Pedley St Arch, Spitalfields, 1987
John Claridge told me that he enjoys his own company, which casts an equivocation upon the title he gave this selection of photographs that he took in the East End between 1960 and 1987. As a kid photographer from Plaistow, succumbing to the thrall of Film Noir and Italian Neo-Realism, John set out with his camera to look at his own territory in the light of these inspirations. And the result is a collection of intriguingly moody images that reveal unexpected beauty, humanity, and even humour, in locations devoid of figures, yet tense with dramatic potential.
Two themes are emergent in these depopulated pictures of the East End in eternal half-light. One theme is the unlikely placing of familiar objects in locations that propose hidden narratives and the other theme is spaces that contain the anticipation of a human presence. Both are strategies inviting the viewer to ask questions, investigate the nature of the photograph and draw their own conclusion.
When John photographs a pair of shoes in the street, or a pram, or a pair of sofas, or an armchair, or even a clapped-out old car, there is always a sense that these things have been put there deliberately as part of a mysterious scenario, not abandoned but awaiting their owners’ return. Similarly, mannequins in a window or a picture of a girl used to repair a pane of glass, also appear meaningful in an unexplained way, asking us to do our own detective work. And the old sign announcing “News of the World” above a door unopened in years makes its own statement of existential significance. Scrutinise John’s picture of Upton Park station disappearing into the dawn mist, or the receding columns of E16, or the pictures of the Pedley St arch, each ripe with suspense. Would you be surprised to see a hoodlum in a fedora with a gun step from the shadows, or an amorous femme fatale in a trench coat come strolling to a rendezvous?
While many left the East End after the war to seek new lives in the suburbs, there were others who stayed and were comfortable living among the bombsites and empty houses, and in his youth John counted himself in the latter category. “I didn’t find it depressing,” he assured me, “because there was still a kind of community. I loved it. There was destruction everywhere yet you couldn’t destroy people’s spirits. But when they took their gardens away and put people in towers where they didn’t know their neighbours, that was destruction of another kind.”
John is keenly aware that outsiders may project their own tragic interpretations upon these pictures of dereliction but, as one who is not ashamed to call himself a Romantic, he asks – “Is it really a lonely place, or is it all in the mind?”
Mannequins, E1, 1968.
Pylon in Early Morning, E3, 1968.
News of the World, E1, 1968.
Shoes, E2, 1963.
Armchair, E1, 1965.
Lamp, E16, 1982.
Pram, E14, 1968.
Upton Park at Dawn, E13, 1966.
Circus Poster, E7, 1975.
Columns, E15, 1982.
Sewer Bank, E13, 1963.
Girl in the Window, E2, 1966.
End of the Street, E1, 1982
Ford, E13, 1961.
Beckton Gas Works, E6, 1987.
Volkswagon, E14, 1970.
Half a Building, E13, 1962.
Gravestones, E7, 1960.
Pedley St Arch, Spitalfields, 1987.
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
These splendid shopfronts from the beginning of the last century are published courtesy of Philip Mernick who has been collecting postcards of the East End for more than thirty years. In spite of their age, the photographs are of such high quality that they capture every detail and I could not resist enlarging parts of them so you can peer closer at the displays.
S.Jones, Dairy, 187 Bethnal Green Rd
J.F. List, Baker, 418 Bethnal Green Rd
A.L.Barry, Chandlers & Seed Merchants, 246 Roman Rd
Direct Supply Stores Ltd, Butcher, Seven Sisters Rd
Vanhear’s Coffee Rooms, 564 Commercial Rd
Williams Bros, Ironmonger, 418 Caledonian Rd
Francis J. Walters, Undertakers, 811 Commercial Rd
Pearks Stores, Grocer, High St, East Ham
A. Rickards, Umbrella Manufacturer, 30 Barking Rd, East Ham
Huxtables Stores, Ironmonger, Broadway, Plaistow
E.J Palfreyman, Printer, Bookbinder & Stationer, High Rd, Leytonstone
J.Garwood, Greengrocer, Bow Rd
“The banana is the safest and most wholesome fruit there is”
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Contributing Writer & Resident of Golden Lane Estate, Novelist Sarah Winman recently interviewed one of the first occupants of her estate, Mal Gilliam, who grew up there in the fifties …
Mal Gilliam in front of her childhood home
With council housing and long tenancies under severe threat, it was with a mixture of emotion that Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I set out with my choir chum Mal Gilliam across the Golden Lane Estate, one of London’s most successful post-war council estates, to see where Mal spent her childhood. It struck me – as we wandered around – how these estates have provided the bedrock of community and continuity in London, and how – without them – we are heading towards a city solely for the rich and transient.
