A Chip Off the Creative Block

A Chip Off the Creative Block

As a child, printing fascinated me.  Whether primitively transferring poster paint via a roughly cut potato...using wax, tracing paper and the back of a spoon to lift copy and images from newspapers before making them reappear on fresh white paper, the texture and smell of carbon paper or the (forever drying out) ink pad and array of rubber stamps in our 1960s John Bull print set...I found the whole concept of printing fascinating...magical almost.

It never left me.

In my late early 20s (and in no small part influenced by the work of Terry Gilliam) I regularly used a craft knife, aerosol adhesive and a combination of my own photos and pictures from magazines to make montages for party invites or greeting cards, courtesy of the ever-improving photocopiers of the day.  In 1988 I helped write and produce the first in a series of four cricket club year books, with ‘masters’ (ready for photocopying) printed out on a dot matrix printer...we really had 'arrived'.  This was superseded in the following years by an early Apple laser printer...giving us the ability to create masters that could be used to produce pin sharp copies for the first time.

In 1990 began working in the photo imaging sector, operating a Fuji 1 Hour Photo Lab.  This married my long standing interest in photography with printing, and (thanks to an engineering background and curiosity) it allowed me to experiment with the machine’s configuration to optimise the quality of the lab’s output by introducing much tighter increments in the colour settings, thus making it possible to achieve considerably finer colour adjustments on prints...and ultimately far better quality prints for customers.

In 1994 I returned to engineering (the very ‘trade’ I had been trying to escape from since the age of 16!)...installing, servicing and repairing the very photo-labs I‘d developed (no pun intended) such a keen interest in pushing to their limits.
The days of 35mm film and analogue machines soon became numbered and I was lucky enough to be involved in the roll out of the very first digital machines...a revolution in print quality and flexibility.  I was even part of the very small team that installed the first ‘high-street’ digital printer in the UK, heralding the end of traditional silver halide film as a mass market product and ushering in the age of fully digitised photography, printing...then the subsequent shift to counter top self-serve kiosks and ‘dry lab’ systems.

My latter years in the industry, were predominantly deskbound, concentrating on creative design and publishing but still regulalry preparing things for print whilst learning more and more about the possibilities (and limitations) of print production.

On leaving the photo-imaging field in 2012, I set up Yellow Spade Design, and continued in graphic design and publishing...creating new artwork to the point of pre-press, and even dabbling for the first time in mastering files for fine art printing.
As the company continues to evolve, I see less and less of my work in its final format...hard copy print.  More often than not, once the print ready files are uploaded...that’s it, I can trust to the wonderful printers the company relies upon to output the designs and publications I’ve created, confident that today’s technology really can deliver for clients exactly what I see on my monitors.

Earlier this year I took the decision to add some aspects of in-house printing to Yellow Spade’s growing armoury, and looked at what could realistically be done in the space the office/workshop/studio (and limited available funding) could afford.  Dye-sublimation was the obvious choice, giving the company an entirey new dimension and gifting me the opportunity to try and push this fabulous technology as far as I can and a chance to create some beautiful bespoke mementos from customers' treasured memories.  I will always strive to get the best results.

I’m still excited and beguiled by the process of transferring images, graphics and copy that begin as an idea, a photograph or concept...via the conduit of increasingly powerful hardware/software and back through a combination of mechanical and chemical processes to faithfully reproduce it on an entirely different medium. 

It’s all very different from relying on a root vegetable!

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In The Shadow of Markham

In The Shadow of Markham

Born in 1962 I grew up in Duckmanton, and for many years the view from my bedroom window was completely dominated by Markham colliery, its huge brick built chimney, the headstocks, the winding houses and countless other mining specific buildings.
At night the scene was quite stunning, the pit head illuminated by an array of bright yellow and orange lights, highlighting tiny details in the silhouettes, whilst plumes of smoke and steam softened the outlines, and blurred the imposing spoil tip landscape behind.     
Born the son of a Markham miner, every aspect of my childhood was in some way touched by the colliery.

Like many others, dad worked three shifts in rotation...days, afters’ and nights, while mum’s predominant role was to bring up my older brother, myself, and look after the house...as a young child, it appeared everyone’s parents in the village did the same.

