They were those heady days when a man first has a car, and the country has suddenly become his oyster. The weekend had been unsuccessful. I had visited a dear friend in Bath for a bank holiday weekend, but somehow things hadn’t gone to plan – the wrong thing said at the wrong time, offence taken when unintended, apologies not forthcoming from whichever party had said the wrong thing (I honestly can’t remember the details). I was feeling low, and finding myself reflecting on my situation. It was still close enough after university that the friends I had were all from there, and many of us were even going onto campus a lot to socialise.
Ah, university. It was a chain hanging round our necks, if only we’d realised it then. And I had my own special chain, caused by my first experiences in my first year. I didn’t drink back then, you see, and the society I joined (science-fiction and fantasy – the place where people played a lot of games) had a bar crawl in the second week to let people get to know each other. Well, non-drinkers on bar crawls didn’t seem like a good plan, but my then-to-be-friend Nick suggested I come along anyway. I could take photographs, he suggested.
This may be a culture shock now, but back then you had to have a camera to take photos. And you had to have film. And you had to pay for the film to be developed. It was crazy. You also had to look through a viewfinder, since there was none of this display-on-the-back malarkey you get nowadays.
Anyway, expense or not along I went. I took a roll of photos, and the next week I got them developed, photocopied a few of them and stuck them to make a humorous (or so it appeared to me) composite of captions and photos. It went up on the noticeboard, and a few days later another friend-to-be Alison decided, in her humorous publication, to name each of the new year’s intake. There were two classicists, called Classicist One and Classicist Two – that didn’t stick. There were a few others I forget, but in between there was “Flasher. Literally, one who flashes.” That did stick. There are still people now who refer to me as Flash. (It shortened to Flash when the first children appeared on the scene after university, mainly because “Say hello to your Uncle Flasher” never sounded good.) I developed a reputation for having a camera in my pocket (no I’m not pleased to see you) and popping it out and taking a photo without having to look through the viewfinder, before anyone could get defensive. I must have taken more than a roll of film every week, so my not drinking didn’t exactly end up with me saving money.
As time went on, every occasion was an opportunity for that candid shot – that lovely shot that would be funny later. I spent longer and longer putting together those sheets with stories in, and even peaked at helping my friend Gary with his election campaign for some post or other where we took photos of him holding a gun behind an old lady’s head, with the cut-out-newspaper-letter caption “Vote Gary or the old lady gets it.” I can’t imagine nowadays people reacting with anything other than horror at two people walking around a shopping centre with a realistic-looking gun pointing at people and taking photos. In fact looking back it doesn’t sound too smart even then. But hey – we were young.
But I digress. Avebury.
I felt down after this unsuccessful weekend, and I found myself pootling along the back roads back towards home – Coventry. One of these little roads led me up to Silbury Hill, that amazing mad-made hill with no obvious purpose. I like to think it was students from the Iron Age University with bored weekends deciding to do something just for the hell of it.
It was still quite early morning, and there was mist over the fields. Opposite Silbury Hill is West Kennet Long Barrow, an old (I mean thousands of years, here) set of burial places with huge stones for the roof. I stopped the car and walked in, feeling scared as I realised I was the only person for miles around. My rational side thought that maybe someone could have been sleeping rough in there, but really it was a feeling that strangeness had happened here over the centuries. I felt the camera in my pocket. I left it there.
I crossed back over the road again and climbed Silbury Hill, and looked around the fog-ridden landscape around me. It was still cold. There was nothing to photograph. The camera remained in my pocket.
I walked back down again and headed over to Avebury, a short walk along a little path, by which time the fog had cleared. I got the camera out, and took a photo of one of the stones, and then, on a whim, put the camera back away again and sat down, leaning against a stone, and just looked.
I mean really looked.
Back and forth, from stone to stone, imagining the people dragging them here, putting them up, thousands of years before.
I watched people walking in and out of the stones.
I stared at one individual stone for a while.
And I saw it. Really saw it.
In a way I hadn’t seen anything for years.
The whole landscape seemed bright and vivid, and not just something to be reproduced on a 6-by-4 piece of paper.
Not something to be captioned.
I have a dozen or more albums of each year at university. I have no albums of my time from 1991 through to 2000. I don’t think I have even a single photo of that decade.
That may have been too far the other way, but I did realise something that day, and I began actually watching life rather than photographing it and seeing it later. The equivalent now is watching life through a cameraphone, or worse through the bulk of an iPad.
Beware, ladies and gentlemen. Beware of viewing your life second-hand.