Spirit of ’76

The world is apparently getting warmer, but the hottest summer in my lifetime was surely the summer of 1976, a blisteringly warm period in a so-called troubled year. The prime minister Harold Wilson resigned seemingly out of the blue. Britain was also bailed out by the International Monetary Fund after the pound fell from over $2 to $1.6 by September (in 2016, it is way below $1.6). I was not ten years old, and that summer seemed to go on for the cliched forever.

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Ricoh 500 GX

The lawns turned brown and cracks appeared in the earth wide enough to wedge the toe of your trainers in. I spent many an afternoon in the park with my brother Paul, walking our grandad’s cairn terrier Archie. This was no ordinary municipal park. This was the Bishop’s Park in Bishop Auckland, 800 acres of lightly visited former hunting ground with a deer house, ford, bridges and many other delights. Looking back, how lucky we were to have this place to roam around in freely.

Now that’s 40 years ago, so marvel I do at the recently arrived Ricoh 500GX, which looks like it has just left the production line in Taiwan and been zipped forward 4 decades by Doctor Emmett Brown in his DeLorean to my local post office depot. I can only assume this camera was bought, and then seldom used, before being stuffed away at the back of a sock drawer and eventually forgotten about.

The Ricoh 500GX to me looks half rangefinder, half cigarette advertisement; evoking the black, silver and red livery of Marlboro Mclaren’s formula 1 racing car in which James Hunt won the 1976 drivers’ championship. This was back in the day when smoking, drinking and womanising seemed easy bedfellows with professional sport. How the world has changed. How utterly dull in comparison our sporting heroes are now. Bjorn Borg looked just as much a weed toking guitar man as a professional tennis player; so cool and human when set against some of today’s racket wielding automatons.

Misogyny has no place in the world, but we now have sugary drink purveyors and mass produced fast food makers sponsoring major sporting events instead of cigarette manufacturers. We’ve swapped the sponsored spectre of lung cancer for diabetes and heart disease. Elite sportsmen and sportswomen now have to be inscrutable under the constant media glare (or is it surveillance?), even when trying to let their hair down (and embarrassing themselves) for fear of upsetting hair trigger sensitivities and the PC police (see Louis Smith). I am not sure if all this constitutes progress.

But I am getting off track. I don’t want this article to be all about some middle aged grumpy bastard’s rant about the world today. I want to celebrate a brilliant little camera, well suited to street photography.

So, apart from looking like a miniature fag advertisement the Ricoh 500GX is a small fixed-lens rangefinder camera with full manual control and shutter priority options, as well as a multiple exposure feature which I am looking forward to trying. You have to work within the limitations of a 40mm Color Rikenon lens (a very good lens), a top shutter speed of 1/500th second, and a small and awkward aperture ring tucked in too close to the camera body and obstructed by the self timer lever. The fiddly aperture ring encouraged me to stick to shutter priority, and operating in this mode there are no frustrations.

Shutter priority is engaged by turning the aperture ring to a green letter ‘A’ and leaving it there. The camera is now in charge of choosing the correct aperture based on the film speed (set by a dial at the front of the lens), the CdS metered exposure, and the shutter speed set by the photographer on the shutter speed dial around the lens barrel. The viewfinder is bright enough with a distinctive diamond shaped rangefinder patch and a very good cream and red aperture scale running up the right hand side of the screen with a match needle indicating the camera’s chosen aperture. Unfortunately, shutter speed is not displayed, but there are only seven clicks from 1/500th- 1/8th to memorise.

Out and about in Redcar and Middlesbrough, I discovered a small and discreet camera. The shutter is whisper quiet, and I found the shutter lock a reassuring and handy feature. I am delighted with the camera’s output. Get one while they are reasonably priced, as I think we have a future cult classic on our hands.

No, 1976 wasn’t all bad. Read a bit of history. Draw your own conclusions. Compare it to 2016. As Harold Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan said, “a lie can go halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on”.

McCullin, A Magazine, And Me

25 years ago I was a features editor for a magazine group in the West Country. Devon Life, Cornish Life, and Somerset & Avon Life were quality perfect bound regional magazines for the well heeled; that is until my employee Malcolm Davis of Today Publications acquired them from the previous struggling owner. Malcolm was an entrepreneur. He set about attempting to increase his margins by sacking the inherited staff, refusing to pay going rates for articles, using cheaper paper for printing, switching to saddle stitch, and using some relatives over in Ipswich to do the typesetting. Hindsight tells me the whole enterprise was doomed from the start. He was bottling Charlie and making out it was Chanel.

