Happy Birthday, Colin O’Brien!
Colin with his mother Edith and father Edward in Clerkenwell in the forties
Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien is seventy-five years old today and we are happy to report that we have sent his book LONDON LIFE to the printers this week. In two hundred and eighty-eight pages, this magnificent monograph collects the cream of Colin’s photographs of London from 1948 until the present day into a large-format hardback.
On publication day Thursday 18th June from 6pm, you are all invited to join us in raising a glass to celebrate the launch of LONDON LIFE and view the accompanying photography exhibition at The Society Club, 12 Ingestre Place, Soho, W1. We shall be giving away free prints of one of Colin O’Brien’s famous Clerkenwell car crash pictures and Colin will be signing copies of LONDON LIFE.
My mother and father both came from large families of some six or seven children, as was usual in those days. Many did not live beyond infancy, dying from diseases they would survive today, and my mother often talked about her beautiful sister Eileen, who died from pneumonia when she was nine years old. Families were poor and people often went hungry. Children walked long distances to school and shoes were a luxury.
My parents grew up in Clerkenwell, which was called‘Little Italy’ because of the Italian immigrants living there. St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was the focus of their early lives, along with a building called ‘The Red House’ – with a distinctive red brick exterior still visible in Clerkenwell Road today. This was where they went when they needed a handout of food or clothing.
I was born on May 8th 1940 in Northampton Buildings in Northampton Street in the now-defunct London Borough of Finsbury. Soon after my birth, we moved from there to Victoria Dwellings, a sprawling series of tall Victorian buildings which ran along the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. Then Edward, my father, left to serve in the Second World War, travelling to Germany, France and Italy before returning when I was five years old. I cried when I saw him again because I wondered who this strange man was.
My mother, Edith, never had a career. She looked after me and her mother, Ada Kelly, who was crippled with arthritis and sat in a chair beside the radio, chuckling at Wilfred Pickles or listening to ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. My mother and her sister, Winnie, occasionally went ‘up west’ to look in the stores and try things on, even though they could not afford to buy them. I took some photographs of my mother trying on hats in British Home Stores in Oxford Street and laughing her head off when she saw herself in the mirror.
‘The Dwellings’ – as we called them – had survived the bombing, but were surrounded by derelict buildings and dangerous structures. For us children, these sites became our playgrounds with many exciting adventures to be had. It was part of life that we were allowed to go and play on our own in dangerous places. Our parents were too busy earning a living to worry about us overly. We learned to look after ourselves, but local people also looked out for us and, occasionally, a policeman would clip us round the ear if we were doing something wrong. We stayed out all day and played until we were exhausted, then came home to our tea before we went to bed and sank into a dream world of fantasy and romance.
Our flat was number 118, at the top of the building, and the view from the living room became my first window on the world. It was from here I looked down onto the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road – where I took images of violent car crashes and fatal accidents, and of a window cleaner perched precariously on a high ledge opposite in a snow storm. It was from my window that I saw the annual Italian procession in which I walked as a train bearer when I was six years old. From this aerial perspective, I photographed ‘The Steps’ across Clerkenwell Road in Onslow Street, our usual meeting place as children before setting off for a day’s play on the bomb sites. From the living room, I watched trolley buses, delivery vans and women chatting. One of my photographs captures an almost- deserted crossing on New Year’s Eve with snow falling, taken while we sat during a power cut to see in the New Year by the light of a candle in 1962.
My granny, Ada, lived at number 99 where all the neighbours would gather during the war whenever there was an air raid. They gave up going to the designated shelters, preferring to take their chances at home instead, and number 99 was thought to be safe because it nestled in the centre of the block. People assembled there, drank lots of tea, told stories and cracked jokes to take their minds off the fact that, if a bomb hit, they might all be killed in an instant.
The Leinwebers lived in the flat beneath us at number 117, until their family of seven or eight children grew so large they took over number 116 as well. My mother’s sister, Winnie, married Frank Leinweber, one of the Leinweber boys. I remember, in the late fifties, Mrs Leinweber was still cooking for her children who would pop in for lunch and I photographed her dishing it up in the room that served as her kitchen, living and dining room all in one.
Early pictures show me carrying a box camera around and my first real photograph was of two boys leaning against a car in Hatton Garden. This is where my interest started – there in Clerkenwell in Little Italy in the London Borough of Finsbury, where I grew up with my mum and dad, and my aunts and uncles, and all my friends and acquaintances.
My uncle, William Kelly, was a taxi driver and a bit of an outsider. He rarely turned up for family gatherings but, at Christmas when I was six years old, he arrived with a parcel containing some bottles of chemicals, a printing frame and a couple of dishes. We mixed up the chemicals, took a box camera negative and put it in contact with light sensitive paper held in a small wooden frame. After we exposed it to daylight, we dipped the paper into the developer and I can remember that moment when I first saw an image appear as if from nowhere – it still fascinates and excites me today.
My first photographic impulse was to capture the childhood world that surrounded me in Clerkenwell but, as my universe expanded and I travelled further afield, I continued to take pictures without ceasing. Shaping my perceptions and approach to existence, the life I recorded with my camera made me the man I am today.
My mother, Edith, in the scullery at 118 Victoria Dwellings
This tiny room was where my mother cooked and where we also washed, occasionally putting a tin bath on the floor, filling it with hot water from the geyser, and sitting there as we scrubbed ourselves clean. I remember the noise of the whistling kettle, and I can still smell the eggs and bacon and fried bread that my mother was cooking, accompanied by a steaming hot cup of tea with three sugars to warm me up after playing outside all day.
The oven had seen better days, the enamel was chipped yet it still functioned well enough and, although there was no room for a fridge in the scullery, nobody had one in those days. It was a long time before I realised that well-off people had a room called a ‘kitchen’ where they did their cooking.
I remember my mother and Auntie Winnie going to the Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia and coming back with exciting ideas about how we could improve our ‘impoverished’ existence. My mother loved bright colours and flowery patterns and modern swivel chairs. She made the effort to brighten up the drab surroundings in Victoria Dwellings, but it all felt so cosy that, as I grew up, I never questioned how we lived. To me it was our home, it was where I felt safe.
My father, Edward, in the living room at 118 Victoria Dwellings
Our front door led straight into the living room where my father sat to eat his breakfast of toast and tea before setting off for work at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office. I could never understand why my mother covered up the gas meter with a piece of curtaining but not the electric meter in this room.
When my father came back from the war with no prospects, little money, and a son and a wife to support, he may well have wished he was back in the army, but eventually he found a job sorting letters. I remember finding a diary of his after he died. One entry read, “Five shillings short on the rent this week, I don’t know what I shall do,” but he must have found the money from somewhere.
I recall him coming to one of my early exhibitions at the Morley Gallery and he wrote in the comments book, “I am very proud of my son and I enjoyed the exhibition very much.”
HERBAL HILL, EARLY FIFTIES Seen from the rooftop of Victoria Dwellings, the Italian Procession in Honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel snakes its way into Clerkenwell Road in the rain. Huge crowds gathered to view this annual event which still takes place today.
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