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

Page views : 945

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.”

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Britain is a country where old men are either : "over the hill, old fuddy duddies" or "geriatric old codgers, who are past it"

The University of the Third Age, the U3A, is an international movement whose aims are the 'education and stimulation' of mainly retired old men and women who are in the the 'Third Age of Life'. There is no universally accepted model for the U3A. It originated in France as an extramural university activity. This intellectual model was significantly modified in Britain in the 1980s, where the emphasis has been on sharing, without formal links to traditional universities. Many English-speaking countries have followed this 'geragogic' model, whereas continental European countries have mostly followed the French model. 

The British U3A has a membership of 166,000 in almost 600 local U3A groups and it divides roughly into one old me to every two old women. Sam Mauger, the Chief Executive has recently been in the media talking about research the U3A carried out about the language used towards old people in Britain.Its survey was completed by by over 2,000 members and the general public and as a result of the findings she said :

“Our members are vibrant, young at heart and have much to offer. They are not the stereotypes represented by these words. We want to
challenge the preconceptions around ageing. Our members want to achieve in life, be active and keep experiencing new things".


Two in five of those questioned (43%), said they have been "on the receiving end of patronising language in relation to their age" and a quarter (28%) said "certain terms used about them are outdated". Almost two in five (37%) said they had been "addressed with names which are ageist".

Respondents also said that these terms are commonplace in TV programmes and social media and are even used regularly by members of their family. Many say they simply do not feel old enough to have these terms thrown at them but the most common reason for disliking such sayings is because "they are not an accurate representation of older people today"

Invited to share their stories of patronising language, individuals said :

“A neighbour sometimes uses the phrase 'old man syndrome' if she spots a mark on my clothing before I do. It sounds as if she is accusing me of dribbling, which I do not”.

“I was 68 and had a medical problem and the doctor said I "had to attend the 'Geriatric Department"”.

“I often get the comment, "Bless you", when talking to people, giving the impression it is amazing I still have opinions”.

“It is disgraceful that the term 'OAP' is still used. Why should someone be labelled according to whether they receive the state pension? Many still work as well!”

Of the members of the public questioned, over half (53%) admited to regularly using words that were deemed patronising by older people. Nearly a third (31%) confessed to using "fogey" about an older person, while over a quarter (27%) have used "biddy" and 1 in 5 (18%) used the term "past it" to describe old people. A fifth of people even said they'd called someone "Grandpa" or "Grandma", despite not being related to them. Having said that, many said that these terms are often not meant to be patronising and are used because "it’s just banter" (43%), "to be friendly" (38%) or simply because "it’s widely used language" (35%).

Clearly, that is not the way it is seen by the old men and women who are the recipients.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Britain is the country which made and Ireland has lost the old Northern Irish poet called Derek Mahon

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With YouTube clips of Derek revisiting his childhood home in Belfast and Trinity College Dublin and chatting with his old friend Michael Longley taken from the 2009 documentary, 'The Poetry Nonsense', now exorcised from this post, we still have Derek, in September this year, obviously very frail, but continuing to enrich us with his verse : 

Derek, who has died at the age of 78, lived for the last 20 years of his life in Ireland and, although he left Britain's province of Northern Ireland to study in Dublin at the age of 18 and although he returned to work in Britain, on and off over they years, he was never really a resident and remained stateless. The Dictionary of Literary Biography says of him : 'An awareness of being cut off from the lives of ordinary folk occupies a central place in the verse, and many of his most characteristic poems have a lonely, isolated figure or an odd man-out at their centre. We encounter such figures in all of Mahon’s books.' 

The obituary of Derek, published last week the 'Independent ie', said : 'It is a hallmark of Mahon's work that he could empathise with the rootless or dispossessed, such as the gypsies or the homeless of New York who he encountered during his own wanderings'. It cannot be contested, however, that the fact that he was born and brought up a Northern Irish, Belfast Protestant, left and indelible mark on him and shaped the poetry he produced from the age of 17 and throughout his life.

