@NorthernSlant Essays Photography

Book review: Bobby Sands by Yan MORVAN

Book review: Bobby Sands by Yan MORVAN
by Allan LEONARD
11 October 2018

Sorj Chalandon ends his foreword with a question from Bobby Sands’ memorial card: “Will tomorrow be remembered?” He is with Bobby Sands, a photobook by Yan Morvan.


Book review: A Job to Love (The School of Life)

Book review: A Job to Love (The School of Life)
by Allan LEONARD
28 April 2018

I acquired A Job to Love by The School of Life (founder and chairman, Alain DE BOTTON) when I had pretty much decided to enter the job market of the freelancer. So perhaps this read was for self-affirmation.


Book review – The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)

Review: The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction (John ROBERTSON)
by Allan LEONARD for Mr Ulster
1 May 2017

The Enlightenment is one of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series; there are over 400 volumes. Written by experts, they “are for anyone wanting a stimulating and accessible way into a new subject”.


Book review – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Alain de BOTTON)

I have read most of de Botton’s books, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work took me the longest to finish, partly because I am a slow reader, but I blame more on the editing. The chapters are his brief immersions in ten jobs, across the professions.

While absorbing his philosophical reflections was at times illuminating, often his presentations was one of the mundaneness of it all.

Yes, work can be mundane. But for many (if not most), it provides an important sense of worth.

de Botton didn’t ask workers what they enjoy about their work, if they derived any pleasure, even if only social.

Because most work brings people together — colleagues we call them — and for some the proverbial water cooler gossip or post-day pint makes the toil bearable.

Indeed, I would have liked to learn de Botton’s thoughts on the increasing remoteness of work — hot desking, meetings in coffee shops, virtual meetings via Skype calls.

Here, the first two chapters — on cargo shipping and logistics — speak to the physical dimension of our consumption.

But they also provide scope to ponder about how we make those purchases, frequently from our beds tapping an iPad rather than a journey to a town centre.

de Botton serendipitously finds himself in a graveyard of jumbo planes, and he uses the metaphor fittingly to conclude the chapter and the book.

Perhaps this was his intention all along — to make the reader endure the tedium, to learn that our jobs are just ‘matchstick protests’ in the wave of life.

Essays Photography

Book review – Failed It!

Failed It! by Erik Kessels is an easy read of his encouragement of embracing failure as a means of revealing a better discovery. He intersperses his quips with visual inspirations, from both the intentional (by seasoned artists) and the unintentional (by reconsidering the work of some amateurs).

The strength of this short book is demonstrating how play — and a sense of humour — can create something unique, breaking away from the mundane.

I appreciated his sharing of the work of Heike Bollig, André Thijssen, Kent Rogowski, Ruth van Beek, and Joachim Schmid.

But how far does one live with such an approach?

For example, Kessels writes, “Children learn by trying and failing … But children also live in a dream world of play, where mistakes have no consequences, nor are they burdened by the terror of self-consciousness.”

“So why shouldn’t adults do the same?” he asks.

Perhaps because as adults, some mistakes do have consequences. And I would argue that overcoming the terror of our environmental conditioning (finish school, get that job, marry that person, have a family) requires more than acting like a child.

Being a failed parent or spouse may enrich your own life, but there’s a difference between the discarding of literal scraps of paper versus human relationships.

So I’ll take Failed It! for what it is — don’t seek perfection when exploring your own creativity.

But the learning process for emotional intelligence is a harder read.

Essays Photography

Book review – Une Visit chez Magritte (Duane MICHALS)

René Magritte was the first artist that I identified with — particularly his sense of humour yet thought provoking presentations of surrealism.

Audio Essays Photography

Surrendering one’s identity to the internet – Home Instruction Manual

What happens when you ask an online chat room how to make a home?

In an interview-style format with about 50 people attending, Belfast Exposed Curator Ciara Hickey asked artist Jan McCullough to share her journey.


John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.

John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.
by Allan LEONARD for Shared Future News
15 December 2015

Sean Farren and Denis Haughey have edited a new book, John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, published by Four Courts Press. As part of this book launch, there is a series of panel discussions, for which this event took place at the Canada Room, Queen’s University Belfast.

Essays Photography

Book review – Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens (David and Edwin DAVISON)

God can sanctify photography. With a poem by Pope Leo XIII, Colin Ford explains the basis for how Irish Jesuit Frank Browne acquired a camera from his bishop uncle, at the age of 17, and kept making images throughout his priestly life.

Browne took his camera everywhere. His early trips to Europe were the apparent source of his self-teaching of technique, analysing the works of Masters’ painters in Venice and Florence.

He travelled widely, to the front lines in France and Flanders during World War One (serving as chaplain) and further to Australia (where he went to recuperate after suffering mustard gassing).

Yet I would argue that it is his persistent images of Ireland over the decades, emerging as a new republic, that leaves a significantly valuable legacy. Photos of countryside life are complemented with ones of industrialisation.

20150127 Frank Browne - Titanic Cobh

Browne is known primarily for photos that he took during the maiden voyage of the Titanic. His first class ticket was only for Southampton-Cherbourg-Cobh (his uncle never intended for him to emigrate to America!). With the sinking of the ship, his precious images were in highest demand by newspapers.

Kodak thanked him by offering a lifelong supply of film. Yet Browne was responsible for developing the film and paying for any prints. Consequently, many of his photos remained unpublished, until Father Edward O’Donnell discovered a large trunk, long after Browne’s death.

Father O’Donnell proceeded to publish a series of Frank Browne photo books, including Frank Browne’s Titanic Album. More recently he has written a full biography in The Life and Lens of Father Browne.

20150127 Frank Browne - At Keem Beach

But Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison and the subject of this review, is a more artistic critique of his best work, copiously illustrated and drawn from his trove of 42,000 images.

In a chapter titled “Father Browne photographer of the twentieth Century”, Donald Davison explains how Father Browne was influenced initially by pictorialism but also with modernism.

Browne was not constrained by any particular photographic style, though reportage-style stands out. Even here, he didn’t always obey the decisive moment – sometimes he would get children and take off their shoes and socks for his more desired, rustic look of the countryside.

One could argue that because Browne did not concentrate on any particular method, he never mastered his craft.

But I don’t believe Father Brown was ever seeking photography perfection; his formal training was spiritual, remember.

Instead, we’ve been blessed with the vision of a man who understood tone and mood, natural and human, who recorded the matter of life wherever he found himself.

I highly recommend Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens, by Donald and Edwin Davison, for its approach to the subject from a photographer’s perspective.

Frank Browne: A Life through the Lens accompanies an exhibition at the Andrews Gallery, Titanic Building, Belfast, 14 January-31 March 2015.


Book review — Touching Distance (James CRACKNELL)

20131001 Touching Distance

Reading this book was always going to have a special meaning to me, as my wife had a stroke about two years ago. Like James and Bev, my wife and I are writing a book together about our experience. We honestly came up with the same chapter layout as them — alternative narrations.

In these types of post-tragedy biographies, there are introductory chapters of the characters’ backgrounds. A get-to-know-you before the injury sequence. This is fine, but in Touching Distance, the full first half of the book is a repetitive account of Cracknell’s numerous athletic achievements. He is a very competitive individual; I get it.

At the moment of his near fatal injury, the engagement with the reader much improves, perhaps because both Bev and James are describing their separate perspectives of the events unfolding before them.

I write as a carer for a stroke survivor, so I have an empathy with Bev’s words. But I can attest that my wife would sympathise with James’s.

Bev describes learning the new vocabulary of brain injury as “taking bullets” that she would have to carry for the rest of her life. This is true.

And this unwelcomed circumstance reflects the wider dimension of changed lives. At times Bev tells James, “You’re not the man I married” and “I still miss James.” James has told the world, “I’m no longer James Cracknell.” His description of how the injury has affected his outlook is very honest and in my opinion, the most compelling part of his story.

Both mention how it’s the invisible dimension of brain injury that is more difficult to deal with. This is true, too.

Case in point was James’s description of neuropsychologist and psychiatrist tests:

“They only knew me as a patient post-accident but not the person I was or what I was capable of before the accident. So how could they impose these ceilings on my recovery based on results from generalised tests?”

We have the same complaint. In fact, neither of us were ever asked about our personalities or habits pre-injury. I still don’t understand scientifically how anyone could make predictions without examining what made a person tick before an injury.

