What the hell am I doing here?

They call me Mr Fantastic

I taught myself a new word today – autodidact. Clearly, my attempts at self-education were not as rigorous as I had previously presumed them to have been. You are never too old to learn something new.

I used to think that there might be other selves lurking inside this one and that my life’s work was to find them – hence the picture above. I am now no longer of that opinion. There is no innate essential ‘me’ to be found and, as Bob Dylan suggested in the recently released documentary of his Rolling Thunder Review tour in the 70s, “life is not about finding yourself, it’s not about finding anything, life is about creating yourself”.

If I am to accept that then it is possible that I can create the writer or the poet or the musician in the same way that I created the parent or the friend or the IT Consultant. In many ways it might be easier. I could contend that this piece along with some of the other posts on this site make me a writer. I have written poems. I am, perhaps, not as competent in both disciplines as I am at switching a computer off and on in order to rectify a malfunction. At no point though have I tried to establish that I wish to be a talented artist and if I am happy with what I create then that is surely half the battle?

Deep down I think that the one thing I wanted to be, and this relates to the ‘joke’ in the opening paragraph, is an intellectual, a thinker, a shaper of minds! In order to realise this idea of me I would require two things: an intellect and the educational intervention of others. The ability to comprehend and analyse topics and develop your own thoughts and opinions in and around them is something that a good education offers and encourages – providing, of course, that you have the basic intellectual capability to do so. I don’t think that I lack the intelligence to achieve this goal but I do think I lack the patience. I love to learn new stuff but I really need to do it on my own terms. And so I cannot create the intellectual me in the way that I can the artistic one.

What has all this to do with the Radiohead lyric quoted in the title of this post? Well the next line of the song ‘Creep’ is:

I don’t belong here

Next weekend there are two events on my calendar, either of which I could attend. They are both gatherings of organisations I have an association with and, coincidentally, each one has chosen this date to discuss and explore what they are about, what is their mission if you like. The European Radical Theology Group (ERTG) has never met before. It was born out of a desire in its members to translate some of the American based ideas pertaining to Radical Theology (RT) into a European context. It is, despite the name of the group, quite an exciting venture and one I was keen to be involved with when invited to. The second group is Inspire church in Levenshulme where Anne and I attend on a fairly regular basis and have been doing so for the last 7 years or so. That period of time is important because it also spans the same number of years in which I have immersed myself in RT. Indeed it is my attendance at events such as Pete Rollins’ Wake, held each year in his home town of Belfast, that have enabled me to contemplate any involvement in a Christian church setting. I find the exploration of RT ideas through the stories, the beliefs and the experiences of the people I meet at Inspire to be a very worthwhile.

Of course, I cannot attend both and I must decide which I will go to. The decision has been made a little easier in that one is happening 320 miles away in the Netherlands and the other just down the road. Had my desire to attend the ERTG meeting, at which I would have met with some old and dear friends, been sufficiently strong the logistics would have been simple to manage but, unfortunately, it isn’t and this is because I want to spend that day in a place I feel I most belong.

My working definition of belonging is: The point at which the person you think you are can coexist with the person you actually are. I define the person you think you are, who I am – my fantasy self – as the idea of who I am and only I can interact with and relate to this side of me. Whereas the person I actually am, my real self, is the person with whom other people interact and have a relationship with. Therefore if we reside too deeply in our fantasy world then we can’t be where we are and are, in effect, somewhere else. Similarly, if we find ourselves so rooted in our present situation that we can envisage no other possibility then we’re trapped and held prisoner by it. Accordingly, neither scenario can be called belonging.

My fantasy of becoming an intellectual is what draws me to Utrecht and the ERTG, and, as I have suggested, realising that is beyond my capabilities and ensures that I will never belong there despite my being far more susceptible to and sympathetic with their ideas. So I belong at Inspire and I will spend the day with a group of people that I, perhaps, share less intellectual space but with whom I feel an immeasurable sense of connection.

You Spin Me Right Round Baby

Earlier in my life I ran a youth drama group. We were called ‘Weekenders’ and we met, appropriately enough, on a Friday evening at the start of the weekend. We didn’t actually do much drama towards the end despite a couple of pantomimes when we started out. They were hard work, especially for the leaders, and after a few years I realised that the real value of the group was in creating a space in which the kids (age range was mainly 9 – 14) could be more or less themselves. They could push ideas about who they were or wanted to be and they would be taken seriously. Every week we would have what we called ‘circle time’ during which the group would sit in a circle and each would have the chance to share something of their week – a bit of news or something they found interesting – and everyone had an equal opportunity to voice their thoughts. I cannot lie and say it didn’t have its awkward moments and it was all wholesome and fun but the intention was clear and if they bought into it then it was a worthwhile exercise for all involved.

