Ruby Tuesday

•February 14, 2021 • Leave a Comment

You’d think by now I’d be prepared for the ubiquity of it all; Christmas, the worst with all its stresses and extravagances; as soon as Auld Lang Syne has been sung, the unwanted lavender-and-rose bath sets and novelty chocolates swept off the shop shelves in a flurry of activity, relegated to the dusty stockroom for another year. Then hastily replaced by more of the same, this time a heart-shaped array of pink and red. So inevitably, when the garish monstrosities go on sale, they seem to have been there for weeks before the big day itself. Which of course they have.

It catches me out every time as I find myself hurrying into town to find Clive the best of the sorry bunch left on the shelf. It’s usually a jokey card (not too saucy – God forbid it may give him ideas) and new socks, as he seems to go through them so quickly. I always marvel at just how he manages to do this, as he certainly doesn’t do much walking anymore. In fact, he doesn’t do much of anything. To be honest, Clive and I, we’re not ones for all this hearts and flowers nonsense. It’s just another day after all.

But this year is different. It’s our ruby wedding anniversary; a monumental occasion. For once I have been meticulous in my planning and my present to Clive has already been carefully sourced and hidden safely. Waiting patiently to be unwrapped and prepared.

Valentine’s Day happens to fall on a Tuesday this year. Luckily, Clive pays golf religiously every Tuesday with his other recently-retired colleagues Bob and Stan. Hopefully they’ll have a good round and head to the Oak Tavern for a couple of pints, which Clive has taken more and more to doing these days.

But the respite, the delight of a few hours of peace and quiet: for several precious hours, the house is mine again and I relish the peace and the calm.  Usually I will do nothing more than potter around the house, plumping cushions, dusting ornaments, before sitting down to a steaming mug of tea and a juicy novel. The old crime noir, I like the best. Dorothy B. Hughes, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler. In fact, you could say that The Big Sleep provided me with inspiration for Clive’s Valentine’s gift.

‘For fuck’s sake, the fucking twat!’

A sudden slamming of the front door and thundering feet charging up the stairs.  I wince at the torrent of expletives. Caitlin’s back from college.

‘What’s wrong now, love’ I shout.

‘That arsehole Jeffries. He kept me behind for no reason. And took my phone’ she huffs from upstairs. A series of stamps pound the landing, the door slams.

Caitlin is my granddaughter. She’s sixteen and has unwittingly become my current lodger. Sensitive to a tee (she’s what Clive calls ‘highly-strung’); a series of rows with her mother, my daughter Jennifer resulted in a momentous falling-out between them and three weeks ago, Storm Caitlin arrived at my doorstep, a whirlwind of tears and truculence.

As yet, the ice between her and Jennifer has yet to thaw, but to my surprise, despite the tantrums and pendulum mood swings, I’m enjoying having Caitlin here. The fresh perspective of youth, the glow of being in the moment. It’s been so long since Clive and I have experienced this. So set in our ways, staid as old neutered tom cats, bones creaking like the floorboards beneath our tread. A cliché perhaps, but her presence has blasted fresh air into our dull, stuffy lives. So much so, it’s got me thinking about what changes I can make for the better.

So, whilst washing up or idling over the cryptic crossword, I’ve been thinking how I might add the elusive ingredient, the illusory elixir to our marriage. Then, yesterday I stopped mid-stir to the big pot of goulash on the hob as the realisation struck me full in the face.

It really did; I’d shrieked as a burning dollop of almond paste splashed into my eye. After enough cussing to impress Caitlin as I’d bathed my sore eye in a cold compress, I’d settled into a deep calm as it came to me what I needed to do.

I’m going to prepare a special dinner for Clive on Valentine’s Day, to mark our forty years together. Raw, bitter almonds. The secret ingredient to spice things up; so much so that it would be all too much for poor Clive’s organs.

You may think me cruel, but it’ll be a quick way to go – the poison will enter his system so fast; he’ll be dead within minutes. Just a brief convulsion of pain; it’ll be no worse than giving blood at the donor sessions he goes to twice a year.

We’ve long run our course, you see, Clive and I. When you’ve spent the last few decades avoiding all physical contact but for the briefest of cheek pecks, because anything more fills you with a deep revulsion. When the sound of frequent phlegm clearing, harrumphing and sighing whilst engrossed in Columbo or poring over the Sudoku is akin to that of nails clawing down a blackboard, you reach a point where enough really is enough.

I find myself humming a tune as I consider my new widow’s life. No more recovering discarded, fluff-covered socks from down the side of the sofa, no more putting the toilet seat down (after all these years and he still hasn’t learned to do this) and best of all, no more snoring. Since Clive was diagnosed with sleep apnoea, night times have become so unbearable that I’d started sleeping in the spare room – or at least I had until Caitlin had taken it over.

Now, with her trail of lipstick-stained glasses and crust-congealed plates strewn across every surface, books spilling from shelves and piles of clothes covering the carpet, it’s just not my room anymore. Usually accompanied by an unmade bed and a heavy bass sound emitting from her iPad speakers, my former escape room is unrecognisable. Now in the small hours, I find myself propped against the kitchen wall, making endless cups of tea or thumbing a paperback, while slumped on the sofa, trying to ignore the taunting clock face opposite, its time-bomb tick.

‘Dinner on yet, Sylv?’ Clive’s still-thick Black Country twang brings me back to the present with a jolt as he tramples mud into the kitchen. Taking his shoes off at the front door is also a trick he’s never been able to master either.

‘Not long dear. Go and sit down. I’ll bring it out’.

A calmer Caitlin trundles down the stairs, grimacing. ’Urgh, what’s that crap? It smells like horseshit’.

‘Goulash. It’s an Eastern European dish, you know’ I retort. ‘I thought it’d be right up your street – you’re always telling me I should embrace the more multicultural, when it comes to food’.

She doesn’t look impressed. ‘Yeah…Nan, I didn’t mean stuff like that’.

‘Staple winter food. Puts meat on your bones’ I try again. She’s far too skinny, that girl. Pale and peaky. Always complaining she’s cold and sneakily turning the heating up when she thinks I won’t notice. But a few more servings of proper, homemade food wouldn’t go amiss, unlike the vegan stuff that she champions, that wouldn’t feed a mouse. I smile. I’m looking forward to showing her some of my traditional culinary ways once Clive’s out of the picture.

She sniffs, unconvinced.  ’No, it’s OK. Kai’s coming over, we’ll get something from Just Eat’.

She clumps back upstairs again. I roll my eyes at Clive. At least this is one thing we both agree on. Kai, her boyfriend has about as personality and ambition as those headphones he’s always wearing. I think he’s only ever muttered two words, though he seems to be here most evenings, disappearing into Caitlin’s room with barely a glance at us.

 Disappointing really. I’d hoped for better for my only grandchild. Patience, I remind myself.  She’s only young, will learn the error of her ways in time. I smile again. I’ve never had a close relationship with Jen. I’m looking forward to becoming a mentor, an oracle to Caitlin, becoming closer. I picture us snuggling together on the sofa, clutching mugs of hot chocolate, Caitlin cradled against my shoulder as she sobs out her heartbreak over Kai. But – I’m getting ahead of myself. All in good time.

‘Dinner’s ready’ I call to Clive above the TV’s hum.

*

14th February. Early, the darkness suffocating. The air thick, swelling with glaciation. I shiver and it’s not entirely due to the cold. Exactly forty years since we said ‘I do’ to each other. How can just two tiny words, three letters in total, be loaded with so much meaning, so much as to shape lives, change us forever? Mark the path we will be destined to tread for years, decades, death. I feel heavy with the foreboding of this, the weight of this thought, of the decision I have made.

            The alarm sounds loudly, wrenching me from my rumination. It’s only six, but Clive has never become accustomed to lying in, even though he retired two years ago. Never have I, although I can’t say I don’t relish an hour of having the bed to myself after he’s gone. I shake the plugs from my ears and roll towards him as he sits up, stretching, yawning.

