One Damn Thing After Another By Terry Wilson
Not a Good Start
It was September 1932. I was thirteen years nine months old and the school leaving age was fourteen years. It was during the country’s depression when jobs were difficult to find and the welfare state did not exist, but poorhouses did. There was a possibility of me getting a job as an office boy in the City of London. A family friend who worked for W. Weddel & Co., meat importers in Mincing Lane knew someone in Mark Lane who needed an office boy to work five and a half days per week for the unprincely sum of fifteen shillings. The hours would be 8.30 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and 8.30 am to 1.0 pm on Saturday. (As I write this, scores of years later, it occurs to me that a glass of fizzy water with ice and lemon purchased in a public house yesterday for 75 pence, is exactly the same amount in sterling as my first week’s wage.)
Anyway a family discussion took place. It was decided there was no point in me returning to school to complete my education up to the age of fourteen because I did not seem to be learning anything anyway. Times were hard and jobs difficult to find especially for someone whose only signs of skills seemed to be in drawing, an interest in wild fauna and flora and in reading anything deemed to be unsuitable or irrelevant to growing up to be a respectable member of society with a secure job and future.
So it was decided I would drop out of school and apply for the job. For this I needed a suit. Again our family friend came to the rescue. He had a suit he no longer used or needed. It was of a good quality grey material in need of some significant modifications to fit me. Mother got out her Singer sewing machine and snipped and stitched away and after several try-ons it was deemed satisfactory. Unfortunately our benefactor had a hunchback deformity and mother had not quite managed to remove the hunch from the jacket. My appearance when I went to apply for the job must have been reminiscent of a half starved camel with a deflated hump. There have been few things in life I have really hated. That suit was one of them. However I suppose it served its purpose. I got the job with Saffery & Co coffee exporters.
Saffery & Co was a one room, one man, one fire, one coal bucket company on the second floor of an office building in the commercial area of the city bordering the financial zone where top-hatted, cheque clearing messengers scurried from bank to bank whereas here horse-drawn drays mingled with the taxis, trams and cars. Street cleaners, wearing papier mâché hats, wielded their brooms and shovels picking up horse dung throughout each day.
The city gents all wore bowler hats, black jackets and black trousers with pin stripes. Some wore spats. And almost all carried black umbrellas. It was a sort of club members uniform.There were other aspects to membership of this society whose instinctive unwritten rules were understood by all members. One of these related to orders and contracts between city associates. A man’s word was his bond. I suppose at times legal agreements were signed and lawyers engendered adversarial battles but in the tea and coffee auction rooms and other commercial gatherings business was conducted on trust. If you broke a trust you would be ostracised. If you were ostracised you would be out of business.Saffery & Co, coffee exporter, got samples of coffee beans from auctioneers such as James Cook & Co in Mincing Lane. This was raw coffee then in bond in the docks and due to go up for auction in about 10 days time. The coffees came from Kenya, Brazil and Costa Rica and other places in the world I dreamed of visiting.
Saffery & Co then mailed samples of these coffees to numerous importers in different European countries and waited for their orders. If orders were received we would instruct the auctioneer to bid for them on our behalf or if someone else managed to buy a particular lot in which we were interested we would do a deal with him for a part of the lot. Eventually deals were made, prices were agreed, debts to importers, agents, auctioneers and brokers were paid and so business relations and social bonding were strengthened with each transaction.
Communications within the City were mainly by spoken word. Because of the different languages of our European agents communication with them was mostly by means of telegrams using the Bentley Code. There were two code books in the office. One contained a huge list of commonly used commercial phrases, each phrase being represented by a five letter code. For example: ‘Thank you for your letter/telegram of’ might be CGYAA. By this means a letter could be condensed and sent economically by telegram with perhaps no more than six or eight code words. The recipient at the other end would look up the codes listed alphabetically in his book and then, in his own language, a letter would evolve correctly deciphered. So by means of two books in each office, one having commercial phrases listed alphabetically and the other the code words listed alphabetically, reduced cost communication and automatic translation were achieved.
Because the system was limited to the listed commercial phrases, messages tended to be blunt and to the point. However both sides were aware of these limitations so neither side would take offense at the lack of subtle innuendos or flowery phrases used more to influence than to inform.
My job was to carry up the large bucket of coal and light the office fire each morning at 8.30 am. By the time Mr Saffery arrived at about 10.0 am the chill would be off the room.Mr Saffery had been a senior officer in the Indian Army. He had retired at a relatively early age and, with his retirement pension and life savings, he had returned to his home country to be a city gent. He had some difficulty in accepting the idea that an office boy in London was not exactly equivalent to a char wallah in Poona or some other part of the British Empire that he had dominated for many years. He had adopted the city gents’ uniform with no difficulty and gestured with his umbrella as if it were a weapon of some significance.
My other responsibilities were to open the mail, decipher the Bentley Code telegrams, collect coffee samples from auction rooms and even occasionally from the docks, pack up coffee samples for despatch, create straightforward coded telegrams in reply to requests or orders, type letters and shipping documents and at about 5.0 pm each day carry two large red mail bags of samples to Fenchurch Street post office. Green, unroasted coffee beans are heavy.
These activities continued for some months and my salary went up to 17/6d per week (87 1/2 p) until one day a series of events occurred that caused me to be sacked. (I hasten to add that this was the only time in my life that I have been fired from a job. However for much of my life I have been self employed so perhaps this fact is not significant.)On the fatal day in question the mail included a letter from a Mr Johan Kuchar in Vienna. Mr Kuchar was our agent there and was one of the few who did not use the Bentley Code. However he knew that our knowledge of German was non-existent. His knowledge of English was equally poor so he wrote to us in French. Unfortunately he wrote French with German grammar. If French was his second language there was a big gap between that and his first.
