Wednesday, 17 October 2018

In Conversation With Brian Griffin

Millwall Football Club’s infamous fans race on to pitch at The Den, towards the AFC Bournemouth fans among whom I’m stood. One fan slides on his belly across the goal line into the back of the net, hundreds of others posture and gesticulate threateningly; a thin, fluorescent police line holds them at bay. I’d never been to South Bermondsey, the home of Millwall FC, until this week and today was my second visit in seven days. On my earlier visit, my inaugural trip took me deep into Millwall territory to meet a 40-year fixture of the photographic industry.

On the day of a London tube strike, I double the estimated time it would take me to get to Rotherhithe; the time it takes is actually quicker than it would be on a non-strike day. The spring sunshine is blazing as I board the 381 bus towards my final destination; geese flying in formation in the 20ºC heat point the way. Arriving early, I sit on the South Bank of the Thames and gaze northwards; planes rise and fall towards City Airport, a sea rescue helicopter choppers past, Thames ferries chug their passengers west and discarded plastic bottles, forks and yoghurt pots bob about in the wash from a speeding river police boat.


Heaving back the heavy door I present myself to the two ladies at the residential reception and request today’s company. “He’s a doctor,” suggests lady left; “No, a professor.” suggests lady right. While I wait, they mention they are Millwall FC fans; I ask them where away fans could get a drink near the ground for Saturday’s match. They advise not to drink anywhere near the ground, or to wear team colours, or to look anyone directly in the eye. I begin to hope AFC Bournemouth lose on Saturday to secure Millwall’s survival in the Championship, the second tier of English football. As we continue to pass pleasantries, the Derby University honorary professor, Birmingham University honorary doctor and all round film-maker and photographer Brian Griffin appears.

When Griffin moved to Rotherhithe, knackered wire fencing wrapped around weed-scattered scrubland and thick barbed wire fenced in gnarling Doberman breed dogs here. As we walk briskly towards the Piccalilli Caff at Surrey Docks Farm, past private roads protected by thick iron gates, a succession of fragrant cotton-clad nannies push by and well turned out joggers jostle the blossom from trees.

Griffin couldn’t speak ‘proper’ English until he was around 12 years old, relaying his childhood needs in the dialect of the Black Country, the colloquial name given to the traditional coal-mining region of the Midlands just outside of Birmingham. The dialect is still noticeable as he puts in an order for fishcakes with poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and a Limonata fizzy lemon drink which he decants into a glass, flipping in a straw. Despite the dialect disadvantage, Griffin managed to pass the 11 plus exam and secure a place at grammar school, where he rose to captain the school chess team, an early example of mastering a skill in black and white.

Photo Courtesy of ©Gareth Tibbles

As I sip my Tea Pig mint tea and try not to speckle Griffin with my pulled pork ragu tagliatelle, he explains that in 1969 he turned his back on a promising career as a Nuclear Power Station Pipework Engineering Estimator (on the cooling water section) to study photography at Manchester Polytechnic (MP). It was here he met Martin Parr (MP), his good friend and best man at his first wedding. Griffin suggests that from his time at MP, MP and himself were the only two that really made it as photographers, two-and-a-half if you include Daniel Meadows, but he went in to teaching, so that doesn’t really count, does it?

After graduating, Griffin moved to London (where he has lived for as long as my life) working as a photographer and director of television commercials, music videos and short films. Accolades include the Centenary Medal from the Royal Photographic Society in recognition of a lifetime achievement in photography; the Guardian proclaimed him ‘Photographer of the Decade” in 1989. There have been many books and exhibitions; he is patron of Derby city’s FORMAT Festival and received the Freedom of the City of Arles, France, in 1987. The success has been sustained and it’s not surprising: Griffin’s imagery is constantly in metamorphosis. He’s applied a surrealist approach to portraits of George Melly and Siouxsie and the Banshees and cast the influence of film noir over his self portraits. He has photographed still lives of pig’s feet and black pudding, and photographed portraits of workers lying with their tools as one might witness a knight laid to rest with their sword in a cathedral crypt. He has photographed album covers for pop bands and the stars of Star Wars; he even went to war, covering the conflict in Beirut for a Canadian colour magazine. His work has been exhibited in Tokyo, Paris, London and Reykjavík. Griffin’s photographs swell collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Council, National Portrait Gallery and Arts Council of Great Britain.


