Thinking On

Every day I walk these streets I try to take them in. Every detail, the pall of smog from the incinerator smokestack separating the oily black of the night sky from the neon glow of the streetlights lining the A50 below. The football stadium stands like a citadel in the middle of the middle distance and the drone of the traffic rises up to meet me.

Chamberlain Avenue draws up from London road in a exponential steepness dragging its way upwards from the kebab shops and oatcake shops, broken windows and broken paving slabs. The discarded sweet wrappers, beer cans and broken glass are suddenly gone and fallen leaves take their place in piles of brown and gold. Council workers blow and sweep the leaves into the back of their pickup but they don’t pick up the rubbish in London Road. Chamberlain Avenue leads to Penkhull, London Road is Stoke. Stoke Town. One of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent.

I take in these details, because one day when I have left here and find my peace, these things, these memories and sights and sounds will become words and stories and songs. But for now they weigh heavily and it is the best I can do to take them in at all.

Hiding In Plain Sight

Becoming a teenager we start to make choices, how to be individual, how to be who we want to be in the world. Are we going to conform or are we going to not-conform. Although even when we’re not conforming we have to be aware of what conforming looks like in order do the opposite. We are never truly free as we are either tracking the conformity in order to be like it or else tracking the conformity to maintain its exact opposite.

I believe we spend our teenage years hiding, building barriers between ourselves and the world, perhaps the types and numbers and levels and severities of barriers fit our upbringing, our society, our family situations. The juxtaposition of building the barrier is that the barrier becomes a beacon, for example growing a beard. When I was coming of age in the eighties beards were a niche item, worn / grown only by those who were still grieving the seventies or by bikers and metal-heads. But a beard is just a beard, so in order to be counter-conformist it had to be be big. Now I’m no longer hiding, I’m standing out. I have a huge beard, so my character has to grow to hold it. Then it’s no longer just the huge beard, it’s also long hair. Maybe just the long hair isn’t cutting it anymore in my peer group, so we start to look for justifications and historical references. Maybe you go the Tolkien route, or start reading Viking lore and long hair is plaited, beards are plaited, tattoos become iconic. Maybe your friends don’t grow beards so well, maybe piercings are their thing. One or two piercings, an ear or two, maybe a nostril, are well, quite frankly rather conformist. So more are required. Or perhaps bigger hoops, longer dangles, chains from ear to nose, bigger holes, more holes, holes in places that other people, ‘normal’ people, square people, don’t have them. Add to this smoking, vaping, drug-taking, fast food, over-eating, under-eating. Those last years of our teens where patterns are created and lifestyles are set and peer groups are strong. This is the foundation of our twenties. But the more we hide behind these elaborate masks the more we stand out, and the more we stand out the greater the character has to be that we create to hide the part of us that we wanted to hide in the first place.

And then all of this nonsense of our teens gets abandoned in our twenties, we’re now looking for jobs, looking for promotion, getting married, having babies, buying houses. Heads down we play house and take on the gender roles of our parents and grand-parents. Maybe we learned to be different or maybe we are still playing out the scripts they have given us. We see the kids taking the world we thought we’d created and subverting it for themselves, the music grows further and further away from where we left it.

But if our growing years has made us conform, and we are now acting out our roles like good consumers should, where has all the energy gone that we put into creating those alter egos of our teens?

“Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather it can only be transformed from one form to another.” – 1st Law of Thermodynamics

We’ve buried it, we’ve suppressed it and we’ve set ourselves up for the fall. The classic mid-life crisis is coming and it comes earlier and lasts longer than ever before now. By our thirties we have found new ways to numb the existential angst that we see gnawing at the corners of our world and once again we start to reach for the crutches of our teenage years to prove we’re still alive.

“The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us…. all aspects of ourselves that are unacceptable and displeasing to our family, peers, and society, goes into the bag and it continues to fill until we’re twenty, after which we spend the rest of our lives trying to retrieve from” – Robert Bly

But beards, and piercings and tattoos and obesity are now the norm and the kids are wearing retro and all our old clothes are in the vintage shops now. Walking down the magazine aisle of Sainsbury’s, there are shelves of music magazines, guitar magazines, rock magazines, classic rock, prog rock, all espousing music from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Learn to play like the Rolling Stones, Guns and Roses 30th Anniversary tour, The Doors, King Crimson. Turn a corner and they are selling vinyl again. Our old tricks no longer work, we can no longer work on ourselves to create our own individuality, albeit within the parameters of the peer group we have chosen. We may have lost our youth but we have gained affluence and our affluence opens new doors to new hiding places. Which one is yours?

Wine, just a bottle or two each night?
Season ticket, a few beers in the week, a few more on the weekend?
A Conservatory, astro turf?
Bigger TV, sound bar, another DVD?
Takeaways, barbecues, restaurants, hydrogenated fats and MSG?
Motorbike, sports car?
Just another car, because, well the old one’s getting old?

So where are we now? We are created in the images of our parents, twenty years of relationship learning through osmosis. We define ourselves in our teenage years and follow a path of conformity or rebellion. Take any action or belief of our parents and I guarantee we will either do the same or the opposite. In the next decade we suppress it all and the decade after that it all leaks out again. We don’t recognise these things of ourselves though because we have worked all our lives to suppress them, so we will always see them in others We will be drawn to those others and see in those others the traits we have hidden away from ourselves. When we recognise this then we can begin to know what we have never known. And like the Hanged Man in Tarot represents surrender or sacrifice, our constructed ego must die in order for us to grow anew.

“In the encounter with Shadow, your conscious personality will sometimes be overwhelmed or shattered. Your ego might experience a death, but it will thereby be enabled to later rise from the ashes like a phoenix endowed with new powers…” – Bill Plotkin

What we must learn is to find the the third path, that of our own voice.

We must start again.

“…and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you stride deeper and deeper
into the world…” – Mary Oliver – The Journey

 

I Never Meant To Stop Drinking

‘He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth – bitter and sickly. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.’ – Patrick Hamilton, The Midnight Bell (1929)

I never meant to stop drinking, it wasn’t something I consciously ‘gave up’. Not like the times I participated in ‘Dry January’ for charity, where with support we could collectively draw strength for the arduous task of ‘giving up’, for ‘abstaining’, until with a last gasp of the month we could all pile back in on the 1st February. Back to our bottles of wine and pints of beer, congratulating ourselves of a month of abstinence and a few saved pounds in cash and a few lost pounds in weight. Then everything was back to normal. That morning malaise that heralded every morning like an underlying current of depression. The ideas of morning gym sessions, Saturday Parkruns and Sunday morning long runs that disappeared into the haze of a massive hangover after a Friday night on the town. I had so much to lose, weekday wine was a hard earn reward for the day worked. Friday night beer was a reward and a good time out with my friends. Saturday night beer because there was a band on at the local. Tuesday night beer on the way to the shops that ended with a closing time pizza and the food still un-bought. This was the merry-go-round life I was leading. Alcohol wasn’t a problem, it was just a fact of life. Dry January proves it’s not a problem, we can give it up, stop it, anytime we like. Of course, we don’t want to as that what makes life fun right? Who wants to be one of those boring teetotallers? Don’t drink, no fun.

I never meant to stop drinking, my life started to change subtly, a career break, working for minimum wage for a summer season on a campsite, working fifteen hours a day, tending bar, taking bookings, cooking fry-ups. Evening wine dwindled and disappeared, Friday nights were different on the other side of the bar. The season changed from summer to autumn and a nightly bottle of cider became the norm and then that dwindled and disappeared. Mornings became clearer and something finally registered. The cognitive dissonance of having a good time of which most of it becomes a blur of good time followed by some sort of down, the down of lacklustre sleep, the down of a few beers and a midnight snack of pizza and chips, the down of a massive hangover the lasts until 3pm. These don’t feel like good times, but sure as sure, by late afternoon I’m looking forward to a glass of wine with my dinner, maybe two. May as well finish the bottle. Somewhere that all disappeared.

