Where is home? – Pico Iyer

‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent.  (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here:

Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages.  For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there.  Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged.  As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move.  I was miserable.  That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush.  Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.

There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears?  Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush.  That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way.  Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home.  I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel  like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there.   But the latter isn’t really what home is about:

“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”  Pico Iyer

That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.

If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you?   And what if they all live in different places?  No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down.  And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.

Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar.  New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing.  I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers.  I’ve never been like that.  My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base.  You may be quite different.

Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live.  I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was.  And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months.  It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time.  Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore.  It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all,  a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do.  I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home?  I think it’s possible.




Where have you been?

Where have you been?Public art at Brayford Basin, Lincoln

I may well be flattering myself that anyone at all is asking themselves where I’ve been, but I’m going to tell you anyway.  Here’s the short version: the removal men broke my computer and the insurance company is still deciding what to do about it, and our existing ISP told us they were no longer dealing with domestic accounts and wouldn’t port our connection.  We then had to set up another one, leaving us without internet for three weeks.  We’re now fully connected internet-wise, but I’m working on Geoff’s old laptop and it’s not very well equipped for photo editing or any kind of serious use.  Still, I’m grateful to have it.

I’ve missed writing for my blog, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get started again once you’ve left it for a while, so I’m writing this to help ease myself back into the whole thing.  I’m going to keep it short, but let’s just say that we seemed to have turned a corner with this move and that things are going surprisingly well, and that I’ll talk more about that later.  I’ve got my photographic mojo back again, and have a load of images to process – not too easy at the moment as all I’ve got on this laptop is an extremely old version of Elements that doesn’t recognise my RAW files and won’t open them, and I have one spare USB port that has to accommodate the printer, my external hard-drive, my camera upload cable, and anything else I need a USB port for.  I’m sincerely hoping it won’t be too long before I have my desktop computer back in working order again, but in the meantime I thought I’d simply say ‘hello’ and confirm that I haven’t fallen off the edge of the world 🙂



On letting your spouse choose your house

Inglenook Cottage

Finally, finally, we found somewhere to live and, oh, the relief. We’d got to the stage where we’d seen almost every possible property on the market, and either they weren’t available to us because of the pet issue or they just wouldn’t work for some reason or another. At that point we succumbed to the pressure on Geoff to start work and so a couple of weeks ago he found a temporary place to stay in Nottingham and began his new job.

The day before he started, he viewed a house that had just come on the market. We were so desperate by that stage that we’d probably have taken it sight unseen had we been allowed, so the fact that he’d have to make a decision without me being there or viewing it seemed a fairly minor issue at the time. He saw it, he said yes to it, and our application got under way.

I’d seen the pictures of it on Rightmove, but I know from experience that these can be highly misleading. Geoff described it to me on the phone that night and I could immediately see some problems. He agreed that it wasn’t ideal, being one room short of what we need and with lots of sloping ceilings that made tall furniture difficult to place, and also being a bit too dark inside for my liking. However, he thought we could manage in the short term – especially bearing in mind that the rent was £150 less than what we’re paying at the moment.

That last bit perked me up a little, and this all sounded fine while I was talking to him, but naturally I went into a mini-meltdown when I put the receiver down and could only see all the things that were wrong about it. Could I really trust him to choose a house for me? I had an ‘oh good grief, what have we done?’ sort of feeling going on and by the time we spoke on the phone again the next evening I’d convinced myself it was all a big mistake.

I calmed down after we talked about it a bit more and the obvious thing was to go and have a look for myself, although it would have made little difference by that time – we didn’t really have any other option, apart from me staying here on my own for the foreseeable future, and I didn’t much like the thought of that either.

So, when he went back to Nottingham on the Sunday evening, I went too, and I viewed the house on Monday morning before coming home by train. And I really liked it! Yes, it is too small, and I have no idea where we’re going to store the pieces of furniture we can’t use, but the house itself is lovely – full of charm and character and with a welcoming feel to it.

