Friday, 20 November 2020

Britain has lost, but Wales was the nation which made and anointed the future Prince of Solid-State Chemistry, John Meurig Thomas

John, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the greatest British scientists in recent decades who was known worldwide for his research achievements in solid state chemistry and catalytic science. He was both inspirational and eloquent in his expression of the elegance and utility of science beyond the world of academia through his lectures, articles, reviews and books.

Although he left Wales at the age of 46 in 1978, after working at the Universities of Bangor and Aberystwyth, to become Professor and Head of Chemistry at Cambridge, it was in Wales that he spent his formative years in the 1940s and early 50s, as a child, a grammar school boy and university undergraduate. It was here that he was made as he was influenced, in turn, by his father, the chapel, his Physics teacher, the popular science writings of J.B.S. Haldane, Dorothy Crowfoot and Eric James and the examples of his hero and lodestar, Michael Faraday and the Principal of University College Swansea, John Fulton. From his mother he gained his prodigious memory. With all his success in solid-state chemistry, John paid tribute to all of them when he said that his greatest achievement had been "to combine being a teacher, a researcher and a populariser of science over 50 years".

He was born, the son of Edyth and David, in the winter 1932, in small mining village between  Llanelli and Camarthen, South Wales and grew up in a family of seven in the Gwendraeth Valley. He recalled the area with great affection : "It's an area where the coalmines run out and where beyond that valley you come to the agricultural  areas of Carmarthen and they're beautiful. It's the setting of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill, for example". He was proud of his solid, Welsh, working class stock : his maternal grandfather was a gardener in the Swansea valley and paternal grandfather was a farmer and engine driver in Carmarthen. His own was a coal miner and fiercely intelligent man, who rose to the position of 'overman' in his colliery, but was barred from management through lack of formal education He had a profound influence on John as a boy and he recalled : "He taught me a great deal; he had great linguistic skills but was quiet hopeless mathematically". His mother, on the other hand, who spoke to him throughout her life only in Welsh, had no linguistic skills, but did have a formidable memory.

His father clearly did not fight shy of talking about his service in the Welsh Division in the First World to his son, since John recorded that War had influenced him profoundly and said : "It was his university". He fought on the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme, on the Greek Island of Patmos and in North Africa and must have been a warrant officer, since he received the Military Cross at Gallipoli in 1915, as a recognition of his 'distinguished and meritorious service in battle in situations'. 


John recalled that the : "thing I took a great interest in at a very early age and induced by my father, was bird watching. He knew all the birds there were in that area and could tell how the skylark went about its nesting and how the nightingale sometimes came very, very rarely to that part of the world". He also collected birds eggs, but very responsibly, only taking one egg when there were five or six. 

"The Welsh words for birds; the dipper is called the 'yr aderyn trochi', the 'black bird of the water'. The jays, they're called an onomatopoeic
description, 'sgrech y coed', which means the 'terrible screeching of the bird'. That's exactly what it does. Its not a  mellifluous bird, from the point of view of its song."

He acknowledged the influence of the power of the Methodist chapel over him both in its music and language : "The chapels in South Wales where brilliant  places for getting 'Elijah', 'The Messiah', 'Judas Maccabaeus'. I was about six when I heard the choir in the chapel and all the congregation sing "The heavens are telling, the glory of God", in 'The Creation'. Fabulous". Over 70 years later, in 2014 when he became the President of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, in his address he declared: “I am proud, indeed I rejoice in the fact of my being a Welshman. It was in the chapel that I learned to be an academic by listening to and analysing very many powerful sermons.”

He recalled that in 1942 : "My father decided, when I was ten, that my English was so atrociously bad and was petrified with the idea that I might not pass my 11+ , he expressed a very firm imperious edict : "From now on I speak to you in English and you answer in English". Which is what I did until the day he died in 1954".

John gained his selective, fee-paying place in secondary education and remembered : "What was so nice about Gwendraeth Grammar School, was that there was a mingling of the sons and daughters of farmers and rural agricultural communities and the sons and daughters of coal miners and there was a big contrast. The former class were rather lugubrious and slow, very matter of fact, didn't really rush to things. While the latter were, in that respect, the sons and daughters of coal miners, because they were in danger all the time, were much more alert. Much more alert and quick witted".  

John had nothing but praise for the quality of teaching at the school and had 
particular praise for his Physics teacher, Irene James, in whose lessons “the flame of science was lit in my heart and in my mind”. She "had the gift of, not just telling us what physics was about, but mentioning to you what Isaac Newton was like, the great Lord Brayley, Michael Faraday, of course. He became my hero at the age of 14, 15. The greatest joy for me, much much later, was to occupy the chair that was created for him". (John became Director of the Royal Institution at the age of 54 in 1986).  John recalled that he was "enthralled" and "in awe of Faraday from that moment onward.” 

" He left a greater corpus of scientific knowledge after his death than any other scientist and yet he left school at 13, equipped only with reading writing and arithmetic, became a bookseller's apprentice. At the age of 21 he was going to literary debating societies in London. He heard Humphry Davy lecture at the Royal Institution. It transformed his life. He decided to become a scientist at 21. By the age of 34 he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and by the age of 50 he was a Fellow of all the academies of the world".

