The Long Goodbye

“Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everybody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case.”
Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict

In early 2005 I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles International Airport, wearing a pair of crumpled black pyjamas that made me look like a ninja who’d spent a night in the drunk tank. Across the aisle I could sense what I took to be the disapproval of an austere middle aged woman, hair scraped up in a severe bun, eyes bobbing over the top of her Dorothy B Sayers novel in my direction. At one point, looking over the top of my own book, our eyes locked, and she leaned towards me and whispered conspiratorially ‘I love that guy’.

That guy was Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s hard-bitten LA homicide detective. On the half dozen or so trips I’d taken to LA over the preceding 18 months, I’d thought it an appropriate opportunity to get reacquainted with my fondness for hardboiled crime fiction. In more than one hundred hours of flying I’d re-read much of Chandlers and James M. Cain’s work, finally got round to reading Chester Himes, and accidentally discovered Connelly’s modern take on the noir fiction genre. I still have all those books, and occasionally re-read them.

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.

45 minutes earlier I’d been sitting in a business class seat on a flight shortly to take off for London.

“Warm nuts, sir?”

Absolutely. Was it that obvious? I’m terrified of flying. The sheer improbability of it all. Several hundred tonnes of metal, plastic, fuel and flesh, hurtling down the runway and vaulting off the end in what to me is the ultimate leap of faith. The irony being that then, as now, I was working in the aviation industry.

“Glass of pre-flight orange juice or champagne, sir?”

“Complimentary in flight sleep suit for your travelling comfort?”

I immediately knocked back the champagne in a single, nerve-steadying gulp – a rather gauche action that no doubt signaled I was an impostor in this part of the plane and should immediately be dragged down the back to join the other serfs – and headed to the bathroom to change into my ‘sleep suit’. Rocky, I’m sure, would not have approved.

I’d met Rocky in London several years before. She’d come from northern Spain to study for a masters degree, a dark-eyed beauty with a steely-eyed character that didn’t suffer fools gladly. A shame really, otherwise things might have worked out between us. Rocky was the nickname one of my friends had given her. She was tough and determined. Plucky. Feisty. Even now when I think of her I hear the Running-Up-The-Steps music. Eventually she was offered an extremely prestigious job in LA that she couldn’t refuse, and that as they say was that. Except it wasn’t. Not quite. There was still perhaps some future to be salvaged, and I probably traveled to LA six or seven times over the following couple of years to see if we could find it.

Many people imagine that working for an airline is an opportunity to gallivant round the world for next to nothing, and actually that’s pretty much how it is. Back then I was travelling on what’s known as an ID90; an industry ticket that is discounted by 90% – you pay just 10% of the cost of an economy ticket. Often if the flight is overbooked you’ll get upgraded, or sometimes if you’re lucky someone will upgrade you just for the hell of it. After all, what goes around comes around. And that’s how I came to be sitting in a seat that might normally sell for up to £10K, clutching a ticket that cost £100. All this sounds great, and of course it is, but there is a huge caveat; you’re traveling standby. Space Available. Subject to Load. And it’s not just the paying customers who get on in front of you. There’s a whole pecking order just for staff. Are you travelling for work or pleasure? How long have you been an employee? Do you work for this airline or another airline? Are you flying from or towards home? Were you sleeping with the check-in agent’s sister who you ended up dumping by text but she had it coming anyway because she’d been seeing that knuckle-dragger customs officer behind you’re back and been spreading BLATANT LIES about your performance in the bedroom? Yeah, whatever. Anyway, all these play in to the decision of whether or not you get a seat, and you never really know until you’re on that plane. In fact, unless you’re an idiot, you should never really relax until you’re up in the air. Because although it’s rare, sometimes you can even be sitting in your seat when you are asked to leave.

Which is how this idiot came to be doing the walk of shame through LAX in a pair of black pyjamas.

It took me another two days to finally make it out of LA. That’s a long time to keep saying goodbye. It was twelve years ago now and I can still remember looking out the window and watching those winking city lights recede and wondering whether this is where I’d end up living.

I never went back.

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.

In fact, I didn’t even want to think about any of this again. But I haven’t been able to avoid it. Because for the first time in twelve years I’m heading back to the States. Not LA this time, and for work not pleasure. But it seems to be a flaw in my character that I always look to the past, see the connections and coincidences in things.

