by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Long Way From Finsbury Park

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 December 1997



Don McCullin's brilliant career as a war photographer might have ended on the first day of his first foreign assignment, in Cyprus in 1964.

'I was driving through Limassol with Ivan Yates, the Observer's ecclesiastical correspondent, when there was a very loud noise: Brrrr-Brrrr. I said: 'The bloody exhaust has fallen off, Ivan.' I stopped the car, got out and looked underneath it. The exhaust was still there. Then this terrific noise started again. It was two bren guns firing over the top of the car,' McCullin told me.

'I jumped back in and we went careering up the road like something out of the Keystone Cops. I was going to stop and get my cameras and go back in, when Ivan said: 'I hate to bring this up just now, but I do have a dinner appointment in Nicosia tonight.' I said: 'Ivan, I can't leave. This is what I've come here for, this is it.' In the end, I drove Ivan out to where he could get a cab, and managed to get back in, at which point I was jumped on by a load of Turks in army great coats and woollen hats, who marched me off to the police station on the Turkish side under close arrest.'

'Eventually, they gave me a bed for the night. In the morning they said: 'You'd better be careful, the Greeks are going to attack today.' And this was music to my ears - that's the terrible thing about ambition. And then a bullet hit the iron bars on the window beside which I'd been sleeping, and went ricocheting around, going wang-wang-wang. I put my boots on and ran into the street. I heard firing and ran in that direction. Then I spotted a cinema. I took that picture of the man coming out with the sten-gun - the world's worst weapon, by the way. It's only got a range of 50 yards, and then you could only be sure of hitting something if it was the size of an elephant.'

'Then there was a lot of screaming and firing, and I photographed people running away with mattresses on their heads, as though that would stop a bullet! There were a load of women and children sheltering in the cinema and it was under attack. So I put down my cameras, ran across the field of fire and grabbed a kid from a woman who was already carrying another one - they were frozen with terror - and got her and the children out. After they saw that, the Turks helped me, because they thought I was alright.'

'This was really the beginning of me taking sides, which is not what you're there to do,' McCullin added. 'You're supposed to be an impartial witness, but if you had any heart, you could quickly see how the Greeks were maltreating and bullying the Turks. And I don't like bullies. I was sometimes bullied as a kid, but I never let bullies kick me around without having a good go at them, even if I got a terrific hiding, which happened quite often. Anyway, as we all know, in the end the Greeks lost half the island.'

This baptism of fire triggered a response not only to action and danger but also to injustice and suffering that was to characterize his two decades of reporting war, disaster and famine all over the globe that followed. 'In later years I would develop a principle about trying to put back into a situation from which I was taking. But there was no theory at work that day. It was all instinct,' as McCullin says in his fascinating autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.

McCullin was in London just after the presentation of 'Sleeping with Ghosts', an impressive and moving retrospective of 200 photographs at the Barbican Art Gallery, and a book of the same title, spanning his entire career to date. He was about to disappear to India for several weeks for another of a series of trips over several years to shoot pictures for a new book he is preparing on the subcontinent.

Photography for McCullin was a fortuitous escape route from a grindingly poor background with dismal prospects. Born in London in 1935, he was raised in two-room basements in King's Cross and then in a tenement in Finsbury Park. Don was bright, but a tearaway like most of the other boys he grew up with, and he reckons himself lucky not to have ended up in borstal and prison as many of the others did. He was good at drawing but dyslexic, a condition unrecognized at the time. But his hopes of continuing his education at an art school were dashed when his invalid father died, and McCullin, then 14, became the main breadwinner of the household.

While he was doing National Service in the RAF in Kenya, a pilot on the milkrun to Aden brought back for Don, for £30, 'a spanking new Rolliecord 4 in a wonderful leather case, a jewel, a beautiful thing - camera's don't have leather cases any more, they have plastic ones that are supposed to look like leather,' said McCullin, looking down and and tenderly cradling the invisible treasure at the thought of it.

After returning home, he pawned the camera 'for a tenner', but his mother persuaded him to redeem it, and he started taking 'snaps' of the boys in Finsbury Park, in particular his old mates who had formed a gang know as 'the Guvnors'. By chance rather than good guidance the Guvnors were not directly involved in a brawl in which a policeman was knifed to death. In the ensuing public furore about violence and juvenile delinquency, friends at the animation studio where McCullin had found a job as an errand boy urged him to take his photos to the newspapers. The Observer picture editor had the eye to spot an exceptional new talent and McCullin's life was transformed almost overnight.

