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

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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