‘Darling’ rubbing sleep from his eyes, ‘I haven’t forgotten, you know’.

‘Forgotten?’

‘Yes, I mean, I know what day it is today’.

Rarely affectionate, he squeezes closer to me. A flush creeps over me, a pulse throbs in my neck. So long since he’s been this close, merging his space, his presence with mine. For a moment, I feel panicked, unnerved. His breath in my ear, the sheen of his sleep-sweat, touching my own. Clammy, cloying.

‘Sylv, I never regretted marrying you, you know. We’ve been lucky, really, haven’t we?’ The press of his palms upon mine, my fingers rigid.

  ‘Steady income, our own house, children, grandchild. We’ve had, still got, much more than most’. His eyes are searching, probing and I’m struggling to meet them. My tongue, heavy in my mouth, clumsy as I think how to respond. An ice hand claws at my guts, has he figured it out, testing me?

Pull yourself together, Sylvia Jessop, I scold, pushing the panic down, twisting the hand from my stomach. I force myself to respond to his caress. Smile, smile, think only of devotion, affection. Of our love.

‘You soppy old sod’ I laugh, nudging him in the side.

 ‘I know we have. And most couples don’t make it this far these days, so we’ve got to celebrate properly’. I say, with what I hope is a frisson of excitement, of promise.  ‘I’ve got something special planned for us this evening. And – Caitlin’s promised to be out’.

Is it me or does a flash of relief cross his face? ‘That sounds great. I’ll look forward to it. But’ he looks at his watch. ‘I did promise Bob and Stan I’d go out with them today, get Bob out of the house’. Clive looks uncomfortable, shifty even. ‘Since Julia, you know…. he’s not been himself. But I won’t go if you want me here today’.

‘No, you must go’ I say, thickly. ‘Go. It’s early and it’ll give me time to get everything ready for this evening.’

‘Ok. Thanks love. I’ll be back by six’. He pecks me on the cheek, rolls over, starts to get up. I feel strong again, resolute.

*

The peppered steaks are roasting in the oven, the seasonal veg drained, the rich, succulent sauce; the staple of tonight’s feast; simmers on the hob, the aroma wafting slowly through each room, seeping into corners and crevices.  In the dining room, the firewood starts to crackle, casting a warm orange glow over the dinner table, for once resplendent with the shine of the bone china set, champagne flutes and candelabras.

I’m bathed, scented and dressed. The long, chiffon sleeves fall gently over my wrists, masking the blue of my veins, the velvety swish concealing the loose skin on my arms. The dress slides over my ample curves, hugging, sculpting me. My hair tumbles in loose waves across my shoulders, my skin translucent through its mask, carefully painted to cover the creases and cracks.

The moon’s white face peers through the curtains of dusk clouds as darkness settles in. I light the taper candles. A vast stillness settles over the house. A nimbus of calm. Expectant, almost preternatural. The tick of the grandfather clock in the hall. I look at myself in the mirror. My eyes huge, luminous, cheeks now flushed, feverish with prescience. My heart a hammer in my chest.

 The door clatters open. I stifle a hysteric giggle as I gage Clive’s reaction. He is overwhelmed, stunned even. ‘Sylvia, love’ he says. The glow of excitement, exuberance in his eyes, as he takes in the scene. ‘I can’t believe… this is…’ he is struggling to find words, a swell of emotion rising in his throat.

‘Sylvia.’ He says again, joking feebly. ‘Always the perfectionist. Glad I didn’t stay at the pub for today’s fittle now’.

I smirk a little. ‘You approve then?’

‘Oh yes’ he says, moving closer to me, the musk of his arousal as he twists me round, taking in my dress, my hair. Like we’ve gone back thirty years in time and he’s seeing me as a young woman again, desirable, entrancing. His fingers trace my soft curves through the dress. ‘You look bostin’. I try not to squirm at his touch, cringe at the Black Country slang.

‘Should I change? I mean, look at me like something the cat dragged in’ he says.

‘No, don’t worry’ I soothe. ‘It’s nearly ready anyway. Sit down. I’ll get you a drink’

 ‘Good, good’ he mumbles. ‘I’m starving.’

Relaxed visibly, same-old-Clive-again, he swigs heartily from the champagne I’ve poured, spreading a vat of butter on a bread roll. ‘Cheers Sylv!’ He raises his glass, cackling ‘To us! To forty bloody years’. A stranger in my skin clinks glasses and completes the toast.

After light starters of stuffed mushrooms, I serve the meal, dousing the steaks with an extra- generous measure of the sauce, rich with seasoning for Clive. He always did like his food drowned in dressing, drenched in gravy, boasting about his high tolerance of spices.

I watch him cut into the steak, slivers of pink swallowed by the cavern of his mouth. I twist my fork through the veg, slicing broccoli heads, as I try to evoke my own appetite. The knot in my stomach tightens, a wave of nausea swelling inside me.  I can’t take my eyes off Clive as he continues to eat.

When he pauses, mid-chew to refill his champagne, and glances across the table at me, I notice he’s almost eaten it all. Looking pointedly at my full plate, he waves the sauce boat at me. ‘Not hungry love?’ he says, tearing off another piece of steak. ‘This is amazing! You need to enjoy your hard work.’ He splashes it onto my plate. ‘Come on, eat.’

He still seems fine; in fact, more jovial and spirited than I’ve ever seen him before. Certainly not as though as he’s about to keel over face down onto the plate anyway. Clearly, I didn’t use the ingredients correctly or use enough. The whorl in me starts to loosen, untwine. My senses reel as the veil over my eyes dissipates. I do not want this after all. I gasp with the slam of relief. And the wham of shame, opprobrium. I am lusus naturae, a monster.

But, silently, I reproach myself. He’ll never know, never had an inkling. We can carry on as before.  No, not as before. Better than before. It is as though, half-way through our ruby wedding anniversary supper, I have awoken, pricked by the needle of common sense, of humanity. I look at him again and this time I see him. Clive. My husband. My companion. The other part of me. For his all flaws and my own.

I smile at him, with my eyes, my whole being. The aroma of fresh spices, seasoning makes my mouth water. I realise I’m ravenous.

Covidity – A Life on Hold or Enriched?

•February 11, 2021 • Leave a Comment

As I sat on the freshly cut, yet already browning grass, in an isolated corner of the Brent Geese reservoir field, the sun warming the back of my neck, my arms, I reflected upon a life in limbo, a life on hold, in a Covid black hole. As I looked around, the sun shimmering down, the gentle chorus of birdsong in my ears, bees hopping across wildflowers, several magpies gathering on the lawn, all appeared mockingly, almost disconcertingly normal. The white collars of daisies sway and bow, with a hint of breeze, to their more majestic dandelion counterparts. A few lone dog-walkers stroll by, some fifty metres away. A young couple with an infant in a stroller; a small family kicking a football between each other. On these first appearances, yes, all seemed in order, habitual.

But what is normal now? Our versions of normal have changed beyond recognition. Here, in the peace of this expanse of park, existed an illusion of normal. But walk back into the streets of this densely-populated, crammed city, where people are squashed into box flats and rows and rows of Victorian terraces like tinned sardines, usually almost stumbling over each other; the dystopia is real.

Imagine all those people now having to circumnavigate this; where any individual not part of the same household must stand at least two metres away from the next at any given moment, at any given place, where groups, crowds are strictly forbidden; and it seems like something from a bizarre, warped sci-fi-horror movie.

Yet in just eight short weeks, the ‘normal’ as we knew it had been destroyed. Decimated. Annihilated by a silent killer and one without motive, one without geographical limitation to its flight, no victim profile. No smell, no taste, no sight, no sound. An invisible ink, it’s black stain spreading across the world, like a blot on paper.

Like many of us in the UK back in February (which seems like a distant memory now), I read the news headlines, I saw the reports on social media, on the TV. I recall feeling vaguely concerned, a pinprick of concern, of conscience. A pang of sympathy with Wuhan in China, where it originated. I’d never heard of the place before. But it was thousands of miles across the planet, across several continents. It did not or would affect me directly, would not land here in this small island. I carried on regardless. Attended uni classes, went shopping, visited the gym, met up with friends, went to gigs, panicking slightly as you do in the normal (that word again) post-Christmas recession slump.

