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Flashback

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Last week, the lovely Academic, Hopeful tagged me in a meme-type post about folders and photos.  An easy diversion, a good way to kick-start the blog again.  Pick the 10th photo of your first folder of photos and post it.  So here’s Greece, the summer I graduated from high school.  My toes in the lower right-hand corner; a Vodaphone ferry taking off from the port at Parikia on Paros.  I was sunbathing after a breakfast of yogurt, honey, and fresh fruit. I was reading either The Green Hills of Africa or Lady Chatterly’s Lover. I was recovering from a nasty cold, wearing a new candy-striped bikini I’d bought in town the day before.  Look at that sky.  That sea. It was the mildest water I’ve ever felt.  It’s easy to fall into this photograph now, in the grey and gloom of an Oxford November.  I wouldn’t want to be seventeen again, abroad on my own for the first time.  Everything felt so intense–the colours, the tastes, everything I did, smelled, felt.  The sunburn and the cool relief of an evening wind.  I was over-saturated in experience.  Still, it was beautiful, and still, on a night like this, only half-past-four and the darkness settling in,  I think I could use a little nap in the sunshine.

Since we’re talking of sunshine, I’m tagging my mom, who writes this beautiful blog from her warm home in California…

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We tell ghost stories on the way home.  It’s dark; Port Meadow is black, the river is silver and still.  We have bike lights and a parafin lantern.  A mist covers the ground, as if we’re wading through it.  I can see my breath, feel the tingle of my fingers. 

Earlier we walked the other direction.  It was early afternoon, light, grey, the trees bent over the water.  The dog picked up impractical sticks and we sipped from a small bottle of whiskey.  Amazing how quickly we could be palpably outside the city.  Smelling woodsmoke from narrowboats and surrounded by green and brown; the golden stones of Oxford had dissolved, the spires dissapeared behind a puffy cloud.  My wellies rubbed raw a spot on my foot, the same spot on the same foot that had been rubbed raw so many times before.  We came to a crumbling nunnery; now just a field walled in, the outline of a church.  We ate apples at the pub and drank wine waiting for our lunch. 

Now we tell ghost stories but there’s nothing eerie about this stillness.  The eerie part is re-entering the city, coming suddenly to a well-lit bridge, passing parked cars, pubs, restaurants, cashpoints, closed shops, kebab vans.  It’s crowded, though there aren’t many people out tonight. 

Meanwhile, I’ll get back into blogging, but my time seems to be consumed at the moment by a thousand little things–working, writing, eating, sleeping, cleaning, running, planning.  Strolling along the river.  Stay tuned.

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I’m about to be a part of something really cool.  Next month, I’m going to New York with Xander and Ben for a sort of tour 2.0-type thing.  We’re calling it Man (hat on).  There’s even a logo (and the likelihood of t-shirts).  No, I’m not a musician.  My misguided adolescent foray into the world of string instruments is likely as far as I’ll ever go, musically.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because–although there will be music involved (provided mainly by Ben, obviously), this is really a tour about freedom, and doing what you like, and creating things.

We’re playing with this idea of “sustainable creativity”, you see.  It’s about using communities and ideas to sustain yourself, so that you’re able to do what you love doing.  It’s simple, on paper: if you’re a writer, you find a way to write.  If you’re a musician, you find the support you need to play gigs and write songs.  If you’re someone without a clearly defined path, someone who just likes to play with ideas—it means finding a way to do that.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t.  Creative output takes a lot of time, energy, love, and support, not only from the creator, but also from his or her community.  The problem is that many of us are saddled with a lot of extra baggage.  We have bills to pay and debts to pay off.  We have social and professional obligations that rigidly divide our days. Very likely we’re burdened with a “real job”—which we may find intellectually dull and emotionally empty, but necessary nonetheless (I mostly babysit photocopiers and answer telephones grumpily, for instance).

And in an era where time is money, how do you justify spending a few hours every day on your craft?  How do you find a few hours every day?  It’s impossible to underestimate the negative power of financial constraints.  If you constantly spend your time thinking, I should be making money, not fucking around, you quickly become creatively impotent.

So suppose we make things easier for ourselves.  Suppose, to start, we surround ourselves with other, similarly minded, creatively charged people, and become a kind of micro-community based on the idea of mutual inspiration.  This removes a number of barriers, and in their places, provides us with a number of opportunities.  It gives us an automatic audience, a built-in sounding-board, a kind of creativity support group.  It allows for collaborative effort and means that even an ordinary trip to the pub can result in a great idea.  In a way, it combines the social aspect of our lives with the creative aspect, thus gaining us time as well as emotional backing.

Well, that’s good.  That’s a source of motivation and stimulation.  But we’re still stuck with that bland job, those pesky bills, all the worries that get us down.  Even if we have a micro-community of like-minded creatives, we’re still not going anywhere. Not yet.

