Monday, 27 July 2015

Dench Diary : November 2014 - January 2015


November 2014

14th It’s a very British triple book launch at The Photographers’ Gallery in London and the bookshop is swell. John Bulmer’s tower of Wind of Change are being swiftly signed away; Patrick Ward is diminishing his stack of Being English and my pile of A & E: Alcohol and England, has had to be replenished. Looking around, it’s a bit like a wedding; a room full of people I’m glad are here but can’t spend as much time talking too as I’d like. Those who have taken time to attend are friends who were generally there at the beginning of my career, and I hope, will be there for a beer at the end.


16th I fasten the Very Very Important Person [VVIP] wristband on and take my place in line with 34 other VVIP’s as we make our delayed way to the front row of a room of slightly peeved and envious thousands. The young and beautiful female compere, gingerly navigates the rucked stage carpet as the audience leer and jeer; the microphone slightly distorts her dulcet voice. The crowd gasps, I dare say, quivers, as tanned Hollywood action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger (shorter than you might think), fist-pumps into view.  After an entertaining hour in the company of Arnie and his anecdotes, the VVIP’s, who have paid £2000 to be here, are escorted upstairs to a private room of the Lancaster Hotel in London for a more intimate audience. Arnie firmly navigates the room, signing the red dressed breasts of Pang, who is visiting from Great Yarmouth with her partner, Darren. He signs DVD covers for Howard, who has a friend who has met Arnie 56 times. I meet Arnie for the first time and ask if he’s any life-advice? “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pretend you do.” That’s advice I can live by. I ask if I can get him a glass of champagne. Arnie moves on. I get myself a shot of Vodka champagne flavoured with creme de cassis (yet to be officially released in the UK) and tuck into the VVIP nuts; olives; mini burgers and bangers with a mash dip.


18th I receive a letter from the office of prime minister David Cameron saying thank you for the copy of A & E I sent him. Thank You! I was hoping to be summoned to an audience with the PM and bestowed the title of Booze Tzar of Britain.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

20th People often ask why I choose to live in London when there is no longer the need and finances are tight; I often ask myself the same question. Checking the diary explains the benefits: book launch at The Photographer’s Gallery; a corporate shoot on Oxford Street; a last minute commission to attend the Schwarzenegger event and tonight’s leaving drinks for Telegraph Magazine Director of Photography, Cheryl Newman, hosted at the newly opened Salmontini in Belgravia. It would have cost me a months rent in travel to London and overnight accommodation for the past week alone. Cheryl ‘Chezza’ Newman, has in my opinion, been consistently the best picture editor in Europe for over a decade. Chezza has commissioned me to photograph inside Europe’s largest brothel (12 floors of whores); on the set of television series This Life: Ten Years On; Footballers’ Wives; Green Wing; Rev and Scott & Bailey. She has sent me to Finland, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, America, Rwanda and many places in between. She has insisted I party with models and Maharaja’s and signed off mini-bar expenses that would have significantly reduced the national debt . By her own admission, she awarded me the best commission that came her way during her 16-year tenure; a week travelling across India with billionaire Vijay Mallya. As she delivers her farewell to the wishing her well crowd, another chapter in the collapse of editorial photography publishing is witnessed.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

21st I receive an email inviting me to attend dinner at the House of Lords with guest speaker, Alastair Campbell. The advise is to dress casual. I make a note to dry clean my Fila tracksuit.

22nd My daughter, Grace, is ten years old today. Friends and family begin to message. ‘Where does the time go?’ I can tell you where the time goes: Getting up at 6am; hospital and doctors appointments; dental check-ups; swimming club; running club; basketball and netball club; school drop off; school pick-up; off-school sick days; changing beds; making beds; homework; flute lessons; animation club; play rehearsals; trips to the zoo; trips to the aquarium; visits to museums; dropping off at friends houses; holidays; picking up from friends houses; washing clothes; ironing clothes; putting away clothes; cooking meals; preparing lunches; collecting cuddles; choosing pets; bike rides; scooter rides; piggyback rides; tickle time; bath time; hair cuts; brushing hair; drying hair. Among others.