 I continued to see my partner J at the weekends. Him being based in the West Midlands and me in Portsmouth, a non-car driver meant that most Friday evenings after work, he’d zoom down on the motorways to mine, and I’d get a cross-country train to Birmingham about once a month. We saw no reason not to carry on with our usual routine. Even when the reports of Covid cases started coming in from Europe, the pandemic spreading through Italy at an alarming rate. Even then, I still didn’t think it would reach our shores, despite feeling more concerned. I had no way of knowing that the train journey I took to Birmingham on the third weekend of March would be the last time I’d see J for over three months. Less than 24 hours after I got home, we received the Official Lockdown announcement from Prime Minister BoJo and life, Jim, as we know it, would never be the same again.

Things seemed to happen almost at breakneck pace after this. Nothing felt real; it was like living between the pages of a YA dystopia novel or being an extra in an apocalypse epic. Or watching it unfold on screen, from a cinema audience, confused, bemused, slightly disorientated.

Seven months later we are still tentatively traversing this new, alien territory, albeit now with more practised footsteps, as we begin 2021 in a third lockdown.  We have watched in undisguised horror and growing fear, as the UK Covid death toll climbed, surging into the hundreds, the thousands and the tens of thousands, to reach over 100,000. We have been, and still are, subject to rules for navigating this unchartered land, laid clumsily down and at too late a stage, by an unprepared and inadequate government.

Peak seasonal times in this seaside city; Easter, school holidays, Christmas have seen the usually-thriving city resemble a ghost town, a shadowy spectre of itself. Cafes, restaurants, bars, shops with their shutters down and windows boarded up. An epicentre of desolation, desertion. A promise of dereliction.

I actually cried when I first walked into through Guildhall Square. On way to collect a prescription from the pharmacist – at the time one of the few premises still open. Walking into an abandoned, almost-sterile city square, it struck me how, even on the wettest, coldest, windiest days I’d never seen the plaza so empty, so barren. A few lone seagulls and pigeons forlornly searched for scraps, crusts and crumbs and I wished that I’d thought to bring some seed from home to give them. On a whim, I went into the nearby Sainsburys Local, careful to keep my facemask from slipping from my nose and at a distance from the staff and other (only two) shoppers, and grabbed a bag of peanuts from a shelf. Striding back, this time with purpose, into the square, calling to the birds as I threw nuts onto the concrete ground.

 My conscience eased a little, I headed to Victoria Park, which nestles just behind the square, spreading the rest of the nuts to the scampering squirrels and watchful crows. Life still goes on, I realised. Time has not stopped for nature or wildlife. The flowers continue to sprout and bloom, the trees grow, flower and flourish, provide food, shelter, nourishment. The cognizance of this would be something I would remind myself again and again over the course of the year. And it would be these walks and the observation and immersion of myself in these simple acts of nature in its everyday, its continuity, that would become my coping mechanism and my redeemer.

During the first lockdown, the weekly Asda or Tesco run for essentials became a panic-inducing whirl of anxiety for people, as we tackled long queues, people (who not all) standing the obligatory two metres distance from one another. Should we be wearing just face masks or full body armour? The fugue of intense irritation at someone accidentally jostling you. The deep concentration of having to be hyper-alert to the floor’s painted direction arrows. The embarrassment of being gently ticked off by an uber-patient store assistant or worse, being the recipient of a filthy look from another indignant shopper. All while trying to navigate incorrigible phone zombies, heads inclined into their screens. At least, thankfully the panic-buying and mass amassing of toilet roll in April seems to have subsided and shelves are relatively full again.

And along with the face mask as now a fashion accessory as well as a necessity, we can observe new types of irritation and new types of social behaviour – miswearing the mask being the primary offender, along with social nondistancing – you know the ones. People who stand just that little bit close to you, which pre-Covid, was but a minor irritant but now can induce a full-blown panic attack. Or the families who walk in a horizontal line across the pavement, so the only way of avoiding collision is to leap into a nearby bush or risk being hit by a car as you swerve into the road to avoid them. And not forgetting, as the aforementioned pharisaic sanctimony of the Pecksniffian who point fingers at and chide a maskless face or a shopper not following the floor arrows correctly.

The first lockdown for me meant that my self-imposed semi-isolation had become full on alone-ness, save for my two furry felines who provided the most wonderful companionship and safeguarded my sanity during this time (though of course I couldn’t really take them out on my local walks!).

I was also lucky enough to have company of the feathered variety in my little garden; the magnificent crows from the nearby cemetery would be enticed by the suet balls and seed I’d put out and swoop onto the walls and down onto the feeder table, cawing their greetings and devouring the food. Pigeons too, once the crows had left. The odd sparrow would cheep at me from the shrub at the back of the garden and I’d only have to walk two minutes down the road to reach the cemetery gates to find many gentle, friendly squirrels, robins and blackbirds.

Fortunately, with the invention and instigation of the Support Bubble during mid-June, J and I were finally able to see each other again, and have been able to continue to do so most weekends.

The true legacy of this, is that I feel closer to nature than ever before. The walks I do every couple or few days immerse me in the wildlife around me, much of which I’d never paid close attention to before. Seeing nature flourishing and thriving around me, in the context of the flaws and failings and fears of humankind, makes me feel humble and awed at the same time, at the power of the Earth, the Sky, the Wind, the Sea. And makes me feel more alive. Feeling the tread of my boots on the stone of concrete, the shingle of shoreline, the forest soil, the grass of pastures, the mud of marshes. The breath of breeze on my face, my neck. The balmy brush of the sun’s golden fingers upon my arms, warming them. This is life. This is being alive. There is nothing more than this; the catastrophe, the cataclysm, of Coronavirus temporarily abated by that which remains a constant; the ebb and flow of the tide, the effloresce of buds into vines, perennial. The morphing of the colours of woodlands as you watch them complete a full life cycle, embalmed by the realm of the weald.

blank

•October 11, 2020 • Leave a Comment

My mind is as blank as the computer screen in front of me. My eyes are dead, I am still. My face has a faceless expression. I am numb and empty. Dumb, muted. In a bid to rouse myself, find the key to turn the ignition, I put on some music. Emotive music that would normally stir me, inspire me, arouse deadened, black-stump emotions into something movable and living. Pink Turns Blue, Husker Du, The Chameleons. But nothing. I am still. I am straight, unwavering. In this deep nothing of me, I am balance.

Music usually has the power to bring the dead to life. To dig up long-buried memories and shake them into vivid, dancing colours and lucid beings, entities. To fill you up with the weight of emotion, to twist and wring the neck of your soul. To leave you gasping for breath, yearning for more.

For years I couldn’t listen to some pieces of music; certain tracks, whole albums even, because of the brevity of the feelings they would dredge up; the unwanted memories that would spew forth, bringing fresh torment; grief, guilt, regret, yearning, even the bittersweet sting of childhood long-gone.

 At other times when I felt this nothingness, I would play these albums on loop; I would select the tracks masochistically, because I needed to feel. I needed to cry. I needed to punish myself.

But not today.

Today I am listening, and I feel a faint, comfortable buzz, but nothing more. It feels physical, this invisible shield of blankness. Like a protective layer, I suppose; impenetrable. It feels armour-like, I am wearing a mask over my real self, but without meaning to. It’s okay, I guess. Like a great oak, I remain steady and upright and strong against the winds and the rain and the gnawing at my branches by the squirrels and the cuts into my bark, blood into skin, from initials of others carved into me. This layer, this membrane over me feels okay, it even feels right somehow. But I know that it isn’t.

It’s not right to not feel, to go through the motions of being alive without feeling alive. To remain a straight line, unwavering, unblinking at the turns of events that are meant to knock us sideways, push us over into the street, lift us high into the air.

I want to fly again.

It’s not enough, I know, to just be okay.

All of this is encapsulated in a small round pill.