The main part of it was built in 1603 and it’s as you’d expect – inglenook fireplaces, beamed ceilings, twisty little staircases, odd nooks and crannies, and general quirkiness. The main bedroom is in the converted attic – it’s a lovely room, with a vaulted beamed ceiling and lots of space. OK, the slope of the walls comes down to about two and a half feet from the floor so it’s going to be difficult putting much useful furniture in there, but it more than makes up for it in character and airiness. There’s a wood-burning stove in the living room’s inglenook fireplace, which will be really cosy when it gets colder, and there’s a fabulous range cooker in the kitchen. And while showers in rental places nearly always consist of horrible electric devices that leave you feeling as if you’re trying to get wet under an emanation of light mist, this one has a power shower.

It turns out that the cottage had been used as a guest house/self-catering rental for quite some time, so the standard of the fixtures and fittings is quite a bit higher than usual. And then I discovered by chance that it has its own website dating back to then, and that’s where I took the image at the top from. You want a link to the site, don’t you? Well here it is, but I’ll warn you that the photos on it are absolutely terrible and make it look a lot darker than it really is – The reality is much more attractive than the pictures show and, while downstairs isn’t exactly full of light and brightness, the upstairs rooms (including my study) have enough sunshine coming in (quite literally, in view of my disposition to SAD) to keep me happy.

I’m not sure who was the more relieved that I liked the place – me or Geoff. I guess I should have trusted him after all.

PS: We move on Wednesday, and I’ve no idea how long it will take to hook me up to the internet again, especially as BT hasn’t even furnished us with a phone number yet…….and there will be a few boxes to unpack.  I may be absent for a little while.


Chagall, and how looking at art can make you feel a whole lot better

Chagall - I and the village

I and the village – Marc Chagall, 1911, oil on canvas

It’s been a tense couple of weeks, with one big up and an awful lot of downs. The big up is that Geoff has got a job – yeehah! One of the downs is that it’s in Nottingham so we have to move there, and quickly. I’ve now had time to get over the fact that if I had to pick one area of the UK where I’d choose not to live, the East Midlands would be a strong contender, one of the major reasons being that it’s as far as you can get from the sea in this country, and I need to get to the sea for stress release every so often.

Another reason I wasn’t keen is that the cities of the Midlands aren’t particularly attractive or appealing, and Nottingham has held the label of the crime capital of the UK for some time. It hasn’t helped that on researching Nottingham I came across official advice that instructed lone women who found themselves in the centre of Nottingham after 8.00pm to carry a rape alarm – mmmm…..

But anyway, we don’t actually have to live in Nottingham and its reputation for crime is, like many things, probably over-stated and sensationalised by the press. I cheered up a bit when we did a recce trip and found that the countryside and virtually all the little villages are extremely pretty (and safe), and that Newark is a nice little market town with an impressive ruined castle and riverside gardens and a 30-minute rail link to Nottingham. We were also very taken with Southwell – a quaint and pretty village with its own small cathedral and lots of interesting independent shops and cafes. Nice – very nice – although also very expensive and probably out of our price range. We decided to look at renting a house somewhere in a village between Newark and Lowdham (another lovely village with a train station).

We have pets, which in this country makes you a pariah in the eyes of letting agents, but despite that we’ve always managed to find something before without too much trouble. This time, not. Rental property that allows pets is scarce, and nice rental property that allows pets is scarcer, and we’ve had three trips to Notts now and found nothing – well nothing, that is, that we’ve been able to get.

I’ve sometimes had the feeling that Fate has got it in for us these days, and looking for somewhere to live has done nothing to destroy that illusion. On our first trip we saw a lot of houses that ranged from positively awful to nice-but-wouldn’t-work and then, an hour before we drove home again, we found the perfect house. Only trouble is, someone else was interested too. We were up at 6.00am the next morning, filling in the application forms, which demanded details about our lives extending to our shoe sizes and what we had for breakfast on weekdays. We sent it off and then had a very tense 24 hours of waiting. Then they came back to us – there was a problem, Geoff had only had temp work for the last few months and there was an employment gap (of one month!) before that. We would need a guarantor. No problem, we said, thinking there were several possibilities. However, it turned out that said guarantor would have to actually walk into the letting agent’s office, clutching his passport in his hand, to prove he wasn’t something we’d made up. Now that was a problem – our nearest possibility lives about 150 miles away and has a demanding job that would not leave him free to make a little trip to Newark in his – almost non-existent – spare time. A demanding job, incidentally, that was the reason he’d be able to act as guarantor in the first place. We offered to pay six months rent up front – but no, they didn’t like that. In the end, the house went to the other applicant.

