Category Archives: General

Stars and Slebs

I was chatting to Jim, an aquaintance in the gym, yesterday and he mentioned The Who. “Greatest rock band in the world”, I said. He agreed – and we agreed, not necessarily musically, too many great bands for a ‘best’ to exist but greatest in terms of spectacle, laser lights, Townshend’s windmilling right arm, Moony thrashing the drums, Daltry flailing the mic.

“I took the last picture of them together as a band before Keith Moon died”, I said. I thought Jim might be interested. Pink Floyd in their song of isolation Hey you! mention “people with itchy feet and fading smiles”. I suddenly felt exactly what they meant. I was the bragger, the bluffer, the boaster. Everyone was embarrassed. I dropped the subject but I felt sore as much as embarrassed. I did take the last ever pciture of The Who together. It was at Kilburn Empire where they were rehearsing. It was in August 1978. The picture sells over and over again. I shot it in the lobby of the cinema on my Hasselblad and using a pair of Bowens studio lamps. Daltry joked, as I was getting them in position, “new band then, are we?” I shot it on Ektachrome 64. Honest.

It’s a constant difficulty this. People do talk about their work. I was lucky enough to be in a job that took me all over the world, I worked with film stars and rock legends, politicians and criminals, beautiful models and starving refugees. Someone has to do the job and I was one of the ones who did. A mechanic can talk about changing the brake pads on a Ferrari but if I talk about having a coffee with Kirk Douglas, I’m a liar or a dreamer. I’m used to it now and only occasionally does my guard come down. I suppose it’s why my best friend is an ex-journalist, now film scriptwriter. We can talk about anything without sounding – to one another at least – like name-droppers.

The thing is, you work with these people. You’re not mates, you are not in and out of their houses. I worked with Paul and Linda McCartney for a couple of years in their Wings period, some of the most enjoyable and exacting work I ever did. I went to two of their houses, one in the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, the other in east Sussex in south east England. Both occasions were working. People like the McCartneys have enough friends and keep a distance from people they work with. It wasn’t obvious, Paul and Linda were a friendly and appreciative couple and they paid me handsomely. But they did expect results and I gleaned that my predecessor as their photograher had become a little over-familiar.

I worked with Rod Stewart and Ray Davies and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Dusty Springfield, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich. How that for name dropping? And those were just a tiny few. The ones of them still alive won’t remember me any more than I remember the roofer who patched my roof 20 years ago.

I have a fund of funny and sad stories about my work and experiences but no-one to tell them to. Or rather, I didn’t. Because there’s you. You may not read my incredibly hilarious and amazingly entertaining tales but I can’t know that. I can assume you’ve read it all. And the reason that there’s no reaction, no feedback is that you are stunned, rendered speechless by my glamorous friends and lifestyle and my brilliant raconteurism.

It reminds me of when it finally dawned on me why, when I stayed in glamorous hotels across the world, none of the glamorous women in the bar would acknowledge my existence. It was a bit of a downer. But then the reason dawned on me. When I walked into the room, they took one look and resolved then and there to have nothing to do with me. Because they knew that after a few moments in my company, they would fall deeply, irretrievably in love with me. And then I would leave for my next assignment and they would be left heart-broken, picking up the pieces of their shattered lives and living only for my return. It was too great an emotional risk. Better to ignore me.

Here’s a funny thing I remember. It was at Twickenham Studios and the McCartneys were shooting the video for Mull of Kintyre. They had flown the Campbeltown Pipers down to appear out of the ‘misty’ background and march past and around Paul, Linda and Denny Laine, playing the theme on bagpipes. The stage area was raised by about a foot, so as the pipers marched past the camera, they stepped down from the little stage and stopped, ready to go to the back of the set for the next take. It was quite a complicated setup to shoot and would take quite a few takes to perfect. What no-one except the Pipers knew was that they had crates of McKewans Scottish Ale at the back of the set and each time they went back for a new take they drank a can.

The last take, the Pipers marched past Paul, Linda and Denny but one of the leaders tripped stepping off the little stage. The others marched on regardless only to find their way impeded by the now horizontal leading pipers, over whom they proceeded to trip. I was looking at at writhing sea of kilts, legs, sporrans, bagpipes and bewildered horizontal pipers. I will never forget the faces of Paul, Linda and Denny. The beauty of it was that it all happened just past camera. And the video was great.

