Hello and Goodnight

Photographs by Graham Smillie
Threshold Festival, Arena Gallery
28th – 30th March 2014

Reviewed by Chumki Banerjee


The last weekend in March, unexpectedly evolved into a weekend of re-visitations and re-awakenings which reminded me how much things can change in a few years, while revealing how music transcends time and reinvention, retains its relevance, remains ravishingly reflective of life. Robbed of an hours sleep was perhaps not the best state to face such revelations; especially as an all-nighter beckoned with The Orb and Dave Seaman in head on collision sharing the same night, though not the same space; but more of that in another article. Until then – before things got messy – a gentle start, strolling through town to Graham Smillie’s exhibition of musical photos at Liverpool’s Arena Gallery.


As winter’s clock ticked its last tock, its tale at end with equinox, spring sprang in without a knock, to frolic in new season’s frock.

Usually reluctant to release her tenure, this year Snow Queen gathered up her squalls and slunk, skulking round corner, in temporary abeyance with official order. Wending my way through town, destination Arena Gallery, hibernal veering to vernal, warm winds wafted change through Chinese Gate, along with heady whiff of decomposing dog doo, surreptitious number two’s deposited on the green handkerchief of Great George Square’s, itself subject to number two haircut, hangout for huddle of earnestly engaged adolescents, and their blither, more mirthful miniature versions, pursuing innocent pleasure in miniscule playground at its perimeter, under watchful parenting eye.

Tacking diagonally towards one of my favourite ‘hidden’ churches, St Vincent’s, on the corner of Upper Frederick Street, I am struck by how previous Bermuda of Baltic Triangle has blossomed, burgeoning into bustling being, along with buds bursting to break into early inflorescence, on those fortunate trees which remain on deflowered James Street.

Sunlight now floods rat runs and corridors of doleful gloom, darkness dispelled, ghosts of the past disintegrated to dust, evicted, exhaled from dank ranks of decaying deterioration, windowless warehouses, carapaces cracked, thrown open to new life, despondency defeated, demolished, disabused of frisson of fear which used to stalk these down at heel streets, shivering in sombre shadows of hammer horror hulks, hollow sockets oozing ectoplasm from every orifice, snaking out to snatch and strangle unwary souls, entangle them in ether for all eternity.

Streets swept definitively clean by new broom, makes it a less challenging pleasure to walk this way, steps no longer slipping on mulch of fallen leaves and unidentifiable greasy gunk, yet inwardly I harbour hint of hankering for dignified dereliction, and rampantly unruly vegetation, which left to its own undisturbed devices, had metamorphosed its own fantastical landscape.

St Vincent’s grimy face, washed clean, gleams, but has lost its gap toothed grin; its Gormenghast folly of a Gothic spire shines, sparkles reaching for the sun, an enticing smile but not as enigmatic as the dark satanic spike which speared the cluster of glowering clouds, dominating the sky for miles. It has lost its misty shroud of mystery, luminescent canopy of un-pruned trees which used to be natural nave to its door. Instead it now faces one of the more monstrous constructions of this new Baltic world, towering glass building which houses temptations of Siren bar and cafe. This would all be fine if St Vincent’s doors were flung wide for people to visit its serenely modest yet seductive interior, to hear sweet tones of its exquisite pipe organ but, gates appear to be firmly shut, securely locked. Most of the fallen heads stones which littered its courtyard have disappeared, only one tidy stack of lead roof tiles leans patiently against the wall, so maybe years of restoration are reaching culmination, and once more this Delphic delight will ring with song. Let us pray.

Turning my back on God, I delve further into brave new Baltic world. Previously dwelling in permanent dusk, now blinking in deforested light, I am glad to see that some age old businesses which weathered dour times, still remain; Liver Grease, founded in 1809, dispensing ‘Creosote, Coal, Tar, Bitumen, Paint and other Chemicals’ is ‘Ringing in’ its ‘3rd century of business’ from ramshackle ruin; ‘Metal Merchants’, ‘Auto Interiors’ and ‘Latex Coating Works’, row of reinforced roller shutters share the street; while round the corner, City Centre Sheds, still displays its weather worn wares, incongruously mounted, mid air, on vacant brick wall; and Childwall Table and Chair Hire is still only place in town to hire those ubiquitous toy town ‘princess’ seats, for special events.

Though now, ancient time is warped with modern weft, silken thread weaving luminous colour into pallor; P.R. companies and artist’s studios with surreal signage and intriguingly mysterious messages; cafes with conscience, ethical eateries such as Unit 51, Baltic Bakehouse and Camp and Furnace; tea can be taken from teatime teapot treats at Alison Appleton; kids addicted to speed sweep serenely on skateboards, gliding, sliding stone waves of graffiti tattooed skate park, or beep, riding Quad bike thrones, high on petroleum growl; and of course, as it’s Liverpool, music fills the air, from Picket to practise rooms.