Big sighs, a lot of cursing, and back to the drawing board. Another trip, this time a day trip – three hours drive there, view six houses in the afternoon, then three hours drive back, but worth it if we find something. After trying desperately to mentally fit our lifestyle and belongings into all the houses we saw, there was only one that would work. There was just one problem – in the details, it said it was available now, but when we went to view there was a very elderly, rather doddery, couple living in it. It turned out that they weren’t going to look for somewhere else to live until they knew the house was going to be rented. Of course we couldn’t commit to renting it until we knew when it would be available. Stalemate. We phoned and emailed several times to ask for a date, and nobody bothered to reply.

While all this was going on, Geoff was being harassed from all sides. The job agency were phoning every day to ask when he was going to start work, his new employer was emailing for the same reason, our landlord was phoning to find out when we were planning to move out, the removal men wanted to know if our provisional date could be confirmed – it went on and on. Every property we phoned about either wouldn’t allow pets, or had just been taken by someone else, or had no garden (essential for the rabbits), or something else that ruled it out. We were spending hours every day on Rightmove, hoping to somehow magic up a property we hadn’t seen before.

Eventually, a new one came on, one that looked perfect. We decided that, things being as they are, we’d just take it sight unseen. We phoned the letting agents. ‘You can’t do that’, they said, ‘you have to view it first before we can take an application. Oh, and other people are viewing today and tomorrow so if you’re interested you need to get here quickly.’ We contemplated jumping in the car, driving the three hours to view it, then another three hours home again, without any guarantee or even probability that we’d get it. We were wiped out, exhausted, irritable as hell, screaming at trifles, and tense as over-stretched rubber bands. We just couldn’t do it, not that day.

Something had to give. Ok, we thought, Geoff will just have to find a room so that he can start work and then he can look for a house while he’s there – it’s obvious that you have to be on the spot to get something decent. We searched for rooms to let, but they nearly all wanted a commitment of six months. Since we can barely afford to keep two places running for even one month, this wasn’t viable. Then we found somewhere that would take a rolling month’s rent and thought we’d got a solution but…… internet. No landline, no internet, and at the moment Geoff absolutely must have internet access. There was some talk of a dongle, but no certainty that it would work. We were tearing our hair out in frustration, minds obsessively looping round all the possible ways we might deal with things.

In the end, there was only one thing to do. ‘F**k it’, we said, ‘this is getting us nowhere – let’s go into Liverpool and go to the Chagall exhibition.’ It was absolutely the right decision. We looked at some fabulous art, forgot about the whole housing issue for a few hours, had a lovely lunch in the Tate café, and talked about other things. The knotted muscles began to loosen, tension headaches disappeared, life seemed good again. We laughed in the train on the way home, playing a silly game, and then when we got in, watched a film and drank some wine, and slept like logs.

And you know what? Things began to improve a little. We decided that Geoff would find somewhere to stay next week, even if it had to be a B&B, he’d view the desirable house on Monday and take the filled in rental application forms with him, hand them over to the letting agent in person, and then start work on Tuesday. The rent for the desirable house is well under budget, so we have the idea that we may offer to pay a bit more rent if they’ll choose us. It may work, it may not – I’m sure there’s probably a rule against this somewhere, but it’s worth a try. The agents for the house with the elderly couple phoned to say that they may have found a place to live, and if they have then we could have that house within two weeks. They’ll know for sure on Monday. Another possible house turned up, which perhaps Geoff can also view on Monday, although you have to fill in an application form simply to view it – they wouldn’t make a viewing appointment until he’d done that and by the time he’d done that they were closed for the weekend. But you never know, they may squeeze him in for a viewing on Monday and it could be another option.  Nothing is solved, but it’s looking a little more optimistic.

Having something to distract us from agonising over the situation obviously played a big part in making us feel better, but the uplifting quality of seeing some wonderful art had a lot to do with it too. Great art really does have the ability to lift us out of ourselves, and bring some sense of proportion back into life. It was a joy to see this exhibition, and just what we needed.

