Glory Days

David Cairns

As one of the stars of the Daily Express during the 1960s and '70s, David Cairns travelled all over the world photographing wars, famines and trouble spots. In the first of a two-part series, he talks to Bob Aylott about his amazing life behind the lens

DAVID Cairns scatters a pile of photographs over the table, then sits back in his chair and waits for a response. Strangely, he looks relieved, as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. I wonder whether he is looking for some kind of closure, or maybe he is remembering his glittering past.

Unashamedly, I fell like a vulture as I rummage through his life spread out in black and white before me on the table. Picking the meat and discarding the bones is easy. The meat is piled high, and I am spoilt for choice as I look at pictures from a Fleet Street career that spans four decades.

'Where would you like to start?' David asks in his broad Glaswegian accent. I know where I want to finish: I want to ask him about one of the most brutal scenes any British press photographer has ever focused on. But that is for later. 'Let's start at the beginning,' I say.

'This will be good for me,' he says, 'I've never spoken about it before.' Over the years David, 66, has photographed wars, trouble spots, famines, starvation and earthquakes. He has seen more death and despair than most of his colleagues put together. If it helps to talk, then I am ready to listen.

Born in 1940, David was the eldest of five children, and still at school when his father died. His dad worked with printing ink and his grandfather was a compositor at the Glasgow Herald; ink was in the young boy's blood.

'Times were hard and I had to get a job,' David explains. 'I wanted to be a photographer, but all I knew about was seeing cameramen sitting by the goal at football matches.'

When he was 16 years old, David started work in the Daily Express darkroom in Glasgow. 'Mixing up chemicals with a big wooden stick and developing glass plates were my main tasks,' he recalls.

The Gorbals, Glasgow, circa 1960
The Gorbals, Glasgow, c.1960

A friend loaned him an old Leica, but he admits that he didn't know what to do with it. His boss at the Express, chief photographer Albert Barr, told the young David to just go out and take some pictures.

'I hadn't a clue what to do. I photographed family members and for action I took pictures of a steam train going through a tunnel,' says David. 'When I showed the negatives to Albert, he just said, "Aye, son," and went back to his work. I don't think he was impressed.'

David worked a regular 2pm-10pm shift and stayed in the darkroom for four years. 'It ruined my love life, but I was determined to become a photographer,' he says. 'I took great pride in printing pictures, particularly at night when I had plenty of time. I remember there was one photographer who was known as "One-plate Mathie." He would photograph a horrendous car crash and come back with just one glass plate exposed.'

David's other love was athletics, particularly the high jump. He represented Great Britain at an international event in Belgium in 1964 in a team that included Jeffrey Archer (now Lord Archer). He also competed alongside Menzies Campbell, now leader of the Liberal Democrats.

'My bedroom wall was covered in photographs, including Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile,' he recalls. 'Little did I know that one day I would become close friends with Norman Potter, who took the picture.'

Also on the wall was a group photograph of all 65 Daily Express staff photographers from London, Manchester and Glasgow. David continues, 'I hadn't been at the Express long when I became ill. The doctor came into my bedroom and spent the first ten minutes looking at my pictures on the wall. "And why are you no' there, David?" the doctor asked, looking at the group picture. As quick as a flash, I joked and said, "Someone had to take it."'

David's first job as a photographer at the Express turned into disaster when he photographed the Clyde football team after training. 'It was pouring with rain, so I used the dressing room,' he recalls. 'I adjusted the back blind on a 9x12 camera to synchronise with the flashbulbs. I was very nervous and exposed two glass plates. After developing the plates all I could see was the light bulbs in the dressing room. I had set the blind at the wrong width. That was the first and last time I used a large-format press camera - they gave me a Rolleiflex TLR after that.'

Victims of a Glasgow house fire, circa 1960
Glasgow house fire, c.1960

Glasgow was a tough city to grow up in, but David says it was the best training in the world. 'The Express was a broadsheet paper and we had certain pages that had to be filled every day with local pictures,' he continues. 'Lord Beaverbrook [who owned the Daily Express] had Scottish ancestry and always wanted a lot of Scottish news in the paper.'

Once a month David was sent to George Square in Glasgow's city centre to photograph two paintings in an art dealer's window that were for sale. 'I would photograph the window and my picture would be sent to London on the train for Lord Beaverbrook to decide if he wanted to buy the artworks,' he adds.

'Albert Barr [the chief photographer] was a hard taskmaster; very critical but constructive. He was a great thinking photographer. He would never let you get away with anything, but he would never say, "That's a great picture," although I could tell when he was pleased. I learned so much from developing his glass negatives and printing his pictures.'

