Three Young Men on a Bench

*** - p/w beyond


An earlier version of this essay and film appeared on MANDEM in 2018.  

THEN: Grandad said he wasn’t moving anywhere that didn’t have the space for him to grow his own vegetables. The boat arrived in Bristol but it wasn’t right. Bristol said go to Gloucester, Gloucester said go to Stroud, and that’s where he ended up settling. A largish town in South West England with plenty of allotments and a 98.7% white population. He settled, he worked, he brought his wife and kids over and then they bought a house. My mum was born in their back garden, where Grandad grew Jamaican radishes in the English soil.

But not everyone could afford to come over like them, and those who managed to make the journey had to send money back home. Accompanying the fortnightly dispatches of crisp pound notes were photographs, developed at the local chemists and with the sole purpose of showing off just how great life was over here. Film wasn’t (and still isn’t) very cheap so every shot had to be just right; no crooked shirts or hairs out of place, no closed eyes and no mistakes.

But look at this photo. Shirts straight, hair combed, eyes opened, flawless. “They are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colours” wrote Williams about the players at the start of Stanley Kowalski’s poker night, and I would argue the same could be said again for this trio. Dressed in Sunday best - pinstriped blazers, paisley cravats and Chelsea boots - they look like they’ve just walked off the Wales Bonner runway. Uncle Curtis on the right, his cousin Raphael on the left and their mate Brian sandwiched in the middle. Three young men on a bench, taking a breather halfway up the hill from their expedition to chat up the nurses on their lunch break.

Password: KOWALSKI

NOW: I knew that any attempt at a live action recreation of the original wouldn’t be able do it justice, so I settled on crafting a reinterpretation instead. I dissected the photo into its component parts – the place, the people and the clothes they were wearing – and set out to capture something to represent each of them.

I decided to capture the clothes (scavenged from family wardrobes and charity shops) dangling in the wind on the highest point of the local viewpoint, Coaley Peak, to let the warm August winds bring life and character into the folds of the fabrics. The bench is about a five minute walk away from the house that I’ve lived in for most of my life. I’d never sat on it before, and I still haven’t to this day - to do so would be akin to desecrating a shrine. When we came to film there were a few slats missing from the back and a couple of empty gin bottles stashed underneath it, but we didn’t intervene; we just let the camera roll and stepped back.

The voice you hear in the film is that of my uncle Nigel, the brother of Curtis (d. 2010) who I caught one morning off the back of a nightshift. We got talking about the responsibilities that came alongside representing the community as a young black man in Stroud, and despite the differences between us - he’s a dark-skinned Jamaican immigrant and I’m a mixed-race British national - much of what he says about having to look your best still rings true.

Two images with the same name, two sides of the same coin; teday fe mi, tumarrah fe yuh. 

Thanks to Marie, Olly, Will and Nielsan for all their help on the shoot and with the edit, Elias and everyone at MANDEM for giving me a place to digitally exhibit the project when it first came out, Uncle Nigel for sharing his story and his photograph, and most important, the family, for living it up the first time round.

Dedicated to Curtis, Brian and Raphael. Much love.