Stirchley – Seven Capital’s retail park amended plans

Comments sent 30/11/19 to Birmingham planning, application number 2018/10370/PA. Deadline for comments: Sunday 1 December 2019.

To comment: go to the council planning portal at https://eplanning.birmingham.gov.uk/Northgate/PlanningExplorer/ApplicationSearch.aspx and put in the planning application number in the search box, making sure there are no extra spaces at the end, or you’ll get no results.

1. Commercial outline plans: 2018/10370/PA
2. Residential outline plans: 2018/10368/PA

And if like me, you can’t submit through the portal’s form, then you can email comments (with name, planning number, etc) to : planningandregenerationenquiries@birmingham.gov.uk

After talking to other Superstirchley members, here are some supermarket-related comments on application number : 2018/10370/PA – the retail outline plans for Land at Hazelwell Lane Stirchley Birmingham B30.

As a member of Superstirchley – a local campaign group of residents which is concerned about supermarkets applying to build in the area and how this will be managed overall – I am concerned that the anchor retail store (a suggested Aldi) is now redundant.
 
With Morrison’s taking over the Coop, one of the main arguments by local community for a cheaper supermarket in the area has been addressed. We need to give Morrison’s a chance to survive and not be undercut by an Aldi literally over the road.
 
I want to also say that Stirchley is still in a supermarket battle over Lidl wanting to develop a site on Pershore Rd/Cartland Road – which had its planning overturned but in the meantime decimated local sports and leisure facilities.
 
Lidl is just a five minute walk to the new Morrison’s. We would advocate that any new supermarket development take place at the other end of Stirchley so that residents from the new Hazelwells estate and Cotteridge can access a supermarket. The concentration of a Morrisons, Farm Foods, Aldi and Lidl at one end of Stirchley is bad news for the community, for traffic and for community needs.
 
There are two small retail outlets in the planning – we’d like to see more so that more independents can move into the area, which is developing a unique character based around non-chain and cooperative-run businesses – which is made sustainable by local community support. There used to be a row of shops where one of the units is located. We’d like to see that reinstated in the planning.
 
On a positive note, I’m happy the drive-thru option has been dropped. There was little support for this and it shows we have a chance to get the planning right for Stirchley’s needs and wants.

Stirchley – Seven Capital’s outline plans for residential development

Comments sent 29/11/19 to Birmingham planning, application number 2018/10368/PA. Deadline for comments: Sunday 1 December 2019.

To comment: go to the council planning portal at https://eplanning.birmingham.gov.uk/Northgate/PlanningExplorer/ApplicationSearch.aspx  and put in the planning application number in the search box, making sure there are no extra spaces at the end, or you’ll get no results.

1. Commercial outline plans: 2018/10370/PA
2. Residential outline plans: 2018/10368/PA

And if like me, you can’t submit through the portal’s form, then you can email comments (with name, planning number, etc) to : planningandregenerationenquiries@birmingham.gov.uk

I’ve previously written in response to this application with concerns about flooding – the site is almost all paved and housing crammed in. Flooding is a problem in this area and surface drainage is going to worsen. I would like reassurances that this has been thoroughly considered and checked, as the site currently drains though the empty land. Also, there is a lack of green spaces on this estate, tree planting (there were trees on this land previously), and grassy play areas for children, etc. All these would help with drainage and also improve the environment for residents.

A major concern is the social housing element being less than 9%. I want the council to enforce its own targets of 35%. We actively want Stirchley to provide social housing – and not just fodder for landlords and the wealthy. Developers need to be held to account by the council on this front and provide homes for nurses, teachers and other key workers who are being priced out of the city.

87 new homes is really cramming housing into this space and the outline plans look like very basic designs. I would like the council to hold the developer to account for sustainable, eco-friendly homes, and not just give permission for the most basic, cheapest option. The design aesthetics seem to be the lowest common denominator of generic housing estate (similar to the bland Hazelwells) – which at a time when Stirchley is improving its offering and developing its independent unique character is a missed opportunity. We would like the council to push back for better, more sustainable options for the future residents of this area.

