Shooting the Breeze
Linda Chase and Len Grant
Shooting the Breeze
Chorlton Wythenshawe Cheetham Hill Gorton
Shooting the Breeze poems by Linda Chase portraits by Len Grant documentary photographs by Mario Popham
She tries to hide the toilet rolls behind her slender frame but they’re a ‘special offer’ pack and just not having it. Looking as if she just stepped off the plane from Turkey, bronze as a marathon runner, her market earrings give her away. Did I say these earrings were painted gold? Not just gold – a kind of paisley pattern brimming full of purple, green and orange. As a Greek Cypriot child in Glasgow Maria wished she’d fitted in. But she’s happy now to sound Glaswegian and look Greek anywhere she goes.
We Love Our Boss
Waiting is half of a cabbyâ€™s trade and weâ€™ve squatted on their patch yet they agree to stand together (shirts tucked in, keys at the ready, feet poised in third gear) and look in our direction. The boss arrives. Khalid Mahmood, Mr Olympic in person. The drivers love him enough to put their arms around him, to fiddle with his ear phone and laugh before they straighten up their grins and look official. This is the Olympic Trafford Taxi Company.
Ruth in Red
There is nothing halfway going on about this T-shirt or about Ruth or about her plan to become computer literate before her nursing degree course starts. She is going to Learn Direct. Just look at her! Is there any doubt?
The Tuesday Club
It’s a Tuesday thing in Chorlton. They’ve cracked it – found a place, where they can bare their breasts – Battery Park Café every time, after the swings at Longford Park. Ollie and Orla have no choice but everything so far suits them. These grinning mums of theirs, friends since student days, are living and loving maternity leave.
Violin and Viola
Are they like bread and butter hand and glove, horse and carriage Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum? Fish and chips, gin and tonic yin and yang, heaven and earth lock and key, tooth and nail? Birds and bees, salt and pepper thunder and lightning, night and day heart and soul, knife and fork? No. He plays the viola and she plays the violin. You canâ€™t just make assumptions.
White Cello Case
I’m late, I’m late for a very important date no time to say hello goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late! I’m late, I’m late, how can we still debate Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev? I’m late, I’m late, I’m late! I’m overdue, I’m in a cello stew I lost my ears, burst into tears I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!
Manager and Project Manager
Not giving much away, these two, cause it’s top secret stuff and one of them’s the boss and I’ll tell you for nothing it’s not the one on the left. She’s doubled over her pizza laughing and he’s on his final bite and they seem a far cry from keeping schtum if lunch is anything to go by. Hey, give them a break! integration is just a jargon term – finance-speak for two banks merging but no one is supposed to guess what banks these could be. Their lips are tightly sealed after biting off and chewing, but someone hasn’t swallowed yet and I’ll tell you for nothing it’s not the one on the right.
Had he known, he’d have worn a suit and maybe some make up, and left the shopping bag in the car. It’s just some lamb for a curry and vegetables from the market for home cooking by a generous host. Billy likes to look his best, cook his best. He’s a Chinese chef from the Mainland – no dish in the world can defeat him!
All From Scratch
Wet wipe in one hand, dabbing her neck, she’s laden with ladybirds and bags, I’m tired and sweaty, she laughs. It must have been the lamb casserole, jacket potatoes, cheese and pepper roll and then the scrumptious lemon drizzle cake. It’s all from scratch these days, she says, but the job is much more interesting and the food’s a whole lot better. Her sporty half-laced white boots gleam around her calves and her ears are decked with tiny rings and two large hoops. This is a dazzling woman, set free from the kitchen on a hot afternoon. Kids, you got the best of her, but we got her too!
And along comes Rebecca swinging her hard chicken as if it were a Gucci bag about to be thrown in the pot. Who cares? She’ll have another one next week. Her abandon slinks into a swagger so cool, it hurts. Her Ghanaian heart is proud of their players in the World Cup. She dances in her living room every time they score. Now her arms fling out, open wide, then her hands land on her hips until she lifts a hank of hair, cocks her head and flirts with Len. More men at home are waiting – a husband and two sons. Rebecca, at boiling point, arrives. The chicken doesn’t stand a chance.