I never meant to stop drinking, it just happened. It’s not an effort, it’s not a hardship, I’m not even ‘giving up’. Last week we dropped by the local pub for the quiz night. It’s something we do occasionally to stay in the social loop, have a beer and amuse ourselves by how many of the answers we don’t know. This week we stayed for the whole quiz. For reference, the quiz is three beers long. From eight o’clock to ten o’clock, three beers and two packets of crisps. I was awake at 4am, all that beer has to come out at some time. Disturbed night sleep, queasy morning, skipped the gym. Life was interrupted. This is when I realised that life had changed, no longer was I celebrating the night and accepting the consequences of the next morning, this time I was regretting the loss of my clear morning, the freedom to be on top form and for anything to be possible.

I never meant to stop drinking, it just happened. Like now when I’m in the supermarket and decide I want a glass of wine with my dinner and head to the wine aisle and remember, actually, I don’t. That was just a memory glitch, my old life bleeding through into now. And then I walk on with my life.

Cufflinks

Clearing out a drawer the other day, my Mum came across a small box containing a pair of cufflinks and shirt pins and a piece of paper inscribed ‘these were my Bruce’s studs – with love from Aileen’.

Aileen or Auntie Aileen as we knew her was my Grandfather’s sister, my Dad’s aunt. My Grandfather Cecil William Farrar Laurie and his sister Marie Aileen Lorna Laurie had been born in Barbados where the family once owned a sugar plantation.

The Bruce in the inscription was Bruce Hamilton, he and Aileen had married at the end of 1934 and it’s possible my dad, born in 1939, had been named for Bruce. He also received Farrar for his middle name, as I did later, a surname from Aileen’s branch of the family descended from Colonel Thomas Austin, another Barbados plantation owner, albeit it a much earlier one having been born there in 1728. This branch of the family included Austin Farrar who had been taught to write by Enid Blyton but was better known for inventing the ‘pulpit’, a guard rail that fits around the bow of a sailing yacht as a safety handhold and also for designing anti-torpedo nets during the Second World War. These two inventions have been credited with saving innumerable lives at sea.

Bruce and his younger brother Patrick Hamilton were both authors, Patrick being the more critically acclaimed author of ‘Hangover Square’, ‘Rope’ and with one of his plays, ‘Gaslight’, turned into the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. ‘Gaslighting’ has entered the colloquial English language as the term commonly used for a form of physiological manipulation as experienced by the Bergman character in the film. Bruce’s most renowned works were the cricket based novel ‘Pro: An English Tragedy’, a poignant portrayal of the life of an English County cricketer around the time of the First World War. Patrick died in 1962 and Bruce in 1974, shortly after completing his brother’s biography ‘The Light Went Out: The Life of Patrick Hamilton’.

Aileen, an artist in her own right, was an infrequent visitor in the 1970’s to the quiet Northamptonshire village where her brother and his large extended family lived. I don’t remember much of these times as I was quite young, but I do remember she always seemed to be drawing. She would often make pencil sketches of the children and I’m sure many members of the family have these tucked away in old family photo albums.

My last memory of Aileen was from when I was perhaps 14 or 15, which would have been around 1986 when my Mum and Dad and I travelled to Brighton to visit her. Aileen died in 1987, my Dad in 2015 and now thirty years after first being given, these small mementos of both Bruce’s lives have come out into the open again.

I Remember

Music has always been with me and I have always been with music, I remember my first ‘personal stereo’ cassette player back when Walkmans were really Walkmans and the Grundigs and Thorns did the same for less money. I don’t really remember my dad being interested in music at all, maybe sometimes humming a big band tune now or then. My mum had a few records, Roy Orbison, the Carpenters and the like. She would always sing along to the radio in the car which was always tuned to BBC Radio 1 back then when we were lucky if the radio had an 8 Track player let alone a cassette tape player. My oldest brother recorded his Bowie records for me and I spent many hours digesting Space Oddity, the Laughing Gnome, the Little Bombardier, Life on Mars and all the others, not really understanding, aged just 9, what was unfolding through my headphones. New music came my way – Beatles tapes from my Mum’s friend Maggie, Queen and Dire Straits, 6th Form influences of Goth with the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim and the explosion of the Los Angeles sleaze metal scene headed by the unknown but soon to be very well known Guns n’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and the German metal bands Helloween and Accept and many others in between.