With so many new residential properties being built locally, and Seven Capital prioritising more supermarket type retail – why is there no facility for more doctors surgeries, nursery schools, leisure and community facilities, etc, that will service this massive influx? The choice in the outline plans is either retail or residential but Stirchley needs a more rounded offering that will benefit its communities.

Seven Capital has repeatedly said it is engaging with local stakeholders. It has not. Its representatives have not shown up to any Neighbourhood Forum meetings, despite repeat invitations. I am very concerned that they are operating as a self-interest company and not listening to any concerns, except via planning which is reactive not proactive, and capitalises on local comment fatigue with each amendment.

Finally, the fact that the residential element is a separate application means it is (a) getting lost as people comment on the commercial element, and (b) not being considered in conjunction with the commercial element – surely these adjacent areas need planning and comments to be considered in conjunction together.

Regarding the commercial plot – now that Morrisons is taking over the Coop site, is there a need for a supermarket anchor store here? Surely a second supermarket would be better at the other end of Stirchley High Street, where the Magnet is. Also, a retail estate is not a great place to walk through for residents at night to get to Stirchley and back. A proper set of shops (as was partly there before) would be more in keeping with Stirchley’s architectural and independent character.

On the plus side, I’m happy that a gym is planned – we need more social, sports and leisure facilities – not more supermarkets.

Side gripe – the planning portal is difficult to manage. Even a space at the end of the application number will return no results. Also, I did reply to the first residential plans but was not emailed about the amendments. I was only advised of the commercial update. Finally, when I submitted my comments (which took an hour), the ‘requested URL was rejected’ and I was given a support number.

It is pretty unacceptable – how many other comments and objections are being lost as a result? The portal is not fit for purpose and seems to actively encourage people not to find planning or comment.

Birmingham Collage Collective: new website, new show and new zine

The Birmingham Collage Collective website is live and it looks great. All 28 current members are listed on there, complete with bios and collage. Plus, there is a shop selling the supercute limited edition enamel badges for £5 – and soon, hopefully, original collage pieces by BCC members.

The collective formed in 2018, set up by Adam Wynn. It features a number of talented Birmingham-based collage artists including Mark Murphy and Barbara Gibson, who had a successful joint collage exhibition at Argentea Gallery earlier this year.  My photomontage course tutor Hazel Pitt who teaches collage at mac Birmingham, is also in the group, and there are many other local artists and designers.

We aim to have two shows a year. The first was a successful launch exhibition in May – CLIPS – in Digbeth in central Birmingham.

The second will be happening in Stirchley in November. We launch on 21 November at Attic Brewery on Mary Vale Rd, close to Bournville train station. Attic turns one year old that weekend so it’ll be a ‘boozy do’ all round. The show runs to 24 November.

There will be several elements. One is to launch a Birmingham Collage Collective edition of of the gorgeous Provide Zine – which will be on sale for £4.99. These usually sell out so it’s a chance to get in and grab a copy.

The other part is that collective members are putting together a ’20 for 20′ show for the walls of Attic Brewery, with 20 original collages, each going for £20. Christmas is coming…

Finally, if you fancy trying collage in a social environment, then check out the Stirchley Collage Club events held monthly (or so) at Artefact in Stirchley. Artefact announce them on their Facebook events page and Twitter. Come along, why dontcha? The next one is on Saturday 9 November.

For the interested, my BCC bio is here.

Catching the dawn

Civil dawn at Cofton Park this morning.

The great thing about winter is that you can actually get up at a reasonable hour to catch the dawn and see in the sunrise. When I first thought of doing this last year, it was in June and there was just no way I was going to get up at 4am.

Of course, what you want is the awesome sunset effect but in reverse: the bit where the skies glow red-gold before the sun actually rises. This, I learned after a bit of Duckduckgo research, is called the ‘civil twilight’ or ‘civil dawn’– when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, starting to light up the higher skies and giving enough light to see by. In Birmingham, UK, at 52 degrees north, in October, this starts around 35 minutes before sunrise. This is also normally the time I reach for my sleeping mask.