NVQ Level 2: Road Passenger Vehicle Driving (3779)
There are mandatory and optional units but these men have chosen this subject for today and we can only guess from the syllabus which one it is â€“ Iâ€™d put my money on:
Provide a Transport Service in the Community Transport, Chauffeur, Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Industries for passengers who require assistance.
All seven drivers, wearing reflective jerkins, gather around their non-reflective tutor, his taxi, and one ordinary wheelchair. They take it in turns to be the fare. When school is out, the seven men cross the street to have their photo taken, first in a friendship circle and then as the class of 2010, Wythenshawe.
It’s getting to be routine, says Keano, I had my photo taken already today at the gym – some kind of promotion thing but I was there anyway and didn’t mind. The dog pulls a little on the lead so Keano readjusts his stance. His upper body tightens at the shoulders, his arms bow out from his sides. He grins for the camera – a habit by now. Maybe he needs an agent. Here comes Paul, his girlfriend’s next door neighbour, so he asks him and yes, he’s up for it too. Lift the dog, says Len and the light is bright from behind and our screen begins to glow and the dog looks like a movie star held aloft by a stunt man between scenes.
Look! Shocking pink life-size helium numbers are bopping down the road like there’s no tomorrow. A one and an eight could fly away at any moment if they weren’t moored in a clear plastic bag. These numbers are for a surprise, we’re told. My daughter, Laura’s 18 today and her party’s tonight – she hasn’t got a clue. A life-size surprise in clear plastic is an unusual ploy toward secrecy but Leanne, Laura’s friend, confirms it. We don’t keep them long. What if the wind picks up or Laura skives off work a little early?
Already these two are melting together wrapping arm after arm around each other’s waists, releasing grins that make their cheeks ache. His labourer’s hands pile, one on top of the other, at her side. Her hairdresser’s hands stack to display her gorgeous nails. They’ve had three years of this plaiting and intertwining. We predict a well-tied knot.
Mrs Sarah Greenwood
No trouble at all, she says, to manoeuvre her buggy down the curb, across the road, up another curb, then navigate past dog shit on the grass. No trouble at all, dear. Mrs Sarah Greenwood loves it here. She loves her sons and her five grandsons, and her four granddaughters and her house thatâ€™s been converted. Family is everything, dear. From County Wexford to Wythenshawe, from an orphanage to a happy family, from losing a son to loving her life, from nursing to being cared for. I keep my spirits up, dear.
Between the end of a Victorian terrace and Wassim’s family business is the alley of carefully sorted refuse from the Khawaja Food Store. Wassim comes back and forth with trolleys full. It’s a busy day and certainly we could be in the way but no one seems to mind. We’re just another sort of newcomer and by tradition, we’ll fit right in. Esmond Road is a great road, Wassim says. Everyone lives here and gets along – Africans, Asians, Malaysians… when you know what people are really like says Wassim, you know they’re all the same. We recognise each other. We are the same. He folds his arms to lean on the empty trolley his hands still gloved, his top button buttoned. This man is part of a thriving family business. He’s got the neighbourhood sussed.
Anwar Latif flicks his cigarette away from the camera I don’t want to look like a philosopher, he says even though we protest. (If one is a philosopher, surely it doesn’t matter.) It was the textile trade, he says, that brought us here Jamaicans, Samolians – we’re all part of the history – even Marks and Spencer. 20 Cheetham Hill Road, where our shop is, was their first Penny Bazaar in 1894. Just look at Marks and Spencer now! The poet’s job is to inspire he says (and the philosopher’s job too?) Roots, shoots and stems are in sweet water now, he says over his shoulder as he opens the door to his family food store.
Everyone in Lal Kahn’s house has seen us through the gap where the curtains don’t quite meet. We wave, he nods. After all, he’s the head of the family. Then his wife and other relatives nod to us from the window. An hour passes, the front door opens. Lal Kahn walks down his path, turns right and right again to stand directly in front of our screen. No questions asked, no judgement. This live-and-let-live man smiles at us, utter strangers.
