Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Dolphin spotting at night.

I signed up to do a dolphin & whale survey with ORCA, from Plymouth which is nowhere near where I live, to Roscoff, which is over the channel from it. I got a night train down the coast, toured like a tourist around Plymouth, and then met this lovely bunch of people (pictured in Roscoff, waiting for the ferry back).

(Matthew, Jennifer, Mary)
The ferry left after dark, and we really weren't sure if we were going to see any dolphins as there was only an hour or so of morning's light before docking - and half of that would be in harbour itself when you're not allowed to survey on the bridge. They have a ship to steer, you see, and don't want to get distracted when avoiding quays and rocks and things.
On the return trip we would get a bit longer, but still only a few hours, so I knew not to get my hopes up for great natural spectacles. The fact we all were keen to take part anyway says more about the enthusiasm that marine mammals arouse in people than our sensibleness and logical reasoning.  A week later, and this same crossing will get more light (the clocks will have gone back), but as it is they looked into cancelling it this weekend. Apparently the fact I'd booked my night trains was a factor in going ahead.
We slept in two cabins, woke a bit after 5am, and Mary got us taken onto the bridge where I was put on note-taking and suddenly there was "sighting!", "two common dolphins!", "two more!" and all that being called out. I had to write down the ship's position each time (reading it off the ship's console), and also the dolphins' position in relation to us, as well as some other things like angle, distance, direction etc... It was all a bit frenetic and after half an hour when we had to leave the bridge we'd recorded 21 of them. I personally only saw 2 of them because my eyes were mostly down on the paper and the console, but Jennifer told me to look up from my scribbling especially, lest I miss the experience. 

From on high, they look smaller than you'd imagine, more delicate and neatly drawn, with pale yellow sides and that classic dolphin jumping thing going on. They like boats, unlike porpoises, and are often drawn to them just as they were that morning.
And then : a day in Roscoff, quiet little picturesque harbour town. Barely a town really, just a pretty suburb on the rocks with a nice harbour and a seriously major tide thing going on. It began high, clear water lapping up against the jetties, but by the time we left there were dozens of rocky islands revealed, thousands of rockpools for urchins and crabs, and kilometres of wet sand and seaweed. Good place for a daytrip if you have the time!
While Mary logged the birds, Jennifer told me the difference between the shellfish. I know nothing about maritime wildlife, and I like having vast areas of nature new to me, it's like seeing a big horizon out in front of you.
Purple thingummies (name to check!)

Painted thingummies (name also to check).

The harbour was full of these Brent geese, and we looked for other birds too, so I saw my first Rock pipit and Rednecked grebe of the year.
The other thing I'm really turned onto this month is the return of the bees and the butterflies. Queen bumblebees in particular awe me for how they survive all winter somewhere buried in the soil, and then at this time of year they pop out again and the whole of their species' survival depends upon them buzzing about and finding enough food n that. Wildflowers, pesticides, lawns, them's the crucial factors. And so these queen bumblebees are massive, and different species are different sizes and make different tone buzzes as they bez about. The honeybees are pretty cool too (pictured first), and all busy at the rosemary.

We also spent a fair bit of time in the French cafes, mangling the accent as only english tourists can (Matthew is a particular expert, and also a gastronome so really enjoyed his time in France). I drank a lot of coffee. I always drink a lot of coffee. The Roscoffians were very patient with us, and the weather was warm. Proper holiday feeling.

On the journey back, after a wait in the ferry terminal with well behaved children singing "ten green bottles" (quite different to the Newcastle crossing, which is usually full of drink and drunks), we were up on deck for a bit longer. 
We had quite a few mysteries on the return trip. 
I in particular saw things that I couldn't name, and as a relative novice I lacked the experience needed to say they were definitely seal, minke whale, rocks or what have you. We saw gannets, guillemots, bonxies and kittiwakes. However the journey was sealed and delivered for us all when straight toward us came a pod of common dolphins, all tight together so probably feeding (Mary, our team leader, told us this). First one, then a dozen, then I was counting 35 individual splashes and in total Mary estimated 60 plus, with at least 5 calves. Even I saw a couple of these young ones, leaping alongside their mothers, half the size and quite breathtaking for the sheer fact they were there, in front of us, alive. They jumped around in the wake of the boat before setting off toward France. We, meanwhile, carried on into the 3 shipping lanes that divide England from the continent, and were all aglow. Both aglow with the experience and also aglow with the skin-reddening effects of proper sunshine. I'm returning with a tan.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Things I threw away last week. (part one)

I'm throwing away a lot of things that I kept.