I am reminded of this because the second series of ‘The Circle’ is currently back on our TV screens. For those of you unfamiliar with the specifics of the show, it comes under the umbrella of what has become know as ‘reality TV’ and is comparable to Big Brother or Love Island. The basic premise of putting a bunch of strangers ‘together’ in an unfamiliar space and watching what ensues is now a fairly well worn trope, what differentiates a programme like The Circle from the rest – its USP if you will – is that the participants never meet their fellow competitors until they are ‘blocked’ (removed from the game) or the whole thing ends. The only means of communication permitted is through ‘circle chats’. These involve the exchange of worded messages via a set of interactive screens positioned in all rooms of each of the flats. They can be with other specific players or the group as a whole. At the start of the series or when a new player replaces one that has left they must set up their profile. This consists of a brief explanation of who they are, their ‘bio’, and a couple of photos that they hope will depict them in a way that everyone finds pleasing. The point is that this profile can bear absolutely no resemblance to who they actually are. They can make up a story and use pictures of friends or random people to back that story up. Or they can be themselves. It is in this detail on which a fairly mundane, it must be said, programme largely twists and turns.

I am trying to complete this before the series ends and we discover which approach has won the day. On one side we have a recruitment consultant from Liverpool called James who is masquerading as single mother Sammie. I understand that this is referred to in modern parlance as ‘catfishing’. His main profile picture is one of a real mother and her baby son. James, seemingly, has no qualms in deceiving the other players and manipulating them in such a fashion. Tim, who is Jammie’s main rival to win, is almost diametrically opposed to Jammie in virtually every aspect of his life and, importantly, very specifically in the way he is conducting himself in the show. Tim’s profile picture is of bearded man in his 50s with a cat on his shoulder. Tim is a bearded man in his 50s who has a couple of pet cats. The rest are split evenly into which camp they are in, though notably, only those in Jammie’s corner realise they are actually in a cabal at all. The ‘Circle of Trust’ is the somewhat ironic name for the Jammie ‘massiv’. Who will win is anyones guess. A large part of me wants Tim to prevail and strike a blow for integrity but, equally, this is a game and you cannot argue that Jammie is playing it remarkably well. I am not sure the rest of the viewing public are as ambivalent as me – the whole thing is, very aptly for our times, taking a very binary turn, but I am certain we all look forward to the point at which Tim and Jammie come face to face and the realisation of what they have been through dawns. Catfish meets cat lover – the fur will fly – meooooowwwwwwwww!

The parallels with our use of social media are as obvious as they are intentional. It is widely accepted that there is generally some, what shall we call it, embellishment in the way we portray ourselves on Instagram or Facebook. That’s ok, isn’t it? We have a fantastic idea of who we are or would like to be and this did not start with the introduction of ‘socials’. What we are now able to do is to tell the world our fantasies, we can introduce everyone to our future selves – they might even be able to help us bring them to life. This merging of fantasy and reality, you becoming you, is the way in which I think we start find true belonging.

In The Circle James can never become Sammie and I think he will regret that he didn’t make the most of the opportunity that this experience gave him. He never seems to relax, always stood up and pacing the floor fretting. Meanwhile, Tim who is obviously a long way to becoming the person he believes he is relaxes on his sofa with his cat by his side. Tim has from the outset been the most settled person in the show. He has had many anxious moments but never about who he is. Everyone else is somewhere between the two. James may well walk away with the £100,000 prize. That amount of money changes lives. He clearly thought that was the most important reason to be in the process when he started out. I wonder if the experience has changed that?

And what of my Weekenders? I have yet to see any of them starring in a Hollywood blockbuster but there is still time for that. Whatever they become, whoever they become, I hope they look back on those Fridays as fondly and as warmly as I do and feel that they made the most of the time we all shared.

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t h e r e i s n o n e e d t o p r o v i d e m e w i t h m o r e o f y o u

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t o l o o k t o o d e e p l y i n t o y o u w o u l d m e r e l y c o n f u s e t h i n g s a n d w o u l d o f f e r n o f u r t h e r i n s i g h t

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Where For Art Thou?