The volumes of H.G.Wells 'Outline History of the World' were also a favourite with John, but they were eclipsed in influence by the writings of J.B.S. Haldane "an ardent Communist and wrote articles in the 'Daily Worker'". John recalled : "In the barber's shop where I grew up the local Communist, one of several passionate, well-informed individuals, would deliver the 'Daily Worker' free of charge every morning to the three barber's shops". It was here that he discovered Haldane's articles and remembered that : "He wrote in such authoritative terms about : 'Why is there so much iron in the body ?' He described haemoglobin." 

'Haemoglobin is of a deep purple colour. If you want to see the colour, prick your finger or ear lobe and let it bleed into some water till you have a nice clear red fluid. Put this in a small bottle and add a crystal of sodium hydrosulphite (not hyposulphite). This will combine with the oxygen and the liquid will turn purple.'

"There was a wonderful one on 'Being the right size'. If you were to drop a mouse down a well it would drop 20 feet then run away. Try doing the same with an elephant. How it was the stretch of your bones, rather than dimensions. 'How do you lose heat ?' He was a scientist and he would talk about the atmosphere of the planets. He induced my interest in science through that adventitious paper in the barber's shop".

John gained another source of inspiration in science in Mee's 'Children's Encyclopedia' where he "pondered on a writer, Dorothy Crowfoot, who turned out to be Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin the Nobel Prize winner". In later years he got to know her very well and told her how she had influenced him as a child.  

John recalled that he studied chemistry in the sixth form by accident. He'd wanted to study  physics, mathematics and geography at 'A' level but the Headmaster decreed that the timetable would not allow that so he was told to take chemistry. He was the only pupil in that class, so in one-to-one tuition, during the first hour would talk about rugby and the second would do his chemistry. 

He recalled that he "read an extremely important book by Eric James, later Lord Rushholme, then chemistry master at Winchester, 'Problems in Physical Chemistry'. What struck me about it was it was so elegantly written. It was like reading a novel. There was mathematics in it too. It was exhilarating. He did influence me in an ineffable kind of way."

Having gained his place to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Swansea University in 1950, John came under the influence and was inspired by the Principle, John Fulton. He recalled : "He was the leader and when he spoke he was inspiring. He didn't talk about fund raising and things like that. He talked about : 'What is democracy ?' 

We had to read essays to him - all the all the first year students. There were 250 of them. They each had to do 4 essays in all, on various subjects. He gave you a list, you could choose and every two weeks or so, in the first year, you had to read an essay - Rush Rhees the philosopher, who was a big friend of Wittgenstein. Others you might read to -  the Assistant Director in French or the Reader in Physics. 'The idea of Nationalism', for example, you'd speak to the Professor of History on that. But John Fulton took as in, four at a time. We would each read our essays and we'd have an hours conversation. The top man found time to do that. That's impressive". 

John admitted that John Fulton "made a lasting impression". In addition, "the other thing he did, which set him apart : every tuesday afternoon, every student went into a lecture theatre -world class speakers : Isaiah Berlin talking about 'The Brother Karamazov'. Gerald Moore : 'The Art of Accompaniment'. Absolutely mesmerising.  Garnet Rees on 'Marcel Proust and the Psychological Novel'. Kinglsley Amis, a member of staff there : 'The novel : why was it that Jane Austen, George Eliot and the others all came more or less together ? How do you account for this ? and how important is the novel ? and how long ago did novels start ?  A wonderfully educating thing. Scientists too : Somebody talking about 'Relativity' or 'The Revolution in Modern Physics'. So that was, I really reckon, that in a small welsh provincial college I received first class education". 

When he was in his 50s and lived in the same quarters that Faraday once occupied in the Royal Institution’s building on Albemarle Street, London, he sat in Faraday’s chair and worked at his desk. 

“When I retired at night, the bathroom furniture had a brass plate bearing his signature; and each time I gazed at it, I felt, knowing how prodigiously hard he used to work, that I had not done enough to earn a night’s sleep.”



Monday, 16 November 2020

Britain is no country for a very old Second World War spitfire pilot called Flight Lieutenant Edmund James

Edmund, who is 98 years old, is one of the last remaining fighter pilots from the Second World War. While, at the age of 17, he was too young to fight in the Battle of Britain, Edmund enlisted in the RAF and joined 93 Squadron and based at Biggin Hill he saw action over British waters and above the fields of France during and after D-Day in 1944.

He was involved in a lot of combat mission fighting enemy planes and has said "At 17, 18, 19 or 20 you don't think of it as being unnerving, but you think of it as being exciting. I enjoyed it in a way. My memories are just pleasant. I know I lost a lot of friends at the time, but it helps if it's what you wanted to do. I wanted to be a pilot as I was inspired by Biggles."


Now he has been devastated by the fact that the photograph he kept hanging in the same room as his war medals in his home in Falmouth has disappeared, following a pre-arranged visit by someone who was doing some work for him. It showed the aircraft he flew and the photo was signed by fallen comrades.

He said : "I was so angry. The picture was signed by my friends. Some of whom were killed and didn't get through. Gone before they were intended. I would really like to have it returned. It used to hang on a hook in the study, it had hung there for many decades. Whoever took it had piled up books to fill in the gap in the hope I wouldn't notice. I wouldn't like to say what I want to do them, but I just want it returned to the police."


