flourished upon this site from the twelfth century until it was suppressed for public disorder in 1855. Yesterday, the simple word “Hush!” from the caller was enough to suppress the mob as he queried, “What are we going to start with?”

The answer to his question became manifest when several bright pink loins of pork appeared as if by magic in the hatch beside him, held by butchers beneath, and dancing jauntily above the heads of the delighted audience like hand puppets. These English loins of pork were soon dispatched into the crowd at twenty pounds each as the curtain warmer to the pantomime that was to come, followed by joints of beef for a tenner preceding the star attraction of day – the turkeys! – greeted with festive cheers by the hungry revellers. “Mind your heads, turkeys coming over…” warned the butcher as the turkeys in their red wrappers set out crowd-surfing to their grateful prospective owners as the cash was passed hand to hand back to the stand.

It would not be an understatement to say that mass hysteria had overtaken the crowd, yet there was another element to add to the chaos of the day. As the crowd had enlarged, it spilled over into the road with cars and vans weaving their through the overwrought gathering. “I love coming for the adventure of it,” declared one gentleman with hair awry, embracing a side of beef protectively as if it was the love of his life, “Everyone helps one another out here. You pass the money over and there’s no pickpockets.”

After the turkeys came the geese, the loins of lamb, the ribs of beef, the pork bellies, the racks of lamb, the fillet steaks and the green gammon to complete the bill of fare. As the energy rose, butchers began to throw pieces of red meat into the crowd to be caught by their purchasers and it was surreal to watch legs of lamb and even suckling pigs go flying into the tumultuous mass of people. Finally, came tossing for meat where customers had the chance of getting their steaks for free if they guessed the toss correctly, and each winning guess was greeted with an exultant cheer because by then the butchers and the crowd were as one, fellow participants in a boisterous party game.

Just ninety minutes after it began, the auction wrapped up, leaving the crowd to consolidate their proud purchases, tucking the meat and fowls up snugly in suitcases and backpacks to keep them safe until they could be stowed away in the freezer at home. In the disorder, I saw piles of bloody meat stacked on the muddy pavement where people were tripping over them. Yet a sense of fulfilment prevailed, everyone had stocked up for another year – their carnivorous appetites satiated – and they were going home to eat meat.

As I walked back through the narrow City streets, I contemplated the spectacle of the morning. It resembled a Bacchanale or some ancient pagan celebration in which people  were liberated to pursue their animal instincts. But then I realised that my thinking was too complicated – it was Christmas I had witnessed.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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George Cruikshank’s Festive Season

December 16, 2014
by the gentle author

As we brace ourselves for the forthcoming festive season, let us contemplate George Cruikshank‘s illustrations of yuletide in London 1838-53 from his Comic Almanack which remind us how much has changed and also how little has changed. (You can click on any of these images to enlarge)

A swallow at Christmas

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve

Christmas dining

Christmas bustle

Boxing day

Hard frost

A picture in the gallery

Theatrical dinner

The Parlour & the Cellar

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s birth

Twelfth Night – Drawing characters

January – Last year’s bills

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At Vout-O-Reenee’s

December 15, 2014
by the gentle author

“It’s a tribute to Sophie!” - John Claridge

When Contributing Photographer John Claridge summoned me to the crypt of the Church of the English Martyrs in Prescott St down by the Tower of London, I had no idea what to expect. It was already late in the evening as I descended the stair and rang a doorbell labelled Vout-O-Reenee’s. To my amazement, I discovered this was the portal to a hidden outpost of Soho Bohemia secreted in this unlikely corner of the East End, where John was waiting at the bar to greet me.

Named using the invented language of jazz legend, Slim Gaillard, this new members club is the brainchild of Sophie Parkin who wrote the official history of the Colony Club. It is a charismatic zany netherworld, where you encounter arms protruding from the wall holding lamps in the manner of those in Cocteau films and all manner of knowing Surrealist references, as celebrated by John Claridge in his playful series of montages which accompany this feature.

Instantly recognisable by her scarlet lips, black beret and sense of panache, Sophie presides regally over this subterranean nocturnal world with a feverish intelligence. “I’d like to be called Madam Parkin,” she admitted to me, “I always wear hats because I don’t like umbrellas.”

