Yesterday I saw Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain.
One of the many extraordinary images – Mercenary with Congolese Family, Paulus from 1965, with its uncanny synergy between the expressions of the soldier and the seated woman next to him – brought back the memory of an extraordinary conversation I had as a student. Sitting on a low wall outside the laundrette near my digs in Leeds I found that I was talking to a ‘resting’ mercenary. I remember very little of our conversation, other than him telling me he had done his National Service training but seen no active service and wondered if he had real soldiering in him. That doubt ultimately led him to signing up as a mercenary, an occupation he appeared to find addictive.
What I do remember is that, as we sat talking, a little girl ran out of the laundrette past us and then tripped and fell. Almost before she could cry out, the man I’d been talking with had picked he up and started comforting her. Smiling, he then returned her to her mother. The combined speed and gentleness of his reaction left me with a lasting sense of the extraordinary contradictions to be found in one human being.
By an odd coincidence, sometime last week I downloaded Lauren O’Connell’s version of Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a song that always strikes me as a strange updating of the Borders reiver and revenant ballads that have fascinated me for years. It has the same blend of blunt and bloody realism, belief in the importance of loyalty between men and odd sense of the possibility of supernatural justice from beyond the grave. A re-casting then, of what is perhaps a very old and somehow quintessentially masculine set of masculine preoccupations? Zevon co-wrote the song with David Lindell, who he met running a bar in Spain, having worked previously as a mercenary in Africa. (You can find Zevon’s original version of the song here and Lauren O’Connell’s here).
In the last room of the exhibition are the dark and brooding landscape photographs McCullin has been making for a while now. These could be seen as Romantic images, but also perhaps as representing the twilight of the whole idea of ‘natural’ landscape as we’ve understood it. I couldn’t help seeing them as a pre-figuration of a new sense of the Terrestrial, as Bruno Latour understands it in his book published last year Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, published by Polity Press and translated by Catherine Porter.