Perhaps if I’m really being honest, what I really wanted is an excuse to finish the roll of film that’s been lounging in my Nikon FE for the past 6 months, so I’m all set for my trip. Because when you’re going on a business trip it’s important to remember that you’re there to do a job. And to pack accordingly:

I’ll be back in June. There may be photos.

“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.
To say goodbye is to die a little..”

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

All photos: Nikon FE / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1

Sphinx Aren’t What They Used To Be

A couple of unusual things happened this weekend. Firstly, the weather forecasters predicted two full days of complete sunshine and a temperature of 21C. In London. In early April. The second strange thing was that this absurd prediction actually came true. Normally during such a weekend I might typically have driven down to the coast, or maybe spent some time cycling in the park. But a few recent events have conspired to suck some of the energy and enthusiasm out of me. So instead I unfolded my handwritten list of Cemeteries I Haven’t Yet Visited, closed my eyes, and randomly prodded the paper.

West Norwood Cemetery is a 40 acre site in south east London, so for me that’s a 30 minute train ride up to central London, followed by a further 15 minutes out through the other side. It’s one of The Magnificent Seven, the group of private cemeteries that were established in the 19th century to deal with overcrowding at the various parish cemeteries. It’s not the first of the seven I’ve visited.

The cemetery had its first burials in 1837, and although all the plots are now taken, the crematorium is still active and you can have your ashes stashed in the columbarium. It holds London’s finest collection of sepulchral monuments, has 69 listed structures, and is on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It’s a peaceful place.

All of these were shot with an orange filter, most of them them with the wonderful (but hefty) Mamiya Sekor C F/2.8 45mm lens (35mm equivlant=28mm). I semi-stand developed them (one gentle inversion at the half-way mark) in a 1+99 dilution of Rodinal for 60 minutes. I find this gives a really nice level of bite without being too grainy. On these sunny, cloudless days I don’t bother with the onboard meter. I just use sunny 16, allow an extra stop of light to compensate for the filter, and then it’s just 1/125 & F/11 or permutations thereof all the way.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL / Ilford FP4 / Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

The Crematorium; still in use today

After a hour or so of wandering round, I found a shady spot to eat the sandwich I had brought with me, and was thinking about catching the train home. That’s when it occurred to me that a couple of stops and about ten minutes further down the line was Crystal Palace Park.

I’d forgotten how nice Crystal Palace Station is, and at the risk of being mistaken for a train geek, I took a quick snap. To be honest, when you spend a sunny Saturday hanging round a cemetery, people thinking you’re a train spotter is the least of your worries.

Wikipedia describes Crystal Palace Park as a Victorian pleasure park, which I think is a lovely turn of phrase. The district of Crystal Palace takes its name from the building –The Crystal Palace – in which the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. Yet the exhibition wasn’t held in Crystal Palace; it was held in Hyde Park in central London. Confused? Don’t be.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (phew) was conceived as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It was an attempt to show the rest of the world how Britain was a clear leader in industry, and in the process stick two fingers up to the French after their highly successful Industrial Exposition of 1844. Plus ça change. After the exhibition, between 1852 and 1855, the park was created as a home for the relocated and rebuilt Crystal Palace, but tragically the building was destroyed by fire in 1936, leaving just the few remnants you can see from the photos.

That’s the Crystal Palace TV Transmitter in the background. 719 feet and the fifth tallest structure in London.

There’s plenty to see and do in the park. The boating lake. A maze. The famous Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – a series of extinct (and often inaccurate) animal sculptures that date from 1852. But it was the sphinxes that really drew me here on this day. It was about twelve years ago now, on my only previous visit to the park, that I sat beneath them holding the hand of a pretty red-headed girl with a kind heart. I’ve no idea what’s happened in her life since then, but a few years back I was surprised to be told she now lives just a couple of miles away from me. I keep that little bit of information wrapped up and tucked away at the back of my mind, but occasionally I take it out, just to see how it feels.

There are six sphinxes in all , and they’ve been there ever since the site was moved from central London in the 1850s. What surprised me however, is that they are now in much better condition than when I last saw them. And as you clearly can’t see from the photo, they’ve been painted terracotta. I’ve since found out they were restored last year, and analysis has shown that they were regularly painted up until about 1900, after which they gradually started to fall in to disrepair.

