Today I want to honour a man who will never get to read this. Nor will his family get to read this. Uncle Bill died about 3 years ago, and I only received news of his death months after it happened. I have no idea who is family is, or even what country they are in. This message will never reach anyone that Bill knew. This makes me sad.
But I feel that at the end of this piece of self-indulgent autobiography, there might be a benefit for photographers.
1996. I was a mere 22 years old. And a young 22 at that. I know people who were divorced with two kids at age 22 – me, I was still a kid. Very immature. I had dropped out of art college 2 years before, and I was sitting at home twiddling my thumbs, wasting oxygen, drinking too much, freeloading off my parental units when a friend of the family said there is a job opening at her company. I went for the interview, mostly because my dad threatened to castrate me with a rusty spoon if I don’t get off my arse and do something with my life. It wasn’t an interview. They were so desperate for a gullible, underpaid lackey that I walked into the “interview” and started work right away – I was given some files and told what to do with them. A few hours later I assumed I had a job. A real, tax-paying job.
This is how I ended up as a “drawing office assistant” at the mechanical engineering department of a big international mining company. We were ten people in our little section. In order of command, I was a place below the water cooler. But second in command, and the de-facto “boss” because the real boss was too busy with corporate hullabaloo to be the boss, was William Henry Payet.
Bill was a senior citizen already then. Four decades separated us. Here I was, a wet-behind the ears little squirt of a boy, and old man Bill, a man with vast experiences in life. We were both male, and we both breathed oxygen, and that is where the similarities ended.
And he was hated! No one liked Bill. He was an absolute cantankerous old fart, ill tempered and grumpy. Everything pissed him off. Day one, the guys in the drawing office warned me not to take Bill seriously. He is cranky and nobody likes him – if I learned to ignore Bill and not let him get to me, I’ll be fine.
The guys were right. I saw why. Bill had a way of calling a spade a fucking shovel. If something was wrong, it was wrong. Fix it. If something was right, are you expecting a bloody trophy? You’re employed to do a job, don’t expect praise for doing it. Straightforward, he was. And sarcastic. I remember once a guy asked Bill why a chute needed to be three times the size of the maximum diameter of rock it would carry, and he replied “In case a little Volkswagen came along”. But I realised, his sarcasm and direct approach, was not meant in a bad way… people saw Bill’s direct, no-bullshit approach as offensive. I just saw him not treating middle-aged men like they were still in nursery school. Everyone there (except me!) was a graduated professional. These guys were mechanical engineers. They’re not toddlers. You’re here to do a job, do it. And when I realised that, I realised something else as well… When you actually listened to what Bill said, in his sarcasm, there was a rapier-sharp wit.
One day there was chaos in the drawing office, and Bill crapped over the entire team. And I pissed myself laughing. Just his way of expressing himself was hilarious! He looked at me with blazing eyes of fury and said to me “Pillock, you think this is funny?” I replied that I thought it was. To which he just smiled and carried on with the tongue lashing.
“Pillock”. That’s what he called me. People were saying to me “Don’t you see it as an insult?” And my answer was “no”. I saw it as a term of endearment. Because Bill, in all his nastiness, was never nasty. He was honest, he was truthful, he was direct, he was sarcastic, but he was never nasty, but somehow, I was the only guy who could see that in him.
And so we became friends. Uncle Bill, as I called him when he was in a good mood, or just “Bilious” when he was in a bad mood, took me under his wing. I saw through his bluff and bluster, and responded with his insults and sarcasm, with insults and sarcasm of my own. Which he loved. We told jokes, I insulted him back and he would at times wipe his eyes from laughing at the crass, disrespectful way I treated him. Everyone else in the drawing office thought I was nuts. But this forged a very odd friendship. He always took the time to explain things to me. I could approach him with any question, about anything, work related or not. He was both knowledgeable and wise – something I realised is a rare combination. One day, out of the blue, he invited me to go for Friday after-work drinks with him. And there we were, 22-year old me and 62-year old Bill, having beer in a pub, watching cricket, and talking as we were friends for decades. And we laughed. We made fun of ourselves. And mostly, I listened. I listened to an old man dispense his decades of invaluable wisdom in hilarious ways.
As I’m writing this in a nostalgic mood early on a Wednesday morning, twenty years later, I am realising just what a profound impact Bill had on my life, in both personal and professional capacities.
Bill taught me about critical thinking. He taught me about questioning assumptions. He taught me about “figure it out before you ask for help”, and taught me to always listen and offer help if you can give it. He taught me that criticism needs not be personal. He taught me that you cannot be expected to be praised for merely doing the job you are paid to do. Bill taught me to accept a mistake, and not to make excuses – or even give valid reasons for a mistake. Acknowledge your mistake, and fix it. I remember one incident very clearly: I had to bind some drawings into a book, and I was in a bit of a rush, and halfway through the book I put the pages in upside down. Bill was furious. I started explaining why this happened, and he just shut me up. “I don’t care why”, he said. “This is wrong, it needs to go to the client, fix it”. And that penny dropped hard that day – the reason a mistake was made, is actually irrelevant in the end. Take accountability for it, learn from it, and bloody fix it.
Uncle Bill, I really wish I could call you up and go for a whisky. I miss your wit and your wisdom. I miss having a friend so many years older than me whom I can ask for advice, whom I can talk crap about cricket with. I realise today, Bill, that I owe a large part of my photography career to you. You taught me how to think, and how to think critically. If not for you, someone else probably would have, but it was you who did it.
Today I want to raise a glass in your honour, and thank you for your wisdom, your insight, your wit, and teaching me that to get ahead in life, calling spades fucking shovels is a hell of a good way of doing it. Cheers Uncle Bill – you are missed, and I’m sad that I don’t even know on which continent you are buried in.