It’s alright – you did your best

Kodak Brownie 44a
Logged 6 September 2019

I built my first camera when I was six. It was made out of clay. It had a working viewfinder born of a mad, though essentially meaningless sense of attention to detail. I’d punched a hole through the “camera” in the viewfinder position from the back. The hole was big enough to see through. It’s worth stopping to think about what sort of logic was at work. Why was it an absolute necessity for a camera made out of solid clay to have a viewfinder? In essence this was my first experience of a simulator. It was also my first experience of being ahead of my time by using a simulator to accustom me to handling something real later without risking any of its hazards. I have to be honest and admit that fact slipped by me unnoticed at the time. I was foolishly (or delusionally) proud of it upon reflection decades later.

Obviously being solid, my first camera lacked many of the other prerequisites of photographic gear, not least of which was a shutter mechanism. It follows there was obviously no dark chamber to accommodate film either as there was actually no space to accommodate anything. That ruled out any possibility of the camera being functional other than as a trophy, or something with which to smash a window in an act of impulsive vandalism.

Astute readers will have guessed by now this entire exercise was an attempt by an experienced teacher to keep very young children in a classroom quiet for a while by giving them something recreational and creative to do. It met with complete success at my desk. I worked in absolute silence with my chin hooked down on my chest in concentration. I’m inclined to believe it would have seemed worryingly obsessive to normal adults. Fortunately the only adult present was a teacher. While I’m not in a position to say categorically that teachers aren’t normal, it has to be said my behaviour didn’t appear to trouble ours. Draw your own conclusions. Perhaps she was practically-minded and astute enough to know how to create order from chaos by that stage of her career, and not complicate it with over-analysis.

In the same lesson, and with more ambition than sense, I also made a clay submarine. It was my first experience of diversifying (and to be fair my first marine engineering project). The submarine was a more hurried project than the camera had been. Unfortunately it showed. It lacked the basic blueprint of me having one at home to use for guidance during the construction phase. What that project revealed to me subsequently, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, was the value of having multiple irons in the fire because of the extent to which life is filled with disappointment and failure.

If I’d had the experience and comprehension to think it through, the relative speed with which I built the sub in comparison to the length of time I took over the camera would have been a warning. I’ve a vague recollection of my teacher spotting me adding the sub’s conning tower as a separate prefabricated unit, rather than extruding it from the main body. Then as now, I was contemptuous of advice, come what may. My recollection of her voice, if I have one, is of a distant muffled drone from afar to which I nodded absent acknowledgement while paying absolutely no attention. What did she know about building submarines? I knew what I was doing. I’d drawn upon the same manufacturing technique with complete success using plasticine on many previous occasions. Here was a material that looked and felt the same. What could go wrong? Exactly what could go wrong became clear a day or two later when the camera and the sub were fired to finish them off. It has to be said the sub did not emerge anywhere near as well as the camera.

The camera was a triumph, even down to the pedantic if unevenly carved letters “K..O..D..A..K “ – a critical detail I’d picked up from a Kodak Brownie 44a roll film camera at home. Because of my unsteady hand with the pointed end of a spatula, this engraved brand name on my clay camera looked a lot like the name of a murderer written in desperation by a dying victim. I didn’t care. My teacher applauded the functionally useless viewfinder borehole, and my head swelled with a sense of accomplishment. It was a short-lived swelling, however. The submarine project was a barb that popped my ego.

My marine engineering project was delivered to me in two sorry pieces that illustrated how far assumptions or inattentiveness can lead us into disaster. The conning tower had dropped off during firing because I’d attached it after building the vessel itself. It was a fundamental manufacturing flaw my teacher had warned about. In my ignorance I assumed clay was the same as plasticine because it looked and felt the same. This was a harsh lesson learned; don’t take anything for granted (especially in engineering). In that sense it was hands-on education at its best.

If nothing else, this was definitive evidence that I was right to follow my instincts later and became a photographer rather than a marine engineer. We live in a very litigation-minded society today. People are abruptly intolerant of mistakes, especially when they’re at sea and a torrent of water is cascading in through a hole, rather than draining out as it does from a bath. Nobody’s going to be tolerant of human error while they’re struggling to put on a life jacket and find their way up a slippery ladder to escape. “It’s alright – you did your best” is what kind parents say when a child has left splayed fingerprints everywhere after cleaning the family car windows. It isn’t something anyone says when Air-Sea Rescue have just received another scramble call because some idiot has realised too late that not everything floats, and clay isn’t the same as plasticine.