The pill is the mediator, the leveller, the scales that keep me balanced and unmoving, as I move through the days, going to work, being with others, walking, eating, sleeping. Is this like being in a waking coma?

But I know it’s also been Jesus in a foil packet. My saviour in a pill box. This little capsule I take once a day has enabled me to ride the storm that has been – and still is – Covid-19. It has picked me up from the unfathomable depths of a Sarlaac pit, a black hole with no bottom, no shape and no sides you can touch and feel where it begins and ends. A place where the ghosts of my past and the grim promises of the future gather together, forming a ring-o-roses around me, dancing and singing in a macabre children’s game. They sang twisted lullabies of all my misdoings and reminded me of my long-suppressed, darkest fears; yanking them from the warm, deep places and filled my nose and throat and my eyes with them so I couldn’t breathe or see. These wraiths would feed new scraps to me, if I switched on the TV, or went onto Facebook or saw a newspaper. Each one another crust of the bread of the Bad News in the World; the cruelties, the neglect, the damage we do to each other, the injustices, and worst of all, the environmental damage; us ruining our world. Everything was too much, every tiny morsel I was fed tasted of glass, that made another cut into skin, through to bone. I would take refuge in another small round pill to make me sleep, and live just in my dream world, where I felt excitement, love, lust, experienced all things in vivid technicolour. Where I could, through lucid dreaming, control the world around me, as I traversed it. Moving from one world to another. Upon waking,  I would think about when I might be able to sleep again.

But I knew this was also not right.

Some several months later, I’m working better, on the outside anyway, as a multi-functioning human being. Without the wraiths and wreaths. But I know there they are still there. They are under the swathes of chemical blanket. They are somewhere in the black hole that is still there, somewhere deep inside. They are waiting to claw up from it with gnarled fingers and to take me down into that place again.

And I’m okay with that. For now.

But I need to feel in order to create. And I can’t write if I can’t feel and can’t create. And not to be able to write is the most displaced and wretched feeling, even if the feeling has not yet been stirred and has not started to itch my skin. I know it’s still there and with every passing day that I do not write, it grows, tumour-like. I need to feed it.

And so, maybe I can start reaching out to the wraiths, wonder if I can lock my fingertips with their swirly, tendrils; whether we can co-exist in a place of semi-harmony, even just for a short time. So I can wear the darkness and the claustrophobia and encase myself in the full range of emotions that I need to write, to call to arms this story, this being, that is currently lying dormant, encased somewhere in synthesis.

Mitzi – 01/06/06 – 13/06/20 – A Tribute to an Unforgettable Cat

•July 1, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Almost fourteen years ago today I chose you and your sister, after finding you through a cat rescue scheme. You were only about four weeks old, just a baby, but you stood out immediately from the litter of six black and white minute fluffy shapes, wriggling and mewling, vocal chords only just beginning to develop. Aesthetically, it was your distinctive markings which initially drew my eye. A tiny blob of white fur, adorned with large black splashes spaced  diagonally and proportionally across your back, not unlike a miniature Holstein cow. Your long tail was jet black except for a tiny white dot right at the tip; it looked like someone had dipped the end of your tail in a pot of white paint. Your little voice was the loudest of the cries in the pack, your feet scampered the most and you just demanded to be seen and heard. I fell in love with you there and then.

A month later we came to collect you and your sister Mollie, a sweet, gentle adorable tux kitten who instantly loved affection and would follow us about. After some deliberation over suitable names, pondering over Dottie, Spotty and Socks which all seemed not-quite-right, we named you Mitzi. It seemed to suit your mischievous, inquisitive nature and overall character.

You and Mollie settled in very quickly, and after a few days huddling together behind the sofa and under the bed, you soon found the courage to explore and relish your new surroundings. You were always the leader; eager to sniff and lick new objects, fabrics, surfaces and people. You had a huge appetite for life as well as what was in the food bowl and were the archetypal naughty little girl who had an incredible energy and would want to traverse the most extraordinary (and forbidden!) places.

As a kitten your favourite activity was climbing the sheer curtains in the bedroom and swinging from them like Tarzan in the jungle. Your claws were weapons of mass destruction; razor sharp and seemingly always growing ever longer. You would use carpets, doormats, furniture, the aforementioned curtains, bed linen and clothes to sharpen them to perfection and these weapons were lethal to the poor mice you regularly hunted, toyed with and eventually killed. You would spend hours chasing, then managing to lose your prey and then finding it again, torturing the hapless little rodents for what felt like an eternity before eventually putting them out of their misery, leaving bloody corpses in places you wanted me to find them. Usually this would be at the foot of the stairs so I would scream as I nearly stepped upon them.

A creature who loved her trappings of home and familiar territory, you rarely ventured further than the back garden, but you loved leaping onto the outdoor pond roof and up onto the high wall which separated my garden from the pavement. Here, you would sit up, tall and proud, surveying your surroundings, and would emit howls, which started at the pit of your stomach and rise up to your throat, culminating in a massive merrr-rroooam, so loud I could still hear it some 100 metres up the road when I popped to the corner shop. It was so loud that neighbours and passers-by would look, bemused at this strange noise erupting from such a small domestic animal.

From the start, it was clear you were the big sister. You were the bravest, didn’t scare easily and would front up to any other neighbourhood cats who dared to venture into your garden. You weren’t even remotely bothered by the hoover (which has been Mollie’s nemesis for the best part of fourteen years), and you would always be the first to get into the newly cleaned and refilled litter tray (more about that later) and push ahead of Mollie at feeding time.

In adulthood you grew and grew and grew in size and stature, not least because you loved your food! Only the photo I still have from when you were a kitten rummaging in a discarded poppadum paper bag shows that, a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), you were, in fact, a fraction smaller than Mollie! Much of this was fur; your layers of it were thicker and slightly fluffier than hers and you were longer in the body, with a longer tail but most significantly, one of your many distinguishing marks was your splendid, sumptuous, fluffy white tummy which also became more prominent with age as you started slowing down.

You were very much a cat cat; you liked chowing down on proper cat food rather than scrounging for savoury titbits from my plate like Mollie; you were the Chief Mouser of the house and you liked to sleep. A lot. By the time you were an adult, you loved sleeping on my bed, and you did this so much, the covers (and most of my clothes too) would be constantly be covered in a fine layer of white fur. You also didn’t like being held and rarely snuggled into laps (except larger male ones – let’s face it, you were always a bit of a ‘man’s woman’!) but you did love crawling under the bedcovers with me at night time, kneading on me for a long time, sniffing and licking my eyes and ears and sitting on the pillow next to (or sometimes right on top of) my or my partner’s head. Not for nothing were you dubbed ‘The Queen of the Bed’! In fact, poor Mollie would often have to admit defeat if she was on there too – you would invade her space, spread out, groom her and squash her until she’d give you a swipe with her paw or bite you softly and jump off the bed with a hiss.

Despite these little sibling spats, and you both being very different cats in both looks and personality, it was clear that you had each other’s backs and that you adored Mollie. You liked to wash her face, play with her tail and snuggle up to her, even though she often didn’t want this! In your younger days – and even periodically as you grew older – you would engage in short, sudden bursts of frenzied activity. Playfighting with Mollie, chasing each other round the house, tearing from room to room, up and down the stairs, making chirruping noises or indulging in a hefty dose of catnip, which had you rolling around on the floor and tearing about some more. You particularly relished a game of Bubbles too, and would chase and try and catch the bubbles I blew from the wand with your paw or bite them. You did this almost right up until the end, even when you were too tired and too frail to do much else.

You loved Christmas time. What fun was to be had when the tree was being erected and the baubles, tinsel and lights being mounted!  And to play hunt the catnip toy, wrapped up under the tree, hiding amidst the other presents. You would try and climb the Christmas tree, burying yourself in amongst the branches and knocking the adornments off with your paws. I would come home from work and find half the decorations on the floor but as you got bigger, these adventures would become a little more concerning – the tree wasn’t a particularly big one and as you climbed, it would sway dangerously and be perilously close to felling completely.