By the way, for sunrise nerds, civil dawn follows two other phases of pre-dawn twilight:

  • astronomical twilight – 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon, still dark but with the fainter stars starting to blink out
  • nautical twilight – 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon, with some light right on the horizon and main stars still visible enough to navigate by.

This morning, we enjoyed all three twilights and a waning gibbous moon (thanks Matthew, aged 3). I’d set up a ‘Ladies of the Sunrise’ message group and three of us, who were prepared to check the morning skies, called it ‘go’ at 6.30am.

We set out at 6.40am in astronomical darkness and drove along the beautifully empty, rain-wetted, neon-reflective streets of Stirchley, Kings Norton and Longbridge. Chiquitita by Abba was on the radio, singing “But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you – shining, shining, shining”.

I think I see Jonathan Livingston Seagull..

We pulled up at our chosen sunrise viewing spot, Cofton Park – at 7am as nautical twilight ended, and headed up the hill. Already a number of dogwalkers were there ahead of us. We laid out a cheery fleecy picnic mat on a wet bench, handed out hot water bottles and gloves, drank tea and hot chocolate from flasks, and cut up cinnamon and cardamom or chocolate buns for breakfast.

We watched civil twilight unfold – the brightest of the three twilights – with hints of orange in the purple-grey sky. Clouds drifted across the sky, hill fog threatening and clear blue sky momentarily tantalising. A flock of gulls swirled around the park, low-flying then marching en masse along the grass. The young dogs chased them, the older ones knew better. I stood up and my borrowed hot water bottle fell in the mud.

The sun rose at 7.39am somewhere beyond the hilly horizon.

Spot the gothic Ladies of the Sunrise, far right.

We decided to head to Beacon Hill, a Lickey Hills viewpoint five minutes drive up the road, to see the sun come up over the city. But it was so foggy we almost lost our way back.

Still, even the thick fog had its charms, providing a mystical journey among the spruce and pine trees. Broken red-and-white toadstools lay along the path, like fairymarkers. As a bunnymom, the plentiful rabbit droppings pleased me. A dumping of multiple silver canisters depressed me. This must be what despair looks like – or is this somebody’s winter fun times?

Misty treetops at Beacon Hill while the sun shone down in the valley.

Although we didn’t get the perfect sunrise this time around, I enjoyed reclaiming this time and space. At some point, someone suggested feeling like witches, perhaps as if in Macbeth, three wandering dark shapes on the misty moors. I definitely felt less anxious and more dominant in the environment for being in the company of two other women. Would I do this solo? Maybe, now I’ve done it once. As much as the park sunrise was the reason for getting up early, it was the fogbound summit of Beacon Hill that cast the magic spell for doing it again.

Dude, where’s the car park?

There will be a few more chances to catch the dawn/pre-sunrise before the clocks go back, and again around the Solstice in December. There have to be some good things about winter and the chance of seeing the sunrise is one of them.

Bemused modern witch.

Three years on…

Short story: In September 2016 I started a part-time sabbatical after a long-term contract ended. Fast-forward to September 2019 and my daily life is very different with the green shoots of new things starting to sprout.

The initial “beautiful empty-brain feeling” of wide-open horizons and unstructured time has long gone. My non-work time is filled, almost to overflowing. Full-time work at least used to restrict how much stuff I could pile on my plate.

I guess transitions take time. I’m still not sure what to focus on but I’m trying to be more open-minded and less prescriptive. I think my September diary (outline below) says a lot about how life continues to change and grow and move in unexpected directions. Three years ago, I would never have guessed this is what I would be doing…

1. Kayak trip

Spent a beautiful sunny Friday evening kayaking the canals of central Birmingham as a try-out for possible volunteering work next year. There is an opportunity to train up as a kayak guide for the National Trust for free in return for a minimum volunteering commitment. I’ll probably stick to walking but anyone interested in kayak tours can get more info from the activities officer, Keith Wraight, at the Roundhouse.