After the War Edmund trained and qualified as a GP and during the 1980s was the head of Child Health in Cornwall.

A reminder of his bravery : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30U9CBA7xVo

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old D-Day Veteran, Peace Campaigner and Soulful Singer called Jim Radford

Try this if looking for :

Paul Harveyhttps://britainisnocountryforoldmen.blogspot.com/2020/11/britain-is-still-country-for-old-music.html

Chris Killiphttps://britainisnocountryforoldmen.blogspot.com/2020/10/britain-says-farewell-usa-has-lost-but.html

Derek Mahonhttps://britainisnocountryforoldmen.blogspot.com/2020/10/britain-is-country-which-made-and.html


Jim has died at the age of 92, after two weeks of being treated, in hospital, on a Covid ventilator. 

Seventy-six years ago, he was a 15 year old galley boy serving on the tug, the 'Empire Larch', when it sailed to join the Normandy D-Day invasion on June 6th 1944, which marked the beginning of the end of the German occupation of Europe and the Second World War in Europe. Last year, seventy-five years later, a campaign was launched to get the haunting ballad he composed to commemorate that day, 'The Shores Of Normandy,' to Number One. After performing the song for decades, it was rereleased  last summer and briefly stormed ahead of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber's joint single, on Amazon's music chart.

Jim, who is donating profits towards building a memorial in Ver-sur-Mer honouring those 22,442 men and women, under British command, who died during the Allied landings and the Battle of Normandy. He said reaching the top spot was beyond his "wildest dreams". The Normandy Memorial Trust, which hopes to build the monument, helped Jim to promote the single and gather support on social media. 

Jim said : "We want people to remember all those good men. All those young men. Boys really not much older than I was, lots of 18 year olds. They deserve to be honoured and remembered. A way to honour and remember them is to take this commitment and make sure that it never happens again. For that we need a focal point. Just as we need the Cenotaph, we need a memorial in France."

There is much more to Jim than just his song. He was a founding member of 'Veterans for Peace UK' in 2012 and was present at their Remembrance Day protest at the Cenataph in London in 2013. 

Back in 2014, when interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme, he explained that he no longer regularly attended the Remembrance Sunday Service held at the Cenotaph in November each year, unless in his capacity as an anti-war campaigner and said :  "Normally I don't go to the Cenotaph. I stopped going years ago. I go to the Merchant Navy memorial on Tower Hill. The reason I don't go is because that ceremony's been hijacked by politicians, by the Royal Family, by the Church. It's not about the Royal Family, it's not about the politicians, and it's not about the Church."

He also said that he thought the Second World War fought against Nazi Germany was justified but none of the wars fought since have been : "If you've seen slaughter on that scale, you have to stop and think, was it justified ? Well it was justified, in that case it was necessary, but in so many cases it's not. Most of the wars that have been since, I can't think of a single exception, seem to me unnecessary and avoidable."

Jim, who was born in 1928, was an 11 year old growing up in Hull, in East Yorkshire, when the family got the news that his brother Jack had been killed when his ship, the SS Cree, was torpedoed in the Atlantic and was 13 when his other brother, Fred, joined the 'Royal Navy Rescue Tugs Service' in 1942.

Determined to follow his brother and at 15, too young to be allowed to join the Royal Navy, he went into the Merchant Navy as a galley boy on the tug the Empire Larch and later said : "I joined the tugs because that was the only way I could get to sea and every kid in Hull wanted to play a part in the War" and “in 1944, you were either a boy or a man and we became men very quickly.”

He sailed out to join the invasion fleet and said : "As we got closer, there was the most tremendous bombardment taking place, every ship was firing it's gun. It was like Dante's Inferno. There were blazing landing craft on the beach and you could still see the fighting going on. Like everyone else, even then in '44, I'd seen war films, but it's amazing the difference when it's real."

"The water was full of dead men. A very sad memory of D-Day is all the poor devils who never made it to the beach, who were in the water with life jackets on, floating, and we hadn't time to pull them out. Your thought is 'this is real, this is actually happening'."

He was on his tug towing a 'block ship' into position before it was scuttled to help build a mulberry harbour to facilitate the landing of supplies for the invasion forces at Arromanches on Gold Beach.

After the War, Jim joined the Royal Navy and served for ten years ten years before retiring from the sea in the 1950s. After a varied career, he took a keen interest in the folk and maritime music, both as an attender and performer at maritime festivals around Britain and was best known for his sea shanties.

When asked if he 'had returned to the site of the landings since the War ?' Jim has said: "I've only been back three times. When I saw it was a beach, covered in children and sandcastles and people running and playing, that moved me enormously. The contrast is so amazing."

In 2015 he was appointed a 'Chevalier of the L├ęgion d'Honneur' by the French Republic 'In recognition of steadfast involvement in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.'

