Bits of a Life, episode three

Who are we? It’s the sort of question which can lead to endless philosophical speculation. Or, if you’re drunk late at night, it can lead to such strong bewilderment that you may think you accidentally took LSD.

In earlier parts of this autobiographical wandering, I wrote about my life as a child and as an almost-adult. Here, I will talk about – growing into an adult and how my experiences shaped who I am. I don’t expect to reach any final conclusion. After all, we’re always changing.

In my last year at secondary school, the whole school was given a lecture by a psychopathic headmaster. He had a large bullet-shaped head, and a red face that grew purple when he got angrier. I’d seen him terrorise the toughest boy in school , just for fun. He told us, in the huge assembly hall, that – it did not matter what job we did, as long as we did it well. The only example he gave was – being a conscientious toilet attendant. All I took from this was I didn’t want to be a toilet attendant, even a conscientious one. And I didn’t want to be a psychopathic headmaster. I had a brief ambition to become an assassin.

I left school in 1979, with no idea of the kind of job I wanted to do. For a few weeks, I spent a lot of time in arcades: playing Space Invaders, Galaxians, and Paper Boy. Or, I ran and cycled aimlessly for miles. Or, if it was raining, which is not uncommon in Dundee, I hid in libraries, where reading books from lots of different sections seemed to have a point to it, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. And, I longed for every weekend when I could meet up with friends who had started college or University or work. They all seemed to have become older than me.

A few months after leaving school, I went on the Youth Opportunities Programme, learning photography at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. The job centre had given me a choice: photography or a warehouse. I thought the warehouse sounded too much like a toilet, so I opted for playing around with cameras, which I did. Some days, I would wander around with a bulky video camera, filming my feet; or I would learn about darkrooms and single-lens reflex cameras or try to find some room or cupboard in a maze of corridors. The place was a vast, grey monster of a building, full of endless corridors and high-ceiling lecture theatres. It was in one of these that I first encountered the meaning of human solidarity.

One of my tasks was to set up the overhead projectors before lectures started. This was easy when I was early and there was no one there; but I always felt jittery when the seats began to fill up with chattering students, and I knew the lecturer would arrive soon. I still had remnants of painful shyness from my schooldays and it made me rush through setting up the overhead projectors, sometimes dropping things. Once, when I was in this kind of nervous state, one of the lecturers appeared out of nowhere. He loomed over me and shouted something about – I should be finished and I should hurry up. I got more flustered, finished setting up, and got away as quickly as I could, not looking at the hundred or so students in the hall, but I felt sure they were all staring at me.

Later, sitting alone in the technician’s room, stewing in my own anger – at the lecturers aggression and at my failure to respond to it, I turned to see one of the students standing at the door. He grinned at me, in a kind way, and said: “Has that bastard been in to see you yet?” I said “No”, but I had no idea what he meant. He nodded and said: “Well, he will. After you left, we all walked out. We decided – none of us are going to his lectures until he apologises to you. We’ve told him. Nobody should be shouted at like that. Let me know when he apologises.” I said I would, and I began to have a very different feeling in my stomach than the horrible one which had been eating me.

Later, the lecturer apologised, in a very grovelling way. I couldn’t have been more amazed than if I had seen the psychopathic headmaster working in a public toilet. It was the beginning for me of a realisation – of the power of rebellions and solidarity. It would grow into my decades of activism as a socialist. Some rebellions I would later be a part of involved thousands or millions of people. But I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew then was I couldn’t stop grinning. And feeling strong – because I was not alone.

After the college, I worked for D.C.Thomsons, as a photographic apprentice. The company did not recognise trade unions; and I rebelled against that by smuggling in and selling copies of a radical newspaper: the Dundee Standard, organised by trade unions. Mostly, I was a denizen of horrible-smelling darkrooms. I also remember an old woman who stood beside a huge drying drum which dried photographs we had printed. All day long she would slowly peel photographs from the drum.

And I remember coming in early to work on Saturday mornings , before anyone else had started. I’d hear the wire-machine clatter into life, and from somewhere else in the world, a black-and-white photograph would mysteriously begin to appear, line after thin line building up into an image. When it was done, I would roll it carefully into a cannister and send it whizzing away to the printing presses, via a system of tubes that I’ve only seen since then in old movies.

After that job, I sent myself whizzing through an equally bizarre system of tunnels to god knows where. Job after job, but none where I felt I completely belonged. I soon talked myself into a trainee film-maker scheme with the Scottish Film Council. Every year, they took on two young people in Scotland to train as film technicians. I was one of them. My only claim to fame was to appear as a tourist in the background of a documentary about Edinburgh Castle, as Sean Connery spoke about Napoleonic “prishoners of war”. It was something I boasted about at the time; but I felt much more proud of learning about camera work and film editing. A lot of my time was spent carrying heavy boxes for film crews; and listening to their banter. Although I dreamt of becoming a filmmaker, it did not feel like a dream I should chase.

Then, came decades of living and working in Dundee: factory worker, youth worker, community worker. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘worker’ in alll of these jobs. I never over-did the ‘work’ side of jobs. I was never lazy, but I did only what I had to do to earn money and not get sacked. I watched a lot of clocks.

In the late 80s, when I set up the Dundee Photography Workshop, and helped form the Dundee Oral History Project which was led by Graham Smith, I stopped clock-watching for a few years and began to care about helping other people and making things things which mattered to other people.

Later, in this new century that sometimes feels like an old century, in my work as a Welfare Rights Officer, I became someone who worked harder to help people than was healthy for me. Often, I took my worries about the people I was helping home with me. I worried about victims of welfare cuts killing themselves. It almost destroyed me. By then, I had helped people with money problems, welfare issues, stopping evictions, listening to anxieties -for around 30 years. I began to feel that – helping people had become almost entirely who I was. Not a bad thing! But I also wondered: what else was I ?

Throughout all of my working life, I have been a lot of people: a dad, and later a grandad; a political activist and organiser against racism and fascism (I was on a deathlist set up by real-life Nazis); a husband (twice, but not at the same time); an investigative journalist; a boxer and runner; and – someone always puzzled by things many people take for granted: things like the incredible wonder of being alive. The main reason I take so many photographs of ordinary places is that I’m always trying to get closer to that feeling: of how amazing the ‘ordinary’ can be.

Somewhere along the way in my life, sometimes hidden amongst the jumble of things and experiences, like an incredible antique clock in the middle of a car boot sale, is my ambition to become a writer. Like an old clock, it sometimes needs repaired. So, I take it out of the jumble of other things and I fix it, as well as I can. I replace the springs of hope and the old cogwheels of writing plans. And, with a bit of luck, it keeps going.

Harvey Duke

You can hear a PODCAST of this episode HERE.

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