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.

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

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.

My goals for 2019

My goals for 2019 have mostly developed out of my sabbatical break in 2016-17. But there’s also a few random things in there for fun, such as developing independent toes (yes, you read that right).

It’s a longish list, mostly so I can get all the ideas in my head out of my head. In reality, there’s no pressure. The ones I want to do will no doubt develop into some kind of habit, the random one-offs will or won’t happen, and the rest will fall away.

I’ve been doing this annual list thing since about 2002. This is the first time I’ve blogged it. I’m not sure why I’m putting it out there. Maybe it will inspire someone else (I know two other people who are doing the splits challenge) or maybe it will create a potential collaboration.

Usually I break it up into sections – work, health, life, etc – but this year, I’ve split it into more general areas: mental/emotional, physical, creative, financial and random. The ones in green have already been started/done – that’s the January effect but also reflects some longer projects that I’m working on.

Mental/emotional

  • Sunlight – more sunrises, sunsets and sunshine walks.
  • Morning hour – plan the day so it doesn’t get derailed (try to take in medium/long term goals not just daily stuff).
  • Daily pockets of stillness – meditation, walks, unstructured time.
  • Weekend interesting read – set up RSS feeds.
  • Internet shorts – ahead of TV viewing – see #filmshorts list on Pinboard.
  • Make “good enough” decisions but make decisions.
  • Clear out attic stuff + finish Marie Kondo.
  • Read first chapter of unread books.
  • Create/contribute more, consume less.
  • More stargazing, more celestial events.
  • Join the Royal Geographic Society.

Physical

  • Do the splits (document the change over the year)
  • Flex individual toes on command.
  • Surf fitness (+ Point Break night!)
  • More elegance, strength (ballet fitness, gym).
  • Parkrun (Jan and Dec).
  • Diet – more greens and juices, less carbs and crap.
  • Dive off a high board.
  • Update Active Parks calendar.
  • Learn full Tai Chi Yang 24 short form.
  • Physical challenge that I can work towards, eg coastal walk, bodyboarding, mountain summit, snowshoe, swimming trip.

Creative

  • 1SE photo project – colour spectrum.
  • Learn to draw, use new pencil set.
  • Draw (a bunny?) or make an art each day for a month.
  • Publish one of my ebook ideas.
  • Zine: guidebook to Stirchley.
  • Develop a writing habit towards a longer project.
  • RTW Google Earth tour.
  • Origami a giant rabbit.
  • Create an artwork inspired by Sophie Calle or other female artists.
  • Digitise backpacking/travel diaries; stories/art/workshop?
  • MOOC – photo/videography, photojournalism, art.
  • Get three songs playable on guitar.
  • Find all animals on social media called Fiona.

Financial

  • From ‘The Examined Life’ – don’t just reduce, give back, eg, for every new clothing item I buy, give half the cost to charity.
  • Review monthly spend/savings – spreadsheet.
  • Household and travel budget – annual spreadsheet.
  • Possible New Zealand trip in 2022 – research costs/start saving.
  • Digital detox: get Facebook off phone, trim Twitter. set up RSS feeds.
  • Professional development/training courses: SEO + Google Ads through Udemy. Or certification through Google Digital Garage
  • Work half days only on screen.
  • Find one more regular client.

Random

  • Help fix an issue that has always bothered you through volunteering, eg, Fat Fluffs rabbit rescue – next steps (medical care)?
  • Research Nat Trust jobs.
  • Monthly date night.
  • Meet the oldest people in the city.

Stirchley seven years on

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! Every few years I take a photographic snapshot of my local Stirchley High Street, Birmingham, to see how it has changed.

So here is Stirchley in 2018…

There is an empty space where the thriving gym and historic bowling alley used to be, demolished after Lidl supermarket pushed ahead with a presumptuous land purchase (they had their permission to build overturned). There is also a massive Tesco wasteland now boarding up a large percentage of north Stirchley. Let’s hope Seven Capital can do better, eh? Watch them closely. They were due to show at the Neighbourhood Forum meeting this Monday but have dropped out. It doesn’t bode well.

While the supermarkets and large developers try their frickin’ best to flip (thanks Kimmy Schmidt) with Stirchley, the independent scene is thriving (more on this in Viva Stirchley). Loving the fact that a spooncarver, fudge shop, martial arts supply store and houseplant shop are newcomers this year, increasing the bloody superb random nature of our high street. No homogeneity here, in 2018 at least. Pretty much all our chain stores are caged inside the Coop or shoved up the, ahem, business end of Stirchley.

Sad to hear Drums International, The (vegan) Pie Shop and Moso vintage clothing have closed and/or moved on. Drums International was one of my favourite does-what-it-says-on-the-sign storefront. The Belgian and Netherlands consulate is also a very sad loss, for quirkiness and international tourism alone. And Hairport – I miss that one for its punnage, although Iron Maidens laundrette is still the winner. There are other casualties – check the 2011 photos at the end of this post.

All the hardcore old-school Stirchley businesses are still here: P Browell tobacconist, Phull Watch Co, Mirror Image, Oulsnam (they’ll always be Laing to me), Stirchley Alterations & Dress Making, JJ’s Flooring (which has added a rooftop King Kong as you do), Maginnis opticians, Printigo (now snuggling in the bosom of the main high street), OJ Fallons plumbing supplies, Noct Offs, Wards, the British Oak – to name a few. Domestiks is still here but now sells appliances not ex-catalogue clothes, so that’s less useful (to me).

Alongside them and hoping for similar longevity are the hardcore ‘newbies’ creating most of the buzz: Loaf, Artefact, The Bike Foundry, Alicia’s Micro Bakehouse, The Wildcat Tap and other local breweries (no longer is Stirchley just a balti Mecca).

I have to give a special mention for the lovely Stirchley Wines & Spirits. Just because. #injoke #keepstirchleyshabby

Also Stirchley Library and Baths – important sources of community spirit, as well as free knowledge and tasty chocolate brownies at the monthly market.

>> Stirchley in 2018

The previous album ‘Stirchley Village’ was taken in 2010 and 2011. Enjoy now in case I don’t cough up for the forthcoming Flickrgeddon and my pictorial histories are deleted in a few months:

>> Stirchley in 2011

 

Two years on…

It’s been two years since I went on a semi-break/sabbatical. I know this from all the lovely Aberdovey (Ooberdoobey) sunset photos popping up in my timeline. I remember a most beautiful empty-brain feeling of heading to the Welsh seaside just to read and write and walk and relax.

Occasionally I look back and think how much taking a break brought a seachange in my work-life balance. I’m fitter now and hopefully a bit healthier than when I was a full-time sedentary editor. I try to only work on screen for half a day at a time; the rest involves some kind of balancing exercise, anything from tidying the house to health-checking rabbits as a Fat Fluffs volunteer to going for a 1km swim or walking up the Malverns with my 72-year-old mum-in-law last weekend (see main pic).

I now have strength in my arms and tone in my legs. Yes, I still have a waist tyre and bury tension in my shoulders but the feeling of being stronger is making me feel good, and that’s inspired me to step up my exercise routine to include tai chi, aquafit and even a bit of upper body conditioning using weights. Chiselled shoulders a la Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 is a life goal!

I’m still writing and editing because leaving behind the trade I learned at 19 feels impossible. It’s what I’m trained for and I enjoy it, but I’m determined not to take too much client work on because I’ve enjoyed having the time to work on my own creative projects for a change.

Taking on a bit more work means finances have eased a bit. The bodyboarding dream trip may still happen after all, fitness permitting… although it’s not a cheap hobby when you live in landlocked Birmingham.

I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. I’m looking for my next adventure but it needs to be more meaningful than just bumming around as a solo backpacker of old. I’m torn between the simple aim of escaping the winter to work overseas for a few weeks and doing some kind of reportage story work (I have a several Instagramming photojournalists I admire).

I don’t want to end on a downer note but if I were to die tomorrow, I want to say that I’ve really enjoyed taking some time out of my working life to stop and look around for a while. Like having a glimpse of retirement.

It’s the simple things that have been the best, such as  enjoying the sun all day long, not just in a lunch hour; watching the buns hop around and surprising the squirrels (don’t ask); listening to my great-nephew as he discovers talking; catching a wave in the middle of February; working on my own writing for a change; watching the allotment sunset with Kerry and co; meeting up with friends and family in unpressured environments; colouring-in and collage nights in the local caff; having a lie-in on a weekday; hanging out with Pete; playing music; reading books; midnight blogging…

If you get a chance to take a work breather, even if only for a short while, I highly recommend it. I’ve had a very contented time thanks to working less.

Thankyou for reading this post-sabbatical ripple.

An Insta-fashionista for a month

Personally, I’m most at home in jeans and a t-shirt but I’m also fascinated by people who have an interesting style and who post it online. I’m not talking about big social media influencers necessarily but Instagram friends and accounts who post and pose in their outfits under ‘what I wore today’ #wiwt and other hashtags. Here are three examples of accounts I enjoy:

RhiannonBrum – a friend who is also a swishing, swirling dressmaker who makes and wears her own outfits.

GlacialGlow – an ethereal, elfin, silver-haired Alice in Wonderland who also has an awesome dog.

SashaEDavison – a fashion model who became pretty successful in the time I started following her. I used to dial up her Instagram as a brief to my local hairdressers and also bought some sparkly Top Shop shoes in the sale on her recommendation.

You get the picture. Anyway…

Earlier this summer, at the start of the heatwave, I decided to have another wardrobe clear out and had a sudden realisation – I buy dresses but don’t wear them and especially now that I work remotely in my metaphorical pyjamas most of the time. At least before bundling them up for the charity shop, I thought I should wear them. And so began a month of daily #wiwt poses and photoshoots – here’s the slideshow, and more info on what I learnt from the challenge below.

I never thought I’d end up doing a 30-day fashion challenge but perhaps there was something in me that wanted to document turning 50 this year. It would kind of be like a diary thing. In 10 years, I’d look back and go: Well, would you look at that – and be impressed, appalled or amused.

Along the way I learnt a few things:

1. Being your own photographer is good for a woman’s self-confidence – you only have to post the pics you like.

2. Being a daily Insta-fashion influencer is hard work – the staging, the variations, the bursts, the selection, editing, captioning and posting. I started off easy taking just a few minutes; the final shoot took an hour and a half to get the shot.

3. It was a bit of fun – and the feedback was like getting a reward. I looked forward to the reactions. I got loads of positive comments from ‘This is epic’ to ‘A___ said it was the highlight of her week (and she’d just given birth).’  And then someone took one of my pics – the kaftan one – and created a meme: the ultimate honour.

4. I can laugh at myself – I couldn’t resist posting a bloopers reel on my Instagram. You can’t take life too seriously.

5. Finally, turning 50 ain’t so bad.

Once more, here’s the full shoot. Enjoy! (Update: I’ve cleared out at least nine of these outfits, which leaves 21 things to wear. Turns out I quite like wearing dresses.)

 

 

 

Viva Stirchley!

Stirchley is cool right now. I would even say it’s at its peak. So what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about my home neighbourhood of Stirchley, B30, not necessarily coherently but I need to write about it because, well, I’m a writer and occasional local reporter and I was actually born and bred here, so there.

So here I am on a Saturday afternoon, thinking about how Stirchley is at that point of pre-gentrification while tottering at the edge of becoming something far less likable in future years. Such pronouncements of coolness are kind of ridiculous and subjective, but there is still a sense of it being true in the way that old travellers remember with nostalgia how this or that place ‘was so much better and less touristy back in [year]’ and ‘you should have been there back then’. Except in this case, back then is right now.

I think I’m saying this because there is a definite Stirchley ‘scene’ going on. It’s not exactly Liverpool in the ’60s or Bromley in the late ’70s but something is happening and there is an excitement and feeling of connectedness in the air. For years, there was little reason to go to Stirchley high street, unless you wanted an antiques shop treasure or a hydroponics set-up or a Saturday-night balti. Now it’s like a private members club whose playground is a shopping parade of weirdness unlike any other local high street. Everyone knows everyone and strangers are welcomed – if they fit (the criteria is kind of loose but there, judgmental in that you should be non-judgmental and open to joining in). Or maybe this is just the view from my seat.

Stirchley responds…

A lot of positive change is happening. In fact, I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the UK right now (that isn’t on the coast or in the mountains) because what is happening is a rare, beautiful and organic thing of a community coming together in interesting ways. In a way, this is my love letter to Stirchley – a place I left at 19 and never thought I’d return to because, to be honest, it was rough as guts in my childhood.

A practice session in Hazelwell Park.

Now there are micropubs and breweries, a community bakery and cooking school, a community market, a bike foundry, coops, cafés, a houseplant shop, vintage clothing, record and music shops, art spaces, even a spoon-carving, clog-making wood crafter, plus other odd independents creating a miscellany of shops on the main strip. There is a mini version of Birmingham’s famous King-Kong gorilla, who sits above the carpet shop and get’s lit up with festive lights at Christmas (who needs a local BID and a budget for fairy lights – we make our own fun). Online, multiple Twitter accounts organise and extol. There is a hashtag: #vivastirchley, which started as a pisstake and has now been adopted. Unicyclists and alpine horn players have been spotted.

Artefact is a big part of this shift from people being visiting consumers to active community members. This art café space, together with Stirchley Baths, Stirchley Library and other community spaces host so many interesting events and groups that there is little need for the Stirchillian to venture beyond B30 for her social entertainments.

I’ve even stepped up and put on my own events (cybersec sessions, Interrogang discussion group, Glass Room pop-up), something I couldn’t imagine doing in a more commercial, less community-oriented high street. Artefact made it more than easy to start something up, actively welcoming and encouraging participation. Word must be spreading – they’ve had both an Edinburgh Fringe comedian hire the space and a secret gig booked by well-known band.

Artefact in Stirchley.

My own favourite Artefact nights FWIW are the Felt Tip Bender, the crazy rambling What is a Watt? quiz with Johnny’s live art news round, Stirchley Collage Club, the regular art show launches and our co-founded Interrogang discussion group talking about the opportunities and dangers of the data economy.

This is the good stuff. But I’m also starting to worry about the dangers of gentrification and local development planning. Some crazy planning applications have gone in – one recent one was for 40 student flats in a tiny corner-shop bit of real estate. Another by Lidl UK ended up razing the popular Fitness First gym and bowling alley to the ground, and has stalled because of ‘reasons’. Then there is a rash of new housing being built at the old Arvin Merritor site, which could bring new customers to the high street but also swamp it with traffic. More development is expected at the vast Seven Capital wasteland that Tesco sold off after sitting on the land for 17 years.

Who will these new residents be – and will they want a homogenous high street of big money chains like Boots and Greggs over the strange but unique collection of shops we already have? Will Birmingham City Council factor in or ignore the impact on Stirchley’s changing character and community and independent businesses when more developer applications come in, or will they fold in the face of big money?

The Tesco wasteland in Stirchley.

At present, Stirchley is still fairly downmarket in feel and a bit dowdy of look, and the West Midlands Police helicopter circles overhead regularly late at night to catch the drug dealers and car thieves. That people are calling Stirchley ‘cool’ is amusing in many ways. And it’s odd to hear friends talking about moving out of their beloved Moseley to supercool Stirchley, discussing the property prices and availability while bemoaning our terraces with their lack of driveways and on-street parking. Stirchley is not the new Moseley; you don’t move here for the real estate. Here, we only joke about where is best to live: the Riviera or the Marina end.

How Stirchley develops is at a turning point. The large empty spaces offer potential for greater community cohesion but I fear this will not be realised because, so far, no supermarket developer has done anything more than offer token efforts at working together with the community and what we value. For them it is a money exercise; our views and petitions don’t really matter.

For me, the close sense of community and the independent/cooperative rebirth has almost been born out of a reaction to the greed of large commercial interests, which have tried to gobble up Stirchley’s tiny shopping strand for themselves and instead mobilised a grass-roots alternative to the endless planning fuckups and resulting wastelands.

At the moment, this couple of hundred metres of high street and its hinterlands has a new sense of identity that is the strongest I’ve ever seen it. I really hope we can hold onto that.

Houses knocked down for a Tesco supermarket that never arrived.

Viva Stirchley!

Some Stirchley community, coop and independent business accounts to follow on Twitter:

  • @artefact_bham
  • @bikefoundry
  • @boardlygames
  • @britishoakbirm
  • @brumbrewery
  • @caneatcafe
  • @corkncage
  • @fruitnutvillage
  • @glasshousebeers
  • @greenstirchley
  • @hipstirchley
  • @isherwoodandco
  • @jigsstirchley
  • @loafonline
  • @marylockelabour (local councillor)
  • @stirchleybaths
  • @stirchley_forum
  • @stirchleyhist
  • @stirchleyonline
  • @stirchlibrary
  • @stirchleymarket
  • @stirchleypark
  • @superstirchley
  • @stirchleywines
  • @theinterrogang
  • @wildcattap

Career ideas on a postcard

Potential future office view from El Nido

I guess I should do an update of the post-sabbatical kind since I’m 18 months on from wanting to change my work/life, and six months on from the End of the sabbatical.

I haven’t touted for more screen-based writing/editing work (yet) so I’m still figuring out what to do for money – you’ll know when I start earning properly again as I’ll cut my ridiculous hair off – but I’m a lot fitter than I used to be and my work-life balance is much healthier now that I’ve halved my desk-based work.

Sabbatical hair.

The natural consequence of all the cyber security stuff has been to set up Observed.city data privacy email via the Mozilla Open Leaders project. There’s no income in that but it is in some small way campaigning for a better, less-1984-like path in our increasingly quantified and machine-judgmental world.

Subscribe here…

I seem to have started writing a blog post so my next big aim is to be more of a digital nomad, working from different cities occasionally and maybe even a surf beach in winter to escape the SAD and work on my Point Break moves.

Winter boogie

First, I have to figure out what that work will be. Maybe it’s time to resurrect my failed Thai Massage business ( ‘No Pain, No Gain’). But more likely it will involve some kind of digital comms or editing work, given I now have 30 (!) years’ experience in journalism and online content – just not too much! Or some other skill as yet unknown.

Ideas on a postcard, preferably to somewhere nice.

Words from a woman who lived in the wild for six years

I got this book for Christmas as a surprise gift and while personally I don’t even like camping, it has been interesting to live vicariously through someone who has gone off the grid and lived as a pretty wild woman.

The story… Miriam, 34, a PE teacher originally from Holland, and Peter Lancewood, 64, former NZ university lecturer, met while travelling in India and later lived for six years in New Zealand’s wilderness. They also walked the 3000km Te Araroa trail traversing the length and breadth of New Zealand.

While Miriam’s book ‘Woman in the Wilderness’ doesn’t contain the thrills or the personal overcoming of adversity of Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ (or Strayed’s writing skills – something Miriam freely admits), theirs is a quieter, ongoing feat which downplays the endurance side and spearheads the lifestyle change and how living in nature affects how they think and feel.

In the process of becoming a modern nomad, Lancewood became a hunter (from being a lifelong vegetarian), faced down her fears, learnt to be still and see things more slowly and deeply, and of course became adept at survival in the wild.

I figured it was worth documenting the learnings of someone who has so completely dropped out of human society and influence – and how this has affected their world view. I didn’t dog-ear many pages – it’s not a big book of philosophical musings – but here are some of the quotes from the ones I did.

The nature of fear

Lao-tzu: What you want to destroy you must first allow truly to flourish. So I took a deep breath and let the fear come. I was inviting the very ghost I was afraid of… Nothing happened at all. I lay in the silence and saw that it was, in fact, the unknown I was afraid of. Somehow this simple discovery made me feel unmeasurably better. … My fear was caused by my throughts. Is that always the case? I wondered.

…I had learned to look at fear and surrendered to my shadows on the wall. I wasn’t afraid to look again and again.

What is beauty?

We saw a chamois 20 metres behind us. I was mesmerised: I had never seen one up close before. … It was magnificently elegant, and it watched us with shy curiosity.

While looking at its eyes, I understood that beauty does not come through becoming, but only with being. The chamois was not working towards a better version of itself, it just lived. I, on the other hand, was always trying to become nicer, better, stronger, smarter and prettier, which caused me to lose my authentic self. I understood that the process of becoming disfigured my being. This chamois showed me, in that moment, that being is the most beautiful form of existence.

Western civilisation is broken

The future of many of these (indigenous) cultures was under threat. … ‘We’re in a bizarre position,’ Nick said. ‘In the West, we’ve ended up with a civilisation that is focused on progress and development, but is in fact an appalling make-believe on a gigantic scale. It encourages – almosts insists upon – distraction at any cost. In the public sphere we see violence, venality and greed. There is dishonesty, propaganda and obsession with the trivial… The list goes on and on. The system in which we live is a forced consensus of a self-created monster.’

What happens when you return to nature?

‘My sight and smell have become better and other intuitive senses I never knew existed have come back to life… I also feel more open. If I look at the person I was, say, 10 years ago, then I must say I feel more connected. Not only with nature, but also with other people. …What has happened to you in the last six years of living in nature?’ I asked him.

‘Compared to 10 years ago, I’m physically a lot stronger. It’s a great feeling to be fit and flexible enough to sleep on the ground and sit on rocks… In the world of academia, thought, concepts and ideas are quite overwhelming. It almost becomes more real than the natural world. But I don’t think there is order to be found in an abstract world. Even though outwardly the wilderness looks chaotic, I think it is within the natural realm that we find true order.’

What is the most important thing in life?

‘Courage is more important. Humankind evolved and survived through courage, not through fear… What do you think is most important?’

‘Maybe clarity,’ I said after some time. ‘You need a clear mind in order to see what is important. You need clarity to know what you are going to be courageous about, and you need clarity to question reality.’

Miriam and Peter are currently walking across Europe to Turkey.