Jim composed his autobiographical 'Shores of Normandy' fifty years ago, after an emotional return to Arromanches-les-Baines in Normandy in 1969 and in 2014, sang it for all those men who had served and died on the 6th June 1944 in BBC Radio 2's tribute concert at the Royal Albert Hall..He received a standing ovation from the audience where, there was doubtless, scarce a dry eye. It was also in 2014 that Jim was interviewed and related his D-Day experience on BBC Radio 4 : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020bmq9

The Shores of Normandy 
In the cold grey light of the sixth of June, in the year of forty-four,
The Empire Larch sailed out from Poole to join with thousands more.
The largest fleet the world had seen, we sailed in close array,
And we set our course for Normandy at the dawning of the day.

There was not one man in all our crew but knew what lay in store,
For we had waited for that day through five long years of war.
We knew that many would not return, yet all our hearts were true,
For we were bound for Normandy, where we had a job to do.

Now the Empire Larch was a deep-sea tug with a crew of thirty-three,
And I was just the galley-boy on my first trip to sea.
I little thought when I left home of the dreadful sights I'd see,
But I came to manhood on the day that I first saw Normandy.

At the Beach of Gold off Arromanches, 'neath the rockets' deadly glare,
We towed our blockships into place and we built a harbour there.
'Mid shot and shell we built it well, as history does agree,
While brave men died in the swirling tide on the shores of Normandy.

Like the Rodney and the Nelson, there were ships of great renown,
But rescue tugs all did their share as many a ship went down.
We ran our pontoons to the shore within the Mulberry's lee,
And we made safe berth for the tanks and guns that would set all Europe free.

For every hero's name that's known, a thousand died as well.
On stakes and wire their bodies hung, rocked in the ocean swell;
And many a mother wept that day for the sons they loved so well,
Men who cracked a joke and cadged a smoke as they stormed the gates of hell.

As the years pass by, I can still recall the men I saw that day
Who died upon that blood-soaked sand where now sweet children play;
And those of you who were unborn, who've lived in liberty,
Remember those who made it so on the shores of Normandy

In an interview in the Telegraph last year, Jim said that writing the song was "very hard" because "it meant reliving very harrowing experiences. I hadn't realised that, without knowing how I'd done it, I'd managed to convey that emotional impact to other people. I was very surprised that large numbers of people had contacted me to say they had been moved by it."


* * * * * * * * * * 
The last year of Jim's life was blighted by the fact that, in September last year, he appeared via videolink before magistrates at Caernarfon in Gwynedd accused of seven sex offences, between 1992 and 1998, involving two girls. His lawyer said that Jim denied the charges and he was granted conditional bail to appear before Carenarfen Crown Court last October. Given the fact that his case hasn't come before the courts, Jim will always remain the brave 15 year old galley boy from Hull who, on a tug called the Empire Larch in 1944, saw the 'Shores of Normandy'.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Britain is still a country for an old Music Teacher called Paul Harvey who brightened the darkness of dementia with his Four Musical Notes

Nick Harvey, who is in his late forties has, has over the last 25 years built a successful career as a composer of musical scores for more than a hundred television productions, including, in this year alone, 'Secrets of the Museum' for BBC 2, 'Tyson Fury : The Gypsy King' for ITV and 'Portrait Artist of the Year' for Sky Arts. Nick studied music at his secondary school, Sackville School in East Grinstead and then for his degree in Music and Theatre at Dartington College of Arts in the early 1990s. In fact he had scarcely graduated when, in his early twenties he wrote the score for 'The Learning Zone' series for BBC 2 in 1995. 

Although school and college must have played a role in the formation of Nick Harvey, the young composer, there is no doubt that the formative influence in his life must have been his Dad, Paul. Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1940 and now 80 years old, he left school in the 1950s to study piano at the Guildhall School of Music. Then, like Nick, he became a composer and in his case, a concert pianist, appearing on the BBC Radio Home Service in 1964.

However, he changed direction and decided to become a music teacher when he was in his thirties in the early 1970s, shortly before his Nick was born. He then spent 20 years teaching at the Imberhorne School, a mixed comprehensive in East Grinstead. In his early years at the school, before he became the Director of Music, him came into contact with a promising young musician called Nick Van Eede who formed a school band. Having left school, Nick went on to have his biggest success with Cutting Crew in the 1980s.

Five years ago, Paul moved into sheltered accommodation and Nick said : “The moment we realised that something was awry properly when Ali, my wife, invited Dad over for Sunday lunch and he arrived at 6am, looking flustered and confused. That was a turning point.” Paul had a fall at home, then a 12-week hospital stay that prompted a cognitive decline. Occupational therapy, regular home care and a memory clinic have all played a part in slowing down dementia, but Nick said that Paul had often been depressed by his condition.

Paul has the usual problem with a declining ability to remember associated with his condition. However, sitting at a piano keyboard, his forgetfulness disappears. He said : “My memory’s fine when I’m playing the piano. I can remember all the things I’ve done. When I am looking at television or other things around where I live, then I start forgetting things and if something is not in the right place, then I panic a bit. But if I’m a bit stressed, I will go and play the piano, and I’ll be alright then.”

The fact that music can help relieve depression, anxiety and other problems associated with dementia, is attested by Professor Helen Odell-Miller, Director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University. Even those in the most severe stages of the disease, who could not speak or dress themselves, could still improvise music, she said. 