“I was born in 1949, named after Marilyn Monroe, a favourite of my dad’s. When I was six, my parents and older sister, moved from the Wenlock Rd Estate, off City Rd, to Golden Lane. We were one of ten families who initially moved into ‘Cuthbert Harrowing,’ into a modern three bedroom flat with central heating.
As a child I loved it here. I loved the freedom of it. Roller-skating down around Bowater House, and playing on the railings. The Estate discouraged ball games and noise even then, so the Community Centre was provided for the children. There was a youth club, and I took ballet classes there. A man called Joe Mitchell, he lived in Bayer House, he created a children’s variety show called ‘Joe Mitchell’s Follies.’ I was nine, I think, when I took part in a show that comprised of a medley of Gigi songs – and then the swimming pool was built, and it was luxury.
Whitecross Street had an actual market every day, and there was a butcher, a fishmonger and two bakers there, before the supermarket forced them out. And on Bonfire Night, a large fire was lit on the concourse in front of Great Arthur House, and we all brought fireworks and set them off and there was baked potatoes and sausages for everyone. A rogue firework ending up in a girl’s wellington eventually put paid to that, however.
Looking across the Barbican Centre and the towers now, it is hard to imagine that it was just a bomb site, stretching out as far as the eye can see. I used to climb over the wall and spend hours over there looking for caterpillars or playing hide-and-seek. It was incredibly dangerous really, unexploded bombs, shifting rubble which could fall away into deep cavities, and yet I never knew of anyone ever getting hurt.
Years later, I looked out of my mother’s window across that same stretch of land and watched the Barbican being built. It was a fractious build, they had so many strikes. They all lined up in Fann St. If a chippie picked up a piece of piping, they walked out. Demarcation of work, it was called, and the unions were very strict, and it went on for years. Continual noise and dust.
Golden Lane was an extremely successful estate and I think they selected families to be at the centre of it. People were happy to be there, they were proud of it. It was post-war. It was colourful. State of the Art. My aunt lived in ‘Great Arthur.’ My sister moved away but wanted to come back after her husband died. My mother knew the Housing Officer, who came and visited us and said that, as soon as a flat was available, she could have it. Lots of people brought their families over and many children of the original tenants still live on the Estate.
For someone like me, who was shy and nervous as a child, it was as if there was a wall around me and I was protected.
As a teenager, though, there was nothing around. The area was dead. Even the Aldersgate tube did not open on Sundays, so me and my friends went into Soho. I must have been sixteen, seventeen – I had left Parliament Hill school around that time – and we went to a coffee bar called ‘Le Macabre.’ It had tables shaped like coffins and we thought it was great, and we bought a coffee and sat there all night. When we wanted to dance, we went to the St Moritz club – where I met my husband Bill.
Bill had a group of friends who formed a soul band – ‘I’m a Soul Man,’ ‘Stand by Me,’ those kind of songs. Well, Bill had saxophone lessons, but as soon as anyone else played with him he lost time, so he had to become the manager instead. He was down the St Moritz with the band one night, and we danced together. We got married when we were nineteen.
Bill worked for a booking agent in the music business and I went to gigs with him. I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Saville. And one of the groups they managed was called Curved Air, and they opened for David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase. I was pregnant in my Laura Ashley dress while he was beautiful and so thin and in make-up, and I was fascinated.
In 1968, everyone was protesting Civil Rights, but Bill and I were saving to buy a house to give our kids something different from the Estate. I was working for the Conran design group and Bill was still in the music business and he did early morning cleaning jobs too.
We saved up £1,500 for our first deposit in the seventies and Pink Floyd roadies helped us move. We had a farm workers’ cottage near Oxted. It was stockbroker belt, all fences and no public land. Imagine coming from the middle of London and being stuck there. I missed the community. I felt isolated. I did eventually make friends but, every couple of weeks, me and the children got into Bill’s van and he brought us back into London, and I would come over the bridge and see the Thames and my heart started beating again.
Years later we did move back to London, got a house on the borders of Highbury and Hackney, and I got a job and learnt to drive. But I am a Londoner through and through – that is me. I have a fantasy of having a dog in the country but that is all it is. I need a destination when I walk. And a coffee at the end of it. I survived those five and a half years but I was not alive.
When my mother died, we did come back to live on the Estate for twelve years. Bill is interested in architecture, especially Corbusier, an interest that took us to stay in the Corbusier building in Marseille, so he loved living here. Eventually, though, the noise from the pub downstairs became overwhelming and we moved out.
I believe everybody, however poor, should have a decent home. They should have space, somewhere they feel proud of. Council housing is essential. I prefer the word ‘council’ to ‘social’ because Councils have a responsibility for people. I meet people who have always lived here in London and now their kids are being forced to move away, and they cannot see their grandchildren as much. It is not right. The city is changing and we are all finding it difficult.”
