I don’t know if I’ve shared this before but even if I have I’m sharing it again.
This was in York Castle Museum, as part of an exhbit on exercise through the ages. Originally produced to highlight the importance of cycle safety, the whole overdramatization of scenario is hilariousand (even though I am the first to accept it does feminism no favours).
“Picturing Freedom: African Americans & Their Cars, A Photographic History”
Headline: The pictorial history of American civil rights you never knew you needed
I’m not always a fan of photographic books, most often the content seems to take a back seat to a random consortium of imagery, thrown together by the author to fill out pages. They don’t provide the level of substance I look for when I want to fully immerse myself in a period of History. Not this book, however.
Picturing Freedom is a fascinating collection of imagery of African Americans with their motorcars from across the twentieth century. Shedding light on an overlooked element of American culture, Burns highlights the significance of car ownership for what was most often the most impoverished segment of society. It offered freedom from segregation, class and gender structure and from the bindings of Jim Crow laws.
Opening with an introduction, extensive historical context, and several case studies of influential African Americans, the book showcases hundreds, if not thousands, of images from the Burns archive. Moving chronologically from the turn of the 1900s, where expensive cars limited most to posing in studios with set props, through to the roaring twenties, thirties and forties and beyond, the clothes and models may change must the sense of owner pride remains the same.
As I moved through this book I found myself completely transfixed by the characters and the stories I desperately wanted to learn more about. The young solider headed to war, the women with the blunt stare down the lens, elbow proudly rested on the bonnet. These are truly the untold stories of ordinary people during a turbulent period of American civil rights. And yet for the most part, these individuals are nameless, limited to the occasional half-written note on the back of a photo. It leaves the reader guessing, who are these people? What were their thoughts, ambitions and dreams in life? And did they achieve them? Forget people watching, this is photo watching at its very best.
The time and effort Burns has invested into compiling, researching and editing this book is nothing short of admirable. If you’re looking for something to spark a deep and meaningful conversation, or simply a new addition to your coffee table, then look no further.
Here’s a quick run-through of what happened when I went on London Underground’s newest service, the Elizabeth line.
The first thing I was aware of when I descended the escalators at Paddington was the whizzy LED signs.
I don’t know why, but I found them mesmerising, like a lava lamp. It was also 7:30am and I hadn’t had coffee, which I acknowledge may have been a contributing factor. Nudged by another commuter in that classic “get-on-or-move-on” fashion, I hopped onto the next Eastbound train.
Now the thing is…well, I wanted to illustrate that even though it was very busy at Paddington station the train was pretty quiet. But, equally, I didn’t want it to be obvious I was taking random photos of the train. You can see my predicament. So what do you get?
A slightly burred picture of a door.
It really was a classically Alice dilemma.
Oh, thumbs up for the seat coverings by the way.
And the floor? I mean, I wouldn’t say I’d be eating off it, but by London standards it was fairly squeaky.
I just wish I could say it was seam-LESS! (Get it? Because there’s a joining line? Well, I thought it was witty).
And here’s a photo of Custom House, before a-la-mosh pit I got scooped up by corporate commuters and funnelled toward the ticket gates.
*Then Alice did actual work stuff at the ExCel conference centre*
On leaving the ExCel I was running back what felt like the thickest black jacket in the hottest day. To say I was a bit toasty was an understatement, I was effectively drowning in a pool of sweat and free pencils.
Honestly I was so relieved to be somewhere with air conditioning and seating I forgot to take any photos. Minor detail.
It was probably owing to this (realising at Bond Street I hadn’t taken any photos and unable to, thanks to the copious amounts of free pencils filling my hands) that I became very obsessed with scoring a selfie with the Underground sign at Paddington. That, and in part because of the very strong coffee I knocked back before leaving the ExCel.
Ten attempts later (not kidding), I settled with what I got and shambled upstairs to find out the outbound train I’d been racing to get was actually a very slow train so ended up loitering around Paddington for 40 minutes for the train which, it turns out, all my colleagues were on as well. None of them were interested in my pencils, only moaning about the cleanliness of the toilets at Paddington. For a whole hour.
The Elizabeth line! Clean (enough), mesmerising signs (if you’re suffering from caffeine withdrawal) and just enough air con to stop you gagging on the stench of someone else’s body odour. What more could you want?!
Oh, and it’s actually super quick to get places. Minor detail.
What do you picture when you think of the writer? A recluse, working in the half-light of winter or in the sun-kissed parklands of summer? Novel thoughts that flow through dainty calligraphy on tanned pages? Web string ideas that will one day sit proud and hardbacked in Waterstones or Foyles. Half an hour to transpose to pixel, twelve weeks to complete, another month or two for luck.