With the aid of a French/English dictionary I proceeded to translate his letter. In fact the translation proceeded well and I was quite confident that I clearly understood his message. He thanked us for the sample, he liked the coffee and he had a customer for it and he wanted the lot at the price we had quoted. What could be better?I checked the auction catalogues and found that this particular lot of expensive Costa Rican coffee would be auctioned later that morning. By 10.30 am Mr Saffery had not arrived so I phoned James Cook the auctioneers and asked them to delay putting up that lot until later as Mr Saffery would be bidding on it. This was not an entirely unusual request. The auctioneer agreed. I added coals on the fire and busied myself with packing up bean samples.
The telephone rang. It was the auctioneer saying ‘did Mr Saffery want him to buy in that lot and if so at what price.’ He agreed to give me ten minutes more. I phoned Saffery’s home. No reply. It was now 11.15 am. I once again checked Mr Kuchar’s letter. It still seemed to me quite clear, so I phoned the auctioneer to see if he could delay the sale even further. He could not and would not, so I made the decision and asked him to buy it in for Saffery & Co at a price not more than the one we had previously calculated would give us our normal profit. That was it. The company had given its word and the auctioneer bought in the coffee at a few pence under our maximum price.
Mr Saffery had been delayed by a train accident at West Wickham. He was having a bad day. Not only the train accident but after much reviewing, retranslating Mr Kuchar’s letter, and a telephone call to Vienna with help from a German/English interpreter, he discovered that most of his savings were now vested in some very expensive coffee that Mr Kuchar complained was far too costly and not suitable for his market.
Grim faced he delved into his pocket, produced seventeen shillings and sixpence and said I need not come back again next Monday. This was a Thursday so, ever the optimist, I took the view that I now had one and a half day’s holiday on full pay.
To celebrate the event I purchased a two penny bar of fruit and nut milk chocolate and headed for home.
Foreign Holiday in Native Land
It was 1933 or 1934. I was about fifteen years old and had been working as an office boy in the City of London for over a year. Now I was entitled to one week’s holiday. Including the weekends this amounted to nine consecutive days. As a schoolboy I had spent holidays at home and occasionally a few days at Bexhill-on-Sea where we, as a family, stayed with my grandparents. On such occasions good behaviour was the first priority and enjoyment came a poor second. Now, having saved up a few pounds out of my fifteen shillings per week salary, I decided to go alone on holiday.
During the course of my duties for a coffee exporter I had visited bonded warehouses in the London docks and on one occasion I had noticed the Aberdonian, owned by the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company, moored at a quay. Thinking of my holiday I enquired as to the cost of a London to Aberdeen return for me and my bicycle. It was two pounds return including the bicycle. My cycle and I would both travel as deck cargo for each of the 36 hour journeys. Bring your own sandwiches was also suggested, because food was neither included in the offer nor apparently available as an extra. I paid my two pounds, arranged to board the Aberdonian in a few day’s time and pocketed a hand written ticket.
Saturday morning arrived and I cycled to the docks to find the Aberdonian there with her funnel smoking all ready to go. I cannot say that I was welcomed on board. In fact I pushed my bicycle up the gangway and stowed it and an old army back pack near to the ship’s bows before anyone noticed me. The crew were busy closing some hatch covers and raising the gangway so it was not until one of them came forward to coil a mooring line that I was noticed. He was a sailor who looked like a sailor. Thick set, ginger hair and beard, tanned with weather beaten features and bright blue eyes and a marked Scottish accent. Central casting could not have improved on the reality. I explained that the bike and I were deck cargo and we were both planning to spend the night on this bit of deck near where a donkey engine controlled the anchor chain.
He shook his head and said we would be heading into a Norwester and a bit of spray would probably be coming over the bows. He showed me a more sheltered position further aft where I stowed the bike and pack. The Aberdonian swung out into the main stream of the Thames and I leaned on the rail and watched London and then the Essex marshlands gradually disappear as we made our way into the North Sea. It was my first experience of heading out alone and into the unknown. I liked the feeling and even today, decades later, I still enjoy that exhilarating feeling of freedom as one sheds the shackles, albeit temporarily, of one’s established society and heads into the unknown.With my pack as a pillow I did not sleep much that night and the North Sea, even in late July, is not a very warm environment, so at dawn a tin mug full of hot sweet tea was a very welcome gift from my Scottish sailor.
We stopped at Leith for a few hours to unload and load some goods and then made our way up the coast to Aberdeen. Here I disembarked, checked on the day and time for my return trip, waved farewell to Mac as I then knew him, and pedalled past the white granite buildings of Aberdeen and headed west along Deeside into the Highlands.
The first night I found accommodation at Candacraig. In the morning with the sun shining and a crispness in the northern air I cycled on, curving south through the Grampian mountains towards Glen Shee. From this glen I decided to take a dirt road west that, although heading up into the hills, was in the direction of Glen Isla where, for no particular reason, I intended to go. The track got steeper. I got off and pushed the bike. The road wound around through the rocky hills. It got narrower and narrower until it disappeared down a rabbit hole.
By this time I was over the top of the hill or was it a mountain. The heather was knee deep and the sun was getting low in the sky. I had observed that in Scotland all civilisation and habitations were in the valleys so, carrying my bike, I headed on down hill. It was hard work but by following a stream and sometimes wading along it, I came to a small valley in which stood a stone-built house and several small outbuildings. I knocked on the door and a rosy-faced aproned lady answered. I explained my need to dry wet clothes and find accommodation for the night. She was sympathetic and, having supplied me with a large thick dressing gown, we sat around a peat fire in the kitchen whilst my clothes, now hanging on racks, steamed themselves dry.