You can guarantee that if Falstaff returned to Cheapside today and discovered the Boar’s Head gone, he need only walk over here to discover a worthy successor to Mistress Quickly in Sophie, flaunting a flirty line in amusing backchat and knowing innocence.“Even if you’re famous, nobody’s going to ask for your autograph here,” she reassured me unnecessarily, “so you can leave your ego outside at the door.”

“At eighteen years old, when I was a student at St Martin’s School of Art, I got a job at the Zanzibar Club and I got jobs for all the other students too,” she explained, rolling her eyes significantly, “And it worked very well because we were good-looking and mouthy, which suited the customers who came to look at us – so we all had a great time. By the age of twenty-one, I was the manager and I got invited to open a club in Hong Kong – so I thought, ‘You can’t say, ‘No.” but it was a complete disaster.” Sophie gave a shrug and poured herself a glass of red wine, taking a sip as if it were the distillation of her experience.

“In the nineties, when I was bringing up my children by myself and writing books, a friend offered me the job of managing 1 Hoxton Sq,” she continued, picking up the story years down the line, “so I wrote a press release saying, ‘This is where all the artists are, the most fashionable place in London.’ Journalists are so lazy that it only took one person to print it and then the others followed suit, and we were booked solid three months in advance – ridiculous isn’t it?”

I nodded sagely, without being entirely convinced that this was the sole reason for Sophie’s success, and I took a sip of my whisky while she cast her eyes around the room from her commanding position behind the bar. “This is all my imagination, a small reflection of the inside of my brain,” she confessed, “I couldn’t contemplate doing Colony Club II, because what’s the point of that?”

“Soho has gone and it’s never going to come back,” she concluded authoritatively, taking another quaff of wine.

Those people who don’t fit into Shoreditch need somewhere else to go and going into pubs is not possible for single women  - but here everybody talks to everybody,” she confided to me proudly. “People keep asking when we’re going to open a restaurant, but I can’t be arsed. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of places to eat in East London is there?” she exclaimed suddenly, before adding fondly, “If you’ve got a drink, who needs a restaurant?”

I was just thinking that this seemed an ideal place to pass the long hours of a cold winter’s night when Sophie said,I always worked at night when I was running clubs, I think my best time is about ten at night – it’s to do with the time of day you were born, I was born in the late afternoon.” As one who also works nocturnally and was born in the late afternoon, I was grateful for this explanation of my pattern of behaviour.

“I’ve always been drawn towards Surrealism as a style of expression,” Sophie declared unexpectedly in an urgent whisper, interrupting my reverie,“I think if you can’t get a laugh in a day you are living the wrong life.” And we raised our glasses to that.

Unto the dark tower came the Gentle Author….

… and descended to the crypt …

… where Jan Vink waited …

… to open the door to the netherworld (Portrait of Muriel Belcher of the Colony Club upon the floor)

“Jazz Musician Slim Gaillard wrote a dictionary of his invented language and that’s why the club is called ‘Vout-O-Reenee’s'” - John Claridge

Portrait of Sophie Parkin in the ladies toilet

Matt Johnson at the piano - “I knew his dad from the Two Puddings” – JC

Painted tiger rug on a painted wooden floor

“It’s a stuffed bird that I photographed in the Spitalfields Market” – JC

Giant ladybird on the ceiling

Joints of meat hanging in the toilet

“Molly Parkin’s paintings in the Stash Gallery – you have to explore it for yourself” – JC

“I pinned my founder member badge on this doll I purchased recently and that’s Sophie’s lips floating in a Magritte sky” – JC

“Although I photographed Sophie in front of Monet’s garden, this is another tribute to Magritte – with the brolley and the glass of water. Is she going to get wet?” – JC

“The Surrealists played chess all the time and I’ve put in the bishop with the cross because this game is in the crypt – it’s a checkmate” – JC

Homage to Marcel Duchamp in the toilet

“This is a portrait of Sophie from a few years ago and I’ve added the Dali moustache just as Duchamp did with the Mona Lisa, as a homage to the great Surrealist” – JC

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

Vout-O-Reenees & The Stash Gallery, 30 Prescott St, E1 8BB

Group exhibition of members’ work runs in the Stash Gallery until Saturday 3rd January – open from Tuesday to Saturday, 5-10pm

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