Wander no. 6

My parents went to considerable lengths to get my £30 bicycle up to Scotland for me. I sat in the kitchen on the morning of my departure, head still spinning from the jaegerbombs pawned off on me by my brother the night before, while they spent a good while outside in the cold November air, trying to figure out how to rig a bike rack to the back of their car. And two months after they’d dragged it up the length of the M6 for me, I wheeled it into Recyke-a-Bike and left with another. So long, sweet pal. We’d been together for just over four months. It was a good ride.

I’ve had my new wheels for about five weeks now, and in that time, I’ve learned how to take it apart and put it back together again, how to fix a flat, how to ride with my hands idly catching wind at my sides. I remember, not long before I left, I went on a bike ride around Preston with a fella that I’d been seeing at the time, and he told me that riding hands-free was one of the great milestones in the life of a casual cyclist, and I remember never once being able to do it as a child. But I can do it now, and it came to me so effortlessly that I wonder if it was ever really any great feat at all.

The first thing that I did when I moved to Stirling was ride to Dunblane. I’d been here for perhaps three days. It was mid-autumn. Everything was ablaze in deep orange. The distance was comparable to that travelled whenever I rode into work in England, over fields of pale green and down along the industrial canal. It was a breeze, but I never did it again. I cycle in and out of work every day here and I’ve cycled many times down past the abattoir and through the farmlands at the bottom of my road. I’ve cycled through the university campus. But it’s been three months and I haven’t been anywhere! I get such a buzz on the bike, and how desperate I’ve been to get out and ride!

So I gazed out of my kitchen window on Monday morning, staring despondently at the mist descending down over the foothills immediately behind the flat opposite; at the puddles of water in the parking lot, rippling in sudden uptakes of wind. It was my day off, it was the day!, and I stood in my kitchen, deliberating postponing the ride yet again. Not only was the weather questionable, but the ride that I’d been planning all this time took me down a road that had, that very morning, been closed for maintenance. For five weeks! I was too damn late.

But sack that, right? I grabbed my helmet and hit the road anyway.

I set off towards Stirling as I always do, and it was a battle to get my legs to cooperate and take me down the cycle path that runs along the railway tracks. But once we reached the end, near the pedestrian crossing that I dash across every morning, I turned left where I would’ve typically turned right, and suddenly they were up for the game.

I rode the entire eastern outskirts of town, from the bottom of the university to Bannockburn in the south; through industrial farmland, past the short smoke stacks that I can see from the dead centre of town every morning when they push steam out against a burning sunrise. I found myself underneath a railway bridge so short that I had to touch my chest to my handlebars to get beneath it, on a path so close to the stream that the cycle map pinned to my bedroom wall advises me to avoid it completely in the rain. I turned down off a busy A-road and onto the descent of a vast, suburban hill on the way back into town, and I saw the Ochils for the first time in all their glory to the north. Living far too close to them to really comprehend their size, I realised just how high we’d climbed when my cousin and I had scrambled to the top of Dumyat, their eastern-most peak, last month. I got lost for a while in Bannockburn, and when I finally made my way back into Stirling, I ditched my bike outside the Thistles and stumbled directly into Our Place, where I ate the best goddamn bowl of soup that I’ve ever had and flicked through the final pages of Ways of Seeing on my e-reader.

I slept for hours that night. I pushed through a nine-hour shift on Tuesday with so much energy, with such totally high spirits. The sensation that you get when you stare down at the road rushing underneath your feet is everlasting.

It was 18.9 kilometres in total. It was just precisely one-quarter of the distance of the race that I’ve signed up to do in September. It was nothing, but it was so goddamn fun, like cycling hands-free, half-asleep, to work under the rising sun.

+ 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.

Onwards, with nothing (/everything)

Tonight, I sat on a bench, and the bench itself sat perfectly parallel to the road, which ran parallel to the community pavilion building, which sat parallel to the playing grounds, which sat parallel to the river, which ran parallel to the railway tracks in the distance. I stared out towards them in the dark and waited for the passenger trains to race across my horizon – I caught two travelling south into Stirling proper and beyond, and then the much faster northbound service, headed perhaps to the Tayside coast or up to Inverness. Much closer, cars and cyclists and runners passed me on the road. My ass was wet on the bench and my hands reeked of the rubber cement that I’d used to patch a puncture on my bicycle tire. My head was in tatters, and I scarcely knew why.

Yesterday, I dumped half of my belongings into the clothing bank at the fire station. I felt immense, and still do. I don’t own much anyway, owing to a base character makeup of frugality and non-commitment, and when I’d moved up here in the first place, I’d abandoned half of what I’d owned then as well. I now own roughly a quarter of what I did three months ago, and the ultimate dream of whittling down my possessions into a single bag doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did then.