The saddest story was of Keith Moon. I was meeting him with journalist John Blake, now head of Blake Publishing, in a private room on the top of a bar in Leicester Square, London. Keith had been off the booze for a couple of weeks and was feeling good and that was what the interview was about. John had finished his interview, Keith had left and I was packing my cameras away. One of the roadies came up to me laughing. Keith was really boring when he was sober, he said, so he’d slipped a double vodka into his glass of water. Maybe I’m over-reacting but it seemed one of the most casually evil acts I’d come across.

Anyway, I’m going to finish off by name dropping, bragging, bluffing and boasting. This is my proudest picture. I could say this is me with Spinal Tap but that’s not the way I see it. This is Spinal Tap with me.

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A Near death Experience On A Transport Plane

I came across this the other day, a short piece I wrote for the Sunday Times after reading about a terrible plane crash in which an Ilyushin transport plane was in mid-air collision with a Jumbo jet 60 miles north of New Delhi. At least 350 people were killed. It sent a shiver up my spine because shortly before I had traveled on one of these planes from the UK, via Egypt and Tanzania, to Congo.

This is me in front of the plane while refueling Cairo. For the landing, I climbed into the nose (bomb aimer’s pod) and watched the whole thing laying full length on the glass. Very exciting.

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When I heard about the Indian air crash tragedy my first reaction wasn’t horror. I just wondered how it hadn’t happened before.

I travelled on an Ilyushin IL-76 from East Midlands airport to Goma in Zaire two years ago to photograph the Rwandan refugee’s plight. The flight, via Cairo and Dar es Salaam took eighteen hours. At the end it felt like it had taken 18 years.

Travelling with a journalist colleague and three aid workers, I boarded the Ilyushin in the late July evening. We said our hellos to the crew. There seemed to be about 7 of them but it was hard to tell as they were all moving around the vast plane, checking that the fork lift trucks, jeeps and boxes of equipment bound for Zaire were securely stowed. They all look hollow eyed and pallid. They were plainly tired.

The inside of the Ilyushin looked more like the interior of a boat than a plane. It had nautical style hand-wheels, pipes, cables, and ladders all over the place. It struck me as a cross between a combine harvester and a cargo ship.

It was loaded to bursting point. There were no seats, we were hitching a ride on an aid flight after all, so I jammed my cameras and myself in the 18 inches between a jeep and the unpadded fuselage and prepared for a long and uncomfortable flight. I just hoped the cargo was lashed down securely.

The crew were distant, though not unfriendly, and it was plain that none of them spoke any English at all.

The Ilyushin 76 was a shock compared to other aircraft I’ve flown on, cargo or otherwise. Where European and American planes use modern design for strength and lightness, the Russians seem to use crude metal. Brute strength is their virtue and their answer to western technology. I could imagine this thing limping home after a raid with large chunks missing, like an old ginger tom after a scrap, bleeding but unbeaten.

The four jets fired up, we taxied out to the runway and the engines screamed and vibrated. And screamed and vibrated. The Ilyushin accelerated like a channel ferry leaving port.

You could feel the power but with such weight to propel it gathered its skirt and ran more than accelerated. East Midlands airport has a long enough runway so that normally you’re quite high off the ground before the runway slips away behind. The Ilyushin staggered, shaking, off the ground just before the runway finished.

I settled in my slot and watched the naked control cables moving back and forth as the pilot forced the unwilling machine to climb.

The crew had looked tired before we started. I wondered how they’d be when we arrived in Zaire after 18 hours flying.

Some hours later we reached our first stop, Cairo. Dawn was coming up and I decided to take the bomb aimers position in the transparent lower nose section for the landing.

That was a mistake. Because we were so heavily loaded the plane hit the ground with such force that, laying prone on my stomach, it nearly winded me. I was grateful for those agricultural strength wheels, and we rolled to a halt after using most of the runway. The crew looked even more tired than when we started.

They broke out some packed food from a stack inside the plane and ate voraciously.

I spoke to one of the Cairo ground staff who told me that this plane, after unloading in Goma, would fly straight off to Saudi to pick up more cargo en route to Pakistan. From Pakistan to another country, and another. The Ilyushin can go to primitive airfields where western built cargo planes cannot because it has a fifth jet engine on the side of the fuselage. This is left running on the ground and provides power to keep the systems going and restart the main engines when required. More modern planes require ground support to do this which is not available in places like Goma. The crew went home to Russia only if they happened to be delivering there.

