Brian Duffy, belligerence and how not to take things lying down


I have had this film kicking around in my memory for a week or two now, in one of those I don’t know why but I suddenly feel inspired by the soundtrack moments, the film being O Lucky Man an early 70’s culty comedy/drama with Malcolm McDowell – sort of Clockwork Orange meets Abigail’s Party – a surreal endeavour to understand a young man’s ideals being swayed or engineered by cultural messages of capitalist behaviour. Out of the blue I found myself humming parts of the songs and unless I had been receiving subliminal brain messages and the film is on tv next week.  I can offer no explanation even on the general daily level of subconscious stuff absorption, as to why I would think of it.


After too much time spent  Youtube-ing the film and all its songs. I dragged myself over to the tv (yes it still seems like I am in Christmas festivities couch mode – but reality is I trapped a nerve in my shoulder so any exaggerated movements other than remote controls etc., are not a place I want to go). So I was very pleased to see something on my radar of tv likes and switched to a beeb preview of the London photographer Brain Duffy ( he of the David Bailey, Donovan triangle) talking about his recent show of surviving photos spanning his career in the 60’s and 70’s.


I noticed something about his on screen personality that I have certainly seen before in friends and the like –not very often, but when you do you certainly notice; he came across as one of those belligerent, defiant types the ones who are sometimes difficult to be around especially if you are on the receiving end of their usually very dry wit! But boy do we need people like that.

So with a few decades distance between us, together with the tv screen, I voyeuristically took in the programme. One thing surprised me even for someone who it seemed would play devil’s advocate just for the hell of it, was his reference  to “some sort of social engineering” on talking about his wayward adolescent behaviour, being taken in hand by a special college of education  who introduced him and various other difficult lads to the Opera, Ballet and the arts in general, with them subsequently becoming full of enthusiasm for it, enough for the lads to consider art school – and for those familiar with Brian’s impact on photography the rest is history.


But what went through my mind on hearing the words social engineering, I thought, yeah right come on! even though this is the sixties and you are/were one of those defiant maverick types to describe your introduction to the arts as social engineering is a bit rich. Dostoevsky life, Kafka’s works and whole swathes of society’s past could have the term social engineering attributed them – but not a sixties east end photographer on the cusp of going to art school.


I thought it had always been a given that art students rebel against the thinking of their lecturers as a sort of rite of passage, a necessary act in order to establish your own agenda and not follow the sheep, either that or proving you are a petulant ego-centric primmer donna. So I understood the lean toward the shock factor in his attitude but I guess at the time he went to college things were still steeped in old etiquette on recovery from the Second World War and he would have been at just the right time and place to become one of the new vanguards of the new.


Later on it clicked, on someone suggesting that the song Poor People from O Lucky Man was a suitable song for credit crunch times; It’s the timing, we are one- two- three years in? depending on your in depth knowledge, of all things financial and meltdown, that, the story of O Lucky Man, Brian’s belligerence, my general preoccupation with fairness and ethics buzzing in my bonnet at the moment, and the random way these things came together.


Poor People for me is sort of a sad/pathetic angry lament; Malcolm McDowell’s realisation that there was only one way for him to go, I say angry because the whole premise of the film was about lack of choice but at the same time offering untold freedoms and wealth if the status quo were adhered to, so, angry as in no choice and the resignation to that. This is where Brian Duffy’s belligerent attitude strikes me as being even more relevant today, the song Poor People is wider than credit crunch music, as is Duffy’s war baby, east ender art school lad defiance, in the face of old ideals.


How much of what happened recently has been addressed as being unfair? apologies and real gestures have been attempted but to any measurable benefit of fairness? time to move on indeed. However much Duffy’s belligerent attitude was seen as being defiantly obnoxious he was also defending his sense of self. Today that has become almost politically incorrect de facto, we can take up causes and fight other people’s battles at the drop of a pc key but when it comes to our own lives and livelihoods we manage a moan and then carry on with our lot. Admittedly some people’s lot has been so fraught and time scarce that anything more than managing a moan would have been physically impossible, but surely there are still a lot of people of Duffy’s ilk able to offer some sort of irreverent insights and foresights. I just hope that Duffys attitude, is not totally lost and relegated to the pc bin marked bully  – if put under a microscope most of his attention and bite was just what was needed in response to working in a sometimes privileged and exclusive environment of advertising, fashion, music and art.


Bullies want control – he didn’t and it seems he couldn’t give a damn – a typical slice of his attitude  posted by The Guardian this month “By the 1970s, he was doing most of his work in advertising – with people he didn’t like, on briefs that bored him. “The more I got into it, the more I ­realised I was hanging out with things I was diametrically opposed to. And they wanted me to keep a civil tongue up their rectum.” Resigned he was not and subsequently successful he was, on his own terms. O Lucky Man indeed – or maybe the luck was more of his making.