The next thing to do, then, is to give up the rock star dream.  Forget, for a moment, that you want to be the next superstar of the rock n’ roll, or literary, or art, or whatever world.  And remember why you started singing, or writing, or drawing, or playing with ideas, in the first place.  Innovative solo bass player Steve Lawson writes prolifically, and very well, about this: “I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star.  The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.”  And, Steve adds, “The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.”  And what we’re trying to say is: not just musicians.  Anyone who wants to make anything should be listening to Steve on this point.

It sounds cheesy, but this is an idea about survival and satisfaction, not about making a profit, not about constantly striving, clawing your way up the celebrity hierarchy.  This is an idea about how you can do what you love doing—what you would be doing anyway–and earn enough from it to justify doing it as something more than a hobby.  To earn enough from it to recoup your costs, eat a meal or two.  Eventually, to earn enough from it to pay all those bills, to live comfortably, to buy a new pair of boots (or the male equivalent) when you need to.  But to start, it’s only about getting by.

Luckily, that built-in creative community—even if it’s just a group of two or three people—is the key.  Gone are the days when any artist can continue to cling to the alcoholic outcast myth and hope that her lonely genius will be discovered.  There’s just too much stuff out there for that to be a viable tactic.  There are literally thousands of other musicians writing songs and putting them up on the Internet.  Thousands of other filmmakers uploading clips to YouTube.  Thousands of other writers with blogs.  Thousands of other painters with thousands of canvases stacked up in their basement.  And every single one of them can publicize themselves, advertise themselves, with the click of a button.  Passivity and sheer luck may work for some; but the only way to guarantee a sustainable, creative life is to actively seek one out.

So you start with a tiny community.  A few friends.  Maybe you start at the pub, where ideas can flow unchecked by the ordinariness of daily life.  And you realize that actually, there’s a lot of overlooked potential in the world.  You buy some tickets to New York.  You decide that you’re going to prove this theory by living it.

So we are three people, with different skills and ambitions but a common goal of creating things and doing cool stuff, taking a week off work.  We’re going to pack up our guitars, our laptops, our brains, and head across the Atlantic, where we’re going to do what what love, and what we’re good at, and find a way to survive.  We’re going to stay cheaply (with friends, on couches).  We’re going to earn just enough to recoup our travel expenses, and hopefully have enough left over for a few beers at the end of the day.

There are, of course, one or two things that anybody sensible might want to ask.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, there are some things that I had to ask myself as I wrote this all down:

But isn’t hunger/poverty/whatever a good creative motivator?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (see my post on this here).  But this isn’t about “making it” as an artist, necessarily (though it certainly could be); it’s about literally surviving off your own work.  It’s not about becoming great whilst (or even as a result of) stealing bread and sleeping on the street, but about using whatever greatness you already possess to buy bread, pay your rent, and get by.  It’s simply meant to be proof that you can, if that’s what you want to do.

Okay.  But by making it as much about money as the creative output itself, aren’t you somehow tainting your work?  Aren’t you basically selling out, on a minute scale?

This is really where the word “sustainability” comes in.  This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative-type, so that you can create more.  Ultimately it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money; the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

This is all very theoretical.  What’s the end result?

The end result is whatever you want it to be.  In theory this is a limitless idea.  That’s the beauty of it.  In practice, it may have more limitations than I currently anticipate.  But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to let you know.  In the meantime, please check out the Man (hat on) site, and follow our progress, and be a participant in this crazy idea.

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Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.

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So, I’m in Dublin.  It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on this blog (let’s be honest: it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything, period).  I did write a post a few nights ago.  It was all about how I walked by a big semi-detached house on the Iffley Road on my way to the pub and heard a weird screaming noise that could have either been someone in pain, or someone having sex, or else a fox experiencing some kind of excitement.  The post was witty, it was hilarious, it was beautiful and brilliant.  And it got mysteriously deleted.  So I’d like to say that I’m suffering some sort of WordPress-induced post-traumatic stress syndrome; but mostly, I’m just lazy, and a little busy.

And now I’m in Dublin.  We’re staying in an almost-swanky 70s concrete-block hotel.  It’s huge; I mean, it takes us ten minutes just to get to the elevators from our room.  We got a good deal on the place, and I’m not going to lie: I like it better than the funky hostel alternative.  It makes me feel more adult.  We get free shampoo!  The duvet is fluffy and white! There’s internet access and instant coffee!  The lobby has one of those über-shiny faux-marble floors!  Mostly it means that I can fart in bed and walk around naked without worrying what other people might think of me.

It’s weird, being here.  I keep having to remind myself that I’m in another country, that I travelled to get here.  There’s no jet-lag or language barrier, no fog of exhaustion; no sense, really, that I’ve left one place and arrived in another.  It’s almost like being in an alternate-universe version of Britain (apologies to the Man for stealing his analogy)–the same markers (chain restaurants, high street shops, uniformed schoolkids, semi-chic businesspeople) but everything slightly, gently, almost imperceptibly different.

The pubs.  The pubs are beautiful; they’re warm and packed and full of life and beautiful, bright-eyed Irish girls, old men with red cheeks.  They’re also almost horrifically expensive, which proves, I suppose, the determination of the drinking culture here–in a country less devoted to its cups, the 5 euro pints would surely drive drinkers either underground or to other pursuits.

