I remember: Don McCullin

Simon Hemelryk

Celebrated photographer, Sir Don, 83, has captured iconic images everywhere from Vietnam to poverty-stricken London. A major exhibition of his work is set to open at the Tate Britain

…Watching a doodlebug fly over our back garden during the Second World War. You could hear the burring of the engine and see the flames coming out of it. The Germans were trying to bomb Finsbury Park railway station which was near where we lived. Luckily, our street never got hit.

The bombing made me feel nervous but excited. I was too young to understand the devastation it brought with it. You’d go to school in the morning and pick up bits of shrapnel from ack-ack guns. Today, children get a thrill from looking at their phones.

Don McCullin as a young boy

…If my mother gave you a clout, you knew what time it was. My father was invalided with chronic asthma and could barely breathe, so she was the strong one in the family. She had proper muscles. When she ran out of cigarettes, you took cover.

Mum worked in a factory making aircraft parts to support us, but there wasn’t much money around. We lived in a two-room flat with no central heating or bathroom. Finsbury Park was a ghetto, full of violence, back then. Fights in the street; fights at school. I suffered and practised the violence myself—you couldn’t let anyone walk all over you. It’s amazing how I emerged with a totally different, liberal mindset.

McCullin's parents

"My life has always been about adventures. Being on edge all the time helps my photography"

…Being evacuated to idyllic Somerset. I lived in a labourer’s cottage for about 18 months. There were cows and slow-flowing streams. It was like a calendar. The county never left my thoughts and I moved back there permanently 35 years ago. My sister never left. My mother gave her away to the wealthy family who’d looked after her.

When I was seven I was shipped up to a chicken farm in Lancashire. The man didn’t want me there and locked me out until ten o’clock at night, then made me sleep on a mattress on bare boards. I had my head shaved and was forced to wear clogs, which was part of the local culture. If I didn’t eat the disgusting boiled potatoes, which still had their jackets on, at Sunday lunch, the man would punch me.

When I left, I threw a couple of chickens in the stream. I didn’t drown them, though.

 

Don McCullin playing with his brother, Michael

…Seeing my first strip show, aged 15. My father had died a couple of years before and I’d left school to work in the dining car on trains from London to the North. We’d sleep in dormitories by the railways and, one night, this boy who used to clean the trains with a big brush took me to a performance in Liverpool.

There were about 12 women arranged in a tableau based on one of Ruben’s paintings. They weren’t allowed to move, in those days. But they were naked from the waist up. It was quite a lift-off for a 15-year-old. It was extraordinary and even moving, to be away from home in this secret musical place.

…Being inspired by art in upmarket London. I left the trains when I cut my hand with a big knife. I got a job in Mayfair as a messenger boy for an animation studio, delivering cans of film. One of my calling places was the Fine Arts Society, an art gallery that showed work from the turn of the century. It had a really huge influence on my imagination.

When I was called up for National Service, I spun this yarn that I worked in the movie industry—they didn’t know I was just a messenger boy. So I was put in the air force, renumbering old wartime film stock. Later, I spent time in photographic units in Kenya and Egypt, where we were worked printing maps of the Suez Canal zone.

My National Service didn’t really lead me to my chosen career, though. I took a trade test to become a photographer before leaving, but failed. I couldn’t read the theory paper as I have terrible dyslexia.

 

…Getting my big break with the Guvnors. They were my mates, a gang of boys from Finsbury Park, and we used to go to a dance hall called Greys Dance Academy. It had a speakeasy, bad reputation—so girls would come from miles around! One night, in 1958, some lads from Islington got into a fight with my friends. One of the Islington boys, Ronald Marwood, killed a policeman who tried to stop it.

A little while later, I took a photograph of the Guvnors and people told me I should take it to the Observer. Marwood had been hung and the murder was still very much in the news. The paper asked me to take more, published them on the Sunday and by Monday I was being offered every photographic job in England.

Frankly, I didn’t really know anything about photography. I’d just been taking snaps. I had to learn very quickly.

