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.

The Street Where I Live

Sometimes I don’t want to go outside, I don’t want to leave the quiet, calm sanctuary of our home, but needs must. The first task outside is always to pick up the rubbish from outside the house. I don’t know where it comes from, but it arrives in a tide washed and blown down the street. Rubbish on the pavement, rubbish in the gutter, rubbish on the oil-stained kerbstones.

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Most of the time the street is chock full of cars, the rubbish strewn gutter hidden away under the hulks of metal.

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Towards the top of the street is a green area. Nobody knows who it belongs to or what it is for. It never gets its grass cut and no-one uses it. It could be beautiful, it could be a community garden, an allotment or wildlife haven. Heaven forbid, it could also be used for parking, even that would be better than the rubbish dump it’s used for now.

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We have a jitty through to Chamberlain Avenue from the top of the street, it’s great for pedestrians and the occasional fast-food delivery driver uses it too.

 

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Some people like to use it to discard their unwanted rubbish.

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Chamberlain Avenue is nice, they recently had their road and pavements resurfaced, block paving installed around the trees in the path and the drains were unblocked and cleaned.

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There’s no rubbish on the street in Chamberlain Avenue. Once I have negotiated the carcasses of sofas, the pile of old flooring and the discarded sandwich I can but only envy the people of Chamberlain Avenue. At least for now….

Incantation Number 7

Write something profound,
Write something meaningless,
Write for the joy of writing,
Write for the hate of writing,
Write for the ugly,
Write for the beautiful,
Write the way,
Write the time,
Write for the right now, the long goodbye and the happy ever after
Write for all the dark mornings and the long dark nights,
Write for the summer sun and the winter stars,
Write for the blazing heat, the bitter cold, the warm rain and the cold snow,
Write for the stark mountain peaks and the lush valleys depths below,
Write for rivers of ice, streams of crystal cool, gold filled, earth blood,
Write for the burning horizon an the nothing in-between,
Write for love,
Write to save your soul,
Write for peace,
Write for right and write to make the world whole,
Write to be read,
Write to be ignored,
Write to be indifferent,
Write, just write once more.

Run Forrest Run

I hadn’t heard that for a long time, at least a month or so. “Run Forrest run”, the street heckle of adolescents vying to impress their peers in a world where shouting catchphrases from a film that was screened before they were even born is the pinnacle of a street heckle. C’est la vie, kids will be kids. Last Monday we were out for a speed session. Running is often thought as a pastime where the ‘jogger’ pulls on their trainers and plods around the same route three times a week before going home for a hearty breakfast or piece of cake depending on the time of day and day of the week. Fortunately the reality is far more interesting and technical. There is a maxim in running:

“the only way to run faster is to run faster”

Is this intuitive or counter-intuitive? If I tried to run faster then I would run out out of steam before I’d finished my allotted route for the day, so runs are broken down into different types. A typical set of runs for the week might be the ‘long run’, perhaps on a Sunday morning this is the longest and slowest run of the week used to build up endurance. A ‘tempo run’ might then be next, from a technical perspective this is a run where the pace is just below the lactate threshold ie you are still flushing out the lactate quicker than it is building up in your legs. It is fast and it is hard and it is maybe 20 minutes long. Another run might then be some kind of technical speed run, this could be sprints over short distances, sprints up hills or sprints around a running track. Basically a burst of speed followed by a jog or walk rest period all broken down into sets. This is what we were up to that day.

There is a wide pathway between two warehouses near where we live, it is about 150 metres long and has bollards at each end with four equally spaced lampposts along it. It’s a short warm up jog down to this path from the house and then we do some plyometric exercises to work down the lampposts to the bollards at the far end. High-knees, heel-flicks, sides-steps right foot leading, side-steps left foot leading and then striding out like leaping gazelles down to the bollards. Our speed session here is a pyramid set of sprint to the first lamppost and jog / walk back, turn and sprint to the second lamppost then jog / walk back, then the third lamppost, then the fourth then back down to the third, second and first. Then rest and repeat. We happened to coincide this week’s run with lunchtime at the @MarksandSpencer warehouse where a flock of yellow hi-viz vested workers were crowded around a picnic table in the carpark’s designated smoking area. “Run Forrest run!”, the lone cry came from that direction as we hurtled toward lamppost number three.

The best comedy is fear based we were told a couple of weeks ago by a stand-up comedian, he had told us how he prepared for a gig by watching the audience. Picking up cues and generalisations on class and maturity and education to try to pin down what he thought they were most afraid of. This, he said, is where the humour lies: in taking peoples fears and playing them back to them and exaggerating them for the laughs. All laughter is fear based.

What generalisations could I make about our audience? This wasn’t a group of adolescents on a street corner vying for popularity among their peer group, their ends, their homies. This was the frontline of the retail powerhouse of the high street, this wasn’t just any old warehouse employee, this was after all an M&S warehouse employee.

“Run Forrest run!”, the peak and pinnacle of heckles on a bright Monday afternoon, from a grown, mature, functioning member of society. Perhaps working in a warehouse is no different from being at school? Clocking-in, clocking-out, performance tested, being told what to do, bossed around? It’s been a long time since I worked in a warehouse for extra cash whilst studying for my A Levels. Perhaps things were different then, perhaps Forrest Gump hadn’t been made back then, perhaps nobody ever ran past while we sat outside in the sun.

Around that time I was attending Aikido sessions at a nearby village hall. It was a small club, almost all the regular members were black belts, first, second, third, fourth Dans with a handful of other belts. In the summer we were occasionally disturbed by the local youth banging or jeering through the open windows. On occasions like this merely closing the curtains would make the problem disappear – the common heckler outfoxed by a curtain. Now you see it, now you don’t. On other occasions where this didn’t work, Sensei would invite the youngsters in, to sit at the back and watch our group of judo-suited, barefooted and be-skirted performers dance the dance of Aikido. This usually upped the ante for us as well as the throws and holds became more exaggerated and acrobatic. Often times the kids would laugh and squirm and be gone in five minutes, but occasionally some were fascinated and would stay and watch. This was a great lesson for me in the craft and practice of Aikido, not just as a practice but as a way of being as well. There are no attacks in Aikido, everything is a deflection of an attack, using the inertia of the attackers force to deflect or throw them away in a circular motion. Thus hecklers are invited in to become part of the ceremony rather than confronted, their fears are allayed and they are heard and welcomed into the community. It is there for them if they choose to take it. I wonder how this can be translated to the hecklers on the street or the M&S Car Park, I can hear your fear from seeing something different but it is here for you if you wish to find out more and overcome those fears.

“Run Forrest run”, perhaps this can be your running mantra, after all he ran right across America as I recall in the film, that’s a long way from smoking on your lunch break in the M&S Warehouse car park.

Come join us on Saturday morning at #Parkrun, 09:00 Hanley Park, there will be over 350 of us there waiting for you.

 

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

 

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.

E-Mexit – Taking Back Control

It happened so suddenly. I don’t remember exactly when it was as it was all so sudden yet it seems it has always been that way, a creeping yet speeding glacial movement. It seemed such an amazing feature, from the first time I configured my WAP settings on my clamshell phone and downloaded the headers of my work emails on the tube in Edgeware through to ‘always on’ Internet and beyond into emails alerting me 24×7 to their constant presence. And now there is GDPR, a constant stream of emails and alerts informing me I have to act now to stay in the loop, to stay connected, a barrage of emails telling my immediate response is required in order to keep up the barrage of emails. How the non-urgent carved themselves a niche in my psyche and it all happened so fast I hadn’t realised it was happening at all, I was so happy to be needed, to be wanted, to be alerted immediately that there was something or someone that needed my attention.

Well now I am finding that attention is in short supply, that multi-tasking has been tested and found wanting, that screens and bleeps and alerts drain creativity and imagination faster than scrolling though endless posts of ‘notice me’ posts on those social media soapboxes.

Today I have taken back control, I have implemented by own uni-lateral E-Mexit. I have turned off all the sounds, the alerts, the banners and all I have left are the badges. From now it’s like 1997 on my phone, I will check my emails at my convenience, when I have cleared a space in my mind to review and deal with whatever has arrived in the intervening minutes, hours or days without being distracted from whatever was that task in hand – like perhaps writing this blog, distraction-free, bleep-free, bing, ping and bong-free.

So if you have just emailed me expecting an immediate response all I can do is apologise for your unsolicited expectation. I, for one, have taken back control – maybe you should too?

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.

Another Night Alone

The pub in the afternoon. The Talbot in Ledbury to be exact, an odd crowd; the old retirees drinking their afternoon away arguing politics with a middle-aged newcomer. It’s just a parallel conversation though, not one is listening to the other, just passing opinions and judgements. A younger couple, not a couple but meeting up to catch up and celebrate some new job promotion. Eager and excited, not drinking in the afternoon but a handy meet up point. The landlord, loud and brash, friendly but closed. Reminds me of my dad, you’ll never get anything real from him, not unless he wants to let you in. Which he won’t, he’s too cautious and too wily for that. I’m on my second beer, a slight, small beer buzz has started and I’m in the danger zone. Nearly at the end of the second daytime beer and caution goes to the wind. Why not have another? Dinner can wait. Go on, have one more. I’m in the danger zone.

Time to sup up and head home, there’s packing to be done for the weekend away and lino printing to be done, my new art and craft masterpiece to finish off. And I feel alive and amazing and at once lonely and afraid. Another night alone.

New Street Station

Looking to kill some time I weighed up the options of liquid in then liquid out or liquid out then liquid in. The most pressing decision of my day so far. Liquid out won the day and I headed for the toilets. As I approached I saw they had wheeled medical screens up outside like something out of a Carry On film. I was half expecting Barbara Windsor to throw her bra over the top and cackle, but instead all I saw was a foot. A man’s trainer, size 10 or 11 maybe, wasn’t quite blocked by the screen. A man. A man down. Outside the toilets, in the Orange Zone of New Street Station. I paused in thought. Someone’s father, someone’s brother, someone’s son. Lying on the floor, behind a screen, outside the toilets in New Street Station. And I took a moment of silent reflection and a small prayer to who knows who. The tannoy blared loudly. Overhead powerline problems in the Coventry area, delays and replacement bus services, the alternative rail route via Moor Street Station were not going to be an inconvenience here today for this unknown man. And I pray that he is ok.