Put Up Or Shut Up: Olympus XA2

I don’t have a particularly large collection of cameras. In fact, if I’m being pedantic, I don’t really consider I have a collection of cameras at all; they were all bought to be used and not to be put on a shelf. Nevertheless, as I’ve settled in to the five or six I use regularly, on the shelf is exactly where the remainder now spend much of their time. Of course, if it wasn’t for trying all of these cameras I wouldn’t have been able to find the ones I really love to use, but that aside, it’s time for those slackers to put up or shut up. So here’s the plan: I’m going to bung each of these cameras in turn into my bag or pocket, and carry it round with me on a daily basis until I’ve shot a roll or two. I don’t plan to use any of these as my main camera during that time, or to use them solely to capture specific events. Just to be there to shoot some everyday snaps. I also don’t intend to review them as the internet already has enough fantastic camera reviewers that do a better job than I ever could. I’ll just say the things that I like and dislike about each camera; what I love and what drives me nuts. And most importantly, whether it’s a keeper or not.

First up: Olympus XA2.

This tiny 35mm compact came to me about six years ago in a little bundle of cameras from a friend who worked in a charity store. In exchange for a donation, I got this and a couple of 1990s plastic monstrosities. The others I secretly donated to another charity store rather than appear ungrateful, but the XA2 came complete in its box with manual and flash. I don’t think I’ve ever used it. It has fully automatic exposure, a three zone focus selector, and a f/3.5 35mm lens. And that’s it. There’s no exposure lock, but potentially you can gain some control of exposure by altering the ISO setting, which ranges from 25 to 800. But why would you? I don’t think you buy this sort of camera if you are going to faff around. It’s a compact, carry everywhere, point and shoot kind of thing. And I carried it everywhere for a month or so.

OK, so here we go.For the first roll of film I used Kodak Tmax 400…

One word to describe the London skyline these days? Cranes.

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That’s the South African flag flapping in the wind, atop South Africa House. I queued for several hours in 2013 with the woman formerly known as my girlfriend to sign the book of condolence for Nelson Mandela. Somewhere our names and words remain inscribed next to each other.

This ornate building is along The Mall, the road that leads up to Buckingham Palace. I’m not sure what goes on here.

These were taken on the pro-Europe march back in September.

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As I was crossing over Westminster Bridge there seemed to be some kind of crazy boat race going on. No idea what that was about.

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I can’t be sure what nationality this woman is, but odds-on she’s Chinese. This is something I’ve seen more and more in London over the last few years. Pre-wedding photo shoots are very popular amongst the Chinese middle classes these days. It’s not only Chinese students who are studying here, but people come to London specifically to have their photos taken in front of famous London landmarks. In this case it was St. Paul’s Cathedral. There’s a big market in London for this now, and companies are springing up that don’t just take the photographs, they also do the hair and makeup, and even provide the wedding clothes.

Having lunch with friends in Paternoster Square. People are not normally as excited as this to see me

This bronze sculpture by Elisabeth Frink has been in the square since 1975.

This ones a temporary installation for Blood Cancer Awareness Month: 104 giant names to represent the 104 people diagnosed with blood cancer each day in the UK.

Eating bananas is serious business

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square

The Elizabeth Tower is currently undergoing four years of refurbishment. That also means four years of silence from the bongs of Big Ben in order to protect the hearing of the workers. Cue howls of ‘PC gone mad’ & ‘Nanny State’ from a tabloid press frothing at the mouth.
‘We never worried about these kind of things when I was a lad and it never did me no harm’, claimed Barry Gobshite, a retired construction worker I may have just made up. When asked if he thought that people today were just namby-pamby snowflakes, he responded ‘Can you speak up a bit?’

Foreground building: Since the last five years we’ve been gradually outgrowing our Heathrow office, to the point where we’ve had to rent the ground floor of an adjacent building to fit everyone in. With the lease being up for renewal in 2018, the company spent quite a bit of effort looking round for a suitable building capable of housing everyone.

Background building: In the end it was decided just to build a bigger brand new building next door. As you do. The outside is now pretty much complete and we’re expected to move in Q1 2018.

I had to change the film at this point, and as I knew I’d be travelling to somewhere sunny in the next few days, I dropped in a roll of Tmax 100. The new building looks deceptively small in this shot.

