One Damn Thing After Another By Terry Wilson
Win Some Lose Some
We had just taken over two floors of a building in Blackfriars Lane near Fleet Street. It was a bold undertaking and, although business was good, with no working capital cash flow was a problem. We decided to alleviate this problem by attempting a different type of photography. One that would generate more instant cash. Our normal business was advertising, commercial and press photography. We decided to do some exhibition stand photography at the Ideal Homes Exhibition in Earls Court. At this and other exhibitions, photographers were allowed to tout for work and take photographs during the exhibition provided each photographic company rented at least a minimum size stand. Such minimum size stand space was little more than a cupboard in which to store a tripod and camera equipment. It was a competitive business with four or five companies each employing an attractive young lady to sort out sales managers and arrange orders for photographs. Such pictures were taken daily and prints supplied the following morning.
We adopted the same procedure with one difference. All our competitors offered black and white photographs. We offered the same service in colour. My partner would be taking the pictures during the day and I would be processing the films and making 10”x 8” colour prints during each night. Commercial colour photography was in its infancy. No one had offered such a service before and we were optimistic that our efforts would be rewarded.
On the opening day of the exhibition a member of the Royal Family was due to cut the tape and declare the exhibition open at 10:00 am. I arrived there with some camera kit at about 8:45 am and my exhibitors pass admitted me to the normal last minute chaos of electricians, carpenters and stand fitters putting the final touches to all the displays. The red carpet was rolled up waiting to be laid in the aisles the VIP’s would traverse. It seemed impossible that everything would be cleared up and ready in less than an hour and a quarter.
I made my way to our little cupboard size stand where a workman was fitting a lock to our door. I went in, dumped the equipment and looked for somewhere to hang my coat. There was plenty of room on the wooden frame but nothing to hang it on. There was however a hammer and bag of three inch nails lying there. I selected one nail and with three deft blows of the hammer I had somewhere to hang my coat. Unfortunately as I did this a union official was passing by. I was obviously not a union workman in overalls. He menacingly asked for my union card. My explanation that I was just putting in a nail on which to hang my coat carried no weight with him. He called a stoppage of all work at the exhibition until the matter was resolved.
The management was called, a meeting was convened, the clock ticked on inexorably getting nearer to opening time and the aisles were still cluttered with step ladders and electrical cables and the red carpet was still in rolls.
Strangely, during the heated discussion between the union and management neither addressed me the guilty party. I was just an insignificant trigger mechanism that had activated the big guns. Finally after much arm waving and heated conversation the workman, who had been fitting the lock on my door, was called and given instructions. He nodded assent. Removed the nail I had put in the frame and replaced it about one inch from its original position.
Tannoy messages went out to start work again. One of the management team said to me ‘In future don’t do that until after we have opened.’ And open they did. On time with the Duchess of somewhere cutting the ribbon and following the red carpet.
We made some money, which was most useful, but it was not the sort of work I enjoyed.
On another occasion I was evicted from an exhibition at Olympia in London. It was a press assignment to photograph the Queen—later the Queen Mother—who was visiting a preview of an exhibition. I and a few of the usual gang of press photographers were there well in advance selecting what we hoped would be vantage points to enable us to get the best shot. I was armed with my Speed Graphic camera, flash bulbs and film that in those days was considered fast but by current standards would be considered slow. It was equipment I had used hundreds of times, I had no doubts about getting a picture until a member of the exhibition management with an official from the Palace called us to a meeting to announce ‘No flash bulbs to be used’. He explained that on some recent occasion a flash bulb had shattered and showered a member of the royal family with glass. I knew that without flash bulbs I had no hope of getting a picture. The light inside the building was poor. f5.6 was the maximum aperture of my lens and my plates were 100 asa speed. Then I thought of a possible solution. I phoned up my office and told them to get some old equipment out of the bottom of the camera cupboard and, by taxi, bring it to me as quickly as possible. What I wanted was some flash powder and a flash pan operated by a flint and steel spark. Equipment long since obsolete with the introduction of flash bulbs. Old though it may be, its use would not endanger anyone from flying glass. It arrived in time for me to set up the camera on a tripod. I used a long focal length lens so I was well back from the red carpet. Authorities came round checking to see if we were using any flash bulbs. Eventually the VIPs arrived, the Queen stopped exactly where I hoped she would. I opened the shutter and fired a good pile of flash powder. Perhaps the powder was contaminated because not only was there a good flash of light but a small mushroom cloud of smoke rose towards the ceiling of the exhibition hall.
I was escorted from the premises but I had got a good picture that was published. Unfortunately another photographer had his shutter open at the same time as my flash powder went off and he got an even better picture than I by accidentally using my light.
