+ 3 months: retraction and redirection

A year and a half or so ago, I sat on the edge of the couch in the university photography department. Across from me sat my course leader, prodding me for insights into a psyche I was always, for reasons unknown to me even now, reluctant to let him have. But he knew me regardless, and I’d been complaining to him about feeling a certain uncertainty in regards to my creative practice, and after a long period of consideration, he leaned across and said to me, in all seriousness, “you’re culturally under-stimulated mate.” I didn’t like the sound of that at all, so I huffed and dropped my gaze to the stack of digital photography rags on the IKEA-grade coffee table between us. Son of a bitch! I thought to myself, but I knew he was right. He told me to read more books, and I did. To watch more documentaries, see more shows, to do something, and I did. It paid off in time. I graduated with a First. Holla.

And yet, here we are. My last post is something of an embarrassment to me at the moment, but I always crumble to the January Blues, and it’s perhaps the most honest thing that I’ve written here so far. I’ve been reeling around in acute sadness and panic since New Year, not knowing what to do with my life or my future or my money or my time, but you know, February always brings about a sense of clarity and direction for me, and here it is: I’ve been so quick to blame all of this angst on everything around me – my job, this town, the seemingly endless bands of bitter rain that drive me indoors when all I wanna do is ride my bike. But the other day, I sat down and I read back through the first chapter of the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and perhaps it’s because it’s such a pinnacle text in photographic education and theory that it sparked something in my head, but those words spoken to me by my course leader last year drifted back into my periphery. Culturally under-stimulated. It’s real fucking apt alright. Might’ve graduated okay, but it seems to me that I haven’t really learned anything concrete. I am chronically under-stimulated, even now, and I ain’t got no one to blame but myself. Shieeet.

Let’s face up to it all for a second: Working full time is a drag, but my job is actually pretty rad. The hours are semi-unreliable I guess, and the pay could be better, but I’m actually doing pretty great financially and professionally. And I’ve been feeling kinda trapped, but I wonder if perhaps my biggest problem is not Stirling itself, but that I live out in the suburbs (and it’s not just the suburbs, it’s the pensioner’s suburbs), and maybe I should move into town. And I’ve been thinking that maybe I should bite the bullet and learn how to drive already. And may-be, I just need to pull my head out, stop moping around, and make some shit again.

I started this blog a few months back because I had this sort of ingrained assumption that moving out and moving away would be hard, and I wanted to document this sort of mid-millennial adulthood that I was about to step into for the first time. And it has been difficult, in exactly all the ways that I’d imagined, but it’s also been nothing like I imagined. I’ve felt lonely, over-worked, bored as fuck, pretty cosy, hideously optimistic about the future, sick to my stomach over the the general state of humanity, constantly confused, utterly terrified, fairly content, and often completely stoked on life; and I’ve documented it all so inadequately. So vaguely. I’ve got so much to learn about writing, and so much to learn about life.

But listen: yesterday, I left my house in the subzeroes at 5.30am to cycle into town. I was working the early, and the only vehicles that passed me on the way were the road gritters. But the night before, I’d really struggled to fall asleep. I was up long after lights-out, thinking – for the first time in a goddamn long time – about photography, and about zines, and about art shows and self-employment, and about books, and about how nothing materialises from anything without effort. And before I set off to work in the morning, running strong on only a couple hours of sleep, I threw my point-and-shoot Mju into my bag, and I spent my afternoon shooting, working through two rolls of film before I’d even really started. And shit, how I’ve struggled and struggled to write things down here, but how easily this is coming to me now.

These vibes followed me into work again today. They followed me on my bike ride around the ‘burbs. They followed me to the Co-op to pick up mushrooms and Onken. I feel alright, and when my pals share things like this on Facebook, I feel even better. I feel inspired and creative, and I’m so over being down about this incredibly privileged life that I’m currently hanging around in. Things are good, man. And for the first time in a goddamn long time, I am totally calm.

Here’s to art and writing, y’all.

Nothing can happen (til you swing the bat)

Last night, I leant against a wooden telephone pole several streets from my grandmother’s home. I watched a plume of heavy smoke drift into the night sky from the foot of a nearby hill, carrying the light of the street lamps up with it and revealing the field of transmission towers that stood between us in its brilliant luminescence. I hadn’t seen a fire in a long time and my eyes searched, perhaps hungrier than they should’ve been, for the hint of a flame poking out between the houses. I never found one, but a firework went off above it all, and I wondered about that for a moment before I realised where I was and what it was all about. It was soon followed by another, and then another, and I pushed myself upright and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Conceding to the fact that the glimpse of a tiny bonfire was a poor replacement for the old wildfire that I really wanted to see, I carried on. Novo Amor sang out through my headphones. It was the third time yesterday that I’d aimlessly wandered around this neighbourhood.

