The second world war loomed large in our house growing up. Thinking about it, I was born just twenty years after the war finished and although my dad was too young to fight in it (he did national service in Libya) he was obsessed by all things military. In truth, I think most of the country was still a little bit obsessed by the war and its long shadows, still creating darkness twenty years on.
For me personally, this translated in to a deep fascination of the machinery of war. Writing that it does sound completely bonkers and obsessing over everything man created to help him kill his fellow-man does sound like the first stage of a seriously deranged personality. But we were all at it. Planes, tanks, ships, submarines, guns, uniforms—every aspect of the kit of war was minutely observed and collected. Scrapbooks, model kits, films, books, magazines. These days it would be bona fide OCD, but back then it was normal.
Every detail was scrutinised and oddly there were no residual difficulties collecting and studying our old enemies—in fact, the Germans and Japanese had more kudos, the passing years allowing more than a grudging respect for their superior kit and machinery. British gear was unglamorous and got the job done, reflecting our threadbare resources perhaps and of course American machinery was supremely glamorous and flashy.
But we did have our icons and one of those was the Avro Lancaster bomber. Immortalised by the famous Dambusters raid, the Lancaster caught our imagination. The film perpetuated the myth and the brave chaps dropping bouncing bombs, behind enemy lines, against the odds, all played to our fertile imaginations. Of course we loved the rakish Spitfire and its never say die Battle of Britain pilots, but there was something of the yeoman about the Lancaster. It was the heaviest bomber ever built and compared to its ugly predecessors it looked stylish and imposing.
Of course, we easily brushed under the carpet the true nature of the Lancaster: its ability to deliver the heaviest payload of bombs due to its long, unobstructed bomb bay, the 12,000 lb blockbuster bombs that could—and would—level entire neighbourhoods.
The perspective of time has left us with a peculiar relationship with the Lancaster bomber. It’s still a much-loved, iconic aeroplane that is closely associated with our pride in our air force and the part it played in shortening the second world war. But to modern tastes, Bomber Command‘s controversial tactics of targeting civilian targets makes us wring our hands and get all squeamish about what happened.
Standing underneath a real Lancaster bomber earlier this week at the RAF Museum was something I’ve never done in my life (a lifelong ambition) and, listening to the guided tour, the true nature of the machine became clear. A proud and noble construction, a design classic, boys own stuff, over 100 sorties each balancing life and death on a knife-edge, delivering death and destruction. It’s easy for me to marvel at the fabric of the plane itself—I know the parts intimately after building countless Airfix model kits, the fiddly gun turrets, the clear plastic canopies that if glue got on them would be milkily opaque and of no use to the gunners. It’s also easy to admire the bravery of the crew, who statistically were more likely to die than an infantryman in the trenches of World War 1.
It was with mixed feelings we left the cavernous bomber hall, housing the death delivering giants. All of them childhood heroes in a way; iconic shapes, familiar, glamorous. A realisation of the true nature of the beasts, but still the childhood adulation, this time tempered with respect and humility.
I’m loving the styling of the new Nikon Df, it’s both retro and futuristic at the same time. Interesting to see that they are using the tag line ‘fall in love with photography again’. The 35mm SLR styling is clearly more than a nod to photographers of a certain age – i.e. me – who cut their teeth on film based SLR photography and kind of miss it. The price point is clearly positioning the camera in the ‘well off boy’s toys’ bracket too at an eye watering £2,400. It looks beautiful though…
The aluminium and black styling looks effortlessly stylish and the crisp lines and detailing takes me right back to my early days with a camera in hand. My very first SLR camera was a Ricoh KR10, which was one of the first all black models. I do remember coveting the far more expensive (and therefore out of my price range) Pentax K1000, which had the traditional silver/black finish. I remember my parents buying me the Ricoh for Art College at the princely sum of £110, which back in 1980 was a lot of money, but as far as our budget could stretch. When I look at what cameras cost these days, £110 was quite a lot of money (that reminds me: I must phone my dad, remind him about it and thank him, again).
You can see the styling of the latest Nikon harks back to a cleaner, straighter aesthetic evident in the Pentax K1000. It’s nice to see design going full circle (just like skirt lengths or trouser widths I guess) and although a lot of revisions is due to designer whim, classic and timeless design never really goes out of fashion.
Interesting to see below how my old KR10 isn’t quite as beautiful as the Pentax (although it was camera of the year I might add rather protectively) but the styling and proportions aren’t perfect. The black looked uber cool at the time where most of the cameras were ironically black and silver.
I still loved that camera, mind – it took some of the best photographs of my life and was built to last: it had a reliability and heft in the hand that was reassuring and was virtually bulletproof. The Ricoh KR10 sparked a lifelong interest in image making which continues to this day.
The studio smelt clean, but not clinical, looked modern with relaxed lighting and a cool ambience. Rap music boomed somewhere in the back: it spoke of an alien culture to me, another world. A studious thrum filled the air, a high-pitched chatter carefully marking ink on skin in the background. Businesslike.
