19/02/2015

twenty years in st petersburg

[St Petersburg, Russia, September 2014]

A lot can change in twenty years.

Twenty years ago it was 1994 and I was five and then six. I had a Thunderbirds duvet cover, I played Chuck Rock on an Amiga 500+ and my dream was to become a postman. The days were easy. I had no idea at that age what it would feel like to have a hairy face, or what it would feel like to share a smile with an unknown girl in a bar and what it would feel like to experience the bristling disbelief of heartbreak. Although known for being shy, my 1994 school report referred to my dancing in PE as:

"Expressive."

Some things really can change. 

Elsewhere in 1994 things were happening. Blur released Girls & Boys, the second Mighty Ducks movie came out, the Channel Tunnel opened and my Dad went to St Petersburg with a disposable camera in his pocket. 

My Dad travelled to Russia to do some electrical work in a children's hospital for a BBC TV show. He had only a matter of hours to sightsee once that project finished, meaning he took very few images of anything in particular.

Twenty years later I was walking around St Petersburg on a warm September morning. A sort of scruffy pilgrim, I'd gone to Russia to do some research for the book I'd started writing about my Dad's life. I wanted to feel connected to an adventure of his, so I gave myself twenty hours there to sip vodka and recreate his pictures. It felt silly, but it felt meaningful. I've always enjoyed brief and frenzied travels

With my Dad's pictures in my pocket next to a disposable camera of my own, I walked around looking for the scratchy and out of focus world he'd seen twenty years ago. 


smolny cathedral



Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg
1994

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg
2014



the church of the saviour on the spilled blood



The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
1994

The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg
2014


admiralty spire



Admiralty Spire, St Petersburg
1994

Admiralty Spire, St Petersburg
2014


smolny cathedral


Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg
1994

Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg
2014


winter palace


Winter Palace, St Petersburg
1994

Winter Palace, St Petersburg
2014

Perhaps for the first time, I realised my Dad was real. He stood in places and saw things. He lived.

12/02/2015

moving on

[Bristol, UK, January 2015]



'Don't. Don't do it.' R had concern in his voice. It was late on Friday night, or Saturday morning, but I could pick out concern.

'Why not? It'll be funny.' My right thumb was hovering above my phone. There was some text on the screen.

'It won't be funny. You think it's funny now, but it won't be funny in the morning.'

'It's 4am. It's already the morning so it's already funny.'

'It won't be funny when you wake up, and it definitely won't be funny when she wakes up and reads that.'

'It'll be fine, I'll just explain that it was funny.'

'She won't let you explain. Don't send it.'

My phone made its way back into my pocket. I'd sent the message before the conversation had even started.

---


All sorts of things happen in life that have a definite next step. If you're late you call somebody. If you move into a new place you fill up the fridge. If you miss a call from an unknown number you spend hours hooked on the mystery. Breakups are less defined. How do you start dating again after several years out? How can you possibly tell when you're ready? How do you know if you even want to move on?

For a while I gave up on the thought of moving on completely. I'd seen the shimmering best and the blistering worst of love, and in the six months after it ended I all but decided that I'd politely shun companionship from there on. Easier that way. Like everyone who goes through heartache, though, I reached a point where I missed the in-jokes, the chats about nothing much by the toaster, the person who knew the ins and outs of my brain. Eventually, I wanted to know the answer to the question in my head: How do you know when you're ready for something new? I met a friend who had recently been through a similar process. I thought he might know what to do.

'What happens next?' I asked R on a dozy Friday afternoon in the pub. His actual name contains many other letters.

'I've no idea!' He laughed, uselessly.

'There should be a club for people like us,' I offered, 'where newly single people can all be in the same room, and together we can figure out what to do next.'

'You mean like the pub in the morning?'

That's the thing. Beginning a new game for the first time in several years isn't straightforward. The board and the rules feel completely alien even if the pieces are the same. It's like going from checkers to backgammon. You're older and you're different, and people are meeting people on apps now. There's no club where somebody briefs you on the landscape. You just guess.

R's advice was to join everyone else by loading some coal into the internet. Try online dating, he suggested. He'd just started dabbling himself but I was reluctant, as if it represented a firm product of moving on that I wasn't ready to accept. At that point I didn't know if I even had moved on, so I told him that I wanted to do things offline instead and just see who I met and where. The idea of online dating made me feel uneasy, in that I might miss an opportunity to meet someone in the real world as a result of holding out for the one-page person who feels the same way as me about the latest Real Estate record.

Offline means letting serendipity do the steering. It means doing silly things, like taking trips to places for little reason other than to walk on cobbles and see who might be there. It also means being broadly exposed to the boundaries of acceptable Englishness. Feeling compelled to say hello to someone is one thing, but there's a difference between being someone who says hello to someone else in a lift and, well, being someone who says hello to someone else in a lift. The benefit of meeting in the real world, though, is that if you get it right it can make something mundane strong in story. I'd rather spend years alone, waiting to get on the right train at the right time, than have to explain that I met someone through an endorsement on LinkedIn.

It means that, when you do meet someone by accident late at night and get to know them a bit, there's an energy there. It helps you build the comforting illusion that you might have met for a reason.

---


'Why do you want to see her if you're moving to London?' R asked later that afternoon. I'd met a girl a few weeks before, kind of by chance. A midnight hello in diagonal rain. R had a point, though. Why leave anything behind? I had no clever answer, only the looming feeling that I was enjoying getting to know somebody new.

There's a reveal in that sentence. After three years away, London is clawing me back. London has always been the terrier on my trouser leg, and I'm finally giving in to the idea that it's the future. Bristol had never represented the future in quite the same way. It's never had the middle-of-the-night palette of the capital, and has friend-zoned me for so long that I can't feel any attachment to it. London has always been the curiosity, the place that gives, gives and takes, takes.

There was a moment when I last worked in London, in 2012, when I watched a taxi driver outside Tower Hill station let some tourists sit in the driver's seat of his black cab for a photograph. It was early autumn, all browns and golds. The tourists got in and sat down one-by-one to take pictures of each other, pictures that probably then ended up on the internet and in front of the eyes of their friends. It was a sweet thing to observe. Distracted by what was going on, I smiled to myself and failed to notice the curb ahead of me. I walked off the edge without breaking stride and was swept with a variety of surprise that moved quickly from my face to my knees. Before my hands had any opportunity to intervene I was hugging the floor.

Life.

I've always had that kind of relationship with London. There was this one time in Covent Garden when I was given a free cup of coffee and, in my haste to grab my phone and share the news, I dropped an egg sandwich in perfect time with my step meaning as it fell I kicked a blob of egg mayo onto the shin of a passing lady. It feels like the good things that happen in London belong not to the individual but to the city. It owns and it takes, but gives enough positivity amidst the frenzy to guarantee that you'll come back.

There's nothing quite so powerful as moving on in a physical sense. London means moving on. It’s the new start, the last hope, the swinging door in the saloon.

---


My phone lit up. It was her. London or not, I'd told R that I didn't know why I was meeting the girl but I wanted to anyway. Chance had thrown me a token, one that I didn't expect, and I felt a tedious obligation to see it through. R was helping me think of a decent place to take her for dinner and I was explaining to him the good thing about offline dating.

'The good thing about offline dating,' I explained, 'is that meeting someone in the real world means you've already got something to talk about.' R looked at me as if he expected a wiser point than the one I'd made. 'So,' I continued with a smile, 'I can use that to cover up the boring stuff about me!' I nodded excitedly.

That was the hope, anyway. I'd reasoned that meeting someone in person, without the online prompts of manufactured compatibility, would mean I'd have a certain amount of goodwill I could rely on to begin with. There was already a story, already something to talk about that could plaster over any talk of jobs and real life, topics that might cause her to deliberately plunge her face into her steaming dim sum.

'How do I talk about job things without her running away?' I asked R. 

'Just pretend you're interesting.' He said, quietly crushing my morale.

He was sort of onto something. Since being thrust into singledom I'd tried to re-engage with my sense of identity, just like you're meant to. The first thing I decided to do was start wearing my glasses again, but one time they fell off my face and in trying to catch them with my foot I stubbed my toe on a bookshelf, so I decided to go back to squinting. Being single seemed like an opportune time to reassess my hobbies and perhaps take some tennis lessons, but instead I just ended up drinking more like everybody else.

'When are you meeting her, anyway?' R said.

'Tomorrow, but I need to think of somewhere to take her.' 

After being away from dating for three years, that was a tasking thought. Do you go somewhere with a certain food group that you can use as an emergency talking point? Do you go somewhere outside your usual realm and pretend to know things about the wine you're ordering? Do you just go bowling? It's easy to overdo the admin. Location wouldn't seem to have that much influence either, given that my last relationship started in a restaurant that was recently given a zero rating for food hygiene.

'Just take her to that bar by the river or something. Anyway, put your phone down. Let's have a drink.' R had bought a round of drinks. It was Friday night. I put my phone down, picked up my drink and thought of something to talk about.

'You know when the clouds are moving overhead,' I started, 'is that the clouds moving or is it the earth moving?' I sipped my pint and raised my eyebrows as if I'd asked a question that nobody could possibly be qualified to answer.

R swore under his breath. It began with T. Four letters.

'Fine, let's talk about where you're taking her. When are you going to let her know?'

'I thought I'd text her after a few drinks tonight.'

