John Claridge
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The East End from the inside

John Claridge’s intimate photographs from the 1960s capture a lost world of wonder and possibility.

At the age of eight, John Claridge saw a plastic camera in the prizes at an East End funfair and knew he had to have it. In that intuitive moment, a lifelong passion for photography was born. “I did not know why I wanted it,” John confessed to me, “except I wanted to capture everything and take the memories back with me. I already understood that if you have a camera, you can take it all back with you.”

Saving up money from his paper round in the London docks, John bought a serious camera and recorded the world that he knew, capturing the images you see here.

“As a child, from my bedroom window 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; my father took me down to the dock gate and on to the wharves. That was my education in wonderment. 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.”

John left school at 15. When he informed West Ham labour exchange of his chosen career, he was sent to the McCann Erickson advertising agency in the West End, where he acquired a job in the photographic department. There he came under the in­fluence of Robert Brownjohn, the legendary art director best remembered for his James Bond title sequences.

As an insider, John was able to take hundreds of candid photographs recording his whole society in the East End, while the version of Bauhaus aesthetic he absorbed from Brownjohn inspired him to produce graphic images that are entirely distinctive. He took possibly more pictures of the East End in the 1960s than any other photographer, and his affectionate, highly personal work is in marked contrast to the more familiar social reportage produced by photographers who were sent on assignment to record deprivation and urban poverty.

“At that time not a lot of people came into the East End from the outside,” John told me. “They thought it was a really dodgy area but it was not.”

In spite of bomb damage and the growing incursion of slum clearances, John’s landscape was a place of wonder and imaginative possibility – characterised by the industrial drama of the docks and the pervasive influence of the Thames. “I used to go to the shops with my mum, 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.”

One day when John was just 16, Brownjohn said to him: “Kid, you’re gonna have an exhibition whether you like it or not.” The subject of the show, at McCann Erickson, was John’s East End photography, and the response was favourable. A year later, he left the East End for good and at the same time opened his first studio, near St Paul’s Cathedral.

“People say life was hard in the East End but I found the living was easy and I loved it,” John said. “When I was 15, I was interested in motorbikes, girls and photography, though I couldn’t say in what order.” 

More of John Claridge’s work can be found at: johnclaridgephotographer.com. The Gentle Author blogs at: spitalfieldslife.com

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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