Posts tagged: honours

A cruel world

By , February 19, 2013 11:08 am

Sometimes life can be ever so cruel.

My last post was published on January 26. A fairly mundane article about the cameras I have owned, I chose to title it “So Long Old Friend”. The following day, the 27th, quite unexpectedly one of my closest friends dropped down dead.

I spoke with him often about the idea of photographing funerals, and he had agreed that in this country our relationship with the death of friends and family is too introspective and not celebratory enough. He thought it was something I should push.

In honour of him, I photographed his funeral, and the response of his family and friends has been overwhelming. It is perhaps best summed up by his oldest friend, Connal. The two had been friends from the age of 6, and Neil was 51 when he died. Connal wrote to me yesterday:

Thank you for your incredible photograph. You found beauty and grace beneath a flat grey sky and captured all that was special about a day of sadness and love. Neil always said you were a brilliant photographer and he was right.

So long old friend.

burial, funeral, cortege, clandon wood

The mourners follow Neil to his last resting place at Clandon Wood. February 15, 2013.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

The threat to the monarchy

By , April 29, 2011 9:26 pm

All the recent polls suggest that around eighty per cent of the population are in favour of the monarchy, and certainly the reporting today appears to support that. The naysayers, on the other hand, are quick to point out that it is an anachronism, that it is unaccountable, that it is patently unfair for a person to gain such advantage purely through accident of birth.

So what can we learn on a day when all the world has turned to gaze upon the theatre of William and Catherine’s wedding? We learn that we do pagentry well because actually the whole institution of monarchy underpins everything we understand about ourselves in Britain; it is the foundation of our society. For all its failings, it has given us a remarkably stable and peaceful form of society, one that is by and large the envy of nations the world over.

Camden Grove street party. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Camden Grove street party. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Elizabeth II has been head of state for longer than anyone anywhere in the world, sixty years next year. Yet in all that time she has barely put a foot wrong, not something you can accuse most politicians of for 60 minutes let alone 60 years. The less charitable would say it was simple luck, but the truth is the Queen is driven by a profound sense of service. Yes, her’s is a position of extreme priviledge, but it is also one of stultifying restriction. Nevertheless Elizabeth has stayed true to the course of loyal duty and service. We might be her subjects, but it is she that serves us with unswerving dedication. That devotion to service is the high price she must pay for her privilege, and I have no doubt that she instills that sense of purpose and duty in her close family.

Think about it; from the moment you are born, your life is mapped. You have no choice in the matter. None. From the moment William was old enough to understand he knew that he was to be king, as did his father. At least Elizabeth began life with no such expectation; even so, at the age of ten, her fate was sealed because of Edward VIII’s abdication. For these royal children there was and is none of the opportunity to imagine what you might be when you grow up. How is that fair?

Bunting in the central aisle of Asda, Swanley. Only the prices seem to have changed in a scene out of the 70s. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Bunting in the central aisle of Asda, Swanley. Only the prices seem to have changed in a scene out of the 70s. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

When Edward VIII chose love over service it caused a constitutional crisis, and one wonders if it would survive such an event again. The support shown today for the renewal of the royal family that arises out of the marriage of William and Kate and their creation as Duke and Duchess of Cambridge indicates that Britain wants it to work. There is a palpable hope that the institution of monarchy can be renewing, can be relevant, can continue to be a cornerstone of our society.

The trappings of royalty may be responsible for the detail of events like today’s, but the spectacular itself is a function of the dynamic of monarchy. A republic has to happen according to timetable, but the events of monarchy are determined by life itself: the weddings, the funerals, the coronations. Many may come at once, then nothing for a generation. The flux of their lives mirrors that of ours, and that is what gives the perception of solidity and continuity. While prime ministers come and go, and one crisis is replaced by another, the monarchy is there as a focal point for society to measure itself by.

Children at Hextable Primary School have a "Street Party" in honour of the Royal Wedding. April 28, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Children at Hextable Primary School have a "Street Party" in honour of the Royal Wedding. April 28, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

So what is the threat to the monarchy from the republican opposition? Nothing of significance. The real threat comes from an heir apparent standing up for his or her inalienable right to determine their own future; a compelling case could be made at the European Court of Human Rights that being born the heir apparent is a form of slavery which is unlawful.

I started by recalling the cry of those anti-monarchists that it is unfair for a person to gain such advantage purely through an accident of birth. But we are all born into advantage or disadvantage. In a very real sense the accident of being born British is to be born into advantage that the vast majority of the world’s population can only dream of. It is not fair, and many are minded to do all they can to redress the imbalance of plenty and poverty. William, like Charles before him, has been born into advantage, but also into a closeted duty the rest of us can barely begin to imagine.

