Stop This Now

Everybody probably thought that I was now well and that all’s well that ends well. I would get used to getting up early every morning despite my history of sleep problems; I would get used to the pressures of work life; I would get used to the hours; I would get used to the boredom; I would get used to mixing with work colleagues; I would get used to having a boss; I would get used to living in Devon away from my family, Cambridgeshire, and the Norfolk coast. Probably. That’s how it felt to me.

The problem was that my brave face was a mask for the truth. I couldn’t get used to getting up early every morning. I found that I was struggling to drag myself out of bed after a sleepless night; I found that my medication was making me drowsy; I found that I felt physically sick after getting up; I found that I was making mistakes in the mornings because I was struggling to wake up.

I couldn’t get used to the pressures of work life; every job was a ton of pressure because I still had that feeling that I was making it all up as I went along and that my skills were severely limited.

I struggled to get around a city I had never lived in before and getting around Plymouth was a massive part of the job as we were always so pushed for time. I would be doing one job whilst my boss was shouting in my ear that I needed be over the other side of town for the next one – right now; all the photographers needed to be able to fly across town, they needed to know all the names of the roads and areas of Plymouth, all the roads to avoid at certain times of the day, all the short-cuts and all the places to park.

Driving was a part of the job I had underestimated and I relied heavily on my vindictive sat-nav. It took me up roads that should have been classified as tracks (I remember trying to drive on a road that had pot plants in the middle of it) and confused me into making some horrendous errors. I distinctly remember needing to get into Cornwall early on in my career (so called) and following the sat-nav into a cue of cars. It wasn’t until I could see the estuary that I realised I was about to board a ferry. I had no idea there was a ferry and no idea how long it was going to take. I had no idea that I had to pay for the privilege and thought I was about to get into a whole world of trouble. As it happened, the ferry became quite a regular route and I soon got used to it.

The pressures of work-life were immense; every job was a new challenge and it put all my skills to the test, it was stress from the start to the end of my day. Some jobs were interesting, most not were not, but all were stressful. I have some amazing memories. It felt good to be behind the scenes with television presenters; pitch-side and up close with sports-men and sports-women; meeting actors and pop-stars; being in the captain’s seat in a war-ship and under the water in a submarine, and doing all sorts of crazy things. Yes, those things were good, but they also came at a price to my nervous system.

I couldn’t get used to the hours. We had a rotating work schedule that included evenings and weekends. I had to work every Saturday; I hated missing out on the only day my wife was free to go out (Sundays we spent at church); it felt like my new life was all work and soon that it was no life at all.

I couldn’t get used to the boredom. We had to remain in the office even when news was scarce and we had no jobs for hours. There was nothing to do. I began to bring books to read surreptitiously but I read them knowing that my boss could walk in at any time. The others seemed to have stuff to do but it was not something they could share with me. It wasn’t long before I was begging my boss to let me go out and photograph landmarks for our archives.

I couldn’t get used to mixing with my work colleagues. It was one of the hardest parts of the job. I made one friend but there always seemed to be an agenda with the rest. They all seemed to be jostling for position and the politics produced fake people and I hated that. I found that most of my colleagues were unfriendly and difficult to strike up a relationship with. I feared that they were judging me and speaking about me behind my back. I knew that everyone could see how green I was. The daily anxiety this caused exhausted and drained me.

I couldn’t get used to my boss. He was an ex-marine, very tall and imposing. He was stuck in the 1970’s in a time when it was ok to pick on people; embarrass and insult them in front of the whole news-desk; shout at them, harass them, and get away with it. It was common knowledge in the office that he would pick on people, summon them to the picture desk and shame them, time after time, before moving on to his next victim. He would appear suddenly and then not be around for days. I dreaded seeing his car in the car-park of a morning. His bullying really took its toll on me.

I couldn’t get used to my new city. It was bigger than anywhere else I had lived and whilst it had some great qualities I never really warmed to it, especially as I missed both Cambridgeshire and Norfolk all those miles away across the other side of the country. I missed my old church and my family, I missed my pets and I missed nature. I still do.

And so all of the problems that may have seemed easy to overcome to everybody else I was secretly being beaten by. I was hiding it but it was breaking me. Before the year was out I was so mentally exhausted that my brain began to tell me that enough was enough: stop this now or break completely.

