Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label Sheffield Blitz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sheffield Blitz. Show all posts

Sunday, August 12, 2012


I’ve written elsewhere about my own father going to work the morning after the Sheffield Blitz of 1941, walking through ruins, stepping over dead bodies as he went.  The picture above is from the Sheffield Libraries archive but, need I say, that is not my father.

I’m never sure exactly what is we want from war photographs.  We want the “truth,” of course, but we know that truth is war’s first casualty. We also know that certain war photographs are in fact “set ups,” sometimes in a “good cause,” sometimes not.  And equally we do know that many war photographers have a good-enough and trained-enough eye that even in the midst of chaos their photographs can be surprisingly formal and well-composed.

When it comes to photographing the aftermath of war, photographers are inevitably confronted by ruins: piles of rubble and masonry which in themselves may be rather unphotogenic.  In those circumstances, what photographer can resist putting a walker or two in the picture?

The images above and below come from the conflict in Aleppo, and I have been following things there with a special interest.  A long time ago I did an MA in European drama at the University of Essex, along with (among others) a melancholy Syrian named Tarek.  He was specializing in Beckett and had hopes of teaching English literature at Aleppo University.  Occasionally we walked to the campus together, discussing modern European drama rather than the state of things in Syria, which even then seemed a very touchy subject. 

I have no idea of what happened to Tarek, whether he fulfilled his ambitions, and in any case I imagine he’d now be about retirement age.  Of course, I don't seriously expect to see him when I look at the news photographs from Aleppo, but if he is still there now, I feel pretty certain that he’s walking in ruins.

And speaking of modern European drama: those of you have been following the Nicholson “literary career” since its beginning (there may perhaps be three of you) will know that my first serious bit of writing was a play titled Oscar, a two-hander, less than an hour long, but performed in several different productions in Cambridge, Edinburgh and (improbably) Nottingham.  We needed an image for the programme, so our designer dug out something from an underground magazine, and used the image below.

At the time I thought it was wonderful, but I’d more or less forgotten about it, had certainly forgotten the name of the artist.  But recently, for one reason or another, I happened to be looking for images of the ruins of Hollywood, and there it was.  The artist is Ron Cobb, who I'm sure I should have known more about.  The image seems as terrific as ever.  I had imagined that an updated version would have our protagonist carrying a computer rather than a TV, but who’s to say he wouldn’t be carrying a fan, like this man in Aleppo?

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I’ve been looking at photographs of people walking in ruins.  The one above is one of the most familiar, taken in the London blitz, a morning after shot.  And if you’d asked me a couple of days back I’d have said it was by Cecil Beaton or Bill Brandt.  It turns out I was wrong about that, as you’ll see.

Without really thinking about it too much, I’d never doubted that it was a bit of a set up, though not a particularly reprehensible one, a morale-boosting image to show Londoners that life was still going on normally even after a night of bombings.  For one thing, I didn’t really believe that milkmen were still sticking to their rounds in the middle of the blitz.  Would there even be any doorsteps to leave the milk on?  And when the milkman came back at the end of the week what were the chances of the customers still being there, what possible likelihood that they’d hand over what they owed?

But it turns out the photograph is even more fake than I thought. The photographer was actually Fred Morley, and it’s widely reported that the “milkman” was his assistant dressed up for the part.  But that raises more questions than it answers.  Because obviously he must have borrowed the coat and the crate of milk from somebody, and if not from a milkman, then who?   So does that mean there really were milkmen making deliveries?  And if so, why not use a real milkman in the photograph?  Couldn’t they find one winsome or perky enough?  Or did the real milkmen think this photography lark was an insult?  But if so, they wouldn’t have lent their jacket and milk would they?  Or were there no real milkmen involved at all, and did the photographer bring the jacket and milk with him as a props?  I should really like to know. 

It’s generally assumed that the firemen working in the background are the genuine article, and I imagine they were extremely pissed off that this photographer and his assistant were free to ponce about taking pictures, while they had real work to do.

When I was growing up in Sheffield in the 1950s and 60s, memories of Sheffield’s own blitz were still fresh in the minds of my parents’ generation. It had been short-lived and limited by London standards – just two raids in December 1940 - but bad enough; almost 700 dead, another 1500 injured, tens of thousands left homeless.

There was a story told in our family that my father, then in his teens, had walked to work the morning after the bombings, stepping over debris and, according to my mother, also over dead bodies.  My father never mentioned it at all, which I’ve always thought gives the story more rather than less credibility. 

There are a lot of extant pictures of the Sheffield blitz, though there seem to be no Sheffield war photographers known by name, no Brandt or Beaton, not even a Fred Morley.  The vast majority of the photographs, like the one below, are simply credited to “Sheffield Newspapers.”

This is the best known, and probably the best, photograph from the Sheffield blitz.  It shows the High Street on fire, a couple of abandoned trams silhouetted against the conflagration.  Other photographs exist of the scene, taken that night and the next morning, but none look as good as this. 

And I've been thinking that for a photograph of ruins to look really good it's a big help to have a figure there somewhere, preferably someone walking, and now I find myself wondering about that solitary figure on the right of the Sheffield blitz picture.  What’s he doing there?  He looks so untroubled.   Where could he possibly be walking to so casually in the middle of an air raid?  And I wonder if he was placed there by the photographer for the sake of the shot.  I wonder if he was the photographer's assistant.
In a post-war article titled “Pictures by Night” Bill Brandt wrote, “In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery ...”   I suppose it would have been too dark to show a walking figure.