Tancred Newbury – My 501s

Image Tancred Newbury

In my favourite photo of myself, taken at the start of my eighteen-month stay in Vietnam, I’m wearing the only possession of mine that made it through my entire time in the country: my favourite jeans.

They already have a few small holes. But that was before the motorbike accident. And they had not yet been singed by a hotel fire that destroyed all my other possessions. 

These 501s had been tapered by the store in Camden I’d bought them second hand in. Classics with a contemporary twist. Tailored but edgy. How I like to see myself. And they fitted me to perfection.

My time in Vietnam was not the most stress-free year-and-a-half. 

Early on I had an emergency appendectomy with complications in a down-at-heel hospital. Later we had a break-in while we were all asleep in the house I shared with other teachers, causing me to lose my laptop and phone. 

I was wearing these jeans when I suffered a nasty motorbike accident caused by a garage recklessly washing all its grease and car wash liquid onto a poorly lit road when closing up. 

The hotel fire at the end of my time in Vietnam was caused by an electrical fault in the TV set of my hotel room and escalated when the gas in the cathode tube caused the TV to explode. The hotel was in GoVap, a poorer, more dangerous part of town that I’d moved to after accepting a pay-rise in exchange for being loaned out by my private English language school to a state school, where I somehow to excel at teaching classes of 50-plus eight-year-olds. 

Even though the area had a reputation for being dodgy and run by gangsters, I liked it. It felt like the real Vietnam, and I was probably the only ex-pat who lived there.

Image Tancred Newbury

None of the fire extinguishers worked, the hotel night staff found the situation amusing, and the firemen couldn’t drive their truck down the hotel’s alley so took an age linking up enough hoses to reach the top floor. 

Though I’d managed to drag my rented piano, my guitar and a rucksack with my laptop and passport and money out of the room I had to abandon them there as the smoke was too acrid and thick. Next morning I found out the firemen had stolen the bag. The only thing left in the room was the bottom drawer of the wardrobe, and in it: my now partly singed, accident-slashed 501s. It was time to leave Vietnam.

The jeans are a memento mori of sorts. The Stoics, the Buddha, the Sufis and many otherwise doctrines speak of the importance of meditating on death: not in a morose way, but in order to live life the fullest.

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. Thanks to these jeans I am often prompted to remember this.

Tancred Newbury is an Anglo-Italian photographer, writer and film-maker, based in London. He has written for The Observer, Literary Review and Il Foglio and assisted many of today’s leading photographers.