The Guvnors in their sunday suits

"Yoko Ono was a nasty little bully…her opinions meant as much to me as treading on a cigarette"

…Realising I was cut out for war.

I was sent to cover the conflict between the Turks and the Greeks in Cyprus in 1964 and found myself in the middle of a running gunfight that went on for two days. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t watching a battle in a Hollywood movie. I was in it. But I wasn’t scared. I was on a high. The only thing that scared me was not getting good pictures.

 

…Realising I wasn’t cut out for celebrity photo shoots. I was booked to spend a day photographing the Beatles in 1968. I did my best, and the group were good guys. But it wasn’t my cup of tea. It was all a bit inconsequential.

Yoko Ono was a nasty little bully, telling me I was standing in the wrong place. I’d recently seen soldiers killed and maimed in front of me in the Battle of Hue in Vietnam. Her opinions meant as much to me as treading on a cigarette.

…A camera may have saved my life. I was embedded with some Vietnamese troops fighting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in 1970, and they were being mown down by gunfire. I ran across a paddy field to escape. Ordnance was exploding everywhere; bullets snapping by at the speed of sound. When I eventually stopped, I noticed a gaping great hole in my Nikon. I didn’t hear the bullet hit it. It was just part of the battlefield symphony.

 

…Being arrested by the swimming pool in Uganda. There had been an attempt to overthrow Idi Amin and he went completely mad, blaming everyone. Journalists were spies. I had a ticket to fly out that night, but some thugs turned up at my hotel, made me pay my bill, then took me away to a military prison.

There were a lot of serious-looking people in there, waiting for what they knew was most-likely going to be their end. The soldiers were murdering people with sledgehammers. It was pretty frightening. Eventually, the British High Commission managed to get me out and I was deported. I’ve never been so pleased to be kicked out of somewhere.

Londonderry, 1971

…A tragic wedding day. I found my first wife, Christine, dead in bed from cancer the morning my son was getting married. We were separated, but I was staying in her house for the night. I had to knock on my children’s doors and tell them their mother was gone. There weren’t that many happy family days for a long while.

But we’ve regrouped. I’ve got five children and one of the nicest days of my life was recently when another of my sons got married. All my lovely grandchildren are trying to wipe out the effects of that horrible time.

"I’ve never switched a computer on in my life and I don’t really know how to work my phone"

 

…Having dinner with former cannibals. Mark Shand, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, her brother, and I had travelled to meet remote tribes in Indonesia. One of those tribes we encountered had been cannibals, maybe a decade earlier. It was very tense. They wanted things like our belts, T-shirts and money. I wanted to photograph them.

They killed a pig in our honour—though we had to pay for it—and boiled it down into blubbery stuff we couldn’t eat. We were starving.

 

…Being inspired by the Somerset landscape. It’s been the subject of my photography for 30 years. There’s a patchwork of fields and hedgerows, the county’s still rural and full of dairy farming, and is steeped in mythology, with stories about King Arthur and Glastonbury Tor. It has a lot of history and energy.

"Woods near my house"—Somerset

 

…My wife, Catherine, came along at just the right time. My second marriage had ended and I was feeling pretty low. I met Catherine, a travel journalist, at a party. She was 28 years younger than me and very glamorous. I thought she’d get bored with me, but, strangely, we’ve been together for 17 years.

People call her the gatekeeper because she deals with people who are trying to contact me and does all the computer stuff. I’ve never switched one on in my life. I don’t really know how to work my phone. I’ve always got about 60 messages.

 

…Photographing Ethiopian tribesmen who drank cattle blood, about ten years ago. These people lived on cattle and would go to war with other tribes over cattle, too, using AK47s. You heard gun battles at night. But my life has always been about such adventures and being on edge all the time. It helps my photography.

 

…My journey has been long and hard, but I feel over-rewarded. Not many photographers are knighted. I went to Prince Charles’ 70th birthday, recently. A huge privilege. Life started with a lot of broken parts, but it’s picked up a bit.