Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (Photographer)
Text drawn from Amber Catalogue, 1987:
Byker was suffering from extensive neglect when Sirkka arrived, its decline mirrored by the slow dismantling of engineering works and shipyards. Entranced by the directness of the people, by the ability to survive harsh conditions and sweeping changes with dignity and humour, she set about recording in words and images the place and its people.
All in all Sirkka spent over a decade documenting Byker as it fell under the redeveloper’s hammer. The planner’s dream, the people’s nightmare. Like much of the redevelopments of the sixties and seventies it was the destruction not only of homes but of working class culture and close relationships which were never re-established in the schemes that replaced the so-called slums. At the end of the carnage part of the spirit of the place had gone and less than one fifth of the original inhabitants remained.
Note: As she embarked on her seminal documentation of Byker, Sirkka became aware of the plans to demolish it for the wholesale redevelopment that was to include the Byker Wall. She photographed the community over a twelve year period, the celebrated, resulting body of work touring the world. Beyond the influence it has had on documentary practice, the work has been used widely by architects and town planners among others. The work was developed as a book, first published by Jonathan Cape in 1983, then by Bloodaxe in 1985, reprinted in association with Amberside in 1988. As with all Sirkka’s long-term projects, the work was also developed by Amber as a film (1983). Both book and video are available from the Amber website.
Text drawn from the book by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (1983):
Standing on top of Byker hill, John Wesley exclaimed of the breath-taking panorama beneath his feet: ‘A vision of Paradise!’ Presumably, in 1790, it actually excluded Byker, since Byker then was a village, and mostly behind his back. His vision of paradise was the city of Newcastle down in the valley. The small green village surrounded by farms became an industrial suburb surrounded by shipyards, engine works, potteries and glassworks. By 1911 Byker housed some 50,000 people; a strong, self-contained community of artisans servicing a booming local industry. Situated on the north bank of the River Tyne and east of the centre of the city its proud new streets ran down in a grid-iron pattern towards the river and the city.
For me, in 1970, the vision began from the hill, sweeping down along the steep cobbled streets with row upon row of terraced flats, into the town, over the river and the bridges beyond. The streets of Byker, serene in the morning sun with smoking chimney pots, offered me no Paradise; but I was looking for a home. Walking down Janet Street on that soft Saturday morning in the late autumn, I was put under a spell. That spell was to last for ten years; after which there were no women to stand in the doorways and no dogs to doze on the pavements, and no streets to run down the steep hill.
Unhurried Saturday shoppers in Raby Street. Bursts of merriment outside the grocer's shop and in the butcher’s queue. The baker's tray cooling off by the door, beside the bacon and the buns. Frankie Laine reaching out to a passing audience from a wind-up gramophone outside Henry's Square Deal Store: ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, and then, with the same resounding confidence: ‘Love is a Golden Ring...’ Three weeks later I was pushing around my first proud possession in my own little upstairs flat in Mason Street. Once satisfied I had found it a place, I wound it up, threw open its volume-control doors, and let loose ‘Sparrow in the Treetop’ - to bounce around the tiny room, and to welcome me home.
I came from a small paper mill town in Finland via a short stay at Helsinki University, and a film school in London. Out to acquire skills on a meagre bank loan, and to learn about life. An obstinate dreamer, I was anxious that Life was passing me by - out there at the travelling fair, where the hypnotist's daughter, dark and mysterious, lay in rigid suspense on the tip of a ten foot pole… I longed to leave the commonplace. So I arrived - from one set of conventions to another; a stranger in more than one sense.
‘She’s left home,’ (neglecting her duty towards her parents). ‘She comes from Finland, such a beautiful place, nice and clean, and she chooses to live in Byker,’ (what’s the matter with her?) And a year later, ‘She hasn't got her nets up yet.’ She plays the piano; she drives a van (thundering scrapheap, never seen a bucket of water), and rides a rusty bicycle (she rides anything, her!). She goes round taking photographs, and gives them away for nowt (is she working for the S.S., or just a mug?). And she doesn’t cotton on to half the cracks, poor soul - mind, Ah cannot understand a word of what she says either. But she’s all right - canny, aye. Poor little bairn, so far from home, and is she even married to that man?'
The first night I sat alone in the ‘Hare and Hounds’ I was taken under the collective wing. The drinks arrived with but a smile and a nod from an assortment of kindly faces round the room. Mrs Dunn tucked me to her bosom (she already cared for thirteen children of her own, and she managed many waifs and strays). ‘That man of yours, does he belt ye? You come and tell old Mrs Dunn, number seventeen, if he so much as lifts a finger against you hinny, and I shall see to him!’ She patted my hand, and for a moment I wasn’t a perfect alien.
