Al Cane is a photographer, journalist, and former Labour town councillor for Faringdon, Oxfordshire. Also a DJ, he had myriad private parties and public events booked for last summer, but COVID put a stop to that. He reinvented himself as a busking DJ, taking battery-charged equipment out into Faringdon Town Centre to play tunes for marketgoers, raising funds for Faringdon food bank at the same time. But his life has not been restricted to Oxfordshire, as Sam Bennett discovers. 

‘A Balletic Pose’ by Al Cane. The newly released dove composed itself before taking off with its companions for home. 
 

A year ago, Al Cane DJed an LGBT music night at the Bell Hotel, Faringdon, his last gig before the pandemic shut things down. “A lovely event,” he recalls from his home in the same town, “it was amazing, people came out and said, ‘We didn’t know this could happen in Faringdon.’” He’s lived there for 16 years, the longest he’s lived anywhere. “My partner [Helen] and I had a daughter [Anna] 18 years ago,” the photographer tells me, “so it was a question of staying in one place while she went to school.” Now Anna is in halls at Oxford Brookes, where she reads graphic design. A creative family then, with Helen an artist and illustrator. 

His father (who worked in the textile industry) played drums and acted but had to stop both after losing the use of his left arm to polio. “The muscles just went,” Al remembers, “and he was in an iron lung for ages.” He was able to work again, landing a job in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today). The family emigrated from Manchester and Al – aged five when they moved – had a “childhood under African skies”. But though he grew up in “naturally beautiful” surroundings, his formal education was far from lovely. In schools split by race and gender, he was bullied because he came from another country. “That pushed me into a shell. I didn’t speak in class, I just shut up, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself – quite a common thing – it took a few years to recover from that.” 

While his parents “were liberal with a small ‘l’ and not part of the white Rhodesian racist minority, who made up just 4% of the population at the time”, they weren’t most important in developing his comprehension of inequality. At 14 or 15, “I met two Zimbabwean black guys called David and Herbert in a record shop. We had a common interest in soul music, and I got to know them. It was unusual to meet people across a racial divide, and I’m so grateful I did because all they did was tell me how it was from their point of view, and it gave me an understanding of the situation – which I hadn’t really clocked before because of the propaganda and things that were instilled into people.  

“I had racist history teachers. They were white supremacists. They would repeat again and again how black people were stupid, ignorant, and needed looking after. David and Herbert gave me a different narrative.” 

When he was 18, politically educated, and due to be called up for the Rhodesian armed forces – he left the country. “I could not contemplate fighting for white supremacy.” 

He absconded to London “and a whole new lease of life”, joining a media studies course at Polytechnic of Central London – now University of Westminster – “my first introduction to photography”. He was “rubbish” at first, he says, “I look back at the negatives I have and think, ‘What on earth was I thinking?’ But it’s a learning process, isn’t it?” His London involved “a lot of live music, to the detriment of my studies probably. I would take a camera along to gigs, in those days you could just walk into places with a camera. I learnt my trade,” he resumes, “made a lot of mistakes.”  

‘Rainbow Creeper’ by Al Cane. Caught in the autumn, the creeper that lives on the photographer’s garden fence. 

He was also yet to fully “realise who I was, who I could be, what I could do”. Then, he married an American – “to get a Green Card” – and moved close to New York in 1975. He spent time living with the person he’d married, which he found hard, frequently escaping to Greenwich Village – “a really interesting experience” of which, for reasons unclear to him, he took few pictures. 

In ’76,” he says, “I bought a car. An old Chevy for $1, rusting in someone’s front yard.” He and some friends did it up, he says, and then spent six weeks driving it 6,000 miles across roughly 18 states, finishing up in San Francisco. “The brakes failed at that point, so we thought we better stick around for a while and make some money.” His resident alien status meant he could work – but not vote – and he found an apartment in Haight-Ashbury, near the Castro district where Harvey Milk (soon to be California’s first openly gay elected official) ran a camera shop. “He was such a lovely guy, so friendly and welcoming. A photography enthusiast himself, he would be in the front of his shop which later turned into his campaign headquarters. he was forever running for political office. he kept trying, trying, and trying; getting closer and closer.” 

In November 1977 Milk, “a community politician”, was elected a San Francisco city-county supervisor. Twelve months later he and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White.  

An “extraordinary candlelit procession” followed, to City Hall where the killings had taken place. “A very peaceful, very, very sad affair – it was beautiful.” White was convicted for manslaughter, not murder, and “the city erupted” in what became known as the White Night riots. “We all piled on the bus and went downtown, there was absolute rage, I’ve never felt anything like it.” People were furious at White’s seven-year sentence “for two murders in cold blood. We were chased by the police, it was extraordinary, it changed my life. I felt for the first time what angry people can do together. They can almost change anything. I’ve been in a few situations like that since but never as powerful. It’ll never leave me, that moment.” 

He did leave San Francisco though, six months later, having “discovered my core, my voice” and climbed Golden Gate Bridge (“totally illegal, bit dangerous, nobody got hurt”) as part of The Suicide Club. Named after the Robert Louis Stevenson short story collection, the club “was a group of people who met around a bookshop in San Francisco, who did unusual things. We got into an old brewery, climbed into the vats and made music. Interesting and creative stuff. I was a member for a couple of years; these strange events, some of it was risky, some of it was just fun. But those things change you, they make you feel part of that community. One of the rules was no drink, no drugs,” he tells me, which makes sense if you’re climbing bridges and vats, “a good rule, sensible.” 

When the HIV/AIDS crisis hit, he was back in London, largely the setting for Russell T Davies’ masterpiece, It’s A Sin – “wonderful piece of writing,” says Al, “amazing.” What does he recollect of that time? He was working for a community photocopy bureau, I learn, funded by Greater London Council (GLC), through which HIV/AIDS activists, miners’ strike campaigners, and others could produce their own publicity. “It was a really heavy political time, all these issues came in, and I met some amazing people.” 

Fidel Castro in 1986. In August 1986 Al Cane was at a conference of heads of state in Harare, Zimbabwe, and took this informal natural photo of the then president of Cuba. 

In 1986 he went back to Zimbabwe, where his mum and dad were still living. He visited them, of course, but was also in the country to photograph the Non-Aligned Movement summit. Fidel CastroColonel GaddafiOliver Tambo, and Rajiv Gandhi were all present. “When I came back to London, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which I was involved in, used my pictures in their publications.” The impact of Mugabe has put him off another return to Zimbabwe. His parents resided there until their retirement at the end of the 80s, when they both went back to Britain. “My dad didn’t live for much longer,” he says, “he got ill.” His mother – who worked in adult education, teaching needlework and cooking – died nine years ago with Lewy body dementia. Her decline was awful to witness, he says, she was once so fit and healthy. 

Youssou N’dour in London 1987. In concert at the Town and Country Club, Kentish Town. 

1989. He was a freelance photographer, with a darkroom in Hackney, taking snaps for housing projects. A bike accident (“I landed on my shoulder”) put him out of action for a while, during which time he realised, “I’m chasing my tail.” He got on a train at Paddington to visit a mate in Oxford. “It was good, I liked it, I liked the fact it was calmer than London.” A fortnight later he moved to the Dreaming Spires, getting a community arts job based at East Oxford Community Centre, “teaching photography, as well as helping people paint murals”. He began DJing in the early 90s, with the Cricketers Arms on Iffley Road hiring him for sessions. He lived in Oxford for over a decade (and rediscovered his love of cycling these past 12 months after a friend gifted him an old mountain bike). 

He was part of an Oxford delegation trip to León, Nicaragua in 1990, involving a visit to a volcano, at the base of which was “this bubbling mud area that looked like hell on earth”.  With no warning signs or clear pathways, and separated from his companions, he ended up falling in. “I was taking pictures so wasn’t looking where my feet were, and the ground just gave way.” His exposed legs were deeply burnt, as were his feet in “flimsy shoes”. He was somehow able to get out, and some local children found him “shocked and dazed” before taking him to a nearby house. Here, a woman washed his burns on the front porch, then going back inside and returning with a machete. “I thought, ‘Shit, what’s this?’ She walked past me to a giant aloe vera plant, cut some leaves off, poured gel over these wounds, and then gave me more leaves to take away to treat them.”  

‘The Cousin Smiles’ by Al Cane. George’s cousin’s smiles beams out. Homemade guitar in a rural hut, no windows, just the do

In the last 15 years he hasn’t travelled as much as he once did. There are still places he’d like to visit, such as Namib Desert “for a photographic trip”. He’s yet to go to Asia, and “I haven’t climbed enough mountains.” More locally, I ask if he ever returns to Manchester. The last time he did was about seven years ago for the funeral of his aunt Jenny, “one of the first nurses of the NHS”. Jenny had two sons who were gay: “One of them lives in London, the other sadly died about ten years ago – they taught me a lot, they were really helpful to me. In terms of Manchester, I’ve just visited a few times, never lived there again. Life took me to other places.” 

Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. 

‘The View from Folly Tower’ by Al Cane. Taken in 2010 from the top of Folly Tower, Faringdon, a view of the town and its surrounding countryside. 

alcitizencane.wordpress.com 

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