Photography and Culture. © rob kenyon
Driving across the vast red fertile Cambridgeshire countryside in the Spring dusk, under monstrously intimidating purple skies, the mentality of the medieval peasant becomes crystal clear. Tethered to his plough from sunrise to sunset like a fly on that landscape, what else could he believe other than that he was merely a plaything of some omnipotent ever-watchful being, whose only hope of security and sustenance was through a powerful intermediary, such as the church?
But knowing what we now know, something else reveals itself like magic, namely the fact that in that chamber, the Earth feels as if it is going around the Sun. That the western horizon really is hurtling upwards at over 1,000 miles per hour, in defiance of the word ‘sunset’. Cosmic vertigo is merely a matter of perspective, as in an opitical illusion, which the medieval peasant was denied.
Many people are puzzled by science, and with good reason. Firstly, our education system does it no justice, leading many to have coniptions about CERN, and the Evil Black Hole about to eat us all at the taxpayers expense. In their minds CERN and Mordor are much the same thing, but also, we have reached a stage where the discoveries being made are so outside our experience that words are useless to explain them. Which sounds like a bet.
The exotic world of Quantum Physics can be made to sound like pure Voodoo, and the Laws of Thermodynamics like the biblical Apocalypse, and sometimes are by people in suits who knock on my door on Sunday mornings trying to break up my family and make me hate my friends. But in reality, even the most bizarre outreaches of theoretical science are just another way of looking at the world, but with some evidence for the claims made. A scientific theory is not just a mental doodle on the back of an envelope. Opponents of science like to claim that their explanations are as valid as any scientific theory, which is to deliberately misunderstand what a scientific theory is (and science itself).
The United States National Academy of Sciences defines scientific theories as follows:
‘The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence. Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the sun (heliocentric theory) …One of the most useful properties of scientific theories is that they can be used to make predictions about natural events or phenomena that have not yet been observed.’
In other words, just inventing an explanation for why we’re here, however colourful, is not science. You have to show it works. For most of human existence it was perfectly obvious that the Sun went round the Earth – it still is obvious, and very difficult for most to disprove. The Sun ‘rises’ every day, after all. When the opposite was proven, We were suddenly no longer the centre of the Cosmos, as had been ‘obvious’ since time immemorial. Not least, this undermined the basis of most religions at a stroke, but also it showed us that we could not always trust our immediate first impressions, and that other forces were at work which required study and calculation to unearth, not blind faith and obedience to the dogma of our ancestors, who we then knew were fallible. In other words it told us that we knew hardly anything, and couldn’t trust the past with the truth. All science does is express the resulting curiosity, and continue making us re-assess ourselves, which is progressive. All the comforts and cures follow naturally from that project. Without it we would all still be happy in our mud huts.
The point of science is not primarily to make life more comfortable, or even to accumulate piles of knowledge, but to locate Us in the Cosmos as honestly as possible. The main effect of the major scientific discoveries is their effect on how we see ourselves in relation to everything else, from the tiniest sub-particle or vibration to the entire Universe itself, and how it all works around and within us.
Most scientists accept that we will never know everything, though we may find out how most of it works. But some also feel that we are simply not evolved to understand the deepest secrets of the Universe. Why should we be? What are we to the universe that it should weep for our ignorance? If, in the end, science only ends up proving that ‘theory’ it will have done its job after a fashion. But unless we look,we will never know, and the bi-products of looking are the advances we all take for granted in technological societies, plus a truly spiritual experience for those interested.
It was a particularly wet October, even for Wales. We were connoisseurs of wetness, an expertise gathered over years of school mornings. There was the usual grey slanting raw rain which stang your cheeks. There was the dense swarming drizzle which seeped through and under scarves and hoods and collars, smelling slightly of fire. And then the fullthroated hammering production-line downpour, which made the pavements run and the posters peel away from the hoardings and the fields gurgle and creak like sponges in the bath. This could last for a working week, and this October it had.
Our clothes were wet in the mornings, and the drains at the bottom of the hill in our village bled mud and silt across the road and bridge. The river underneath roared brown with soil and pulverised leaf-fall and broken branches. One day, the steps up to our garden were a little waterfall.
To a 14 year old boy at the time, this was no Winterland 1963, which we still sighed over, but it was better than nothing, even if it disrupted the freedom of school playtimes, which we spent inacarcerated in the canteen. It was a more eventful Autumn than usual. The rivers were excitingly angry. Every expedition involved some preparation, which even at 14 still smacked a little of Boy’s Own adventure, in which the hammering of rain on an anorak hood stood in for the howling polar blizzard outside the intrepid explorers tent. Our parents were fed up with something other than us, which deflected unnecessary attention. Life was far from perfect, but it was bearable.
At 8.30 on Friday 21st of October, we would have waited for our school bus on the usual street corner, squabbling for the shelter of the one or two doorways, and looking forward to the weekend. We would have piled on to the steaming, jabbering Routemaster, with its furious conductor, and headed off for another fairly routine day.
I can’t remember whether an announcement was made at school. By the time the Pantglas Juniors were singing All Things Bright and Beautiful we were probably doing the same, so any word at assembly would have been unlikely, but I remember arriving home to find my mother watching the TV, which was unusual. Normally, she was busying about the kitchen, and not watching the pre-Children’s slot – if there was one. I don’t remember her face, other than by piecing together all her expressions afterwards, and all those of the people who came around in the following weekend to share their grief. I don’t imagine many people watched Blue Peter that evening.