At that time the furthest David had travelled was 120 miles to the Isle of Mull with Albert, reporter Magnus Magnusson (later a broadcaster and presenter of TV's Mastermind quiz show), a driver and a wireman. David was in charge of a mobile darkroom that comprised two large suitcases and a tent. 'We were covering a story about a strange religious sect,' he recalls. 'We hired a fishing boat at midnight to get to Mull quickly and Albert cracked open a bottle of Scotch whisky that was empty by the time we got to the other side.' That trip opened up a whole new world to David - and it was one he wanted to see more of.

Everyone at the paper knew that David was determined to get to Fleet Street. Each night when the London papers arrived in Glasgow he would read the photographers' bylines, with names such as Terry Fincher, Terry Disney, Harry Benson and Bill Lovelace appearing regularly. He knew what these top photographers were doing every day of the week and wanted to be one of them.

Old Bailey bomb, London, 1973
Old Bailey bomb, London, 1973

In 1965 David joined the London Daily Express and started work in the black 1920s Art Deco building on the north side of Fleet Street. He stayed there until 1977 and during that time he won the coveted British Press Photographer of the Year Award three times, along with a host of royal and feature awards.

At this stage of the interview David is relaxed and talking at the rate of his old motordrive, the only pause coming when he drinks his tea. I ask about the stories that are chiselled into his memory card. He sits back and thinks for a moment before deciding where to start. He had exploded on to the London scene and admits he had a big ego and a lot of energy, but he quickly reassures me that all the photographers were the same in those days.

'I guess I was quite obnoxious, although I tried not to be,' he says. 'The other, more experienced photographers were good to me. Terry Fincher was the top dog and I admired him tremendously - he was my icon.'

Earthquake, eastern Turkey, 1974
Earthquake, eastern Turkey, 1974

This was in the days of the 'photo news page,' where one big picture used across half a page told the story of the day. 'It was the Express photographers' showcase and the envy of the rest of Fleet Street,' David explains. 'We were competitive at the highest level and fought every day to get the space. Terry [Fincher], Reg [Lancaster], Bill [Lovelace] and Larry [Ellis] were all after that page. Television was not big in the '60s, so huge pictures in a broadsheet newspaper with a circulation of five million a day was impressive.'

Learning the London ropes came as a shock for the wee rookie from Glasgow: David recalls what happened when he was sent to Royal Ascot week to photograph the Queen.

'I was the new boy and didn't know the procedure,' he explains. 'The racing was rained off and I noticed the Queen standing in the royal enclosure in her gumboots in the pouring rain. I walked straight in and started taking pictures. I didn't know the area was out of bounds to the press,' adds David with a smile. Officials escorted him out of the racecourse, and the Daily Express had all their passes cancelled immediately for the whole of Ascot week.

'Someone should have told me,' he adds. 'I went back to London thinking, "Ah! That was interesting." But there was trouble in the office. Peter O'Sullivan, our racing correspondent, was kicking up a stink and the executives were furious. But Bob Edwards [the editor] came to my defence. I never saw the pictures and believe that the negatives were destroyed, but I was a young guy and didn't worry about anything.

'When I look back now I realise that I must have trodden on a lot of people's toes, and I regret that. I was competitive and had a sharp tongue that maybe other people didn't find amusing. These days photographers are competitive in a different way. They are competitive with speed, but not competitive with photography; I would always hang back until everyone else had gone and then I'd try to do something different. That was the fun of it all.

'We were all self-starters, coming up with ideas every day. If you weren't taking pictures you were on the phone setting them up. It was a completely different way of working. We had fought to get a staff job. We had the pride of working for the largest-selling newspaper in the world. When I started at the Daily Express it was selling five million copies a day. It was wonderful and the prestige was incredible.

'The newspaper had so much clout that we could even command the Royal Air Force to fly us all over the world. I remember chasing the Russian bombers that tested our northern air defences. We would be in the air so long hunting for the Russians that the RAF would send up refuelling aircraft for us. The cost was unthinkable - it would never happen today.'

War-torn Biafra, 1968
War-torn Biafra, 1968

It wasn't long after arriving in London that David started to give the other staff photographers a run for their money. His first big story was the war in Biafra in the mid-1960s.

After waiting for several days at Lisbon airport in Portugal, he hitched a ride on a mercenary flight taking ammunition into the war zone. 'The Biafrans had lost the airport to the Nigerians three days earlier, so they used an existing road as a new runway by hacking down the trees on either side,' David explains. 'As we approached at night, they lit barrels of oil to show us the way in. After a terrifying landing I learned that the plane before us had turned over and crashed.'

David then describes his first conflict. 'It was something else,' he says. 'It was a great experience. We were getting bombed all the time. People asked, "What is war like?" They think it must be terrible, and it was, but for a young man it was also very exciting and my adrenaline was pumping. It gave me a reserved taste for it. I was always aware what I was doing, having one eye on the viewfinder and the other scouring what was happening around me. I grew up very quickly.'

Also on the war front was BBC reporter Freddie [Frederick] Forsyth. David remembers that Freddie would go to his room, surround himself with a mosquito net and tap away at his typewriter. The result of these efforts was his first book, The Dogs of War.

