A long, long, time ago, just after World War 11, six licenses were granted to war veterans that allowed them to take commercial photographs in Trafalgar Square thus overriding the obscure by-law that had long prevented this means of earning an honest crust.
In 1961, Nicky Connors was just such a photographer. With his velvet collared camel-haired coat, shinny mohair suit and winkle picker shoes, he was the epitome of ‘East End boy made good’. Armed with ancient Leica cameras, pet monkeys for novelty and a stall selling pigeon food for added attraction, they would patrol Trafalgar Square daily in search of new potential customers.
Inevitably they knew the ways of ‘the Square’ so intimately that a newcomer ‘hanging around’ and not obviously a tourist was cause for comment. A 13 year old school girl who had appeared on the Square for three days running, as I had, hoping to meet up with a friend after we had separated during our flight from a children’s home, in the only place in London that we both knew the name of, was attracting considerable attention. Not least, unnoticed by me, from a young police constable watching me from a distance. Nicky arrived at my side, ‘Come and join us for lunch’ he said, ‘Copper over there is watching you, time to move’.
I needed no second bidding, too naive to contemplate the possible dangers in walking off with Nicky and his colleague, I did understand the implications of attracting police attention. The old Lyon’s Corner House stood just yards away on the corner of The Strand, a haven of good cheap food, still presided over by the ‘Nippies’ in their black dresses and starched aprons. We entered the front door with Nicky firmly holding my arm, threaded our way between the tables – and emerged from a back door into Craven Street! No food had touched our lips. As we huddled in the back doorway, a hurried conversation took place.
‘Have you eaten’?
‘Did you want to talk to that copper’?
There was no further discussion as to what my situation might be, no intrusive questions.
‘Follow me’, said Nicky, and I did, down a dingy flight of stairs into his basement ‘studio’. ‘Make yourself tea, biscuits are in there, I’ll be back in an hour’.
There was a dim red light in the room, over my head were string lines on which were pegged hundreds of photographs of tourists, some holding Lazarus the pet monkey, some fending off hordes of pigeons, all laughing and smiling. I made tea, munched biscuits, and waited.
He returned at nightfall, clutching a bag of fish and chips.
‘Here, get yourself outside that lot’, he said. ‘Plod ‘as gone ‘ome, you’re safe now. Run away from ‘ome ‘ave you’?
‘Children’s Home’ I replied glumly. I poured out my tale of my missing ‘friend’ who had an aunt who would house us.
‘Can’t hang about on the Square every day now’, he said, ‘me an’ Len will keep an eye out for her, have you got somewhere to go tonight’?
‘There’s a room up the top you can have’.
He led me up a spiral staircase, past suites of deserted offices and eventually emerged through a concealed door into a glazed roof top cabin, with views across half London. I later learned that it had been the studio of a war time cartoonist of some repute; rented from the Railways Board at the peppercorn rent of £1 a year, the artist had paid 50 years rent in advance and then disappeared. There was a decidedly grubby mattress, a few blankets, and sheafs of old cartoons. A place of safety but not of comfort.
‘No one will bother you here, but get yourself down into my studio before the offices open at 9, there’s a toilet on the third floor, and you can make tea in my place’. With that he was gone.
To modern ears, this must sound the stuff of parental nightmares. 13 year old girl, plucked from the path of rescuing policeman, photographers ill lit den, concealed hiding place. Surely I must be about to tell you of my early experiences at the hands of a paedophile?
Far, far, from it! Nicky was a born pedagogue, a tutor, his interest in me was confined to teaching me the ways in which I could honestly support myself; a great believer in personal responsibility, he found me a job -washing up in the Charring Cross Hotel – he showed me how to obtain documents that enabled me to ‘work’ as a legitimate ’18 year old’, he made sure I always had a safe haven to return to. Never, never, in all the years I knew him did that man betray by thought, deed, or innuendo, any dishonourable interest in me. Seven years later he was best man at my wedding, standing on my right, in the only photograph I have of that special day when I was briefly reunited with my Father, on my left.
I wasn’t seduced into a life of sleazy ’porn’ photographs, nor of drugs. I’ve never smoked a ‘joint’ to this day – far too busy following Nicky’s example and earning a living.
What has brought all this to mind is that I hear it is now illegal to take any photographs in Trafalgar Square, prohibited under Terrorism laws. The pigeons have gone, seen off by Ken Livingstone’s dislike of ‘vermin’. The photographers and the monkeys have gone. Lyon’s Corner House has gone. The feminism of the 60′s has left us with a legacy of mistrust of men. They represent a ‘danger’ to all, especially children.
Are men really any different today? Probably, is my answer. No more dangerous, but considerably more cautious. Probably, today, Nicky would be aware of the great danger I represented to him, of perhaps ending up on the Sex Offenders Register. There were dangers present in those days; some 40 years later I made contact with my ‘friend’, she had been caught and returned to the Home mere hours after our escape – and eighteen months later had been seduced and impregnated by one of the male staff. Some place of safety.
I don’t believe that human nature has changed in the interim. There are still decent men like Nicky Connors out there. What has changed is that we have a shrill cacophony of legislation that lures us into a belief that danger can be legislated against.
I don’t believe it can.
Government can legislate and punish, they can condemn, they can vilify, they can make more cautious, but they cannot turn good men into bad, nor bad men into good.