According to Helen's theory, back in the 1940s, in Stoke-on-Trent, during the Second World War, when Paul was a baby, his mother, like all mothers, was naturally musical when she interacted with him, so before he understood words, he could understand his mother's expressions through rhythm, pitch and tempo. Helen said that music “is this natural hard-wired element of the brain and the social interactions and musical language that result and build up from this, which lead to procedural musical memories. The start of a song triggers the memory of the whole song, which is owing to the natural pre-language flow of expression. Songs involve patterns and we learn to communicate through patterns and these patterns become embedded in our ‘musical brain.’”

For Paul, five weeks ago, it “wasn’t a great day”, Nick said. Even piano wasn’t helping much. “I remembered this old party trick he used to do, where someone would give him four random notes and he’d compose something on the spot. The first time I saw him do this was when I was nine, he was teaching at a summer school. I remember the pride I felt. So I picked four notes out of the ether and dad did exactly the same thing. And luckily, I filmed it.” He put the resulting 2 minute improvisation using F natural, A, D and B natural and "it went crazy."

Next, after Radio 4’s 'Broadcasting House' featured the song, listeners suggested that it should be played by an orchestra, so the show’s host, Paddy O’Connell, arranged for the song to be recorded by the BBC Philharmonic. Paul watched as his tune climbed to the top of the iTunes and Amazon charts.

On 'This Morning' : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Bvnj6cX26s&t=0m03s

In the whirlwind of attention that has followed, the highlight for Paul was the chance to speak to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. “That was very special – I’ve always been an incredible fan,” Paul said. Stephen said : "I love your tune. I'm going to steal it." to which Paul said :"He can have it all for nothing."

Nick said : “I’ve always felt that his music deserves a large audience and the fact that now, he is finally getting it – it fills my heart with joy. For those living with dementia, the ability to communicate is one of the last things to go. I wouldn’t be surprised if this also applies to Dad and his improvising. Dementia won’t be shutting him up for quite a while yet.”

In a Zoom meeting set up by Nick, Paul met, in turn, ex-pupil Dominic Glynn, who became a prolific composer of music for television and film whose work includes the arrangement of the 'Doctor Who' theme music which served as the series' theme for Season 23. Dominic said : "There's no way I would be having a career as a composer if it hadn't been for you Paul. You just allowed people to choose their own route to do music and that's why I felt so encouraged by the way you taught me." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrIBBfAN_6U&t=4m02s

Also present was another ex-pupil, Alix Lewer, who runs a charity which brings people together through music and a choir for people with communication disabilities. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrIBBfAN_6U&t=4m51s

Ex-pupil Nick Van Eede who left school to become a musician, producer and songwriter, best known for singing and writing the 1986 No. 1 power ballad, "I Just Died in Your Arms" for his band Cutting Crew, which saw international success including a top 10 placing in the UK Singles Chart. Nick said, with great emotion : "You made it so inclusive that kids who were just sitting around, not doing great academically, would shine on the stage. You gave people the chance, who wouldn't normally have had." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrIBBfAN_6U&t=5m27s

In another context Nick had said : "I had young and progressive English and Drama teachers and was given the opportunity at 14 to write and sing the narrative songs for the self-written school productions and and more important, most folk didn’t think they were shite. Confidence can be a dangerous ally but at least I got an early glimpse of what really turned me on in life and apart from the obvious teenage pursuits." 

Pete Talman was the Drama teacher Nick referred to and was Paul's old colleague and Head of Drama who worked with him on school productions. Paul's son, Nick said : "‘Where’s The Sunshine?’ was written for an original Imberhorne School production in the 1980s when dad was Head of Music and Pete was Head of Drama. It was a fantastic show. I remember it as if it were yesterday."

Paul's ability to compose piano music stayed with him into later life and his 'Rumba Toccata', released in 2003, is still used in grade 6 piano exams.

Paul said : 

"I love the printed word, but where the printed word stops, you can't describe anything anymore. Music takes over because with music you can do whatever you want with it, in your mind's eye and that's what I feel about music. I think music just comes in. It's a higher level than the printed word." 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrIBBfAN_6U&t=2m55s


Sunday, 25 October 2020

Britain says "Farewell," the USA has lost, but the Isle of Man made, the old Prince of the Gelatin Silver Print, Chris Killip

Francis Hodgson, Professor in the Culture of Photography, University of Brighton tweeted :

'A really old-fashioned obituary notice about Chris Killip : mainly factual, non-shrill ...... and the Kilippery really shines out. I'm glad it’s been written and recommend others read it'.

Chris was born in the Highlander Pub, in the parish of Marown, on the Isle of Man, in the summer of 1946, the son of Molly and Alan, who lived in and ran the pub. He grew up with his siblings, Anthea and Dermott, before he left the island in 1975. He was proud of his Manx heritage drawn from the Isle, situated in the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland, with its long gaelic tradition distinct from mainland Britain. When he was born the population stood at 54,000 and the economy was still largely based on agriculture and fishing. As a self-governing British dependency, it only needed Britain for its defence, otherwise it looked after itself and when Britain joined the European Union in 1973, the Isle of Man did not. 