I leave in 24 hours. I lasted five years and twelve days. I’ve been writing this out for over a week now, but I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent vibe because I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent feeling in my chest, oscillating constantly from one extreme to the other. I wanted to write about everything that I’d learned in the last five years, but last night, gazing out at the smoke and the pylons and the poorly executed light show, I realised that everything I’d learned was just a different rendering of the same exact lesson, and this is it: The only thing worth giving a damn about in this world are the folks in it, and absolutely nothing else. Nothing else at all.

But again, as ever, I can’t reconcile the love for my friends with the need to seek out my ever-unattainable original landscape. And what do I say here?  Do I need to leave because my parents accidentally gave me the beautiful gift of placelessness as a child, or do I need to leave because I grew up around lanky adolescents who talked about nothing but the Kerouacian dream? Do I need to leave because I can’t commit to anything for an extended period of time, or can I not commit because I still believe in the deepest part of my soul that the original landscape actually exists? You can’t build anything on unstable ground after all, but I was taught to always be wary of earthquakes and there is nothing more exhilarating than dashing out through the door when one hits.

Is this all in my head? Most definitely. And am I sorry? Most desperately, but also not at all. My mother always tells me that I would find a way to settle if I really wanted to, but I have found no way. And truth be told, I haven’t even looked.

My shoulders have grown broad and hair has sprouted up on my cheeks since I’ve been here, and everyone likes to tell me all about how much I’ve changed. But I am ever the scrawny seventeen year-old with sun-bleached brown hair and a battered old copy of L’etranger in my pocket. But listen, something significant has changed in me, and I no longer hold my friends at arm’s length, and I would travel the world over with any one of them if only they’d come with me. And I blame not one of them for staying put, because this place is endlessly beautiful.

I’m always hyper-aware and often times embarrassed that, whenever I sit down to write something here, every word that drops down from my fingers is tainted with pseudo-poetic bullshit, but I lack the means (read: the guts) to be direct about anything. So let me be explicit, let me be absolutely clear for just once: I am sad as hell to be leaving but I am happy as hell to be going, and this is the most wholesome feeling that I’ve ever known.

My palms have only just healed over from the first swing of the bat, but they itch now for another hit and I’m almost certain that they’ll never again sting like they did all those years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to step down from the plate, I wonder if I’ll ever want to; and I can’t stop thinking about all the people who dragged me up there in the first place, the people who handed me the bat without even knowing it, the people who lightheartedly slapped me on the back as I clenched my teeth and willed my arms to stop shaking. If only I could express to them what it meant to me. Thanks ma, thanks pops, thanks Jamie, thanks Kim, and so on and on and on.

Scotland feels one million miles away, and the hilarity of that thought cannot be overstated. When I left Reno, I left Reno. I surrendered every right I had to abode there and cannot go back. I know that I’ll always be welcome here, but with the sharpest taste of irony in mouth, this action feels absolute in a way that that one never did. I’ve learned what happens when you can’t find your way but don’t turn around and run home, and it is nothing short of limitlessly glorious.

What do I say here?

I love you, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soon.

On creativity, on complacency, on inertia, on…

An arts graduate with an extreme anxiety in regards to personal finance, it was always a given that I’d walk out of my degree and into an utterly irrelevant job. In fact, it was always the plan – as I told my mother on the phone a few weeks ago, leaning against a railing that overlooked a subterranean dual carriageway in central Stirling, I am a long way off being a writer, an artist, a completely self-sufficient human being. In a hierarchy of needs, creativity cannot be achieved without first satisfying the need for a sense of financial stability; perhaps in some, but certainly not in me. The plan was to make some money by whatever means, and then I could make some art.

So I got a job, and then I got good at it. Really good at it. I was given a small promotion and then offered a transfer. I took both. I like what I do – it’s enough and I’m looking forward to heading north, but as I dug around in my room tonight, looking for the gear that I’m going to take out to a photo shoot in the morning, I realized that …shit, I haven’t actually done anything in months. This is the first time, perhaps since I finished my degree in early June, that I’ve even made serious effort to do anything of the sort.

I mean, how easy it is to forget about it all when you’ve just clocked nine hours at the till and your hands smell permanently of diluted sanitizer. I was going to make books, but now all I make is coffee.

And this sad revelation comes on the back of the sudden discovery that I’m being consciously underpaid for the role that I’ve been asked to take on, the injustice of which stung hard and prompted an inflation of my self-worth to dangerous proportions. “What the hell am even doing in a place like this?!” I thought to myself as I seethed over the food that I was preparing in the back today. can take pretty photographs. can string words together in a coherent and fashionable manner. I can understand the intricacies of our postmodern society and how we got here, so can do better than…

… than what?  Than a full-time job straight out of university? Than the opportunity to move elsewhere and walk straight into work? Than a job that I actually really dig regardless of whether my current boss – who I’ll be leaving in three weeks, mind – wants to pay me appropriately for it or not?