Derek was born during the Second World War in the late autumn of 1941, in Belfast, the son of Maise and Norman, who was an inspector of engines at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard. His was the middle class childhood of an only and lonely child inside the home, who belonged to the local in the street gang of kids outside the home, as he recalled in 2014 :

He had distinct memories of things around the house, which he considered to be his "best friends". He endowed each with what he later called, their own 'numen' or 'special divine force'. They included : "a 1940s radio set, a Japanese lacquered cigarette case brought back by an uncle in the Merchant Navy - the little things that you saw with a child’s eye when you were a child and that will never go away. My Aunt Kathleen’s white shoes in a rented summer house in 1945. No, I was on the floor, it must have been 1942. I was on the carpet. Those white shoes!" He saw himself as a “strange child with a taste for verse” who "emerged from a slow consciousness of the numina inherent in these things."

Thirty years later, when he was an established poet in his collection, 'The Snow Party', featured his most celebrated poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co.Wexford', which closely examined a cluster of mushrooms locked in an abandoned country hotel shed, came in 1975. 


He grew up in a red-brick terraced house in Salisbury Avenue in the Protestant inner suburbs of North Belfast. In the April of the year in which he was born a German bomb had dropped on the Avenue with dramatic consequences. In his back garden there was a coal-shed in which young Derek kept his bicycle. Here, he felt pity for the coal in the  shed and each time he closed the door he felt regret, if not guilt and asked : 'why should all that glittering coal be shut away and live an imprisoned anti-social life of its own ?'   

Thirty-five years later, in his poem inspired by Pieter de Hooch's painting 'Courtyards in Delft' he revisited that house in his poem,'Courtyards in Delft'.

His was a "quiet house". His father, who worked 40 -48 hours a week, when Derek did see him, was : "A quiet man. He did the same job, with some little promotions, for forty years. Belfast was his life. The shipyard was his life. My mother the same. She was from Belfast." It was not only quiet house, but also a spotless one, since his mother gave up work at the York Street Flax Spinning Company when they married Norman and "became a housewife and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is." 

Derek recalled : "She’d keep dusting and keep everything as bright as a new penny. Of course, this was a bit of a strain on the child, an irritant. In fact, with my mother, no harm to her, I think it was pathological. But since little boys are usually rougher than house-proud mothers, there were times I would deliberately do things to be infuriating - knock over a cup or something."

The front parlour of the house was no place for a little boy to play and was reserved for visitors : cold and clean; china on the sideboard; upright piano - rarely played, with sheet music in the stool and on the rack a Chopin Prelude; newspaper in the grate with a sprinkling of soot and a brass poker and tongs with claws.

When interviewed in 2000, when he was 59, he said : "I remember this little girl who used to dress very prettily: she, in her back garden, would be visible to me up in my parents’ bedroom at the top of our house and I used to watch her, down there. I’d see other things besides, like a coal delivery, the sort of pictorial qualities of coal. That kind of thing - the running of cold water from a kitchen tap, the light. I had time to dwell on these things."

When he remembered his first school - Skegoniel Primary he said : "All I see is sunlight, classrooms full of sunlight, or windows streaked with rain - as everybody does. I don’t hear anything. I recently looked at an old school photograph of Skegoneill when I was six or so: all these wee old faces, thirty of them, and we’re all, each individual one, absolutely unique and crazy in some way, quite unbelievable."

He attended Church of Ireland services at St Peter's on the Antrim Road with his parents, where he "tagged along, scrubbed and kempt." Then his parents were approached by the minister who asked ; ""Could young Derek hold a tune, would he be interested in having a go with the choir? We can arrange for Mr. Wood to audition him on Wednesday evening. So in no time at all I was in the choir, which meant two services on Sunday, one in the evening, as well as choir practice on Wednesday evening."

Derek found that : "The hymnology invaded the mind." When it came to William Walsham How's 'For all the Saints, who from their labours rest', he found that when he came to the line : “From Earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast” he "created a whole geography of my own, around ocean’s far-thest, as it were far-flung, coasts. The words themselves became facts, objects; and I believed in those objects, those clumped printed objects."