She asked what I was doing in Glen Isla and could not believe I had no reason for the visit other than just to see it and pass on. In her whole lifetime no one had come to the glen except family and workers. She also expressed surprise that I, a foreigner, was travelling alone in a foreign land. She thought it was very brave of me. She said her father was away in Pitlochry, which was just as well because otherwise he would be after a Sassenach like me with his claymore. It seemed she viewed me much as Marco Polo was viewed by the Chinese when he dared to visit them. Yet this was Scotland in 1934 only about 500 miles from London. I found a similar expression of surprise as, several days later, I pedalled North back towards Aberdeen. I stopped at a small village of some twenty houses, a church, a village hall, a school and one all purpose shop. I went into the shop and asked about accommodation for the night. The shopkeeper replied in a language I did not understand. I suppose it was Gaelic. Recognising by my blank looks that verbal communication was not possible, he gestured me to stay while he crossed the road to a small house beside the school. He came back with a smiling middle aged lady who introduced herself as the school teacher. She took me along to another nearby house and had a long discussion in Gaelic interspersed with a few questions in English directed to me. They mainly consisted of why was I here, where had I come from, when would I be leaving and was I really on my own? Finally I paid a few shillings and was shown my bed for the night. The school teacher by then had adopted the role of the leader of the society that I, a foreign but friendly alien, had dropped into from outer space. She insisted that after my evening meal she would collect me and take me to a social gathering in the village hall where I could meet everyone or, more likely I felt, I would be put on display.
By about 7 pm I was collected and introduced to about twenty people who were forming a rough circle sitting on wooden benches and stools. Except for the school teacher no one attempted to speak English. Eventually I was seated next to my leader and a huge pile of dead chickens was dumped into the centre of the circle. Each person then reached out for a chicken and proceeded to pluck it. I was involved in a communal chicken plucking event.
The next day the chickens would go to market. I was instructed in the art of chicken plucking. One had to snatch the feathers out pulling slightly against the way they naturally lay. Pulling at the wrong angle tended to tear the skin and so make the bird less saleable. The birds had not been gutted. They had just had their necks wrung and dumped in a pile. I do not know how many orifices a chicken has but some of them leak so we were each given an old sack to put on our laps as we plucked away with the dead chickens’ heads banging against our legs.
It seemed to be a happy social gathering with everyone except me laughing and chattering away in Gaelic. The small downy underfeathers rose up in clouds as people got up to reach for another corpse. After my third unsuccessful attempt to pluck a chicken clean with most of its skin intact I explained to the school teacher that I was tired and could I be excused if I left for an early night? She understood and as I got up to leave she also rose to say goodbye, all the others then rose as also did a huge cloud of white chicken down through which I stumbled on my way, tripping over chicken corpses to politely shake hands with each of my fellow chicken pluckers. They were right. I had come into a foreign land.
My remaining journey was uneventful except that after pedalling several miles uphill one sunny warm day I decided to take a swift refreshing dip in a small crystal-clear lake. I stripped off, dived in and almost died of shock. The water must have been fed directly from a glacier*. Near here as I pedalled back towards Aberdeen I came across a notice nailed on a tree by a path that led up to a grouse moor. It said ‘Warning. Persons passing this way may be inadvertently shot’. My lasting impression of the Scots was that they were a very practical and polite people. This notice confirmed that impression.
Swimming and Diving
I cannot remember ever not being able to swim. I am certain no one taught me. I can remember before I was a teenager falling into and swimming out of the dykes that criss-crossed the marshlands between Pevensea Bay and Herstmonceux where I lived in Sussex. Later when I was about sixteen years old we lived in Wembley not far from the Empire Pool. The Empire Pool was designed to meet Olympic competition standards. It was 16 feet deep at one end where there was a triangular structure of diving boards. In the centre was a 10 metre (33 feet) firm board. Below this on each side were two 5 metre firm boards. Below them, on each side, were 3 metre spring boards and lower still and further apart were 1 metre spring boards.
On Sunday mornings the pool was open to the public quite early and then members of the British national diving team and their coach took over one half of the triangle of diving boards. I and a friend used the other half. We found we could get expert free diving tuition indirectly by watching the diving and listening to the coach’s criticism as the experts polished up their 2 1/2 back somersaults with a full twist and other complex aerial manoeuvres. We watched and listened and tried to duplicate them on our side of the deep end.Freddy Hodges was then the UK diving champion and his father, Pop Hodges, was the team coach. Pop Hodges, it was said, taught the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to swim but his real talent was as a diving coach. We were never sufficiently skilled for Pop Hodges or any member of his team to take much notice of us, except one man. Harold by name. We got to know him as Hal.
Hal was not fat but his build was short and thick set. Quite unsuited to be a diver where slim lissome figures look so much more attractive as they dive through the air and enter the water straight as an arrow. He was obviously close to the national team members and could competently do most of their dives, demonstrating skill without elegance. One day he came over and chatted with us, gave us a few tips about getting sufficient height off the board and pointing toes etc. Over the weeks we became friendly and one day he came up with a proposal that under his direction we should start a professional diving team and give shows at local swimming pools.
We were intrigued but were under no illusions that we were good enough to put on a show.
“That’s the whole idea” he said.“You two will be dressed up in clown-like floppy swimming costumes. You will dive off and do it all wrong and appear to land flat in the water and I will get up and show them how it should be done.”
So for the next few weeks he taught us how to make an even greater mess of the dives than we would normally and how at the last moment to tuck up and make a great splash as one entered the water without actually hurting oneself. It was a painful few weeks of training. Fortunately we did not have to appear to land flat on the water from higher than the 5 metre board. One’s speed when hitting the water from 10 metres is such that the water feels extremely hard. More like a solid than a liquid. In any case the pools he had in mind for shows were not of Olympic standard and did not have 10 metre boards.
