The Beast of the East

At 05:25 on May 9th 2017 flight WN1257 pushed back from the stand at Pittsburgh International Airport, taxied to runway 10L and took off into clear skies, heading south towards Orlando.

1200 miles away in Dallas, several dozen people in the Command Centre watched throughout the day as a further 4000 flights came to life in the new reservation and departure control systems.

In a number of strategic airports across the the US, more than a hundred subject matter experts were deployed to provide technical support and operational advice.

My assignment was Baltimore. They call it The Beast of the East, due to the huge volume of departures; we handled up to 260 flights a day. And there were tears, screams, frayed tempers, banging of fists on desks, banging of heads on walls, periods of dark despair, and mainly that was just me. There was also a great deal of laughter.

Cameras and airports don’t mix well. Being behind a check-in desk, at a departure gate, in the hold of a 737 or wandering around on the apron snapping pictures raises questions, even if you do have the appropriate ID. With film, there’s an extra problem. Whilst I’ve happily subjected film to a couple of x-ray screenings, I knew that in this case I’d probably been going back and forth through security a dozen or more times a day. Therefore I reluctantly made the decision to take a single roll of film and to keep the camera landside, hopefully grabbing a few shots in the downtime.

These are a few of the wonderful people I worked with in a state of barely controlled chaos over the last month. Thanks guys, for all the laughter, warmth and friendship.

Baltimore
Nikon FE / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1

Arrival

Atlanta, Georgia. Not my final destination, but US regulations dictate that I clear customs and immigration at the first point of entry. I’m nervous. I’m midway along a twisting line that’s snaking its way towards the cubicle one hundred feet ahead. Inside, a granite-faced immigration officer. My hands are clenched into solid fists and I feel the beads of sweat popping out on my forehead. In front of me, a young Hispanic woman with nervous eyes clutches a mewling baby. Behind me, an elderly couple argue in Polish, the man hissing at his wife through clenched teeth. You could slice the atmosphere with a taser.

I’m told that US immigration can be tough. Grueling. That they ask you questions. Ideological questions. One wrong answer and you’re on the next flight home. Or worse. I use my balled hands to knuckle the perspiration from my eyes. My Adam’s apple is bobbing up and down like a monkey on a stick.

I’m near the front of the queue now, and get a better view of the officer. He’s younger than I initially thought. Severe brush cut. Impassive expression. Aviator mirrored sunglasses. One of those black-eyed aliens from The X-Files springs to mind. The only movement in his face is the slight chewing motion of his jaw; gum, presumably. Other than that he’s as still as death.

And then it’s me. I hand over my passport. He swipes it. Thumbs through it. I see him pause on the visa for Kazakhstan and the Egyptian entry stamp. Then the photo. He scrutinises it, looks up at me. Reflected in the sunglasses, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and a face that looks like it’s been dipped in flour stares back at me with insane eyes.

“What exactly is the purpose of your visit, Sir?”

I’m stammering. I could be fifteen again, struggling to explain exactly why it is that I want to take his fourteen year old daughter to the school dance. I’m dimly aware of someone babbling something about work, business trip, aviation industry, reservation systems.

He watches impassively as I ramble on, then removes his sunglasses and glares at me. “Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?” His eyes narrow to dark slots.

“Donald Trump? That orange dude from The Apprentice? Well, I’ve gotta be honest – the UK version of the show is far superior.”

He freezes. There’s silence. The air seems to have been sucked out of the room. Blood gushes and pounds in my ears. Very slowly, he raises himself up to his full height. I hear a ptui sound of tongue between teeth, followed by a plop, and a quarter-sized blob of brown chewing tobacco appears on the cap of my shoe.

“Boy,” he says, towering over me, “We don’t like your sort here.” He signals towards a couple of security guards in the corner, who start to stride over. “And what we’re gonna do is haul your sorry ass downtown and throw you in an empty cell. Empty, that is, ‘cept for a single bunk and a big, lonely guy called Bubba. And when you’re squealing, squealing like a pig on on its honeymoon, we’re gonna ask you again what you think of our President.

The security guys are upon me now, each grabbing an arm and forcing me to my knees.

“Hey, c’mon guys,” I plead, but they drag me along the floor, nearly yanking my arms out of the sockets. I’m panicking, my eyes imploring the people in the queue for help. They avert their gaze or look at their feet. I start to shout. “Please, someone help me,” I scream. “Please!” Tears are flowing down my cheeks. “Help! Please! Someone rush to Starbucks and bring me one of those Coastal Elite Lattes to catch my liberal snowflake tears. “HEEELLLLLLLPPPP………..!”

Okay, wait. Hold it right there. Now’s not the time to be flippant. Let’s think this through. I can do better than this. Okay. Try again:


He removes his sunglasses and glares at me. “Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?” His eyes narrow to dark slots.

“Oh I’m sorry. I don’t follow pointless celebrities on Twitter. That’s because I’m not a twelve year old girl.

ptui

plop


“Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?”

I unbutton my jacket to reveal my Make America Great Britain Again T-shirt

ptui

plop


And then it’s me. I hand over my passport. He swipes it. Thumbs through it. I realise that’s he’s not actually wearing sunglasses, neither is he chewing tobacco. He scrutinises the photo, glances up at me, hands it back. I turn to go.

“Just hold it right there.” I freeze. The words sound menacing. Slowly, very slowly, I turn to face him. “Welcome to America,” he says, a friendly smile stretching across his face.

“Erm, thanks.”

‘Well, that was easy,’ I think as I follow the signs for baggage reclaim. ‘I don’t know why people make such a fuss about these things. Damn snowflakes.’

Leaving Heathrow: Nikon FE / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1

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

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.

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