As a boy of eleven, Derek didn't know what a Catholic was. When his playmate Sheila said she "had to go someplace", he'd asked : "Can I come too?" to which she replied : "No, it's only for Catholics." The little boy wondered what class of a creature a Catholic might be ? When visiting the village of Cushendun on holiday, on the coast, he'd asked another girl the name of her school and she replied : "Cross & Passion," and he'd agonized as to what kind of erotic academy she attended. 

Fifty years later he wrote : ‘I don’t think I have a religious nature in that sense but I have a consciousness of things over and above, beside and below human life. I am deprived of belief in God, if deprivation it is, by my own rationalist habits of mind. I make room for the numinious, for the unexplained.’ 



Having passed his 11+ exam in 1951, he entered the boys grammar school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution with its motto 'Quaerere Verum' 'To Seek the Truth'. Founded in 1794, it was steeped in history and its first batch of masters belonged to Wolfe Tone's 'Belfast Chapter of United Irishmen'. It was here that his sense of alienation began and he recalled : "I started feeling not at home when I was at secondary school, at the beginning of adolescence. I started moping, brooding; I didn’t go in for sport. Mine was a great rugby school, rugby and cricket. I played some rugby and cricket, but then after a certain point I wasn’t interested anymore, The competition didn’t interest me. There were other boys in the school like this, a little group of us - oddities, weirdos - so I found a coterie, and there I was at home. Age fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen, we would go precociously to something that was just coming into existence in a place like Belfast in the late 1950s - a coffee bar and talk, and read Aldous Huxley."

Derek put his change of attitude down to the feelings of inferiority when he was compared to his cousin Conacht, who lived a few streets away and although the same age "was a bit taller and he always was considered the more interesting and more manly, more able one. I was a bit of a dead loss in comparison." He took things to heart and believed that it turned him into : "an eccentric or, as my mother always said, “an oddity.” It created a sense of inadequacy, a sense of “well to hell with that then, I’ll opt for the place where I can succeed, for other forms of value.” He recalled this period in his life in 2014 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d52CMXOegyA&t=15m18s (From'The Poetry Nonsense')

When he was 17 in 1958 he moved with his parents into a bungalow in a new estate in Glengormley near where his grandparents lived in a farmhouse and where as a boy he had played among the hens. It was here that, with his parents and cousin Connacht's parents, he began an annual visitation to Portrush, staying in guest houses. In due course the Portrush coastline was to become to become a primary a contour in his poetry as in his 1984 poem, 'North Wind : Portrush'. In fact, when asked once if he had a home landscape, he'd said: that it was "North Antrim where I spent most of my childhood holidays and not Belfast where I was born".

                                                                            
The new estate at Glengormley was devoid of what Derek would later call 'barraka', the Arabic word meaning the 'holiness that household utensils acquire through age'. In fact, he went further and said that : "The culture I grew up in was devoid of barraka. I was brought up deprived of a sense of the holiness of things. Protestantism is a rejection of barraka. The historical sources of Protestantism are rooted in a fear of disease, syphillis and plague. Cleanliness is next to Godliness or, rather, Cleanliness is Godliness." He returned to 'Glengormley' in poetry when he was 27 in 1968.

He described the interior of his parents' bungalow when he wrote 'Death in Bangor' to mark his mother's passing in1997. It had obviously remained unchanged with its straight-backed chairs and kitchen table and her wise monkeys and euphemistic ‘Dresden’ figurines, ornaments and other breakable stuff. 

'Oh, I can love you now that you’re dead and gone
to the many mansions in your mother’s house. 
All artifice stripped away, we give you back to nature
but something of you, perhaps the incurable ache 
of art, goes with me as I travel south
past misty drumlins, shining lanes to the shore,
above the Mournes a final helicopter, 
sun-showers and rainbows all the way through Louth, 
cottages buried deep in ivy and rhododendron, 
ranch houses, dusty palms, blue skies of the republic.' 