Starving children, Biafra, 1968
Starving children, Biafra, 1968

However, not everything went to plan, as what should have been David's first big scoop turned sour. Still upset by the events 40 years later, he sits back and tells how he took the first pictures of starving children in Biafra.

'An Irish priest suggested that I see the children, who were starving because they couldn't get any food through to them,' he explains. 'A few days later he drove me to a refugee camp full of hundreds of emaciated children. The Nigerians had beaten the Biafrans back into a small enclave. We were surrounded, the weather was bad and we had to wait weeks to get out. I got my films out on a mercenary flight to Lisbon where they were collected and taken to London.'

What happened next was a stroke of bad luck for David. The Sun photographer Ron Burton arrived in Biafra and eventually found the children. 'My pictures were already back in London, so I was days ahead of him,' says David. However, David fell ill and was losing weight rapidly from serious food poisoning. He urgently needed to get to a hospital in England, so he flew out. 'I was on the same flight out as Ron,' he says with a smile.

Back in London and close to collapse, David discovered that the pictures of the starving children had not been used. 'I questioned the associate editor, who turned to me and said, "This is not Oxfam; this is the Daily Express."' The following day The Sun devoted five pages to Ron's pictures.

'I received a letter from the editor giving me a pay rise and a bonus, but I never got an apology,' says David. 'I was terribly fed up and hurt.' David then spent the next two weeks in a London hospital recovering.

'Don McCullin photographed wars to make a difference,' he adds. 'I believed Biafra was a one-off opportunity in my career where I could have made a difference. The children were starving because men were fighting over oil. So nothing has changed over the years.'

While at the Express David covered several big stories around the world, including the Yom Kippur War which took place in 1973. One evening he decided to leave the rest of the press pack eating dinner in the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv and drive through the night to the front line at the Suez Canal. He recalls how he joined the Israeli forces as they retook the canal.

Retaking the Suez Canal, Yom Kippur War, 1973
Retaking the Suez Canal, 1973

'I shouted across to the tank commander, "I'm from the London Daily Express, can you take me across?" He smiled, invited me up and gave me a helmet. It turned out that his father was a London taxi driver. There was hardly any light, but I took the pictures as we crossed the canal. Ten miles into Egypt panic set in. There was a battle going on that looked like a fireworks display in the night sky, but I wondered how the hell I was going to get back with my films. In the end my tank commander flagged down an ambulance that was going back to Israel and I hitched a ride.

'By the time I got back to the Suez Canal the Egyptians were still bombing the advance HQ of the Israelis and there were tracers flying around all over the place. I was the first photographer to go in with the troops as they retook the canal and I was desperate to get back to Tel Aviv and then move my films back to London.'

However, the army didn't want to help. It was dark and dangerous, and there were still pockets of resistance. David drove through the night and arrived in Tel Aviv by first light.

'The censors had been told that I had been in Egypt so they wanted to see my films,' he continues. 'They didn't want any pictures showing the canal to be released.'

David explained that after developing and contacting the films, the censors would go through the contacts and cross out everything that could not be used with a blue pencil.

'I didn't want to lose the frame of the tank crossing the canal, so I cut the one important negative out,' he explains. 'If I had attempted to transmit the picture to London, the Israelis would have stopped it. I had no choice but to fly straight back.'

David phoned the foreign editor in London and told him he thought it was time he came home. 'Knowing that the army and customs would search me rigidly at the airport, including a body search, I needed to hide the negative,' says David. He carefully took out one roll of film from a new pack of unexposed Kodak Tri-X, then pulled the unexposed film out of its cassette. He taped the exposed negative to the spool at the end of the roll and rewound the roll of film back into the cassette. 'I sealed the pack as if it had never been opened,' he adds. 'At the airport they went through everything, and I had a full body search, but they took no notice of the unexposed packs of film in my bag.'

David eventually got back to London at 9pm and by chance met Ian McCall, the editor, leaving the Express building. 'You're too late, David. The war's over,' said McCall. David continues: 'I went straight to the darkroom and printed a 20x16in of the taxi driver's son taking the Suez Canal. They used it right across the front page,' he adds proudly.

David had been away for two weeks, but returned with only one negative. 'I was so confident; I knew it was a good picture,' he says. 'No one questioned my decision about coming back without an explanation. It was the first picture of the Israelis winning the war and that is what press photography is all about.'

Harold and Mary Wilson waiting for members of the cabinet to arrive for dinner, London, 1976
Harold and Mary Wilson, London, 1976

As our day draws to a close, I ask David what he regards as the highlight of 20 years at the Daily Express. 'The Biafran children still haunt me to this day,' he says. 'I felt that I could have done something about their plight. Maybe that's being a bit pretentious, but that is what happens when you are passionate about your work.'