2. Birmingham Royal Ballet – class on stage

© Birmingham Royal Ballet

What does a world-class ballet dancer do to prepare for a performance? I spent a fantastic Saturday morning watching the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s class on stage at the Hippodrome. It builds from stretches at the barre to full leaps and pirouettes across the stage.

After dabbling with ballet fitness last year this has totally reignited my interest in the art of ballet, so much so that I have finally set up the home gym and do nightly wobbly arabesques and rondes de jambe before bedtime using an Ikea Lack shelf as a barre. #toptip

Next class on stage is in November and costs £10: details here.

3. GILF Island

Vortessa in action, reclaiming public space with a giant pink flamingo and let’s-have-fun attitude.

This summer I asked Kate Spence, a live artist from Birmingham, if she’d be my art mentor. We arranged a skills swap. In return for her art guidance, I’m her occasional assistant, taking notes, collecting feedback or photographing a performance.

In early September we both took part in LADA’s GILF Island, a weekend-long live art workshop about female gender and ageing, invisibility and desire/desirability.

It was a big challenge for me to do something so ‘out there’ but I guess my perimenopausal hormones are driving me to be more pro-active about this stuff. I frequently find myself angry at everyday ageism/sexism and wanting to be the opposite of middle-age invisible. So here’s the big blog post about my live art debut and what happened on GILF Island…

3. Irish passport and a day trip to Liverpool

Jim Lambie op art at Tate Liverpool

My UK passport runs out early next year and I’m not sure I can travel on it after 31 October. So I went to Liverpool to put my Irish passport application in. This was not just for practical travel reasons but because I strongly want to remain a citizen of the EU – for peace, prosperity, human rights, animal rights, women’s rights and many more things I think will be eroded in the name of British sovereignty under a Conservative government. Irish citizenship is suddenly a big privilege here in the UK – what a change from when my parents were essentially herded into Irish ghettos in the 50s.

The Passport Express service took just 10 minutes so we spent a lovely day seeing (too much) art at three galleries, including Double Fantasy: John & Yoko at the Musuem of Liverpool, Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan film series on migration at the Bluecoat, and the Tate’s highlights from the nation’s modern art collection, including Hito Steyerl’s fantastic and funny video installation How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File.

4. Potato harvest

Heavy crop = tipped barrow

The Irish roots live on at my allotment, potatoes being the only crop I planted this year. This month I harvested half my spud crop. The Desirees were huge, up to seven inches long. Another half to go. Will be in potatoes past Christmas.

5. Bread course

Yeast-free bread is better for you.

Pete and I spent a day learning how to make sourdough and rye bread at Loaf in Stirchley. More courses in top food skills are here…

6. Dementia group

A longtime family friend was diagnosed earlier this year with vascular dementia. Each week I take him to a group therapy session for carers and those with a diagnosis. I’m really enjoying it despite the serious nature of the illness. We all take part in weekly gratitude and goal-setting exercises, and share our experiences.

I’m learning a lot about how dementia affects people and how to help not hinder. Last week was about understanding confabulation and when to push back against inaccurate memories. This week was all about life story work and using long-term memories to stimulate the brain. There are former lawyers, teachers and tradesmen in the group. Dementia can affect anyone.

I’m proud that Stirchley where I live is aiming to be a dementia-friendly area holding memory cafes and choirs for people to engage in.

7. Bird rescue

Spot the cat about to pounce.

Rescued a wood pigeon from certain cat slaughter. Took it to the vets for a check over and it is now in rehab at Ray and Ann Dedicoat’s amazing Hollytrees Animal Rescue in Wythall. Bung them a cash note if you can.

8. Digitising old diaries

Just some of my diary collection.

I have done a load of digitising of the eight months spent in India, Maldives, Nepal and Thailand back in 1997 – have just hit 10,000 words. Those really were some of the craziest times of my life. Meeting a millionaire in India was just the opening gambit. Yes, diaries can be boring but the fact that I can’t wait to read my own story is a good sign, isn’t it? Here’s what the diary project is all about.

9. Toddler-sitting

Tickle the knees on the upswing. Photo: Pete Ashton.

