Burke, Vanley. (1 of 4). Oral History of British Photography.

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  • Recording date

    2014-01-21, 2014-01-28

  • Recording locations

    The British Library

  • Interviewees

    Burke, Vanley, 1951- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Read, Shirley (speaker, female)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Vanley Burke [VB] born July 8 1951 in St Thomas, one of 14 parishes in Jamaica. Comments that he was born in a small hamlet which has since disappeared, people left to go to Britain, very rural, end of the road, foothills of the Blue Mountains and the nearest large town Cedar Valley. Description of his family, that his mother came to England to study to be a nurse when VB was about three, he lived with his grandparents who left to join her in 1960 and then he lived with an aunt until he came to Britain, his strict grandfather who did farm-working in America, his lovely grandmother, hardworking, never met his father. [00:04:55] Description of sharing a house and area with other branches of the family, hearing that his mother had married, seeing a photo of her, a memory of her. Description of his household chores and being given an animal to look after, that they were farmers, grandmother would go to the market to sell their crops and also they lived off their own produce, landownership of a place called Birkwood, still in the family [00:09:31], had cows and used to sell milk, bought other pieces of land. Beulah and Mordecai Burke, grandfather’s nicknames, use of prefixes such as Miss or Sister, that traditions could be colonial or some retention of African culture, Spanish culture, domination by Britain. [00:14:30] Comment that the school syllabus was British and that his mother can go through the poems she learned, learned English history, Britain was somewhere different and far and wealthy, the monarchy, his idea about shoes. [00:17:36] Mention of VB’s cousin Donald who also came to Britain, Donovan, Trevor and Phyllis, that they played together. [00:18:36] Description of making their own lead toys, their games, playing cricket. Memory of seeing and listening to a radio for the first time, no electricity and reliant on batteries, a story from VB’s mother, that they listened to Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and Radio Jamaica. [00:23:45] A description of VB’s home, in a clearing, that his responsibility was to sweep the whole house out daily and feeding and watering the animal, other chores the children did, idyllic, a memory of calling across the valley to children on the hill opposite, his attempt in 2007 to go back to the area and failing because there is no path. [00:28:09] Comment that there was no road, that people would carry their clothes with them if they were going to Kingston and wash and change their clothes on the way. [00:29:07] A memory of going to school in Mount Vernon, seeing the children washing their hands, that they had to fetch water from the tank in a butter tin, kerosene cans were also carried on adults’ heads, women and children’s work, having a copper sugar barrel, making coconut oil. A list of foods, that meat was eaten fresh and some things smoked, only buying things like salt and cod, being very resourceful. [00:36:23] Comment that they went to church every Sunday, VB’s grandmother was involved in the church, that it was sort of Pentecostal, description of it, that when VB was quite ill his grandparents had a prayer meeting in the house, obeah, consecrated water, that they spoke in tongues and do that in England. Discussion of speaking in tongues. Mention that VB collects music and thinks some of this might be African, a memory of a bigger church by a deep pool of water, their fear of evil spirits in the water, not learning to swim, kerosene oil filled lamps with ‘Home Sweet Home’ on the sides, would go to bed early and tell obeah and Annancy stories, VB tells an Annancy, the trickster, story, sitting round a big fire, wonderful, that they didn’t have sweets unless their parents had been to the market. [00:52:32] Comment that there was not a lot of music except in church, radio or when farmworkers brought songs back from America. Comment that the larder was the fields and food was collected daily by children and sometimes adults, that on his return in 2011 his family were still collecting food as they needed it. Description of the killing of animals and that the person who does it becomes a rolling calf after their death, stories about this, scary, dreams about it, that VB drew. [01:00:11] Description of daily life as a child, eating fruit on the way to school, teaching by repetition, that the cane or strap was used, English stories of Janet and John, use of slates to write, making dishes out of tins. [01:07:19] Description of being given a camera from his mother VB was about 9 or 10, before that he had had his picture taken by a travelling photographer who did this for people to send photographs to England, his first sight of his mother was in the wedding album she sent. Comment that grandparents decided to move to Britain because immigration law was about to be changed and VB then went to stay with an aunt for 5 years, Aunt who lived in a nice wooden house, had three children and others who also lived there, VB and Marcia were relatives, sizeable piece of land, main crops were coffee, chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits, a drastic change of regime from feeling like an insider to feeling like an