You had a peculiar fixation with your litter tray and used to trample and roll around in the new, freshly filled tray when you were younger and would be so desperate to check it out, you would even sometimes be trying to enter the box when it wasn’t yet ready. Later, as your health started to decline, it was a source of both dread and wry humour that Terrible Things in the Tray were unfortunately being left.

Another of your funny little quirks was your fascination with bags and boxes. You loved to crawl into carrier bags, bin liners, sniff and rub up against handbags, rucksacks, briefcases and laptop bags. But your favourite was my suitcase, especially when it was packed, with clothes neatly folded just before I was due to go away, leaving a smattering of white fur across the top layers. It was if you knew I was going away and it was your way of trying to stop me or come with me.  Another was to pull the towels down from the banister or radiator onto the floor and bury yourself in them, so no one could find you. You would also do with this with clean, almost-dry washing, particularly bedsheets or jumpers.

You were always such a noisy girl! You had the loudest meow, the loudest purr, your snoring was a source of amusement and affection and you would even regularly emit little sneezes, snorts, sighs and chirps. I sometimes used to affectionately dub you ‘The Most Vocal Cat in Southsea’.

Despite all of this, you managed to go through life without too many escapades, mishaps or near-misses. Apart from the usual yearly check-up and booster jabs, until your final year on this plane, the only time I needed to take you to the vets was for a torn ear which had burst into abscess – even then you responded incredibly quickly to the antibiotics and the ear almost completely healed, despite your flat-out refusal to wear the Cone of Shame.

You would go through phases of sleeping in different places – the top of the stairs when it was hot, the living room rug, the futon in the spare room, the landing outside the bathroom. But you would always return to my bed. It was your domain, your realm. When later, and what become your final few weeks with me, you could no longer climb onto the bed, due to the worsening arthritis in your hind legs and took, instead, to sleeping on the carpet or in your cat sleeping bag, (one of the many fantastic, inventive and much-loved presents my partner gave you in your last years). Although I would pick you up and put you on the bed, you didn’t stay for long and it wasn’t the same. I should have realised then, that this would be the beginning of the end.

But here, I don’t want to talk about that, I don’t want to remember you as a shadow of your former resplendent self. I want to remember you when you were full of life, love, mischief and even exasperation for so many years.

You weren’t a lap cat and affection would be purely on your own terms, but you showed us your love in so many ways and always at the time when it was most needed. You were like a big pillow I could rest my head against, and I could fall asleep with you, this big puddle of cat in my arms. You would stay on the bed with me nearly all night, every night and you would paddle on me for ages. You would come to me when I was sad or ill and seemed to instinctively know when a snuggle was needed.

As I write the loss is still too fresh, the pain too acute. And it is during the insomniac nights and the crow-caw hours, I think of you and I feel you the most. I don’t want you to just be gone, like the sharp flick of a light being turned off, like the needle, the lethal injection which shut down your frail, tired body. Your physical form is now disintegrated to ash, but I need to feel your essence, know that your soul, your spirit is near me. In this quiet stillness, the thin veil between the sleeping and waking worlds, I cling to your memory and want this quiet, this void to be filled with you. My ears stay pricked for a faint sound of your rattling purr, a distant mewl, a fleeting sneeze or chirrup. My eyes, in semi-darkness study the shadows which lurk in every corner of the bedroom. I wonder, if they stay fixed, unblinking on a certain spot, will I start to see the outline of you? Will your shape, your colours, your markings protrude the darkness, or will it be the hallucination I know it probably is? If I lie, spent with emotion, clutching your old blanket to my chest, will you come to me, even for a second? If I curl up next to Mollie and cradle her in my arms, will you lie with us? Will you give us a sign your essence is still with us? If  Mollie could feel the gentle tickle of your rough tongue on her face, softly stroking, grooming her, I know she would finally let you do it.

In these moments I am low and fragile, and I want this more than anything, and I cannot bear to think that these portents will never be realised, that these junctures will never happen again. That it will be as though you were never here. I want you to always be here. But as I write, I recall more and more memories of you; the funny, the magical, the heart-warming, the downright bizarre. These moments, many immortalised on camera, will stay with me until I die. To quote a cliché, you were truly one of a kind. Goodbye Mitzi-Moo, the cow-print cat, my adorable furry delight, sausage-like, puddle of cat with your magnificent tum. You will never be forgotten. You have a piece of me with you there in your urn and I hold a piece of you inside my heart; my lifeblood.

 

The Spitfires ‘Life Worth Living’ album review (June 2020)

•June 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Watford trio The Spitfires follow up to 2018’s Year Zero with a highly accomplished, emotive and diverse new album which is so multi-layered, that with each listen, you find something new in each track. It’s a strong album. In fact, I’d go as far to say it’s the best yet by a long way and already easily my favourite of 2020 and there’s not a weak link here at all.

Using keyboards  (Stuart ‘Little’ Gabriel) and trombones  in addition to the usual tightness of the three key members’ vocals and guitars (Billy Sullivan), bass (Sam Long) and drums (Matt Johnson),  the result is extraordinary; a much broader range of styles is on display, and it’s a bold and brilliant exploration into new musical arrangements, sounds and loops. With enough diversity to appeal to a wider audience without losing their trademark sound, attitude and ethos, so not to alienate the hard-core fans, ‘Life Worth Living’ is all at once brilliantly accomplished and edgy, fresh and familiar, intense and uplifting.

Each track is a gift, the result a celebratory feast; a sumptuous stew of ska and soul, reggae and melancholic post-punk, with a dash of dancehall disco. If this blend sounds all a little bizarre for the delicate taste buds, all-too familiar with the tried-and-tested, well, I urge you to suspend all caution and sample the delicious flavours here…

It kicks off with a terrific opener ‘Start All Over Again’ which is in-yer-face upbeat and almost bouncy, with anthemic choruses and great little brass loops, whilst, like ‘ (Just Won’t) Keep Me Down’, this is the recognised and loved Spitfires sound at its very best. Similarly, Kings and Queens’ opens with a killer skank, and accompanied with great guitar riffs, it’s a real earworm of a track; it stubbornly lodges firm and won’t let go. Another one with a big, big sound, I can see this being a single.

It Can’t Be Done’ is mellower, more laid-back, but with a distinct experimentation with brass, bleeps and synths, these little quirks really work with the trademark fuzzy guitars and clear, strong vocals. If title track is a ska-seasoned romper, leaning heavily on the brass section, then ‘Tear This Place Right Down! is a killer tune, which wouldn’t be out of place in a dancehall. A funk-adelic, disco-tinged delight, this track is a whirlwind of activity, from the way the guitars and trombones blend into a unique mix, yet with retro cool, to the higher octave backing vocals adding another layer to Billy’s lead, it’s a dancefloor classic already. So different from anything they’ve done before, but they pull it off with real credibility – this is pure genius.

Then there are numbers such as the haunting, wistful How Could I Lie to You?’, which really shows off the range of Billy’s vocals at their most melancholic. Coupled with the gently rolling guitar licks and keys, the added brass in the chorus adds an eerie, almost otherworldly quality. Significantly, for this track’s influence, it reads like ‘The Last Post’.  ‘Have It Your Way’, then is a wry observation of a twisted relationship, with its razor-sharp lyrics set to a deceptively gentle undertone – until the trombones rorar and the guitars crash and clash that is!

Finally,‘ Make It Through Each Day’ provides a comme il faut finale. A clever, epic track which starts acoustically with hauntingly tender keys and a true, clear vocal pitch, rolling into a lullaby. But after a long, long pause it changes tempo completely, relaunching with punchy guitars and crashing drums – a determined, ass-kicking, get-up-after-falling-down belter. Simply brilliant – and very much a fitting end to this album which is surely the most relevant soundtrack yet of the strange times and climes of 2020. Like we’ve all been having to do in Lockdownland,, ’Life Worth Living’ is hammering this home, celebrating the diverse and the familiar, raging and empathising with the shit but celebrating the simple joy of discovery, of forging new paths and making your mark; on embarking upon new ways of living life – and making music.

