A Modern Mitchell and Kenyon

You’ll know that most of the Edwardian film footage of football that we still possess was the work of the northern firm Mitchell and Kenyon, and that they also produced travelling panoramas. Like this one:

I came across a more modern equivalent during an idle surfing session yesterday. Three films, on Youtube, taken from the window of a car in 1985 as it drove through Bedford, the town in which I had the indubitable privilege of growing up.

Given where it was and when, of course I was interested. And all of the little changes to the townscape that have happened since ’85 stand out, of course. But what put my hair on end was the bit at 0.42 secs when MY SIXTEEN YEAR OLD SELF WALKS IN FRONT OF THE CAR.

The first instinct is to send in a SWAT team to get me out of there. It wasn’t a good time, and I think it shows.

Solipsism aside, the first relevance to the original Mitchell and Kenyon is that the people in the 1985 film also look comfortably locked into their era and their place, as if they’d chosen it themselves from some celestial catalogue. We can’t read their thoughts at this distance, and it’s easy to assume that they are situation-compliant, 1985 Ashes to Ashes thoughts. But I can tell you what I was thinking about then, and it makes me look harder in turn at the Edwardian faces and wonder which ones were quietly longing to be teleported out and away, which ones were languidly daydreaming of sex, which ones were playing themselves music, and what music.

The second relevance is that if you spend time photographing the very things that you regard as the most dull and everyday, and archive the results as well as you can, you’re storing up what will become pure treasure in a surprisingly short space of time. There are three films in the Bedford 1985 sequence – and they drive, playing with the zoom lens all the way, right across a fading English market town at the height of Thatcherism. Imagine how much material will be in there for historians in 2085.

So, photograph the utterly everyday, not the Arc de Triomphe again, or the Scott Monument, or the front of old Highbury. Get the litter in the street, the chain burger bars and coffee shops before they all go the way of the Seattle Coffee Company’s silver frontages.

Another example might be – don’t tape Match of the Day; film your living room whilst it’s on. Imagine how interesting it would be to watch e.g. a 1973 Jimmy Hill edition filmed broadcasting into a typical 1973 living room now. My father photographed Geoff Hurst’s winning goal on his big wooden b&w in 1966 (although he’s probably pitched the slide by now: I should have pocketed it when I first came across it) and the interest isn’t in the goal – that image is easy to find – but the television itself, and beyond it, the colour of the carpet, the style of the fireplace.

I just regret that we can’t yet capture smell. One imagines that the sixties smelt of cigarettes and cheap instant coffee, NASA-style. The seventies, in England, smelt of lorry exhaust and the steam inside car windows: I remember it well. The eighties – of the used cardboard cartons stacked behind Dixons. The nineties of broken CD cases and the free samples inside glossy magazines.

Now all I can smell is the sweat that gathers as you begin to age. Even that will be gone sooner than I think.

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7 responses to “A Modern Mitchell and Kenyon

  1. How did you recognise yourself?
    (Teenagers all look alike to me.)

  2. ‘So, photograph the utterly everyday, not the Arc de Triomphe again, or the Scott Monument, or the front of old Highbury. Get the litter in the street, the chain burger bars and coffee shops before they all go the way of the Seattle Coffee Company’s silver frontages.’

    As with the curiously fascinating London Shop Fronts.

  3. Is it the shoes? And what’s that in your right hand? Ten points if you remember.

    You’re right about the everyday.

  4. It’s a can of Panda cola. It wasn’t the shoes so much, although I had and hated them, later using a marker pen to blacken the white soles and the Adidas stripes. What I recognised, instinctively and straight away, were two mannerisms: the first, when I’m still in the shadow of the shop and look all around me as if I were invisible and tasked to remember what I’m seeing for the rest of my life. Like Browning’s man but without the talent. The second, that tense, scared, long stride, in the trousers with library knee. I don’t get library knee in my trousers anymore, which I put down to Damian Counsell’s influence, but it was a constant source of anxiety and self-consciousness then.

    I wish I could go back and tell him that every one of the risks he is about to take, in a riot of loneliness and embarrassment and fear, will come off, and the rest of the decade will be something of a golden time. But he’d say, “What about after that?..”

  5. That Belfast film is very nice. I’m mildly surprised to see no motor vehicle at all – or, at least, none moving. And I am impressed by the efficiency of the horse-drawn tram – that’s a lot of people to move with just two animals. Did horse-drawn trams cope with a hilly city like Edinburgh?

  6. That must have been such a startling thing to come across.

    I often wonder how many tourists’ photo albums around the world I inadvertently appear in.

    I recently wrote something similar about the fascination of background detail. It’s from a piece on London books: ‘For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.’

  7. They coped with Edinburgh, but not with the hills, taking brief charge on a flat route starting at Haymarket and running east. They were quickly replaced with a San Francisco-style cable system, which was itself electrified in the early ’20s.

    Important to stress how early the M&K films are – you’d have seen a small number of motor vehicles in an equivalent London film at that time, then by 1909 onwards a predominance. After WW1, and the release of so many war surplus vehicles, horse transport was effectively obselete barring deliveries of milk and beer.