Family stuff… Took my great nephew to the Lickey Hills playground with Pete. He is a ball of energy but thankfully mostly likes to sit on the swing and count to a million. Aw. We also did some budgie sitting for a friend – they are so much easier.

10. Spouse birthday

How do we use chopsticks for soup?

Pete’s birthday gave us a good reason to dine out at Stirchley’s new Eat Vietnam (banana blossom curry!), drink at the Wild Cat, and have a couple of friends over for dinner. If you see Pete around town wearing a customised ‘Trans Lunar Injection Burn’ T-shirt, that’s from me – with grateful thanks to C2O Clothes 2 Order for replacing my totally wrong-sized order without charging me for the stuffup.

11. Walking conference

A rest somewhere on the SW Coast Path.

Pete leads photowalks for Photo School Birmingham and has used walking as an art practice in the past. I do more informal guided walks and talks for friends around Stirchley perimeters, and might be volunteering as a walking guide for the National Trust next year. So I spent some time this month organising a trip to Plymouth in November, where we will attend a walking conference (!) at the university and take some winter walks along the South West Coastal Path. Pray for sunshine!

12. Analogue columns

Analogue-columns
Old school lifestyle planner.

This year I’ve been trying to form better habits through what I jokingly refer to as my ‘Analogue Columns Lifestyle Planner Tool’ – basically a daily set of columns in a notebook for ticking off stuff I want to do more/less of. Most things have been going pretty well, especially spending time outdoors, trying to catch the sunrise/sunset, having quiet time and exercise (walking and tai chi mostly).

Writing and art have been harder habits to form. This month, for example, I can see I’ve done 7x writing sessions, 8x art sessions – not bad for me, but not daily. Miscellaneous is often about helping people or getting out of the house and meeting friends. Overall, it’s kind of like having a shorthand diary.

13. More book reading

Favourite female artists – in the reference library.

Missing a daily commute meant my reading time disappeared a few years ago. This year I’ve made a concerted effort to get it back. Bath time is now also book time (TMI, I know). I also rejoined the library, which has been fantastic for even the most recent releases.

In September I read nearly four books: Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature about kayaking on Birmingham’s canals; Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, a non-fiction book about three women who have warped their desires according to the men they love; What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, a travel memoir by Kristin Newman; and Grace Grace Grace – a LADA book exploring gen-age issues. I also spent two hours in the Library of Birmingham reading Marina Abramovic and Sophie Calle not-for-loan art books. Libraries are bloody great. We should keep them.

**

So that was September. In October, the balance will surely change again. The bottom line of my post-sabbatical life, as ever, is to stay healthy, be kind to others and try to stay afloat financially in the process.

GILF Island: the Colchester Chronicles

In early September I took part in GILF Island, a weekend-long live art workshop about female gender and ageing, invisibility and desire/desirability, run by two Live Art Development Agency artists called Vortessa. Riffing off the TV show, Love Island, we were there to challenge the idea that desire and sex is the preserve of the young.

The workshop blurb put it this way:

As women who age we are marginalised, our sexual currency is removed and we are left to mourn our younger desirable bodies. GILF (Grandmother I’d Like to F*ck) Island is a safe haven to explore and join us on a process opening up an important dialogue about the socio-cultural blocking that arises when negotiating the territory of the ageing body, accepting that we are still sexual creatures, with desire and passion. 

We brought our role models, our theme music, costumes and treasures as provocations. We lounged on giant inflatable pink flamingoes underneath plastic palm trees and discussed the things that were important to us. We looked at daily rituals we can’t do without. Mine was so ingrained and invisible that it took me the whole first day to work out that my most common ritual, other than teeth-brushing, is to write.

Not just write but photograph, video, or otherwise record and report as the tools allow. I’ve always processed the world through writing – from diaries to a career in journalism to social media.

How could I use this writing habit to address GILF Island themes? I wanted to somehow address the common feeling women over 50 have of becoming invisible in society.

