Three Young Men on a Bench

Password: CoaleyPeak

I came across the inspiration for this piece whilst I was rifling through a box filled with old photos of my mum and her family living their best black lives in the seventies rural Britain. Me, my mother and her family all grew up in Stroud, a largish town nestled in the heart of Gloucestershire with a 98.7% white population. It might seem like a bit of an unusual place to bring up a black family, especially in the seventies, but there was logic behind the move.

When my grandfather, Bill, made the decision to start afresh and move to the UK in the sixties, he knew that he wasn’t going to do it without having a garden. Back in Black River, Jamaica, he was surrounded by lush greenery and lived off the land, hence when he was coming over here, he needed to have the space to grow his own vegetables like he could back home. So that’s why the family decided to move to hilly Stroud.

Anyway, about the photo. It’s a picture of my uncle Curtis (sat on the right), his cousin Raphael and their mate, Brian, and it was taken in summer 1968. The three of them are kitted out in their Sunday best on a hot August day, sat on a bench about a five minute walk away from the house that I’ve lived in for most of my life. In my eyes, it’s truly the perfect picture. Three young men on a bench, teetering on the cusp of adulthood, radiating masculinity like the primary colours and forever frozen in a photograph.

Pinstriped blazers, paisley cravats and Clarks’ desert boots; if you didn’t know the picture was fifty years old, it could easily be mistaken a backstage photo from a Wales Bonner runway show. You could be forgiven for thinking that the photo was taken on a high-end camera with the aid of lighting assistants and make-up artists, but it was probably snapped on a disposable camera without a moment’s thought and then later developed at the local chemist.

Not everyone could afford to come over to the UK from the Caribbean back in the day. Those who managed to make the journey over to the UK often had to provide for and send money to those back home. Accompanying the fortnightly dispatches of the crisp pound notes were photographs, showing off just how great life was over here, and since film wasn’t (and still isn’t) cheap, every photo had to be just right – no crooked shirts or hairs out of place, no mistakes!

So when I saw this photo of my uncle and his mates, I knew I had to do something with it. I could’ve just put it on Instagram with a nice caption but I felt like it deserved something more than that. I also knew that any attempt at a live action recreation wouldn’t be able do it justice, so instead I decided on a crafting a reinterpretation. 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.

With that in mind, I grabbed a bag of vintage shirts from my wardrobe, called up my mate, Marie who has a VHS camera and we headed out onto Coaley Peak, a local viewpoint that looks out over the Stroud area. We decided to shoot the clothes dangling in the wind on the highest point of the hill, to let the surrounding nature bring life and character into the folds of the fabrics. The bench you see in the film is the exact same bench as in the original photo, albeit a bit worse for wear with a few slats missing and a couple of empty gin bottles stashed underneath it. There wasn’t really much else we could do to improve the shot apart from lining the it and letting the camera run, so that’s what we did.

The biggest influence on the look and feel of the final cut you see was probably a playlist of R&B interludes I had on in the background when I was editing. Tracks like Frank Ocean’s “Good Guy”, Kelela’s “Bluff” or Blood Orange’s “With Him” may have relatively short runtimes, but feel more like precisely crafted songs than rough studio sketches, and I tried to channel those short but perfectly formed bursts of creativity into the final composition.

The voice you hear in the film is that of my uncle Nigel, the brother of Curtis and the man who took the original photo, speaking over the sound of the birds recorded from outside my window. I caught him on the phone off the back of a nightshift one morning we got talking about the responsibilities he had growing up as a young man in Gloucestershire whilst representing the black community. Despite the fifty-year age gap between us and our two very different lives - he was a Jamaican immigrant and I’m a British national - much of what he says about having to look your best still rings true for me.

And the thing that unites us both, apart from shared genetics, is that we were both boys of colour coming of age in the same predominately white town. Yeah, there may have been some bad times along the way but overall, growing up in Stroud has been a pretty good experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Three Young Men on a Bench is a portrait of rural black masculinity, a love letter to the country roads that raised me and an ode to the clothes that I wore along the way.

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 most important, the family, for living it up the first time round.

Dedicated to Raphael, Brian and Curtis.