I was listening to a podcast the other day on the subject of creativity. One of the subjects the speaker covered was about moments in one’s life when there may be a shift in your creativity focus. That got me thinking about the ‘shifts’ that have occurred for me. From a young age, I’ve had an interest, no, an obsession, about technology. When I started with my first camera it was the same. I focussed on what the camera could and couldn’t do, and bought new cameras that were of increasing technical capability. I snapped photos of everything I saw, until I discovered that I couldn’t afford the film and processing. That drove me into my own darkroom work where, again, the technical aspects of creating black and white image prints on paper was my focus.
So, I thought, when did I start paying attention to my subjects and, more importantly to this subject of creativity, when did I start asking myself, why are you taking this image, Jack?
I had to look back a long time and what I finally settled on was an event that occurred when I moved to England in 1966.
“Oh, you must go to Shudehill on a Saturday, Jack. That’s where the electronics shops are. You’ll find all sorts of interesting stuff there. There are second hand shops where you can get electronics equipment that you can modify and invent things with,” exclaimed my new-found acquaintance at work. I was a graduate engineer in Canada, yet in 1966 in England, at the Wythenshawe Works of Associated Electrical Industries, just a lowly apprentice starting work on the manufacturing floor of a large electrical equipment factory. I was out of my element. Up to then, I lived in a foothills city near the Rocky Mountains in Canada, with family and long-time friends nearby, and with all my electronics hobbies available in the basement. My engineering work was in the field, constructing engineered facilities. Now, in the huge and ancient city of Manchester, England, working in a company of 29,000 employees and immersed in a strange culture, I was feeling lonely and out of place. The thought of rooting around in the centre of the electronics hobby supplies in Manchester made me feel more like I belonged. Finally, something I recognised.
The next Saturday I took the local branch line steam train at 7 am from Flixton into Manchester Central. I walked out the station door, through St. Peter’s Square and up Deansgate toward the Cathedral. I passed the Cathedral, turned right and crossed Corporation Street. Directly in front of me I saw the Shudehill street that I had been told about. There were people everywhere. People that I assumed were of many different ilk, given their varied dress and age, were wandering about with no obvious goal in mind, stopping at different shops to look through small dirty windows at the goods inside or thumbing through the pages of the many books stacked on booksellers carts. These carts were intermingled with food carts up and down the street.
I took in this scene quickly and made my way to Godleys Electronics to find what I had initially come for, a portable radio. Something small that had not only the standard AM band that we had back in Canada, but also the long-wave (LW) and VHF radio band. The LW band was used a lot on the British Isles and Europe in the 1960’s. It had a further reach than the AM band.
Having bought what I wanted, I decided to wander Shudehill and the surrounding streets. I found myself in a world of commerce the likes of which I had never seen or heard of before. Yes, there were many electronics shops, but they didn’t dominate the commerce. Second hand booksellers were everywhere and were very active in their business. I mixed in with the book-browsers and tried talking to a few. I think my accent encouraged strangers I met to strike up a conversation with me. I came across people who wanted something to read for little money and those with money looking for collectable printings of well known books.
A friend from work pointed out that it wasn’t just my accent that got attention. He told me that I would have a hard time melding in with the locals if I kept dressing in tan coloured jeans, white socks, running shoes, and a ski jacket, my normal dress when I was at university in the 60’s. It took me a while to figure out my clothing, but I did and from then on it was usually only my accent that gave me away.
Intermingled with the booksellers on Shudehill were clothing shops selling finished clothes as well as fabric and thread for making your own. Small pubs dotted the street, usually with unremarkable entries of a single door with no window. The street did wind its way up a low hill, hence ‘Shudehill’ and as I walked up the hill I came across a large food market. I had found the Smithfield market, the centre of food distribution for greater Manchester. While I could buy a piece of meat, fish or a few vegetables for myself, this market’s normal clientele were the owners of the food shops located in every community in Manchester.
These were still in place in 1966 and were a carry over from previous times when few people had cars. Nearby residents would walk or take public transport to shop, so local shops were very convenient. These shops had a personal touch. In one place where I lived, the shop owners knew the four of us who were living in a flat (apartment) nearby and always knew what we wanted when we walked in the shop. What’s more, they knew our names. Regardless, I was still known by the nickname Canad’r. I wasn’t bothered. I found it sort of endearing.
“Hello again, Canad’r. It’ll be a nice leg of lamb today then?”
When I left Shudehill that day to travel back to my digs in Flixton, I didn’t realise that life had shifted for me. I was drawn there to hunt down some electronics, an extension of what I did back in Canada. However, I left with a much broader view of my new home in Lancashire, England. I had my eyes opened to a culture and environment that I had never experienced before. Even though the language was common, it was now clear that very little else was.
Looking back, I realise that I had been given the chance to live in an older England for a time. I was there on the cusp of change. Today, with the large number of cars on the road, the centralised shopping malls, reduced public railways for transportation of people, and an affluence unknown by many in the 60’s, the country is a very different place. I believe, for those living there, that life is better. I understand that, but for me, I am glad that I was there before it all changed. I’ll not forget the comfort I felt by the pace of life back then nor such things as travelling to work on the local train, pulled by a steam engine.
The thing that changed for me that day, at Shudehill, was the opening up of my right brain. A new cognition of people and environment rather than things. That has stuck with me and now, in retirement, has given me a kick start to a way of life for me that is more focussed on art and writing than I ever dreamt was possible in 1966. Creativity in more than technology started to take hold.
This is not to say that I went home to my digs (room and board in a home) in Flixton, picked up a pen and paper, and started writing stories and essays about meaningful events and experiences of the day. In fact, for my two years in England, I hardly did any writing except for letters. My photography did become a little more interesting as I explored the world of street photography. The biggest change occurred, because I realised that what I did and had back in Calgary didn’t matter a whit where I was in England—not physically or socially. Somehow, that experience at Shudehill started to pull me out of my old world and into the present moment of what I was experiencing in England—the places and the people. My life became better. I met new people, evolved good friendships, and started to partake in more social events. My first entry into my new environment was when I volunteered to be the musical director in a review that the apprenticeship association was putting on. What a great time that was. I met many new people, some of whom I spent significant time with during my time in England.
Gaining these new experiences and being involved with locals who were brought up in Manchester did result in a wealth of memories and learnings about that different world and culture. These became food for stories that I wrote when I retired from my workplace back in Canada—some memoir, some fiction. I had no idea those stories were being seeded in my head whilst I was experiencing life in England. I’m not sure this would have happened if I had stayed in Canada after graduating, got a secure job, and lived in the same sort of environment and social situation that I had been in all my life.