For me it begins with John and Mary.
In the 1850s my paternal great-great-grandparents moved from being farm labourers and handloom weavers to earning a wage as “powerloom weavers” in an East Lancashire mill town. They were part of a major migration from country to town, from agriculture to industry, partly driven by a desire for a better life and partly imposed by circumstances, which was a crucial element in the creation of Britain, for a while at least, as the Workshop of the Worl
It was Wilfred, my father, who escaped from the family destiny of toil in the cacophonous, sweltering mills to the bracing fresh air of England’s east coast. As an architect and planner he was instrumental in the regeneration of his town, planning several new estates of public housing, designing half a dozen or more schools including my grammar school, public offices, the town library, a swimming pool and the crematorium where, eventually, we held his funeral ceremony. My small child’s experience of the process of urban renewal came mainly through clambering over new foundations, of the smell of still wet cement as I watched the bricklayers. The slap of cement as it was deftly flicked off the trowel, the delicate placing of a new brick and the scrape to remove surplus mortar, are evocative recollections.
Eventually it was my turn to migrate, this time in search of a university education. I moved to a town in East Anglia and then to North America. Finally I came to Glasgow – the largest city and the greatest cultural distance – where I am happy to have made my home for the last several decades, interrupted only by a short and temporary migration to Southern Sweden.
I began photographing the city in the mid 1970s, and undertook a commission from the People’s Palace about Calton in Glasgow’s East End, an area due for wholesale demolition and redevelopment. This formed the summer show in the People’s Palace in 1977 and travelled to other galleries in central Scotland. It had a lingering presence until earlier this year as a poster in the reconstructed subway station in Glasgow’s Transport Museum. In 1982, a Scottish Arts Council Commission for the Third Eye Centre focussed on Scottish football, especially the events surrounding the big match. Glasgow’s inevitably huge interest was enhanced by Aberdeen’s triumph in the European Cup Winners Cup, only weeks before the show opened. The works toured Scotland from Stromness to Dumfries and certain images went to European galleries as interest in Glasgow as City of Culture grew.
After a short photographic hiatus, the advent of digital imaging rekindled my interest and once again my attention turned to Glasgow, although in addition I was now travelling widely for my paid work. Busy business trips do not lend themselves to quiet contemplation of new unfamiliar environments and my attention to photography in these cities was cursory, anxious that superficial, tourist-like snaps would be the result.
However, in the nineties the opening of China and the Soviet Union allowed visits to countries that had been hidden, unknown to all but a few westerners. I found myself working and socialising with people I had previously seen on television, only as anonymous cyphers in military parades through Red Square or in Mao suits and caps obediently chanting slogans while brandishing the Little Red Book. This experience illuminated for me the universal commonalities of human experience, the essential similarities of our needs, problems, joys and difficulties.
Recently the United Nations reported that more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. John and Mary’s migration experience is repeated across the world and is a major contributor to the growth of our cities. What is the experience of city life for new arrivals? I know that Glasgow is a friendly, welcoming, bustling and exciting city. But it can also on occasion be unsettling and for those from a simple, agricultural background, like John and Mary, it will be unfamiliar and confusing.
Any artist’s work must be influenced by his or her life experiences. These are some that have affected mine.