The main picture, published in a feature in 1959, was of the Guvnors posed in urban jungle battle-formation amid the ruins of a bombed-out house. 'Now, much more than then, I can recognize that it was a strong picture. It shows an awareness of structure that must have been instinctive, because I would not have know what the term meant at the time. It was also brilliantly exposed, which must have been a fluke, because I did not possess a light meter,' as McCullin recalled later.

'I was suddenly in demand,' he said, 'but I really knew nothing about photography. So I quickly tried to get some knowledge of it. I started buying books and got to meet some other young photographers, but unlike me they were educated, had even been to university. I think they looked on me like their little pet mongrel friend,' he said with his usual self-deprecating humor.

So began McCullin's hectic life as a photojournalist, during which he was to report every major conflict in the world, from the Six Day War, Biafra, Vietnam and Cambodia to Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and El Salvador, imprinting on the minds of anyone who saw his pictures during that period indelible and affecting images.

After working for the Observer and Sunday Telegraph, McCullin joined the Sunday Times in 1966. It is to the credit of the then editors that they appreciated McCullin's extraordinary gifts and personality, allowing him to follow his hunches, disappear into the field for weeks on end without referring back to base, and print and edit his own pictures, privileges not extended to any other staff photographer, and ones which allowed allowed him not only to produce news pictures of unparalleled impact, but to document in a unique style the momentous events of the times.

Indeed, McCullin's determination to be his own man sometimes led to confrontations with the great and the good. When he was assigned to record Montgomery revisiting the battlegrounds of the North African campaign, the ennobled Field Marshal refused to be photographed by this young upstart with unsuitably long sideburns. McCullin declined to trim them and demanded to be recalled to London. The Field Marshall climbed down. 'He liked people who stood up to him,' said McCullin, who was subsequently invited several times to visit Monty at his house in Hampshire, where the talk was usually 'about whichever war I had just returned from'. On one occasion the retired warrior threw open a a pair of huge garage doors, proudly to reveal his most prized souvenir: Rommel's caravan.

Having survived numerous close shaves with death - in Cambodia the body of his Nikon once took the full force of an AK-47 round leaving him miraculously unscathed, but soon after he was badly wounded by a grenade that killed the man next to him, and later he was again seriously injured in El Salvador - McCullin was never so devastated as when he was determinedly blocked by the authorities from covering the Falklands War. Even the Imperial War Museum's attempts to dispatch him on their behalf failed - thus depriving the nation of a priceless visual record from, by then indisputably, the greatest front-line photographer of his generation.

In 1984, after publicly criticizing changes in philosophy at the Sunday Times after it had been bought by Rupert Murdoch, McCullin was hauled in by its new editor, Andrew Neil: 'I'd said that I thought the Sunday Times was losing its direction. But it turned out I was the one who was losing my direction - because I was fired.'

There followed a period in the doldrums during which his wife Christine, his boyhood sweetheart, died of a tumor. Several years on he has recently remarried the American aerial photographer Marilyn Bridges, and his work has taken an entirely new turn. Based at his house in rural Somerset he has been doing some astonishing still-lifes and landscapes, and is now collaborating with Marilyn on a joint English landscape project, 'with Marilyn taking pictures from the air and me on the ground'.

Some years ago McCullin by chance, in the wilds of Chad, ran into his younger brother Michael who was fighting there with the French Foreign Legion - which suggests that some at least of Don's once insatiable thirst for adventure and danger might be seriously genetic. Having been able to spend only an hour together, Michael tried to give Don 'an elaborate hunting rifle with telescopic sights' as a parting present: ''What on earth am I to do with it in Hampstead Garden Suburb,' I had to say. He was upset by my attitude, but I was incapable of accepting his gift. I left thinking Finsbury Park must have done strange things to both of us, to wind up in this godforsaken place.'

McCullin has come a long way not only from Finsbury Park, but from the other harrowing experiences that inevitably haunt him. What was so heartening, seeing him about to depart for India, was that this amazing man's energy and curiosity seemed so utterly undimmed and that he should feel there is still so much left in the world for him to search out, and to open the eyes of others to see.


by Don McCullin

Jonathan Cape. £20


by Don McCullin

Jonathan Cape. £15.99

First published: Traveller

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023