A former Art shop/gallery on Deansgate in Manchester

I must have walked past this shop many times whilst it was engaged in its self-appointed mission to keep art affordable. From the evidence of this photograph it would appear that they were not up to the task. Or perhaps they succeeded and the price of keeping art affordable is the very business you set up in order to do so. Their venture was doomed from the start, I hope it was worth it.

I am sure that there are many people who argue that art should not only be affordable, it should be free. I am even more certain that Damien Hirst is not one of them.

Damien Hirst statue ‘Charity’ pictured next to my wife Anne at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The suggestion is not that artists like Hirst who are earning their living through their creativity should not be getting paid for their endeavours. Hirst has famously made unimaginable amounts of money from producing art that very rich people want to own. He draws his inspiration from the world around him and the recollections of his childhood – the piece above ‘Charity’ is a remodelling in bronze of the Spastics Society collection box that used to stand outside shops in the 1970s. You can only see her callipered legs here, the thing is huge as you can see by the perspective Anne’s inclusion provides. I presume the sculpting was done by Hirst himself thought that is never certain as he employs a team of people to actually produce some of his most famous art works. That doesn’t make them any less genuine as artefacts but it does pose some questions to me around the whole process of creating and creativity.

Mcr Street Poem
Part of the art produced by Manchester Street Poem at the Manchester International Festival 2019 on display at the offices of the charity Mustard Tree based in North Manchester.

The questions were raised partly through my encounter with the people behind Manchester Street Poem (MSP) and my conversations with some of the artists involved. If you have not heard of MSP I would urge you to take a look around their site http://mcrstreetpoem.com/. This extract is taken from the 2017 Manchester International Festival (MIF) website and describes how the idea was conceived and developed at that years festival:

Conceived by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith from UnderworldManchester Street Poem threw a spotlight onto the stories of those who find themselves homeless in the city – in a work where the catch-all term ‘homeless’ gave way to individuality, identity and integrity.
Manchester Street Poem brought to life the stories of people who are homeless in Manchester in a work that was both fleeting performance and compelling installation. As Hyde covered the walls of the venue with words and phrases drawn from the streets, the space was filled with a powerful soundtrack built on snatches and fragments recorded by Smith all over the city.
Co-created by Underworld and individuals with personal experience of homelessness, Manchester Street Poem proudly broadcast the voices of those who so often go unheard and ignored.

For the festival this year they adopted a slightly different approach. The art work was produced in a workshop based in a disused car showroom. It retained the elements of the previous incarnation – stories painted onto cardboard – but it was then photographed and printed onto large posters for display in festival square. As the workshop was just around the corner from where I worked I would find myself dropping in at lunchtime or after work to talk to the artists involved.

The people I met at the workshop all attested to the benefit of being able to express themselves through the telling of their stories. These were people who had been badly affected by events in their lives. Most had ended up living on the streets and substance abuse as a response to this was commonplace amongst them. There was no single reason why they had all gone through their respective traumas as you will see as you read and listen to their accounts, though there was a much more clearly identifiable explanation of how they were pulling themselves through it and out the other side. That reason being the possibilities that creative expression offers us.

For those involved in MSP is wasn’t so important that they analyse how they had come to be there, as important as that clearly was, the key to getting through it was that there might be the chance that things could be different for them in the future. This is what distinguishes art from science. Science offers us explanations for how things are or how they should be. It is all about probabilities whereas art allows us to explore the possibilities of how things could be.

The chance of a different future, the possibilities that we can reveal to ourselves through art, through the creative process, is not just open to recognised ‘artists’ like Hirst. As the MSP experience shows, we can all do this for ourselves.

‘Anniversary’ by Anita Klein . This is the card I gave to Anne on the anniversary of 32 years of marriage.

This final piece of art is the card I gave to Anne on our 32nd wedding anniversary. Anniversaries are a celebration of the past. They are a marking of time, in the case of a wedding anniversary this is the time two people have spent together in marriage. I love the way the people in this image are embracing. They are together and yet the look from the female suggests that whilst she is safe and secure in the embrace, in the relationship, there is still more to come.

There are still possibilities for each of us and for us both together. We have created a relationship in which we can both grow as individuals and we can grow together as a couple.

Arty McArtface

I have been considering art for the past few weeks. These are the images that have stimulated my thoughts. I wanted to post them separately as images because I think they are thought provoking enough in that form but I am currently writing something that links them together….