Then it was time for our first performance at Sudbury baths near Harrow. I pranced out in my clown like costume. Hal at the microphone announced I was going to do a front somersault with a full twist off the high board. I, determined not to let the side down, hurled myself off the top board with arms and legs flailing in all directions and landed in the water with a dizzying slap. There were a few sympathetic titters from the audience but clearly no great enthusiasm.
I then expected Hal to go up and show them how to do it but instead he announced David, my friend, would do some complicated dive off the springboard. Dave was not in a clown costume. He was supposed to do it properly. He made a mess of it. Hal made no move to show how it should be done. Instead he announced I would be doing a back somersault off the springboard. Suddenly from a small group in the crowd came derisory yells. ‘Ah! go home. You haven’t a clue’ and similar remarks. Hal responded with ‘Well if you think you are so clever, you come and do it.’ The crowd at last got interested. An argument or perhaps even a fight was more interesting than our pathetic attempts to entertain.
Then from the vocal group in the crowd four of them removed their outer garments to disclose their swimming trunks, came up to the diving stages, pushed Dave and me into the pool and proceeded to give a superb performance of diving skills. I recognised them as four of the people who trained with the national team. It was a great success.
Hal collected his fees from the authorities. Dave and I each got a small fee. The amateur status of the four spectators who came out of the crowd was not in question, but I did wonder if Hal might have made some private arrangement with them. We put on about six shows like this round the London area before the organisation faded out because of worry about amateur status.
No matter what level of expertise I have in the water I, and probably most sensible people, am conscious that one is in a foreign element. It adds to the excitement and enjoyment but can equally easily trigger fear. Accidentally choke on a mouthful of water and one dashes to the surface if not to the shore or pool side.
This was impressed upon me on two occasions when I was in West Africa. The first occasion was where one of our Coastal Command sub-chasing aircraft crashed into the sea shortly after taking off with a full load of depth charges. The engines cut out whilst on full boost. Not an entirely uncommon occurrence with fully laden aircraft and short runways.The plane came down in the sea less than a quarter of a mile from the shore in shallow water. It was sitting the right way up on the bottom with about 15 feet of water above the fuselage. All the crew had escaped from various outlets including an astrodome opening close to the navigator’s table.
Earlier, when I had taken the standard RAF F24 camera to the navigator before take-off, he showed me a Paillard Bolex 16mm cine camera. It was a near professional piece of equipment that he had acquired when he was last in Cairo. At the time it was top of the range of 16mm cine equipment. I admired it and thought no more of it until he came into the photo section after the crash and bemoaned the fact that his Bolex camera was sitting on his desk in 15 feet of sea water a quarter of a mile from shore. I said I would see if I could help him out.A few days later the sea was calm and the water was clear as I paddled out to the site prepared to dive down a mere 15 feet or so. No deeper than the bottom of the Empire Pool that I had dived down to on several occasions.
I anchored my dugout canoe over the aircraft that I could clearly see below me and, with no feeling of concern, I slipped over the side and dived down to the opening in the top of the aircraft. I knew that all I had to do was go through the hole, bear slightly right and the camera would be on the small map plotting table in front of me.At 15 feet down I felt the pressure in my lungs and breathed out a little. As I entered the opening head first the feeling of fear began. I was suddenly conscious that I could not just shoot up to the surface. I was inside this metal box 15 feet under the water. But I was so close to my prize I reached out and as I did so out of the corner of my eye my peripheral vision saw something long and undulating in the water. That did it. I turned and shot to the surface. To hell with his camera. Let him get it or forget it.That undulating object was probably a bit of fabric or rope or even seaweed. But with only one lungful of air, and from inside a container 15 feet down, common sense did not prevail. Images of sea snakes, octopuses etc did. I returned to admit defeat. But at least I returned.
The other occasion in West Africa occurred in the bay of Takoradi. When not on duty we swam in the bay and paddled around in dugout canoes. We tried to avoid sunburn and eased our prickly heat with cool sea water. Also mosquitoes do not frequent sea water so one could obtain relief from them. Competent swimmers, and I included myself in that category, used to swim out to a rusty wreck of an old tramp ship that was eroding away about 350 yards from the shore. Large portions of it were above water and it was an object to swim to, climb on to and have a rest before returning to the shore.
The tides and currents were not significant here but at certain times of the year there was a steady current that seemed to come in at one end of the bay, follow the shore line and go out the other end. This was one of those times. I had rested on the wreck and was well on my way back to shore when I swam into a jelly fish and suffered a slight stinging sensation on my arm. I trod water to ease round it. It was quite small, no more than 5 inches in diameter. Fortunately not a giant Portuguese Man-o-War.
I started towards the shore again and came in contact with more jelly fish. I turned left to go round them but every time I headed to the shore there were jelly fish in front of me. I was beginning to tire and I was still 150 yards from shore. There appeared to be an uncountable mass of jelly fish circling round the bay in a continuous stream. I had to get to land. There was no alternative but to swim through them. I started for the shore again. In patches their density increased until it seemed I was swimming through wet jelly. And they stung. Any one sting would be insignificant but I was covered with stings from head to toe. By the time I reached the shore I was well aware that I did not really belong in that element no matter how enjoyable it can be on occasions.
A more enjoyable swimming event occurred in Australia. I had been to Sydney and Melbourne on business and, before completing my trip round the world, I decided to take some time off to visit the Great Barrier Reef. The thought of getting to Australia and not seeing this wonder of the world was untenable.
My travel agent reserved me a cabin on Hayman Island, one of the numerous islands that Captain Cook discovered on a Whitsunday and named the group the Whitsunday Islands. I was a little surprised when I got there to discover that it was a honeymoon island. I was the only lone visitor; all the others were pairs at least forty years younger than I. However being the odd one out was not a problem. I was more interested in the activities under water than on land.