---


'What have I done?' I coughed. I was coiled on the sofa. It was Saturday morning and I'd not long been awake. My phone was in the pocket it doesn't usually belong in which left me concerned enough to check my recent activity. There, on the screen, were lines and lines of jumbled sentimental nonsense. There were misspellings and big reveals of feeling. It was a lesson in how not to communicate. As I sat there a stripe of light came across the sofa through the gap where the curtains didn't quite meet. The day, and reality, was forcing its way into the room.

'What you did,' R said, clearly enjoying himself, 'is you sent messages to a girl at 4am because you thought it would be funny.'

'I know what I did, but what have I done?' I said, doing little to clear up the situation.

'Well, despite the fact it was going quite well between you two I suspect you've ruined everything.'

We laughed. I rubbed my face a bit.

'Why didn't you stop me?'

'I tried to. You were belligerent. You insisted it would be funny.'

'Was it funny?'

'For me, yes. For you, no, absolutely not. Does it feel funny?'

'No,' I said with resignation, 'not very funny. What should I do next?'

'Probably pretend it never happened,' R suggested, 'although I'm sure she'll make that easy for you because she's never going to talk to you again.'

'I need a cup of tea.'

---


'So, what did she say?' R asked, no doubt knowing the answer that was to follow. It was the afternoon of the aftermath. I showed him my phone. Nothing.

'Ouch,' he said. He'd just knocked his hand against the table in the pub but that was also a comment on the situation I'd put myself in. 'Not seeing her tonight, then?'

'I think perhaps never again.' I said with a darkly amused acceptance of how badly I'd handled something promising.

'Don't worry. You'll make several more mistakes once you're in London and you'll probably enjoy all of them. Going to stick to the offline thing?' R asked.

Yes, I explained at length. London is where serendipity lives. It hangs around on Tube trains and at exhibition openings.

Somewhere between the chance meeting that had led first to the exchange of details and then the plan-making and then the spectacular 4am destruction, R had quietly met someone online. Someone in a similar line of work, with similar interests. Online had worked for him. I asked him how it was going and he looked coy, as if by even asking the question I'd created more static in the room.

'I'm happy,' he said with an honest smile.

'Me too,' I said, meaning it. Despite ballsing things up I felt like I'd got my energy back. A new start.

'You've got London,' R said, 'and I've got this new thing with a girl. Perhaps we've found what we've been looking for the last six months.'

'Maybe,' I said, 'but just don't tell her that at 4am.'

16/08/2014

one night in lille

[Lille, France, August 2014]

The old lady with the accordion covered herself and her instrument with tarp and continued to play underneath her little gazebo. A nearby violinist gave up and packed his gear away. August rain started falling and the darkening streets of Lille thinned out.

Walking down Rue de la Monnaie in the evening rain felt like being in a black and white film. The rich Flemish reds of the buildings were washed out by the dull sky and the bars lining the street were so dim it was hard to tell if they were open. There was a damp, cabbagey smell. I watched a well dressed man hold a newspaper above his head as he ran into a restaurant, and I skipped into a bar nearby. It was nearly empty except for a lady staring down at her espresso. The barman laughed at my sodden shirt and poured me a heady beer. After exchanging greetings he joked that English visitors expect Lille to have the climate of the Mediterranean despite being just over an hour from London on the train. Guilty. Wet and mocked, I ordered another drink. Then more.

Lille is a beautiful city to be lost in. The streets uncurl left and right and each has a curiosity of its own, be it an impossibly narrow townhouse, the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, or buildings with cannonballs in the brickwork as a reminder of the 1792 siege. Like a house of mirrors, it's beguiling enough that you can walk around for hours without realising how far you've strayed. Lille is the cobbled France suited to fleeting visits, couples and hand-holding, and being there alone left me longing for someone else to share it with. That someone else. Her.


Port de Paris, Lille
Port de Paris, Lille

An hour or so later the rain stopped. I settled my tab and walked to Grand Place. As I paused by the fountain to take a picture a mime artist caught my eye and a flower seller loitered. I nervously assumed I was close to becoming involved in performance art. My only ever scrape with street performance was when I was asked to be the supporting legs of a pantomime donkey in Plymouth aged nine. My mum didn't think it was a good idea and I've since realised her wisdom on the matter. With that in mind, I decided that my simplest method of exit was to buy a flower from the looming rose hawker and make a dash for it. They had me good.


Grand Place, Lille
Grand Place, Lille

With the summer rain gone the music had returned. Accordions, strings, harmonicas, some bloke with a keyboard on his lap. It felt young and busy in dry weather, and the tables outside the brasseries were as good as full. A girl coolly stamped out a cigarette and ducked into an oaky kicker bar ahead. That always seems to happen in France. Spirited in several senses, I tipsily decided it was too early to call out Lille as being a place for couples only. Just one more drink, one more hello. Dubious €5 flower limp in my hand, I held my breath and walked into the bar.

13/04/2014

the leaning tower

[Puxton, UK, April 2014]

It's not every day you find a medieval church with a leaning tower just a few miles from where you grew up.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

Holy Saviour's Church is in Puxton, North Somerset, just a few miles from my hometown. A nearby tourist road sign lists it as 13th century. It's a pretty weary cliche, the right-on-your-doorstep thing, but cliche or not it was exciting to discover something medieval nestled away in an area I thought I knew. On a quiet spring Saturday, with nobody around and no noise but the creaking of the oak church door and loud footsteps, it felt like being let in on a secret.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

I don't have any strong personal leanings, but you don't need any connection with belief to appreciate the peace and character of the place. A curly printed sheet at the entrance gives some richness to the modest rustic detail inside. The pulpit and reading desk are Jacobean, the altar rail 17th century, the Royal Arms of George III on the wall dates from 1775, an inscription below a coat of arms on the porch reads 1557, and poking out of the brickwork by the pulpit is the original wrought iron hour glass holder which would've regulated any lengthy Puritan anecdotes. The depth of history is extraordinary.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

I stood in the empty field behind the church, the Somerset levels stretching out beside, looking at the westward lean of the tower through overgrown brambles. The lean is a result of the soft soil upon which the tower stands. The tower began to lean as it was being built, meaning it's shorter than intended - a happy accident that has lasted several hundred years. The further away I walked the more the lean seemed to exaggerate and drag against the rest of the building. The further away, the more beautiful.

Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton
Holy Saviour's Church, Puxton

Puxton is a reminder to look around the places you think you know, in case you don't.

10/11/2013

the world according to wings of china

[Beijing, China, November 2013]

Air China's in-flight magazine is called Wings of China. When it comes to in-flight magazines I'll pick one up, flick through it, screw my face up and shove it back in its holder before the plane starts to taxi. It's become part of my flying ritual, along with wobbling the laminated safety card and seeing how close to my belly the tray table extends.

Wings of China kept my attention for longer than usual.

Inside, it has a feature about what it's like holidaying around the world. How the locals do it, that kind of thing. The thing is, many of the pictures and their captions don't seem to quite fit.

"Christmas is the most important holiday in a year, a time for celebration."

Christmas in the UK is, apparently, a time to dress as santa and run a race. Tradition.

"Germans have 24 days of paid leave entitlements each year."

You know that moment when you remember your national paid leave entitlements? When you throw all your important papers in the air?

"Labor Day is a good opportunity to buy stationery."

Canadians have a designated day for buying discounted lever-arch folders.

"The French have an easy environment to work in."

I'm applying for a job in France.

Absurdism is memorable. Magazines take note.

08/10/2013

scaling daisen

[Mt Daisen, Japan, October 2013]

Mt Daisen is the highest mountain in Japan's Chugoku region. It makes sense then, I suppose, that Daisen carries the meaning great mountain.

Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji
Mt. Daisen from Daisen-ji

Mt. Daisen from Yonago
Mt. Daisen from Yonago

Mountains are best photographed from car parks.

Similar to Mt Fuji, albeit half the size, Mt Daisen is one of those mountains that sticks out of the land like an earthy nipple.

Although I've made it a habit in my life to do things, before scaling Mt Daisen I'd never hiked up a mountain. I'd spent many days hiking, usually with a tent and a bottle of scotch strapped to my back, but I'd always kept my long trudges on flat-ish land.

Mt Daisen isn't flat-ish. The steep trail to the summit, often rocky and narrow with unnerving drops beside, bends in and out of mist as it inches above the trees and clouds that cast shadows over the countryside below.

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mist at around 1,200m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen at around 1,500m

Mt. Daisen hiking trail
Mt Daisen hiking trail

Reaching 1,729m, Mt Daisen might not be among the world's tallest but it's still a few hundred metres higher than any peak in the UK.

Despite being a fairly lanky mountain, it doesn't take an extraordinary level of exertion to get to the top. It's no long walk on the beach, but from the start of the hiking trail in Daisen-ji the summit can be reached in under three-hours and, as I stubbornly proved to those around me, you can do it without using a hiking stick. It's not something that requires adult leg power, either. We saw flocks of small children and even a miniature dog waddling up and down, which provided useful competitive inspiration during stiffer moments.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

At the trail's summit, 1,710m above sea level, clouds can wrap around you quickly. One minute you're admiring the blues and greens that lead out to the Sea of Japan, the next you're shivering inside a giant meringue. The changeable conditions reassure you that you're at the top of something quite big.

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

Mt. Daisen summit
Mt Daisen summit

It's all in the name.