The TV pictures showed the vast grey panorama of what we called The Valleys, where everything was as grey as a faded wet newspaper. I’d been through there on day trips, and the grainy black and white footage confirmed my memories. Compared to it, our coastal fringe of the anthracite belt was like the Garden Of Eden – even if the black bulk of the Dafen steel works loomed only half a mile away across the watermeadows of Pwll Bach farm.
Only three years before, I had paraded to our little village school with the rest of the flock of bobble hats, bonnets, dufflecoats and anoraks. Chattering like parrots. Now there was this dead silent school in somewhere we’d never heard of but knew, buried under a mysterious mountain of grey porridge. The deadly mountain hiding its face in mist, and the school ruins lurching over like the shoddy tombstone they now were.
The TV screen was confusing and agonising. It seemed to show a building, like my primary school, up to its knees in the earth, with men in coats and caps, some frantically digging and pointing, and others merely standing, frozen, with their hands on their hips. The pile of rubble seemed to be steaming with the effort of the rescuers, that or the earth itself was panting like a bull from its rampage down the mountain.
Surely there would have been time to escape as the treacly flow entered the school? Obviously not. As reports came in, and the murderous mechanics of the event became clearer, so did the last seconds of those terrified little people, and the full searing tragedy hit home. I remember a faintly consoling tinge of pride at the efforts of the rescuers, but mainly just the persistent, toothache agony of human grief. Possibly my first experience of it. The monstrous barbarism of a mountain eating an entire generation was almost biblical in its indifference to suffering. Looking back from a safe distance, the week of rain was really the sound of Herod’s men unsheathing their swords. A Somme for the children of the coal industry.
As the evening drew on, and the graphic floodlit rescue began, and the succession of horror-struck, grimy faces told their stories, and the colliers worked in the open air for once, we knew it was the end of a way of life as well as the end of lots of little lives.
To the generation of 60’s teenagers I had just joined, this was another sign that the lives our fathers led were not for us. The devaluation of human life they had suffered, and the lazy commercial vandalism of the land had killed the children of Pant-glas Junior School. We knew even then, before any board of enquiry, that mining, and anything which valued human life so cheap, was to blame, and that it was over. The 1960’s had arrived, in spite of our fathers’ complaints about long hair and loud music.
The worst thing my mother could imagine for me was my working in a mine. Even the army would have been better. To her generation, having survived the depression and the war, Aberfan was an appalling piece of spite. How had they deserved this? The cold civil engineering diagrams showed the scale of cynical neglect by the NCB, managers, politicians and businessmen, but the total blind hatred of the mountain’s last act seemed so calculated that only an evil mind could have been at work. I hadn’t read Shakespeare at that point, and neither had my parents, but we certainly understood what tragedy meant. It may or may not have been a co-incidence, but my mother did stop going to chapel not long afterwards.
A family friend was in the Civil Defence and had been there, like all the other services. His stories in our kitchen were terrifying. He seemed to be using bluster as a defence, almost enjoying this storytelling chance of a lifetime. He used the word ‘meat -mincer’, which said it all.
How this changed the way we thought, as impressionable young people at a critical stage of our lives, is impossible to gauge. But happening so close to home, and involving such a key element of our mythology, it can’t have done anything to attract enthusiasm for either the traditional heavy industries, with their long record of destruction and mayhem, or any concept of a happy smiling god, beaming down on His obedient, blameless children at morning assembly, singing
‘All Things Bright And Beautiful.
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful.
The Lord God made them all.’
Nobody believed that again.
Landscapists often regard figures as a distraction from the scene. But surely, even in the most deserted Lake-District valleys are riddled with the distracting evidence of Mankind. From the picturesque dry stone walls and paths, to the sheep without which the famous scenes would be a forest. The purple grouse moors of Scotland are a pure fabrication. In the town, the influence is obviously inescapable. So what is the decision to depict the empty street scene? As much as anything it projects the viewer directly into the scene, without the baggage of being an observer of anyone else. So in one way it is a self- portrait of loneliness. The viewer has no human company, just the cold impassive world. Is this an escape, or a confrontation?
Personally, I cannot see an empty street without wishing an inhabitant upon it.
Construction and installation slideshow of Brunel Sculpture Group commission. First phase. By Kevin Boys Blacksmith. With Lewis, Terry, Jack, Kate, Josh, Heather, Billy, Jel & Steve. And students from Bacon’s College.
(Best viewed full-screen)
Images from the regular Jazz and Blues jam session at the Montague convened by trumpeter Rowan Porteous, which attracted top-drawer musicians from all over the world.
Guardian Camera Club 6:
‘The directness, clarity and honesty makes for an unaffected portrait. There’s lots of context and the square format (6 x 6 medium format film) is just right for this series.’
Sam and Tok.
‘A bit less depth of field than the photo above gives a better balance between subject and background here. The contrasting but direct expressions are compelling.’
‘This stunning double portrait is the best of a good set.’
Lord Gibbons, ‘Mayor of Peckham’.
‘This is quite different to the rest of the set; that delicate formality has gone and it seems genuinely warm.’
A quizzical expression gives this some humour, ‘Everyone is Famous In Peckham’ indeed!
‘Does the choice of camera affect the way the subject relates to the photographer? Whatever, this is an excellent street portrait.’