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Lost People

January 26, 2021
by Gillian Tindall

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Today Gillian Tindall, Distinguished Historian & Contributing Writer, contemplates the paradox of photography – that brings us closer to history yet also separates us from the past.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, by Louis Daguerre, 1838

It is over a hundred and fifty years years since photographic portraits ceased to be an exotic rarity and began to make their way into the homes of those with a little money to spare. And it is over a hundred years since the first cinemas opened to show flickering silent movies.

For all the centuries before, nearly all people and places that had gone were lost forever, surviving only in the memories of those who would themselves disappear in turn. As each generation died, another tranche of the past slipped quietly into the vast pool of the irretrievable. The faces of kings and a few others rich or famous enough to be painted from life were preserved. But the vast majority of men and women, however prosperous, however active and handsome, however busy their lives, simply became – as the Bible quietly warns – ‘as if they had never been born’.

The tiny minority whose names survived because their stories were told and re-told were typically portrayed in clothes and circumstances that belonged to the time of telling rather than those of their own date. We are used to seeing Mary the Virgin in medieval dress and Christ garbed something like a travelling friar of the same era. It does not bother us that the Palestinian garments of two thousand years ago may have been rather different.

Similarly, our Elizabethan ancestors, looking back into history, were quite at ease imagining that people had always lived and thought more or less as they did. Actors wore the contemporary clothes of their own time rather than ‘period costume.’ The battle scenes in Macbeth bear more relation to the Wars of the Roses  – which in Shakespeare’s childhood would still have been remembered by the old – than they do to the battles of the Scottish usurper of five hundred years earlier. And the famous dinner, at which Macbeth is alarmed by Banquo’s ghost, resembles an Elizabethan social gathering rather than anything credible in a remote Scottish glen in the Dark Ages.

Today, if we have any acquaintance with history, we understand the past – I will not say ‘better’ but ‘differently.’ We know that our ancestors, though ‘just like us’ in some ways, did not speak or even think like us. They feared things we do not fear and were robust-minded in ways that shock us. We know they had different assumptions from us, different moral imperatives and different expectations. They are Philip Larkin’s ‘endless altered people’, forever walking down the church aisle in the same way – yet not quite the same.

Anyone who has seen They Shall Not Grow Old, the World War One documentary – with clips of the era adjusted to modern film-speed, coloured and with a sound-track added – will know what I mean. In one way, these young men brought back to life again, so many of whom did not survive till 1918, are painfully like our own husbands, brothers, sons. Only, they are not. They are preserved in an eternal moment that brings them close just as it keeps us apart from them. So much about them – their clothes, their weapons, their slang, their bad teeth, their boots, their mannerisms – indicate that it is the irretrievable past we are viewing.

Another remastered film came my way recently, of a journey along the Regent’s Canal in its working heyday, interspersed with fleeting views of  surrounding streets. No Camden Lock market then, instead barges loaded with timber and hard-core, slowly pacing horses and men shifting crates. But no thumps and bangs, no clopping of hooves or crash of water into locks, for films were silent then. Instead, elegiac music has been added, even over the glimpses of streets full of trams and open-topped buses. Nothing could emphasise more the fact that, since the film was shot in 1924, all the busy people in hats and long coats, glancing curiously at the camera as they hurry pass, must now be dead.

The same is true of many other street photographs that now fascinate us with their juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange. Yet often they do not quite carry the same emotional charge as random shots. Many twentieth century photographers, in this and other countries, have done what sketchers and engravers of street-scenes did before them: they have picked out distinctive street-people – traders, beggars, down-and-outs, well-known local characters – as representative figures. Yet the very fact of being singled out makes these people subtly special.

It is the completely incidental figure, often apparently unaware of the camera, in a picture otherwise taken as a streetscape, that stirs in me the feeling that I really am being offered a brief entry into the past. The blessed Colin O’Brien’s views of Clerkenwell and Hackney in the later decades of the twentieth century are occasionally of this kind. So too are some of the East End scenes of John Claridge, though much of the dereliction he recorded is essentially unpeopled. In just a few shots – a lone man in a mackintosh riding a bicycle though a waste-land, a gaunt-faced workman in a suit looking round warily from his work in a yard – I get the eerie sense of being close to a vanished individual’s reality.