They are things with nice memories attached. Physical reminders of times and people that were valuable to me, that I didn't want to forget. Because I do forget things, people, events I was at and all the most important things of life. It gives me an enduring anxiety, to which I respond by creating keepsakes : diary, sketches, photos, blog.

But I no longer have my own space in which to store them, and the extent of my collecting has become ridiculous. So I've thrown away things this week, including these things :

Torso of leaves, part of a painting I did for GCSE art.
Wall calendar without words - everything's a pictogram.
The one bottom left must mean Megadog, which dates this to 1996ish. I think my parents are next door, but who's the grinning face? My sister?
I wonder if the person top right is an old friend who chose to go by the name of Zebedee. Like everyone else in my memory banks, I wouldn't recognise you now.
The mushroom may have signified either a Mushroom ID course, or taking psyilocybin.
Balloons with names equal birthdays, I think.
I've no memory of painting this picture of The Hermit (from my tarot pack) : it's landfill now.
The undergraduate modules on this wallplanner suggest this also is 1995 - 1996. Memories of a time when my brain thought it was actually getting somewhere, and in company. That's what makes such physical memories so valuable: it reminds you that you weren't alone, but were part of a group. And the sad edge to that memory comes from the fact that that group, as all other groups, has dissipated.
I'm not sure if it's the psyilocybin or the paintbox that unleashed my psychedelic period.
Now this was the hardest to chuck of all - look at that playlist, it's still the best part of what BBC 6music puts out. And Phil and Simon were the loveliest people you could hope for to run a night. And I used to regularly vomit my spaghetti hoops up in the toilets.
You guys. I similarly have no memory of doing this picture, I guess it was over a Christmas when I stayed up longer? Waheed, Colin, James & Steve, and the foot of the other guy in our flat whose name I don't remember. 1994.
This also has gone to landfill. It was given to me by a Buddhist monk in Thailand as a warning against opium. 1996.
I could keep going at this nostalgia list for page after page after page, but you need a break.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Sage Gateshead

Apparently it's Sage Gateshead now, not The Sage Gateshead. Tsk.

I went to the 6music thing on Sunday. I was warned that lots of the crowd were ignorant, and Neneh Cherry was damaged for me by a group I called "club Debs" in my head: I took em to be posh youngsters more used to being in clubs than gigs, who stood in the middle of the crowd and shout-talked to each other the whole way through, backs to the stage. But apart from that, it was great. Here are some diary snippets.

Correction: that should've been "50s civil servant shtick." My friends' favourite new band. 
And Tim Burgess dancing.
So thankyou to 6music who, for the first time in my memory of Newcastle over the last 20 years. actually BROUGHT a good quality music extravaganza to Tyneside. All the effort's been in the other direction really, so it's nice to be included.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


I took part in Inktober this year, and drew at least something for the first twenty something days - although never to my satisfaction and never with much time because life doesn't often give much free time for perfectionism or retreat from activity.

For the first time in my life I bought a moleskine journal and it fits a lot of pages in a nice package, but it isn't for me. The paper's too thin and a bit glossy, and it's basically an overrated brand with  too much of a premium placed on it.

Anyway, this is the first month since last winter when I've had a full week to sit in front of a computer doing work with the internet. So finally it's time to catch up on my papery & zine-y updates.

This one's the first, it is some pictures from that journal, which I decided at first to give a cephalopod theme, although that wore off when I had less leisure, so then I just drew the things I was reading about in books, and the people and furniture around me.

It was good, Inktober, I'll take part again next year.

the 1st pages in the journal
a good friend
view from the window
my favourite picture of an octopus (copied from the internet)
drawing creatures I sighted
I should mention, I was in Malta for much of October, hence the scorpions etc

these are the snails of Malta
I didn't see any weevils, but who can resist their noses?
 a handy black beetle identification chart
my best nautilus (again, copied from the internet)
fragments from my diary
I'm particularly happy with this simple picture of the round bus parking bit in Valletta - it looks just like it
and here is a somewhat abstracted Valletta street, all steps and steep old buildings

back in the UK, quick pint
v quick sketch of the scan committee meeting
railway station stuff on platform 5
and losing the attention to keep it going, this was my last Inktober sketch on 25th October

Monday, 8 September 2014

20 years out of love with Newcastle

I have based myself in Newcastle since September 1994. I was dropped off by my dad with 20 quid in cash and had to borrow money off my new housemate for a couple of weeks until my student loan came through.