Father and Son
Franz stands with his son who grips his father’s index finger. This boy is the first born of only two. Two is enough, says Franz. This one’s cheeky. Acquaintances pass and Franz fires away in Urdu to explain who we are and what we’re doing. He gestures toward us, the camera. I watch Franz explain, like second nature, and then I look at Suhayl, amazed. This perfect little blue-jeaned clone is already the next generation.
Once the door was opened, anything could happen. Lalâ€™s wife came out of the house turned right at the pavement and right again to stand in front of our backdrop. It masked her house. We knew she knew what she was doing as she nodded yes. Yes for Esmond Road, Yes for the family and yes for whatever it was we were doing.
The family grows before our very eyes – Lal’s wife is still, holds her pose as Lal comes back with a pint of milk, and out of nowhere Zahid arrives announcing he is one of six grandchildren in Lal Kahn’s family. Zahid, an extremely cool Mancunian, stands between his grandparents, beaming.
Here comes Wassim with a box as Mario steadies the stand in the breeze and Pen, Prénom and Jay from Thailand agree to have their picture taken. During this flurry of action in the alley, Jay, in his pushchair, is not amused. Perhaps he’s thinking of Buddhas or lotus flowers, common as tulips. Prénom is a little confused since she just arrived from Thailand. Pen is learning English and mustn’t be late for class. Jay has an easier timetable and no current language aspirations.
What could be better? House-to-house in the morning giving care to ten people and house-to-house in the afternoon. Itâ€™s a split shift and in between Val listens to Smooth FM to get in the mood to give care to the second ten. As her own daughters grew up she tried to split her time between them. One in the morning, one in the afternoon but it was always two and two. Ten is an easy number, she says, if you give them care, one at a time. Ten in the morning and ten in the afternoon.
Amy’s on her way to Cross Street. She and Len join memory maps together as if they’d grown up on the same street. She starts to name shops of her childhood and Len goes back in time with her to hear about the biscuit shop and the two women who ran it. They let you choose just what you wanted. The dress shop was at the corner. Bailey’s Farm shop sold butter, eggs and milk and Mrs Bailey knew everyone by name. Len nods as if he’d shopped there too. Amy was one of ten children. She’s beginning to think Len knows all of their names. She’s on her way to Cross Street. Once upon a time everything and everyone was there.
In Romanian, their mum says yes they can and the two of them step up and pose together as if they did it every day. They are dressed for a portrait of a brother and sister, in blue and pink but not those sickly kinds of colours. Maria leans in, wearing a salmon kind of pink. Lorenzo, in robinâ€™s-egg blue, glows and Maria fits neatly under his arm. This day, these two feel important. Brothers and sisters of Manchester, come and see this shining example.
To Nana’s House
Just passing through, these two, on their way from school to Nana’s house for tea. Dad with his daughter on his knee – who rises and falls like a carousel ride as he peddles the bike uphill. Jennifer, the mum, is right behind with the little one tucked in the pushchair. They make this journey every day. That Nana must be some cook!
Let’s guess where they’re going and where they’ve come from, these happy-as-Larry Lithuanian men, not a word of English between them.
Departure point? Let’s say they’ve had a hearty breakfast of bread, cheese, olives and tomatoes with Arturus’s aunt.
Destination? Let’s say it’s Wydian’s sister’s boyfriend’s house where his gorgeous Lithuanian sisters live.
One bike, the guys have doubled up on transport, sticking together like men on a mission. We were lucky to catch them en route with that look in their eyes of pre-passion.
Three from Wright Robbie
It’s been a hard day at their state-of-the-art school. They need to chill out, de-stress and recuperate. They’ve been swimming, dancing, working out at the gym and seeing their maths lessons enlarged on a visualiser, they’ve looked out of the window to the Pennines and laboured over a hot Bunsen burner, they’ve made drawings, collages and rehearsed the school musical, accompanied by a full orchestra. Now they need to refresh their outlook on life their responsibilities, commitment to community. As you can see, the process has begun.