Thank you, Chagall – we owe you one.


My life as a tree

Broken conifer

This is not a post about photography as such, although photography does come into it indirectly, but if you’re only here for the pictures you might want to skip this one and come back when normal service is resumed. For those of you who’re up for reading on, this is a long post so you may want to pour a cup of tea and make yourself comfy.

Over the last few years, I’ve discovered that most women I know are either on anti-depressants now, or have been at some time in the past – I include myself in this number. This may be true of the men in my life as well, but I don’t have the evidence to confirm that.  I think men would be less likely to admit to it, even to a doctor, and male sadness is more often – though not always – expressed outwardly as aggression.  Women are more likely to turn the sadness and hurt inwards and then it manifests as depression – I read something once that said depression is just ‘anger without the enthusiasm’.  I rather like that.  Anger, uncomfortable as it is, is actually a step up from depression in the emotional health scale.  There’s energy in anger, while depression drains energy away and keeps you frozen and stuck.

One persistent question I have in my mind is: ‘what sort of world have we created that lots of us can only manage to deal with it by using mind-altering drugs?’  This bothers me, and I wonder about it.  People have always suffered from depression, but not in such huge numbers.  At any one time in the UK, one in ten people are suffering from depression, with one in twenty experiencing a major depressive episode.  That’s a lot of people, and there are doubtless more who never tell anyone or get any kind of help.  (Statistics from

I would never knock anyone who decides to go down the drug route – it can quite literally be a lifesaver and even when not that dramatic, it gives you back enough energy to dig yourself out of the depressive hole you’ve fallen into.  I did it myself for a short while, and have been sorely tempted recently to go back for more, but I don’t deal well with drugs in my system.  I get bad side-effects.  More than that, I know it isn’t a long-term answer and it’s not really going to solve anything.  If I broke my leg, it would help to use crutches till it mended and  using the crutches might make it easier to do other things to help get it back in working order, but the crutches themselves aren’t going to do anything to heal my leg.  Sometimes a leg is so badly damaged that it’s never going to mend, and you might have to use crutches all your life and it’s a damn good thing that they exist because they help you function and lead the kind of life that would otherwise be impossible.  There might be times when depression is like this, but I feel that mine – thank god – is of the mending variety.

I took the photograph of the broken tree quite recently, when my friend Eileen came to stay and we were walking in Hawarden park.  The minute I saw it, I identified with it.  This is how I feel right now – battered by circumstances, isolated and set apart from the other trees, lots of branches missing, some broken and hanging, bits of it dead, but still standing, still alive.  Over the last year or so depression has got me in its grips again and has been clinging on with talon-like strength.  I’ve managed to dislodge it now and again, but since the beginning of the year it has clung with renewed force.  It’s made it very hard to write blog posts – I don’t want to whinge about my life and my problems, but it’s difficult to pick out the better bits and pretend they represent the whole, so I tend to keep quiet at those times.  I’m coming clean now, because it’s clear to me just how many of us secretly suffer and depression is a very isolating thing. When we hide parts of ourselves, it’s hard to feel connected to others and that feeling of disconnection feeds back in to our sadness.

In the past, it’s got a hold on me for different reasons than it has now. These days, I think it’s more of a reactive kind of thing.  Like the tree, life has beaten me up a bit – I feel broken and I’m missing parts of myself.  I’ve lost a fairish number of branches – when we moved here I lost regular contact with my friends, the work I was doing, a place that I loved and felt at home in, and a feeling of purpose and usefulness.  This last one, I think, is the most important.

I could – and need to – make more efforts to change this, and I’ve taken some small steps to doing that. I feel much better when I do.  However, Geoff is the only one of us who’s capable of earning the bulk of the household income and so the shape of our lives depends on where and when he can find work.  One week it looks as if we might be going back to Kent where there’s some temporary work, another week there might be an interview for a job in Nottingham, or Yorkshire, or Ireland.  My head spins as I try to visualise my future in one place after another, and my motivation to make something of my life where we are right now drains away.  For one thing, if I create something here that gives me joy, I’m going to have to lose that too.  In some ways it’s easier to have nothing here that I’ll be upset about leaving behind.  The flip side of this is that I’m not happy this way, and of course it’s just possible that Geoff might find work locally in the end and we won’t have to leave, and I’ll have wasted all this time.  I have to act as if this is how it will be, because there is no alternative other than giving up.

