Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The box of lost names

Central London, 1961.  
Photographer: Charles W. Cushman. Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection.
Via The Retronaut.

My brother and I are second-generation London migrants. We were born in the West Country, and never lived in the capital, visiting only as tourists; but the cultures of the East End and the streets of North London informed our home life. It has only been recently that I have come to understand how much.

My parents, competitive, critical, fiercely intelligent, were beneficiaries of the post-war British education reforms which enabled academically-inclined children from a wide range of social backgrounds to go to grammar school. Education propelled them away from London. Up, and out. It took my father nearly forty years to go back to the streets behind the Arsenal F.C. where he'd grown up, only to find it changed almost beyond recognition. He returned as a distinguished academic, a writer, a member of the Royal Society: and as a New Zealander. But as my parents accelerated away from the city of their youth, London was always there in the rear-view mirror, a vast and creaking hulk; a place of bomb-damaged row housing and ghostly pea-soupers, of rationed coal and Coronation flags, of dog races and tin baths and bread and dripping. When asked where I'm from, even now I find myself saying that I was born in Devon, but my parents are from London.

There are few photographs of my parents' youth in London. I imagine that few were taken. When I get out the box of family photographs and look at the pictures of London, they seem primarily historical and foreign, rather than familiar. They are not part of our experience. They depict a way of life that we never knew, though it coloured our own, 12 000 miles away. There is a small Box Brownie shot of my father as a baby outside on the street in a gigantic ancient pram, taken in 1941 at around the time the German air raids on London began to gather momentum; my mother, blonde, beautiful, aloof, sitting on a brick wall in her grammar school blazer in the mid-1950s; an Ektachrome picture taken a couple of years later outside the front door at Ferntower Road, in which my father, black-haired and bohemian, stands with my mother's family; everyone holds melting icecreams and looks either melancholy or mildly irritated. Those photographs contain clues to the culture of the family. In recent years I have understood many things by looking at them.

When you look at photographs of your parents' youth, you're not looking at people you know but at people whom you never knew; you respond less to their familiarity than to their strangeness. Recently I've re-read Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida—the book which inspired Sebald's Austerlitz—and have been struck once again by the passage in which, following the death of his mother, he spends an afternoon looking through the family photograph album. In the photographs which were taken during his lifetimeduring the span of his memoryhe finds only a likeness of his mother; it's not until he discovers a photograph of her as a girl of five in a winter garden that he is struck by her identity, which comes on him like a sudden rush of air. Like Proust's madeleine, the winter garden photograph raises an overwhelming tide of narrative. Barthes chose not to reproduce the image in his book. "It exists only for me," he wrote. "For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture." 

The photograph that I have reproduced above was taken by Charles W. Cushman in 1961, at the time my father was studying at University College and my mother was training to become a teacher. It is from a series documenting street life in London. The photograph was featured recently on the Retronaut site. When I saw it I held my breath. I've looked at it dozens of times in the past few weeks; the young couple sitting on the low wall by the fountain could be my parents. 

They're not, of course. My mother's hair was fairer; my father's features swarthier. When I blew up the image in search of proof its generalities disappeared. But there's something about the couple's mutual abstraction amidst the life of the city that I immediately recognise. Their heads are bent forward as if reading, the city around them forgotten, left behind. They are in the city, but the city is not in them. They are, to use Barthes's term, the punctum of the image; the point of its emotional resonance. But as the fountain plays behind them and the pigeons strut and the men in grey suits go about their business, the woman in the pink dress and the man without a jacket are somewhere else entirely.

The people in the photograph are not my parents, but they might as well be. But they are, perhaps, someone else's parents, and by now someone's grandparents; though their images are on the internet their names are lost to history. Their identities have become detached from their images. Their digital image is the contemporary equivalent of those old photographs you used to see in boxes outside junkshops; other people's ancestors, unnamed, abandoned, caught in "indifferent pictures" lost to memory and consigned instead to history. 

A few years ago I went to a talk by Cushla Parekowhai about Ans Westra's photographs of the communities up the Whanganui River. Cushla's parents had been the teachers at the school Westra photographed; they were out of sight in her photographs. Cushla named the children in Westra's images, restoring the identities to the portraits. At the end of her talk she handed everyone in the audience a 2B pencil and told them to go home and write the names of people on the back of their family photographs. She was concerned that otherwise their identities would be lost. I did what she asked. I was glad that I did. (I've got some more photographs still to name, great uncles and aunts and people further back that possibly only I know the names of, now, and only that because my mother told me. Perhaps while you are thinking of it you could get a pencil and write names on the backs of the old family photos in your box, too. And you might also think of doing the same for the digital images you upload.)

But if the couple in Cushman's photograph had been named (and who is Charles W. Cushman? His name suggests he is American, a visitor to London in the early 1960s) I would have never have recognised my parents in them. Cushman's photograph gives me an image of my parents as Londoners rather than as my parents. It sets them against the backdrop of the generic cityscape recognisable to a tourist such as myself, rather than the familiar city intimated by the detail of a front door or the brick wall of a back yard.

From the mistaken identity of Cushman's photograph I’ve understood something about the essential mutability and fictionality of the city itself. The mid-century London I have invented for my parents is not the city in which they lived, although it has many similarities. It’s a cultural fiction composed as much from novels and films and documentary photographs as from the reported experiences of my parents. And there are remnants still of that London culture, both real and imagined, in our family life here in Christchurch; odd patterns of thought and jokes and turns of speech which I've passed on to our children without even thinking about it. The experience of any migrant is that the life of the culture endures beyond the lives of the people, and is not confined to the specificity of a place. It changes, it adapts, it is passed on. It goes with you, wherever you are. 

1 comment:

harvestbird said...

I love Hong Kong Cinema, or rather, a certain kind of HK cinema: that second-generation, post-New Wave cop dramas that either show the influence of John Woo or are made by John Woo. On the strength of this I went on holiday to Hong Kong a few years ago. I had a wonderful time but was aware both in arriving and leaving that what I was experiencing (visitor HK) and what had inspired me to go (movie HK, or, rather, Tony Leung looking pained but buttoned-down in any number of streets or high rises of Kowloon) were not, regrettably, the same thing.