If that’s the vision, let me grace you with the reality, as I find myself propped in a generic coffee shop. The table is scratched as a post, the air sticky and the green chair worn away to the bare threads. There is only one word for it, uninviting. But what does it matter? My leggings are peppered with rips and holes anyway, the stains and the marks, it’ll wash out.
A train goes past, one of those piddly little things that carry children at walking pace, no, slower than that, a snail’s. The driver sounds its electric toot-toot as it crawls by, my right ear left ringing while my left is pumped with coffee grinding and the tinny music of overhead Electric Light Orchestra. The best ambiance £2.25 of tea can buy. I sip the cold fluid with a grimace, bitter and stewed.
It’s gone 18:00, my hair is wet with grease and my young face slightly more etched from another exhaustive day at the office-come-dining table. Eyes swollen, fingers twisted. I worked through lunch, which every psychologist from here to Timbuktu will say is a one-way trip to an early grave, but the extra hour of toil then means an extra hour of freedom now. A fragment of bliss with a half-eye on time. Later, a stranger beckons at my door to collect dusty offcuts from my garage; he won’t negotiate on the timings and I really could do with that £20.
Writers are leather beaters, we take the skin of an idea and scrape, beat and dunk until that piece of flesh returns gold. Sometimes our elbows linger for too long in foul-smelling liquids that the only thing golden is our stained skin, saturated with stench.
Write. Write harder and faster and quicker and smarter and eloquently, until your fingertip pads run smooth and your skin cracks with effort. That’s what writing is. I’d consider myself a very successful woman indeed if I were ever to stumble across my work in a library or charity shop. Maybe that makes me simplistic, or maybe that makes me even more of a dreamer. I scrub my manuscript some more.
I started putting keyboard to laptop in 2014 on little more than a whim and utter boredom, to fill lonely nights in a strange town I barely knew. Eight years later I find myself plagued with a parasitic urge I can barely comprehend. What time is it? When did I last eat? How long before the staff spot my empty cup and kick me to the curb?
I don’t write because I want to, I write because it is an addiction. Leave hollow hope be for there is nothing to be saved.
My colourless eyes glance sideward as the same empty train edges closer once more.
This piece was kindly sponsored by Ben Miller, who spotted my business card on a noticeboard and commissioned me to write a post on “Why I Write”.
I signed myself to volunteer recently at a Cancer Research UK Race for Life event at Cheltenham racecourse.
Stick me in a high visibility jacket with a radio and I’m your girl (be it with a slightly inflated sense of importance).
It was very windy (hence the squint) and, being Britain, I did get caught out in the rain for a short spell. Observation of the day, racecourses aren’t great for weather protection.
Here are some choice phrases from my time as the very important marshal number six on the 3km, 5km and 10km run:
“I want your tutu!”
“3km that way, 5km that way. Also, check me out with my semaphore arms!”
“You’re doing this so I don’t have to!”
“No such thing as going too slow. Look at me, I’m standing still!”
“It’s very windy here!”
(In response to someone asking for a mid-course vodka tent) “don’t have shots, but lots of shouts – YOU’RE AWESOME!” (It made them laugh.)
A big shout out to everyone across the country who make Race for Life (and similar) events happen and to all those taking part and raising money to support such a worthwhile cause. I’d wholeheartedly recommend volunteering for anyone looking for a fun day out (with a laugh or two along the way).
Doing a bit of industry research one evening I come across this book of poetry, “Dung Beatles Navigate by Starlight”.
I know I can give as good as it gets on the waffle game (and I’m not talking about sweet treats) but this is next level:
The book’s description reads:
“These poems explore the boundary between science and poetry, and juxtapose the lexicon of organic chemistry, in particular, with a botanical discourse which is more conventional in poetry, but which the scientific treatment defamiliarises. Far from being abstruse and heavy, the treatment here lightens the subject with an imaginative playfulness, as in ‘The First Green Human: The Observer Interviews Clorinda’, where Marvell’s pastoral character is turned, through a journalistic register, into a personification of current ecological concerns.“
I’m done. No way can I compete with that level of blurb-ery (#ShouldBeAWord) talent (and I’m not entirely kidding).
In other news, Mumma B says she’s reassured in knowing that her daughter isn’t the only one who can spout waffle. Whoop.
Video of my recent five-day break in the New Forest, England. I went out specifically to focus on writing and while it didn’t quite turn out entirely as I’d hoped, I had a very relaxed time in beautiful surroundings.
Until the next time!
Please consider donating the price of a cup of coffee to my funding page: