Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The East End of London in the post-war period

Flower-seller, E1, 1959 (John Claridge)

From another wonderful post by the 'Gentle Author' of the Spitalfields Life blog, here are some of the photographs of John Claridge, whose work obviously deserves to be better known.  There are more pictures on Spitalfields Life at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2012/02/19/john-claridges-east-end/

Crane and seagull, E16, 1960 (John Claridge)

Mass X Ray, E14, 1966 (John Claridge)

At the window, E1, 1963 (John Claridge)

The great danger with photographs is that they have a tendency to romanticize the past (though strictly speaking this tendency is in our reading of them rather than inherent in the photographs themselves).  Claridge's pictures, especially those of East End people, of which he was one, resist this danger. 

Because of a coincidence of timing, it is interesting to compare them to the visual values of the recent television series about midwives working in Poplar just after the war, which I very much enjoyed and was at times moved by.  The series was set in 1957, and was based on Call the Midwife (London: Merton Books 2002), the diaries of Jennifer Worth.  The TV series, written by Heidi Thomas, probably does romanticize the East End in visual terms: the main characters in it are the nurses themselves, the nuns they live with, and the local doctor and policeman.  Other local people only really appear as extras, or as those whose experiences of childbirth provide the focus, usually just for one episode, of the midwives' work.  Poplar looks a little too neat and tidy, there is no fog, and buildings are only falling down as a  result of bomb damage.  This isn't to criticize the series too much: some of these incidental characters' stories were very harrowing.  But its overall mood, as I read it at least, was one of hope and positive social change: one of the most important jobs for midwives and other care-sector workers (they would never have referred to themselves in this way!) at this time was to convince many people that the National Health Service really was for them.  One of the most touching stories was about a woman who had a slight deformity in her hips and had had 3 stillborn children as a result: with the help of a relatively straightforward procedure for the first time available to her at the London Hospital she was finally able to have a healthy child.

Claridge's wonderful pictures are different: they appear, they do not speak.  If they have a message, it is anything but clear.  The past is just the past, it is indeed 'another country': we have both gained and lost in leaving it behind.

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