The main problem, I think, is the lack of control I feel over my own life. I’ve been in unhappy situations in the past, but it was always up to me to do something about them and to decide what that something was.  Now, it feels as if it’s out of my hands and I’m sure it’s the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that that entails which is messing me up.  But this can’t go on – I’m tired of feeling this way, I’m tired of feeling like that broken-down old pine tree.  It may be impossible to regain my original shape again, and some of those branches are gone for good, but a bit of pruning, a bit of feeding and nurturing, and some sunshine could at least do something to help turn me into a happier, if still somewhat battered, tree.

To that end, I’ve made some improvements to my diet (particularly the chocolate and wine part of it) and I’ve started on a regime of supplements and daily yoga sessions, all of which should feed the soil my tree grows in and help it recover.  It seems to be working – I’ve got a bit more energy and some of the depression and lack of motivation has lifted.  The thing that would help the most, of course, would be to grow some nice strong roots somewhere, and until that happens this tree’s always going to feel somewhat in danger of being felled when the winds of life batter it.  But – stretching my tree analogy to rather ridiculous lengths – since my roots have been dislodged anyway, I need to pick them up like long skirts and go find some other trees who’ll welcome me in.  I need to find a way to fruit, even if my roots aren’t sustaining me too well.

I hesitated to write this. There’s a thin line between being open about the ups and downs that our lives consist of, and telling too much.  Two things made me go with my impulse – the first is that, if I disappear for a little while now and again, you’ll know that this is why.  And the second?  The tree made me do it……blame the tree.


So where do I go from here, I wonder?

Horizon, West Kirby

The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average.  The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure.  Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.

A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad.  Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe.   It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me.  Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while.  I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.

If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way.  I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something.  But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.

When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course.  Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good.  My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’.  I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.

That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad.  It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent.  It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself.  A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.

A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my emphasis). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do.  I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to.  I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of  a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me.  I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations.  But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.

You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well.  They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen.  The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.

Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images?  Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience?  One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it.  We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.

It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is.  I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly.  But do I want to do this?  The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity.  Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it.  It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.

I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement  that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.

And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?


My Buddha’s wearing a hat

Buddha with snow hat
My Buddha has acquired a hat! Takes away from his dignity a bit.

Snow has been falling here on and off for the last week. We had a serious dump of it last Friday and Saturday, with about six inches lying, but it was nothing to what they got over the other side of the estuary on the Welsh coast.  I drove there for a meeting yesterday, and they must have had several feet of it – although the roads are clear, many of them are down to one carriageway instead of two because of snow piled up high at the sides of the road.

Any winter wonderland prettiness has more or less gone now, but we’ve got some spectacular icicles developing. The derelict house next door has a slide of snow and ice that looks as it it’s trying to get inside.

Icicles over window

Icicles on window

And the drips from a hole in the guttering on our own house has created these wonderful icicles on the bush outside our front door.

Icicles on bush

These are just quick snapshots, but I’m hoping to get a chance to do some macro icicle shots before they melt away.  It’s not getting any warmer, that’s for sure, and there’s a blizzard blowing around outside right now, despite the fact that the current weather forecast makes no mention of snowfalls at all.  Ah well, I should know by now that they always get it wrong…….

Learning log blues

Swimming for the sky

Reaching for the sky – reflection in fish pond, Cambridge Botanical Gardens

I have very mixed emotions about the whole concept of educating people in art, and they’re escaping like worms from a can as I try to get my course assessment material together.  My biggest bone of contention is the learning log.  This, they’re quick to tell us, is for our own development and we should create it in a way that works for us.  So far, so good, but then they give us a 14-page A4 booklet telling us how to do it properly.  Mixed messages or what?

The logbook is part of the assessment, and as such, it gets a mark. If they were telling the truth about it being purely for our own benefit, they might want to see it, but they wouldn’t mark it.  Because as we all know, if you mark something you must have certain criteria that have to met in order to be able to give that thing an appropriate mark.  So that means there are certain things they expect to see in it, and certain ways in which you’re supposed to write about things, and if doing it that way doesn’t suit you, then you’ll get marked down.  Mmmm…’s for us, is it?