Every day we would see men trudging wearily up Markham hill at the end of another shift their hands, and faces etched with ground-in coal dust, and clutching empty grey dented Acme snap tins.

The mine was the heartbeat of the village, providing guaranteed work for almost every family.  Wages were not high, the hours were long, the work was physically draining, and it was dirty.

The colliery also afforded a huge degree of social support and cohesion that was vital for everyone.  Amongst many other events, the Miner’s Welfare provided subsidised drinks and entertainment for members, a fantastic annual Christmas party for the children, a yearly day-trip to the coast...usually filling at least twelve coaches (each under the control of a ‘club committee member’ and laden with free pop and crisps for the children and a bottle of beer for the adults for the half-way stop).
Like all ‘pits’, Markham had a summer ‘shut-down’, the colliery serviced by minimal staff whilst the majority of the village travelled en masse to Skegness...more accurately the Miners’ Holiday Camp on Winthorpe Avenue between Skegness and Ingoldmells.
After a year of working so closely together in the grim dangerous underground reality that was mining...the chance to let off steam together for a whole two weeks and share some precious daylight provided brief respite during what for many was going to be their vocation for life.  

The St John’s Brigade unit in the village was ‘Markham’ rather than Duckmanton, on sports day the at the village primary school the team names were named after local pits, Ireland, Arkwright and Markham...the colliery had its own football pitch, cricket pitch and bowling greens (in my early years). If you were unfortunate enough to acquire a minor injury of any sort in the home or playing out it was the medical centre at the pit head that provided treatment, strangely exciting visits as they exposed us at close quarters to the sounds and smells of a working colliery.  

The only bars of soap we ever saw for many years were stamped with the letters PHB...and it was only later, on progressing to senior school, that I learned this was merely an acronym for Pit Head Baths.

It was convention that the destiny for the vast majority of boys in the village was a career underground, as generations had done before.

My father like most of his brothers had gone underground at Markham at 15, his own father had worked at the coal face either side of World War 1...a boy miner, sent to the trenches at Ypres...then returned with gas scarred lungs to serve out the rest of his working life at Markham, in backbreaking harsh conditions hundreds of feet below the ground.  The ravages of mining and the battlefield robbed him of the chance to meet any of his grandchildren.

Dad eventually managed to gain promotion to an office based position in middle-management and, along with mum, encouraged my brother and I to work hard at primary school, pass our Eleven Plus exam and get a good enough education to break the cycle.
In July 1973, Markham was hit by its third major tragedy, when 18 men were killed, and 11 others seriously injured.  Although only 10 at the time, I still clearly remember that day, the muggy overcast afternoon when so much anguish, uncertainty and unhappiness was so visible.  Whole families stood at the pit head waiting for information, and rumours filtered up into the village.  The national media covered the event, and for the very worst of reasons, Markham Colliery and Duckmanton were on the news.  We, like everyone in the village, new someone who had been involved in the disaster, and it triggered many awful memories amongst grandmother’s generation who could still clearly recall the horror of the explosions in 1937 and ‘38.

A great deal of innocence and naivety was shattered that day.

A year later I passed my 11 Plus and went to grammar school.  Like the vast majority of boys from the village I left school at 16 but never worked underground.  To this day however, I fully understand and appreciate what Markham Colliery meant, and still means, to so many individuals, families and the whole community in Duckmanton and the surrounding area.

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Well that didn’t go too badly!

In early 2007, I was offered the position of Group Chair at 1st Calow Scout Group, a year before the group was due to celebrate 75th Anniversary.  To mark this, my first objective was to devise a project involving all sections of the group; Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and Explorers, plus leaders, parents/carers and the wider community.  Inspired by memories of an experience I had enjoyed as a Cub in the early 1970’s, I suggested the group should stage a Gang Show.  My aim for Calow was to do things on a much grander scale, culminating in performances at Chesterfield’s Pomegranate Theatre. 