A quick aside on invisibility in middle age

In the post-punk generation I’m not sure 50+ women will be as forgotten or invisible as they have been in the past. But it is there in TV choices such as Love Island, the age-related cloak of invisibility that older women may endure in a number of ways.

You may no longer be seen as (re)productive by society or feel needed or useful once the kids have grown up. Tied in with this is the experience of losing our sexual currency; of being passed over for younger, more attractive prospects; of male and media gaze valuing youth and perfection over wisdom and experience. Older women may be overlooked for work promotions or rejected for jobs on the first pass, even though age discrimination is not legal. And now there is digital invisibility… of data bias when women are not included in data sets or considered in design processes. Or, in my own case, having my passport photo rejected because the machine couldn’t find the outline of my head thanks to ageing white hair set against the white background of a supermarket photo booth.

Writing as a ritual, gender as a target

But back to writing… I realised that if I died tomorrow, there would be a lifetime of diaries to prove my existence. I write therefore I am. From writing, comes existence and visibility, perhaps even immortality.

What is written and recorded becomes a tangible document. The writer also becomes visible through authorship.

These were the thoughts running through my head as I panicked about what I would actually perform the next day. Let’s face it, performance, public speaking or anything where you stick your neck out is both stressful and a risk. Particularly for women who receive ridiculous levels of vitriol, death and rape threats, just for standing up in the public eye.

It’s fair to say I was nervous.

**

The performance

After scouting locations around Colchester, all the participants performed their rites and rituals to a schedule throughout the day so that we could all view each other’s work in progress. The variety was amazing, from marking space to dancing en masse, casting spells and performing poetry from trees, climbing into and out of a council bin, falling in aged balletic slow motion down a set of steps…

At 11.45am, I set up on the high street, outside Colchester Castle, to perform both the act of writing and also to write.

Writing is not usually a visible or performative act. It is done alone and to no fanfare. In parallel with the workshop theme, I had to think how to make it be seen.

So in a nod to Colchester being Britain’s oldest recorded town by the Romans, I turned my GILF Island lei into a crown and taped my notepaper together to form a scroll that would flow down the steps and into the street.

surveillance by scroll in Colchester

It was not really me but a character that stepped into the spotlight: an ancient Roman scribe making herself and others visible through the act of recording them. Passers-by, watchers and interactors were all entered on the register. I looked at them directly and wrote them into existence. Surveillance by scroll. In turn I was videoed and photographed by the photographer.

I think it looked elegant and potentially thought provoking, and in line with Vortessa’s suggestion of ‘radical softness’ and quiet provocation – you don’t have to follow the “tired sexiest tropes of the ageing of the Femme Fatal” or become a “jokey, slapstick, seaside postcard, pantomime thing or a porny caricature”.

The work also tied in with my data privacy interests. The Romans had SPQR as their banner, we have GDPR. Could data collection by scroll be a subversive act?!

Not having done live art before, my two biggest fears were that people either wouldn’t notice the performance or would interrupt it by asking me questions. They did notice. They usually looked away immediately if there was eye contact, such is the power-dynamic when you set up as a performer. You become a potential threat – a far cry from invisibility.

And no one interrupted. If they had, I decided I would write the interaction on the scroll as a true chronicle of events. I asked someone I admired on the course what to do…. and she said: “You could just talk to them and tell them what it’s about.”

When you’re nervous the obvious is never obvious.

**

What happened next?

My Colchester Chronicles are now sitting at home, a 15-minute time log of people passing by at a place and moment in time. ‘I see you’ means that they were mostly female and mostly older.

It feels as if I could develop this idea further. I like the idea of playing with invisibility and surveillance and power-dynamics. Ageing is something we are all doing but for middle-aged women it is often a frontline experience in a society that doesn’t value them.

Coming from a post-punk generation, my view is that how we deal with this issue is already changing. Modern middle-agers are getting more confident in valuing and expressing themselves, and the fact that GILF Island was even a thing is noteworthy in finding new ways to age confidently.