From Hayman Island one could take a helicopter out to sea over the shallow waters of old coral beds and lagoons until one got to the line where new live coral was being nourished by the up-swirling waters of the deep ocean. Here corals built their castles and caves that abounded with wild life of all colours, shapes and sizes. This I wanted to see and to be among. I wanted, for a short while, to be free of gravity and move up, down, left or right as I chose. In fact I wanted to go scuba diving.I went to see the people who organised the diving trips. First I had to fill in a form assuring them I was under 50 years of age. This I did, hoping my 68 years were not too obvious. Then they equipped me with two tanks, flippers, breathing apparatus and weights appropriate to my 155 lbs frame. Because I had never been scuba diving before and, I suspect, because they were somewhat suspicious about my declared 49 years, I and the instructor went to the deep end of their swimming pool. Here we sat on the bottom and exchanged breathing apparatus under water. This, I understood, was a simple test that eliminated all who tend to panic in stressful underwater situations. I passed the test and was accepted for the next morning’s flight out to a floating platform moored at a point over the horizon where the coral reef ended with a precipice dropping thousands of feet to the depth of the ocean. The day broke fine, the sea was calm as we flew over shallow waters dotted with occasional outcrops of coral, some large enough to be called islands. Then eventually the turquoise hue changed to the deep blue of the ocean as we landed on our floating platform. In a short while I was fully equipped and followed the instructor by dropping backwards off the platform into the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Once under the water I became weightless. I swam using my flippered feet with my arms by my sides. I could go up, down, left or right just by curving my body towards my chosen destination. I was no longer a two dimensional person. I had added another dimension to my experience and it was exhilarating.
Equally if not more exhilarating were the fauna and flora of the reef. Although here fauna, flora, animal, vegetable and mineral could less clearly be defined. Rock hard corals were alive, sea anemones did not behave like flowers, and some crustaceans camouflaged themselves with sea weeds. Shoals of parrot fish aptly named because of their beaks with which they grazed on the surface or the corals. Some fish lived securely amongst the tentacles of sea anemones and others, who came too close to the curving fronds were trapped and consumed. Some fish were territorial and defended their patch of the reef against all comers. Others swam in shoals, the whole shoal turning as if it were a single entity. Occasionally a larger fish, two feet or more in length, would slowly swim through the frenzied darting of the lesser fry. Rather like a piscine policeman patrolling through a busy market place. And none of them took any notice of me. It was as if I had become one of them.
I sat on a patch of sand and snapped my fingers. Swarms of fish came to investigate the sound. Presumably because they thought the vibrations of my snapping fingers might be the death throes of a potential meal. For, despite the beauty of the scene, anarchy rules. It was survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten. Each specie had evolved its technique for survival together with a technique of negating others’ survival techniques. By producing millions of eggs a balance between destruction and reproduction, with a slight bias towards reproduction, ensured the specie survived in an environment inimical to the individual.
I was so enthralled that it was not until I found myself tending to continually float up to the surface that I was aware that my air supply was getting low. Compressed air is obviously heavier than uncompressed air. There is more of it per unit of volume. So, as I used up my air the two tanks on my back became lighter and I tended to float to the surface.So I got the message and headed back to the helicopter platform. There I found that my fellow swimmers and the air crew were about to have lunch before flying back to Hayman Island. I persuaded them to let me forgo my lunch and instead, for a reasonable consideration, supply me with another pair of air tanks so I could explore another part of the reef.
It was a memorable experience that I can still savour as I write this account. Scuba diving around a thriving coral reef is an experience I can strongly recommend.
In many ways survival on the surface of this planet is not so different from that below the surface. If viewed dispassionately it might seem we have the balance too heavily biased in favour of survival of homo sapiens. Or perhaps it is just a temporary glut until another specie evolves, or more probably, just recognises an opportunity to adjust the balance. At this time the HIV virus seems to be a possible contender.
Photography is an amalgam of art, science, technology and luck. Given sufficient skills in the first three, the need for luck can be kept to a minimum. It could be said that the difference between an amateur and a professional is the amateur is surprised when, so to speak, it comes out, and the professional is surprised if it doesn’t.
My earliest interest in photographic images was when I was about twelve years old and my father gave me an old quarter plate folding camera. There were no plate holders for it or any means of actually taking a photograph, but it had two significant features that might be said to have influenced my life. It had a ground glass screen and a shutter mechanism that included a ‘time’ setting. This meant that I could lock the shutter open and view upside down images on the screen. I could compose pictures. I could focus on distant objects and see that foreground objects were out of focus and conversely I could focus on close objects and see distant ones were out of focus. I also observed that I could close down the lens aperture and more or less get everything in focus. I held a magnifying glass in front of the lens and saw that I could then focus on small objects a few inches away from the camera.With a soldering iron, sheet metal from tin cans and metal bottle tops for winding knobs I made a roll film holder. The film in the holder was not in the plane of focus and the device leaked so much light I could only use it if it was wrapped up in my jacket. I managed to get some processing chemicals, I used night as my darkroom and developed my first roll of film. Most of the images were blurred, fogged or out of focus except one. The close-up head of a cow. I had made a picture.
My father worked in a drawing office. In those days architectural drawings were duplicated by means of an iron printing process. Blue-prints, as they were known. He brought home some blue-print-paper and with the aid of a picture frame as a contact printer and sunlight, I made blue-prints from my first and only negative. I had created my first photographic print.It was not until much later, after I had been fired from my office boy job and was trying to find employment, that our lodger saw an advertisement saying Kodak needed someone to work in their works laboratory. He remembered that photography had interested me and suggested I apply for the job. This I did.
When filling in Kodak’s job application form it would be true to say I was conservative with the truth. But I do not feel guilty about it, because Kodak were equally conservative with their job description.