Declan has waited patiently for his turn to come. Nakita, his sister whoâ€™s four wants to stay beside her nana. Gail, their nana, says itâ€™s fine for Declan to stand for them all. And he does. Declan the artist, the drummer, the Man U fan. What does Declan the artist draw? Fiction, he says. Pure fiction.
Right across the street is the de-camp house. Elaine comes early to let the gasman in. Lisa arrives next to check the cooker works and make sure thereâ€™s enough food in for tea. Kimberley shows up last with some friends and wonders whatâ€™s going on across the street. The wait has been worth it for us and for them. Mother, daughter and granddaughter embrace.
The Over 80’s Gang
Margaret keeps them right, Ann cracks them up, and Lucy holds a steady pace as they mosey down the road after two hours of tea and chatting at the Tuesday Supportive Friendship Club. Does anyone doubt it works? The stories, the songs and their list of weekly clubs and gatherings fills every day of the week – The Irish Club, Tai Chi, St Philips, Sacred Heart, Mass on Sunday and their exclusive club of three: the Over 80’s Gang of Gorton rocks!
Shooting the Breeze: The Story
The car was loaded up with a kids’ blackboard on which was chalked ‘Have your picture taken free’. In a briefcase we had tape, scissors, pens and leaflets. We had cameras, all the components of a makeshift studio screen, and four bricks for ballast. Chorlton was our first stop. We cruised around looking for a suitable place, wanting a street where people would pass on their way to and from the shops. Len began to zero in on a site. Mario and I weren’t sure, but we trusted Len’s instincts. It was a near-derelict paved area that turned out also to be the patch of the Olympic Trafford Taxi Company. Two taxis were parked, waiting. We set up our screen, then asked the drivers if we could take their picture and with just a bit of coaxing and banter, they said yes. Shooting the Breeze had begun. We were finding our way. Conversation, good light and willing subjects were the only things we thought we’d need. But would these really be enough to let us create credible portraits and poems? After all, the chance meetings would be brief and the locations fairly arbitrary. This was new territory for Len and me and also
for Mario, a willing photographer who’d agreed to come with us to document the project. He also helped anchor our screen in the wind – with the help of our trusty bricks.
wide multinational cross section of local residents, as well as musicians from the Hallé, a dog, people who worked nearby, and seven taxi drivers who were in the midst of a training course.
But as soon as we’d begun, an exhilarating momentum carried us. Each photo session attracted attention from others passing by and before long we had a queue. I scribbled notes as fast as I could and Len asked questions between shots. Then, if there was time, I could ask people more questions, but they too wanted to know more about us! It didn’t take long before a party atmosphere developed, right there, late morning, on that sorry little patch of tarmac in the middle of Chorlton. It began to drizzle but it didn’t matter.
Our next location was a residential estate, still in Wythenshawe. Here, with the sun behind our screen, we photographed and talked to a man and his dog, a pair of party makers, two young lovers and woman in her electric buggy. This last stop of the day felt charmed. There was more time, wonderful light and a feeling of openness among our subjects. Perhaps it was because we met people closer to their homes, or because the late afternoon sun created a gentler atmosphere, or maybe it was just that the three of us felt more comfortable with what we were doing. The stories were more intimate; the pictures were stunning.
We moved on to Wythenshawe where we set up against a brick wall at the side of the Civic Centre. The sun came out. Pedestrian traffic was a bit slow, so Len and I started recruiting people who were getting out of cars or walking on the other side of the street. Mostly, they were interested, amused, curious and best of all, willing. Our subjects came from a
Months before, I had agreed to be a Poet in Residence for the Didsbury Arts’ Festival and knew I’d be expected to offer a poetry event. This seemed like a good opportunity to approach Len about working together to create a slideshow/reading for the festival.