Ancient emissions of evocative smells which soak the air, boiling bitumen, sizzling sump oil and musky resin, are now mingled with barbecued hog and roasted coffee. Intoxicating as this is, the hedonistic scent I miss is Buddleia breeze which used to dowse, drench senses, potently pernicious, billowing on slightest breath from drooping, drowsy, dishevelled heads of blowsy purple blossom. Desecrated, slaughtered by machete, fallen soldiers they lay broken and bundled where cut down, swathes of friable fodder, dried blood brown. In pre renaissance days, walking to Novas, ducking, brushing Buddleia which strewed my way, ears filled with bumble bee buzz, I was enveloped in cloud of butterflies, rabble of Red Admirals, settling back to feed on honeydew in my wake.

Sad as it is, that this source of succour should be sacrificed to Baltic butterfly, I suppose it is worth it for Baltic’s new buzz, hum of human endeavour breaking into new song, spring in its step, to see smiles on faces of people I pass, who willing wander where previously they passed.


So at last I reach my destination. The Arena Gallery, in its current incarnation, dates back to first ripples of Baltic regeneration, Novas Contemporary Urban Centre, majestic liner of a warehouse conversion, surfing tide, afloat, alight with art and entertainment, city of delights, crashing into terminally turbulent waters of corporate corruption, chicanery and controversy, grounded, creaking to irretrievable halt.

However, one corner of the building was phoenix with its own elevator to the stars; Elevator Studios labels itself a ‘creative hub’, with its own cafe, recording studio, practise spaces, offices to let and artists’ studios; home to Arena Gallery and its stable of artists since 2008, when they were forced to move from their established Duke Street premises.

Originally a tiny exhibition space, accessed via single elevator, now slightly extended along a corridor, up twisting stairs, this eyrie has, in the past, transformed itself into a magical space for illuminating exhibitions, so I look forward to what awaits me.


Having sprung forward, I find myself falling back in time, breathing rarefied air of a past which I had not expected so intimately to share.

Graham Smillie turns out to be a modest man with a winsome smile, who – like the spy whose name he almost emulates – has harboured secrets for many years, invisible images which only reveal themselves when developed by chemicals, in his case not ink, but light captured on film. Luckily, unlike George Smiley’s classified, for your eyes only, security, Graham’s undisclosed information is secreted less securely in a biscuit box in a cupboard, which can be opened without high level clearance, though it contains something even more precious than state secrets, time itself.

Not setting out to be a photographer, Graham was only recently persuaded, by a friend, to shake out crumbs and release genie from biscuit box. Taken over the period 1981 to 1985, when moved by the music he left his East Kilbride home, to roadie for The Pale Fountains, these photographs of musicians Graham enjoyed along the way; many snapped in Liverpool clubs such as Roger Eagle’s Adam’s on Seel Street and Plato’s Ballroom at Pickwicks; beguilingly capture, in black and white, youthful exuberance of colourful cast of characters, both local icons and those who became more widely known.

Where photographs of Liverpool’s musical eighties are concerned, there are many openings of cardboard boxes in a cupboard, so it is easy to become jaded and blase; everyone seems to have images gathering dust with abandoned guitars. However, in those days, without automated assistance assumed in these digital times, good photography was even more of a technical affair than it is now. Graham’s blown up prints; developed from 35mm film; demonstrate his skills, though even then, he tells me, some were too grainy to exhibit.

But, leaving aside obvious practical expertise, there is something more fundamental which distinguishes Graham Smillie’s selection.

The pictures speak for themselves, but it is also evident in his voice and from the subjects, that these are more than star-struck snaps. Beyond fame, these photographs betray Graham’s affection for people, their passion, energy, idiosyncrasies and fragility; without affectation they shine a light on inner soul. These are those rare photos which trap the very air of another era, immortalise an imprint of a moment made everlasting, retrace tracks of time, erasing ruinous ravages etched on mortal flesh, slice of life set in luminescence for eternity. These are those precious moments, which so many who grew up in Liverpool still dream of, brought alive once more with poignant vibrancy, impossible to ignore or forget.

Many of the protagonists still perform, so as well as reliving their beginnings, these photographs are an enlightening anthropological study, proving the theory that, after a certain age, style becomes atrophied to the inner eye. So, despite the passing of years, the rising sap of striplings portrayed provide easily distinguishable, discernible roots for older self.