My own role model for ageing is Ray, a fellow student I met when I was 19 and he was 36. We sat in the back row of journalism school and I nicknamed him Dad while he called me Callow Yoof. He will be turning 70 soon and has had open heart surgery but he is still blatting about on his motorbike and riding horses through the Dutch sand dunes.

I also know a lot of fiery older women. One of the fallouts from doing GILF Island, is that one of them decided to tell me that it was a ‘load of rubbish’ and I should ‘get a life’. (Sometimes other women can be our own worst enemies.) Detractors can be hard to deal with, especially because the female of the species puts herself down enough as it is.

But to be visible is to be exposed. To be vulnerable is open up a dialogue. To put yourself out there is to put aside the shame that usually holds you back and makes you say “I can’t”. To put your head above the parapet is to act and get real about the things you care about.

So art happened. I made my debut as a live artist. It made me break out of my usual quiet writing life and ‘appear’ as if from nowhere. It was an act of activism and feminism. It was elegant. It provoked an angry reaction. And it has created a network of interesting older female artists for potential collaboration in future.

Thank you to Ade and Derek for hosting me, for scroll provision and for walks in the Tollesbury marshes. And thanks to everyone else who has said positive things and supported me in giving this a go, especially Pete, who has talked me down from anxiety and fear several times in the lead up.

Onwards!

Learning 24-form Tai Chi

It’s taken a whole year but I have finally learned all 24 postures of the tai chi 24-form. This feels like a major achievement, after several false starts. Theoretically, I can now also practise at home. Theroretically.

The class

The weekly class lasts an hour and there are about 30 minutes of getting in the right frame of mind before we start practising ‘The Form’.  The structure of teacher Yang’s class is as follows:

  • self-massage, patting and stretching
  • basic stances and balances
  • qi gong exercises with breathing
  • make a new friend in the class and practise a qi gong movement together
  • practise The Form
  • break down a single movement and repeat over and over
  • do the form again with new knowledge
  • final stretches
  • floor relaxation and deep breathing.

The devil is in the detail

Attending every session is key to learning the precise nature of each posture: where the weight sits, are the feet turned in or out, are the hips in line, do you follow your movement with your eyes or look straight ahead, is the fist flat or turned upright, is the foot flat or raised, what is the height of the hand in relation to the body, is the step at an angle or directly ahead/behind…

Missing a class would be like skipping a book chapter. You can pick it up but there is a LOT of minutiae to take on board. Tai chi is a very mental practice as well as a physical one. And this is why I see people (often young students) start and not continue. It is slow and it is slow to learn. You need patience but the reward is that you can take this whole-body exercise with you throughout your life.

Calm mind paradox

If nothing else, tai chi calms the mind. For an hour, stress and anxiety dips or disappears.

The trouble is, a calm mind is needed to practise tai chi well and also to slow the movements right down.

Since I’m a fast person this is a big challenge (I have issues with yoga, too). I think and talk quickly, and can be easily distracted. So, while I’m very happy to have come full circle on my year of learning, I’m still not quite ready to leave the dojo.

I know this because whenever I try tai chi at home my monkey mind is just too busy and involved. I may have finally learnt The Form and can run through it in five minutes, but I still have to think about what move comes next and where my weight should be for balance and how many ‘repulse monkeys’ there are in the sequence and… well, you get the picture. It’s not meditative – yet.

Other barriers

For the 24-form of tai chi (and maybe others – there are other longer forms), you need enough space to practice, such as a garden or park. Unless you have a massive house, of course. The movements involve a fair amount of travelling – I’d guess around 10 metres forwards and back – especially when you start to stretch lower in the postures.

Other barriers are more personal. I think: ‘what if the neighbours are looking’? To be fair, I don’t care too much what they think, but being watched inhibits how relaxed I am.

Oh and sometimes the rabbits get in the way.

But outdoors tai chi is the best!

How I got started

I started learning tai chi on a free activity session in Cotteridge park (still running) three years ago. I had started a part-sabbatical partly because there was nothing more the physio could do for my chronic neck/shoulder issues so I knew I had to change my work-life balance and help myself.