They were badly paid and needed to fly round the clock to make enough money to send home to feed their families. They travelled the entire globe, never changing any foreign currency, never able to leave the airfield compounds, living, eating, drinking and sleeping in primitive conditions on the Ilyushin.

Like the 18th century seamen who lived their lives on the ocean, these men are the latter for the landing and we looked at one another puzzled.

This was a small airport. As we approached we could see that the runway was too short for a plane this size. The pilot and co-pilot seemed not to have noticed or were unconcerned. Between the pilots’ seats was a bottle of gin.

As we were a few feet above the runway, one of the crew shouted and pointed in front, waving his arms wildly. Right across the middle of the runway was a wall of sandbags. It was a military airfield, probably in Rwanda, not Zaire.

The pilot hauled back on the throttles, the engines screamed, and we struggled enough height to just clear the sandbags. We looked at one another wide eyed, relieved and looked back to the windscreen to see the next obstacle, looming fast.

It was a line of trees at the end of the runway. The Ilyushin just didn’t have it in it clear these, and we hit them with a loud bang and judder of the airframe.

At this point I didn’t want to see what would happen next and went to sit on the floor behind the bulkhead. My colleague, Stuart, and the aid workers did likewise, all in separate parts of the fuselage.

I think we all felt the same. If the worst was going to happen we’d prefer to be alone with our thoughts and not see it coming. Having navigated to the wrong airfield, it was hard to see how the crew would now find the right one. The next half hour seemed to last forever.

Until we heard the jets throttle back. As we lost height I went back to the flight deck. In front of us was what looked like a Cairo car park. Massive planes parked at all angles, all over the place. And dozens of children playing on the runway.

As we approached, they scattered to the grass. I wondered if the undercarriage had been damaged.

It hadn’t. One thing about those dinosaurs of the air, they’re tough, even with parts of tree tops embedded in them.
We lumbered safely to a halt and the crew set about unloading. A few hours later they were on their way again.

The thought of these monsters plying the airways, tired, homesick crews, old guidance systems, heavily laden, is worrying. Are they serviced properly? Do the planes and their crews comply with modern safety standards?

For the sake of all travellers, I hope the enquiry into the Indian disaster finds out

A Brompton In Paris

I’ve always loved Paris but somehow never known it. I have been there more times than I can remember, both as a tourist and working. But going there for business or a city break – it feels like surfing a city, when you really want to dive in.

I didn’t want to go to Michelin starred restaurants, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or anywhere on the Île de la Cité. I’d done that and that was no more Paris than The Ivy, Tate Modern and Buckingham Palace are London. Any big city is the sum of its parts, the districts where the denizens eat, drink and sleep.

How best to explore the Paris Arrondissements? The same way that I get about London, I thought – on my Brompton folding bicycle.

I booked 4 nights in a travel hotel in Montreuil, just outside the 20th Arrondissement and half an hour’s pedaling from the centre. I made no plans and took no maps. This trip was to be pure serendipity apart from my handheld GPS with the hotel location waypointed.

The morning after my arrival, I unfolded my bike and hit the road. I gauged the direction of central Paris by cycling into the Parc Jean Moulin near my hotel. From there, I could see the Eiffel Tower so I headed in that direction.

It brought me to the huge roundabout of Place de la Nation. I hung back and waited before entering the Place.

A young woman on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle wearing a long floral dress, Louis Vuitton handbag placed stylishly in the basket, swept past me and seamlessly entered the roundabout. I tucked in behind her.

Can you be accused of stalking someone on a bicycle? I hoped not. Her way round this intimidating roundabout was illuminating. Signal where you are going. Without nervousness or hesitation, go there. It works, even traversing the notorious Place Charles de Gaulle which I did for the cycling experience, rather than any wish to see it again.

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For the next 3 days I rode where the whim took me, from one side of the city to the other. From the canals of the 19th to Paris’s Kensington, the 16th. From ‘un sandwiche et une biere’. in a pavement cafe near the Sorbonne to dinner in a restaurant on the Avenue Parmentier.

I rode about 30 miles each day from 9am to 6pm, returning to the hotel for a rest and shower before going out to eat in the evening. I ate when I found somewhere I fancied eating. I drank in back streets in the 20th. When I’d had enough, the GPS pointed to my hotel.

There is a line in a Joni Mitchell song where her character says ‘I was a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive’. She is spot on.

Advice is that the secret of a enjoyable holiday is careful planning and attention to detail . I propose an alternative. No planning and no detail. Not even a map.

But don’t forget your bicycle.