There are three questions, they say, that we should ask ourselves:

  • am I being honest with myself?
  • is this a useful process for me?
  • is this helping my own process of learning?

If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, then ‘your learning log is right for you’, it says.  I think these are good questions, and I can answer each of them with a clear ‘yes’.  But I’m worried, because then it goes on to tell us about things we ‘must’ include in our logbook.

Of course you know where this is going. I’ve used this blog to explore my thoughts on my course and photography in general.  I think I’ve done a fair bit of reflecting on the course and on various aspects of photography, and that’s good – but there are an awful lot of things I haven’t done.  Or – let me be more specific – there are a lot of things I’ve done but haven’t written about.

I’m a voracious reader and not just of photography books. I read a lot of these, but I read a lot of other non-fiction as well and also try to relate what I learn there back to my photography studies.  But I haven’t written all of this down, mainly because I read so many books that I don’t have the time or the inclination to document them all.  I see lots of exhibitions, too, but I don’t write about many of them.  I don’t want to write about something because I’m supposed to, but only if I feel I have something interesting to say about it.  So I haven’t documented most of the books I’ve read, websites I’ve looked at, exhibitions I’ve gone to, or discussions I’ve had.

Another thing I haven’t done is to record my experiences with the exercises in the course materials. This is a very old-fashioned course that desperately needs to be re-written (I think it is being re-written at the moment) and it’s bad enough having to work my way through exercises like ‘try taking your shots in both landscape and portrait orientation’ or ‘take a photo with as many shades of green in it as possible’, without having to write all this up as well.  I hope I’m not suffering from hubris, but most of the exercises cover things I did ages ago when I was first learning to use a camera.  The remaining ones relate to film, which I don’t use.  The exercises are tired and old-fashioned, and I don’t feel they’ve contributed much to any learning I’ve done.

So I’m a bit worried right now, because the learning log counts for a substantial proportion of the marks and I think mine is likely to be frowned upon.  Doing this course hasn’t been easy for me – there was the demoralising tutor criticism at the beginning, and the subsequent loss of confidence that led to me taking a year off and not planning to come back.  I’ve also had to find a way of doing the landscape assignments that fits my particular style, which isn’t that of a traditional landscape photographer.  I’m proud of myself for having finished the course, when I thought at one point I was done with studying photography for ever, and I feel my personal style has developed and deepened in the process.  But because I see these courses as being for me rather than as a way of getting a bit of paper that qualifies me, I’ve gone about it very much my own way.

The first question they want us to ask ourselves is ‘am I being honest with myself?’ Well, yes, I am and I’m doing my best to be honest, too, to the people who’ll decide if I pass or not.  I’m probably going to suffer for that, but I’m past the point in life where I’m willing to play the education game any more.  I’ve already done that and got the certificate to prove it – I don’t need another one.  If I fail or get a low mark, and if part of that is because I’ve made the course fit me rather than fit myself to the course, then I guess I’ll just have to live with that.  But I know myself, and I know I’ll find it hard to deal with, and so I worry.


Life is what happens when you’re making other plans


Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, sang John Lennon, and that’s been amply proven this week. We finally had our offer on a house accepted on Saturday, only for Geoff to lose his job – suddenly and totally out of the blue – on Monday. Now we’re living in a place we wouldn’t have chosen to come to, where we have no work, no friends, no home of our own, and no prospect of getting one until our income is healthy enough to be granted a mortgage. We can’t even reduce our rent by moving to a smaller place as we’d need an employer’s reference for that.

The shock was immense and we’re both still reeling from it. Just when it looked like there was light at the end of the tunnel, a b****y great freight train came steaming towards us and flattened all our hopes, dreams and schemes. All of these are on hold now, and both of us need to find work – any kind of work – as soon as we can.

I’ve been trying to apply for Christmas temp work using online forms. This is the only way you can apply for many of these jobs, but they assume a work background that just doesn’t fit with mine. I’ve had so many different types of work, sometimes two or three jobs or self-employed work all at the same time, other times jobs that have overlapped with each other or that involve contracts from several different places. These forms want details – to the day – of when I started and finished each one, plus things like addresses and postcodes for each employer. It’s almost impossible to fill them in sensibly, and there’s no other way to apply. I’ve been tearing my hair out in frustration – and all this just for a minimum wage temporary job in a shop.