As it would interfere with their regular programme, convincing the Scouting leadership of the group was not easy.  Very few (if any) of the group had ever appeared on a stage before, we would need material to perform, costumes, scenery, props, an audience...and most of all money.  I claimed that nothing was insurmountable and by the end of the summer break, many of these issues would be resolved.  I applied to the National Lottery and secured funding of almost £7500, Derbyshire County Council also granted us the money to buy a projector for use in rehearsals, the shows and later by the group and other local community organisations.  With some tremendous family support a skeleton script was written, mixing traditional Gang Show sketches with a narrative tracking 1st Calow (and the Scout movement’s) history.  Free weekly rehearsal space was secured at Calow Community Centre and I wrote to more than 100 celebrities (many ex-Scouts) for words of encouragement.  The theatre was booked for the end of January 2008.

By September, I was ready to present what had been achieved so far to the young people themselves.  With a degree of reticence, they said they were prepared to give it a go.

Initial rehearsals were a disaster...the Beavers weren’t interested, the Cubs impatient, the Scouts embarrassed to read in front of their peers and there was no way the Explorers were going to dance.  After two weeks the Scout Leaders began to question the future of the project.

Week three and the uncle of two group members, himself an ex-Calow Scout, wandered into rehearsal with an acoustic guitar.  In few short minutes he had the entire Cub pack round him singing a camp fire song.  The mood changed immediately...along with belief in the project.

By week four, I had received the first celebrity reply, and as became the norm from then on, opened rehearsals with a message of good will and support.  Each week the cast became increasingly excited to find out just who was supporting their efforts.

Word (and enthusiasm) spread amongst the parents/carers and highly skilled volunteers came forward...a seamstress, a carpenter, someone with experience of previous theatrical performances...others who wanted to help build scenery, source props or help with rehearsals.  On top of this, I was more than lucky ot have the help and full backing of a remarkably supportive family!

By Christmas the cast were becoming more confident, and the parents/carers more involved.  The day after Boxing Day almost 20 turned up to start painting the scenery, in a barn loaned to us by a local egg farmer who’s previously stage-shy son was due to play the key role of Narrator/MC for the shows.

Invitations were sent out to local dignitaries and MPs, a member of the Upper House and other special guests.  We traced survivors from the group’s first meeting in 1933 and, as one of them was being portrayed by a current Scout in the show, it was deemed right that he should be guest of honour on opening night.

As the show dates approached, rehearsals were conducted almost at fever pitch.  The local media covered the project, gifting some invaluable exposure.

On the eve of opening night we had the full dress rehearsal, and the reality of such an ambitious (and risky) project hit home.  As project leader I was presumed the right person to stage manage the show.  The sound of large props being manhandled across the stage, the time take to dress the scenes...and missing stage directions slowed down the entire performance by more than an hour.  This was a school night and many parents/carers quite rightly took their exhausted children home before the finale.  Tempers were stretched, and it look as highly likely that an embarrassing two nights would follow.  At the very lowest point of the post-show briefing, the Pomegranate’s resident Stage Manager, who had witnessed events from the stalls appeared.  “Well that didn’t go too badly” were six of the most welcome words I’d ever heard.  He advised us to come in to the theatre the following morning, make a few small changes to scenery, props and directions and pointed out that the cast had actually done everything right. 

The following two nights went better than any of us could have dreamed.  The cast were absolutely magnificent, the backstage team of parents/carers and leaders were superb, and by the end of it was almost impossible to get everyone off stage.  The press review and audience feedback was exceptional.
To honour the support of the community in Calow, the show was staged free of charge (in a truncated fashion) twice in one day a few months later.  The profile of the group had been lifted, and efforts were then put into creating a 75th Anniversary memorial garden to the rear of St Peter’s Church Hall.  Radio 4 visited the group to record a portion for a programme about sitting Lords visiting their origins (Baroness Richardson of Calow).  A weekend long 75th Anniversary exhibition of memorabilia, images, multimedia presentations was hosted at the church hall to mark the event, drawing ex Calow scouts (even from 1933), dignitaries and visitors from as far away as Canada, and a special church service was held.

Ten years on, and I’m still immensely proud of what those young people and families achieved. 

Whether their participation in the project had any bearing on their future lives is purely conjecture, but I certainly know it boosted their confidence and self-belief in what is possible.  A number of cast-members went on to study performing or creative arts subjects at university...music, film making and set design, some (including one incredibly shy Scout at the time) have gone onto serve in the military.  The group also attracted more members and leaders...and some of the families involved forged new and still ongoing friendships. 

It really didn’t go too badly!

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