Joining The Circus

My shaking finger was poised and ready; I was aiming at his head. I had never shot royalty before and now it all came down to this one moment.

He was on the other side of a small room in conversation and bound to turn towards me. I had dug myself into a real hole. I had one shot; failure was unthinkable.

The conversation seemed to be coming to a close. The back of his royal head was beginning to twist and reveal one of the most famous faces in the world. Instantly, I fired.

Prince Charles immediately stopped and closed his eyes, half blinded, his face screwing up in displeasure and discomfort. I could hear him muttering expletives before he regained his composure.

I could have died. The flash-gun had unleashed a grossly disproportionate payload of white light into his eyes as he turned from his dutiful examination of the shop owner’s wares.

I immediately looked at Camilla standing directly opposite me, barely a few yards away. Her eyes met mine and in that moment we both understood each other. A secret smile, the faintest of expressions, told me that it was alright; she understood and she sympathised and I wasn’t going to the Tower of London to be consigned to a life of torturous incarceration in its infamous dungeons.

Following Lady Diana was like replacing Keith Moon. The media scrum that was never far away, the circus that Charles so obviously despised, was interested only in insulting and deriding her. She had only had bad press, a little like Linda McCartney, the woman who had dared to marry Beatle Paul. I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of Camilla or any of the royal family. That moment of kindness, however, was very gracious.

Inside the nauseous claustrophobia of the tiny Cornish art shop she had been standing facing me, so close that we could have whispered to one another, and I hadn’t been sure whether I should photograph her or not from such close range. She couldn’t have avoided me and I could have clicked away a hundred shots. I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and couldn’t make myself do it.

I felt that I couldn’t initiate contact because I was supposed to be invisible; I wasn’t to interfere in royal business, I was there to document it in a silent and respectful manner: but It was almost as bad ignoring her as it was invading her privacy by shoving my lens in her face. Looking back, when I replay it in my mind, as I do sometimes, I wish I had asked her permission for a photograph. I think she might have said yes.

As far as I was concerned coverage of the royal family was just another media soap opera designed to sell newspapers. I found the media’s obsession with them distasteful and embarrassing. There was no doubting, however, that Prince Charles was one of the most recognisable celebrities in the world and that upsetting him was a big deal for a naïve photographer like me.

Charles didn’t look at me once as he filed past, almost brushing my jacket, as though he didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing that I had upset him. It was just another chapter in his daily battle with the paparazzi he so despised.

I was in a strange dream and had been from the moment that my bad-tempered boss had called me up to tell me that he was sending me to photograph royalty. It was my thirty-second birthday and the very day that I was moving in to my new home in my new city, living in my new life and doing my new job. All of a sudden I was facing a very different assignment to the routine cheque presentations I had been expecting. It came out of nowhere and when I asked for advice from my boss (as he had urged me to do a matter of days before) I received an ear-full of abuse.

I loaded my equipment up, strapped some of it to my back like a marine going into battle, and wandered through the drizzle into the circus scrum.

My first instinct was simply to follow the pack and do whatever they did. The village was tiny and most of the shops were too small for more than one photographer to go in with the royals. With unusual fairness and civility, it was decided that we would take it in turns.

A few of us followed them into a tiny church shortly after their arrival. As soon as the doors opened the Women’s Institute burst with fervent enthusiasm into song and did for Prince Charles’ considerable ears what I was later to do for his eyes. The royal couple did well to remain in the building and not turn around immediately and flee.

Later, my turn was to be inside the tiny art shop. That was my showdown with the heir to the throne.

When the showdown was over, back in the office, I went through the usual routine of cataloguing the pictures, choosing the best, printing out photocopies of them and delivering them somewhat warily to the picture desk where my boss may or may not be lurking and poised for attack.

At the end of the day I made my way to my new home. My wife and I sat on the floor in the conservatory, overlooking the wood, looking up at the stars and sharing a takeaway meal whilst waiting for our furniture to arrive. We felt excited and optimistic but I was living through an out-of-body experience. I could scarcely process what was happening to me, but a small, rational, part of my mind, didn’t trust any of it.