We had met only six months earlier but had already exchanged copies of some of our books to which we both reacted enthusiastically. So when I asked him, he said yes. In planning the project, Len and I had agreed just to let whatever happened happen. No formalities, no pre-prepared questions. With so little structure we knew we had put ourselves in a challenging situation. The whole project relied on the goodwill of the people we met. After all, we were the outsiders in their neighbourhoods, so it was up to them. But by the end of the first day we were giddy with the outcome – so many people had been so hospitable. Our next stop was the bustling Cheetham Hill. We set up on a busy side street with lots of pedestrian traffic. Our screen was crammed into an alley next to the end house in a row of small terraced houses. We were delighted that several people from this end house came out to be photographed after watching us from the window. Our subjects included people from Pakistan, Romania and Thailand.
Len photographed some individuals and some family groups. The street was buzzing with different languages and styles of dress and everyone we spoke to loved living here. One man said, really, we are all the same. Gorton then felt completely different – more English, more northern. It was school-leaving time when we set up and parents with kids were heading to the shops or home for their tea or to grandparents. Even so, nearly everyone stopped to talk to us and be photographed. It was like one big family and many people had lived in the area for several generations. They asked us lots of questions too, about ourselves, our backgrounds and our work. I think they wanted to adopt Len! Over the two days, we took 44 portraits. Since Len already had taken lots of shots of each subject, his next task would be to choose which images to use. I, on the other hand, hadn’t written even one poem. I wanted to begin as soon as I could so as not to lose the feelings I had for each of the people we met. Len sent me a link to
all the shots he’d taken. Being able to see the people again in a number of frames made a huge difference. I flicked through image after image and then just let the poems come. I amazed myself by writing first drafts of 22 poems in only a day and a half! I was mesmerised by a torrent of recent memories and thoroughly energised by all these wonderful faces. Later, when I started working on second and third drafts, I realised that many of the poems had leaked out beyond our actual subjects. Their content included the day, the event and the interactions among us all. For this reason, Mario’s images were also a great help since he had captured the whole event at each location – the subjects, as well as Len, me, the surrounding environment and the bystanders. Writing these poems was wonderfully liberating for me after years of being around more formal poets and poetry. I just let myself write freely and simply, following the ethos of the overall project. Still, what surprises me most is the fact that the poems are not just about the people themselves, but also about
their families and communities beyond our makeshift screen. I feel that these short pieces are more like captions than like free standing poems, which had been our goal all along – to create an integrated, collaborative work – poet and photographer, poems and images, people and their communities. Linda Chase, Manchester, August 2010
Shooting the Breeze has been a collaboration between Linda Chase and Len Grant and was first performed as a slideshow and reading as part of the Didsbury Arts Festival 2010. Linda Chase is an American poet living in Manchester. Her collections with Carcanet Press are The Wedding Spy and Extended Family. She has taught at the Arden School of Theatre, the Writing School at MMU, and for the Poetry School of which she was the original Manchester coordinator. She is the founding director of Poets and Players, an innovative poetry and music series which performs most often at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Linda’s next collection will be published by Carcanet in the autumn of 2011. Visit www.poetsandplayers.co.uk and www.lindachase.co.uk
Len Grant is a freelance photographer and writer who has specialised in documenting the urban regeneration of Manchester and Salford for a decade and a half. Having photographed the construction of iconic buildings in these cities he turned his camera and tape recorder to the renewal of deprived neighbourhoods, telling residents’ stories of change. More recently he has examined social exclusion and his latest publication, Billy and Rolonde, follows the lives of a drug user, an elderly asylum seeker and a homeless alcoholic. See more of Len’s work at www.lengrant.co.uk.
Acknowledgements Linda and Len would like to thank all the people who so willingly agreed to be written about and photographed by us.
Let this book celebrate our good luck to have met each one of them. Thanks for shooting the breeze with us.
Man and Son
Gabriel is a man of names who loves his only son. He has Dad and Cameron curled around a gun and Logan lettered right above his heart as Calvin Klein enpouches every private part. But his son, Kaden is label-free, anonymous, though thereâ€™s no doubt whose precious son he is. Long live tattoos, bare chests and this fine dad â€“ he might just be the coolest any kid has ever had.
A photographer and poet travel to the four corners of Manchester, set up a makeshift studio and invite passers-by to be photographed. The re...