That sunny place is Nice on the French Riviera, where we have a couple of campuses. This was taken after arriving at Nice Côte d’Azur Airport.

When visiting the offices in Nice I normally book one of the usual corporate identikit hotels like the Holiday Inn, but a little bit of googling found the wondeful Villa Azur for not much more money right on the beach. Those are actually chairs on the sun terrace.

A couple of miles inland to our Belair offices

These pictures don’t at all do justice to how wonderful the views of the Alps and the sea are from the grounds

When it comes to compacts, as far as I’m concerned the Olympus Trip is the one that every other camera is going to be compared unfavourably to. That said, the XA2 has a pretty sharp and contrasty lens, and the exposure meter was spot on in every shot. The one thing that did drive me mad was the hair trigger response of the shutter button. You only have to look at it out the corner of your eye and it goes off. I have more than one snap of my feet.

The main point of this exercise is to either find a hidden gem or to reclaim some shelf space. The XA2 doesn’t do anything that my Trip doesn’t do slightly better. It really should go. But its small, by far the smallest camera I own. And it came complete in the box with the and flash and everything. And parting with a decent camera is not as easy as I thought it might be.

Verdict? Keeper. Relectuantly. Damn.


The People’s March for Europe

These photos were taken on a pro-European march a few weeks back. I should probably write a bit more about it, but since legislation was introduced in the late 1990s to make civil discussion about politics on the internet illegal, I’ve found it’s best just to keep quiet.

London, Sep 09 2017
Camera: Nikon F90x
Film: Kodak Tmax 400
Process:Developed in D76 1+1

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Southwest Celebration Party

Those of us who work in the London office and who spent May in the US supporting the Southwest project were rewarded with a party. We gathered on the side of the river and were whisked away on a cruise along the Thames. Sadly I very quickly lost the light and was only able to fire off half a roll before having to go digital with the X100T. Which is probably a good thing, as thanks to the free bar things got seriously out of focus soon after.

Camera: Nikon F90X
Film: Kodak Tmax 400
Process: Developed in D76 1+1

Camera: Fujifilm X100T


The Beast of the East

At 05:25 on May 9th 2017 flight WN1257 pushed back from the stand at Pittsburgh International Airport, taxied to runway 10L and took off into clear skies, heading south towards Orlando.

1200 miles away in Dallas, several dozen people in the Command Centre watched throughout the day as a further 4000 flights came to life in the new reservation and departure control systems.

In a number of strategic airports across the the US, more than a hundred subject matter experts were deployed to provide technical support and operational advice.

My assignment was Baltimore. They call it The Beast of the East, due to the huge volume of departures; we handled up to 260 flights a day. And there were tears, screams, frayed tempers, banging of fists on desks, banging of heads on walls, periods of dark despair, and mainly that was just me. There was also a great deal of laughter.

Cameras and airports don’t mix well. Being behind a check-in desk, at a departure gate, in the hold of a 737 or wandering around on the apron snapping pictures raises questions, even if you do have the appropriate ID. With film, there’s an extra problem. Whilst I’ve happily subjected film to a couple of x-ray screenings, I knew that in this case I’d probably been going back and forth through security a dozen or more times a day. Therefore I reluctantly made the decision to take a single roll of film and to keep the camera landside, hopefully grabbing a few shots in the downtime.

These are a few of the wonderful people I worked with in a state of barely controlled chaos over the last month. Thanks guys, for all the laughter, warmth and friendship.

Southwest Cutover, Baltimore Airport, May 2017
Camera: Nikon FE
Film: Kodak Tmax 400
Process: Developed in D76 1+1


Arrival

Atlanta, Georgia. Not my final destination, but US regulations dictate that I clear customs and immigration at the first point of entry. I’m nervous. I’m midway along a twisting line that’s snaking its way towards the cubicle one hundred feet ahead. Inside, a granite-faced immigration officer. My hands are clenched into solid fists and I feel the beads of sweat popping out on my forehead. In front of me, a young Hispanic woman with nervous eyes clutches a mewling baby. Behind me, an elderly couple argue in Polish, the man hissing at his wife through clenched teeth. You could slice the atmosphere with a taser.