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parkign restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

Camden Grove, Chislehurst. Only the alarm bell boxes and the parking restriction sign put this image in the 21st century. April 29, 2011. Photo © Michael Cockerham

In the end, far from the monarchy existing because we the people allow it to continue, the monarchy continues for as long as those born into that destiny see fit to put duty and service ahead of personal freedom. The threat to the monarchy is greatest within the institution itself. It serves us well, and it is right that we use occasions like today’s to celebrate and maintain it.

We English continues to win accolades

By , February 12, 2010 1:30 pm

The World Press Photo awards 2009 have been announced, and Simon Roberts’ project has won third prize in the Daily Life: Stories category. Just one of the images is not from the book.

The recognition is well deserved, but somewhat curious as Roberts shoots less editorially now than he did 10 years ago. It is his first WPP win, although he was awarded a WPP Masterclass place back in 2003. Wonder what “Bollos” would make of it?

Comic cuts

By , June 13, 2009 1:37 pm

It’s that time of year again where once the great and the good were lauded for their respective greatness and goodness; The Queen’s Birthday honours.

In recent years it has been pleasing to see photography recognised in the lists. Worthy recipients have worked quietly and diligently to promote the medium either through their own work or by making it more accessible to others, not because they sought recognition but because they believe in the value of what they are doing. In the last list, for instance, freelance photojournalist Harry Benson was recognised for his services to photography and the community in the UK, and back in 2005 Rhonda Wilson, the creative director of Rhubarb-Rhubarb was made an MBE for her work. In fact, pretty much every list has seen someone’s work for the betterment of the medium brought to a greater audience. Consequently it is rather disappointing to see not just photography, but journalism as well, completely overlooked in the 2009 Birthday Honours list.

Instead we have what has become the sad routine of famous rich people being given a gong for being,… well, famous and rich really. To be fair, some of them have done much for charity and that is clearly worthy of recognition, but often what has been “done” is the donation of large sums of cash. In that light, consider this: a pop star worth £50 million gives £500K every year to various charities, and in due course is made a CBE at the very least, if not a knight or dame. Meanwhile, Joanna Public can give all her free time, and 10% of her income to a given charity, and the likelihood is that she will never be recognised. If she is it will be years later and a lowly MBE. The star may have “given” more, but the amount represents only 1% of their worth, and any “time” will usually be undertaken by members of their staff.

There used to be a time when most honours were given to civil servants. The concept was simple: they had given their lives to public service earning less than they might have done in the private sector, and the honour was their just reward. The problem was that the media painted this as “Buggin’s turn”, and as public sector earnings caught up with the rest of British Society and people’s careers became far more flexible, it seemed with some justification to be a little out of step with the times. There was, therefore, an opportunity to reinvigorate the honours system when New Labour came into office in 1997. But Tony could not resist the lure of “connecting” with the well connected. The resurgence of popular British culture across the globe was a golden chance to be seen to be in the thick of things that were cool, and New Labour honoured people for their celebrity and cool, and the media lapped it up without criticism or complaint. Nothing will shift copy like a famous person declaring how stunned they were to be told that they were going to be made a little more famous.

There is nothing wrong with honouring people that have done astounding things, it is honouring people who have not that rankles. Consider Sir Steve Redgrave. Here is a man who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic games in a notably gruelling sport. By the time he won the fifth he was diabetic, suffering from ulcerative colitis and had been at the pinnacle of his sport for two decades. By any standards his is a truly remarkable achievement, and worthy of national recognition. Consider Dame Kelly Holmes on the other hand. A great athlete no doubt, but she was made a dame because she won two gold medals at the Athens Olympics. Wasn’t that her job? If we start to knight people  because they have done their job the queue out of Buckingham Palace is going to get very long indeed. The consequence of this rush of love for sporting achievement reached an apogee of farce only five weeks later when Ellen MacArthur was made a dame before she was even back on dry land. What happened to waiting for the next list?

Now the public and the media have come to expect national honours to be showered on the rich and the famous for doing their job. The England Rugby Team won the world cup and they all trouped off to see the Queen. If the football team reach the quarters in the World Cup in 2010 you can be sure the pundits will start to speculate on gongs and an honorary knighthood for Fabio, but is it deserved? If they win everything going for the next 20 years like Redgrave, maybe. But I suspect the good life and the public’s adulation, however temporary, will end up with them taking their eyes off the ball.

The time really has come for a wholesale reconsideration of the honours system. Do we have to hand out a thousand every six months? If the requirements were that recipients of an honour had to have gone above and beyond the call of duty, that their actions were in the interest of community rather than self, it might mean far fewer honours, but think how much more we could applaud them for what they have done.

So where does this leave us? In an era when everyone and their mother thinks they are a photographer there are still some people quietly looking to promote excellence and skills in photography in spite of the difficulties, and many of them deserve recognition; unfortunately there are very few who are celebrities. It’s a pity space couldn’t be found for at least one alongside Sir Nick Faldo and Delia Smith CBE.

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