He Stopped—I Didn’t
It was my fault. But it could not have happened at a worse time. A week earlier I had resigned from Kodak’s Research Laboratories and started my own business in London’s Holland Park. The newly painted sign over the entrance said Terry Wilson Photographer and now I had a fractured spine. Crush fractures of the second and third lumbar vertebrae.
It happened when we were enjoying our usual Sunday morning ride through the Buckinghamshire countryside. I was on Old Bob the big old gelding that thundered along with a mind of his own. My friends Dennis and Roy were on the two younger spritely mares from the same stable. They were ahead as we cantered along a grassy track in a valley on the Downs. I saw them ahead of me jump over a broken wooden gate that obstructed our path. I doubted if Old Bob would accept the jump, more likely he would canter through the rotting bars and frame of the gate and possibly injure himself or me. To the left of the path was a slight bank and a flat course around the obstacle. I neck reined Old Bob to the left and he cantered straight into the bank. He rolled over. I flew through the air and landed on the hard ground on the base of my spine. I had forgotten he was blind in his left eye.
My friends, eventually noticing my absence, returned and reviewed the situation. I could not stand so they took Old Bob’s bridle from my hand and they took him and the two mares back to the stable and then managed to get Dennis’s old Riley along the bridle path to collect me.
It was a painful journey cramped up in the back seat of the old car, but eventually, via the doctor, I ended up in Stanmore Orthopaedic Hospital. Here they x-rayed me and eventually encased my body from my thighs right up to my neck in an inch thick plaster cast. A device which, with a few modifications along the way, enclosed me for the next six months.
Surgical plaster goes on wet and like most wet things it shrinks as it dries out. One’s chest expands and contracts as one breathes but not if one is in a rigid plaster cast. To make matters worse not only does it prevent any expansion, it also contracts round one as it dries. To relieve these problems and probably also as a pain killer, the hospital occasionally gave me shots of morphine. So you will appreciate that for the first two or three days I was not the life and soul of social activities in that orthopaedic ward.
All the other people in the ward were paraplegics. Some paralysed from the neck down, some from the waist down. About two days later, as I came out of my morphine daze, they were very supportive and friendly. They had gone through it all and were now beginning to face up to their realities. They knew I had bad times to come but what they did not know, and I did not know, was that I was not paralysed. My spinal nerve was battered but functionally intact.
By the time I had learned to survive on frequent small thimble fulls of air to accommodate my inflexible strictures, and doctors had demonstrated I could wiggle my toes, and after day five stand up and go for a pee, they all felt slightly cheated. I was a charlatan, a poseur. I was not one of them after all.
They were nice people. They were not rude but I could sense their change of attitude. The sympathy they had offered me was based on a fallacy. I felt slightly guilty in their presence and they, I suppose, felt either slightly misled or envious or a little of both. After five days I was glad to go back to work.
Because the external muscles of my torso, beneath the plaster cast, could barely move they soon became smaller. Then they could move a little within the shell. Soon I could poke knitting needles down to get a delicious scratch. Fortunately all this occurred during a winter period so my shape was hidden beneath a polo-neck sweater. I looked like a stiff barrel chested oddity but not sufficiently strange to be noticed by the general public, except, that is, on one occasion when I was riding in a bus.
The seats in London’s double deckers had a metal handrail along the top edge of each seat back. As I sat down and leaned back I was unaware that at the same moment a lady in the seat behind grasped the handrail. She shouted with pain as my weight, within the inch thick hard plaster, pinched her fingers against the rail. At the sound of her anguish I twisted round as best I could to identify the cause. This ground my rigid shell even harder on to her fingers. She got off the bus thinking she had been in contact with some sort of robot.
On another occasion my riding friends and I decided to go to the pub for a few beers and a game of darts. After the first pint I discovered there was no room for expansion to hold even one pint. I borrowed a penknife, retired to the lavatory and carved a hole about 6 inches in diameter in my plaster shell. The hole was located in the centre of the lower part of the cast, about the area of my belly button. This arrangement allowed for expansion and doubled my beer capacity. We continued to play darts.
I was wearing my usual polo-neck sweater and my friends knew about my plaster cast but other customers in the pub did not. At least not until, as I went to the dart board to retrieve my three darts, my friends threw theirs to stick in my back. I, of course, could feel nothing but one lady in the bar almost fainted at the sight of this man being used like a bull in a Spanish bullfight.
Finally, after six months, I went by underground train to a hospital near Kings Cross. Here, with the aid of huge shears they split and prised off my cast. ‘Touch your toes’ they said. I touched them with no difficulty. ‘OK you can go now and I left to catch a train home again. That one hour train journey took me almost 3 1/2 hours. At almost every station I had to leave the train to find the men’s lavatory, remove my upper garments and have a good scratch. Then back to the platform and wait for the next train. Eventually I got home to soak in a bath. That first bath for six months was a memorable event.