I made close friends, I cried on shoulders, I got drunk so many times and post-vomiting was pushed or even rolled home along the pavement - to Ricky Road, to Brighton Grove. Indie discos, excellent gigs, ideas, politics, working out who I was, who was worth it.

When friends moved away, I adapted and joined new circles, formed new friendships, tested other ideas, other politics, and learnt new stuff. Relationships, love, longings & endings, partings, suspicion, drugs, the dole, depression and shit jobs all. Curries from the Brighton, breakfasts at the Oven Door, wood for the fire from the backlanes, home-baked bread and education from others in such peripheral shit as how to taste good wine and good coffee, how to cook, how to get arrested and how to give in. Alleycat Books, Eclectic City & Geordie Monsters.

I think I might leave the city in September 2015. 20 years and everything is filled with nostalgia, sentimental longing, ghosts and the things that used to matter. I cannot walk into a shop, buy a curry, sit in the sun with my back to a tree in the park or even meet a new interesting person without all the burdens of my past weighing me down. It is hard to be alone when you used to be with someone. It is hard to see the people you love give up, hard to see yourself believe less and less in the things you still pursue. New people are not worth what old people are worth. No one can be your substitute.

This sort of thinking is my dominant narrative. It is not the only one, but it plays so loud that it might be unbearable soon. And the last few years, I have taken my peak moments elsewhere - my struggles, breakdowns, near-misses, adrenaline and emotional bonding. Other countries, away trips, time out of time. I return to Newcastle to sleep, tidy up, pay back money and see who's about. There's never enough people about. But I'm contradictory, cos seeing people then makes me miss them more. What happened? Is my head at fault or is this how it feels for everyone who's survived 20 years in one place? I've done all these things before, and it makes it feel pointless to start them all over again. When such good things were shared, why echo them now in a monochrome grey or some sort of dry parody?

I returned to Newcastle on Thursday. A new shop was open, and I saw friends through its door making plans, sharing ideas, and active. Otherwise, this place looked grim, faces pinched and streets too wide & grey. The only geordie accents in town were those of lads asking for money or angry with their girlfriends: chinese students and out of place visitors are those who actually live in the town. Unusually, the price of my bus ticket had not gone up. At home, I found housemates and shared food, brief smiling catch-ups and a letter that triggered thoughts of elsewhere.

Friday: colleagues at work and skype calls to a loved one far overseas. Life a bit out of kilter. Saturday and I walk to Hutchinsons, still the same excellent veg shop on Stanhope street that it has always been: the woman who served me was once an 8yr old girl who held a flag in a parade I helped organise in the nineties. I should be proud to remember it. A hello to an acquaintance putting his kids in the car. A wave from my ex girlfriend's old best friend, over the road. And Jack stops me on Sidney Grove to give me not just a hug but also apples and a jar of homemade jam. It makes me feel all the lonelier, because it is only an encounter, a passing thing. These times are old. They have lost their shine and light and my fingers slip when I try to hold them.

Possibly this is just adjustment, from being away again for the summer. I attend the Star & Shadow, relate tales, explain my situation, join in and partake in the collective decision-making headfuck that I care about so much. Lingering long enough amongst these fellow-feeling companions I watch the film They Live in the evening. (Watching it again, it underlines that only violence from the streets will ever do to stand up to the enemy, but the age of the film means it lacks awareness of the complete surveillance and destabilising strategies that 21st century control wields against us. Essentially, it underlines that we are fucked and they will win.)

And tonight, tonight is Monday and I stayed on at work till a gig started. Nev Clay is a beautiful bastard who almost made me cry with his melancholic love-lost songs, about the sensitivity that the rejected and alone can feel and can communicate, with our crushes and our self-deprecating smiles. Defeated angels, blameless in the longing of failure.

