I have been waiting for this book to arrive for some time: the wonderful and important new Errata Editions “Books on Books” version of what, in my undoubtedly biased opinion, is one of the greatest photography books ever published. Chris Killip’s In Flagrante was originally produced in London by Secker & Warburg in 1988. It contained a series of fifty unforgettable photographs taken during the previous 12 years or so, and all but one of them taken in the north-east of England, which is to say within a bus ride’s distance from the place where I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne.
The original book has long been out of print, but now it has been lovingly re-presented, rather than simply reprinted, by New York-based Errata Editions. And, to be frank, this new edition made me even more angry than the original did. Because the England that Mr Killip records in these pictures is not one for which I can feel one ounce of nostalgia. It is barren and blighted. It is “Thatcher’s Britain” at its most callously divided and strife-torn. And the individuals who people it belong in the main to an unfortunate sub-class who, for the so-called Iron Lady and her cronies of the “new right”, were little more than the inconvenient and unsightly detritus of an obsolete economic model. The north-east had been the original site of the industrial revolution. Its economy – and much of its identity – had been tied up with coal-mining, ship-building, and other heavy industry. The first railway locomotives to be built anywhere in the world came from this corner of England, which was where the steam engine had been invented in the first place. By the 1980s however, almost all of that industry was either dying or dead, and what remained of it was cynically throttled by Thatcher’s government during the disastrous mid-80s miners’ strike. The strike provides the subject for many of the pictures in this book, and the historical backdrop for a lot of the rest of them. The suggestion that any of us – either me writing this, or any of you reading it – is really suffering in the failing economy that I keep reading about is rendered ludicrous, quite frankly, by these pictures. These people’s circumstances are almost inconceivably bleak. Some of them live by picking up the beach coal that is washed ashore by tides that pass over coal seams that emerge out at sea. Others watch as the industries that sustained their parents and grandparents simply disappear. They drink cups of tea and smoke cigarettes, they fall down in the street, they sniff glue, they shave their heads and get into fights, they sit on a filthy sewer-washed beach in the pale sun, they make doorstop sandwiches and celebrate the wedding of Charles and Diana. They cope somehow.
A tragic subject matter does not in itself make great photography, however, and the other half of the equation that resulted in In Flagrante’s remarkable pictures was Mr Killip’s passionate commitment to presenting the callous injustices that these people suffered. He will probably object to that form of words. In the brief foreword that he wrote for the book he talked simply about his “subjectivity” and even – famously and provocatively – about the “fiction” that he had created. But without his tenacity in seeking out the particular circumstances that offered up these images, without his wit in recognizing them and his courage in recording them, and without the intelligence and barely contained rage with which he and his editor Mark Holborn composed them into a sequence, this book would have not have been the shocker that it was in 1988, nor the profoundly affecting reminder that it is now. I quite often find myself talking to Americans who have swallowed whole the mythology of Margaret Thatcher as a great Prime Minister, and who imagine that Brits of my generation regard her with respect. If you are one of those people, you really should buy this book. You should look closely at Mr Killip’s photographs, and read the genuinely moving two-hander between John Berger and Sylvia Grant (which was part of the original book) and Gerry Badger’s insightful essay “Dispatches from a War Zone” (which has been added for this one). Buy it and you will come to understand that Mrs Thatcher was one of the most authentically evil individuals ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. Everyone else should buy it simply because it is a great book.
Newcastle upon Tyne and its immediate environs are never going to be pretty. I still find it a ghastly, depressing place and I go back there as rarely as possible and then only to visit my family. But compared with the world that Chris Killip revealed 21 years ago, the place is a little heaven on earth, just like the City Councilors would have us believe, I am sure. In the foreword that I have already quoted, Mr Killip suggested that, “to the people in these photographs I am superfluous.” Time has actually proven him wrong. Published at a time that was unhappy and seemingly devoid of answers for many of us in England, this book made people look at things they would have preferred to ignore, and think about things that were genuinely difficult to contemplate. In Flagrante helped change the world, and in my opinion there is no more important role that we can ask art to perform.
On Saturday afternoon, March 28, there is going to be a big book-signing event at Howard Greenberg Gallery to tie in with the AIPAD fair. Chris Killip will be there signing copies of In Flagrante. If you can’t make it on Saturday, you can buy it here: