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 February 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

Independent toes – flex individual toes on command

Independent toes goalI discovered the importance of having independent toes after reading Dynamic Ageing by Katy Bowman. Katy is a biomechanist and movement teacher and her book is co-written with four women over the age of 75 – although really it’s aimed at anyone sedentary.

Mobilising the feet improves both balance and basic movement. After all, no one wants to end up with the old person shuffle and yet it happens to the best of us: that hunched over, stare at your feet, short step, pavement scuffing walk.

It is the fear of falling that often leads to older people to adopt this type of restricted, unnatural movement. Ironically, it also makes it more likely they will lose balance, says Katy. Regaining command over one’s toes is a real confidence builder because it improves strength, mobility and biomechanics.

But … have you ever tried to flex individual toes on command? It is no easy feat (sorry).

Follow the instructions and the dream of independent toes could be yours, promised Katy. The exercises included rolling your feet over a cylinder (I used an empty pepper pot) to wake up the nerve endings so that your brain and toes can actually start talking again. Another involved a ‘handshake’ with your toes, interlocking fingers between each one to encourage their future separation. It’s amazing that something so small could change your whole life one day.

I did the exercises for a few weeks as part of my 2019 goals list. Having been prescribed orthotics several years ago, I’m basically interested in anything that will keep me walking and mobile. For years I worked in a sedentary screen-based job for 40 hours a week so I’ve got a lot of reversing to do.

It was both amusing and disturbing to stand upright, look at my toes and try to raise each one off the floor – the big toes understood and lifted up. Certain other naughty toes totally refused to move a millimetre let along an inch.

In the end I got the second  and fifth toes also lifting slightly. The third toe moved but never without the second one. And the fourth one now twitches slightly so at least it is a stubborn mule that is listening.

It’s now September and I’ve pretty much given up I have to admit. But I haven’t lost the movement I gained and I have done a lot of walking this year so it’s all good.

And I still like shaking hands/feet with my fingers/toes. Try it! It is strangely pleasant. Just me?

toe handshake
How do you do?

Swamped thing: dealing with ‘overwhelm’

FIona brain.
Fiona brain (circa 2006).

One of the things I’ve wrestled with during and post-sabbatical is that I’m a generalist. I’m interested in many things. Here are a few of them, not including family and friends, who deserve another big pocket of time:

…art, rabbits, Stirchley, writing, photography, diary mining, bushcraft, animal tracking, composting, ballet fitness, collage, reading, ukulele, walking, ASMR, sunrises and sunsets, trips away, dementia befriending, the politics of data, the practicalities of privacy, tai chi, surfing, bodyboarding, diving, ageing, stargazing, snowshoeing, drawing, publishing, origami, MOOCs…

The list goes on and on…

Often I get temporarily obsessed by some solo female traveller/adventurer or global photojournalist or fit-at-50 Instagrammer (cue another list:

@corinneredfern, @smillieonsea, @jasonflorio, @megan_hine, @missholldoll, @victorilou, @womenandwaves, @jannerobinson, @goodbyecroptop, @baddiewinkle and @nickheyward – yes, the Haircut One Hundred dude, who has muscles and a nice life, although he’s no @renner4real or @samneilltheprop.

I guess these are the new media models we aspire to (or rather fail to live up to). I get inspired but then feel limited because hiking, photographing, adventuring or just looking Instafabulous is their singular focus. There’s no room for anything off-brand. Choosing one thing to be, no matter how fab, means saying no to the wild panorama of other things in the scene, my scene.

And so I desperately try to find connections and overlaps between my peculiar combo of interests just so I don’t go mad. I’ve taken to whiteboarding my life just to get it out of my head, print it off and then rub it all out.

I think feeling overwhelmed is due to the inability to make some hard decisions about what to do first. As my sister points out, it’s good to have choices. It’s also good to make them.

The past few months have felt like receiving a year’s total of work  and having to sort it into something I can get my head around. Where to start?

A word came to me while swamped in the interests mire: SEASONS.

‘Seasons’ is a looser, more easygoing and less worky word than priorities or commitments. Like some longhaired hippie supervisor, a seasonal focus allows me a time to write and a time to create (my two main conflicts at present), and these gently overlay the daily necessities of health, fitness and meeting financial commitments.

So I decided to spent the summer season writing and the autumn season on art stuff (I’m calling it pre-art).

Of course, as soon as I decided to put writing first, I met with my art mentor (yes, I have an awesome art mentor) – and she rooted out some really interested ideas.

So, I’ve now got a few backburner art tasks to break up writing season. And I’ll likely do some editing and proofreading and learning about e-publishing when art season starts in the autumn.

My plan may not be Instagram-sexy but it’s a pressure drop.

If I’ve been out of touch recently, this is why.

Inadvertently climbing a mountain – photo essay

patting the wrong mountain peak.
Also inadvertently patting the wrong mountain peak.

I’m a walker not a climber but high on Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space Below My Feet, the mountains of Snowdonia beckoned and at Easter we headed for Birmingham-on-Sea: Barmouth.

You know that moment at the start of a walk? When you aren’t really planning on anything more than just going just a bit of the way? Perhaps just up to the viewpoint and then turn back because you haven’t got any sandwiches or a coat, because the peaks belong to the Berghausers and the sheep?

Lambing season on Cader Idris.
Lambing season on Cader Idris.

That. That was the plan when we pulled into Dôl Idris Car Park, starting point of the Minffordd Path for the Cader Idris climb/walk, the steepest route up Wales’ second highest peak. There was no way we were fit enough or prepared for a proper hike.

While Pete took photos of lichen and waterfalls, however, I carried on up the stone steps of the wooded gorge.

Exploring the gorge.
Exploring the gorge and waterfall, and pondering life.

I had rediscovered walking quite recently on my sabbatical break in 2016, around the houses and streets and canals of Brum. And this reminded me of a pilgrimage trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, 20 years ago, when it was one long staircase to the summit and the smell of embrocation cream filled the air at junctions as Buddhist pilgrims stopped to massage cramped calves.

Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.
Rising slowly above the treeline on the Minffordd Path.

I’ll just get above the tree line, I thought; see if I can get into a good position to see a low-flying jet along the Mach Loop. (That morning we’d climbed up a gusty mountainside at Mach Bwlch but to no avail. Spotting them is pure luck as there is no timetable.)

Mach Bwlch
Looking for jets at Mach Bwlch.

I was alone. But a family of Russians was walking just ahead – parents, teens and children. They carried on, so I did too.

The ground levelled out above the tree line and contoured round the grassy hill into a large open valley surrounded by a horsehoe of steep slopes. It was hard to tell which was Cader Idris’s peak of 2930ft.

At this point I asked a returning walker how far it was to Llyn Cau, the lake below the summit and he said about an hour. With barely a bar of signal, I texted Pete to say I was going for it.

the terrain evened out eventually
After steep woodland gorge steps, the terrain evened out.

The hour rolled round but there was no sign of the lake. The legs started to go as the path rose ever upwards. I was so hot with exertion, all I wanted to do was jump in that damn lake. I literally inched my way onwards, getting tireder with each step but knowing I must be close. Around every turn and over every bluff I expected to see it but there was just more path.

And then there it was – suddenly a huge, dark, sparkling lake. A turning point. Most walkers carried on to the ridge so I had it to myself, barring a couple who collapsed immediately at the edge so it was no bother to walk a few minutes further on to my own triumphant flop by the water’s edge.

Llyn Cau lake at last.
Llyn Cau lake at last. Spot the tourist, sorry, I mean pioneering solo female adventurer.

I should have gone for a wild swim; I was hot enough even in the cold mountain air. But, worried that Pete was getting worried – I’d been gone two hours – I stripped off my walking boots to enjoy a paddle and some recovery time.

Selfie - In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.
In front of Cader Idris summit, or not. Hard to tell.

Of course, there were some posed ‘adventure style’ selfies with the peak of Wales’ second highest mountain behind me. (Actually I got totally the wrong peak lined up – the photos are of a high ridge with the summit further along. Perspective from below a near vertical wall can be pretty screwy.)

Peaceful moment of reflection. Happiness that I could still walk that far and high. Astonishment at the fearsome landscape. Looking around, and across Snowdonia’s misty gradations, there was no doubt I’d climbed above the Faraway Tree into a magnificent other-world where the mountain is in charge of your destiny.

The danger signs at the seemingly tame start seemed perfectly reasonable now, warning of the risk of getting disoriented in bad weather and walking off the edge into oblivion.

Stoney toe-trippers.
Stoney toe-trippers on the descent.

Most accidents tend to happen on the way down, however – tiredness, lack of concentration, adrenaline drop maybe. Several times I nearly twisted my ankle as I skipped down the mountain for an hour’s fast descent. Running downhill is easier on the knees and muscles than walking slowly and carefully but probably not recommended.

Back at the car, I knocked on the window – Pete was just waking up from a long nap, not mad with worry about ‘the wife’. Which, frankly, was a relief. Wish I’d swum now.

Red face, back at base.
Hot! Red face, back at base.

Under cover of the woodland a jet plane rumbled in the distance and we glimpsed the outline of a transport plane as it flew directly over the canopy. I felt elated. This was my reward for inadvertently climbing a mountain.

That and, as is the British way, a pot of tea and a scone in nearby Tal-y-llyn, looking back up in wonder at the mountains of Southern Snowdonia and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve been up there.’

Afternoon tea.
Afternoon tea? Don’t mind if I do.

Stirchley High Street Stories told through different lenses

Stirchley-High-Street-Stories-Fiona-Cullinan
Me and my dog – just one theme from Stirchley High Street photo stories

Stirchley High Street Stories was a community photography project which ran from March to June 2019. Last night it launched its popup exhibition and newspaper at Artefact in Stirchley. The gallery runs to Saturday, with a print run of 100 newspapers for visitors to view or take away.

The project

The project was organised by Ghost Streets CIC led by Tracey Thorne and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. A group of volunteers met three times for photowalks along Stirchley high street, from Fordhouse Lane to Bournville Lane junction. We attended a workshop run by Photo School on how to tell stories with photographs. Then we each chose a theme or story to focus on.

Stirchley High Street Stories Newspaper, 2019
Stirchley High Street Stories newspaper with back cover featuring Stirchley Shutters

First I collected colour in the form of Stirchley’s shutters (which made a vertical grid on the back cover). But post-workshop I decided to get a different perspective and take a ‘camera dog’ for a walk down the high street – essentially a GoPro on a monopod.

I’m really pleased with the results. The wide angles and foot-high shooting position were perfect. I decided to process them in black and white because that’s how we used to think dogs saw the world. Apparently they do have some colour vision and see the world as basically yellow, blue, and grey (no red or green).

Other themes from the rest of the team include: curry houses, Hunts Road junction, Browell’s tobacconist, Stirchley swatches, shopfronts, things for sale, uncommon places, and fusions and tensions (with some lovely poetic captions from P-Bantz, aka Phil Banting).

A selection of photos is on Stirchleyhighstreet.tumblr.com and under the Instagram hashtag #stirchleyhighstreet. Here are some of my A Dog’s Eye View photo stories, including new ones not in the newspaper.

Final thoughts on ‘what next’ after the scroll…

The photos

Under the bridge to Stirchley School
Under the bridge to Stirchley School
It's a boy's world at the barber's, Stirchley
It’s a boy’s world at the barber’s, Stirchley
Dog meets dog
Dog meets dog at the barber’s, Stirchley
Stirchley curves
Stirchley curves
Patting the dog at Loaf
Patting the dog at Loaf
Waiting for human to go to the park
Waiting for human to go to the park
Human goes to British Oak pub again.
Human goes to British Oak pub again.
No escape from the Seven Capital hoardings
No escape from the Seven Capital hoardings.
Shadow lines on the demolished corner of Mary Vale Rd
Shadow lines on the demolished corner of Mary Vale Rd.
Stirchley Gorilla
Stirchley’s Kong presides over all.

What next?

Hopefully there will be a followup from this. Stirchley is changing massively at the moment and already the high street looks different with the Wild Cat reopening and others due to follow. See:

With everything in flux and several wastelands awaiting development, it would be great to have an Issue 2 next year at the least.

Personally I’m hoping for more multimedia stories, using video and audio – to create a living record of the transition and the community that is creating that change. A ‘Humans of Stirchley’ piece maybe, to bring the high street to life for future generations.

Who wants to be videoed or photographed/interviewed so I can practise my storytelling/photojournalism?

Or I might start to take my interest in Stirchley in new direction. I’ve enjoyed getting back to photography and taking a more artistic approach to my local area.

Ideas are forming… get in touch?