The works laboratory’s function was to test all incoming chemicals that would be used in the production of their photographic materials and also to test all films, plates and photographic papers as to speed, colour, sensitivity, density etc before they could be approved for production. It was in fact the quality control base for incoming and outgoing materials and products. Physically it consisted of a large chemical lab equipped with burettes, pipettes, chemical reagents and a pungent all pervading odour common to most active chemistry labs. The photographic side of the operation consisted of a rabbit warren of darkrooms housing technicians making spectrograms, plotting characteristic curves and generally making sure that anything that went out in a Kodak’s yellow box deserved to do so.
But none of this was supposed to involve me. This was because the job I was accepted for was in a room that housed a Photostat machine and this room happened to be in the works lab. This machine was an early form of office copier and my job was to operate it. They had located it in the works lab because there were facilities there for mixing the tanks of developer and fixer essential to processing the photo copy images. Also there were large water troughs for washing the prints and a rotary dryer to dry them. To say I would be working in the works lab was true. The implication that I would be doing lab work was certainly not true.
The Photostat machine was manual in every respect. One placed the original document on the copyboard, one focused the lens to create the correct size image on the ground glass screen. One replaced the screen with a large container holding 15 inch wide rolls of light sensitive paper. One judged the exposure, or got it right by trial and error. One opened and closed the shutter, cranked a handle so that the exposed end of the roll was transported into a processing tray containing highly caustic developer. One wiggled handles to agitate the processing then plunged one’s bare hands into the developer and quickly retrieved the print and transferred it into an acid fixer bath before light could fog it.I operated this device for Kodak for more than 4 years. The developer turned my finger nails inky black and most of the skin on my hands also. The developer contained Metol, a toxic substance no longer used, but fortunately I was not susceptible to Metol poisoning, a complaint not uncommon at Kodak in those days.
After a few days I noticed that the required length of exposure directly related to the magnification or reduction at which the machine was set. So very soon I had calibrated the device to avoid the tiresome trial and error method of getting a good print. This speeded up the operation significantly. I could get through a full day’s copying in little more than half a day. Perhaps two thirds.
The spare time I had generated enabled me to go to the photo section darkrooms and ask questions. I am deeply grateful to those lab technicians in their darkrooms, at their densitometers, at their benches plotting characteristic curves, for their patience and kindness in explaining what they were doing and how they were doing it. Some even explained why they were doing it. Some did not know. They just did it. I became fascinated with the magic of the silver halide crystal. These are the tiny molecules in the film that react when a photon of light hits one. The reaction is always the same. The energy of the light causes the halide atom in the crystal to release its hold on the silver atom. So instead of a silver halide molecule there is now an atom of silver. The reaction may be inevitable and repeatable but the by-products of the reaction are legion. Silver halide films can be made sensitive to all colours of the rainbow and also made sensitive to colours, if such they can be called, not in the rainbow. These include gamma rays, x-rays, infrared rays and many others. They can be made hydrophilic or hydrophobic, i.e. water receptive or not as used in lithographic printing plates. They can selectively be linked to coloured dyes before the silver is bleached out, thus to leave the dyes in the form of colour prints or colour slides. They can migrate from one film to another to produce instant pictures as in the Polaroid process. They can be exchanged for gold atoms to give red tones, cobalt atoms to give blue tones, vanadium to give orange tones and numerous others. By suspending silver halide crystals in gelatin, made from the hides and hoofs of cows that have eaten mustard seeds, high speed films could be made. These and many other processes are all based on the silver halide crystal.
I found all this interesting and intriguing but for me one thing was missing—pictures. I was fascinated with the means but I needed the end. With this in mind I did three things.I saved up and bought a small camera that took 16 pictures on a roll of 120 size film. I joined the Kodak Camera Club and I enrolled for a 3 year City and Guilds photography course at Harrow Technical College.
In some ways the Harrow Tech evening course was a failure. It was taught by chemists and physicists from Kodak’s laboratories and was more like a course in how to make films than how to make pictures. I think Kodak used it as a means of finding useful technicians.
Partly due to my fraternisation with the lab technicians at work I found, for the first time in my life, studying was easy.
I remember sitting down to take the final exam, reading the questions and being amazed that I knew all the answers. It was the only exam I had ever passed and I came out top of the pile and Kodak transferred me from the Photostat machine to the laboratories where I proceeded to test and measure and plot data. But the void was still there. Here was this marvellous creative medium and I was creating nothing.
However, I had my little camera and I submitted prints and experimented with early forms of colour photography, the Findlay and Dufay processes, and I won a few awards in club competitions.
Then war broke out and about six years later, six years older and feeling significantly more independent I returned to the research labs. I had learned something about life and a little about death but very little about photography during my service with the RAF. Perhaps I honed up my skills in handling the trusty Speed Graphic camera until its controls and operation became almost an extension of my arm, thereby allowing a greater degree of concentration on the subject and the artistic composition. Such skills I found to be valuable later when earning a living as a press photographer. But, much to my surprise, when I joined the RAF I discovered that being stupid was a relative state. Through the various schools I had attended and the exams at which I had failed, the teachers and other students all knew more than I. Relatively, I was stupid. This had not worried me. The world was full of so many interesting things about which I knew nothing. Clouds, rain, wind—where did they all come from? Insects metamorphose, birds fly and I could not. Even the ordinary became amazing if one stopped to wonder at it. Ignorance of school work was just a minor ignorance to add to the massive ignorance that I enjoyed about everything. It represented a small percentage of my total lack of knowledge and did not worry me at all.
