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A Millennium tale of woe

When a stony silence descends and everyone looks away, or studies their feet, why is it always me who opens my mouth to say “I’ll do that.” then bitterly regrets speaking when the offer is smartly accepted? Time and time again I do this, never having the savvy to keep silent, look away or study my own feet. One morning in 1999 as I uttered those words I knew things would not go smoothly.

As life progresses you constantly find yourself ‘the new boy’ moving through schools, work, the army (National Servicemen will relate) jobs, promotions, always the same. Nor does it change on retirement. I joined a Probus Club, a club for retired professional and businessmen. Although the youngest, I was readily accepted - a monthly meeting, coffee, chat, speaker, chat, go home. Again. the ‘new boy’. Then a proposal was made for a millennium photograph for posterity. Of course it was me who volunteered!

I foresaw no problems; I had experience, equipment and time. As a semi-pro I'd photographed many groups and knew what to do, also a contact had offered the free use of the main room at the Town Hall. No problems, a doddle. I met the committee and started to outline my plans. Sorry, but George and Albert are a little deaf, could I restart, no difficulty I shouted. Sorry, but when addressing George, Albert could not hear from his position. Could Albert not move closer to George? Sorry, getting up was difficult. George made no effort to change so I started again, this time shouting in stereo.

Move to the Town Hall? But we always meet at the Masonic Hall, even one session would create big problems, transport, car parking and where would Ben leave his bike? Besides, the Masons have a big room upstairs and the Chairman was sure this could be used. Whilst a telephone call was made, the kettle was boiled and a packet of ginger biscuits produced, soft but as everyone tucked in it seemed churlish to decline. No problem for the room upstairs. Well yes they supposed I could have a prior look if I really had to, the Masons are a bit funny about strangers going up there but it would be arranged. It took a further hour to agree on a suitable date and time for the photograph, by which time my voice was going, not helped by repeating everything many times as copious amounts of tea caused the elderly committee members to leave the room regularly, on return each needing an update. Eventually I went home, convinced this was not going to be a doddle.

The opportunity to inspect the proposed room reminded me of a visit to the Headquarters RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe. No armed MOD policeman, but my guide certainly acted like one! The room we used was ordinary, the one upstairs was not. It was certainly large enough for my purpose. Furniture could be easily moved, the lack of windows removed any shafts of light, but the walls were covered with framed and glazed pictures of long gone, regalia clad, Masonic dignitaries. The thought of reflected lights from these filled me with dread.

The day dawned. Naturally I was early and not surprised to find the key holder missing. As the building was on a busy road junction I pulled the car onto the pavement for safety. Members began to arrive and I started to feel concern as nearby parking spaces filled. Still the doors remained firmly locked and I was now convinced all must be postponed. I’d insist on another date, this time at the Town Hall. The Chairman arrived, tut-tutted and dispatched a geriatric minion to find the key holder. Why not unload my gear, leave things with him on the pavement and find somewhere to park. Finding a parking spot I returned to find one member demonstrating World War 2 rifle drill with an expensive tripod! Another sitting on the fibre case containing my flash equipment. Amid profuse apologies the key holder arrived, the door opened and willing hands started to move the mountain of equipment. Glancing up from the bottom of the sweeping staircase my heart rate increased dangerously on seeing a small and tottery octogenarian staggering upward. Walking stick in one hand, my camera bag bumping up the marble steps behind him!

The members were very helpful in taking my gear to the room but most had never been in the Mason's inner sanctum before and naturally wanted to look around. “Please Chairman can they leave me to set up because I'm running late.” I implored. The Chairman agreed. Anyone watching sheep dog trials will occasionally see an absolutely useless dog with sheep, any of those dogs would make a better job of emptying that hall than me. Members did not want to leave, eventually I accepted that the stairs were too much for two who would sit silently and watch. - Silently ha!

Pushing Masonic items out of camera vision, I arranged a row of chairs, leaving room for a line of people between them and the raised dais. I then started to unpack equipment, my audience loved this. “What's that thing?” “Aren’t they a bit too close?” “Are those lights powerful enough?” “Why do you need those things on stands?” “Why the umbrellas - it's not raining?” “Are you hot?, you seem to be sweating”. “Posh camera that, it'll be easy to take nice snaps”. My wife says I can be grumpy, she is so observant at times. Eventually, the flash units were positioned, slaves operating, camera placed, all looked OK. Moving to where my group would be, I set the meter and fired the remote. By the time I’d explained the wonders of electronic slaves and metering to my audience (which had increased in number) I needed that cup of tea, even if it was cold, with half in the saucer.

The remainder of the members came up By Jove, I needed that sheep dog. No. I needed a Rottweiler. “Please don't touch that, Please mind that cable, DON'T knock that tripod. A unmelodious chorus of ‘Walking in the rain’ claimed my attention. Please leave that umbrella alone. A scraping sound had me spinning the other way, I needed two Rottweilers.

It had been accepted that old or infirm members would sit on chairs, with the Chairman centre, no one admitted being old or infirm. Eventually the chairs filled. My plea of tallest in the centre shortest at the sides created more chaos, as did the attempt to positioning the rear rank. Any photographer arranging a group will know the problems, the desire to move, the need to get closer to a friend, or away from an enemy. I generally accept that most people consider you have little idea of what you are doing and let them settle where they liked. Check lights, check connections, check viewfinder. The space I'd left for myself had been filled, never mind it would be safer where I could see everyone.

“Make sure you can see the lens, that's this bit of the camera sir. Big smiles”. Click, got it. “No don’t move gentlemen. I'll take another couple of exposures”. The hair on my neck tingled and I pretended not to hear the muttered. Why's he taking so many? That's it, got it thank you gentlemen. Getting my gear together and packing away was a nightmare. Everyone wanted to help, ask questions, pass items not immediately needed, help by attempting to cram equipment into the wrong box.

Eventually all was safely packed, I went home totally exhausted. The following day my work started in earnest. Thank heavens for a computer and Mr Adobe. Exposures were scanned and found acceptable, it was then just a matter of cutting and pasting new faces over those with eyes closed, or not looking happy (as per Royal wedding snappers) then removing the photographic record of long departed Masonic worthies and inserting an unobtrusive background layer. Print a proof copy for them to order from, print and frame an A4 as a gift. Bingo the project was complete.

The committee were delighted: I modestly shrugged off praise and mumbling something about doing my bit for the club, cheerfully taking an anonymous seat amongst the members. The Chairman opened the meeting, then I froze. “I've had a word with these Masonic people and they've agreed we can have this framed snap hung permanently in this room. The committee also agree that it would be a good idea if we had a new snap taken every year.”

AC February 2000