His teacher of History and English Language and Literature at the Royal Belfast, John Boylehad a big influence on Derek and his coterie of friends : "We thought of everyone else as peasants. But Boyle enabled us somehow to embody the notion of not being cut off, not being outsiders in a society that itself was outside something and the fact that Boyle was from Dublin was important, from some 'other' or larger context. He was an articulate representative of the other part of the island." 

He was 14 when he had discovered poetry. "Yeats's The Stolen Child - that was the first poem that really turned me on. Then Thomas's Fern Hill, and A Hunchback in the Park." 

'Come away, O human child!                                                                                                                         To the waters and the wild                                                                                                                            With a faery, hand in hand,                                                                                                                          For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.'                                                    

When, recalling Mr Doyle, when taught by him at 17, Derek said : "One of the things he taught was Yeats. He taught Yeats as if Yeats were an historian of the time : Yeats as documentary. When Boyle himself was at Trinity he had gone to a debate where one of the speakers was Maud Gonne. So he was able to make it all real to us."
 It was the same year that Derek himself  was awarded the 'Forrest Reid Prize for Poetry' inspired by great Northern Ireland novelist who had died some ten years before. Eric Gregory and Philip Larkin had sat on the awarding panel.

In 1960 he entered Trinity College Dublin on a scholarship and said : "I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it" and while he was there he "kicked the habit" of automatically segregating people, on sight, into Prods and Taigs. By this time he had modified his early boyhood image of the Free State as a "pastoral land without shipyards" where Dublin was a foreign city and a hive of German spies. 

He recalled a Trinity in the 60's where : "Conspicuous sobriety was frowned upon. Nor, contrary to tradition, was it us natives who were the most dedicated practitioners (though we kept abreast) but the Sloane Rangers, the tough fops with silk scarves and snarling red two-seaters. This lot, public-school men who weren’t bright enough for Oxford or Cambridge, and posh gels not tall enough for the Brigade of Guards, created noise out of all proportion to their numbers, bawling “Charles!” and “Miranda!”, Brideshead style, and revving their little roadsters."

"Girls dressed up then to go into College, the cobbles playing hell with their high heels. Men dressed up too, sort of, except for slobs like myself who wore the same sweater and jeans for four years. Front Square was like a Dior catwalk and the two sexes sat in the Reading Room with blurry volumes before them, sizing up the talent out of the corners of their eyes. The air crackled with sexual electricity."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d52CMXOegyA&t=18m39s (from the 'Poetry Nonsense')

It was here that he sought out the bearded poet, Michael Longley, who had been two years his senior at school : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d52CMXOegyA&t=19m38s
(From 'The Poetry Nonsense) Michael later described the two students inhaling “untipped Sweet Afton cigarettes MacNeice, Crane, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin, Lawrence, Graves, Ted Hughes, Stevens, Cummings, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, as well as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Brecht, Rilke”. Together, with Seamus Heaney, they met at the home of Queen’s University lecturer, Philip Hobsbaum. Derek later rejected the idea that "we were terrified provincial ignoramuses who needed someone from Cambridge to get us going.”

He said : "The Professor of English then was Phillip Edwards. Phillip was English, a nice man, but much more inspiring was a reprobate like Alec Reid or a humanly interesting person like Con Leventhal. We grew up in a very pleasant way. Physically the surroundings were extremely attractive. Beautiful college, beautiful trees, beautiful girls: wherever you fell there was something to please. At the same time, it was a place apart - golden days, golden moments."

"I thought of myself as a surly étranger in a donkey jacket, with literary pretensions. The way to seem was careless of the academic demands. Some, of course, swotted up furiously at night. I didn’t, and that was my mistake. So I drifted away from the academic but, like others, formed my own little university within. It was then that I had the notion that “this poetry nonsense you’ve been tinkering at for the past couple of years at school, if you’re going to take it seriously, you can do it here, and people will pay attention.” It was a very fertile environment, very supportive. Alec Reid was part of it, in a very personal way; he was great fun, and so human. A liberal education, was Alec."

