Category Archives: Articles

Articles, People, Places, Projects

The school nobody wants to talk about

This week saw the publication of an extended project on a primary school in Essex.

With its austere 1920s red brick design, outdoor playgrounds and dark wooden floor hall, It looks pretty much like any other school. What makes Crays Hill different is that nearly all of its pupils are from the travelling community.

As I reported in my piece, it is a good school, rated highly by Ofsted, with great facilities and hugely motivated and caring teachers. The children are, well, children. They’re precocious, humorous, inquisitive. Most are far more polite than most are in my own children’s school.

Crays Hill pupils

Crays Hill pupils

What made this a particularly interesting proposition/challenge photographically was that the parents did not want any of their children’s faces in the images. But I desperately wanted to share with viewers as much of their clear enthusiasm for learning, talking, making and being as possible.

I did not know there would be this limitation before I arrived to take pictures.

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill pupil

Looking over the images in retrospect, I could and perhaps should have done better. But I think I was on the right lines. The children’s own self-portraits are important statements about who they are and I am very pleased to have honed in on one boy’s ambivalent drawing of a policeman. Bearing in mind this boy was present during the evictions at Dale Farm five years ago, I am struck by how his policeman looks like part monster/robot/superhero (not to mention the synchrony of the colours with his wristband!).

It was a privilege to join them for a few hours – enough time to blend into the background – as they worked and I wish all of them every success with their studies.

Self Portrait by child at Crays Hill

Self Portrait

Police man by a traveller child at Crays Hill Primary

Police man

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill pupil

Crays Hill Primary lesson

Crays Hill Primary lesson

Articles, Journalism, People

The public costs of bird control

A few months back I was leaving an inquest and noticed some guys putting up netting around a council building. They told me it was to stop pigeons roosting on the top and defecating downwards onto people like me.

“But once you’ve done this job,” I asked, “won’t the pigeons just move over there?”

“Yes,” was the response.

Followed by an admission of blatant opportunism (or business nous). “And when we’ve finished here, we’ll drop off our card at the businesses over there.”

This made me wonder just how much public money was being spent on bird control. Nobody really seemed to know. So I sent out Freedom of Information requests to every council in the UK. Three months later, I was surprised at the lack of responses I had received back and the number of authorities which said they had no idea how much they did or did not spend on pigeons (it seems to depend on accounting codes and so on).

So, in the piece I did for the BBC, (followed up by the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail as well as local papers and radio) I was keen simply to posit the information supplied by those authorities which provided a transparent and detailed account of their spending (as opposed to criticising them as some have done since).

The total amount spent over the past three years was about £3.5m. I suspect the true figure is a good deal more (not least because a number of London councils were amongst those which failed to respond). One of the patterns which did emerge was the amount being spent had doubled over the past three years. To be honest, I do not know how significant this actually is.

In hindsight, I probably should have asked for the spending over the last 10 years. It may have led to even fewer local authorities responding, but I may at least have been able to factor in the post 2008 austerity measures which have hugely affected councils. It may well be the case that councils were spending far more 10 years ago than they are now and that what we are seeing is a return to normal rather than an apparent massive increase.

Possibly. One of the pleasures of this project has been getting to speak with a large number of pest controllers who I’ve enjoyed learning from and debating all manner of issues with. One theme all of the pest controllers have mentioned is that business is good at the moment. Councils – and other clients – are moving away from lethal forms of bird control to gentler, disruptive forms. This, they say, costs more, which may also explain the possible rise.

So my piece on Friday was more of a first stab at an issue rather than anything definitive. It also looked only at council spending and not the money spent by the many other public sector organisations – hospitals, police stations or, erm, the BBC. Nor does it address the issue of potential multiple spends – the potential chain of expenditure moving on the same group of birds from one public building to the next, to the next and so on. Establishing that might be impossible, but it might be worth a try…

Articles, People

The Midwife Specialising in Baby Deaths

Just sometimes you get a press release which stops you in your tracks.

A few weeks ago I had one from Colchester Hospital about the appointment of a midwife to a newly created role – a ‘bereavement midwife’.

The incumbent of this new role – Sue Armstrong – specialises in supporting parents after their baby is either stillborn or dies shortly after birth.

When I mentioned this to colleagues, the overwhelming response was that it must be the saddest job around.