24th I’m sat tightly holding Grace’s hand (the one that’s not fractured) in clinic 1b at The Whittington Hospital in north London. There’s a light shade streaked with blood; a woman screams as she plummets to a gory death from an upstairs balcony. It’s hardly an appropriate television show to be screening and I’m relieved when our names are called out for our appointment.


26th I’ve been invited to take a tour of the Getty Images archive housed in west London. There are millions upon millions of photographs by some of the worlds most respected photographers. I can open any door; pull a box from any shelve; turn the page of any magazine. “Peter, what would you like to see?” asks my host, arcing his arm across the army of receding shelves. I consider this for a short time. “Got any nineteenth-century pornography?”

29th People often ask  me if I’m an alcoholic. I know I’m not an alcoholic because I know Pete Crowley. I first met Pete in 2001 when he was a resident at Alex 1, the alcohol treatment unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, Kent, where he was being treated for alcohol addiction. I was invited there to photograph him. Two photographs documenting his treatment feature in the A & E book. Today I take some pastries around to Pete’s flat; he’s been dry for eight years. As we munch blueberry muffins with his girlfriend, she explains after one particular binge, thinking it might be best to lock Pete in his flat. Pete explains that if she had, he’d have jumped through the window to get another bottle of booze. Pete lives on the top floor of a tall block of apartments. I wouldn’t jump out of the top floor of a block of apartments for a bottle of booze. 

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

30th My wife and daughter have gone away for the weekend; this worries me. Afraid of being left to my own, often self-destructive devices, I have scheduled two portraits for my reportage of female fitness models, to avoid sitting in my pants all morning watching The Football League Show on BBC iPlayer while waiting for The Alex bar and restaurant to open. My first meeting is with Aleksandra in Palmers Green; I arrive in the vicinity of her home half-an-hour early. As I watch the drivers irritably navigate through drizzling rain dousing the North Circular road; I bitterly regret not sitting in my pants watching The Football League Show on BBC iPlayer waiting for The Alex bar and restaurant to open.

December

2nd I have reached another milestone in life; I am no longer visible to attractive women under 40.

5th “My Daddy’s photographed Darcey Bussell” says the irksome girl in class 4F. “I photographed Darcey Bussell when I visited the set of BBC television show, Strictly Come Dancing while on assignment for the The Times magazine ” I reply. “No you haven’t, you’re a liar and I bet you haven’t directed a film for SKY TV? My Daddy has.” she continues, flicking her pigtails behind her massive ears (or tiny head). “No, but I did make my television debut as a presenter on Channel 4 News in September, delivering a piece to camera on What is it to be English?” I add. “Then why are you photographing us in a silly school play?” As the children of Google entrepeneurs; A-list film actors and captains of industry wait their turn, I mumble; “I thought it would be a rewarding and enjoyable thing to do.”


7th I need to buy a Christmas present for my sisters fiancĂ© Geoff. I've only met Geoff twice and ask my sister what he might like. He might like a bottle of Pernod, the anise-flavoured liqueur created after Absinthe was banned. It’s little inconvenient; I not only have to leave Crouch End to find a bottle but also return to 1986.

12th I ask Jim Stephenson, founder of The Miniclick Photo Talks, if I can leech a Brighton book launch of A & E at the Miniclick Christmas party. Jim agrees. I ask the publisher of A & E, if they can send a couple of boxes books to Brighton; they arrive at my home in London. Undeterred, I place two of the 11.9KG boxes into my biggest suitcase and lift it towards the front door; the handle on the suitcase breaks. Undeterred, I raft it down the stairs and drag it to the bus stop just in time to join the after-school crush. I fail to board two buses as pupils from the local High School push in; they don’t go upstairs - most of the Kentucky Fried friends will only travel one-stop. Arriving in Brighton, guests in the intimate room upstairs at Mrs Fitzherberts are more into partying hard than purchasing hardback books. Undeterred, I haul the suitcase back down the stairs and towards Brighton railway station. Millwall, arguably the most violent of England’s football fans, have just triumphed over Brighton and are overwhelming the station concourse. Dressed in my usual attire of a 1982/83 season football hooligan, with a large heavy suitcase and a scalpel in my pocket (used for opening the boxes of books), I feel slightly vulnerable. Undeterred, I board the train home just in time to mingle with the boozed up midnight masses vying for a northbound tube train on the Victoria line; I fail to board two trains before I squeeze onto a third one bound for home.