In all of this though, one thing I knew was that no matter how much music I listened to or how many concerts or gigs I saw there was never the slightest possibility that I would ever be able to make music. Of this one thing I was sure, I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t sing and like the other talents in life I didn’t have like being sporty or artistic or out-going I just accepted my place in life because at least I was kind of smart and if I got good grades and a good job everything would be ok.

In my later teenage years I picked up a guitar and learned some rudimentary chords, I learned that although I could remember the chord shapes I could never remember the order to play them in to play a song, let alone remember the words. I saw other friends grow in talent in leaps and bounds and I was left strumming quietly in my bedroom with a couple of song books and a borrowed guitar.

Suddenly it was the mid-nineties and the internet had been invented, I had no hope of tabbing songs for myself of hearing a chord or key being played and knowing what it was. The internet opened a new world of others tabbing songs and uploading them to ftp servers back when the internet was more than just world wide web, it was ftp, it was gopher, it was irc and a whole lot more in between.

I began to download song sheets with chords and found that I could now passably play and sing along to the Dog’s D’Amour and Counting Crows although I knew how bad it must sound and that’s how I remained, occasionally playing on borrowed guitars for the next twenty or so years.

Unlearning the programming, the Shadows of the past is a journey. It started with the gnawing sensation that there must be something more to this, with a two day corporate ‘Effective Communications’ workshop that taught me that I was not my thoughts and opened the door to this journey of discovery.

I wrote a lot of poetry at this time, performed a lot of it until the well ran dry. I’m happy I had it for a time and look forward to its return. Another chance remark from someone asking if I wrote songs as well percolated in my brain for a year or two until last spring half a dozen songs fell out. But what was I to do with them – they don’t read like poems and I can’t sing or play them, other than the in the safety of my own living room. So I picked up the guitar with earnest, learnt to finger pick over the summer and actually, finally, bought my own guitar.

How many hurdles had I crossed to have the stuttering confidence to walk into a guitar shop – a guitar shop! With real musicians playing real music! What the hell did I think I was doing? One corner of the store was a sea of acoustic guitars and we must have played every single one of them. Of course the guitar I fell in love with didn’t tick any of my pre-conceived boxes – it’s fully acoustic, doesn’t have a cut-away so I can’t reach anything below the twelfth fret and it was £150 or so below budget.

So fast forward to now, three weeks ago to be precise when I saw my friend Joey had a banjo. “I just play for myself”, he said, “I don’t care how I sound”. A few days later I heard him play and he could play. He showed me ‘clawhammer’ style – “strike, strum, thumb!” and a blue-grass finger picking roll. As I was leaving he lent me his banjo and urged me to search YouTube for Patrick Costello to learn how to play. I didn’t really understand why as I thought it was just a matter of learning some new chord shapes and getting some speedy finger picking practice in. How wrong could I be, the banjo is a craft all of it’s own, with percussion, chords and melody all in one. Patrick urges us to play, and better than to play is to share and show someone else how to play, to go out in the world and make music. He tells us that anyone can sing, anyone can play.

I made a couple of short videos of me playing the banjo after one week and after three weeks, just something to remember how it was when I started and hopefully see the improvement in the coming weeks and to spread the word and work and boundless enthusiasm of Patrick Costello. I didn’t make a video after week two – I was too self-conscious to record it with anyone else in the house. But then I made this, I’m not sure why. I can see all the flaws in it but in the words of Johnny Cash in his version of the Streets of Laredo I’ll “not mention his name and his name will pass on”.

It Must Have Been Ritual

That’s what the future archaeologists will say about my fireplace. 

Once, fire was the centre of the house and the centre of our lives. We tamed it, trained it and built chimneys take the smoke away. We celebrated our achievements and decorated the place of the fire, or fireplace, with a mantelpiece. Now the fire has gone and the mantelpiece becomes the place of the TV, rather like Roman temples replaced Neolithic sacred places and were later replaced themselves by Christian churches. TV is the centre of the household now. Praise be to TV.

