Plaque unveilings to the great and the good are frequent enough occasions. If planners are lucky, a photographer from the local press might turn up to take a few quick shots of the curtain being pulled to gentle applause from a small gathering of friends and fans of a once famous comedian, writer or artist.
Rarely do they attract international statesmen, crowds of hundreds, singers and a paparazzi pack that wouldn’t be out of place at the Cannes Film Festival.
But early on a bright, warm July morning in 2003, Lyme Street, Camden Town, was the stage for this special English Heritage occasion. Nelson Mandela, in London ahead of this 85th birthday, rearranged his schedule so he could be there, to remove a curtain to reveal the plaque dedicated to anti-apartheid campaigners Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who lived in the terraced house between 1966 and 1978.
At the time I was working for the Camden New Journal*. It was a far bigger picture job than I was normally used to but when the editor, Eric Gordon, asked for a volunteer I jumped at the chance. Despite its being a press night the evening before, I was up before six and was in Camden Town just after 7am. I’d borrowed a step ladder from a colleague and found my way to Lyme Street.
Hardened paparazzi photographers were already there, but there was sufficient space for me to erect the stepladder and squeeze it along the front row by the railings, just a few yards from a little rectangular red drape, behind which was the plaque.
Several colleagues from the paper turned up, not to do any work but to experience something unique. Eric sauntered along, in a fedora, and chirpy despite the early hour; it wasn’t a time we often saw him. The accountant and the head of advertising had also made the short journey down the road. And while the unveiling hadn’t been widely publicised, it was clear the message of what was happening that Friday morning was echoing around the area; at first there were tens of people, soon there were hundreds.
|Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm appears to have been among the crowds|
Sash windows in houses on the other side of the road were open fully and in some people sat precariously on sills, legs dangling beneath them. Parents carried their children on their shoulders; people climbed on top of walls and up poles to try and get a glimpse of what was happening. Behind railings near the plaque dignitaries were arriving. Frank Dobson MP was joined by Loyd Grossman – his role was, remarkably, compere of the occasion. Doreen Lawrence was there. Somewhere around was Alastair Campbell, as I later discovered when we bumped into each as the crowd dispersed.
The young Camden mayor Nasim Ali arrived, resplendent in robes and adorned with the traditional gold chain. He was effervescent. He bounded over and asked me to get a good photograph of himself with Nelson Mandela; later, as he hugged the former president, I tried to get the shot but found too many heads in the way. I always regretted not supplying the perfect shot for him though looking at the pictures now there are several shots he would enjoy.
|Mayor Nash Ali greeting Mandela, under the watchful eye of Zelda la Grange|
Many in the crowd were getting a bit agitated; they could see little of what was about to happen with so many photographers on ladders. A cry went up 'get down, get out the way'. The photographers were unwilling to move, but such became the pressure eventually we all got to the ground.
Soon, police wearing hi-vis jackets appeared at the corner by Camden Road, a series of cars turned the corner and there, was Nelson Mandela, walking with a stick, accompanied by his reliable - and fearsomely protective aide Zelda la Grange. He was first greeted by Gillian Slovo, the writer and daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First.
Mandela's speech wasn't long, but it was witty, affectionate towards his old comrades in arms and full of cheek. Ruth First, he recalled, was a 'sharp lady' who didn't suffer fools gladly. He still had the 'scars' on his back to prove it.
When Mandela pulled the cord, to loud whoops and applause (had this noise ever happened at an English Heritage plaque unveiling before?), and, on stairs leading up to the front door of a neighbouring house, a South African choir, singing with gusto, all with broad smiles.
There was security of course. Hefty numbers of police marked the street, English Heritage officials stood by the railings and Mandela's own easily identifiable guards - hair hard cropped, sunglasses, all white - watched attentively. But it wasn't overbearing. People danced and waved, jumped with joy, yelled out Mandela's name with glee. The former president himself smiled, waved and joined in with the merriment. He left to music, laughter and joy. He was probably on the scene for no longer than 20 minutes, but it was a moment no-one there would forget the occasion. I felt privileged just to see the man and take his photograph.
*The Camden New Journal's report of the day can be found here.
A final aside
While the majority of the photographers were in the pen with me, some, like The Guardian's David Sillitoe, looked for different angles. Below is the picture which ran in his paper:
Towards the left hand side, I'm one of the few members of the press pack who can be identified, with my long blonde hair, I'm captured just looking to my right.
For some reason, we got hold of an international edition of The Guardian that week and the same photograph ran. Except, there appears to have been a bit of a cropping error. While I can still be seen looking in the wrong direction, Nelson Mandela has been removed from the image almost entirely; just his right hand survived the chop. Oops!