Last week I stood in the games room at the Salford Lads Club while a new permanent display to celebrate their 100th annual camp was being mounted under the supervision of the Club’s Secretary Leslie Holmes. One hundred framed images, a photograph or item of memorabilia from every one of the Club’s annual camps to have taken place between 1904 and the centenary year of 2011, surround the visitor, spaced evenly around the walls. The exhibition is open to the public on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th June between 12 and 4pm, and I urge you to see it.
The exhibition captures singular moments in the lives of some of the many hundreds of young working class Salford Lads, given an opportunity to get away from the city during Whit week, to take the country air and enjoy the pleasures of camping, swimming in rivers and visits to the seaside. This is also an extraordinary visual record of the Club’s collective history and of the rituals that bind people together and preserve continuity when all about is change. The display deliberately opts to interweave the composed and the spontaneous, the formal group, standing to attention in rigid rows, and the relaxed or energetic throng. The postures and clothes change dramatically, somehow the faces recur through the decades.
Only a very few of these images have been on display previously: many have not been shown publicly before, and several photos have been dug out from the personal collections of the Club’s officers and volunteers. In this respect, as Leslie Holmes suggests, the photographic exhibition constitutes a previously hidden history, finding a new visibility and relevance, both for the Club and for the wider community where connections to the Club stretch back through the generations. And it visibly places the Club’s recent camps into a historical continuum that begins in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Equally fascinating and unique is the Club’s moving image archive which contains footage of the annual camp from the 1930s to the 1980s in a range of film gauges and formats, 16mm, 9.5mm, super8. Just as the cine-film of the family holiday aims to produce a positive record of the family when it steps outside the constraints of everyday life and into the sunlight, so too documentation of the camp celebrates a highlight in the Club year when its members leave aside weekly routines for carefree country pursuits.
The extent of this rare moving image collection, approximately forty reels of film (or ten hours), some of which was digitized and preserved by the North West Film Archive in 2001, shows that as well as pioneering informal education as an evening school and library, the Salford Lads Club has been a hub of alternative media production from the 1930s onwards.
Those of us who are sometimes tempted to think that our image-making capabilities are on an upward curve of innovation evolving ever more sophisticated and refined technologies over the last eighty years or so, might be surprised by the richness, tone and beauty of the footage from previous decades, particularly the first 16mm colour reels in the early 60s.
Over the last few months I’ve watched this footage from the Lads Club camp many times. There are striking images from every decade since the thirties which are now etched on my memory: of city boys tentatively holding placid young lambs; of plunging into the river – deep, deep blue on film – and splashing with abandon; of the simple unalloyed pleasure of slaking a thirst with a glass of lemonade, of men and boys in modest bathing suits at the seaside, walking awkwardly over pebbles at the water’s edge; of burly men mashing spuds in industrial quantities and of the melancholy sight of tents being taken down and blankets being folded away for another year.
One of my favourite sequences comes at the end of the film of the 1977 camp. Many of the reels in the archive begin with a departure from the club and end with return. In this sequence of return the Club is bathed in golden sunshine and the camera tilts down from the iconic green sign above the entrance to a group of returning lads. As they walk into the building they turn and wave to the camera, a gesture that is one of the running motifs of the camp archive, disappearing across the threshold into the Club, a kind of homecoming. No sooner have they disappeared from view than they spill out across the threshold and into the sunshine again, as if they were not yet ready for the holiday to end, as if they want to hold on to the liminal moment. As they walk forward hands raised exuberantly, light floods the image and the reel ends.
The digitization of some of this footage has made it available to members of the Club to reedit and use in the process of telling their own Tales from Camp. These Tales produced in workshops with Storycircle in association with DigiTales will be showing at the Club this weekend alongside the photographic exhibition. Look out for a compilation of footage from the Club archive on the Quays link bus in the coming weeks.