Simply, this gem of an album is a step up to a raised platform, to a higher plane even. And with each listen, you will keep finding joyous little idiosyncrasies in the arrangements and feeling an unexpected jolt of excitement or a sudden shiver down your spine. If there is any justice left in this world, ‘Life Worth Living’ should propel The Spitfires way, way into the celestial sphere. And let’s face it, given the current global crises, that may not be a bad thing!

 

‘Life Worth Living’ is The Spitfires’ fourth album and will be released on Friday June 19th by Acid Jazz Records.

Find out more here:

 

www.thespitfires.band

https://www.facebook.com/TheSpitfiresUk/

https://twitter.com/thespitfiresuk?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

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Cruel Hearts Club ‘Blame Me Too’ single review (May 2020)

•June 17, 2020 • 1 Comment

 

Barely pausing for breath after their previous epic ‘Suck It Up’, all-female trio Edie, Gita and Gabi are back with another single which just crackles and spits angst and attitude. ‘Blame Me Too’ blazes with passion and pain and, like its predecessor, it’s a hugely infectious blend of edgy pop-punk and scuzzy grunge, with just the right mix of crashing, clashing guitars, delicious hooks and big choral harmonies.

Starting off with a plug-pause,-plug-pause, it first reminds me a little of Elastica’s ‘Connection. But underpinned all the way through with a strong bassline heartbeat, and angry vocals (also reminiscent of Hole and Daisy Chainsaw in their ‘90s heyday) ascending to almost saccharine-sweet harmonies in the choruses,  Cruel Hearts Club give this track their own unique spin. It is these small but significant delights, these golden touches which make it stand out; from the sumptuous little solo guitar riffs to the distinct wah-wah warble in the background during the choruses. Resulting then, in a deceptively simple formula being lovingly coated with an extra layer and saved from being merely a ‘troublegum’, catchy foot-tapper.

CHC grow bolder, better, stronger with each track and in advance of a debut album (they are hoping to record this next year), and having scored successful supports slots with Iggy Pop and The Libertines (the video for this single was partly produced by Carl Barat), the buzz around the impact CHC are making grows and grows. Sadly, whilst this summer’s festival circuit may be Covid-19’d-off, it would be amazing to see them secure well-deserved slots next year – you get the feeling they would be just as much at home on a epic outdoor stage in front of thousands, as playing an intimate gig nose to nose with punters in a London squat.
‘Blame Me Too’ is out now and you can find out more at:

https://cruelheartsclub.com/

https://www.facebook.com/cruelheartsclub/

https://open.spotify.com/artist/2w6AW62UPdxhy3kNwD5AFO?si=h4tVNPLnQR-Ioj96hQ9MSg

https://twitter.com/cruelheartsclub

And the video can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ku002CHO7HU&feature=emb_logo

Cruel Hearts Club ‘Suck It Up’ single review (March 2020)

•June 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

 

Every now and then a single is released by a band which contains just that right blend of genre-fusing, ear-worming, infectious excitement which you just know will be a hit. New single ‘Suck It Up’, both incredibly catchy and kitsch, yet loaded with feminist attitude falls straight into this category.

Cruel Hearts Club an all-female trio; two of which are sisters (Gita and Edie Langley) and all which are busy working mothers who hail from Australia and have exploded onto the indie music scene, landing support slots with the likes of Iggy Pop, Sting and The Libertines and making a fierce impression with previous single ‘Hey Compadre’. With several festival notches on their belt too, such as Camden Rocks and the Isle of Wight Festival, there is a growing excitement buzzing about Cruel Hearts Club – and upon listening to their new single I could certainly see why:

It opens with a deliciously crunchy guitar riff which is an instant stick-in-your-head hook, followed by Gabi Woo’s drums and the sensual, yet uncompromising vocals kick in which hit you with full force. These lead into epic, all-embracing choruses and harmonies, accompanied by guitar licks that lodge firmly in your head and refuse to leave. There is chanting too – of ‘S-U’-C-K’ which for me personally can be a bit too much of a whammy, but in this case, it really works and adds to the layers of fierce attitude that this single encompasses. Self-described as Big Dirty Grunge Indie Pop – and indeed, this is not far off the mark, drawing comparisons with 90’s indie darlings Garbage, Elastica and The Breeders. However, there is a raw punky edge there too, which reminds me of other all-female groups such as The Slits and more recently Maid of Ace, though CHC are more polished and have a very accessible, genre-crossing ‘big’ sound which will see them do well on the festival circuit. Look out for these girls – I expect great things to come. The sisters are doing it for themselves – and their children!

The single is out now – find it here on https://soundcloud.com/cruelheartsclub/suck-it-up-cruel-hearts-club/s-YzLnY and the video (starring their own children!) is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amiM6fYfoZE&feature=youtu.be

 

Cruel Hearts Club are:

Edie Langley – vocals, guitar

Gita Langley – vocals, guitars, synths

Gabi Woo – drums

Links: https://cruelheartsclub.com/

https://www.facebook.com/cruelheartsclub/

https://open.spotify.com/artist/2w6AW62UPdxhy3kNwD5AFO

Plague Dance – Goth in the Time of Coronavirus

•May 28, 2020 • Leave a Comment

It’s a blazing hot weekday afternoon at the tail end of May, when I sprawl across a quiet corner of a field near my home to write this. We’ve just seen the month’s second bank holiday but the best few days would ordinarily still be ahead of us. A week (or more for some) off work, a break from the mundanity of everyday life and usual routines. A growing excitement emerges; the planning and packing with military precision: How many pairs of boots is too many? Will it be too hot for big dresses and corsets, wigs and hairpieces? Have I remembered to pack the crimpers? And most importantly, how the hell will I get all this to meet the luggage weight restrictions? The frantic bleaching of roots, the recolouring of the rest of the hair. The waxing and sculpting of eyebrows. The constant, to OCD-like quantities of travel schedules and programme line-ups. The anticipation of the hot, full days and long, long nights. The vast and diverse array of bands, the parties. The warm feeling of knowing you’ll be meeting old and new friends, like-minded people, those from across every continent who you may only see here, once a year. Like Christmas, only far far better. Better than Halloween even. Yes, Wave Gotik Treffen season is upon us once again.

 

Except this time it’s not.

 

It struck me at about six o’clock this morning on the way home from a work night shift that, this time two years ago (and for fourteen out of the last sixteen years), I’d been en route to Leipzig, Germany for the incredible annual extravaganza that is Wave Gotik Treffen and it was a strange and bittersweet feeling that this time I was not. In fact, nobody would be. It was the oddest feeling, bittersweet, accompanied with a painful twist in the gut. A sting of sadness and loss.

 

WGT is simply the largest festival in the world celebrating goth and related music. Established since 1991, it has grown in size, stature and reputation over the years, attracting some thirty thousand people each year. Spread across numerous concert halls and venues across the city, it plays host to around one hundred and fifty music acts, along with cinema showings, club nights, readings and much more, all condensed into a four-day long weekend. More of a life-affirming experience than a festival, it’s fair to say that WGT has had a massive impact on my tastes in music, dress and lifestyle. Each year throws up a new experience; new friends to be made (and old ones to reunite with), new bands to discover, new places to explore; in short, a renaissance, a reaffirmation of all the things I hold dear. A flame reignited.

 

Since the Great Lockdown became implemented globally earlier this year, following the rapid spread of Covid-19, the coronavirus, the worldwide pandemic, it was expected of course, despite our silent pleas that by some miraculous twist of fate, it was all a bad dream and we would emerge from our self-imposed isolation beds just in time for the festival to be safe to go ahead. But of course, we knew it wouldn’t happen. And it would be wrong for it to at this time. The mass cancellations and postponement of almost every social gathering, concert, festival imaginable, along with the threat of the ‘invisible enemy’ looming large, as life as we knew seemed to be over. Or at least on pause. We expected it and have all, in our own ways, reticently been coming to terms with the ‘new normal’, trying to adjust in any small way we can, focusing on the small things that are keeping us safe and sane.