Mal Gilliam at Golden Lane Estate
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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Thanks to the generous support and investment of you, the readers of Spitalfields Life, I am able to announce the forthcoming publication of John Claridge’s EAST END by Spitalfields Life Books – a handsome 270 page clothbound hardback for £25 – collecting together over 200 of John Claridge’s astonishing photographs of the old East End in print for the first time.
You are invited to raise a glass with John Claridge & me at any or all of the three launch celebrations we have planned in the first week of June, at Vout-O-Renees in Aldgate, at The French House in Soho and Waterstones Bookshop in Piccadilly.
Wednesday 1st June : EXHIBITION OPENING of John Claridge’s EAST END photography from 6pm at VOUT-O-RENEES, 30 Prescot St, Aldgate, E1 8BB. (Exhibition runs until 21st July)
Thursday 2nd June : BOOK LAUNCH PARTY for John Claridge’s EAST END from 6pm upstairs at THE FRENCH HOUSE, 49 Dean St, Soho, W1D 5BG.
Friday 3rd June : JOHN CLARIDGE IN CONVERSATION talking about his EAST END photography with Stefan Dickers at 7pm at WATERSTONES PICCADILLY, W1J 9HD. Email email@example.com to reserve your free ticket.
Len & Doll Claridge, 1964
Over lunch at The French House, John Claridge told his story to The Gentle Author
(Extract from introduction to EAST END)
“I was an only child so I asked my mum, ‘Will I have a sister or a brother?’ but she said ‘You’re enough.’ I was never quite sure if that was a compliment.
My father went to sea when he was thirteen. He could rig a ship – top to bottom – by hand and he was invited to go on the Scott expedition at thirteen. He was a bare-knuckle fighter in the East End and sold booze in the States in the thirties during Prohibition. But my mum, she stayed a machinist most of her life in the Roman Road, Bow. On school holidays I used to go in the van, delivering shirts around the East End. By the time I was growing up, my father had stopped going to sea and was working down the docks as a rigger, testing the cranes and that type of stuff. When he took me down there, it was sheer wonderment.
I used to get up with my dad, before he went down the docks at five o’clock in the morning and I did my paper round. We got up an hour early so we so could talk over a bit of toast and a cup of tea, and he would tell me stories about the sea. That was my education in wonderment. I really wanted to go to sea and see the world, but I did it through people sending me around the world to take photographs, so that ambition was fulfilled in another way.
I used to go to the shops with my mum every Saturday morning, and she would meet people she knew and they would be chatting for maybe an hour, while I went off and played on a bomb site. We would go into these shops and markets and they all smelled different. They each had their distinctive character, it was wonderful. People had a pride in what they were selling or what they were doing.
As a child, from my bedroom in Plaistow, I could see the lights of the docks at night and I used to go to sleep listening to the sound of the horns on the Thames whenever there was fog, which was quite often. You could smell the river if the wind was blowing in the right direction. A lot of the men in my family worked down the docks. When my father worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company, he took me down to the dock gate and onto the wharves – and I used to go out with my camera at weekends, or any spare time I had, to take pictures. I went out to see what was going on, I reacted to what was there and, if I saw something, I photographed it. It was instinctive, I never thought I was documenting. I had a need to take pictures, it was as natural as breathing.
Bomb sites were my playground and I was very aware of the war because a lot of my family were in it, and they showed me the medals they came back with. At that age, what you understand is limited but you are aware. We had rationing yet people had faith that things were going to get better. The only luxury would be something that was knocked off from the docks, be it a lump of liver or a bit of cake or whatever. I remember the end of food rationing, we got more bananas.
When I was eleven, I started boxing at school. South West Ham Tech in Canning Town was an all-boys school and it was mandatory for all the kids to get into the ring. It was a big old gym and they were big on sport, but my mum did not want me to do it because she did not want me to spoil my face. All the family were boxing, and they said, ‘You should do it because you have the ability to do it,’ and I quite enjoyed it actually. It was good fun. If you met someone you had been in a ring with, you always bought them a drink or they bought you a drink. I had reasonable success but I have small hands. I have got my mum’s hands not my dad’s hands.
One day when I was eight or nine, I was at at fair on Wanstead Flats and there was this stall, throwing rings for prizes, and I wanted this plastic camera. I did not know why I wanted it, except I wanted to capture everything and take the memories back with me. You know, I already understood that if you have a camera, you can take it all back with you. But I did not win it. Instead, I did a paper round, saved up and bought an Ilford Sportsman. I do not really know why I needed a camera and I needed to take pictures. Photography was a natural language to me. I developed them myself which I thought was pretty cool. I got a little catalogue that said put developer in there and this in there and wash it in there. We only had an outside toilet, so at night, that was where I developed all my film. It was not difficult. It was magic.
