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God’s Fox 1
Photography Charles Gordon Montgomery

This book unearths forgotten photos from Prestwich’s psychiatric hospital

Austin Collings spent five years trawling Charles Gordon Montgomery’s dusty loft to collate his photographs of the Manchester town, its residents, and their mutual friend Mark E Smith

In the mid-70s, a man called Charles Gordon ‘Don’ Montgomery cycled two days from Croydon to Prestwich, after a group of strangers in the pub asked him to move there with them. The Belfast-born 20-something had just returned from a hitchhiking trip around Europe and was looking for his next adventure. By the end of the decade, Don had found his home. He spent his nights in the local pubs, playing pool and smoking weed, and his days in Prestwich ‘Mental’ Hospital, where he worked as the so-called ‘boiler man’. When the boiler ran smoothly, Don didn’t have much to do except read, drop acid and wander the halls, and take photos of the corridors, the staff, and the idiosyncratic day-to-day life of the hospital’s patients.

It’s these photos – taken over 30 years from 1979 to 1996 – that have occupied the last five years of writer Austin Collings’ own life. After meeting Don in 2005 (the pair were cooly introduced by their mutual friend Mark E Smith), Collings became enthralled by his tender photographic portraits of a past life: scenes from the hospital’s bygone era, shots depicting the astounding frequency of black eyes among the locals, and images of Don’s seemingly unremarkable world.

Both before and after Don’s death in 2016, Collings frequented his house to rummage in his dusty loft, under his mattresses, and in old bin bags to find the photos Don was happy to lose. These unearthed images by an unknown photographer have become the subject of Collings’ new book, God’s Fox, which marries Don’s pictures with Collings’ affectionate retelling of an ex-boiler man’s gregarious, free-spirited, and ordinary life.

“He was partly baffled by my love of his work,” Collings tells Dazed. “To him, the work belonged in bin bags. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have liked God’s Fox – he would. He understood appreciation. But he would also have been equally content for them to remain unseen.”

Don wasn’t the first to capture Prestwich ‘Mental’ Hospital – Martin Parr took a series of photos in the institution back in 1972 – but Collings believes Don’s ability to “see right through you” gives his series “an emotional eloquence that I’ve never seen before”. Ultimately, Collings says, Don’s depiction of the hospital and its residents remains unrivaled because he “was at the heart of it”.

As seen in God’s Fox, Don’s images offer a unique and warm portrayal of the elderly patients of Prestwich ‘Mental’ Hospital, as they lie carefree in the institution’s grounds, cradle each other in outdoor armchairs, and roam the long, clinical halls of the place they call home. Don also captures the town’s residents and pub locals in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, freezing them forever in time.

Ahead of the book’s publication on September 20, you can read an extract from God’s Fox below, followed by a Q&A with Austin Collings, who discusses what Don was like, why he was drawn to his work, and how his photos painted Prestwich’s psychiatric hospital and its residents with an optimistic tenderness.

GOD’S FOX: AN EXTRACT

Portraits of another kind of royal family, here are mates who would become best mates, hospital people, sunlit scenes of local disorder, marmalade light caught drifting across a lacerated black eye – light is what it is made of: human hair absorbs the light – faint traces of affectionate amazement – the enormous yes of being present in the being here – Nico sat in his and Julie’s back yard, on the back step, two decades after her brief association with The Velvet Underground, taking time out from her trudge towards oblivion, looking up into the Prestwich sun with big shaded fly-eyes – he gives us a sense of what time with someone unknowable might have been like – and a Mitre bag left in a stream. Each polaroid remembering something maybe important that could have got lost. What a bog and labyrinth human essence is.

He explores ideas of image and class but not in an obvious way. He is psychologically acute. He has an inner clarity. The personal was not just political; it was communal.

Being poor takes it out of you, but the photographs are not imbued with an oversimplification of a political stance. The bitter furies of complexity are there if you want them to be there – the gnarling paranoia, imprisoned minimalism, the banal fabric of everyday life – but he was not on the attack, awed by negative impulses, when the images were trembling in his sockets, about to be birthed in a flash. Optimism and stoicism ring out in the purest of light, hazy and loopy, when colour was new. The photographs breed energy in my head. Colourful Kodak energy.

You met Charles Gordon ‘Don’ Montgomery in 2005; what was your first impression of him?

Austin Collings: He looked semi-feral, like a fox. At the time I was working with Mark E Smith of The Fall, co-writing his autobiography Renegade. Don was an old mate of Mark’s. He was in the pub, The White Horse, otherwise known as The Dirty Donkey in Prestwich, North Manchester. We met outside on their equivalent of a beer garden: the beer cobbles. He was staring at traffic and smoking weed. In his own world until Mark turned up. (Don) had once been a wild one, the instigator of well-natured chaos, but life had had its say at that time and he was mostly calm, reflective, resolute, modest and, most importantly, funny. It always helps to have a God-like laugh at yourself and Don was the don for that.