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Regrets I’ve Had a Few

I am currently on holiday (in the sun) in (on?) Crete. Yesterday we did something we rarely do when vacationing, we went on an organised excursion. I really don’t know why we have seeming steadfastly baulked at such adventures in the past. Probably because of the children though they may have been a comfortable excuse as they have been for many activities we had no heart to participate in. We went on a Cretan Safari. I know, it does sound vaguely shit and we may never have plumped for it had it not been for the recommendation of Julie, the receptionist at the very splendid Mythos Suites Hotel. The previous day we had taken a splendid walk through the hills around Rethymno in the company of some fellow ‘Happy Walkers’, again on her personal recommendation, so we were on fairly solid ground we felt.

We got to the pick up point to be greeted by a very jovial Cretan named George who informed us that we would be on a virtual private tour in his Land Rover Discovery due to there only being 4 of us travelling with him today. This, clearly, could be a good and a bad thing – no one gets to schlep around in the back of the vehicle but what if you don’t get on with the others in the party? As it happened our fears were allayed when we picked up Paula and Diana from their hotel and after exchanging some pleasantries we embarked on our intrepid safari together.

The reason for telling you this story is to introduce you to George and to contextualise the various musings he shared with us throughout the day. From the start we knew that George was going to be a talkative kind of guide, he wasn’t going to just drive us to the designated stopping points, he was determined to give us the full world according to George and boy what a world that is. The first significant pause in our journey was to look around one of the 2464 (approx) churches on Crete. It is the custom in Greek Orthodox places of worship to light candles for ones prayers, symbolically casting light on the dark areas of our lives – death, suffering etc., but this was not Georges reasons for doing so. George would light 3 candles; one was for the living, for each and everyone of us, the second for peace, if we can all learn to put our differences aside then we can all live together, and finally for memories. We are the product of that has gone before and we must continue to acknowledge and pay due diligence to those stories and thoughts from the past. Nice thoughts from what was clearly a nice man. The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. We did have a rather surreal period just after lunch during which George’s duet of ‘My Way’ with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, segued into a story of his love and tragic loss of a white horse in the hills around Spili. He showed us his Facebook profile picture to attest to his equine devotion. We were moved and all thoughts of Father Ted and My Little Horse were quickly expunged from our minds.

Towards the end of the day, the Raki had been duly administered in almost lethal doses so we were all feeling a little mellow, George pulled up on a hill over looking Rethymno and it was here he was to impart his great idea, his magnum opus. In the grand tradition of Land Rover based Greek philosophy we were about to make a great discovery of our own.

“Do you know where civilisation began?” He asked. He probably nudged me at the same time as I was in the front of the vehicle with him and he was what can only be described as a ‘nudger’. “Er, Ancient Greece” I opined. “Nope”. “China?”, “Iraq?”, “the Middle East?”. Every one of our increasingly desperate attempts to provide a viable response were greeted with solid Greco-Cretan “Ochi” (No).

“Civilisation was not created in the mountains where everything is fixed and final – a tree is a tree, a mountain is always there, no, my friends (we were at that level by now) civilisation was born on the beach”. Oh, we all thought, not quite sure where he was going with this. “On the beach, what can you see?”. We were getting used to these rhetorical questions from George, I am not entirely sure he intended them to be but we certainly had no answers that satisfied him. “The horizon!!” Was the answer. He continued “the horizon is different for us all and it is ever changing, always out there, that, my friends, is freedom, that is civilisation”. I would like to say that with that he put on his sunglasses, turned up whatever Sting song was currently playing from his USB stick and thrust the Land Rover Discovery into gear before wheel spinning away.

Alas, he didn’t. He carried on ‘explaining’ his theory though never quite clarifying it further. Eventually, he returned us to our hotels and we all parted, in the way people do now, amidst promises to perhaps become Facebook friends.

Like most I tend to take pictures while I am away and this year is no exception (I shall post a link to the Flickr album when I am back). What I am doing slightly differently is using a fixed 50mm lens on my Canon DSLR.

There are two reasons for this; one is practicality – the lens is small and keeps the camera handier to carry, the second is a bit more esoteric. The thing with a lens of fixed focal length is that you cannot make adjustments for distance that allow you to capture more, or less, in the photograph. If I want to change my perspective I literally have to do that and move closer or further away. I like this idea, in effect it means that I must bend my will to that of the world. The move can only be mine to make.

