Going postal in St Petersburg
Going postal in St Petersburg
'It's all about light' I tell would-be snappers darkly and hand them Sontag. Me and the light are always having a race.
I've left it late for the toad-path again. Go out too fast. Hurl round the first bend. Feet and mouth out of time. Inhale plump midges with each hard suck hifffp hifffp and spit.
Is there enough light to get to the bridge? And back, the shortest side is also the darkest. Overlooked by high tiered forest scratched with dirty paths. Up there men in jogging pants script romance on their phones. They dont look up when you skirt them. I cock one headphone aside to keep an ear at the forest. My feet plank over the bridge, then I plunge into a dark green sleeve. Trees wrap the path. The hedge and tall grasses fecund and reachy. A damp leaf strokes me.
A man in a trench coat leans against a concrete post. Then he's just a concrete post. A bench levitates from the gloom. I whip my head to look behind me. That was stupid. I do it again. Flip! A black silk scarf flaps from my crown. As if my own hair produced it. Flicks at my face and I swat. A what a bird a bat? A bat. Attacking? Are there more? It scares the fucking daylights out of me. I don't scream. Even alarmed on a deserted forest path at night I'm too prissy to scream. I hare around the rest blistering my toes and skelter into the car park sweaty, horrified.
Words; Belfast Northern Ireland 2013
Image; St Petersburg Russia July 1999
Party like it was 1999
Seemingly St Petersburg did this to me. I found the relentless monotonous rhythm utterly fascinating. And it wasn't a stylistic phase either, these images were shot nine years before the port freight train. I completely forgot about them. This time I hunkered stationary.
Send three and four pence, we're going to a dance
St Petersburg still looks like a bad postcard of itself. As though the old off-set printing press is running low on magenta again. Under a cyan sky I always found the port of St Petersburg fascinating and beautiful. The journey from the gangway to interrogation at the port gate should have taken half an hour but always took two. And if a train was trundling across the road at walking pace when you returned you were in trouble. It could be two miles long and there was no way around it. Nothing to do but sit on the kerb and read between the lines. Where have you been, with your ore there I'd quiz. Siberia?
I can't find the engine house or rear carriage on the negatives so I mustn't have photographed them. Reasons unclear. Perhaps I just couldn't see them.
Yesterday my brother gave me a present for presents sake. He has a fascination for militaria and shouldn't be allowed near eBay. It was a silver cigarette case wrapped in incomprehensible newspaper. I like antique cigarette cases.
I know where that is I said immediately. I ran my finger over the motif. Startled to unwrap the random vista.
The texture of St Petersburg is embossed on my being. I knew the ripples of the mighty Neva even before the spike of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Hare Island. On my last trip we made a pilgrimage to almost the very spot on the cigarette case with a bottle of champagne. Somberly toasted farewell to my favourite city and watched the sun refuse to set. Nothing left to say now.
Red Army issue WW2. Great present. All the better as our David was so chuffed with his fluke.
'I'll tell Lauder then,' said Guillam, and left. Move, he thought. In the men's room he waited thirty seconds at the basins, watching the door in the mirror and listening. A curious quiet had descended over the whole floor. Come on, he thought, you're getting old, move. He crossed the corridor, stepped boldly into the duty officers' room, closed the door with a slam and looked round. He reckoned he had ten minutes and he reckoned that a slammed door made less noise in that silence than a door surreptitiously closed.
Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Photograph, St Petersburg, Russia
On a Saturday in St Petersburg you can't move for brides. The poor girls are lugged in shiny nylon from one State Monument to the next. Tiny groups huddle and pull at baggy suits. They smoke cigarettes in the rain and clutter the forebear's feet with champagne bottles and plastic cups. Skinny sailors snake past in shoals without sparing a glance.
She left Harland and Wolff a freezing week before Christmas in 1997. I'd watched her come in as the Star Princess on a desolate dawn from the foreshore of Belfast Lough. A freezing refit welded Arcadia to her nose and ran a P&O flag up her mast. I left with her as the fried and harried Shop Manager. It was a dreary grey day and I was alone on the top deck. Brother was on a train heading up the coast, he saw us go. The next Arcadia was fresh from the Fincantieri yard in Venice ten years on. When we pulled out this time I had a photography department to muster. There was a bit of a do for crew on the aft. Beer and Mr Boomtastic as the sister ship still on the blocks sounded her horns in farewell. Ship builders and fitters hung over the decks waving like streamers. Somewhere in between I'd encountered Nick Boyle.