outsider, that Uncle Seth was a sanitary inspector and church deacon, the children’s duties, that VB and Earl looked after the pigs and the girls did chores like clothes washing, that VB cleaned the shoes for the whole family, dug trenches for muck, an anecdote about a blissful morning eating mangoes and collecting grass for the animals but not collecting enough and a deception over the grass, how the children told the time, a line from a local song about Sammy and VB’s fear, carrying a bottle torch. [01:27:09] Comment about VB’s opinion of his aunt, that the family was middle class, brutal treatment of the children, weekend baking, the huge oven, cleaning the floor of the house using a coconut brush. Comments on going to the Baptist church and being tested on the text, reading at the daily prayer service. [01:35:38] Comment on a decision to build a new house, that Uncle Seth’s work took him abroad and he travelled in Jamaica, an incident with cement during the building, VB’s re-assessment of his relationship with his aunt when he later travelled to South Africa, an anecdote about cutting bananas and problem solving. [01:40:46] Comment about lunch. Further description of being young in Jamaica, lush green, shouting to the airplanes which flew overhead, that he hadn’t met people from England but knew stories about it, VB and Earl’s discussions, imagining England, being forced to ask questions and problem solve and how that has affected VB’s life and work, in 1965 another change in immigration laws so VB’s parents sent for him, that he prepared for England, had a big bottle of coconut oil to take with him. Comment about his name, middle name Lauriston, and use of pet names, that he was called Junior. [01:51:24] Comment that he arrived in England May 13 1965 at Heathrow by BOAC [British Overseas Airlines Company?], an anecdote about being offered cream on the plane, being met by Grandfather and stepfather and driven to Birmingham, having a fry-up, his first impressions, his parents Caribbean grocery shop in Grove Lane, Handsworth, meeting his five brothers, working and weighing out rice, that VB’s mother is very hard working, playing wasn’t an option. [01:57:13] Reflection on meeting a lot of people he had heard about and listening to their stories. [01:58:10] Description of how he came to be interested in taking photographs, that he was sent a camera in Jamaica, a Kodak box brownie 127, a small bakelite camera, he took some photographs of his aunt’s house and aunt B thought VB’s photos were better than the professional ones, the difficulties of documenting, a bit of advice from a photographer, that he was able to retrieve a photograph he took which was sent to his grandmother. A story about rushing to catch a bus early one morning, improvisation and survival. [02:06:10] His memory of arriving in England and finding it small, claustrophobic, there being no horizon. Comment that he went to school for two years in England, racism, the other boys, that it was rough, initially Caribbean and later Asian and the lack of understanding between them. Stories about going to the pub and special glasses, breaking glasses after a black person had drunk from it, about estate agents, the timing of church services, West Indians starting their own church, saving systems, the effect of racism, that it was the first time he met people from other Caribbean islands and from Africa, that the similarity was the way they were being treated, the differences were in languages, the food and other aspects of their culture, some forms of entertainment, that steel pan is from Trinidad not Jamaica and reggae from Jamaica not Trinidad, different ways of cooking, that Jamaica is the only island where people eat ackee. [02:17:11] Comment that VB’s grandfather bought a house, it was a multi lodging, that self help organisations, such as summer schools, were being set up, organising political rallies. A description of the church service followed by Sunday dinner. [02:23:20] Comment that the church was important to VB’s grandmother but not to his mother that VBs grandfather would organise trips to the seaside as a way of supplementing his income from the factory. Description of the Blues party with 1000w amplification. Comments on people staying on, families coming to Britain for five years but not returning. Continuing description of Blues party, the floor moving, police raids. [02:35:20] Comment that VB’s mother wanted him to become an engineer, that he wanted a Rolleiflex but bought a cheap camera, then a Practica, started teaching himself, that he bought Amateur Photography and the British Journal of Photography and built a darkroom in his grandparents house. Mention of Handsworth Technical College, an evening class, that his mother is an avid photographer, a florist who wouldn’t go to church without her camera, further comments about shared housing, that Friday night was bath night. [02:43:14] An anecdote about photographs about Surinam, that VB’s interest was in stories and that he used his camera to find answers to questions, collecting people, the possibility of making money through photography, that he started taking photographs of family and friends, capturing the other face of people, the difficulty of making money from it and VB’s understanding of how photographs can be used. Getting a job as a technician at Birmingham College of Art and Design.

  • Description

    Life story interview with photographer Dr Vanley Burke (1951-)

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