It was quite peaceful and grounding to be moving outside, as if in sync with nature, swaying like a tree in the breeze or breathing deeply while watching birds circle far overhead.

But it has taken dedicated memorising and attendance to get to the end of a 24-move short form practice.

Initially I went to a local class, which was more of a hilarious social club for retired people. But I really started learning properly at the University of Birmingham’s Sport and Fitness centre with a very good teacher who goes over each new posture repeatedly, including the correct breathing, and how it fits into tai chi as a martial art.

Yang really is an excellent teacher and elegant practitioner. As well as learning some of the Chinese names of each move (white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, grasp the tiger’s tail), Yang instilled precise hand positions by adding suggestions that we make a fist as if holding an ice cream, or offering a cake with palm facing up, or sticking a thumb in the pie for a downward thumb position. Food is a popular aide-memoire.

If you want to get an idea of what tai chi 24 form looks like, this ‘lady of the pink pyjamas’ (as she is known in our class) is a recommended watch.

Tai chi might seem an easy or even elderly option to those who do super-bendy yoga or athletic body pump, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done and one of the few exercise regimes that is mental, emotional, whole-body physical and spiritual. The only other one I can think of is bodyboarding/surfing, and living in Birmingham UK tends to put that one out of regular reach.

So, tai chi it is.

Dictation mishears and amusing typos

As promised, here is my list (so far) of amusing mistakes from digitising my old diaries using speech recognition technology.

  • Goa trance > dilettantes
  • Novices > offices
  • Wiped out > White doubts
  • Juggler > jugular
  • Bitten to death by mozzies > beaten to death by Moses
  • my old man’s a dustman > mild man’s a Dustman
  • madly > Natalie
  • suckling at their surrogate mum > cycling at Leicester regret mum
  • The Kenyans > the canyons
  • Co-traveller – toe traveller
  • Bus ride to Puri – Best writer Drury
  • White witches – why twitches
  • Moped – nope head
  • Varanasi – baronetcy
  • I’m meeting Indian people – I’m eating Indian people
  • the road to Puri – the road to period

Digitising an old diary

diary cover

I have around 70 diaries and these are an ongoing project for exploration – see The Diary for more info.

Digitising them creates the opportunity for some creative hacks, such as running the text through a data extraction algorithm to create new outputs – some of which are quite poetic. Using code has also allowed me to extract all the swear words from 10,000 words of travel emails. That was fun!

I’m also fascinated by diaries generally and visited The Great Diary Project in London to read some of the submitted diaries from the 1980s. I’ve bequeathed my own diaries to this project – better than family and friends reading them! The problem is, most people’s handwriting is pretty awful and it makes reading and deciphering hard work.

There is also some part of me that thinks there might be a memoir in my own travel diaries somewhere, although I’m not sure I have the emotional distance, the staying power or the skill to write them up as such. Anonymous edits and extractions are far more likely.

For all these reasons, I put digitising a travel diary into my list of goals for this year.

I’m happy to say that the first one is done – 26,000 words all about criss-crossing India, west to east and south to north, for four months in 1996/7. I’ve already started extracting and playing with the text.

In all there are around three years’ worth of travel diaries, so it’s an epic challenge, of which this is just the first microchallenge.

For anyone out there thinking of doing anything that involves digital transcription, I highly recommend using speech recognition software or just the dictation facilities on your  phone or computer. It’s been a lifesaver and given me a few laughs with misheard typos. I’ll stick them in another post (and here it is!).

Splits challenge

I should do something big this year, I said. What would be unachievable and a bit ridiculous but maybe fun? I asked. I wrote a list of goals for 2019. And the splits challenge was born.

I’ve never been able to do the splits. I got to BAGA Award 4 (remember them?) in gymnastics at school. Doing the splits was in Award 1. How hard can it be though?

Very! Especially when you’re 50ish.

This is a challenge in progress, so I have until December to get there, but the reality is I haven’t done a scrap of effort towards achieving this goal so it’s unlikely. You never know though.  I’m pretty happy that I can do this much.

[Video of the ridiculousness to come in January 2020.]

splits challenge