A week later I saw her in the street again. She linked my arm, winked and steered me to the pawnshop. ‘He’s a fine young man, your man,’ she beamed at me, ‘bless you both,’ and she pressed a piece of folded paper into my hand, with a wedding ring inside. I wore that ring, from her, till it dropped off my finger, and speeding down the pavement finally bounced out of sight, and out of my life.
I made another friend: a silky haired cheeky tom, sneakily seduced by saucerfuls of creamy milk. He moved in from next door, when it came to a choice between me and an Alsatian puppy, and made my house his abode. I still remember his pert little face in my backdoor window, and his inspired darting under my Sunday papers. He vanished one day, like all the other cats in my street, and I was united with the neighbourhood in shameless speculation. My house - and the little lad who kept pigeons in the backlane - were never to be seen again.
I was working as a founder member of Amber Associates, a group of film-makers and photographers who were struggling to establish a creative relationship with working class communities in the North East. While piecing together a living from freelance and educational work, I started to photograph Byker in earnest. I roamed around the streets by day and hung about by night: chasing my heartbeats, stumbling in and out of other peoples lives; striving to share my excitement through photographs where words would fail me. This was the beginning of my great adventure.
I received a grant from Northern Arts to set up a portrait studio in an empty hairdressing salon in Raby Street, and invited passers by for a free photograph. The studio, with a beautifully hand painted sign ‘Sair Fyeld Hinny’ (title of a Northumbrian song about the sadness of getting old), was raided by scrapmen, past recovery, and boarded up. I moved on to photograph families at home. It grew to be my ambition to photograph every household in my street.
I knocked on all the doors, explaining my mission. ‘I’m sorry pet, but I’ve never had a photo took of me in all me life. It’s nee good now, hinny, I'm past it now.’ ‘Well, hinny, I’ve got hundreds of pictures, I don’t need another one took. Come and see for yourself; got so many I don’t know what to do.’ ‘Me husband works night shift, no, I can’t be bothered, pet, but thanks all the same.’ I got a yes from half the households, and half of those had better things to do when I turned up with the equipment. But I did manage to capture a fine series of mantelpiece displays, which were always promptly made available for my documentation. Lovingly arranged, in perfect symmetry, they were meant for the admiring visitor.
My work in Byker became known, accepted and assisted, and my collection of photographs, poems, reminiscences and memories began to grow. Being a foreigner gave me one advantage: I could be nosy, and be forgiven. Many doors were opened for me that would possibly have remained closed to another photographer, and invitations extended to the kind of hospitality and intimacy that would normally be reserved for family only. An oddball, I was hurled into a peculiar net of relationships; shortcutting into friendship and unquestioned loyalty while pining to be a native on equal ground. Adopted again and again with undeserved generosity, yet remaining outside, and not belonging. My relationships in the community grew and fumbled, got tender, tangled, and eventually established.
The studio attracted many visitors, some returning daily with new stories and old photographs. Among them was a faith-healer, who ‘spoke in tongues’ - a woman of commendable power and perception. Having lost a daughter, she became unduly devoted to me, and maintained a close contact with me for our remaining years in Byker. She always predicted my troubles and thoughts before setting foot in the shop, but never attempted to practise on me as I had no faith. I saw her heal her many patients, and one day she took me to her house to show me concrete proof of her gift: a myriad of multi-coloured pills, prescribed for her own fatal illness and stored away in boxes as she healed herself through God. She said she always prayed for me.
I first met Willie playing a mouth organ at a street wedding. He had popped the wee instrument into his mouth, to free his hands for the spoons, and he danced like a nimble circus bear. He later polished off his act by including a hat trick and an anecdote or two, and he often entertained all day in Isaac’s second hand shop. As a young man he worked in the Royal Victoria Infirmary, and in a boiler room explosion lost acres of his skin. He was dipped in ether, rolled in cotton wool and left to hang on, whereby he survived to tell one tall story after another.
He used to turn up in my studio with a plastic parrot, and a fiddle with Guarneri rubber-stamped on the inside - a fine instrument, which he couldn’t play but loved to be photographed with. He was a champion draughts player; and was capable of standing in an immaculately frozen pose for a quarter of an hour at a time, as he frequently failed to plug in his hearing aid for further instructions. His unconnected hearing aid was used to many evil ends; I once watched in awe a Jehovah’s Witness overcome with confusion, as Willie, a devout Catholic, set about to put her right on the holy scriptures. She never stood a chance, and finally, utterly demoralized, withdrew her foot from the door.
Willie’s sister, much to her brother’s disapproval, enjoyed an occasional drink, and kicked up a leg to prove it. She was habitually to be found in the ‘Hare and Hounds’, where she told my fortune each time we met. I took it as a compliment that it was such a fortune; the make of the car and other minor details changed from time to time, but it was clearly to be fabulously rich with my photographic business (‘if only she would start charging for her photographs!’). But she worried a friend of mine out of her mind with her portentous summary of her character and marital tangles, after only a few moments of unembarrassed observation in the pub.