I’m told that US immigration can be tough. Grueling. That they ask you questions. Ideological questions. One wrong answer and you’re on the next flight home. Or worse. I use my balled hands to knuckle the perspiration from my eyes. My Adam’s apple is bobbing up and down like a monkey on a stick.

I’m near the front of the queue now, and get a better view of the officer. He’s younger than I initially thought. Severe brush cut. Impassive expression. Aviator mirrored sunglasses. One of those black-eyed aliens from The X-Files springs to mind. The only movement in his face is the slight chewing motion of his jaw; gum, presumably. Other than that he’s as still as death.

And then it’s me. I hand over my passport. He swipes it. Thumbs through it. I see him pause on the visa for Kazakhstan and the Egyptian entry stamp. Then the photo. He scrutinises it, looks up at me. Reflected in the sunglasses, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and a face that looks like it’s been dipped in flour stares back at me with insane eyes.

“What exactly is the purpose of your visit, Sir?”

I’m stammering. I could be fifteen again, struggling to explain exactly why it is that I want to take his fourteen year old daughter to the school dance. I’m dimly aware of someone babbling something about work, business trip, aviation industry, reservation systems.

He watches impassively as I ramble on, then removes his sunglasses and glares at me. “Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?” His eyes narrow to dark slots.

“Donald Trump? That orange dude from The Apprentice? Well, I’ve gotta be honest – the UK version of the show is far superior.”

He freezes. There’s silence. The air seems to have been sucked out of the room. Blood gushes and pounds in my ears. Very slowly, he raises himself up to his full height. I hear a ptui sound of tongue between teeth, followed by a plop, and a quarter-sized blob of brown chewing tobacco appears on the cap of my shoe.

“Boy,” he says, towering over me, “We don’t like your sort here.” He signals towards a couple of security guards in the corner, who start to stride over. “And what we’re gonna do is haul your sorry ass downtown and throw you in an empty cell. Empty, that is, ‘cept for a single bunk and a big, lonely guy called Bubba. And when you’re squealing, squealing like a pig on on its honeymoon, we’re gonna ask you again what you think of our President.

The security guys are upon me now, each grabbing an arm and forcing me to my knees.

“Hey, c’mon guys,” I plead, but they drag me along the floor, nearly yanking my arms out of the sockets. I’m panicking, my eyes imploring the people in the queue for help. They avert their gaze or look at their feet. I start to shout. “Please, someone help me,” I scream. “Please!” Tears are flowing down my cheeks. “Help! Please! Someone rush to Starbucks and bring me one of those Coastal Elite Lattes to catch my liberal snowflake tears. “HEEELLLLLLLPPPP………..!”

Okay, wait. Hold it right there. Now’s not the time to be flippant. Let’s think this through. I can do better than this. Okay. Try again:


He removes his sunglasses and glares at me. “Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?” His eyes narrow to dark slots.

“Oh I’m sorry. I don’t follow pointless celebrities on Twitter. That’s because I’m not a twelve year old girl.

ptui

plop


“Let me just ask you this: what do you think of Mr Trump?”

I unbutton my jacket to reveal my Make America Great Britain Again T-shirt

ptui

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And then it’s me. I hand over my passport. He swipes it. Thumbs through it. I realise that’s he’s not actually wearing sunglasses, neither is he chewing tobacco. He scrutinises the photo, glances up at me, hands it back. I turn to go.

“Just hold it right there.” I freeze. The words sound menacing. Slowly, very slowly, I turn to face him. “Welcome to America,” he says, a friendly smile stretching across his face.

“Erm, thanks.”

‘Well, that was easy,’ I think as I follow the signs for baggage reclaim. ‘I don’t know why people make such a fuss about these things. Damn snowflakes.’


Leaving Heathrow
Camera: Nikon FE
Film: Kodak Tmax 400
Process: Developed in D76 1+1


The Long Goodbye

“Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really dropped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everybody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case.”
Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict

In early 2005 I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles International Airport, wearing a pair of crumpled black pyjamas that made me look like a ninja who’d spent a night in the drunk tank. Across the aisle I could sense what I took to be the disapproval of an austere middle aged woman, hair scraped up in a severe bun, eyes bobbing over the top of her Dorothy B Sayers novel in my direction. At one point, looking over the top of my own book, our eyes locked, and she leaned towards me and whispered conspiratorially ‘I love that guy’.

