Wednesday, 28 December 2011

In England

Whilst trying not to open yet another book I reached for "In England" by Don McCullin. From where I am in this course - the beginning - it seems to me an exemplar for this course. Most of the images are, as the title suggests, from various places within England; there are prefaced by a set chiefly from his adopted home in Somerset. The main body of the book though deals with people in a place. Determinedly titled, each image is accompanied (usually) by a statement of the place and year of capture, these images are solely about the placement of the subject within the context of their environment. There is no accompanying narrative, leaving the development of raison d'ĂȘtre to the viewer.

McCullin's photographs ranged from Consett in the north to Eastbourne in the south, from Blackpool to Southend with a lot coming from his native London. There are very few words in the book. McCullin in his introduction barely describes his reason for compiling these images, other than reliving his memory and apart from a slight consideration of the "class" issues in his native land, no other comment is made for the reason of his pressing of the shutter.

There are two images that stand out for me - both because I am a Bedford boy and because they exemplify some of what I imagine this course is about.

The first image is I00002IFxEmgGpQM. The spectators are across the street from Bedford prison where James Hanratty was executed in April 1962. I was 9 and I remember it well. In the picture the majority of the people are staring in one direction - probably the prison gate - actually a large wooden double door, whilst a schoolboy - Silver Jubilee Secondary Modern - and another youth stare in a different direction, at the camera. I don't remember going to school that day either, though I can't believe we would have had the day off to "celebrate" the hanging.

The second image is I0000GOwh01zn78Q and for me is more telling. The crowd has grown a little by now, it looks as people have cycled to be there at the "time". The view is again opposite the prison gate and opposite a parade of shops - St Loyes street I think leading into Greyfriars. Again the majority of people are watching in the same direction, but there is a couple determinedly not doing so. They appear to be a couple, she is touching her wedding ring with her right hand - often a sign of personal concern. They could have caught the sight of something else, but McCullin has caught them juxtaposed against the other spectators, almost as if they - the couple - are not part of the general rabble, but set apart, turning their heads away from the scene unfolding inside the prison - that no-one can see anyway. There was a lot of interest in the town for this trial and subsequent execution - I remember not having much of an idea about it at the time - but the trial was originally going to be at the Old Bailey, but was changed to Bedford at short notice which caused some controversy at the time and 'till this day. Subsequent inquiries have brought various celebrities to Bedford including John Lennon who came in a gold Rolls Royce (there was a Liverpool connection).
The rest of the book also has many arresting images, though for me less resonant, but nonetheless I thoroughly reccommend the book.


  1. They are compelling images John. People have been standing as spectators to executions for ever it seems. I guess some people still would in England if they had the opportunity. What a depressing thought!

  2. Catherine, thanks for the comment. Not quite the Dickensian knitters by the guillotine, but there was a lot of feeling about the case! There was a terrible colloquialism that remember at the time - something like I wonder how Hanratty is feeling - swinging?