Friday, 9 March 2012

Dench Diary : November/December 2011

12th - 13th It’s Saturday 10am. I’m in a windowless function room in the basement of a pub. I’m waiting for the six people who have signed up for the ‘This is London’ two-day workshop I’m tutoring under the watchful umbrella of the London Street Photography Festival programme. One of the attendees was successful in winning a place in a competition in association with Metro Imaging. I wager myself a pint I can guess who it is. Andy is the first to arrive, direct from the overnight Megabus from Scotland. Andy will be spending the night in the Clink; a hostel near Kings Cross. I think we have a winner and order a Fosters.


The pub staff are the most resentful I’ve ever met and our presence an inconvenience. From the moment we arrive they are keen for us to leave. More than 100 Freemasons are expected for an evening function. With eight of us in the room, including my helper Miles, the room feels over-crowded. Perhaps the peculiar handshake the Freemasons are said to exchange was developed over centuries of greetings in packed basement bars. By the second day of the workshop, Miles is still happy for me to take the lunch orders and I manage to start calling Hungry Eye reader John by his real name, Tony.

14th The hotel is booked, I’ve checked in for the flight, it departs in seven hours. The commission has been in the diary for a while. A 10-12 day trip to Italy to report on the economic crisis, but there’s a problem, Silvio Berlusconi has announced his resignation putting the assignment in doubt. I wait - call the picture desk - approval granted. Pay my respects at the Stansted Airport Windmill Wetherspoon, and suck back a large Merlot, trying not to think about missing another of my daughter’s birthdays; the fourth in seven years. A clockwork toy claps in the nearby children’s toy store. Touching down in Naples I feel the same way as I have when arriving on assignments for over a decade. Tired, bewildered, unprepared, wondering if I’ll even shoot a frame and worried that I must be the worst photographer for this type of job.

15th After a good nights sleep, the doubts have been temporarily assuaged and I 'boing' out bed full of optimism for shoot day one. In the current economic climate, Italian’s have been advised to take their own blankets when staying in hospital. My brief requires a shot of a patient, or patients, carrying their bundles. I arrive at the hospital and hang around near the entrance. It’s the entrance to the gynaecology wing. I relocate to the other side; it’s the paediatric wing. Then I move on to orthopaedics and loiter. Women carry babies, men carry coats, children carry dollies; no one carries a blanket. I explore the slums of central Naples and take a train out to the suburb of Nola, part of the ‘toxic triangle’ or ‘triangle of death’ where the regional mafia - the Camorra - are reported to illegally burn waste. I photograph a shoebox and a man on a red bicycle wearing a suit.


16th On the Circumvesuviana train line from Naples to Pompeii, a man plays the keyboard as his son, no older than five, collects money. The song he’s chosen to spring the change from our pockets is the 1987 pop classic Never Gonna Give You Up by the hip-swerving, Rick Astley. No one donates a penny. Three stops later I hear the gentle humming of the melody from at least three of the passengers.

17th Le Vele di Scampia, (Sails of Scampia), are an architectural Edward Scissor hands that scrape the sky of the infamous north Naples suburb (Scampia). Suburb: the word to me conjures images from Bill Owens' book Suburbia, where couples cuddle, men rake leaves and tight teenagers frolic in the outdoor swimming pool. Scampia is not that kind of suburb; it’s the drug distribution centre of Europe. Ruled with an iron fist by the Camorra, underground factories mix every conceivable drug. There were more than 60 murders in the neighbourhood in the years 2004 to 2005. It’s a no-go area; I want to go.

The evening before heading out to Italy I had watched The Bang-Bang Club on DVD; the film of the book about four South African photographers documenting the troubles in the 1990’s. In one scene, Greg Marinovich, heads towards the Nancefield Workers' Hostel in the Soweto township to photograph Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Zulus. He is lucky to escape with his life. Taking inspiration from Greg, I ask at the tourist information office about the logistics of getting to Scampia. The fragile brunette looks at me as if I’ve delivered news that she is to spend the night with Berlusconi. The hotel receptionist simply circles on the map some churches I should visit instead. A taxi driver spits and laughs. Later, I leave Piscinola (the last stop on line one of the Napli Metro) and head towards Le Vele di Scampia, along Viale Della Resistenza and onto Via Tancredi Galimberti. On Via Antonio Labriola, a man talks into his mobile and three men cross the road. Further along, two men - one wearing a cap and waistcoat - peer into a five-door dark hatchback, talking to a dark haired man wearing a dark-coloured T-Shirt. An orange bus trundles past. Damp clothes are slapped taut across balconies. Dogs trot, rubbish rots, railings rust, faded posters peel. There’s an intense sense of menace, even online. I close Google Street View, drain my glass of Pinot noir and tuck myself in for the night. I’m not sure Greg would be proud.