There are many ways in which we can distort our viewpoint, our perspective, to make our interactions with the world a highly individualised experience – to do it ‘my way’ – but I wonder just how sustainable and beneficial many of these are. The very fact that I am in Crete in May is to allow myself to enjoy some sun and warmth at a time when it is in scarce supply back in the UK will have a harmful impact on the planet as a result of my flying here.

There are few fixed things in this world of seemingly constant change, but, as George pointed out, there is a permanence that the trees and the mountains have. Our seemingly insatiable western demand to have things the way we want them is causing untold damage to both and before long we may only have the featureless horizon to look at.

The horizon is generally used as a symbol of the limits of our imaginations, seemingly endless and open to all possibilities, and many would use something of this in their definition of freedom. There is another way to look at it and it could well be that the limitless possibilities, far from being liberating, are actually constraining. The pressure to do anything, the idea that we are able to do and be who we want can be tangible and oppressive. For most people in the world this is just simply not the case and never will be. Might it not better to experience the world as it is – a world of semi-permanence and constraint, a world in which true freedom might be experienced in knowing ones responsibilities and having the capability to fulfill those obligations?

I confess that there are times (I’m sure you knew) when I like nothing more than to lie on a sunlit beach, basking in the warmth of its heat and dreamily staring at the distant, unchanging horizon but then I go home unchained but not unchanged, back to doing what I need to do and, hopefully, doing some of the things I want to.

You Are Enough

This title is the brilliant art concept by Micah Purnell.

I am currently composing something in response to the idea. This is the first idea I have put down so far, there will be more to come and some words so do please check back in soon for a listen or link to my SoundCloud page to listen directly to this and other pieces of music by me.

You’ve Got To Roll With It

Today has been a baking day.

The first picture is a sourdough loaf I made from a brilliant new book Katy bought me for my birthday. It is called ‘Flour Water Salt Yeast’ and it explains how you can just use these four basic ingredients to make really interesting artisan style bread.

You basically work with time and temperature to attempt to produce different results from your bake. The loaf above was prepared last night and left to prove in the fridge over night before baking in time for lunch. The bread tastes every bit as good as it looks and it without doubt the best ‘plain’ loaf I have made.

I am really grateful to Paul Hollywood and his ‘Bread’ book for introducing me to the joys of baking ones own bread but this new book is going to take it to another level I feel if it hasn’t already.

I will explain the process in more detail on another day.

The sausage rolls are precisely what they claim to be although there is a bit of mustard in there to give them a kick. Really easy to make and really tasty and this is the recipe if you are interested.

Take a Cha Cha Cha Chance

I posted this picture along with several others in a post last night about it being Anne’s birthday. I wanted to highlight this image though and explain a bit about why it is significant.

The first thing to note is that we are all there at the allotted time and place. We planned this meal out at Evuna in Manchester’s Northern Quarter some weeks before and we have not always executed such plans as well as we did this day. We make do – someone forgot to make the booking, someone forgot the date and arranged something else – and we make the best of it. But not this day, we booked and we all turned up.

We all got on really well. Some of our recent efforts at family social time have been fraught to say the least. No family get on with each other all the time, that isn’t how families work and some of the tensions cannot be suppressed, no matter how important the occasion is, and they inevitably spill over. When that happens we make do – we make the best of it.

We are nearly all wearing sunglasses with only Tom wearing my reading glasses. This is somewhat ironic as three of the pairs the rest of us have on belong to Tom. No one is really sure why he owns so many but the really annoying thing is that he looks pretty good in all of them. We were trying to ascertain which pairs suits the rest of us.

There is someone missing. Katy’s partner, also called Tom, had his own family commitments that day and was unable to join with us. We enjoy a really good relationship with Tom and he has become a much loved member of the family so we were saddened by his absence but, you know what we did, we made do – we made the best of it.

As punts go this was clearly not most risky but then they don’t have to be to blow up in your face. It is almost always easier to avoid situations that might go in a direction you would rather they didn’t. But when you take a cha cha cha chance it’s invariably worth it.

Except when it isn’t, but then you make do – you make the best of things….

Anne’s Birthday

I love our family celebrations. The shape of our family has changed a lot in the past five years. Today would have been a very different day.

Friday was Adams 18th, the last of the children coming of age.

So now they are all adults.

Where next?

some more photography