I’ve been wondering how long I’ll stay in Stirling, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it likely won’t be much longer. When is it appropriate to leave? I’ve got my eye on the Hebrides, on Dundee, on Aberdeen, on Kirkwall, but how do I get there? How do I stay there? The logistical distance between where I am and where I want to be always seems insurmountable and the restlessness builds and builds.

I feel sick and nervous. Suffocated and frustrated.

And so on.

And so, as it goes, I thought too much about the future and stormed out of my apartment, setting off towards the open air and the open arms of a panic attack. I thought too much about the words, and a heavy palpitation pounded in my chest; a thick, torrid thump that reminded me of the physicality of my blood and my body. “This is fine,” I told myself, capable now of coping with such sensations, and I sat down to stare out towards the trains until the January air sank through my coat and I began to feel cold again in the winter mist. I took the long way home, joining the river at the footbridge where it veers away from the tracks and towards the high street. And passing over it on the main road, I thought I spied a heron through the dark, standing stock-still on the edge of an ait. I called my dad to tell him about it. I told my mother that I wanted nothing more than to live out of my backpack and head elsewhere. And they said to me, 220 miles to the south, “why not?”

Why not?

 

Glasgow (or, Wordlessness)

I went to Glasgow on a whim today. Halfway down the stairs of my apartment building, I decided that I’d give my legs a rest and take the train into town, and halfway to the station, I decided that if the train was ultimately bound for Glasgow, I’d get on it and go the distance. It was – and it was the express service – so I did. And from my perch on the pull-down seat next to the train doors, I watched as the impossibly picturesque Forth Valley gave way to the familiar industrial landscape that bleeds out from all city centres; and I was struck, not for the first time, by the realisation that central Scotland possesses a colour palette entirely different to that of the North of England. A green much less vibrant, marked with sandy browns and the deep maroon of a plant that I have no name for. And here, as the train rolled through Bishopbriggs, through Springburn, grays and whites appeared in the form of brick walls and rail-side birch trees. An aesthetic that I’d long since grown accustomed to, but entirely different at this latitude.

I’d taken this journey a week ago, in the early winter darkness, but it didn’t end when I disembarked at Queen Street. I’d fought against tides of festive families en route to the Christmas Markets and run blindly in the general direction of Central Station, anxious to get to my connection. But today, in the midday sun, I rolled out of the station with no set destination, hands wrapped around a surprisingly delicious flat white prepared for me by a station attendant, and I walked for hours.

And I’d arrived in the mood to write. The linguistic areas of my brain had already been illuminated, set alight last night by a friend of mine who loves poetry. So I saw everything and responded with language. The ginger babyface wrapped in a blanket and crouched on a piece of rotting cardboard on Argyle Street. The hasty Italian men that checked me as I idled at a crossing, breaking into a panicked sprint as they clocked the double-decker racing down the hill towards them. The crumbling buildings and 1990s store front facades, and the railway bridge that shoots out over the River Clyde, carrying passengers in and out out of the city on cross-country lines. And the kid with the denim jacket and leather bicycle seat, trying to weave his way up a busy pedestrianised high street; I envied his lifestyle momentarily, envied – as I often do in the places like this – the fact that he belonged to such a perfect dive, but I saw him hours later, wheeling his bike off the train in Stirling. Turns out that it was me, and I saw everything.

But I had no notebook with which I could bring this language into existence, so I ducked into Waterstones to buy one. But it was unbearably busy, and I was hot, and the notebooks were both substandard and overpriced. So I turned around and raced for the door, but my eyes, darting around as they do in these instances, fell upon a copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And I cannot overstate the profundity of this moment, for I both somehow stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t miss a beat in grabbing it and racing back towards the till. I’d forgotten my headache and my dizziness, and I’d forgotten all about my inherent frugality. I’d been looking for this book for almost two years, and here it was. A dude called Glenn titles his hyper-concise Goodreads review of this book as “the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer“, and here we are.

Five weeks without a single word.

Five weeks of something, of everything, but five weeks with absolutely nothing to say.

Five weeks of frustration, of self-deprecation, of endless irritation at my lack of ability to conjure up anything at all, brought to a sudden end with an uncharacteristically impulsive trip to Glasgow. By a late-night conversation with someone who loves words as much as I do. By a series of beautiful accidents and questionable choices.

I haven’t read anything by Murakami in months, but I’ve thought about him often in these last couple of weeks. Poster-boy for dedication to the craft and everything that I lack.

Glasgow.

A reminder to do better, as always, next time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.