2015: Looking Back (But Not for Long)

Reading back over what I wrote this time last year, my goals and hopes for 2015, it would be so easy to focus on the failures, the low points, the regrets and mistakes. In some ways, the past twelve months have represented some of the absolute worst times of my life, and certainly some of the biggest regrets.

But in so many ways, 2015 has been one of the best years I have had to date. I’ve met and got to know some truly amazing people, visited new places; I’ve learned so much – about myself, about the world, about art and music – and I’ve been to some spectacular events. And it’s these times I intend to focus on, the good times I intend to store in my memory. Holding on to too much of the past can only prevent you from appreciating the present, and the potential for the future. I’ve held on far too long to the past, it’s time it slept.

Significantly to me, this has also been the year I got back into music, in a huge way, after several years of near apathy. I was listening to the same bands, not really making much effort to hear anything new, and generally didn’t have it in me to care too much. I’ve since realised what a huge mistake that was, because music feeds my moods, it inspires my art and my writing, and it has the power to flip me from a bad day to a wonderful day. Music has truly underlined my life over the past months, in a way I don’t think it did even during my teenage years.

I’ve seen so many amazing bands live over the past year, with many more planned for the coming months, that I can’t quite understand how only twelve months ago this barely mattered to me. Not only have they inspired a large body of art work (work which has, in turn, led to several exhibitions), but I’ve also started dabbling (precariously, badly, slightly incoherently) in writing music of my own.

2015 has seen some utterly outstanding sounds being released by a huge variety of artists, and whilst jotting down notes for this article, it occurred to me that whilst last year I probably couldn’t have named one band who released an album in 2014, this year I can not only name plenty, but I’ve actually had trouble whittling down my choices to a mere ten. I’ve more than likely forgotten some, too, but in closing, here’s the ten tracks (in no particular order) which have really stood out for me this year.

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(Track videos embedded where possible, otherwise there’s track links in the headings – directly to band sites, or to Spotify as a last resort.)

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Subculture, Personal Identity and Individual Freedom

Back in my early teens, feeling rudderless and unbearably average, I began to gravitate towards the alternative music scene, in part obviously because I liked the sound of what little I had access to in my country village, but in part also because visually, the patched denim jackets, tattered jeans and brightly coloured hair of the handful of people I had seen occasionally around the nearest town intrigued and excited me. These were visual cues of an idea which began to take form; the new thought that I was in control of my own identity. That there was more to life than the cliques of high school, and that in taking control of my own appearance and interests in this way, I could stick a literal and metaphorical middle finger up at the shiny, popular crown who had, if not exactly made my life hell, at the very least made it unpleasant and uncomfortable.

In the space of months, I went from a plain, shy and awkward child, to an outspoken, rebellious and far more confident teenager. It’s not that I stopped caring what people thought, it’s just that I stopped wanting to be something that was not only out of my reach, but that was also, I realised, not even a particularly appealing prospect even if it had been. In many ways, it was about gaining a sense of control. I began to understand that certain things just really didn’t matter.

What got me thinking more about this recently was a casual chat where the subject of ‘being a goth’ was brought up. My denial of my goth-ness naturally led to amusement (because, of course, what is more goth than the denial of being goth?) Plus, y’know, look at me. I am clearly influenced by gothic subculture, if with a healthy smattering of other things. But in terms of my individual identity, I’m always reluctant to put a label on my lifestyle. How do I even begin to define the kaleidoscope of musical, artistic, visual and political influences that make up who I am? Why should I feel any need to? Why should anybody conform to a set list of what is and isn’t allowed?

I think subcultural groups, scenes based around art, music and other interests, are hugely valuable, and a massive help to anyone struggling to find likeminded people. But retaining a sense of personal identity within this group is equally important. Having a multitude of differing viewpoints, varied interests even beneath that umbrella, and the ability to freely make choices and decisions based on your own mental process rather than what you think will make people like you better, is equally – if not more- important.

I know people who go to the absolute extremes of what they think their particular subculture means, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There’s nothing wrong with being switched on to your scene 24/7, if that’s truly what you want, and truly what you are. But so many of the people I have known who do that, you look behind the facade, and there’s nothing there. All they are is a textbook page, a fashion spread. There’s no substance, because their own personal identity has been long overshadowed by a character they started to play and forgot how to put away. They become a caricature, a cliched representation of something, and watching from here it just seems exhausting. Certainly it affects their personal lives and ability to relate to others on a personal level, because whilst you can certainly control your own behaviour and appearances, you cannot do the same for someone else, and to allow another person into a life so meticulously laid out means either shaping them to your own desires, or allowing them in behind that facade. Either way, it’s going to end up emotionally damaging for someone.

There’s defining your own identity, and there’s allowing it to be defined for you. If you are living by a set of rules laid out by anyone other than yourself, then surely you have buried your own identity, and it doesn’t matter if you’re stepping out of the house in a tracksuit and trainers, or black jeans and combat boots. If you feel that it is what you have to be, rather than what you want to be, it is not your own choice anymore.

Scenes should be defined by the individuals within them, not the other way around. That’s how subcultures develop and grow, how new ones spring forth. Maintaining a puritanical view and ruleset on what is and what isn’t allowed simply results in a stale social environment, and ultimately, the absolute death of that scene. There’s no progress without change, and no change when everybody continues doing the exact same things they have always done, thinking the same thoughts, agreeing on the same points.

In many ways, over the last twenty years, my interest in alternative culture has backflipped to the point where I no longer see it as an essential aspect of my life. I started out looking to fit in, looking for like minded people to interact with, and happily I found them. But I don’t feel the need any more to seek approval, to fit in with a crowd. I am certainly active within my chosen social scenes, but I don’t feel the overwhelming need to conform to them all the time. Like most people, I bring my own interests and individuality to the group, and I think that is the healthiest and liveliest outcome possible.

Distance, Death and the Loss of Physical Possibility

Six years ago today, I lost a friend. 

That phrase seems so innocuous, so vague. Like I misplaced a glove on the way home. It took me a long time to say it to myself, that he died. Longer to really grasp that he had not only died, but that he had chosen to die. He had attempted repeatedly to end his life, and in the end, he succeeded. I can’t pretend to understand what that is like, because despite my own thoughts at times, and despite some mercifully half arsed efforts, I have never been in the place which would influence me to not only try, but try again and again, until one stuck. 

I never will. Not necessarily because I am certain that I will never feel like that – although I hope against hope that I do not – but because I have watched how it shatters the lives of the people nearby. It took me a long time to come to terms with my conflicting emotions; the guilt I felt at not having been there, the blame I felt towards the people who were there, the sorrow at knowing I would never see my friend again, and worst of all, the rage I felt that he had done it. Anger at someone you can’t speak to about it is unpleasant enough, but anger at someone who had been so low, so unhappy, so deeply finished that he considered suicide his only remaining option, that’s fucking unbearable. I withdrew from the group of friends I associated with him, I mourned him silently and at my own pace. In short, I pushed away anything which could link me to those feelings, but I couldn’t escape my own guilt, anger and shame. 

I can’t say when that went away, but it did. Other than knowing it was around this time, I didn’t even remember the date until a mutual friend mentioned it. It’s not etched into my conscious mind like it was the first couple of years. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t feel guilty anymore, either. I will never understand, but I have had to accept it, because my life has gone on, and the world keeps turning. I will always regret not saying goodbye, but I have never been great at goodbyes. I do remember the last thing I said to him: ‘laters’. Just a throwaway remark, a casual attempt at goodbye from a person who is uncomfortable with farewell. Later. I had meant it, in my own way. I had never imagined that it would be the last word I ever spoke to him. 

I read something yesterday which hit me pretty hard in the thought department, perhaps because all this was already on my mind. An excerpt from a social media post, quoting an author:
“I miss you”
“That’s stupid” she said. “I saw you this morning.”
“It’s not the time,” Levi said, and she could hear that he was smiling. “It’s the distance.”
       – Rainbow Rowell

In some ways, it put me in mind of a song I heard as a teenager. The last track on an album, it ended with a sampled recording of the error message you heard when a phone number was no longer in service. I remember it bringing a lump to my throat because of the insinuation. You can no longer connect with this person. This person is unavailable. The idea at the time was, to me, amongst the worst I could imagine, and even now in the age of constant connectivity, being able to find nearly anybody with just a few keystrokes, it still stings. 

It’s not the time spent away from someone but the distance placed between us, the physical impossibility of contact. Touching, talking, an exchange between two people. The response, the interaction, or at least the possibility of it. That’s what we miss. That’s what we mourn. 

Rest in peace, mate. 

   
   

Learning to Imagine: Academic Creativity and the Therapy of Art

Art classes never really worked well for me. At school, with one teacher, they felt like home for a while, because we were given some degree of freedom. I’ve always liked to draw, even as a small child, and those first GCSE art classes gave me some sort of release in the general boredom that were my schooldays. Then, the next year, we had a different teacher, and she was fresh out of training and full of her own ideas. To me, that’s no good for art. I don’t want to listen to someone else ideas, I want to work on my own. I came out of that course with a B over the A I might have attained in other circumstances.

I’ve never liked being told what I can and can’t do.

At art college, I very nearly failed fine art entirely. I remember the first class we had, we were working with oil pastels. I had used oil pastels before, and so I was working into the piece, creating something. She came by, and told me that I was doing it all wrong. That the way I was using them was the incorrect way to work with oil pastels. My response was not entirely polite, as you might expect from an over-opinionated 18 year old. We largely left one another alone after that, but she put the idea into my head for years afterwards that there was such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to make art.

I think that’s why I initially gravitated towards photography, choosing to specialise in it in the second half of that course. At beginner level, when you’re just learning what the different chemicals are for, and how to manipulate light, there’s a simplistic beauty about photography. It’s science but it’s art. It’s something that, to an extent, you can learn via a step by step process.(That’s certainly not to say that photography is not art, or does not require an eye for detail and a creative touch, because I do not believe that for a moment, and I was defensive enough over the subject to write my dissertation about it. However, that is a lengthy and highly charged topic for another day entirely.) There are numbers involved, times, recipes and specific technique which can be easily replicated time and time again. I found sanctuary and calm in those classes. There are a great many people who get plenty out of a formal art education, but I am not one of them. Nevertheless, I pressed on with a photography degree, scraping through graduation just barely. With hindsight, I think that I might have done a lot better academically if I had chosen a course in something science based. It would probably have been more use, too.

It used to be the case that I would have an idea, and then I would go off to research it before I even considered beginning. Had it been done before? How had it been done before? I imagined that I was searching for inspiration, but actually, I was searching for validation, some sort of guarantee that I was on the right track, that I was doing something correctly, that I wasn’t going to be laughed at for trying it. I was so afraid of failure that I had trouble even trying. I rarely shared my work with anybody, and only then if I was certain of a positive response.

What a ridiculous way to think.

Mistakes are lessons which you can not learn from anybody other than yourself.

I know now that for me, personally, the very act of sharing my creative output is an integral aspect of its completion. Not only do I like to hear feedback, but the sharing of something which I have created feels like there’s a point to its existence. I paint for myself, I write for myself, but once those things are done, once I feel that whatever therapeutic benefit I’ve gained from painting a picture is complete, why keep it? Why not just gesso over it and paint another picture on the same canvas? I could do that. But it’s not the right thing for my personal process. That’s not to say that the same is true for everybody, or that art should only be created to be seen. I do have some pieces which were created for me and me alone; things which I can go back to, look at, remember the lessons I learned when I made them. But arguably, even in those cases, I’m still sharing them. I am not the person I was when I made them. My role in the process has shifted from artist to viewer.

I am a lot more comfortable with myself and my own thoughts these days because of this openness with my work. I am at peace with the fact that anything I show might elicit any response from the wonderful to the cruel, and I am perfectly prepared for that to happen. Nobody is ever going to do something which appeals to every person on this earth. The only reason I need to do something now is that it makes me happy. Any validation I need comes from the fact that I am emotionally and mentally healthier that I ever was throughout the years of worrying what other people thought.

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Prague: First Impressions and Afterthoughts

As with many new places, and having been told about Prague from several friends before arrival, I was prepared to fall in love with the city, and I was not disappointed. The exploration of the unfamiliar is both exciting and terrifying to me – much like falling in love, I suppose. The risk of being somewhere new, the potential for anything to happen, the headlong excitement of losing yourself (physically, metaphorically). Yes, new beginnings, they most certainly terrify me, and I will nonetheless continue to seek them out, because without the risk of the new you can never reach the comfort of the familiar.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and found the public transport system pleasantly simple to use. A bus (number 100) directly from the airport took us to Metro B at Zličín, which in turn took us to Náměstí Republiky, just a couple of streets walk from the hotel we were staying. The ticket process is simple enough; several options based on how long you need to travel, and the tickets cover both bus and Metro. We only needed the one trip, which cost 32Kc for a 90 minute journey. You purchase the ticket and timestamp it yourself when you board the bus (there’s a little yellow machine right by the doors). If the journey begins on the Metro, there are similar machines near the ticket machines, before you go down to the platform.

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Right next to the Metro entrance, there was a little street food market going on, and so after checking in to the hotel and freshening up, we headed back there to load up on food before embarking on the evenings drinking. We both settled on the potato and sauce based food, which I can’t find a specific reference to, but mine was essentially some sort of delicious potato carbonara, and J’s was a dense tomato based sauce with liberal chunks of sausage. We completely overestimated the density of potato, and were far too full afterwards to try anything else. In retrospect, we should have shared one plate instead, and even that might well have filled us.

One point to make about the street food vendors is that the prices often seem to be listed by weight, which is worth bearing in mind when ordering anything heavy on something like meat or potato. We had no real frame of reference at the time, but what we paid from that stall was expensive compared to what we were paying for food throughout the rest of the trip. If I recall correctly, two plates plus a beer came to around the 400Kc mark (about £12 or so). Although, as I say, one plate would have easily sufficed. We didn’t have any real sit down meals, both preferring to nibble as we walked around, but generally we were paying around 60-80Kc (£2-3) each for a hefty looking sausage in a bun with sauce, or maybe 300Kc (less than a tenner) total in a cafe or bar for a variety of side plates and fries to share alongside one or two beers each.

In terms of cost in general, I had heard mixed things about Prague. Some people seemed to consider it an expensive trip, others a cheap city. I took 7000Kc (roughly £200) for four days, and I think that it could easily have been done on maybe half that. Given the money I spent on boots (because I found the perfect pair for half what I’d seen similar for in the UK), and the Instax film I bought (again, because it was half the price I’m paying in the UK), I only spent around £30 per day on food, drink, cigarettes, postcards/gifts, and travel, even with over-tipping slightly. And let me tell you, we were neither hungry nor sober the entire time.

One thing that I do enjoy when exploring new cities is just walking, without a rigid plan, and just allowing a natural process of discovery to occur. We didn’t use public transport (other than the airport journeys) at all throughout the visit, and according to J’s fitness tracker, we were covering 10-15 miles each day, which is great news on both the exploration front, and on the working off all that beer and sausage front. 

Old Town Square

First mention obviously goes to this area of Prague, which we didn’t realise we were situated so close to, and which we drifted into quite unintentionally. It was still daylight when we passed through, so we got a great first view of the Astronomical Clock. It was later in the evening when we returned, and the views of the buildings lit up were absolutely breathtaking. 10947205_1592722890969742_4589610170698803329_n

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Comix Gallery Bar

Situated in a little covered alley not far from the astronomical clock, this small cellar bar is tucked away down a narrow flight of stairs, and was one of the first little gems we found on Sunday evening. With walls covered in graffiti and music playing at the perfect volume – not so loud as to make conversation impossible, but not so quiet as to render it pointless – the chilled out atmosphere makes this a wonderful place to just kick back, have a few beers, and enjoy just existing. We ended up back there at least once a day for the duration of our visit, and it’s where we had our first taste of my favourite beer over there – Fenix – and of the deliciously lethal Tuzemský.

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Kafka Museum and David Černý Statue

Once again, we located the Kafka Museum by chance wandering. Trying to find the Charles Bridge, we instead walked across the bridge one across, and decided instead to explore that side and make our way back over the Charles. In the winding streets across the river, the Kafka Museum is located in a small courtyard, the centrepiece of which is the famous David Černý ‘peeing statues’ sculpture. We didn’t end up going into the museum at all; whilst we had planned to return later or on a different day, it didn’t end up happening, so that’s on the list for next visit, I think.

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Museum of Alchemy

I could wax lyrical about this place for pages. I got so much inspiration from this small museum, and I’d love to go around it again. There’s two sections; the entrance and Faust exhibition, with various alchemical pieces and information on display, and Kelley’s Tower, which is a locked area and guided by one of the staff. It’s like a treasure trove of visual intrigue, and I genuinely could have spent hours up there.

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Kellyxir

Situated in the same courtyard as the Museum of Alchemy, and part of the Kelley Tower, this small bar is beautifully decorated and wonderfully friendly. We paid a second visit later in the week for another drink, and it where we first tried the Slivovitz, on recommendation from a friend.

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analogue: Lomography Store

Situated just down the hill from the Museum of Alchemy, we found a Lomography store, the existence of which I was unaware. Inside, we were greeted by friendly staff and a dog in a neckerchief. Doubly wonderful was the discovery of Instax Mini film for a remarkably low price, so stocking up was done, and a quick tiny picture taken inside the shop. Once we’d got talking to the man there, he invited us to see an exhibition of tintypes in the back rooms, which was a wonderful surprise, and a fantastic little addition to the week.

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SocialPoint Cat Cafe

This one was a complete accident, and a gleeful discovery. 80Kc for the first hour, then 1kc per minute thereafter, gets you access to unlimited tea and coffee facilities, plus nibbles, wifi, Xbox gaming and of course, cats. You have to ring the bell (for obvious reasons really) but the staff are lovely and helpful, and the place is just fantastic for some relaxing cat-therapy.

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Globe Bookstore and Cafe

I was aware of this bookshop before I travelled, and it was one of the few places we did get the map out for. An English language store, it stocks an impressive selection in such a small space, and includes topics from local interest to fiction to politics, on two levels.

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Off the Beaten Track

Between the Globe visit and finding our way back to Old Town, there were places we popped into which I can’t recall the names of at all, but are certainly worth a mention. One was a tiny, smoky bar, with booths lining either side, and fruit machines at the end. I got the distinct impression that non-Czech customers weren’t very common, but we were made welcome and I really enjoyed the place. Again, even somewhere like that, the table service remains in place, and the lady on the bar – although speaking no English – made sure we had all the drinks we wanted, and we managed to get by with good humour and gestures. I’d like to make an attempt at learning at least a little Czech for my next visit over there, if only for encounters like that. There were a handful of little shops we found along the way too, which I doubt we’d have wandered into if we’d been sticking to a strict schedule.

Charles Bridge

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Absintherie

After passing it several times, we really had to. I wish I could remember what I had exactly, but I know that it was Czech absinthe, and tasty. As was the absinthe beer we had alongside it. We considered the ‘tasting tray’ option of four types, but after discussion with the very helpful bar lady, elected to go for just one each, all done properly. Which, it turned out, was a good plan for our ability to get anywhere afterwards 😉

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Medieval Tavern U Krale Brabantskeho

Located not far from the steps up to the castle area, a warm welcome was dispatched, and we loved the place instantly. A little pricier than some of the other places we drank in, but that’s to be expected in that area really. Certainly not the most expensive place we saw by a long shot, and they do a house beer which is dark and delicious.

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Tavern of Seven Swabians

This was another recommendation, which it turns out we had already passed by (and photographed the knight outside) previously. Fantastic little place with a lovely atmosphere and the sort of beautiful decor which seems typical of the city. I did have some food in here, although just nibbles, so I’d like to return to sample the menu properly.

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Luna Lounge Cocktail Bar

A special mention has to go to this place, where we wandered into feeling rather over-beered and in need of a cocktail. Behind the bar we found a lovely bloke from right around our neck of the woods in Yorkshire, studying politics in Prague, who made us several very strong cocktails, and was happy to chat for a while about living over there.

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Vodka Bar Propaganda

The very last stop on our very last day, and given the 20Kc price of a beer, somewhere I kind of wish we’d found earlier (although maybe my liver doesn’t feel quite the same way).

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No doubt I’ve missed lots of things, and will remember more later, but I think that I’ve covered the basics. There’s so much I could say about the inspiration I’ve brought back with me from the city, both in terms of personal creativity and things I want to research and discuss further, it’s been difficult to edit this down to an overview. I find myself hugely intrigued by the entire Faust legend, and interested in the meanings behind certain things we saw, the history of the political climate, and the art situation in Prague in general. I’m definitely going to be returning, hopefully in the near future, with a handful of things still to visit, and a handful more to go back to and spend more time with.

Shooting at Mirrors; The Self Portrait in the Modern Age

In more recent years, the autonomous image, the ‘selfie’ has been devalued in the eyes of popular culture, even to the extent of the shortening of the name. It is not something which is given any particular artistic merit, and those who do are often considered to take themselves a little too seriously. The most curious thing is perhaps that although there is no intrinsic difference between the tourist who asks their friend – or even a passing stranger – to take their photograph outside a landmark, and the person who simply acknowledges the progression of modern technology and angles their front facing camera to do it all themselves, I suspect that the latter would attract strange glances and even a touch of mockery from onlookers.

But the self portrait has been an accepted artistic pursuit for centuries previously. As far back as ancient civilisations, people have attempted to represent themselves in the form of artistic media, for reasons which range as broadly as the media used.

The self portrait flips the concept of an artistic gaze on its head. The male artist painting a voluptuous nude holds a very different significance to the young woman talking stark black and white images of her own body. It not only alters the intent of the piece from the outset, it arguably also changes the way we, the viewers, perceive that imagery.

Take the work of Francesca Goodman as example. Incredibly personal, at times painfully blunt and open portraits of herself, but there is that sense of raw intimacy. For me, at least, whilst the work reveals perhaps more than the viewer will ever feel comfortable with, it is a sense more in line with accidentally seeing some private moment, a voyeuristic discomfort rather than the discomfort that might be apparent were we told that these photographs were taken by someone else.

In this photograph, Woodman appears naked, her pose awkward. To the viewer aware of her self portraiture, this presents as a personal and very vulnerable moment, but one which she chooses to commit to film. No matter the circumstances surrounding it (and we can likely assume that little of her work came from the happiest of places given her suicide at 22), she has nevertheless assumed control in some way. This image is hers and hers alone. Her ideas, her choices.

[Nudity ahead]

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The Way We Were

There are times I dare to look at my life, and I wonder how I got here.

Me. The girl who, at fifteen, carried out the ‘I’m leaving home’ threat after an argument and hitchhiked 250 miles with a backpack and a guitar, to busk on the streets of Glasgow. (Can I just say I’m not especially proud of that one now, and it is one of the myriad reasons why I will never have children of my own.) The girl who came out as bisexual in a small town high school in Yorkshire. The girl who went to protests, screamed about animal rights, human rights, went vegetarian because her parents said she wouldn’t, learned guitar because nobody thought she’d make it past the first three lessons before giving up. The girl who wanted to see her favourite band so badly she slept rough on the streets of York afterwards. Who hitched the 15 miles to the closest town on a regular basis in order to see back-room punk gigs, unknown bands, at the Arts Centre.

Teenage me might have been kind of a dick, but she burned bright. I believed in so much, had so many opinions, and by god, I was loud about them. Ill advised, badly informed, teenage opinions, yes. But I fought for them, I screamed them, and I believed in them with every single ounce of my being.

I was going to do something when I grew up. It didn’t matter about money. I wasn’t going to end up in debt, beholden to material possessions. I wanted to do something meaningful, worthwhile. I didn’t know what, but there was time for that. It would probably involve music. Politics. Art.

Time goes by in a flash.

That was seventeen years ago.

I have a loan. I have a credit card. I have a new car, an iPhone, a laptop. All of which I’m still paying for. I have a job I hate, working long hours, for little pay. I haven’t changed the world, the world has changed me. I remember the path, but I can’t make sense of it. All those decisions, they were mine to make, so why on earth did I make them? Oh, hindsight is certainly a bitter thing.

Fifteen year old me would be horrified. Fifteen year old me would be disgusted.

“How did you end up there?” she’d ask. Belligerently. “We started out alright.”

I mean, we didn’t. Not really. I have always, and to this day, had problems with what is right and good for me, and what I really want. The two often tend to be mutually exclusive. Problematically, I’m fairly good at getting what I want, if I want it badly enough. Some people have called that manipulative. Maybe it is. But it rarely hurts anybody but myself. It’s a pity that I never want the right things often enough.

I could lay out the wrong turns I took. I can see most of them clearly. The biggest, moving to a new city to be with a possessive man who I barely know. Leaving behind my family network, putting myself in a situation where I had no job, no money, no close friends and nobody nearby who I could turn to when that relationship turned from possessive to violent. I was nineteen. I knew fuck all, although I thought I did. It took me three years to escape that, during which time I’d started uni, and then dropped out because of the relationship situation.

My second mistake was staying in that town afterwards. Not moving right back to be with my family. I spiralled into self destruction, self harm, a series of unhealthy relationships and one night stands with people I hated any other time.

I could lay them out in sequence, but it would achieve nothing. I cannot change the past any more than I can tell if the future will improve matters. There’s little sense in regret. There’s sense in taking what you can from past experience, and using it to form better decisions, a more positive future. But that’s not as simple as it sounds either.

I’d like this to end on a positive, life-affirming note, but the fact is, I have great weeks and I have terrible weeks, and this week has been the latter. But, that’s okay. It’s okay to feel shit sometimes. It’s okay to have days where you feel sorry for yourself and regret every bad decision you ever made. Sometimes. Because nobody on this planet is perfect.

One day at a time.

Tomorrow will be different.

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Art and Life, Permanency and the Value of Moving On

Should art be transient? Can it? Does the very nature of the piece in question mean that, when it no longer exists, it is no longer art, and that therefore the answer is, no, art cannot be transient because once it has gone, there is no longer any art.

There’s certainly an overarching idea, I think, that permanency adds value to an object. Of course, this is completely true of a broad variety of the things that we might buy, nobody wants to spend money on an object which is going to require replacement too often. A person would almost certainly prefer to pay double the price for an item which will last then five years, than purchase the cheaper item which will only survive for one. That’s simply common sense.

Art, creativity, they don’t always go hand in hand with common sense. I have been at my most creative when I have been at my least logical. When my emotions have raged roughshod through my mind, overtaking any sense of what is best for me versus what I really want, those are the times I have screamed my anger, pain, unhappiness out onto canvas. Metaphorically speaking. From the perspective of a buyer, of course, art is an investment. As a creator, a maker, (and if you remove the obvious necessity to balance creative freedom with the need to pay bills), what you create can be whatever the hell you want it to be.

I adore the contrary indulgence in the idea of creating work which will, in time, fade and disappear. I am drawn to the idea of something intriguing and impressive, or painful and beautiful, which can be viewed only for a limited length of time. Ephemeral pieces, delicate and fragile, or in some other way constrained by the passage of minutes, hours, days.

In life, too, all too often we spend so much time on what has been that we miss so much of what is, and what will be. Time passes by, and whilst we still pick apart that one moment, we miss the opportunities held within the next. Holding on too long to the past, and forgetting to appreciate the here and now.

Life itself is fleeting, transient, and we create things in order to fill our lives with meaning, purpose. We buy objects to fill gaps, in our homes and in our lives. We write stories, create pictures, with the purpose of reaching out for longevity, desperately trying to avoid staring into the void, dodging the subject of our own mortality. For art to mimic this transience is to stare mortality in the face, to give it wide eyes and accept that yes, life is fleeting, and to be comfortable in that. It’s a reminder that nothing will last forever, and that holding on too long to one thing can damage your exploration of the rest.

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Retrospective, Introspective and Symbolic Chapters

I was determined not to write a retrospective of the past year, but I suppose such a thing was inevitable for someone like me, who enjoys the symbolism of new beginnings. A change of the number which denotes the year, a fresh page in a notebook or sketchbook, a radical haircut or new colour, even a new purse. Logically, rationally, it doesn’t matter. January 1st 2015 is likely to be much the same in many ways as December 31st 2014. It will be cold outside, I will go to and return from work, I will put the heater on when I wake up, and check my emails and social media accounts over a cup of good coffee before I do anything else with my free hours. The last page of a nearly filled notebook is just as useful as the first page in a fresh one; ideas can be recorded, poetry or prose drafted. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the old things, but they begin to feel tired and old to me. The fresh pages stretch ahead with potential, whilst the old ones have no further purpose but to be archived, perhaps for later reflection. They represent lessons learned, progression of ideas and of life. They’re useful, of course, but they’re no longer exciting. The unknown is exciting – or rather, the potential of it.

Not so long back, I was depressed, deeply unhappy with myself and my attitude to life and I realised that I must make changes to my attitude, to my behaviour and to my lifestyle in general. If 2013 was the year I tore down the old house, then 2014 was the year I laid the foundations for the new. It was the year I started writing again, a form of personal therapy which I have always found cathartic and useful, but which I have not actively participated in for some years. It was the year I made efforts to not only spend more time around other people, but also to actively seek out new friendships. It was the year I began to take risks again after a series of toxic relationships and friendships in my late twenties left me cynical about spending time on other people. In particular, a friendship with a complete mess of a woman, who used lies and manipulation as frequently as other people use nouns, which made me seriously reevaluate my own judge of character. I’m more particular about who I can be bothered with these days, but I do have some wonderful new people in my life. Over the past year or so, I’ve come to realise that many people are more than worth the risk, and that I am a far happier and more fulfilled person when surrounded by people than I am when I enforce solitude. I know myself a lot better now; it’s taken 33 years, but I feel as if I’m finally approaching a solid sense of self. 

So, onwards now to the new year, and the plans which I already have. 2015, I have decreed, will be the year of Tiny Adventure. Because I find that adventure is key to my enjoyment of life, and yet adventure does not necessarily have to be a huge production, it does not need to be expensive or lengthy or even particularly well planned. It just needs to be new experience, or even a new way of appreciating an old experience. Adventure can be had in a different country, but it can also be had close to your doorstep, it’s just a matter of actively seeking it out.

2015 will be spent with the people in my life who I value, of which there is a happily increasing amount. It will be spent appreciating those people, and appreciating the things I do have, rather than bemoaning those aspects of my life which I dislike. It will be spent trying to change those aspects which I dislike, and working towards a more positive outlook regarding the things which I am unable to change.

I’m not going to make a list of resolutions and goals, because by this time next year, I’m going to be a different person with different aspirations, just as the person I am right now is not the same woman of a year ago. But I am going to continue building, make efforts to enrich my life experiences and forge more human connection as well as making active efforts to strengthen this bonds I already have with people. And I hope that next year, I can reflect positively on my year with another set of pleasant memories, valuable lessons learned, and optimistic excitement for the future.

First Drafts and Final Thoughts; A NaNoWriMo Retrospective

November has finally turned into the last month of the year, and that’s my very first NaNoWriMo over. I’m thrilled to announce that I successfully completed the challenge, with a final official word count of 50,108.

In some ways, it did take over my entire November, but in other ways, it hasn’t felt like nearly so huge an undertaking as I had imagined at the beginning. Of course, it’s easy to say that now, looking back, and I almost certainly felt differently at around the 27,000 word mark when I wasn’t sure at all that the novel was working out or had any future. But at over the halfway mark, there’s no way you want to just pack it all in and quit, and so I found that I had a few incredibly depressing mid-week days where I was half-heartedly scattering a few hundred words of utter drivel hoping to get somewhere interesting. Which, thankfully, happened and if you take a look at the little graph here you can see the couple of times I stalled slightly, before having epic 5000 word days and catching right up.

So, without further ado, here’s my humble retrospective on the things which I loved, hated and learned during my NaNo month.

Don’t Set Unrealistic Goals 

The story itself is nowhere near finished. I realised at around 30,000 words exactly how unfinished it was going to be at 50,000 words, had a bit of a stress about it, and then yelled at myself for being ridiculous. At a rough estimate, I’m maybe a little over halfway through, but I now have a clear understanding of not only where it needs to go now, but also how it’s going to finish and what needs to be done about editing the content I have already written. Because, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, there is a LOT of crap in there. There are what I term ‘placeholder’ sentences; things like ‘the event was finally over’ and ‘once all that had happened’ – badly worded and nippy phrases to get me over a clunky part that I’m not yet ready to elaborate on, and into the parts which I was surer of. 50,000 words is a LOT of story, even if it’s only a beginning.

Don’t get stuck on self-imposed rules

There were moments when I lost all train of thought regarding a particular chapter, but had a later one completely clear in my mind, twitching to get out. I abandoned my intentions to write chronologically in those cases, and opened up a new document, typed up everything that was clamouring to escape, titled it something like ‘Unknown Chapter’ with a two or three word description tagged on, saved it and closed it. It added to my word count, perking me up a bit as I saw it steadily climbing, and on top, gave me a goal to aim for between where I was in the story from a chronological viewpoint and where I needed the story to get to. Rather than fracturing my writing or causing me to lose my train of thought, it actually helped me enormously to get these bursts of inspiration out and onto paper. Or screen, rather. Although I have damn near filled a Moleskine with story parts which I wrote whilst out and about, or during my downtime at work. At a guess, I’d say close to half the novel so far has been hand written originally – something which I have found tremendously helpful for me since I find that writing by hand stimulates my creativity far more effectively than typing directly does. On top of that, for every 1000 words I handwrite, I can estimate 1200 or more once it’s typed up, because I never type word for word directly. When it comes to typing it all up, I have further thoughts and ideas, rearrange sentences, restructure dialogue and add or delete sections.

Get over the quality control

It’s not going to be amazing quality writing from start to finish. It doesn’t matter. I knew this from the outset, I had the words ‘quantity over quality’ repeating in my head. It still took me a while to get over the fact that, on occasion (on several occasions actually) I was having to write tedious phrases, unconvincing sections of dialogue and repeating words too often within a paragraph simply because of time, tiredness and the effect which staring at a screen for too long can have. I did find that this was less of an issue with the handwritten parts, because as mentioned, I find it easier to think creatively when I’m writing as opposed to typing. But still, there are a whole lot of sections which need editing, expanding upon or deleting and re-writing completely.

Creativity breeds creativity

I don’t know of anybody else experiences this but, when I’m in the middle of working on anything remotely creative, my brain starts firing all sorts of ideas at me. It’s the opposite of creative block, it’s more like creative flooding. During the month I’ve had ideas for not only other stories, but also for artistic projects. I haven’t had much of an interest in photography for months, not to the extent that I used to have, but over the past month I’ve had two separate, close to fully-formed, ideas for lens based projects which I’m not looking forward to working on. Which brings me onto…

Have an idea outlet, but don’t cheat on your novel

I didn’t want to lose those ideas, but neither did I want to get completely sidetracked from the novel. There’s a fine line between cheating on your NaNo and completely losing some potentially incredible ideas. Plus, if there’s a constant battle in your head between the plot you’re trying to focus on and a group of other characters and storylines clamouring for attention, chances are, nothing’s going to get done very fast. So, I wrote them down, taking only a few minutes each time. Not much, just enough to jog my memory later, not enough to get myself involved with them. The result being that, on December 1st, not only did I have half an actual novel drafted (woohoo!) but I also have two visual arts project ideas, and no less than five story ideas, two of which are fully formed enough that they may become longer length pieces of fiction. So, that’s me not being bored for the next year.

This will clarify exactly where the weak points are

In my personal opinion, the research thing is something which needs to be done either well before, or well after November. Definitely not during. But, nonetheless; I spent around four or five months planning out this story after the germ of an idea for it first entered my head. By November 1st, I knew my main character so well that I can pretty much hear his voice in my head when I type. I had pages of research, a folder of bookmarks, bullet pointed lists of timeframes, historical events and plot notes. It still wasn’t enough. I imagine this is only an issue when writing things which rely on major social, historical or political events, and is less of a bother when writing from, say, a fantasy standpoint. But whilst I felt, a month ago, that I had enough research done that I could effectively ban myself from any more during the month, it turns out, I was very wrong. But, I now know precisely where my weak research areas lie, and I know exactly which characters I need to spend time developing. These are things which I had no clear idea about only that one short month ago, and even if I end up having to rewrite damn near everything I’ve got down already, I think that getting to the end of this challenge was worth it for that reason alone.