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Big Names

I have taken lots of well-known people: John Betjeman at the Dragon School (first photo in the gallery), the Queen in Abingdon, Queen Mother in Shrivenham, Princess Margaret at the Sheldonian, Duke of Edinburgh at Kirtlington - his equerry said don't photograph the back of his head while he is watching polo because he is self conscious about his bald patch - Princess Diana in Blue Boar Street visiting down and outs, Tommy Steele filming Half A Sixpence (Don and I had lunch with him a year later when he starred in Servant of Two Masters), Nelson Mandela at the Town Hall, Laurence Olivier at an Oxfam shop, and - the only time when I was caught up in one of those ghastly paparazzi type of jobs - Christian Barnard on a private visit to Burford soon after he performed his first heart transplant operation in South Africa.

When I was freelancing I used a London agent. I took this pet badger in Standlake. He snuffled round my legs in the kitchen leaving a pungent smell on them. This appeared in the Mirror and the Express, both of which I was paid for. But when I was told by a friend down under that she had seen it in an Australian paper I questioned the agency. Oh, they said, the picture must have got in the overseas file by mistake and reluctantly paid me for several other papers! I photographed a litter of 17 Alsatian puppies on Oxford Hill, Witney, which also went worldwide but got bitten by the mother. ‘Put your hand out to make friends,’ the owner said. I had to get a tetanus jab pretty quickly.

The Telegraph used this spitfire flying over Churchill's grave. A lot of photographers missed the plane so I was lucky. In fact the Telegraph said if I ever wanted to move to London they would be interested in me joining the staff. Don would most likely have gone to the Guardian where he had many friends and our lives would have been incredibly different.

Gallery

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John Betjeman  - ©Tommy Steele filming Half A Sixpence - ©a pet badger from Standlake - This photo appeared in the Mirror and the Express... then an Australian newspaper and several other papers! ©spitfire flying over Churchill's grave - ©Argungu fishing festival - ©back-page spread in The Times - ©

A fishing festival

I visited my brother in northern Nigeria in 1966. To pay for my trip he set up some photo opportunities. Taking portraits of local Emirs in their palaces for the Bank of West Africa was very special, all the servants bowed as I went past, but the highlight of my stay was the Argungu fishing festival. We were the guests of the Emir and were given seats with him under a canopy erected on the riverbank. This one hundred yards long stretch on the edge of the Sahara is dammed and can only be fished on one day of the year. When we arrived, there were more than a thousand fishermen lining each side of the river waiting silently for the signal from the Emir’s colourful mounted guards for them to enter the water. At precisely 11am a horn sounded and the fishermen charged down the banks like an army in full battle. A large canoe filled with drummers and chanters whose function was to encourage the fishermen to more strenuous efforts moved with difficulty amongst the packed bodies, setting up an exciting beat. The air rang with the shouts and cries of delight and in some cases frustration as fishermen fought over their catch.

Ten minutes after the start the immense crowd of onlookers lining the banks gave a terrific roar as a 96 lb fish was pulled out of the water. It was clubbed to death at our feet and then weighed on the official scales in front of us. We thought that was colossal until we noticed a man floundering with another one in the middle of the river. Eventually he and his friends managed to land it and it turned out to be a gigantic five-foot long perch, which was hoisted onto the weighing machine to tip the scales at 156 lbs. It earned the winner the first prize of ten yards of cloth, a turban and a radio. At the end of the hour-long contest we were presented with one of the larger fish which was packed carefully into an ice box and taken back with us to Kano, where needless to say fish turned up for one meal or another in various guises over the next couple of weeks.

My pictures of the fishing festival earned a back-page spread in The Times. I was offered £25 or a by-line. I took the cash. My father, who worked at the Radcliffe Infirmary, walked round that day with a copy tucked under his arm!

Coming home from Kano was pretty eventful. I was sitting in a noisy golf club next to the airfield and didn't hear the plane land from Lagos. Suddenly someone said ‘I thought you were meant to catch the VC10 to London today.’ I arrived so late the gates had closed and the gangway had been removed. Over the perimeter fence I saw it starting its engines. I managed to clamber over the fence onto the tarmac and ran up to the cockpit brandishing a long spear I was taking home for my father. It did the trick. The pilot ordered the steps back and I got on.

Over the Sahara he invited me onto the flight deck and said: ‘I had to let you on, I thought you were going to puncture the fuselage.’ Very naughty of me and I might have been arrested but I panicked as my flight only went once a week.

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