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An Unlikely Team

In I stepped at the start of Malcolm’s revolution. On the strength of a hand written prospective letter, a willingness to cut my hair, and my critique of a submitted article, I was offered the features post by Neville Hutchinson, the affable managing editor brought in by Malcolm to set up new and leaner editorial and sales teams. None of us had a bloody clue how to run a magazine, but we learned quickly.

Brought in to assist Neville and I was Fiona Pearson, a rosy cheeked teenager with a maturity beyond her years. Alex Kostin, a somewhat eccentric young man from Honiton was employed as a general assistant, but found a niche with desktop publishing software. And then there was Cathy Wise, a sweeter older lady, who did all the office administration.

Neville had his own office. The rest of us shared a room. The sales team had their own room too. The suite of offices was small, crammed into the lovely Victorian stucco terrace of Queen Street in Exeter. Malcolm did most of his work away from the office, but would come in not infrequently to show off his Victoria plum complexion, and emanate his stressed aura throughout the building. We were never making enough money, so Malcolm was always trying to cut costs. One of those was payroll, where he managed to run an editorial team with just two full time employees; Neville and myself. Cathy, Alex and Fiona were all on government schemes.

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The October 1991 edition of Devon Life. No mention of Don McCullin.

It is only when I look back now do I fully appreciate the exquisite irony of an editorial team which included three government schemers and a comprehensive schooled, working class, council house raised features editor, producing a magazine for the county set. Some days I saw my colleagues as being exploited. Other days I could see they were being handed an opportunity. We were all there on merit. Today, it would probably take a degree of privilege, and some months working for nowt to get your foot in the door.

Arts West

Some months into the regime, Neville had the bright idea of an arts supplement that after about a minute of deliberation over the name became Arts West. Into the void that was our collective art knowledge stepped the artist Linda Winter as supplement editor, who Neville had met at an event. Thus began for me the most enjoyable stint of my time as a features editor. The arts section was a stimulating antidote to dealing with articles about choosing an independent school for your young dullard, or having to proof Neville’s execrable wine and dine reviews. Linda’s presence and input was a breath of fresh air.

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The Arts West photographic competition. It bombed.

Don McCullin

One day she came bounding into the office and produced a set of photographic prints. I laid them out on my desk. They were by Don McCullin. He needed no introduction to me. Linda explained a retrospective exhibition of Don’s work was happening (although where and when I have no recall) and we should try and get an article in the magazine. I stared down at Don’s dark visions on my desk and I knew this was going to be a tall order. Sensitive to his paltry piggy bank, it was certain that Malcolm would veto any kind of article that would disturb the comfort of the readers, or moreover, the advertisers. There was only one thing to do. We wouldn’t tell him. And so it came to pass; we printed a fallen North Vietnamese soldier, a grief stricken Cypriot mother, and a rather benign Cambodian still life to accompany an article by Linda. I think Neville must have made a compromise, as when the printed magazine came back, the images were much smaller than we had wanted, with the whole article squished into two pages. The mono reproduction was crap as usual. What a shame. However, with Neville’s consent, a photographic contest was launched, and another of Don McCullin’s images was used to promote the competition.

So opposite a polite half page article about homeopathy and four advertisements for quack doctors is an image of two blokes pushing bicycles along a grimy north east beach; my neck of the woods. Several sacks of sea coal are draped across the frames of their bikes. World’s apart, the haggard grimy man in front stares back at the county magazine reader.

Redundancy

Arts West didn’t last long and Malcolm’ s tenure not much longer. It was all over the following year. I came to work one Friday to see an envelope on my desk. I opened it and read the letter, “…you are now redundant”. We all got the same letter. I recall a short conversation in Neville’s office. Malcolm wished he’d voted for the ‘socialists’ in the general election of April 1992. By that he meant the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock.

But the country was changing. The ‘s’ word would soon disappear from the vocabulary of the Labour Party for a quarter of a century. The monetarist juggernaut that Mrs Thatcher had set in motion was unstoppable. A new ‘s’ word would appear under John Major’s premiership – sleaze. Under New Labour another would be born – spin.We’d had the first Gulf War, and the white noise onslaught of 24 hour rolling news had begun. Murdoch’s news revolution was well underway. His henchman, Andrew Neil, had ‘sorted out’ The Sunday Times and dispatched with the services of one of England’s greatest photographers. Don McCullin was no longer a photojournalist, and the dissenting voice of the photojournalist  coupled with the authority of a national newspaper magazine supplement would become an endangered species.

Possibilities

However, in 1989, a certain Tim Berners-Lee had invented something called the World Wide Web, which would present the opportunity for a new form of photojournalism from a heap of broken images.