When he was 6 years old the family moved to White House Pub in the seaside town and fishing port of Peel and it was here that he identified with his 'home' on the Isle. 'Gobbags', literally 'dogfish' and pronounced 'govag' , was the word used to describe someone from Peel and Chris' brother Dermott said of Chris : "He liked to think of himself as a govag". He also said : "Our parents were deeply fond of the Isle of Man. My father had a tremendous knowledge of the Island. They ran three pubs during the course of their lifetime on the island and were known amongst the community and loved people."

Chris recalled that in 1960 : 
"I went to my father and said : "I got kicked out of school on my 16th birthday." He confessed that "School and I were not very compatible." The fact that Chris left Douglas High School for Boys with a single O-level in Art can be explained by the fact that it was the only examination where he didn't need literacy. The school would not have got rid of Chris, as soon as they legally could, unless he had been a difficult pupil with poor behavior and the answer probably lay in the fact that his dyslexia was not recognised a 'learning difficulty' in schools at that time. 


He started work as a trainee hotel manager at the Castle Mona Hotel in Douglas and it was while working there, at the age of 17, his life would dramatically change course. 



He recalled : "A keen racing cyclist, I had gotten my hands on a copy of Paris-Match and was tearing through the pages to get to the pictures of the Tour de France when I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1954), depicting a boy carrying two bottles of wine. It stopped me in my tracks and held me spellbound.  I was really puzzled as to why. It didn’t look like a snapshot, it wasn’t an advert, it wasn’t in the service of anything but itself, so what did that make it? To be truthful, I didn’t know, and at that time I couldn’t have talked about the confusion and excitement that this photograph was causing me. Up until then, it had never occurred to me that photography could be used as a means of  expression."  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjfrZ7JbH7Q7t=0m22s

"After seeing this image, I wondered about the possibilities for photography. Six months later, my father scared me by saying he was prepared to pay for me to go to Switzerland, to attend a hotel management school. I liked hotel life, but I also knew that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my career." When he told his father he said :  "Dad, I'm going to become a photographer and he said : "You haven't got a camera". I said "I know" and he said "You can't take the pictures." I said : "I know. But that can be arranged".

He could not have foreseen that 15 years later, having built his reputation as a photographer, he would be invited to a party in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to celebratCartier-Bresson’s 70th birthday. He recalled : "He told me that when he was 18 he went to see a fortune-teller, who predicted with uncanny accuracy everything about his life except, he said, for one thing: she had told him he would die young. He burst out laughing. Cartier-Bresson lived to be 95 and those who knew him also knew that, at whatever age he died, he would die young."

Chris made his first step into the world of photography at the age of 18 : "So I left my job and became a beach photographer saying ‘smile please’ to strangers" working for 'Keig's' in Port Erin. He already knew that the beach shots revealed nothing about his customers : "I don't like smiley faces. A smile is a defence mechanism. It says you can't have the real me, but here's my smile. You get close to the real person when they stop smiling." He had a clear purpose : "I needed to earn enough money to go to London to try and get a job as a photographer’s assistant. I had been told that this was the only viable route that I could follow to learn anything about photography." 

"With the money I saved I moved to London and tried to get a job as a photographer's assistant. I made a list of the hundred best photographers and, starting at the bottom, I began knocking on studio doors. I had worked my way right up that list, was running out of money and I still hadn't found a job, when I knocked on my ninety-sixth door in Tite Street, Chelsea." The woman who answered the door recognised his Manx accent, having had a college boyfriend whose father photographic studio, "Joe's Bar" in Strand Street, Douglas. "She then persuaded her boss, the photographer Adrian Flowers, to hire me. It was an amazingly fortuitous start to my career in photography. At the end of my first week Adrian said to me, "I believe that you know a thing or two about catering. Why don't you organize the food and drink for a party we will have here tonight for friends who just got engaged." At seven o'clock that evening the studio doors burst open and in came Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pre. It was quite a party and I knew how lucky I was to be a part of it."

With Adrian, who had a reputation as both a celebrity and advertising photographer, Chris began to serve his apprenticeship in photography as his third assistant. David Bailey, like Chris, a dyslexic, had been one of Adrian’s assistants in the 1950s. This was to be the first of a series of jobs Chris had as a freelance assistant for various photographers in the City until 1969, when, at the age of 23, he decided to pursue his own path outside the world of commercial photography after seeing the work of American photographer Paul Strand (left) and Walker Evans (right) at the Museum of Modern Art while on a visit to New York. It was an epiphany moment which inspired him to take pictures “for its own sake.”

His deconstruction and description of the Walker Evans photograph : 'Bed, Tenant Farmhouse. Hale Co. Alabama.1935', provides an insight into his photographer's eye and his belief that he : 'would define photography as a mechanical description of time and Evans’s photograph has always eloquently endorsed this definition.' 
: 'Bleak, sparse, bed, gun. No ornaments, no possessions; poverty, basic survival. Evans’s photograph is about the gun. The framing is odd in this image. One bed is skewed; the other juts awkwardly into the photograph. Why include it? Of course, it’s somebody else’s bed – the children’s. It’s a shared bedroom, no privacy. The window in the room is just a wooden shutter, no glass. To the left of the gun there’s a crack in the wooden wall showing daylight. This shack is a plank thick: in summer you sweat, in winter you freeze. It’s a flash photograph made in daylight, as Evans wants you to see everything clearly. Lower left, is a door hinge that is just in the picture. Evans is desperate to include it. It’s information: the bed is at that angle so that the door can open. Evans is probably backed up against the other wall, trying to include as much as his lens will allow.'