Griffin would have given it all up for a career as a motorcycle speedway rider; the sport involving four riders competing over four anti-clockwise laps of an oval circuit has been a constant skid mark in his life since the age of 11, when his parents took him to his first meeting at the home of the Heathens in Cradley Heath Speedway. A young Griffin had discovered new heroes to line up alongside the Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett. Cycling 60 miles along the Lea Valley at ten miles an hour is as close as Griffin now gets to fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a speedway rider. During lunch, as pert mothers idly breastfeed their babies while sipping percolated coffee and pigs squeal their Orwellian demands towards the banks of Barclays, HSBC and Citibank brooding on the Canary Wharf skyline, Griffin imparts some finer points of the sport. Kings Lynn, UK, has the best quality shale track in Europe; Great Britain, Poland, Sweden and Denmark have the best teams in Europe.

Consistently during lunch, Griffin’s mobile phone bings and bleeps, buzzes and pings but there’s one distinctive recurring ring, from his partner Brynja Sverrisdottir, a former fashion model who posed for the lenses of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Confusingly, they’re not married but were blessed in church by the local vicar, a vicar who has since died of alcoholism. Brynja is having difficulty heating the water for a bath; Griffin calmly explains to her that the hot water is timed to come on in the morning when most people are preparing for work and again in the evening when most people are returning home from work. This must be bamboozling for the Icelander (now a successful jewellery designer), heralding from a country so abundant in naturally hot water that it geysers it skywards for fun.

As Griffin completes his lunch, I ask if he knows the significance of the large map of Algeria hanging on the wall where we’re sat. “Probably to do with the owners.” The owners are a young couple called Craig and Scarlett. We move on from the Piccalilli Caff and dock ourselves at the nearby Ship York pub where Griffin explains once spending two years scripting a film called Bluetown. From what I can gather, Bluetown centres on a fictional USAF thought-manipulation centre located on the not-so-far-away Isle of Sheppey; or the script could have been about and influenced by, how Buffalo Bill transported his Wild West Show so efficiently on tour to London in 1887. The truth is, I’m already on my second pint of cider and distracted by how freakishly clean the pub is, arguably the cleanest pub in which I’ve ever imbibed. Perfectly fanned pink napkins are reflected in violently polished tabletops; the copper pipework of the urinals is so spectacular, I linger long after I’ve finished, much to the discomfort of the man peeing next to me. The hand dryer has accompanying ear muffs for the sensitive of hearing and the landlord, Russel, is fondly referred to as Dussel, on account of the dust-free environment. Griffin remarks that the pub is a Millwall football fan stronghold, which can be no coincidence: the world’s cleanest pub for, arguably, the world’s dirtiest fans. Griffin concludes his film pitch and expresses regret at turning down an offer of around a million pounds to produce it.



Born in 1948, this Black Country boy from Stocking Street in Lye (once the bucket capital of the world), would not have become a photographer had Sandy Black not broken his heart, a heartbreak which mobilised him away from the predestined future of factory life that claimed so many of his peers. However, growing up in a world of iron and steel where the pounding beats from in-your-face factories provided the rhythm to each day, has inevitably left its mark. Griffin’s photographs are crafted with the skill and creativity those born in the Black Country would recognise, including his father who lived and breathed in so much industrial pollutant it eventually killed him. Griffin’s photographic legacy is awesome, as awe-inspiring as it must have been for locals to observe the 16-tonne anchor destined for the ill-fated Titanic being hauled by 20 shire horses across the streets of Netherton, just north of Lye.

On the bus back to Rotherhithe railway station, I take a seat downstairs at the back; a seven-year-old boy with a Millwall FC badge on his schoolbag sits opposite and starts to stare. His carer informs me that I’m sat in his favourite seat; I sit firm with a smirk and watch as he wipes away a sniffle with the arm of his blue Peter Hills school sweatshirt. Dench 1: Millwall 0.

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