This dude was happy to ham it up for the camera.

And in the middle of the park, at the sports centre, they were playing beach volleyball. I took the photo just so I can tell people that I did indeed have a lovely day at the seaside, and no, I didn’t waste a glorious weekend wallowing in nostalgia and gravestones.

I Found A Roll Of FP4

There’s been an exposed roll of 35mm FP4 kicking around my desk drawer for a while now and I’ve no idea where it came from. This is unusual for me. I’m normally keen to develop my films as quickly as possible, convinced that each roll contains a masterpiece crying out to be released into the wild. Consequently there tends to be a lot of disappointment in my life. Anyway, it’s a bit odd to have a roll of film with no clue as to when or where it was shot, or even what camera it was shot with. Probably the one thing I knew for sure was that there wasn’t going to be anything worthwhile on it, otherwise I never would have forgotten about it.

Seeing as the stakes were low (and because fundamentally I’m lazy), I thought I’d stand develop it. But not the reasonably controlled and consistent semi-stand developing I often use for medium format film. Nope, this was the full on sling-it-the-tank-and-leave-it-untouched-until-I-can-be-bothered-to-get-up-from-the-sofa-type. Which turned out to be round about two hours.

  • Mix 5ml of Rodinal with 495ml of water
  • Don’t bother worrying about the temperature
  • Add to tank and agitate for 30 seconds. Or a minute. Or whatever
  • Whack tank to get rid of air bubbles
  • Make a nice cup of Earl Grey tea, cut a decent-sliced slab of homemade cake, sit down to watch a movie. I don’t recommend Transformers
  • When you feel like it, empty the tank, rinse once with water, fix and wash in the normal way

Hanging up the roll to dry I saw that I’d taken around 12 frames, scattered randomly along the whole length of the film. Quite why I’d done this is still a mystery, and although it was clear that the first few shots were taken in Brookwood Cemetery, there was no clue as to when.

Pentax KM / Ilford FP4 / Stand Developed in Rodinal 1+99

However, the remaining frames revealed all. These were taken on a long bicycle ride along the Thames last summer with my Pentax KM. How can I be so sure? Because I also took my Mamiya 645 with me.

Walton Bridge. The first bridge built here was opened in 1750 and immortalised five years later in Canaletto’s painting. This is bridge number six.

St Mary’s Church, Sunbury Upon Thames. This was rebuilt in 1752, but the foundations date from the original structure, built some time in the middle ages. Because I like to be accurate to the nearest 1000 years.
I’ve no idea who this chap is or where he was shot.

A few years back I developed a roll of 35mm FP4 in Rodinal using standard processing. The results were grainier than I would have liked for a 100 ISO film, and I’ve never repeated it. By comparison, these are far more pleasing. Perhaps it’s the weak dilution that reduces the grain? Or the lack of regular agitation? Probably a combination of the two.

One conclusion I’ve come to through personal experience is that traditional grain films like FP4 do very well using stand development, but tabular grain films like T-Max and Delta are best avoided. Everyone else probably realised this years ago. But then again I’ve only just found out they had stopped making VHS players after an embarrassing conversation at the electrical store that made me feel about 80 years old.

Square Up To Racism

These days:

My eyes aren’t good enough to set the controls without glasses, my brain isn’t sharp enough to promptly work out the exposure, and my fingers aren’t nimble enough to focus on a moving target.

But I don’t take the Mat out often enough and I’m very fond of the square format.

So if everyone could just hold it right there for a few more moments please…….and……..got it. Thanks.

Stand Up To Racism, March & Rally, London, 18 March 2017
Yashica Mat 124G / Kodak Tri-X / Developed in Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes B

Just Be Nice

Saturday saw the annual Stand Up To Racism March in London. I went on the same march last year and compared with now, 2016 seems like a land of unicorns and rainbows. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders; these are all very naughty boys and girls and it’s disappointing their mothers didn’t teach them better manners.

My solution? Just be nice, people. OK?

There you go, sorted.

You’re welcome.

Stand Up To Racism, March & Rally, London, 18 March 2017
Nikon F90X / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1