 

But it’s no less of a gut wrench, no less a kick in the eye (I make no apologies for pimping Bauhaus here ;)). J and I took last year off from WGT (hey, it’s not going anywhere, right?!) I was preparing to sell my house and return to university after 22 years away from academia. We were both feeling the financial squeeze beset upon us by the planned attendance of several other festivals and gigs in 2019, and these factors, along with a lack of annual leave from work, put paid to WGT 2019. We decided we’d return in 2020 with gusto – it simply did not enter our heads that there would be no WGT in 2020 – or much of anything along similar lines!

 

As with every trip since my first, I was eagerly anticipating our return to this splendid city, situated in the old Eastern bloc, beautiful and unique in its fascinating history, reflected in the architecture, both old and new, with the St Nikloaikirche at the heart of the old city centre. From the lush water fountains, markets and restaurants of the new zentrum and the sprawling parks to the splendid museums scattered across the metropolis, there are also acres of beautiful green spaces on the outskirts. I’ve also marvelled at the diversity of the venues where the artists perform. There is the resplendent grandeur of the ornate Volkspalast, the intimacy of the Schauspielhaus or the sheer size and magnitude of the Agra Messe. There are the rubble-surrounded, derelict wastelands of the ‘outer rim’, a stark reminder of the old DDR’s dictatorship years, but just right to host the legendary Gothic Pogo Parties. Old favourites just made for bands and dancing are the Werk II and Taubchenthal. Fickle as it may sound, I was also looking forward to traversing these places again, completely dressed up and gothed up to the eyeballs, unashamedly people-watching those in their regalia, and not having to give a second thought about the anxiety of negative comments or glances.

 

The goth community may be worldwide, but it’s also a relatively small one in comparison to many other music cultures. And it’s by and large a loyal one, dedicated to supporting itself; the music first and foremost, whilst enjoying the creative expression of the dark aesthetic.  And without these gigs, gathering and club nights, ironically, it’s a dark time for goths. Cliché it may be, but from darkness, there emerges new life and light – or a new dark….

 

Since lockdown began, there has been an inventive and emphatic response to the closedown. Several DJs, bands and promoters have taken it upon themselves, with a big ‘fuck you’ to Covid-19, to keep bringing the noise. Almost every night of the week now, with a plethora across weekends, there are live music streams, virtual club nights and real DIY festivals happening all across the globe. Comfy, homely living rooms have morphed into decadent, dark, elegant and mysterious caverns; ambience created with candles, incense, smoke and strobe lights. Bats, cobwebs, skulls and lace are the props and the result is stunning. And through the internet and the many social media platforms, this is being brought to us, to view directly through our screens, while we’re hauled up in our homes.

 

On Saturday nights I can ‘club-hop’ from the sanctuary of my cosy flat, with no money spent at the bar or on taxis, no makeup sweating off or aching feet in too tight boots. I can dress up if I choose or (most often) I can veg out in pajama bottoms and faded NMA tee, hair scraped back, face pack on, and grazing on a tube of Pringles whilst I sofa-dance to a great track being played. And through sites like Twitch or the FB watch parties, you can see the DJs spin (many I’ve noticed with feline assistants!) and ‘talk’ to other people tuning into the set, by way of the chat bar. Indeed, it’s been lovely to come across and friends and like-minded people I’d only usually see at the physical events.

 

Through engaging with this, I’ve not only managed to find something to look forward to, alone on a Friday or Saturday night (J and I live about 250 miles apart, so seeing each other hasn’t been an option for the last two months) and be interacting with people (albeit virtually) again, but as a music lover, it’s also helped to reignite my passion for dark, alternative music and build upon my existing music collection with new (and older, but previously unbeknown to me) bands. The money I’d normally be spending on travelling and accommodation, gig tickets, meals and drinks out, club entry, the list goes on, is now being invested into a bigger and better music collection – and I’m still in the black!

 

There’s a whole lot of people which have seized the opportunity to make the most of lockdown and continuing to promote music and bring it to the masses in this new virtual reality, but there’s a few people I’d like to mention who I feel have been instrumental in doing this: Martin Oldgoth and Brigitte who’ve been heavily involved from the start, Oliver (DJ Cyberpagan) for his twice-weekly Isolation sessions, likewise Nathan, Tracy and Polina for their Dancing & Laughing, Bedsitland and Mutant Transmissions streams respectively. Scary Lady Sarah and William Faith for their excellent, time zone-defying sets and Cavey Nik for his 12-hour charity fundraising DJing marathon.

 

Lastly, but no means least, last weekend’s 17 hour online extravaganza of 28 DJs from across 11 countries, the stream, broken only by the equally inventive and impressive Gothicat Festival, saw the World Goth Day in action. This incredible feat, the brainchild of Oliver, was meticulously organised and carried out just two and a half weeks after the idea took shape. This crazy notion was not only entirely successful, but it was inspirational and heart-warming, and a wonderful way of celebrating the diversity of the music in this scene and uniting people together from all over the world, and across vastly different time zones (and hell, who knows, maybe even other galaxies!). Each DJ had a thirty minute slot, just enough time to create a decent and varied set and I was astounded by the effort all had made into creating wonderfully spooky settings, looking the part and getting to grips with the technology involved (let’s face it, I’m still at beginner’s level when it comes to the latter!). The sets were all fantastic, with scarcely a duplicated track, covering all subgenres from deathrock to synthpop, trad goth to minimal wave, post-punk to gothabilly. Even while out on a long country walk earlier in the day, I was tuned in all the way through courtesy of my new Bluetooth headphones.

 

OK, all of this doesn’t completely erase the feeling of isolation, ease the twinge of loneliness or eradicate the longing of physical, face to face contact with loved ones. Nor does it whet the urgent hunger for the exhilaration of being at a great gig of a favourite band; feeling the passion of the crowd, the tribal high. But – these music streams and virtual club nights and events are doing a marvellous job of helping.

 

So, to quote another cliché, until we meet again, my fellow goths, punks, freaks and fiends. This weekend I may not be backcombing the fuck out of my ‘hawk, getting the fishnet and PVC out or slapping on the warpaint, but I will still be dancing away the wee hours in my living room, while I tune into the online Gothic Pogo Party (a staple of the WGT experience). And whilst my club-surfing will be just my fingers running across the laptop keyboard rather than hopping into cabs across the depths of Leipzig, I’m going to damn well make the most of it – and what’s more enjoy it. And 2021 had just better start preparing now for the goth invasion that is to come.

 

 

 

THE LAKESIDE NORTH HARBOUR TRAIL – A RURAL OASIS IN AN INDUSTRIAL DESERT

•March 31, 2020 • Leave a Comment

I’m sitting here, in absolute and complete solitude. But for the delightful company of the sounds of nature; the merry cheeps and chirps, the caws and coos of birdsong and the gentle hum of bees as they flutter from buddleia to lavender bush.  I’m perched on the edge of a stone wall of an old dried-up pond, under the shelter of a small thicket and I’m at the edge of Portsmouth with the M27 motorway behind me and the vast IBM building just 100 metres away, with the sprawling retail and entertainment complex of Port Solent barely visible in the distance. The rumble of constant, heavy traffic along the motorway is but a faint buzz in my ears. It is as though the solace of this place provides a kind of sound-proofing, though there are no walls and only grass, sparse trees and a gently pooling lake.

An overgrown tangle of green reeds shoot up from the moss which covers the bottom of the pond and the branches of the trees above are swaying slightly, whispering to each other. There is not a single person around and consequently I start to feel a deep calm sweep over me, an almost meditative contentment. Mindfulness.

As I’ve written before; one of the many joys of living in Portsmouth is that seek-and-ye-shall-find which leads me to search for – or more often that not – unexpectedly stumble across its splendid treasures; the gems of defiant, iridescent beauty and the trinkets of buoyant, bustling wildlife which are scattered throughout the corners of the city and circling its outskirts. Portsdown Hill. Hilsea Lines. Farlington Marshes. Eastney beach. Milton Common. Langstone Harbour. These are just a few which immediately spring to mind but there is simply a plethora of places for those who wish to delve further into the depths of the city’s recesses that bit more.