The ‘Hare and Hounds’ became my local, being at the bottom of my street. Mothers, daughters and granddaughters gathered together in the evening for a chat and a song, and duels were fought between old lovers across the room. ‘Sweethearts will never grow old, as we grow old together. I’ll always love you as you are today, I’ll always love you the same old way.’ And from the other side of the room in an equally quaking voice: ‘How long is it since she washed horsel, Aa really divven knaa. She’s gorra face just like a spiced cake, an’ as black as any cra.’
Sweet Lily, going eighty, and nifty at dominoes (till they were banned after a lunchtime brawl in the backroom) had an impressive high-pitched voice with much-admired quivering glissandos. Her nightly performances came to a sudden end one icy morning as she slipped off the pavement and broke an ankle. We got her a clapped-out wheelchair from Miller’s Auction Rooms, and began to wheel her to the pub of a night time. She enjoyed the rides so much her friends started hinting she’d never walk again. After six weeks I gave up with the wheeling and she got up. She never forgot or forgave.
I made - and lost - younger friends too. A teenage couple, newly married and much in love, asked for a photograph of me as they left the street to join the army. As a special token she had dyed her lovely long hair blonde to look like mine, and they sang for me their last night in the pub. I never saw them again, except in his mother's photographs.
The demolition gnawed around the corner; e/o (electricity off) occasionally daubed into f/off, as door after door received the stamp of death. Bricked up, deaf and dumb façades of empty streets invited fleeting dark thoughts: I wonder if they all got out. The thirteen-year-olds in Byker were into Aggro. The rumoured big night of a ritual showdown never took place on the bonfire field; the Welbeck crew retreated without a clash. The superiority channelled itself into a song:
Skinheads, weeheads, smoothies, too
Come and join our Byker crew
Byker crew are hard and smart ones
Kick you up the arse with Doctor Martins
If you come to our estate
Give you bovver with the aggro feet
If you want to join our ranks
You’ve got to have the ability of Gordon Banks
In the olden times men were men
There were no hairy bastards then... etc
In spite of their noisy bravado they were genuine kids, highly spirited; and frequently in trouble. I now see them pushing their own babies in the street; smartly dressed, married, divorced - unemployed; their time of rebellion and adventure so short-lived, so long ago.
My photographs began to appear in my photographs. Framed on walls, standing on mantelpieces, carried in wallets - sent overseas.
The demolition was catching up with Byker. The countdown on streets and houses and friends began; the melancholia set in. The wash-house closed down, and many months after the merry celebration and dancing and singing the women who toiled and gossiped and laughed together in the steam and the noise, sat lost and lonely in the coin-operated laundrettes beyond the main street, complaining about the price and the inefficiency of the machines. The pork butcher moved to North Shields to start a new business; the cobbler retired and headed for Canada to join his daughter.
Mrs Potter, born, wed and widowed in a street as old as herself kindly closed her door on the man who came to sell her a wonderful future elsewhere. ‘Thank you, hinny, but I belong here.’ Mr and Mrs McCartney sat amongst their packed-up orange boxes in an empty house for a year and a half waiting to be moved. ‘We'll be sitting here till the day we die.’ Death and demolition clung together in the collective consciousness. Mrs Johnson, with husband ill and out of work, feared it catching up with her children. She put it in a poem:
Children among filth and grime
pass away their leisure time
with bleeding hands from throwing stones,
cut feet and broken bones.
Some poor lambs I fret to say
Never lived to move away.
The conversation in the street skated around: Who’s going, where, when. Who died only a week after moving. Who never saw a new house at all. ‘It’s wicked,’ said Mr Burness, collecting his wife’s brasses off the wall. ‘These houses have been under demolition for twenty odd year, and you know they could’ve been saved. They could’ve just given us a bath and hot water.’
When my house finally came down with a clean sweep of the swinging ball, I stood and watched gulping at a distance. From that moment I began to miss my downstairs neighbour who sent the Incredible Hulk to raise hell about my antique hoover interfering with her telly; who patiently stood on her doorstep clocking in and out my friends; who directed visitors to my house saying: ‘It’s the only dirty step in the street, you can’t miss it.’ (I somehow never got round to cleaning the windows, and just as well, as I didn’t have any nets, but the step was a matter of principle.)
One way or another I had grown to be a part of my street, and the community. It had been my first own home, and a real home for me. As my neighbour Nancy points out proudly: ‘When she first came in our street, she couldn’t tell hello from tarra, and now she speaks Finnish with a Geordie accent.’ I had come a long way. My final, and most treasured, compliment arrived in the post, months after I had moved away. It read: ‘Not only did you immortalize Byker, and its many famous characters - you were one of them.’