For the last 18 months, I have been recording life stories and memories of people on or far beyond the outskirts of my local East Anglian (UK) market town community, through collaborative environmental portraiture, interviews and straight documentary shoots.
Often overlooked and unseen by the people around them, or seen and judged without care for the stories to be shared and rich bonds to be forged, these are moments of daily endurance and musings that in a generation will have passed forever.
Stuart: Baptised in Darwin’s bathwater
There was a time I used to drink.
Stuart was a regular in the pubs. Tied to the bar, he struck me as a cross between Peter Ustinov and Quentin Crisp. Red wine nonstop. Full of stories, desperate for a shoulder, an ear.
I’ve no real recollection of when we first began to engage in our long, sprawling conversations, but we took to each other’s observations. For an hour or two a day the bar was no longer a lonely place.
A few years passed, my drinking stopped for good; Stuart’s continued and we remained in touch. Life in a small market town can be close quarters to those you want near if you so choose, and a sea of anonymity if you keep your eyes down, phone off the hook and circle of friends small.
I always loved to hear Stuart’s memories, his travels, his lost loves, his brushes with both life and death.
In a town where most everyone plays normal, plays the roles there for them to play out, Stuart was a touchstone of originality. For Stuart, the very things that made him a social pariah, his eccentricities, his demeanor, his drinking and his choices made him confide in me, made us friends.
Living alone in his late parents’ vast house on the outskirts of town, sometimes drinking the pain, the boredom, the boredom of pain away during the day and retiring back to the house at night to dream of escape … always dreaming of escape.
Through all our talks he’s taught me one lesson above all: to love the small, precious moments with those close to you. It’s the one element of life that can never be regretted. For him, the warmth of remembering sustains the coldness of present days.
Stuart has watched as so many loved ones have returned to the earth; he’d been there during the long time his mother was dying. We had that in common and yet he maintained an air of gentle understanding about the rhythm, pattern and tempo of mortality. “I was baptised in Darwin’s bathwater,” he told me as we discussed the afterlife and his resolve about the natural cycle of life’s twists and turns.
“Love is the eternal where we are not so in the physical.”
Jimmy and the Jacks
Jimmy was and is a local legend. Always in the center of town, his two Jack Russell dogs, Susie and Rosie, in the front basket.
He’d hold audience with anyone that stopped to listen, rolling out tales in a thick Irish brogue.
Always on my periphery, little by little our street talks blossomed into long conversations back at Jimmy’s home. Tales of life in Ireland as a boy and young man, a father that absconded leaving 13 children, hard times. Tales of life in London during the 1960s, no blacks, no dogs, no Irish in pub windows. Hard times.
Now alone aside from his dogs, the last year has been one filled with cruelty and chaos for Jimmy. Last summer he was involved in a hit and run, leaving him crippled with arthritis after the wounds and breaks knitted and stitched together. A year ago he could have been 50; now he’s feeling all of his 75 years, though his mind is still sharp enough to cut.
Susie died leaving Rosie and Jimmy alone but together.
The local doctor’s where Jimmy would get his wounds dressed was ultimately a place of mixed fortune for him. Though the visits there have been painful, he was approached by a family recognizing him as the owner of Jack Russells and they asked him to watch over a pair of Jacks for a few weeks. The family never returned to reclaim the dogs so they have become part of Jimmy’s family and a part of the cycle of everyday that keeps him going.
Jimmy’s hands, legs and shoulders are permanently in pain and it’s taking longer to do everything, opening jars, bottles. And the walk to the local shop that would take five minutes now takes 40, but the Jacks are there by his side, there at 4 a.m. when he wakes from the aches within, there when people are not.
Eugene and David
I’d met Eugene in the street the summer before. Her style standing out, looking like every woman I remember as a child in the 1970s.
We would stop and talk whenever our paths crossed in town, until late last summer when Eugene disappeared.
For months I would ask the few people I thought might know if all was well. No one knew a thing. No news. No news. Then one afternoon during a casual chat I asked again if anyone had sight or sound of Eugene and was told her son had been involved in an accident and was blinded as a result of the trauma.
I was more than shocked. The little I had learned of Eugene had never included the topic of children and to learn that she was indeed a mother and now involved in this awful tragedy, at 86, dismayed me terribly.
Weeks later I saw her coming towards me in town. Behind her, holding the belt of her winter coat, was a tall man. Both were braced against the wind. I realised it was Eugene and her son. We spoke and as I learned more, I realised that her son, David, was a figure I had seen around town since I was 12 or 13, and suddenly these two were thrown together in my mind, two seemingly separate figures now placed together.
David had been very active. Walking, cycling. My memories of him were his always cycling past me as I would walk into town. Last summer the bag he was wearing over his shoulder had come loose, entangled in the front wheel of his bicycle and he had been thrown over the handlebars, face-first to the road, breaking his upper jaw and neck in two places.
“I was choking on the blood,” he told me. “In the ambulance they got a bucket and it poured out of my mouth … so much blood! I could still see then … right up until I fell into a coma.”
David was taken to the hospital; bones mended, wounds healed, but the obstruction of a feeding and air tube in his mouth prevented his being able to alert nurses or doctors that his sight had vanished for almost a week after awaking from the coma.
Now David relies on Eugene for everything; she has become his eyes.
“One of the strangest things,” he told me, “is waking up from a dream. In dreams I can still see. I can see everything. I wake … and feel I can still see for a time, then the black seeps in and I realise I am awake and in darkness again, where the reality used to be filled with sight, now my dreams are. Where sleep was without light, now that’s my waking life. Everything is upside down. Now being awake is like the dream. My awake nightmare”
Living in the dark, a life in the dark. It’s hard to even know the time of day or night. We rely on sight for so many things: the morning sun, the twilight, the black of night. Waking at 2 a.m. and not knowing if it’s light or dark. 10 a.m.? 2 p.m.? I bought David a talking watch so at least he can hear the news of the time when he wakes from the dreams where he can still see.
The Market Town series, I’ve come to learn, is not a project but a product. A product born from where and when I and the people I photograph are from. I know for as long as we’re here, I’ll continue to make this series, until the bonds of this small town’s inertia are breached. For any or all of us.
For more of Jim’s work visit his website.