That guy was Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s hard-bitten LA homicide detective. On the half dozen or so trips I’d taken to LA over the preceding 18 months, I’d thought it an appropriate opportunity to get reacquainted with my fondness for hardboiled crime fiction. In more than one hundred hours of flying I’d re-read much of Chandlers and James M. Cain’s work, finally got round to reading Chester Himes, and accidentally discovered Connelly’s modern take on the noir fiction genre. I still have all those books, and occasionally re-read them.

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.

45 minutes earlier I’d been sitting in a business class seat on a flight shortly to take off for London.

“Warm nuts, sir?”

Absolutely. Was it that obvious? I’m terrified of flying. The sheer improbability of it all. Several hundred tonnes of metal, plastic, fuel and flesh, hurtling down the runway and vaulting off the end in what to me is the ultimate leap of faith. The irony being that then, as now, I was working in the aviation industry.

“Glass of pre-flight orange juice or champagne, sir?”

“Complimentary in flight sleep suit for your travelling comfort?”

I immediately knocked back the champagne in a single, nerve-steadying gulp – a rather gauche action that no doubt signaled I was an impostor in this part of the plane and should immediately be dragged down the back to join the other serfs – and headed to the bathroom to change into my ‘sleep suit’. Rocky, I’m sure, would not have approved.

I’d met Rocky in London several years before. She’d come from northern Spain to study for a masters degree, a dark-eyed beauty with a steely-eyed character that didn’t suffer fools gladly. A shame really, otherwise things might have worked out between us. Rocky was the nickname one of my friends had given her. She was tough and determined. Plucky. Feisty. Even now when I think of her I hear the Running-Up-The-Steps music. Eventually she was offered an extremely prestigious job in LA that she couldn’t refuse, and that as they say was that. Except it wasn’t. Not quite. There was still perhaps some future to be salvaged, and I probably traveled to LA six or seven times over the following couple of years to see if we could find it.

Many people imagine that working for an airline is an opportunity to gallivant round the world for next to nothing, and actually that’s pretty much how it is. Back then I was travelling on what’s known as an ID90; an industry ticket that is discounted by 90% – you pay just 10% of the cost of an economy ticket. Often if the flight is overbooked you’ll get upgraded, or sometimes if you’re lucky someone will upgrade you just for the hell of it. After all, what goes around comes around. And that’s how I came to be sitting in a seat that might normally sell for up to £10K, clutching a ticket that cost £100. All this sounds great, and of course it is, but there is a huge caveat; you’re traveling standby. Space Available. Subject to Load. And it’s not just the paying customers who get on in front of you. There’s a whole pecking order just for staff. Are you travelling for work or pleasure? How long have you been an employee? Do you work for this airline or another airline? Are you flying from or towards home? Were you sleeping with the check-in agent’s sister who you ended up dumping by text but she had it coming anyway because she’d been seeing that knuckle-dragger customs officer behind you’re back and been spreading BLATANT LIES about your performance in the bedroom? Yeah, whatever. Anyway, all these play in to the decision of whether or not you get a seat, and you never really know until you’re on that plane. In fact, unless you’re an idiot, you should never really relax until you’re up in the air. Because although it’s rare, sometimes you can even be sitting in your seat when you are asked to leave.

Which is how this idiot came to be doing the walk of shame through LAX in a pair of black pyjamas.

It took me another two days to finally make it out of LA. That’s a long time to keep saying goodbye. It was twelve years ago now and I can still remember looking out the window and watching those winking city lights recede and wondering whether this is where I’d end up living.

I never went back.

But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.

In fact, I didn’t even want to think about any of this again. But I haven’t been able to avoid it. Because for the first time in twelve years I’m heading back to the States. Not LA this time, and for work not pleasure. But it seems to be a flaw in my character that I always look to the past, see the connections and coincidences in things.

Perhaps if I’m really being honest, what I really wanted is an excuse to finish the roll of film that’s been lounging in my Nikon FE for the past 6 months, so I’m all set for my trip. Because when you’re going on a business trip it’s important to remember that you’re there to do a job. And to pack accordingly:

“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.
To say goodbye is to die a little..”

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

All photos: Nikon FE / Kodak Tmax 400 / Developed in D76 1+1