Yeah, whatever.

But I can do better than coming home and crawling into bed to watch episodes of Fargo until my eyes dry up. I can do better than leaving my camera to gather dust under my bed. I can do better than to just contemplate resisting the complacency that I am so critical of others but give in to in equal measure, if not more.

I can do better, but I don’t. Where can I find the boundless inspiration and motivation that I had in the final months of my degree? I’m literally living the dream, following the plan to a tee, but for one hideously important thing.

Smoke that spreads out and covers everything

This story begins in the bookstore of Gothenburg’s Hasselblad Center. Sweden is surprisingly sweltering in the summer, but buckets of rain still fall from the sky and Katie and I race there on clunky city-scheme cycle hire bikes, pounding the pedals towards the ground in a near-vain attempt to get them to move forward through the sheets of water that are falling from the sky. We arrive drenched and spend the afternoon wandering from exhibition to exhibition until at long last, weirdly comfortable in our now-damp clothes, we come to the main attraction: the books.

I’ve long had a thing for Japanese photography and I immediately spy a tiny Daido Moriyama publication from afar. I make a beeline for it and crack it open. I land not on a photograph, but on two black pages – one blank, and one with the following written in white sans serif type:

For people like me, who don’t have a ‘home town’ to return to, who run after their dream of a ‘home town’, behaving like a spoiled child in spite of being old enough to know better, the idea of a ‘home town’ is a swollen utopia of countless childhood memory fragments. It’s something like the ‘original landscape’. I have to say that I was helplessly obsessed with Tono being the embodiment of my ‘home town’ dream – a place that existed only in my imagination.

Daido Moriyama, Tales of Tono

I blink and I read it over again and again. I don’t look at any of the photographs, and to this day I don’t know what Tono looks like. I reshelve the book and browse other titles. I go outside and the rain has stopped. I get back on the bike and Katie and I eventually continue southward to Lund, to Malmö, to Copenhagen. I come back to northern England, I get a job, I take a breather and get back to the grind, but the idea of the ever-allusive original landscape has burned itself into my soul and my psyche and I can’t let it go. I think about it every single day, but this is nothing new.

Rewind back to Chicago O’Hare in 2011. The immensity of my situation has hit me for the first time. I sit at my gate and stare at my one-way plane ticket to Manchester and begin to cry. Our departure is delayed, but I cry all the way through take-off with my coat pulled up around my face because it’s embarrassing to admit that my decisions are painful. This is the first time that I set out for this so-called original landscape, abandoning the place that I grew up for the place that I was born. As it happens, the original landscape isn’t where I thought it was. It fucks me up for years.

Rewind back to Reno-Tahoe International in 1999. My pops carries my dozing figure past gate-side slot machines and out through the baggage claim. I’m six years-old. My parents are excited and I’m malleable. I pick up a West Coast accent. I go to school in the suburbs. I grow older. I spend every other summer in England. I become increasingly aware of my cultural duality but I lack the words and the life experience required to adequately express myself. Unlike the Latin-American families around me, I am the only English person I know in Reno. I feel cheated out of familyhood and belonging. I am an adolescent and everything sucks, so I leave.

Fast-forward to the present day. It’s been three months since I was in Gothenburg, five years since I moved back to England, and seventeen years since I moved to the United States. As I write this, I’m sitting on a train rolling through the Central Belt of Scotland. I am moving here imminently. I came to discuss the feasibility of such a thing with the manager at the coffee shop that has been highlighted as a potential transfer location. It went well and, beyond high street shopping chains and shit weather, there is nothing here but everything unfamiliar to me. This is all I crave right now.

I’m conscious of sounding irreverently down on life, but do believe me when I say that I am no longer adrift in a sea of discontent. I’ve accepted my decisions and their consequences and I’ve learned to love my landscape, even if I hate it. I got myself a degree. I formed new friendships and made sure that I tended to them more carefully. I allowed myself to be dragged along on various exploits and my love and faith in the idea of moving around and experiencing the world was rekindled. I was able to recontextualise my upbringing; and I acknowledged that, coming from a working class background in the desolate and economically deprived north of England, it was an incredibly privileged thing for me to have ever even experienced. So, with those things in mind, I’m staring out into a misty field just outside of Edinburgh and setting myself in motion to move up to a place that, until yesterday, I’d never been; where I know nobody; and where I have absolutely nothing to rely on but my wage and whatever lessons have been imparted on me by life thus far. My inner compass drags me ever north and I have to believe that the original landscape – or the closest possible thing – lies in this general direction. So, here we are.

It could very well turn out to be another disaster, but here’s to that.