It was only later that a friend introduced you to Don’s photographs – what in particular drew you to his work?

Austin Collings: The flawed romanticism; the compassionate conviction; the spiritual good humour; the satiric and anarchic community spirit; the light spots of people’s eyes; the hope and optimism. I’m into all of that. You feel like you’ve seen a movie when you look at one of his photographs; the movie reconstructs itself from a single image. They’re unflinching photos that depict Prestwich in ways both recognisable and unknowable. He’s not just tossing us a few pieces of his life, he’s going all in – full exposure. Also, his body of work has never been seen before. There are very few things hidden in this saturated age of ours. Everything is routinely or almost automatically available. His work is a true discovery and that lends a sense of mystery to the story. 

“You feel like you’ve seen a movie when you look at one of (Don’s) photographs; the movie reconstructs itself from a single image” – Austin Collings

What did Don say of his inspiration or motive for taking photos?

Austin Collings: You meet many people and it’s obvious from the off that they’re entirely put together from other people; but not him. Herein, he had no inspiration. It was just what he did. In the same way that he smoked, drank, and dropped acid heavily, he took photographs heavily. Photography may have also been his only source of clarity amid all that other life. He died before I got to ask him this, and before he even knew I wanted to write this book. 

I’ve worked with and written about many artists, and they’re all either wonderfully self-aware or painfully self-aware. He was neither. He definitely didn’t see himself as an artist, which is why he never betrayed his talent to become a crowd-pleaser; he had no crowd to please. And that’s why his work is pure.

What stories of his time working at the hospital stuck out to you?

Austin Collings: I love the image of him reading Stephen King’s The Shining while sitting in his boiler room and being scared – it could only be that book. I also like that 6AM to 8AM of an English morning were the dead hours back then, when nobody except himself was about, just taking photographs.

What impression do you get of Prestwich Hospital and its residents from Don’s photos?

Austin Collings: Photography is not a sensitive medium, but sensitivity matters when taking pictures. What unites this wonderful gallery of images in the end is tenderness, humanness, humour, and the light of acceptance. It would have been easy to paint the hospital as a horror show, but he doesn’t. 

The thing about Don was that he looked completely ordinary but he could see right through you, and that’s what he brings to the story of Prestwich ‘Mental’ Hospital: an emotional eloquence that I’ve never seen before. Martin Parr took a series of images of Prestwich Hospital in the 1970s, and they’re brilliant, but not as brilliant as Don’s – not in my eyes – because Don was at the heart of it.

How did Don’s black eye series of photos come about?

Austin Collings: Prestwich wasn’t what it is now back in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s. It had a real edge. You saw a lot more people with black eyes wandering around. The black eyes weren’t a fashion as such but they were definitely worn with a stoical and strangely humorous pride. You can see it in the photographs; most of the people are made up with their bruises. They have this mystical, almost religious, look of euphoria. You could also see black eyes as another form of addiction, like drink and drugs. When your skin starts healing after having a black eye, you get a strange high from it. You can’t stop looking at it; the colours are obviously fascinating. Weirdly, you feel like you’ve achieved something.

Although Don only features in one image, the book gives a sense of his life during that time, as well as the lives of his subjects. Do you think that’s part of the reason you’re so enthralled by his work?

Austin Collings: Definitely. It’s part personal portrait and part study of a particular time and attitude in British history.

What made you want to create God’s Fox?

Austin Collings: I liked art books as a kid, but I always felt let down by the words that accompanied the images. They didn’t capture your attention like a ‘good book’ – the writing seemed secondary to the images. Hopefully, God’s Fox redresses that bygone injustice.  

I wanted to create an art book with a novelised slant, and I wanted to write something about someone who wasn’t famous but was undeniably talented. This is why I (and Don’s family members) spent five years combing through musty crypts – lofts, bin bags, underneath mattresses, inside shoes – searching for these photographs. It’s a real labour of love that completes a loose trilogy with my two other books, Renegade and The Myth of Brilliant Summers, which occupy the same terrain.

What do you hope readers take away from it?

Austin Collings: Life is seeing people right, and that was Don’s gift: the seeing part.

What did Don make of your fondness for his work? What would he say if he could see the book?

Austin Collings: He was partly baffled by my love of his work. To him, the work belonged in bin bags. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have liked God’s Fox – he would. He understood appreciation. But he would also have been equally content for them to remain unseen, dumped in the black night of a bin bag.

God’s Fox is out on September 20 – you can pre-order it here