And now, after the TV has gone, there just remains a bracket bolted to the wall. It is the clue but not the reason, the tantalising glimpse into what was. The archaeologists will say it was ‘ritual’, why else would we have suspended something above our very special fireplaces?

Salmon

“An old man sees better behind himself than a young man sees in front of himself.” – Czech Proverb

The salmon is destined for one purpose and one purpose only and that is to return to its birthplace and spawn a new generation. One purpose from its birth, to reproduce. And what if it fails in that purpose? Is that a life wasted? Do we go to a symphony recital to wait for and listen to the last note, or do we enjoy the whole with the ending as important as the start or the middle. Each note is its own, its own existence, its own life, its own measure of importance.
This salmon lived its life to its full extent, it spawned, it travelled the treacherous trail to the sea and lived and grew and made its return journey upstream. It negotiated the Bristol Channel and ploughed upstream into the Wye and one hundred miles of downward flow and weirs and waterfalls until one day it stopped and just died. Here on my doorstep, on my beach. Exhausted in the struggle against the relentless flow of the Wye, it just died and now it lays in the water, a shallow grave.
What is a life if it is lived unfulfilled? Who gets to judge fulfilment or unfulfilment?
How will you live this one precious life?

Wild Swimming

Air Temp: 11 oC Water Temp: 11 oC

Slightly foggy, a mist had descended during the day, but a day sat at the table was too much and the river was calling with its soft call. 
And I knew it was cold outside and I knew the water would be cold.
No, not cold, but invigorating, bracing, alive!
And so down to the river I head.
I run, I figure better to be warm on the outside than to stand and shiver at the edge.
Boats, coming downstream, a change of plan and up to the rope swing and I pause.
Again.
And wait again.
And finally I climb down and in.
Feet, calves, knees, thighs, trunks and I just stand there.
It’s not that cold.
But the mind is loud and the fear of cold is strong, even though I’m standing there in it.
I draw back, then advance slowly.
Millimetre by millimetre and one centimetre later I am still in the same place.
And then I swim.
Yes, it’s cold, and no, it’s not cold.
Not like ice, I’m not shivering, it’s just cold.
And I swim upstream a bit and downstream a bit and repeat.
And then it’s time to climb out and relish the warmer air before trotting back to the caravan, pausing only to pull a top on before exiting the wood and heading back.

Drawing (Two Glasses In)

I see you drawing. You’re sitting on a rock, on a beach looking out to sea. You don’t know I’m there, maybe you feel me in your mind but when you turn there’s just rock and the wind. I see you drawing, sketching the sea, a groyne, some rocks, a seagull, maybe a dolphin. I can’t draw, I have to write what I see. Write what you see. How would you describe what you sketch, would it match what I write? How can you express feelings in art? I can draw you in, explain the detail, you can only show the big picture; hope the viewer can see your intention. Can you make me feel the wind, smell the seaweed, the salt? Can you feel the rock you are sitting on? Is it cold, do you draw your coat tight around you? Do you feel me now holding you tight, one arm across your chest? We stare into the distance, the North Sea, the wind blowing in our faces. The moment lasts forever then it is gone, a gull cries, there’s no-one there. You sketch.

The memory is still so strong, years later I can remember the phone call, of how you told of running into the sea into those November waves and experiencing the thrill of the power of the waves and the overwhelming coldness of the North Sea for perhaps just a short minute or two before retreating to your brother’s house overlooking the seafront. And now you were talking to me, drinking wine and wearing that jumper, warming up and buzzing ecstatically with excitement. And though my heart ached for you, and I wished I was there to share it with you, I also knew you would never be mine. Your spirit was too free or perhaps you just didn’t love me enough, in the right way, to make it work.

Safe Place

You know, I think, in that moment, all it would have taken is for someone to put their arm around me and say to me

“You must be so frightened and hurting real bad”.

And at that point I think I might have broken down and cried. In all my brokenness to feel so abjectly unsafe and withdrawn over something so trivial.

And perhaps the lesson for me is that my safe place needs to be found inside me rather than attaching it to people or places that can never give me the safe place, the grounding, I need.

I can not control the world or ask it to keep me safe.