The middle Arcadia had a decadent atrium balconied by bars, my shops, and Nick's Photo Gallery on the top deck. I went up to buy an album and we plonked our elbows on the curved wooden rail. Why don't you become a photographer and come and work for us, says Nick.
I altered course in a heartbeat without consulting a single chart. In two months I was at drills on Oriana in ill-cut navy trousers with an elastic waistband somewhere around my armpits. I couldn't find my cabin or my suitcase. I didn't know an f-stop from a bus-stop and couldn't remember how to tie a windsor knot.
Baptism of fire as a photographer I sailed with Nick for two months. An extraordinary teacher. He told me nothing and taught me everything. Need to know basis. Running to a shoot he'd grab my camera and metz and fiddle with buttons (30-5.6-one under on the flash, manual for heads, one notch under quarter power) "apple above the head bend your knees get the toes in you'll be fine". My first portrait shoot in Tiffanys we got there five minutes early and I learnt how to pose 75 couples in an hour. I remember it clearly. And ten years on I smiled when I caught my number three instructing the baby tog verbatim what Nick had taught me.
Nick and Jo Boyle are two of the most empowering people I have ever met. When you are in their company nothing seems unreasonable and no enterprise preposterous. Their energy is unstoppable. They left not long after our encounter, and Nick's company, Flare Imaging was at the very vanguard of contemporary web design. As ever, he led the charge and hasn't stopped.
That cruise, the life-changing one, we were in St Petersburg. I went off with a camera and decided that if I was going to do it, I had to do it. Russia is not an easy place and Russians are not easy people. The market had armed guards and bloody pigs heads grimaced on hooks. I skulked about then left. Found a shop that reluctantly sold me a brick of bread and foul cheese and sat on a pile of bricks where a house had fallen down and consumed what I could of it with half a hip flask of russian courage. Then I went back in. If I could photograph russians I could photograph anything. If I could make russians smile I might even be good at it.
The negs are old, I've over-flashed the veg. I started to 'shop the scan and then undid it all. Those teeth don't need any more work.
You'll find Nick Boyle in Berkshire, juggling the doubtless irrepressible Max with the indomitable Jo. You'll find Flare Imaging hereand Fine Art Imaging here. I wasn't thinking about Flare when I named my own company in fact the similarity only recently occurred to me - I suppose some things just hang around in your sub-conscious waiting to be useful.
I have a particular relationship with the city of St Petersburg. I recall the first visit vividly. Hanging over a hand-rail on the Black Watch. Her timber smelling sweet in a glaring dawn. We sailed up the Bol'shaya Neva. Alongside we are met by a mis-shapen brass band in mis-matched ragged uniforms. As if they had staggered to there from the Siberian front. They play Lara's theme, the recurring motif from Doctor Zhivago. My mother has an exquisite glass domed music box that plays a plinking version of it as you turn the handle. Procured exotically for her from Germany when I was a child, I've always coveted it.
From Bora Bora to Borneo I never feel further from home and more alienated than when in St Petersburg. The dusty neo-classical facades are rude and closed. Behemouths for doors. Dare to imagine what goes on behind the grey ruched curtains. The faces closed and forbidding too - and where are they? Barely a person to be seen. They do not care to communicate with you and simply look through you. Opposite Zayachy Island is an enormous military museum. As with many places in St Petersburg it never seemed to be open and there was no way to access it. For many years I cycled miles to get to it and pushed my nose jealously through the bars of the monumental gates at rows of tanks and cannons running the gamut of Russian Federation military might. The building itself, the Kronverk Arsenal sweeps around in a glorious half arc of intricate red brick. It's been a museum since 1863 and the official title is Military Historical Museum of the Artillery, Engineering and Signal Corps. The very last time I visited the city, it was open. I finally got close to my tanks. Peter and Paul Fortress, and the cathedral tower therein lieth the remains of all the Tzars hovers behind in the summer haze.
I yearn for an overnight in St Petersburg. I must get back. I've promised myself a stay in the Astoria.