None the less, as many of the photographs remain unlabelled, I am grateful that Graham was kind enough to walk me round.

Musicians, bands, fans and impresarios featured here, caught un-posed, un-aware, mid movement, goofing around, include, amongst others: the late Chris McCaffery, Mike Head and Thomas Whelan from The Pale Fountains; Pete Wylie; Colin Vearncombe from Black (a rather aloof individual, intentionally ironically in blue, the only coloured photo); Joe Musker, famous for his drum marathons and whimsically wonderful moustache, from Dead Or Alive; Ian Broudie; Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch; the late Pete de Freitas, also from The Bunnymen; John Campbell, It’s Immaterial; Aztec Camera; Roger Eagle; Steve Johnson of Teardrop Explodes; and one of my favourites, unidentified dancing guy, grooving in checked shirt and ultra long tie, to Cook Da Books at Dingwalls.

I didn’t grow up with Liverpool clubs and bands; coming to them late, in the years when I first moved to Liverpool from London; so whilst I love the music, I didn’t think I would have as close a connection as those who spent their youth immersed in that culture. However, one picture in particular took my breath, untitled but more instantly recognisable to me than all the others, instantaneously carrying me back to callow years; the inimitably amazing Alan Peters, in defiant legs askance stance, triumphantly wielding trumpet, dapper as ever in dark glasses, trilby and slim, trim pants. Maybe not as renowned, outside of this city, as others on show, none the less this exceptional, multi talented musician is a legend in Liverpool, and forever has my heart for his kindness, and for introducing me to stalwarts of Liverpool’s music scene, who passed through his recording studio S.O.S.

At the time, I had a nonsensical notion to be a recording engineer. Writing to every studio in England, Alan was almost solo in inviting completely amateur stranger into his studio, to mess with knobs. I can still hear my knees knocking, as loud as knuckle bruising knock, on bullet proof door of his well hidden, handmade S.O.S. snug, down dark, drug addled, prostitute pulling alley off Stanley Street. Welcomed into warm low lit glow, but exceedingly cold, cave-like capsule, wreathed with spaghetti of Heath Robinson wiring, negotiating purple lawnmower; mascot for Alan’s rhythm and blues band The Lawnmower; I felt I had burrowed into another dimension. I wondered whether the world still existed outside. Here awe and extreme shyness precluded much learning, but by osmosis I became assimilated into Liverpool’s musical world.

Luckily, original Lawnmower vocalist Mick Hucknall left after just a few gigs, leaving Alan to build the band and enjoy Liverpool success for many years. I particularly remember one gig, in the Everyman basement, when they shared the bill with Geoff Davis’s flighty new amour, Gone To Earth. Tony Dolman, The Lawnmower’s drummer, stood up for an extraordinary falsetto sole, which , very nakedly, slipped a semitone into unintended key, as he reached for climax, while I performed a similar feat, with less than secure boob tube, which, with nothing much to hold it up, suffered similar slippage, much to amusement of fellow gyrators. Funny how one photo can recall so much, and turn my face red in random recollection.

Later in life, dance captured my heart, so the other picture which captivated my eye was one of Boxhead. Not someone who garnered public musical acclaim, but a Liverpool phenomenon, roadie extraordinaire, instantly recognisable, whom everyone still knows. Working all the clubs from Eric’s on, I didn’t become aware of this celebrity until Cream nightclub, at a time in his life when trademark quiff had settled to bristle brush square, swaggering strut fully intact, commandeering reverential recognition.

Graham, noting my fascination, had a surprise hidden in his duffle bag, one of his first photographs, framed picture of Boxhead in full youthful glory, rake about town, side on, showing off to best advantage sleekest, foppish quiff I have ever seen, shiny swoop of swelling cockscomb standing proud to attention. Having selfishly sucked and swallowed last tab of acid, cat that got last hallucinogenic Rollo, expression on Boxhead’s face is serenely surreal, stoned immaculate, euphoric Elvis, encapsulating the essence of eighties.

Taking photographs of someone else’s photographs seems strange in itself, but sunlight slanting on this final one, superimposes an image of me, present reflected on the past, resonating in the present, reflecting on the past, a suitably psychotropic end, as I exit this Tardis of time.

Hello and Goodnight bowed out after brief three days, but Graham is hoping for more permanent location for his pictures, possibly in Baltic Creative, so keep an eye out. I certainly hope the biscuit tin bed doesn’t beckon, that this is more than three minutes of limelight.


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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Charles O'Brien on 17th April, 2014 at 18:48
Great review but the topic was a great topic Graham has a disarming smile,pleasant personality,and a good photographer,maybe not meant but magic picture shown there.