He phoned his father from New York and arranged that, on his return to the Isle of Man he would split his time between working in his father's pub, the 'Bowling Green' in Douglas, by night and travel the island shooting his first series of landscapes and portraits by day.

In March 2020, Chris recalled one incident from when he served behind the bar and prefaced this with : "My father was a profound influence on me." One summer night, the presence of a black customer in the pub prompted another to say to his father : "If you serve him I'm leaving here forever." My father looked at the man, took his beer, poured it down the sink, went to the till and gave him the money and said : "Goodnight." A month later the man returned and said :"Alan, am I banned ?" My father said : "No, you're very welcome. What would you like to drink ?" He said he hated the sin, he didn't hate the sinner."

For his photography he chose the watermills on the island as his theme. His own father was the adopted son of Lewis Killip who at the time had a small watermill at Laxley. Chris chose to focus on : "the remaining water mills in the Isle of Man. Once there had been fifty-nine of them, but over the years they had been shut down and by then there were only three left operating commercially. Traditional milling methods are labour intensive and, by modern standards, uneconomical. The millers’ trade and the multifarious knowledge needed to adjust the stones, measure the flow of water and obtain the required flour qualities was passed on for generations from father to son."

He recalled : "My intention in 1970 was to make a book about the water mills and a portfolio of these images was published in the January 1971 issue of 'Camera of Switzerland'. I had also by then become interested in the last of the thrashing mills. Some farms still had their own thrashing mill, those without were serviced by the mill belonging to Tom Kinnish. He still travelled, along with his right hand man Harry Hampton, to the farms in need of a thrashing mill." 

He recalled the process of taking the photographs of those he met, like Miss Redpath, he recalled when he asked if he could photograph them : "They would say to me : "Who was your grandfather on your father's side ? Who was your grandmother on your mother's side ?" And they would locate me through this lineage. And "who else was I related to ?" And I used to think this was a strange thing. But I no longer think that. I think, 'no', they know quite a lot about me, knowing my lineage."

By this time Chris had switched to using a plate camera "I was taking pictures with a 35mm camera on a tripod and a friend in London told me I was crazy, that I should use a plate camera." He took the friend's advice : "When you make a portrait of someone with a plate camera, it takes time and it gives the person a chance to address the camera. For a want of a better word, 'it’s more serious.' It’s not a casual thing and it’s the paraphernalia of using the plate camera that emphasizes that, too. I think it works to your advantage. They know this is going to live after this moment. It’s not ephemeral." 

At the Golden Meadow Mill of Mr Cubbon, the miller, Chris recalled
"This was the first photograph I took with a plate camera. Forty years later the man remembered the day very clearly because I was taking so long to take this picture because he had so much to do and taking this picture was "Never ending. Never ending." 

"This woman, I went to school with her son. This woman had a cafe. She had a bungalow with a very big garden where she grew all her own vegetables and made her own jam. All the clothes she had on she made, never bought anything in a shop."

Almost 40 years later in 2008 and almost 30 years after he had settled in the USA, he was staying with friends on the Isle of Man and had given them a set of prints based on his mills and thrashing study when, as he recalled : 

"I received an email, at my Harvard account, from the woman who is the head of the Isle of Man Postal Authority. She asked whether I had any images that I could envision as stamps. She didn’t know I was in the country, so I rather mischievously knocked on her door that afternoon, explaining that I had come as quickly as I could, and showed her the photographs that I was making for my friends. Eight of these, including Thrashing, Grenaby were released as a set of stamps in 2009." 

In 1971, Lee Witkin, a New York gallery owner, commissioned a limited edition portfolio of Chris' Isle of Man photographs. The advance allowed him to continue working independently and, in 1974, he was commissioned to photograph Huddersfield and Bury St Edmunds, which resulted in an exhibition, 'Two Views, Two Cities', held at the art galleries of each city. The work from this time was eventually published by the Arts Council as 'Isle of Man : A Book about the Manx', in 1980, with a text by John Berger. 

It was to be in mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s and not his native Isle of Man, that Chris would create his most memorable work. In 1975, he moved close to Newcastle-upon-Tyne into a flat in Bill Quay, Gateshead, on a two year fellowship as the Northern Arts Photography Fellow and went on to become a founding member, exhibition curator and advisor of Side Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as its Director, from 1977-9. Newcastle would be the base from which he created the body of work that would define him as an outstanding documentary photographer. 

He recalled : "I remember speaking with Josef Koudelka in 1975 about why I should stay in Newcastle." Josef  was the distinguished Czech-French photographer who worked for the Magnum Agency. "Josef said that "you could bring in six Magnum photographers and they could stay and photograph for six weeks - and he felt that inevitably their photographs would have a sort of similarity. As good as they were, their photographs wouldn't get beyond a certain point. But if you stayed for two years, your pictures would be different, and if you stayed for three years they would be different again. You could get under the skin of a place and do something different, because you were then photographing from the inside." I understood what he was talking about. I stayed in Newcastle for fifteen years. I mean, to get the access to photograph the sea-coal workers took eight years. You do get embroiled in a place."