Sue doesn’t see it that way. For her, supporting parents coping with the death of the baby is nothing short of a privilege. Telling a little of her world was, personally, something of a privilege too.

Other than that, the past few weeks have ranged from looking at pupil exclusions, learning how to wear a scarf and the efficacy of the British justice system.

Articles, Long Exposures, Places

Wildfires of Madeira

My family and I were last week among the hundreds evacuated as wildfires tore through the beautiful Portuguese island of Madeira, leaving three people dead and many more injured and/or homeless.

I have been at the scene of too many domestic fires in my role as a journalist – often at very close quarters (with permission of firefighters).

But wildfires are different – you can feel the intense heat from many meters away, they spread faster as a result of the enormous swarms of burning embers they spew out and can charge in different directions at once. And then change direction, seemingly on a pin head.

They are terrifying.

These are my before and after photographs of last week’s fires.

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

wildfires

wildfires

Madeira, 2016

Madeira, 2016

Madeira, 2016

Madeira, 2016

Damage in Madeira

Damage in Madeira

Articles

Fertility and aphrodisiacs in the 17th Century

I‘m a bit old fashioned. I grew up on letters rather than email and I can still remember the excitement of opening my first ever, proper, letter. It was from my grandfather and he was responding to the first letter I had ever written.

I feel a little sorry for kids today. I doubt their first ever email will be quite so memorable. And it’ll probably not be from somebody they love and admire. It’ll probably be from Google.

I digress. My problem is I still treat emails a bit too much like letters. I still read every single one I receive at work, however dull they might appear. This has downsides. Time wasted on spam, lengthy ploughing through an inbox after a holiday.

But.

There was this email from Wellingborough Borough Council some time ago. It was a decent little local ultra story about repairs to some town centre mosaics.

About two thirds of the way down (yes, I really do read them) it emerged one of the mosaics (dated to the 1980s, so not very old) depicted the town’s ancient Red Well. Its what? Well, turns out this well had mysterious properties which aided fertility. And they were famous enough to attract the attentions of Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated King Charles I.

And I was hooked. As an occasional escape from more serious investigative pieces about education and homeless London families being put out to pasture in Luton, my time was spent exploring this peculiar world of fertility tourism.

The result was a piece called Fertility Towns: Is there ever something in the water?

It seems to have been fairly well received, with more than 500,000 people reading it on the first day of publication.

And I got to reveal that “powdered womb of a rabbit” was once an aphrodisiac.

Sometimes, being a little old fashioned has its benefits…

Articles

High contrast and a 10-stop filter at Skinningrove Beach

My dad got me hooked on photography.

He had a Nikon FE and a Nikon FM when I was about six and he turned the bedroom next to mine into a dark room.

The darkroom was a place of magic that I’d show friends quietly when I thought nobody was looking. An Aladdin’s cave, a Santa’s Grotto, only far, far cooler because it was in our house and lit with a glowing orange bulb. Developing my first picture at the age of six or seven left an indelible impression on me and probably explains in part why I refuse to leave film along, even now.

So, my father is fundamental to my photographic world.

And shooting for an afternoon at a location very special to him was a rare treat.

The place was Skinningrove, where my father spent many of his happiest moments as a young lad. The best thing, I hear, was tumbling down the sides through the marram grass onto the sugary sands with a girl you liked.

The day we went the wind was bowing so hard the sand felt like thousands of projectile needles.

Setting up on the loose sand with the tripod was not an option because the sand would have been a camera killer. Instead, we moved down towards the water, where the ripples in the softer sand caught our eye.

The sands here are very pale and, on a summer’s day, the sky is vast and dark blue. There’s also a rugged wild beauty to the place which in turns contrasts with the rugged industrial setting of the ironstone workings here.

So a place of contrasts. I wanted to bring out this sense of contrast and ruggedness in my pictures.

I don’t think my father had seen a 10-stop (I use 100 x 100 Formatt Hi-tech, which I’ve found to be excellent when properly sealed to the holder), so he was fairly surprised by the results. Also slapped on was a red filter as I knew I wanted a contrasty and dark monochrome image where the textures did the talking.

The most important thing for me is that my father likes the images. He says they’ve ‘got’ the feel of the place, which for me is praise indeed.Skinningrove Beach

On the way back to the car, I noticed this tractor and the sheds in the distance.

A splash of colour on a monochromic outing.
Skinningrove Tractor