James also recalled a qualified compliment he received after giving television commentary: “That was really good,” he was told, “especially for someone with a brain injury.” Like anyone with a disability, James said that he wants to be judged as a person, not someone with a brain injury.

With me present, a specialist once told my wife that before speaking she could tell strangers that she has had a stroke (to explain why her voice isn’t as clear). I counter-suggested that she should not, to reduce the likelihood of her being patronised. Unlike James, my wife is not famous, so it has been easier for her to present herself as herself, and not someone with a brain injury.

Both James and Bev are told that the majority of marriages fail when one has had a brain injury. It is easy to see why. Bev describes how the dynamics of a marriage of mutuality changes to one of physical and mental dependency. It’s not easy to deal with, I know. And James acknowledges this, in describing his marriage now as more of a business partnership. Both want their relationship to move back towards the centre.

Bev tells of the experience of a new friend whose marriage came undone three years after her husband’s accident. Bev asked what was the final straw? “His lack of confidence. It killed me. I couldn’t live with it.” Bev said that she knew what she meant.

Thankfully, my wife still has confidence: “If we’ve survived this, we can survive anything … it’s the ultimate challenge.”

So although Touching Distance isn’t the best written prose, like dealing with an unwanted challenge, it is worth persisting with to reach a positive conclusion and hope for a better future.


Book review – To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper LEE)

20120403 To Kill a Mockingbird

Somehow I escaped reading this essential school text, with its story of racism in 1930s American South. Living in Northern Ireland, I draw parallels with sectarianism, with its similar bigotry and prejudice.

To Kill a Mockingbird was part of a Unite Against Hate campaign event at Parliament Buildings in Northern Ireland, which I’ve written about separately.

There is one passage that directly deals with religious difference:

Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. “You know old Mr Radley was a foot-washing Baptist –”
“That’s what you are, ain’t it?” (says Scout)
My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”

I particularly like the lesson imparted by Scout’s father Atticus, on whether he was right or wrong to take on the doomed case of Tom Robinson:

“Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong…”
“How’s that?”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that … but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to be able to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscious.”

That made me think of anti-Nazi campaigner Sophie Scholl’s exclaim, “We are your conscious!”

Indeed, after a classroom lesson on democracy, dictatorship and Hitler, Scout asked her older brother:

“[Miss Gates] went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
“Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
“Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was … talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

So, it’s fine to agree what you deem wrong wherever it happens, but harder to address your own moral hypocrisies.

It’s clear why To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading for all, and why it has stood the test of time for over 50 years.


Book review – Paperboy (Tony MACAULAY)

20100901 Review Paperboy

Tony Macaulay is a respected professional community relations and youth worker based in Belfast. For example, he has written independently, “A discussion paper proposing a five phase process for the removal of ‘peace walls’ in Northern Ireland”.

This book is his story of being a 12-year-old paperboy, living in the Shankill area of West Belfast. I, too, was a 12-year-old paperboy, but that’s where my shared experience starts and ends.

Tony so well tells his story. It is actually difficult for adults to write in the prose of childhood. The retrospective voice is usually readily apparent. But here in Paperboy, you really do see the world from this boy’s experiences.

It’s a world of not quite comprehending the sectarianism and violence around you, and doing your best to get on with what really matters to most 12-year-old boys — your mates, your music, and earning some pocket money to spend on your girlfriend.

And just like a youngster, there are key words that regularly reappear in the dialogue — Sharon Burgess, “the only pacifist paperboy in Belfast”, Bay City Rollers, “so I was”.

Indeed, Tony writes in the local vernacular so well that the only criticism could be that he didn’t include a glossary! This Yank has lived here long enough to not need one for Paperboy (!), and some phrases like, “God love the wee dote” probably pass without translation, but me thinks Tony should provide one for the American edition (“Och, ballicks!”). And/or subtitles when the film comes out!

Amidst all the humour, though, there is the reality of the environment that Paperboy grows up in. He notices more and more “peace walls” — “… we were brilliant at walls in Belfast — they were going up everywhere, higher and higher, all around me”.

It’s actually his dad who says to a neighbour who is demanding even more walls, “Did you never think that it might be our side that’s bein’ walled in?”

And 35 years on, we have made little progress on dismantling our walls in Northern Ireland, whether physically or metaphorically. May Paperboy encourage more of us to put more effort into this.