I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I was given my first camera, but I can remember the camera. It was a Kodak Instamatic: a little box of plastic and metal that took square photographs, four by four inches. Probably I still have it somewhere, tucked away among other relics that will never again find a purpose, but from which it is difficult to part.
I seem to think that I carried that camera everywhere, and probably made a nuisance of myself with it, too. Certainly, when I was a little older and had graduated to a model capable of capturing rectangular images, I took a lot of photographs. I was, for a time, obsessed.
In the days before digital, a click of the shutter was not an inconsequential thing. Each such click would eventually come back to you, tucked inside stiff paper folders, as a record of your memories and your mistakes. For always there were mistakes: strange, indistinct blurs; ghostly faces lost in ultra-soft focus.
These photographs, both good and bad, accumulated over several years inside a drawer in my bedroom. Rarely looked at, but regularly added to, the pictures piled up higher and higher until that drawer would neither open nor close without considerable difficulty. And then, in a moment of youthful impetuosity, I threw them away.
Aged 16, perhaps, I piled scores of those envelopes, with hundreds of photographs and negatives, into a black plastic bag and disposed of them, saving just a few dozen pictures.
It was a stupid thing to do, and I regretted my decision at exactly the moment I realised it was too late to get them back. Today, I can’t remember any of those images, but I wish that I could see each one of them again, blurs and all.
Those few pictures that were saved are now gathered in a single album: a highly edited gallop through my mid-childhood years, right up to the point – not long after I threw away those pictures – when I gave up photography as a hobby.
Among the twenty or so remaining images that were taken with the Instamatic are two or three family portraits. In one, my parents and my brother are seated in front of a Christmas tree, probably on the day I was given the camera. Empty wrapping paper lies strewn on the sofa beside them. In a second, my brother stands with his arm around a snowman’s shoulders, the pair of them smiling broadly despite the cold.
Another of those early pictures – this one crudely cut into an even smaller square – shows a dense cluster of flowers, somewhat misfocused but still impressive. It is a burst of shocking pink blossoms, like an explosion of confetti.
The plant was one that I had grown, when I was aged just eight or nine. I had put the seeds into the ground and then forgotten about them. No foresight, no care. Until this marvellous thing had appeared.
I don’t know why I recall this, but I do: they were Brompton stocks. And there were two clumps of them, one pink and one white. They were the first flowers for which I had ever been responsible, and for a long time they were the last.
I took the picture because I was proud of them. The plants were big and the blooms extravagant. And despite the absence of care or attention in my cultivation technique, I was fairly proud of myself, too. I can still remember an elderly woman stopping to admire the display as she passed our driveway. And I can remember the disbelief in her voice when I told her that it was me who was the gardener.
For years now, that early burst of horticultural enthusiasm has lain dormant. I have had no further interest in flowers. When I have thought of them at all I have thought of them as a waste of energy and space, and I have limited my involvement with gardening to the purely utilitarian: vegetables for food, trees for shelter. The rest: superfluous.
Recently, though, as the first blooms of spring began to emerge, something changed. I was reminded again of those glorious Brompton stocks, and of that little photograph. I am relieved now that I kept it, and that it did not end up, like so many others, in the bottom of a black bag. But I think that had it been lost, or even had it never been taken, I would still have remembered. And I think, too, that I would still have changed my mind. For where else do we find pleasure but in the superfluous? And where else can pleasure be so easily cultivated but in the garden?
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The Things Around Me
The Things Around Me is the story of a Shetland garden, written by Malachy Tallack and illustrated by Will Miles.