It’s nice to be in a city, a real city.  In Oxford we’re spoiled by beauty, and in London overwhelmed by the sheer scale of things.  But here I’m reminded of Boston, which is manageable but bustling, charming but grimy.  Walking through St. Stephen’s Green I feel I could easily be in the public gardens next to the Boston Common.

In other news, it’s mostly been cloudy, or almost-cloudy, a few rare shafts of sunlight turning the trees to gold.  I’m glad.  In my mind Dublin is a cloudy city; always a little cold, a little grey, so that the warmth of a pub is necessary after a long day’s wandering.  If a thin mist wants to fall, all the better.  As I’m writing this, of course, the sun has come out, cast a glorious light over the dark brown stones, and I’m tempted to revise my opinion: it’s a city made to be seen in yellow evening light.  But I won’t, because then I think of Joyce’s Dubliners, “The Dead”, the winter chill, the darkness after the party, the drizzle and snow.

Anyway, more later.  If I spend the entire trip holed up in internet cafés I won’t get to see the city.

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Notes from a trip to River Cottage with Xander and Ben…part five.  Ish.  The River Cottage Autumn Fair is over, but our adventures in Devon (and occasionally Dorset) continue…

Wednesday—Seaton & Beer

Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe the town of Seaton.  It’s comatose.  And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981.  A fact eerily alluded to in the handwritten “RIP Seaton” signs plastered about town.  There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a Costcutter and a Boots.  There are a few pubs, letters missing from their signs.  There are more fish and chip restaurants than anything else.  The colours are garish and the lettering almost universally ugly.

We decide the only thing to do be done is to have fish and chips in the wind on the beach, so we head to the seafront.  At “Frydays” (which advertises, as well as its various awards, that it’s on Google maps), we order cod and chips and then wait, watching the diners slowly finishing lunch.  We are the youngest people in the room by at least 50 years, and everyone appears to have ordered the exact same thing: cod and chips.

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We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall.  The beach is open and bland; the sea, pale and windswept, is beautiful, and a few swimmers bob near the shore.  My fish drips with grease and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless senior citizens).  Vinegar, mayonnaise, the smell of sea salt in the air and the heat of the sun on our faces.  Surely this is a quintessential English experience.  After, we lie back exhausted on the stony beach, as if it’s been a great effort just to consume so much fat.  I wash my hands in the sea.  Our minds are heavy with sleep and our hearts drooping with a strange kind of sorrow for this dying town, and its dying population.  To the left and right, nothing but a stony beach; and handsome cliffs glinting in the sunlight, and a green-and-blue ocean full of fish but peaceful to the naked eye.

We make our way back to the car via a few shops.  One sells jewelery, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles.  I buy an edition of Browning’s poetry, English Essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926.  Ben finds a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys’ School.  Then we move on to the record shop–“Soundbytes”–which also sells cassettes, video tapes, DVDs, and an odd assortment of useless objects (statuettes, old beer mats).  I wonder aloud if it’s coincidence that all the shops also sell wooden canes outside.

We don’t hold out much hope for Beer.  Surely the novelty of the town will merely be in the name–but we feel we must go, anyhow, so that we can make all the requisite puns, so that we can say to our friends when we return that we had a beer in Beer, ha ha ha, so that we can laugh at all the signs (“Beer Social Club” etc).

Surprising, then, that Beer turns out to be lovely, a handsome village tucked into a hillside, with a steep ramp leading down to a beach teeming with fishermen and boats.  We buy two fresh plaice and spend a few minutes making plaice jokes (“looks like we’ll need plaice mats tonight,” I say).  We watch a pair of fishermen lug a dead conger eel the size of a sumo wrestler from their boat.  They dump it in a bucket, where its milky flesh is still apparent, and carry the bucket (struggling with the weight) down the beach, to an apparently random spot, where they dump the eel out and, watched by a gaggle of curious children, begin to gut the thing.

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We have a few beers in a garden overlooking the sea, and remember our awkward youths.  We were uncomfortable, geeky kids: black painted nails, Doc Martens, computer games.  I recall with some chagrin a photograph of my 14-year-old self, in fishnet tights and dyed-maroon hair, staring seriously into the camera on the Fourth of July.

The sun sets slowly over Beer; we make a few more plaice puns.  How far we’ve come, I think, half-ironically.  How far we’ve come.

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Strolling the busy streets of Musbury.  Ben looking tipsy and Xander looking authoritative.  Neither was either.

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Did I mention the band that opened for Ben was called “Itchy and Scratchy”?

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Ben Walker vs. the River Cottage Chickens

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A real, live, authentic River Cottage Chicken.

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Geeks.

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The man himself, Mr. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

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Down time with Xander and Ben.

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He was a big hit with the kids.

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Oh you know.  Just hanging out.

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This handsome fennel-seed salami caused Ben a great deal of distress, and Xander and me a great deal of amusement.

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Heading back to the cabin.

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We’ve seen some fairly spectacular sunsets.

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