On his first visit to the Tate archive, Austin Collings unearths a newspaper cutting on Ian Breakwell’s evocative photographic diary of an anonymous London figure
Daily Record: Wednesday, 22 November 1978. The headline: ‘It’s Scratch Your Head Time Again!’ News feature about Ian Breakwell’s The Walking Man Diary. The short article nears its conclusion with the words of art student Arnold Gordon, who says about Breakwell’s piece: ‘What a waste of time, space and money.’ The ambivalent tone of the paper’s prose suggests that it too is similarly unimpressed about the art credentials of this sprawling photomontage of a lone and nameless shuffler.
In The Walking Man, the diaries found a single visual form to home in on, tailor-made for the artist’s attention. Captured on camera in various states of precise/imprecise black and white, seen from Breakwell’s Smithfield Market window on-and-off from 1975 to 1978, the pictures and words began to mount and grow – and the man himself began a new version of life.
This is Breakwell all over, with his alternative diaries that detail scenes from a rattling railway, or slumped pubs, or moments of street sadness; diaries described, in his own sharp fashion, as ‘a little homage to the spirit of magic. A spit in the eye for that rational, repressive world in which everything has its proper place’.
Reading like Louis-Ferdinand Céline stationed in 1970s London, he charts the man’s movements: ‘Past the windows filled with banknotes. Past the windows filled with skinned rabbits… Past a man kicking a cat in the head… Past a man barking like a dog.’ And so on: reams of the stuff.
Head down, smudged mush, fingers hidden by coat pocket, hunched in a fit of meek abstraction, backdropped by prickly brick, weighed down by the private who-knows-what? The man could be any number of strays living in slow-motion, mulling over the skeleton of their day, as they continue to grow old in the shadow of a compromise. You could see how life may have bruised him, but it’s nothing shocking. Only when you become too normal you become dangerous: cue your day in print.
‘The centrepiece is a down-and-out going round in circles,’ reads the newspaper. Untrue. Breakwell never knew if he was a tramp, or just another remote figure wearing a long coat and exhausted shoes. Around this time, the same outfit was being elevated by Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen, and soon after by throngs of students seeking hedonism on a pittance. The same outfit still has its place today, among lads and girls of all ages, alongside knitted Fred West (another once-normal) jumpers and flimsy pumps; only now, it’s all-knowing, because the meek (in various insidious guises) wield media power, and the idea that dishevelment is interesting appeals to them – see Britain’s Got Talent, or any number of successfully insensitive celebrity rags.
Look closer, beneath the image of the man scratching his head at Breakwell’s focused obsession with a man he never knew, and there’s a story of another walking man who the public thought they knew: shamed Labour MP John Stonehouse, the ‘real Reginald Perrin’ as he would later become better known. Like plank-toothed Reggie, Stonehouse faked his own end. Unlike Reggie, Stonehouse was a foreign agent who served in Harold Wilson’s government in the 1960s, and, tormented by business worries, absconded to Australia with his mistress/secretary, Sheila Buckley, after leaving his clothes on a beach.
A life lived in negative, a victim of cosmic injustice; the clear light of self-hatred seemed to beam down on the self-piteous Stonehouse. But not The Walking Man, who still – 30-odd years later – retains the grace of anonymity having escaped aggrandisement; suitably undefined, his true existence caught only briefly by the trappings of passing fame.