Sunderland was—and, in fact, still is—a very conservative town. Even in the mid-sixties with its flower power, make love not war, freedom and everything else that we now think of as characterising that decade, walking down Fawcett Street in a pink shirt would inevitably bring the accusation of being a “poofter” and even a possible physical assault, depending on how pissed the speaker was or how much he felt he needed to impress his mates.
The town had a drama club (of which I was an active member as an actor, leader of the junior section and—of course!—photographer) but, although it was willing to try new plays by new writers, the audience didn’t like that, often voting with its feet. I remember playing Cliff in Look Back in Anger in 1972 (the play was written in 1956, for goodness sake!) and hearing seats going up as people walked out. One lady, a regular supporter, even took it on herself to try to make me feel better by saying that it wasn’t a comment on our acting (“which was very good, Peter”) but entirely due to the fact that “I don’t want to watch plays about horrible young men like that!”
So when, in 1969, Chris Carrell set up a bookshop (called “The Bookshop”) in Frederick Street in the town centre, it came as a huge surprise to discover that it was not attempting to rival the traditional bookshops like Hill’s and Arrowsmith’s with their popular fiction, cookery and hobbyist books, school and college textbooks and stationery, but was breaking new ground (at least for Sunderland). Its main business may have been second-hand books but it had a sizeable modern poetry section and magazines.
And what magazines they were! The avant-garde, the counter-culture, the experimental. Magazines like The International Times and Oz.
Shock! Horror! Anger! Corrupting the morals of the precious children of Sunderland! The outcry was—frankly ridiculous!
To be honest, I never saw a child in there but let’s not allow facts get in the way of good moral outrage. Donald Trump didn’t invent the concept of fake news; the holier-than-thou brigade have been doing it for centuries.
I loved that place. I got to know Chris and we’d talk about theatre and art and poetry, so when he moved the Bookshop across town to a building at the corner of Grange Terrace and Belvedere Road which he was going to convert it into an arts centre, I followed.
It was named the Ceolfrith Arts Centre, after the saint who was, from 690 to 716, Abbot of the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the home of the Venerable Bede (who had, in fact, been placed in Ceolfrith’s care as a child). Ceolfrith was also a major mover in the creation of the Codex Amiatinus.
The name of a saint, a man of learning and letters, who was appreciative of the fine art of Biblical illustration, Ceolfrith was, indeed, a very appropriate name for the new arts centre, even though the most common reaction in the town was “See-oll-frith? What’s that when it’s at home, eh?”
There were going to be exhibitions, performances, poetry readings, festivals, even publications. Chris was determined to make it an important part of the town and the region’s cultural life. And knowing my work in photography for the Empire, he asked if I would like to be the centre’s photographer, documenting events and recording exhibition installations.
Would I? Daft question! Of course I would. And so, just perhaps a year after starting to work at the Empire, began my second venture into professional arts photography, which would lead in directions I had never imagined.