January 2015

5th First official day back at work; the crows outside my bedroom window claw through a whisked mist morning: I check my bank balance, £0. I check money I owe, £0. I check money I’m owed, £0. I call that a level playing field and begin to slowly crank the year into action.

9th I haven’t had an assignment since mid-November, 2014, and inform my agent, “I’m up for anything.” Turns out anything is taking full length snaps of guests at a menswear fashion party for the Wall Street Journal. I’m provided with a list of around forty luminaries expected to attend; at the top of the list is rapper, Tinie Tempah. Arriving at the party, I’m reminded of one of my first ever professional assignments in 1998, for GQ magazine (except GQ magazine said ‘just take photographs of what you find interesting’). What I found interesting, was shoes and cleavages. When I delivered the contact sheets to the GQ office at Vogue House, I was asked by then Art Director, Tony. “Were you really crawling around on the floor snapping women’s shoes?” I was. Today there is no Tinie Tempah, or crawling on the floor and I struggle to leverage enough space in the crowded house to shoot full-length portraits.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

10th I have a confession to make: I, I, I, I haven’t-had-a-drink-this-year!! There, I said it. It’s the longest I’ve been without an alcoholic drink since birth. It’s been a disappointing experience. I thought my general lethargy; lack of concentration; headaches and constant brooding about my own mortality were a result of the booze. This was an incorrect assumption. Today, the waking ache of another day without the prospect of a drop or a dram is too much and after 10 horrifyingly long days, I decide it is healthier to wake up with a choice. I choose to drink. Next time I expect to give up alcohol, it will only be on the express orders of a doctor. I zip up and on my new red, blue and cream hooded Fila cagoule and head over to The Alex to apologise.

28th After dinner speaker, Alastair Campbell, former Director of Communications and Strategy for Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, is describing the worrying normalisation of alcohol in British society. The Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, seated to my right, nods gently in agreement. Among the sixteen guests sat in the intimate Home Room at the House of Lords, is military top brass; Sirs from the medical profession; robust looking lawyers; comedian and actor, John Thomson and me, an increasingly rare occasion, where I’m one of the younger guests. How exactly did I get here? Drink got me here.

After the book launch of A & E, I sent a copy to Alcohol Concern, a small national charity with a big vision that has been driving attempts to change the drinking culture in the UK. They sent me an invite to dinner to celebrate and discuss Dry January, an awareness campaign and fundraiser to encourage the nation to think about drinking less.

The idea of a Dry January is a bold one. It’s arguably the worst month to give up booze: it’s long, it’s dark, and it contains Blue Monday (typically the third Monday of the month and purported to be the most depressing day of the year). As a freelance photographer, it can be even more depressing: there is generally less work in January than other months (allowing more time to be spent in the pub) and what money there is left at the end of it, is swallowed by the Taxman.

As the cured salmon is rapidly dispatched, followed by rump of lamb and apple treacle tart (served with bramble compote and clotted cream), the conversation around the table in the Home Room is ebullient and frank; probing and profound. Comments from Sir Ian Thomas Gilmore, a professor of hepatology (diseases of the liver) and former president of the Royal College of Physicians of London, are particularly poignant. Baroness Hayter brings the evening to a close and we raise a fizzy water toast “to Dry January.” I heave my frame back through Black Rod’s Garden Entrance (Black Rod is nowhere to be seen) and breathe into a bitterly cold, lamp-lit London and consider a dry February, then swing into Saint Stephen’s Tavern, the closest pub to the Houses of Parliament, for a well earned, very large glass of red.

A version of this feature was first published in Issue 2 Volume 3 of Hungry Eye Magazine available to purchase here

I HAVE A NEW BOOK!

Delighted to have again collaborated with Bluecoat Press to publish The British Abroad