I asked for Gold Frank, we waited and a head popped up. ‘Can I help?’ Introductions done, a mutual friend. Perching on the edge of a pool table we talked about script, freehand, ‘on the day we’ll just do it’ he said. Trust, I thought. Stripped off, a bicep exposed. Silently impressed. My card marked, deposit left, the flash just a memory.
So my first tattoo, a swift decision made after a long gestation. Wednesday arrives, but the nerves don’t. A late appointment gives my mind plenty of time to work its magic, to no avail. In the pre sitting interview, we discuss what I want and where I want it. He gets down to sketching it out on paper. Freehand curves, traditional methods. Brush pens, red, orange. Biro sharpens the image, tight curves are carefully but swiftly drawn, transferred on to carbon. Transferred onto my skin, it feels cold and smells of alcohol.
The preparation of the equipment takes some time. Meticulous and clinical. The method is reassuring and fascinating. Pots of ink set in vaseline anchors, needles cracked out of pristine packets, bright shiny heads, diamond textured glint in the light. Laid on the bed, the cold vinyl against my skin, I remark. ‘You’ll soon warm up’ comes the knowing reply.
Clingfilm wraps the resting pad and the silence in the studio before the needle starts is heavy with anticipation. ‘This your first?’ he asks, ‘Yes’ I say, ‘any tips?’ A pause ‘just lay still’. He begins his work, under the lights. I focus on the leaves barely hanging on to the branches outside the window. It’s hard to describe the pain, so conscious was I dealing with it at the time. I can see why people get addicted to this pain: it ebbs and flows, stops and starts, it scratches, burns, sears, tickles. The artist is expert, moving quickly, wiping, seemingly aware of pain thresholds.
I lose track of time; the two-hour session is a blur of concentration and realisation that my skin will never be the same again. The bare bones of the script is worked on and the design takes shape, ‘I’ll do whatever I think when I’m doing it, see how I feel’ he’d said. There is a bond of trust between artist and sitter, unusually for me I am quite relaxed about the end result. It’s out of my hands and I quite like that freedom.
My left eye waters with the pinching pain, palms sweat coldly. He was right: I did warm up. During cool interludes, I steal brief glimpses of the emerging ink amidst swollen red flesh and smeared blood. I have pins and needles in my right arm, quite literally and in turn, loud rap music throbs in time with the dancing of the needle. The main outline was the hardest to bear, the shading a breeze by comparison and at last came the fine detailed work which brought another dimension to the pain, exquisitely short and sharp.
And then, at once, he was finished. Seemingly satisfied with his endless filigree of curves, the artist sets down his needles, cleanly wipes the inside of my arm and invites me to take a look in the mirror. I’m elated, the complex and delicate artwork serves its fleshy canvas properly. Photographs are taken, iPhones at the ready, Instagram images posted.
The vast inky wound (for it is so) is wrapped in cling film and taped top and bottom with masking tape. The instruction is to slather the tattoo in Bepanthen (nappy rash cream, finding a new market clearly) and keep it out of water. I tentatively pull on my jacket, the tight leather sleeves make me wince. The balance is paid, a handshake and I’m out of the door into the darkened streets, drinking in the cool autumn air.
Last week we visited the wonderful Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds. Don’t worry, I’m not going all Fred Dibnah on your ass but I will be singing the praises of industrial revolution heavy metal, incredible artistry and bygone age.
Armley Mills sits unassumingly on the banks of the Leeds Liverpool canal in a part of the city that has seen better days. Clearly it was once at the heart of the action, but things have moved on and the enormous mill complex still sits proudly, elegantly even; a potent symbol of the birth of the city that now exists: all modern and hoity toity, forgetful of its past.
This proud mill is home to an eclectic collection of industrial revolution evidence. Enormous weaving machines still trundle, doing the job they were designed to do over a century ago, solid printing presses stand frustratingly still, evidencing Leeds’ heritage in this industry. Huge iron beasts sit in their rust waiting patiently for their time to come again. Unknown histories dwell in the machinery, a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of a city famous for forgetting its heritage as quickly as possible.
This resting place is home to iron steam giants, locomotives built in the city by firms long gone: engineering ingenuity and brute strength forgotten and unvalued. Wandering around this engaging and lovingly curated assembly, the question at the front of my mind was can this collection of yesteryear tell us anything about the city we live in today? Leeds was at the forefront of invention and ambition and the sheer effort and intelligence required to build and develop this technology surely inspires the inventors and innovators of today. I think there’s no difference between software developers working on a life-changing iPhone app and a steam engineer refining one of his engines. Maybe I’m going off on one, but take a visit and see for yourself.
There’s also currently a lovely temporary exhibition in Armley Mills featuring renowned Leeds Clock maker Potts Clocks. The Leodiensian horologists (now I am going off on one) are famous for providing pretty much all of the public clocks in the city and across the country. Their distinctive trademark hour hand is easy to spot and there is much satisfaction to be gained spotting these elegant timepieces around Leeds. There is a melancholy but satisfying air to the ticking, whirring machinery, seconds and minutes marked off efficiently, as if they were insignificant, easy to retrieve.
Worth a visit, if you can find the time.