I left school at fifteen and I went down to the West Ham Labour Exchange. There was this lovely bloke, a nice man. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be a photographer and take pictures’ and I expected him to say, ‘Yeah, that’s really good.’ Instead he said, ‘It’s not that easy,’ so I replied ‘Yes it is, you just take photographs.’ ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘there’s a job up the West End, but you won’t get it, let me tell you now – you won’t get it.’ This was for an assistant in a photographic department at an advertising agency. He said, ‘They’re interviewing people with qualifications from universities and colleges, and you’re too young but I’m going to send you anyway, so you can see how these things work.’ That sounded all right to me. I wore a black four-button herringbone suit, a tab-collar shirt, a knitted tie and winkle-pickers – I thought I looked the business. How could I possibly fail?
It was at McCann Erickson and when I walked into the reception, there were about four, five or six blokes sitting around waiting. Obviously they were lot older than I was, they had tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows. I said ‘All right?’ and they totally blanked me. They had never seen style before. The interview was with Eddie Brown who had been a Captain in the Scottish Highlanders and had come up the hard way. I was the last person to be interviewed and when I walked in, he did not say anything, he just looked at me. He did not know what to say, so he asked, ‘What film do you use?’
I said, ‘I won’t use anything else but HPS and FP3, I think it’s the best around’. And he said, ‘So do I – you can have the job.’ I said, ‘Oh, the other thing is I take pictures.’ I had brought with me some small prints of the Thames and views of the East End that I had made at home on an old enlarger. Those posh boys had qualifications and no pictures, but I had pictures and no qualifications, so I got the job – that was it. And I loved every moment of it.
First of all, I started by mixing up the chemicals and doing general stuff in the darkroom, but very quickly I was asked to do some printing. Before long, I was getting art directors coming down and asking me to do their prints. Later, I made prints for for Jeanloup Sieff, Don McCullin and Saul Leiter, when I was still only seventeen. I remember Saul Leiter asked, ‘Can you do something with this?’ The film looked like someone had processed it in tomato sauce, so I worked on it to see what I could get out of it and, when I had finished, he was very pleased with it.
At McCann Erickson, I met Robert Brownjohn – who everyone knew as ‘BJ.’ He had just come over from New York. He was a brilliant designer who had worked with Moholy-Nagy and became famous for doing the title sequences for ‘From Russia With Love’ and ‘Goldfinger.’ I always remember BJ in an Ivy League jacket and buttoned-down shirt. He would come to the Photographic Department and ask, ‘Hey kid, hey kid, can you experiment with this?’ BJ introduced me to a different way of looking. We would look at pieces of type and everyday objects together, considering them as design in their own right. He taught me to appreciate their abstract quality by having me look at a face or a hand as a piece of sculpture, and lighting it accordingly. BJ opened my eyes and then he said, ‘Kid, you’re gonna have an exhibition whether you like it or not.’ I was sixteen then.
The show was in McCann’s gallery and the subject was the East End. What surprised me was the response. People really thought a lot of the pictures. Dennis Bailey, Art Director of Town Magazine said, ‘There’s shades of Walker Evans.’ I did not know who the fuck Walker Evans was, so I thought, ‘Is this a compliment or is he taking the piss?’ But then I saw Walker Evans’ work and it is some of the most beautiful photography you are ever going to see – in my opinion – ever.”
The house in Plaistow where John Claridge grew up
Mr & Mrs Jones were the Claridges’ neighbours in Plaistow in 1968
John Claridge (right) with his mate Keith Horton (left), 1961
John Claridge takes a photograph in Spitalfields, 1964
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
Viscountess Boudica is the most creative person I know. Her phenomenal artwork never ceases to astonish me with its endless invention and today it is my pleasure to publish this small selection from hundreds of her recent drawings, illustrating something of her extraordinary range of iconography.
As an non-academic artist, I place the Viscountess somewhere between Alfred Wallis and Henry Darger – possessing the playful abstract sense of the former in her compositions, use of colour and line – and the distinctive visionary quality of the latter, in creating her own imaginative universe peopled by magical characters of her devising.
Viscountess Boudica’ s drawing of The Gentle Author at work
Drawings copyright © Viscountess Boudica
Be sure to follow Viscountess Boudica’s blog There’s More To Life Than Heaven & Earth
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Read my original profile of Mark Petty, Trendsetter
and take a look at Mark Petty’s Multicoloured Coats