When working at Kodak I was with skilled technicians, chemists etc from whom I learned a lot but with whom I maintained my position of relative ignorance. It was not until I was in the RAF with masses of people from different occupations that I discovered that relatively speaking they were as ignorant as I and in many cases more so. Some, not used to being little more than an animated number, found it very hard to settle into military life. The world to me had always been full of strangeness. Being in the RAF was just an addition to the list. But I left the RAF confident that I was as good a photographer as any other in that service and thanks to my lab work at Kodak better technically than any I had met. But little of this work was creative and the creative urge remained as a latent desire.
At this time colour photography was beginning to reach a wider market. In the laboratory I had conducted numerous tests with different light sources and different filters so that the light illuminating a subject would have the correct balance of blue to red to suit one or other of the two types of colour film available. These were daylight films and tungsten, artificial light, films. Soon I could judge the colours of different light sources and daylight at different times of the day and select the appropriate colour correction filter without the aid of Kodak’s colour temperature meter. I thought there might be a market for this acquired skill.
Fashion photographers, theatre photographers, advertising photographers were beginning to get requests for colour pictures. Their studios were equipped with a mixture of spot lights, flood lights and lights bouncing off coloured walls. Many with a mixture of daylight and artificial light at the same time. They were getting images of people with one side of their face orange and the other bluish. Shadows that should have been neutral became gaudy. Their clients were not pleased and I had the solutions.
I moonlighted many evenings after my Kodak job. I advised several well-known photographers what to do, and more often what not to do, in respect of lighting. One theatre photographer, I remember, decided that not only was I technically useful but I was also physically attractive. After a few rapid circuits of the darkroom with him in hot pursuit I beat a hasty retreat and left him to his pictures of ballet dancers.
During the late 1940’s government war surplus equipment became available and I acquired some excellent lenses to use on a half plate enlarger that I had built from old scraps.I also got a 4”x 5” Speed Graphic camera. I resigned from Kodak and rented a basement in Holland Park and hung out my shingle, as the Americans say, Terry Wilson Photographer.The building next door had suffered a direct hit from a bomb and much of the brick rubble had cascaded through my basement window to form a pile in what I planned to be my studio. So first I spent many hours and many buckets full of rubble clearing out my new premises.
My first client was not exactly what I had hoped for. He was a doctor with a practice nearby. He had an early type of ECG. machine that plotted his patients’ heart rhythm on to a roll of photosensitive paper. He would then wrap up the rolls and bring them to me to be developed and fixed. He used to view them in the fixer and murmur ‘Poor sod he’s not going to last long’ or ‘Nothing too wrong with that. What’s she complaining about’. He would then give me half a crown and go about his doctoring business. This income, although welcome, was neither adequate nor a sound basis for growth so I decided that people in the theatrical profession needed photographs of themselves. I decided to put an advertisement in The Performer. This ad bore fruit.
The first response came from a contortionist who needed a picture and many copies to give to agents. The picture he wanted consisted of a tangled mass of arms and legs, all his, with his head somehow appearing to be balanced on the top. Another brought along an aged toothless lion suffering from severe halitosis. His owner had to be pictured with his head in the lion’s mouth. Then there was a juggler who needed a picture showing him with more balls in the air than any other juggler had ever achieved. We managed this by hanging up a couple of balls on black cotton and photographing the juggling event against a black background.
After selecting their favourite shot they all wanted multiple copies. Usually about fifty prints. I was enthused but commercially naive. I got their addresses, made their prints and posted them off together with an invoice for taking the pictures and for the multiple copies. With the exception of one accordion player who paid up, I never heard from any of them again.
But things gradually improved. I did press work for a range of trade papers and also some freelance press photography for national papers and magazines. This was a tough game. It was survival of the fittest with no second chances. This is a typical example. The Queen, or some member of the Royal family, was meeting and greeting some VIP from overseas. A typical photo opportunity. All the national press and news agencies would be there and unless the Queen or the VIP fell over or stood on their heads or some other unlikely occurrence, the only picture all publishers would want would be both parties shaking hands and smiling. There was only one location where this would occur and all the press photographers, including me, were there, and they all needed the same picture taken at the same split second. Some, inevitably, were going to miss out. In the crush everyone could not win and all get the picture. The staff photographer for Associated Press was there. He was an old hand at the game. A big chap with an imposing presence and deep voice to match. He viewed the jostling crowd of camera men and said “Hey chaps’. (this was before You guys was a normal form of address) No good fighting over this. Let’s all set our cameras to twelve feet, back off a bit and we’ll all get the picture”. There was common assent to this. Cameras were adjusted and everyone stepped back a good three or four feet.
The VIP’s arrived. Their hands were extended and grasped and their faces smiled and twenty or more photographers, having set their cameras to eight feet, not to the agreed twelve, all surged forward with cameras clashing and bulbs flashing. No one fell for the ‘let’s all work together’ idea because we all knew wiley Bill from the AP was trying to pull a fast one on us.
In the late 40’s and early 50’s America was the only western country not bankrupted by the war, so most of the tourists to London were Americans. This was before the days of package tours and cheap flights and most of the visiting Americans were relatively affluent with some standing in their local communities. They were easily recognisable and they came from a land that had no national newspapers but had a multitude of local newspapers. Here, I saw, was a potential for profit, or at least income.
On quiet days when I had no assignments or studio or darkroom work, I would go to Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace. I would take a picture of the visitor with a London landmark in the background. They readily gave me their names and origins. I made no attempt to sell them a picture. Instead I would mail an 8”x 10” glossy to their local newspaper stating the tourist’s names etc together with an invoice, in US dollars, to be paid if they used the picture. 80% of the time this scheme worked and some even led to commissioned assignments. The Montreal Star used me for several colour feature stories for their Sunday magazine.