When confronted with the prospect of life after university, Derek himself admitted : "I didn’t know where I was. I suppose, looking back on it, that I was in some kind of crisis. Had I been accustomed to a disciplined and purposeful way of life, I would have gone on to whatever I was going to do then - trainee journalism, the BBC, doing a Ph.D. at Oxford, whatever it might have been. I would have proceeded. But I came to a stop because I’d been living indolently, with literary notions, so I had no direction."

In 2014, Derek admitted that he wasn't the most studious of undergraduates. In fact, he was suspended from Trinity for 'unsatisfactory attendance' in his second year and spent the time on the Isle of Man. On resuming his studies, in 1962, Stephen Enniss, his biographer, stated that he attempted suicide by jumping off Butt Bridge into the River Liffey. Derek himself saw it differently and said : "Jump in the river for fun and some will say you tried to commit suicide." Michael Longley said the jump was "partly theatrical, partly suicidal" and it was no doubt fuelled by Derek's intake of alcohol, which became an addiction which would blight his later life until, with the help of AA and supportive friends, he quit, at the age of 52.

As a poet he was both prolific and precocious during his years at university, publishing over forty poems with his first in the University's 'Icarus' journal in 1960. Michael Longley described his 'Subsidy Bungalows', as 'a witty portrait in sharply rhymed stanzas of his home, 'Glengormley. The voice of authority rang out through every line.' He also gained recognition outside the college's walls by having poems printed in The Irish Times and winning a prestigious Eric Gregory Award in 1965 where, once again, Philip Larkin chaired the selection committee that year.

He was 24 when he published his 'Twelve Poems' in 1965, which he himself later describes as his : “horrible, scatterbrained first book”. Nevertheless, it contained the themes of being alienated and outcast which he would repeat in the years to come. In the September after sitting his final exams he said : "On leaving Trinity, the only thing I knew I could do was get out of Dublin." He took himself off to the Sorbonne, ostensibly to study French, but in reality confessed : "I skived off and hung out at the Cinematheque and George Whitman's 'Mistral Shop' and obvious pit stops like the Cafe de la Sorbonne and Au Depart."

In the years that followed Derek travelled extensively and after working in London, New York and Paris, it was to Ireland, laden with honours, that he returned, living the last 20 years of his life in Kinsale and said : “We tire of cities in the end. The whirr and blur of it.” He didn’t drive and never used a mobile phone or the internet. All he required in his later years was a notebook, his typewriter, a table and chair, and a view out the window towards the port and the sea beyond.

He remained carefully neutral on Irish and Northern Irish politics, telling the Guardian in 2015 : “I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine.” 

When he looked back to his Trinity days and the politics of Northern Ireland he said : "I think probably there were things that I should have come to terms with, researched, looked into, looked at, but I didn’t. At that time, Protestants like James Simmons, Michael Longley, myself could think that this was not our quarrel - our peculiar upbringing as middle-class, grammar-school-educated, liberal, ironical Protestants allowed us to think of ourselves as somehow not implicated. I told myself that I had more important things to do. Which were going to London, getting on with my own literary career as I had now started to conceive of it and writing directly about those conditions in the North was not part of that purpose. One of the damnable things about it was that you couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t take sides. It’s possible for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii - included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it." 

However, 45 years before, when he was a young man in 1970 he had written : ‘Poets themselves have taken no part in political events, but they have contributed to that possible life, or the possibility of that possible life; for the act of writing is itself political in the fullest sense. A good poem is a paradigm of good politics - of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness; and we have darkness enough, God knows, for a long time.’ 

'Everything is Going to be All Right'
, a poem of just 12 lines, which Derek wrote in 1990, was read out after the main Raidió Teilifís Éireann in the Republic of Ireland, on March 27, this year, the day the Irish Government imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic which would last seven weeks. It was the distinctive voice of the poet forged in Belfast, in Britain, over 60 years ago that was heard in households across Ireland. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNGU11lK_5E

                  Two years ago Derek mused in his poem, 'Data', published in the New Yorker :