Then an act that was just sublime. The venue : Newcastle Mining Institute with wood panels, bookbound old cases, marble white statues and blackwindow mosaics. There were 12 of us in the audience, including the promoter. Sat on the floor, some in seats, me standing. There were 3 people in front of us performing, 3 behind manning the bar & building. And of course, invisible in his heartheld benevolence, Ian was doing the sound. And we were together, sharing, silent, strangers, overwhelmed, over-treated, feeling unworthy and overcome but in actual fact completely worthy and completely fucking prescient and alert. We as a temporary audience deserved the show, even though it was too good for us, because we knew that and we were just doing our best at being there. I think everyone realised their privilege and cradled it to themselves.

So that's my conclusion : 20 years out of love with Newcastle, I feel I may have to leave. To pursue a living love, adventure & free spirit, I might have to call it quits this time next year. And so if this is my last year then sure as shits I'm gonna go out on a Monday night to see a show like that. And I will see that theatre production with you, and I will go out and watch the murmuration of the starlings. I will notice every busker, sit in on every free showing and volunteer my efforts at the things I care for. I'll even have a row with you if you want. Because if this is my last year in Newcastle then boy oh boy am I going to be here. Come out with me, stop sitting in your rut and engage with the gems that this little volcano of mediocrity throws out now and then.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Scilly Cetaceans in the Sketchpad

Same format as for the last post : pages from my diary that you can either click through as images or read the notes I'm about to add. 

The first page (above) describes my 2nd night train of the year. I love night trains, even when I'm on my own, so long as I have a bit of wine and a new bit of country heading past my bedroom window.

This is the dining car on the Riviera Sleeper, recently reopened after a mudslide at Dawlish. Having my second complementary coffee of the morning.

I was down to Cornwall for a dolphin survey - something I've wanted to do for a long time. So here's some homework of the night before.

In fact I went out on the boat the day before my official survey, because they were cancelling the sailing on the day after the survey, and it was sold out after so I had no other chance to get to the Scillies. It was a good choice, as I saw a sea beast I would never otherwise have had chance to see. A big scarred Risso's dolphin that has appeared around the boat several times this year.


This is the boat.

And next day, Paul was our veteran leader and talked us through the protocol (the headphone chap at the bottom was just a headphone chap on the ferry).

This pic will not be clear (till I add some colour to my sketchpad), but we're on the main deck looking up a bit, and there's a vague figure top left who is the captain : he is standing in the position, by a railing surrounding the bridge, from which we looked for cetaceans port & starboard.

We had 4 sightings: first some harbour porpoise that only Paul spotted against the choppy water (sea state 4) ; then I was lucky enough to see some jumping common dolphins ; and on the way back we saw more harbour porpoise and then a feeding gang of gannets showed us the way to a bigger pod of common dolphins, just like the textbooks tell you. They brought a pretty good conclusion to the survey.

Due to the approaching storm (or perhaps a tide thing - I heard both reasons), we were late setting out and early setting back, plus we arrived into a different dock. My fellow new surveyor Sian was accompanied on the boat by her parents, as she was combining her trip from Southampton with a short holiday.

My own approach to spending an extra couple of days in Cornwall is a bit different, and not recommended.

The newspaper cuttings warn of the approach of Big Bertha, and the impacts once she hit. The page below describes the ridiculous thing I did nonetheless that night, seeing as all the cheap accommodation was booked out and I was feeling both lively and tightfisted, with a long foreign holiday to follow.

In short : binliners do not work against storms called Bertha.

Next day, I walked in my squelching boots just to get warm, and so I walked to Godolphin and St Michael's Mount.

Then a night relishing the facilities of a youth hostel, before heading to St Ives the day after.

Here are some surfers.

And some more surfers.

And some idle thoughts and an id sketch of a little brown bird flock, that I worked out to be linnets. Cute bouncy chirpy things, who showed a welcome to the odd goldfinch joining their flock.

Bits of the paper stuck in my pad, as I got the night train back to London (but this time with no cabin, just in the cheap seats, which worked fine but aren't half as romantic).


And the last pictures : I got obsessed trying to draw the girl in the picture who had such a neat hair shape. She certainly wasn't Daniella Westbrook. 

After that I got a plane, and now a week has passed and I haven't drawn anything else in the sketchpad so there isn't a part two planned.