 

And so today I discovered another fortuitous pleasure: the circular Lakeside trail at North Harbour, just south of Port Solent and tucked away behind the motorway.  Save for the occasional lone cyclist or dog-walker, for the hour I’ve spent here walking the footpath alongside the twisting body of water and treading the yellow-green meadows I’ve been in total isolation.

As I absorb the scene around me as I descend further along the trail where I started by the Portsdown roundabout, I am captivated by the life that is teeming here: starlings bob from branch to bush, dragonflies soar past and bees dance a waltz along the petalled rows. A matriarch in charge of her small fleet of not-quite-grown ducks, their tufts of brown down still visible, sail along the gently lapping waters. The occasional flash of a skimmer, pike or carp can be sighted if you look closely and long enough into the lake.

It’s a place that almost seems forgotten: once a lunchtime and after-work recreational area, a hive of activity for families; its inhabitants now are of the mammal, fowl and insect variety. And of course the floral. Remnants of a play area exist – two giant brightly painted ducks for children to sit and ‘ride’ on. And there are patches and structures which belie the previous use – fitness beams, bars and boards. Like the ‘ducks’, they look somewhat misplaced, abandoned amidst the acres of thistles, wild orchids, reeds and shrubs. But quite delightfully, there is also no litter; no unscooped dog mess or torn plastic bags attaching themselves like limpets to the trees’ spindly limbs, no empty cans or bottles bobbing like unwanted buoys in the water.

Before I finish my slow lap of the Lakeside trail and prepare to venture back into the surrounding storm, I take stock and allow myself to sit on the decking overlooking the lake, gaze into its hypnotic pool and feel a sense of serenity, thankfulness and as Depeche Mode famously sang, ‘enjoy the silence’.

 

KINGSTON CEMETERY – AN EMOTION-EVOKING EXPERIENCE AND A NATURE HAVEN

•March 31, 2020 • Leave a Comment

In February, the bleakness of austere winter starts to give way to the promise of spring. In parks and gardens across the city, snowdrops are in abundance and daffodils start to cautiously raise their yellow heads, opening their eyes from winter’s long slumber to the sounds of nature awakening. A few green shoots start to bud on trees, branches start to thicken and slowly the grey of January is morphing into pale green, the birth of life once again in this precarious circle.

But darkness still clings, limpet-like to the rocks of winter. The days are short, dusk calls at tea-time and a persistent damp coldness permeates into every living being. Winter is a stubborn mule. A bitter cold wind is frequent, as is its companion, the grey blanket of drizzle clouds. A fog. A fug. It steals into the soul, raining upon the spirits as much as the physical body.

But in the fleeting, infrequent inbetweendays of high cirrus clouds dancing above clear blue skies and bright sunshine starting to warm the cold, hard ground, I have been taking the opportunity to venture out from the comfort of the hearth and do some walking again.

However, the challenge is where to go whilst the days are still so short and the weather can change its mood at any time with little warning. Being reliant on the great British public transport system is another small hurdle too. So I stay close to home and start to delve and decide to uncover and explore what is right under my nose.

Kingston Cemetery, the largest of the cemeteries in Portsmouth (the others being Milton, Highland Road and Southsea’s Fawcett Road Jewish Cemetery) then, is such a place.  Vast and sprawling, this unexpected beauty spot sits almost smack in the middle of Portsea Island, spreading towards the wards of Fratton, Copnor and Milton. Having recently relocated to this area, I was delighted to find one of the several cemetery gates lies just at the bottom of my street and initially I started to walk through the graveyard as a useful shortcut towards Fratton and Southsea.

However, it soon struck me how beautiful this place was in its own right and before long I found myself taking longer, slower and more meandering walks through its various trails. Spending lingering moments immersing myself, not only in the emotive, bittersweet experience of being amongst the dead and those remembering them; noticing how the newly dug graves with their shining headstones, lovely tributes and gifts sharply – and somewhat sadly – contrast with the cracked, moss-covered, now illegible headstones, flanked with overgrown weeds; their families and loved long gone now themselves. These moments never cease to cause an emotional tug; the sting of tears starting to warm my cold face as, at the same time, a small knife cuts into a vein in my gloved hand.

It’s at these moments, when I’m wandering through the cemetery, taking in the sheer quantity of the headstones and the distance they spread across, feeling warmed by those with new and vast bouquets and gifts gently placed next to them and the wrench of sighting the forgotten, that an emotional response forms deep inside my core, building into a bubble of humanity, of love and compassion. I think about my own loves and losses. Where the scattered ashes or marble remnants of my grandparents, my aunt, two lost good friends are now.

Yet I do not feel so much of a darkness, but the click of a small torch igniting and a slanting, narrow but steady beam of light growing inside me. This may be a place which evokes deep and vivid memories but also a place of quiet reflection and peace. One wouldn’t necessarily think so at first glimpse: Kingston Cemetery is a popular spot for visitors and workers tending to graves, dog walkers and those simply taking short cuts to and from work or placer of study. Cyclists, even a few cars. But, like many cemeteries and old churches, there is an aura of calm and serenity about it.

Perhaps it’s the realisation that this place is one where wildlife flourishes and thrives. Huge oak trees tower over graves, sheltering them from bitter winds and chills; a comforting thought. Different types of fungi are plentiful in autumn and greenery and foliage is in abundance: coppices, shrubs and wild flowers sprout – bringing new life from old. For very death there is a rebirth. Again, watching this life-cycle at work as I sit on one of the many memorial benches scattered throughout reminds me of this and as such, never fails to break me out of an otherwise potentially deep melancholia.

Or it might be the many merry, grey squirrels, who leap from stone to stone, dance from branch to branch and cheekily approach in a quest for food; begging as it perches on its hind legs, an inquisitive but slightly wary look in its friendly eyes.  A smile and chuckle raised as the furry creatures chase each other up chunky tree trunks, disappearing into labyrinths of gently creaking branches and rustling leaves. If you’re very lucky, you may have the honour of a sight of the rare albino squirrel who lives here. A prince, resplendent in white robes, his beauty is a delight to be seen. As yet, I have only spotted him once – but was fortunate enough to capture him on camera – but I am always searching for another glimpse.

It could be the gothic allure of the exquisite crows and rooks. The dark knaves to the albino squirrel’s pure white, they are equally admirable and handsome, their raven coats thick and glossy. They perch on gnarled branches, surveying the scene; rest upon the most ancient, moss-covered headstones on fallen angel statues; just watching. Waiting. They are the seers and the caretakers. The watchers and the generals. If the crows and rooks are the crown of this unconventional hierarchy, the gaggle of gulls and pigeons are the workers; the hive of bustling activity.

I notice signs prohibiting feeding the birds dotted around the main central roads through the cemetery which slices it in half – that they are pests and foul the graves. I am saddened by this. For me, I feel that they are as much as part of this place as the rested who lie below. They are the lifeblood of a nature haven and need food and nourishment. They are the life which has sprung from death; the comfort for loss and the promise of new life and have as much right to be here – possibly more, one could argue – as they are alive and have the basic, most essential needs of all living beings and this is their habitat. I also see little evidence of ‘fouling’ – for me, I like to think they are the protectors of the graves. And there is certainly more evidence of damage from the ravages of weather – winds, rain and of course, time and neglect than there is from these creatures.

So, in a small act of defiance, during each visit, I take a reusable Tupperware box of bird and small animal seed and like the good shepherd, I scatter my seeds as I walk through the maze of headstones, sometimes stopping to sit on a bench or squat under trees and pause to let them come and feast. After a while they start to anticipate my moves and there is a flurry of calling as the birds leap ahead of me, waiting to swoop. Helping in some small way to keep the blood of nature pumping here., whilst remembering the dead in love and fondness makes me feel alive. And that is just one of the many reasons why I am drawn to this place and will keep returning.