It was in the isolated village of Skinningrove on the North Yorkshire coast where he got to know several young men before he photographed them passing time by mending their small fishing boats or staring out to sea. He took with him what he had learnt from the Isle of Man and could say : "I spend a lot of time with people or communities so I can become part of the furniture which takes a lot of time and effort to do. So my camera isn't something cold and strange and I'm there and present and can photograph."


He found that ”Now Then" was the standard greeting in
Skinningrove and "a challenging substitute for the more usual, "Hello". The place had a definite 'edge' and it took time for this stranger to be tolerated. My greatest ally in gaining acceptance was 'Leso' (Leslie Holliday, right), the most outgoing of the younger fishermen. Leso and I never talked about what I was doing there, but when someone questioned my presence, he would intercede and vouch for me with, "He's OK". This simple endorsement was enough." "For me Skinningrove's sense of purpose was bound up in its collective obsession with the sea. Skinningrove fishermen believed that the sea in front of them was their private territory, theirs alone."

His powerful and eloquent 'Simon being taken to sea for the first time since his father drowned, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1983' needed no explanation. 

In photographic pursuit of Northumberland sea-coal workers, in 1983, he bought a caravan and occupied it for well over a year on the coast at Seacoal Camp, Lynemouth, a coastal village in Northumberland and recalled : "I had a caravan, and I was very famous for making cups of tea and people used to come. It was like my studio, really. People would sit down and the entrance fee to my place was I’d be photographing you." 

Chris started documenting the community of workers who harvested loose coal from a beach in Lynemouth which was the detritus left by a local mining concern. Initially, he was chased off the beach whenever he showed up with his camera, but he was eventually allowed access after gaining the confidence of another 'Leso', in the shape of a towering local figure named Trevor Critchlow who intervened on his behalf. In the photograph 'Gordon and Critch’s Cart,' Chris captured a friend of Trevor’s named Gordon, who was in the midst of harvesting the coal that bobs around the surf and watched Chris photograph him.

Chris became good friends with the couple, Brian and Rosie Laidler, who often fed him dinner despite their limited means. Staying with the Laidlers for a time was Moira, who Chris captured harvesting coal in a fur coat and said : "It seems quite ironic in this very nice fur coat to be picking coal, Moira had gotten from her mother who didn't were it anymore and it was always referred to as 'the very good fur coat.'"

Chris said that Lynemouth, where the sea-coalers worked, was a “tough place, but it wasn’t an unhappy place. There was lots of energy and lots of fun. There was rivalry and enthusiasms and passions. People were not despairing. It was a very complex community and with a great sense of purpose, which wasc: get the coal and make money and I’ve always been interested in places that had purpose.” He captured this in an image of a young girl named Helen, who played on a couch that had been left on the beach and said : “She was the second youngest of Brian and Rosie’s children. She had very good movement, always moving and dancing." 

His work from these years was published in 1988 as 'In Flagrante' with a text by Berger and Sylvia Grant and his resulting black and white images of Britain's three main heavy industries : steelworks, shipyards and coal mines, as they went into decline, are now regarded as being among the most important visual records of living in 1980s Britain. Chris had a deep respect for his subjects and was conscious that : “In recording their lives, I’m valuing their lives,” he said of  his mainly unemployed subjects. “These people will not appear in history books because ordinary people don’t. History is done to them. It is not acknowledged that they make history.”  “I am the photographer of the de-industrial revolution in England. I didn’t set out to be this. It’s what happened during the time I was photographing” and “History is what’s written. My pictures are what happened.”

Of the book's title, he explained : “'In Flagrante' means ‘caught in the act,’ and that’s what my pictures are. You can see me in the shadow, but I’m trying to undermine your confidence in what you’re seeing, to remind people that photographs are a construction, a fabrication. They were made by somebody. They are not to be trusted. It’s as simple as that.” Chris also said of  In Flagrante : "I was influenced by John Berger's TV programme, 'Ways of Seeing'. I was so excited by that. I was just trying to understand then that no matter what you did, you inevitably had a political position. How declared it was was up to you, but it was going to be inherent in the work and it was something you should think about as a maker. I never worried about my position in the art world. I thought time and history would ultimately judge me, that my job was to get on with it, to make the work and to make it wholeheartedly from what had informed me."

With the onset of the 1990s his black and white documentation was rapidly going out of fashion in a Britain where photographers used colour to serve consumerism and for consciously and explicitly artistic purposes. In 1991, Chris moved to the USA, having been offered a visiting lectureship at Harvard, where he was later appointed Professor Emeritus in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, a post he held until his retirement in 2017. He didn't return to Britain, but over his remaining 29 years he maintained his annual visit to his beloved Isle of Man.


His brother Dermott, also a photographer, said : "He wasn't seeking money, ever. He just sought to try and find a kind of truth that he could reveal through his pictures, and I think he did that. Internationally I think his legacy will be of one of photography's greats. He made a stunning contribution and hell be remembered for that."

Chris said in 2017 :

“I wanted to record people’s lives because I valued them. I wanted them to be remembered. If you take a photograph of someone they are immortalised, they’re there forever. For me that was important, that you’re acknowledging people’s lives and also contextualising people’s lives.”