And this is true of the celebrated earliest street photo of all, which was taken by Louis Daguerre from a high window of a Paris boulevard in 1838. The camera’s shutter had to open for a long exposure which renders passing carriages and pedestrians as only faint blurs. Yet clearly visible is one man, because he was standing still to have his boots cleaned. He was the first person ever to be photographed. He did not know it. And we have no idea who he was.

Accident at the junction of Clerkenwell Rd and Farringdon Rd, 1957. Photo by Colin O’Brien

E16, 1982. “He’s going home to his dinner.” Photo by John Claridge

Gillian Tindall’s latest book The Pulse Glass & The Beat of Other Hearts is published by Chatto & Windus

You may also like to read about

The Ghosts of Old London

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

John Claridge, Photographer

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    January 26, 2021

    Twofold thanks this morning :

    Thanks to Spitalfields Life for helping raise in 2 days almost all the £10K for the Save the Mulberry Tree case

    and for helping me discover amazing author GILLIAN TINDALL whose books l am collecting and enjoying the atmospheres immensely.

  2. Annie Green permalink
    January 26, 2021

    Beautifully written, as ever. Timely reminder of our human frailty.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    January 26, 2021

    Another thought provoking contribution from Gillian – thank you.

    I love the phrase “another vast tranche of the past slipped into the vast pool of the irretrievable” – wow! Goosebump time…

    I also agree about how the past is portrayed in the garb of the time of the telling, however subtly and unintentionally. For example I have been watching re-runs of the classic series Upstairs Downstairs and Lady Majorie’s dresses often have a distinctively Seventies look to them, in both colour and style.

    And in the case of the epic Bible films of the Fifties and Sixties the influence of the prevailing hourglass figure fashions was not at all subtle.

    It will be interesting to see how dated the current series of Bridgerton will look to future generations – so 2021!

  4. January 26, 2021

    A beautiful and thought provoking piece, thank you Gillian. My own small experience attests to the truth of it. My maternal grandparents were born early/ mid 1890s. In many ways, they were just like us of course, they felt love and had aches and got grumpy and laughed immoderately, but there were subtle differences in speech and not so subtle in experience. The tears I remember my grandfather crying on Armistice Day were inspired by grief rather than sadness. The shock Nan told of the loss of Titanic with, still incredulous after decades, was the sort of shock we felt on 9/11. The author of “Tipperary”, Jack Judge, was a friend to both of them (a lovely man, by their accounts) They saw Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd and George Robey in person on stage at the music halls.

    So much changed during their lifetimes and many of their experiences were very hard but there was an indefinable something about them, where you could still at times glimpse the Edwardian summer when they were young and less touched by life and history.

  5. January 26, 2021

    A wonderful, thought-provoking piece.

  6. January 26, 2021

    Sometimes we love a thing……..and I love vintage photographs. This beautiful essay helped me to understand why.

    A fantastic way to being a snowy day here in the Hudson River Valley.
    Many thanks.

  7. January 26, 2021

    Thank you for such a thought provoking piece Gillian , which reiterates beautifully that phrase ‘We are but shadows’. Both Colin and John have captured these fleeting moments so very well.
    What a delightful read today ….coupled with the good news that we are on track to fund the Judicial Review to save The Bethnal Green Mulberry.

  8. David Antscherl permalink
    January 26, 2021

    For those intrigued by today’s commentary, I thoroughly recommend “The Past is a Foreign Country” by David Lowenthal. He explores these themes beautifully.

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 26, 2021

    Thank you for this melodic piece today.

    The snow is falling here in Toronto- few people are out because of the pandemic lockdown situation.

    Looking out my window, the streets recall the quiet of that 1838 image.
    You’ve given me a passport to the past today–and I’m enjoying the peaceful journey.

  10. Claire D permalink
    January 28, 2021

    A day late but I just wanted to say how beautifully written Gillian’s piece is, poignant and thoughtful, thank you.

  11. February 4, 2021

    Wow, that picture of the docks, I went to sea as a boy seaman in 68, this conjured up memoirs of leaving London docks in winters and sailing to sunny climes. My Training school was moved to Norfolk because of the Blitz and it was in 1940 from Limehouse to Ingham in Norfolk, a move made necessary, first because greater security for the boys and also because the Admiralty expressed its wish to acquire the Limehouse building as a training depot for Merchant Navy gunners. The final school moved to Dover from which I progressed.

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