Because of various health problems I haven’t worked since I got here and, of course, when we moved I lost all my local self-employed work and contacts. Until recently I simply hadn’t the heart to try to get set up again here, but in the last month or two I’ve begun to feel much better, more positive, and ready to put myself out in the world again. I have endless ideas and plans and schemes, but I’m not too good on the follow-through, and sometimes there seems to be so much that needs to be done before I can get going that I’m overwhelmed by it and end up doing very little at all.

So we’ve come up with a solution. Until he finds a new job, Geoff is going to devote a large chunk of his time to being my personal assistant, and I’m going to do my best to establish some photography-based sources of income. We’ve yet to see how this will pan out in practice, but if it works then it would leave me free to do what I do best – teaching and creative work – and take the marketing, logistics, and practical stuff off my shoulders. It’s a relief to be able to ignore the temp jobs, and one small, bright, spark in an otherwise dark and gloomy future. Wish me luck….

Digging up my roots

Jack and Margaret ShortJack and Margaret Short

These are my paternal grandparents. I didn’t know them very well and don’t have many memories of them, because they died when I was about seven years old.  It’s a sad story – my grandfather was dying of cancer and my grandmother was knocked down by a car and killed on her way to visit him in hospital.  My dad and the rest of the family kept her death a secret from him, inventing an illness that was stopping her from visiting,and my grandfather died two days later.  They were buried together.

When I look at this photo what really strikes me is how happy they look together. You can put on smiles on for the camera, of course, but look where their hands and arms are – they’re so physically affectionate with each other.  I compare it to photos of my mum and dad together – there’s always something a little strained about the smiles and the body language backs it up.  I wouldn’t have said that my parents had a happy marriage and our family unit was pretty dysfunctional.

After years of cutting myself off emotionally from the idea of family and all the bad connotations it has for me, I’ve changed in the last little while and am now trying to reconnect with my roots.  I’ve started with Jack and Margaret (who I think was called Peggy) because I feel the strongest tie and the most affection for them.  Jack was a homeopath, at a time when that was a very unusual occupation, and I feel my own interest in alternative health and therapies must have come from him.  We were often given little ‘pokes’ (Scottish for paper bags) of benign sugar pills to eat and cuts and abrasions were routinely doused in Calendula tincture, which we hated because it stung like hell.  We longed for the tubes of Germolene that other people used.  He lost a leg in WW1 and I remember the horrified fascination we felt when we saw his ‘wooden’ leg propped up in the corner of the room.  He didn’t wear it all the time.

I have some vague memories of my grandmother – I remember being very impressed because she took the kitchen table and some blankets outside to the garden so that we could play at making tents.  That would never have happened at home.  And I remember she kept a large pillowcase full of all sorts of toys that we could play with when we came to visit.  Most of all I remember that she was fun, and that I always liked to go there.

As was probably common in those days, my parents kept us kids out of it when Jack and Margaret died.  We weren’t allowed to go to their funeral and I don’t think we were told at the time exactly what had happened.  I don’t remember much, but I do remember lying in bed at night feeling confused and missing my grandmother, but knowing it wasn’t something I could talk about.  I don’t know exactly where they’re buried, but I plan to find their grave and visit it as soon as I can.  I have a feeling it’s going to be very therapeutic.

What has struck me most in the course of these explorations, is how precious these old photographs are.  There are stories contained within them.  The one at the top of the post is a poor photo, with some light flare/ghosting that leaves my grandfather looking rather faded, but it’s the only one I have of them in the same shot.  The technical quality doesn’t matter; what matters is that I know what they looked like and that I have a pictorial record, and I’m so thankful they didn’t throw it away because of its technical defects.  I have a whole album full of old pictures of the people in my past and without those photographs many of them would just be names.  I wonder if the tradition of the family album is still alive and well, or if digital storage has replaced it?  There’s definitely something about having a tangible print in your hand, and knowing that the people in the photo have probably held that print in theirs, that feels both satisfying and necessary.