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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit