"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

11 March, 2009

Signed: Elizabeth R To Our Trusty & Well-Beloved Fred Jackson Esquire, Greeting!

My Dad - 12/06/23-18/12/08 - Requiescat

The rumours are, I am afraid, all true. I was once an avid collector of autographs. Long, long before these our days of celebrity culture, I was an over-keen, gangly pre-teen, hanging around the stage door, never without my leather-backed notebook and lucky ball-point pen. I can still see the first three pages with their hurried yet clearly legible marks: Cliff Richard; Frankie Vaughan; Gilbert O’Sullivan!!!

The notebook is long gone, of course. Into some trunk, into some attic, gnawed on by rodents or consumed on some bonfire. I still have a few prized signatures, however; many of them just visible in the corners of the paintings & lithographs I started to collect when autographs per se started to pall. I’ve even got the Queen. Her bold Elizabeth R, in a rather beautiful frame, hangs on the wall above the sink (signed Philippe Starck) in our downstairs WC.

I didn’t actually wangle an invite to Buckingham Palace and whip out a scrap of paper and a fountain pen at a likely juncture. I didn’t need to. Her Majesty made her mark upon the royal warrant conferring the Imperial Service Order upon my father – making him Fred Jackson, ISO, QFSM, CPM. Every time I wash my hands, I now have a mental picture of the Queen, perched at a huge desk in Sandringham or Balmoral, spectacles on, looking as serious as Helen Mirren in that movie, working her way through a ream of parchment warrants, scratching out Elizabeth R again & again & again.

The ISO was established in 1902 by Edward VII. It is a limited order, awarded to a select group of civil servants “for long and meritorious service of the British Empire”. It was seriously limited in 1993, when it was quietly dropped in favour of the Imperial Service Medal; stands to reason – we haven’t really got an Empire any more.

Dad himself was quietly but hugely proud, not just of his ISO, but of his many awards. Myself, I was proudest when I went, in my Sunday best, to Government House to see Sir David Trench present Dad with The Governor of Hong Kong Lanyard – awarded for outstanding gallantry during the 1967 Communist uprising and riots. Self-effacing, modest & often surprisingly shy, the most he would ever say was: “not that bad for a boy from Askern, is it?”

A few years ago, Dad started to write his own memoirs. Alas, they stop abruptly in 1968 – when my mother, Tina, was first diagnosed with breast cancer. He has a charming, candid and quietly comic voice and I hope to do something with them at some stage. For now, I am afraid, the following will have to temporarily suffice:

Fred was born in 1923 in a tiny hamlet on the edge of the South Yorkshire coalfield. My grandfather, Cecil, was still a dairyman then but the pit at Askern would soon dominate the local economy. My grandmother, Violet, née Spink, went on to have another 10 children: Sidney; Charles, William Arthur; Anne Cecilia; Eric; Cecil; Stuart; Violet; Michael and Norma – the latter and her brother Eric both died as infants of pneumonia. At time of writing, both of Dad’s sisters and his brothers Bill and Michael survive him.

My grandfather went on to tend to the pit ponies and Dad’s bi-annual trip underground to bring them out for their brief respite in the fresh air convinced him that a miner’s life was not for him. Despite fierce paternal opposition, he escaped the pit by joining the Navy and swiftly, despite a truncated formal education, became a commissioned officer.

In 1944, he found himself accompanying the Canadian tanks across to Juno Beach on D-Day & celebrated his 21st birthday, not as I did, with champagne and canapés under an elegant 18th century colonnade, but on a battered landing craft, negotiating the choppy Channel waters on his way back to England. My mother clearly fell for this wind-burnished chap in uniform and they were married in October 1946.

Dad then joined the Fire Brigade in Doncaster and in 1956, he and my mother left for an initial three year contract in Hong Kong, a move rather braver than any gap year student with a mobile phone and laptop might now be able to fully comprehend.

My parents both loved the colonial lifestyle and tropical weather and my father endeared himself to his men by learning to speak fluent Cantonese (albeit retaining his distinctive Yorkshire accent). Dad was an exemplary officer and was decorated several times for gallantry. He was instrumental in preparing HKFS for the eventual localisation of senior ranks ahead of the 1997 handover and, by the time he retired in 1985, he was the Deputy Director of the Brigade.

Alas, in 1975, we lost my mother, Tina, to breast cancer and were doubly devastated less than 20 years later when my brother Rory became an early and ludicrously young victim of HIV/Aids. Dad himself enjoyed nearly 20 years of healthy retirement back home in Yorkshire until 2006, when on-going heart and vascular problems prompted his cardiologist to give him a pacemaker. This operation coincided with a diagnosis of a fairly rare condition: Dementia with Lewy Bodies, which, although not yet fully understood, seems to combine the worst elements of both Parkinsons and Alzheimers.

Difficult as it is to watch someone you love & who was once so very vital, thus cruelly diminished, I found it comforting that Dad’s vivid hallucinations – a key symptom of DLB – usually took him back to Hong Kong or to his Navy days and that very often he clearly saw my late brother, Rory, sitting amiably at the foot of his bed.

Otherwise, Dad’s final months were not as dignified as I, or anyone who loved him, would have wished and I intend to write elsewhere about the terrible circumstances of his demise – when the time is appropriate. Certainly not until after we hold our service of Thanksgiving for & Celebration of his life on Friday 8th May, at St Joseph’s Church in Pontefract, where my parents were married, after which his ashes will be interred in my mother’s grave, alongside Rory’s.

Dad wanted any donations in his memory to go to the Fire Fighters Charity or to the Mission to Seafarers. You can find out more, both about the charities and about Fred on our justgiving.com page.

04 March, 2009

Can one photograph really change the world? Yes it can! Or can it? Obama, Secretary Gates and the sorry saga of the flag-draped caskets

This image copyright USAF

I admit: it is impressive. Obama and his team continue to pull stunt after stunt in such an artfully casual way, we barely notice how brazenly we are being manipulated. This week alone, we have had glam, yet reassuringly mumsy, Michelle on the cover of Vogue and now, the shocking juxtaposition of the vital, groomed & grinning Obama with the bowed, dishevelled & grumpy Gordon - (eight out of 10 Washingtonians reportedly identified the British PM thus: ‘Is he like maybe a news anchor for one of the cable TV channels?’)

We wait to see whether the potent currency of Candidate Obama can be converted into presidential success, yet there are signs that the new administration is chipping away at some problematic vestiges of the Bush era. It started with a vow to close Guantanamo Bay. There is also welcome news on the environment with the granting, to 14 states, of waivers from the Federal Clean Air Act, allowing them to impose even stiffer standards on emissions.

Last week, Defence Secretary Robert Gates (whose appointment raised influential eyebrows) announced that media images of the flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead will now be allowed – with the express permission of the families of the fallen. This decision is a dramatic reversal of the blanket ban imposed in 1991 by then President George H.W. Bush and the scrapping of the ban has sharply divided the miliblogosphere.

It is, however, a victory for a Freedom of Information campaign, led by veteran CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter. Begleiter, now professor of Journalism in Delaware, home state of Dover Air Base, where the caskets are repatriated, sued the Pentagon in 2005, in a bid to release images of regular honour guard ceremonies which continue to be documented by military photographers.

"I never considered the release of images a political issue," Begleiter has said, "But, seeing the cost of war can have strong political consequences. Hiding these images from the public....hinders policymakers and historians of the future from making informed judgments about public opinion and war.”

The defence establishment has had a vexed relationship with the media since William Russell first got to the Crimea in the 1850s. Since then, myriad weighty tomes & conflicting theses have been produced on the influence of war reporting and of specific photographic images. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the dissemination of so many gruesome scenes from Vietnam was instrumental in the shift of U.S. public opinion against the war.

In the pre-digital era, every conflict threw up its own iconic image. We can all instantly conjure those seared on our memories, such as the one below taken by Nick Ut in 1972.

This image copyright 1972: Associated Press/(Nick) Ut Cong Huynh

Since Vietnam, technological watersheds and the increasing speed of global media networks have made it far more difficult to single out the sole and specific iconic image; yet somehow, one or two always seem to insinuate themselves into the public consciousness. The images from Abu Ghraib prison, featuring Lynndie England and her U.S. army colleagues, which encapsulate a key Iraq War narrative so eloquently, seem set to become the first such photographs to be taken by amateurs rather than by professionals.

In Britain, the MOD exerts equally strict access limits on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq but is less draconian on the use of photographs of the fallen or, indeed, of their Union flag-draped coffins. They are, however, rigid on issues of copyright & I struggled to find images to safely & legally reproduce. British services photographers continue to document both conflicts; many thoughtful and accomplished images can be seen here:

So, in Britain we have no real restrictions on showing images to illustrate the human cost of these wars, yet why do they now appear so infrequently in our newspapers – both quality and tabloid? I live close to a huge Royal Air Force base and the Hercules transport planes bearing the remains of services victims fly overhead on a depressingly regular basis.

This image: Crown copyright/Sgt Ian Houlding

Yet the next day, when I scour the papers for any mention of these tragic shipments, I am usually disappointed. The fate of these men & women is now usually consigned to a downpage paragraph or two, accompanied by a blurred profile picture of an absurdly youthful face, smiling broadly into the camera. Then again, this slight dignity is rather more than that afforded to the many thousands of Iraqi and Afghan victims who have died since Britain and the U.S. went so boldly and unthinkingly into their respective countries.

I am rarely at one with the Mail’s columnist & pundit Peter Hitchens but I was easily persuaded by his cogent arguments in a recent piece linking the most recent military deaths in Afghanistan to the sadly premature death of six-year-old Ivan, the disabled son of David and Samantha Cameron.

At last count, the Pentagon says that 4,253 U.S. service members have died as a result of the war in Iraq since March 2003 while another 584 have been killed in Afghanistan

According to the Ministry of Defence, 149 British service personnel have been killed on active service in Afghanistan while the toll since 2003 in Iraq is 176 fatalities.