Then came the death of George VI and I got a cable from the Montreal Star asking me to get pictures of the two princesses with tears in their eyes mourning over the coffin of their father. I cabled back that I would do my best but could not guarantee to fulfil exactly every detail of their assignment. Especially the tears in the eyes of the princesses. A cable came back by return simply saying ‘Take onions with you’. I failed to get the pictures they wanted and never heard from them again. Freelance press photography is a tough game but fortunately it did not represent the major source of my income. Photography for advertising agencies and studio photography of products for various companies was not only more profitable but also more enjoyable. By control of the lighting and composition it was possible to create dramatic pictures of mundane things like nuts and bolts or telephones or any of the millions of products that manufacturers wished to promote.
My staff increased and we moved to two floors of a building in Blackfriars Lane just off Fleet Street and I remember in 1955 deciding to pay myself the princely sum of £1000 per year. It had taken me 33 years to go from £40 per year to £1000 per year. I also had a wife and a son, Andrew, not yet a year old. He was the most important thing in our lives and he was desperately ill with asthma. He was in and out of hospital with ever increasing frequency. Nothing seemed to help so we decided to give up the business and take Andrew to a different climate away from the smoke filled pea soup fogs of London. After discussions about various desert areas of the globe we settled for British Columbia. The business in Blackfriars Lane was not significantly saleable. It was pointed out to me that its value was vested largely in my skills and these I was taking away with me. So to fund our emigration I sold my equipment and at the age of 38 years I headed west to British Columbia.
There I was employed by a company whose main income was derived from making letterpress printing plates for black and white or colour reproduction in magazines and newspapers. It also made printing plates for local jobbing printers. However the graphic arts world was changing and offset lithography was taking over and metal plates and metal type were becoming obsolete.
My photographic section of the company in Canada had made some progress and had a good name with the local advertising agencies and other customers in the area. It was not unusual for my work to win awards at USA Art Director’s Association annual ceremonies but financially it made a small contribution to the company. They had to move from letterpress technology to photo lithographic technology. Printers were changing from letterpress to offset lithography and the company also had to change because their customers no longer wanted etched metal plates. So, in addition to the photographic work, I showed them the techniques of colour separation, colour masking and the production of offset four colour plates produced from various originals including colour negatives, transparencies, prints or art work.
I had just got the operation working when family reasons demanded I return to England so in 1963 at the age of 45 I found myself back in London jobless and before long down to my last five pound note.
After weeks of searching I gave up trying litho processes, as well as photography, I toured the advertising agencies trying to get a job in one of their production operations. No one offered me a job but one suggested a printer they used badly needed someone to improve the quality of their colour work. I went to see them and they gave me a job as a consultant on the management side of their colour reproduction business. It was an unenviable job. The problem was the company salesmen got jobs, the union lithographers made the colour separations and proofs. The customer did not like the work and the union lithographers said that the technical limitations of the process did not permit any better result. My job was to technically tell the union camera operators where and how they had gone wrong.
This I could usually do but I was not popular. They worked almost by rule of thumb and resented any innovative changes or corrections I might suggest. I was not a member of the union so I could not touch any equipment or actually do any of the work. I could only point out the errors of their ways if a customer rejected any of their work. Any improvement I might suggest could only be a criticism of their abilities. And if I failed to point out their deficiencies I would be out of a job.
One example comes to mind. They had a job to reproduce as accurately as possible some fine art oil paintings. The traditional way of doing this is to get a photographer to photograph the painting and produce a 5”x 7” colour transparency. This then goes to the printer’s litho department who make colour separations etc and finally a set of four colour plates and a printed reproduction.
They had an idea of how to cut costs and perhaps get better results. Why not take the painting to the lithographer who can put it up on his process camera and make the colour separations directly from the original? Cut out the photographer and his colour transparency and all those associated costs.
The first one they tried was a Dutch masterpiece and the client did not like the result. He said the colours were OK but it no longer looked like an oil painting. I was called in and immediately recognised the problem. Every photographer with knowledge of photographing oil or other paintings knows that the artist normally paints his canvas with the top of his painting upright on his easel. And normally the light that falls on his work comes from above. This direction of illumination is continued when the painting is hung the right way up in a gallery and is usually illuminated by light from above.
The photographer with his portable floodlights will always illuminate the painting from its top and softly fill in the shadows of the paint texture with a weaker fill-in light from the front. The lithographer with his process camera has one light on each side of his copy board. He instinctively puts the picture upright and looses all the paint texture. I explained this and turned the oil painting sideways on the process camera’s copyboard. I then illuminated it with one of the arc lamps from one side, angled the other arc lamp near the lens and put a diffuser over it. The painting was then illuminated so that the brush strokes and the paint texture showed up in a normal manner. However the rule of thumb operation of the camera no longer applied. The process camera operator complained to his union representative and a work stoppage was called.
It was finally agreed they would try my technique on this one occasion but I would have to stay out of the way. The result was satisfactory but management considered that my innovative approach to solving problems might be more usefully used by one of their associated companies who were designing and developing some unique photo optical equipment. So after earning my living for twenty years as a photographer I was back working on the technical side of optics and photographic chemistry.
I have come to the conclusion that the satisfaction one gets out of life is directly related to the degree of creativity one can put into it. I never failed to get a kick out of lighting, composing and creating images that are published or win awards or effectively do the job they are intended to do. I got the same satisfaction from the technical and scientific approach by creating unique formulae and systems some of which were patented.
Even today I would rather repair a broken device than replace it with a new one. This is not out of meanness. There is a creative element in repairing an electrical or mechanical device.
Now, after more than 60 years of practical involvement in photography, the early days of digital imaging have arrived. I wish I were actively involved in its evolution. I also hope the people who promote and use this new, non silver halide process remember it is only a tool for the creative person to use. The good image, the right image, the best image is not created by the instrument. It originates from the mind of the person using the device who may or may not need a little luck to help him or her along the road to success or even fame.