18th In the morning I do go. I get off at Piscinola and find a safe vantage point. Notorious locations from modern history are my treasure hunt and I caress my gaze across the magnificent monstrosity of the Le Vele di Scampia with the same breathlessness as one might imagine English archaeologist Howard Carter upon discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. These urban chunks sit as curious as marooned ships on the depleted Aral seabed. The Veles cement innards are slung together like strands from the cheesiest pizza belched with a topping from Vesuvius. I consider venturing further in. What would Greg do? I’m too much of a coward; probably the one eighth of Italian in me. Back in the centre of Naples a woman warns me: “Be careful with your camera.” I’m always careful with my camera. Apart from a group of German tourists at the port, I’ve only seen two others swaggering around with a lens and tighten my grip.

19th After five nights in Naples I’ve not been stabbed in the arse, which I’m told, considering where I’ve been, is quite an achievement. I don’t want to be stabbed in the arse. To help the Italian economy I’ve purchased a fine pair of grey corduroy trousers. It seemed the right time in life to purchase a pair and coincides with going up a waist size. I am now officially, living it large. It’s time to leave the home of the Camorra and I buy a train ticket for Reggio di Calabria; home of the Calabrian Mafia. It’s safe to assume everywhere in Italy is probably the home of some type of Mafia, so I stop Googling.

Europe by train: this is the way to travel; a five-hour journey for less than 40 euros. Making myself comfortable in the six-seat compartment, I imagine the sweet smelling lovelies that will join me with their upward glances and uncrossing of legs. A man with a gammy thumb, and another with a penchant for whistling bluster in. I grumble towards Vesuvius and assess what I’ve learnt about Italians so far. I’ve learnt that they like to applaud the safe landing of an aeroplane. They like to applaud the starting of the luggage conveyor. They are quick to invade an Englishman’s desired personal space and quick to daub graffiti on anything, regardless of value. The second train to Calabria gives a clue of what to expect. It’s reminiscent of the UK’s 1980s regional trains that would transfer football hooligans to their fight destination: windows are frozen open, doors hang from hinges, the toilets are locked, a metallic smell rapes the nostrils.


20th - 24th In Calabria my struggle continues; the struggle to find a place to have a decent drink. Most of the bars are bakeries that serve beer. With a Birra Moretti, I’m offered some cupcakes. I don’t want cupcakes with my beer; I want more beer with my beer. If I ever want to gently peck men on the cheek, enjoy an ice cream and walk up and down the street in my finest clothes, then I may move to Reggio di Calabria. I crack on with the job. At one point I stray into a neighbourhood where the walls are daubed with “Ultras”; a word often associated with extreme football violence endemic in Italy.

I visit Gioia Tauro where, according to a 2006 report, Italian investigators estimate that 80% of Europe’s cocaine arrives from Colombia via the towns docks. I fear my nose may bleed simply from sniffing the wind. I watch lovers kiss in the lamplight by the Ionian sea and hang out watching b-boys break dance. A crushing loneliness descends; I’ve not had one actual in person conversation for over a week. So I invent a friend; Pepe. His breath smells and he only has one bollock. Pepe has also had the audacity to purchase the exact same pair of corduroy trousers. They say all roads lead to Rome (and Getty) and I depart with Pepe for the capital to complete the assignment.

25th The commission has, at times, been a struggle: no writer, no contacts, no guide, no fixer, no crystal clear idea of what I’m supposed to be photographing, no grasp of the language. At one restaurant I managed to order a pizza with chips on top; at another, one with no cheese at all. I’ve drunk blue champagne, a peach-flavoured cocktail, drinks with a cherry at the bottom and drinks with an orange on the top. I’ve walked so far, my big toe-nails have turned black. It’s time to go home. I depart Italy feeling the same way I have departed every other foreign assignment for the last decade: that the work is inadequate, the brief unfulfilled, that it will never be published and this will be my last job.

Landing at London Gatwick, the advertising board flickers images of England: cricket, Oxford University, the white cliffs of Dover, Tower Bridge. I grab my bag and join the flow of silent commuters with their non-gesticulating hands and stoic respect for personal space. It’s good to be back in London, back among the fat little boys with their fried chicken smiles, with its Hijab's and kebabs, child-unfriendly bars, £20 pound note, traffic that stops at a crossing and clocks that tell the right time. This is England, this is home.


5th My wife is participating in the annual Santa Dash charity fun run at Greenwich Park and wants me to go along to watch. It’s early on a Sunday morning and a long way to go. I ask how far she is running; I don’t get out of bed for less than 10K. She is running 10K, so I get out of bed.

8th I’m staring at a young woman’s leg with the tattoo of barbed wire and a revolver on it. It’s a smooth, tanned, long leg. I ask Katie to sign a photograph of it. I’m staring at a black mans head. It’s a shaven, sweaty head. I ask Teddy Bam Bam to sign a photograph of it. I’m staring at the gangster Joe Pyle Jr, wondering if he’ll sign the copy of Jocelyn Bain Hogg’s book, The Family, that I’m holding at the book launch and exhibition at HOST gallery. I approach to ask the question, a man intercepts and questions who I am. “Hello! I’m Peter Dench, author of The Dench Diary, in print and online for Hungry Eye Magazine . . .”



A version of this feature first appeared in issue #4 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here