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.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

15 things in my Summer Sketchpad

Hello. In this post are scans from my current A5 sketchpad, mostly done before I add a bit of colour. I am about to run out of time (from tomorrow) to do anything extra like internet documentation so thought I'd share them here to show I still live. Also the coffee shop zine I've done for International Zine Month will be at the printers tomorrow and I hope to distribute it round Newcastle's coffee shops on Friday. A few of the pages here will be included in that zine.

You can either read this as a blog post for my brief bits of description, or just click on the photos to go through them. I'm quite happy with this - the limitations of the blogger/blogspot format - but I'm thinking of other internet ways to present things next year, too.

1. Despite aiming to not spend money, I spent a lot on train journeys here and there.

2. I went to a conference in Huddersfield, about Unofficial Histories.

3. I went to the Weekend Film Retreat at Burnlaw. The films were generally awful but the experience spending time with people was great. I also saw my first snipe of the year.

4. I went to another funeral, and again learnt more about the chap by attending, and learning more reasons why my knowing them was precious.

5. I also went to the Star & Shadow's Big Announcement Meeting, where I was taking minutes so only did a super-rushed sketch, and recorded the things that people said they loved about the place.

6. I went do to Leeds to see Tune-yards, very happily bumping into friends I don't see so often, and fulfilling a promise I made to myself last year when I couldn't afford to see them at the very same venue.

7. I drew a couple of friends in coffee shops, something I wish I did regularly for all the people I value and want to spend time with.

8. I went down to Bradford for a free gig here, and then next day for the last day of Jean McEwan's market hangout. We made a zine together, there were collections for Bradford Food Bank, and she discussed memories and images with people as they wandered in. Bradford's on the up this year. I think I preferred it last year when it was still full of nothing EXCEPT for the cool DIY stuff I went down for - this year the general commerce and hanging around drinking lager in casual fashions seems to have caught up.

9. I went down to the British Library to hear Steve Bell & Posy Simmond talk about their cartooning. It's the kind of easy thing to access that we never get round to cos of the distance (& therefore money). But I'm glad I went, meeting an old pal Ben who doesn't look quite so much like a wonky goose in real life. The both of them looked and spoke pretty much exactly as you'd expect them to.


10. I went to see a gig in Durham (Erica Freas). The river Wear was full of fish and a lovely contemplative place to linger.

11. This is probably my most successful coffeeshop sketch, and I think that's because I let myself go across two pages, and avoided the temptation to fill in too much detail. Nigel did a picture of me in situ that will also be in the zine.

12. With the zine in mind, I popped into such hangouts as the Writers' CafĂ© and Newbridge Books, feeling uncommonly upbeat & optimistic. A little bit of our conversation at the former was recorded for a potential basicfm show.

 13. On the way back from another trip down to Bradford, I drew the hills and such that passed by.

I couldn't draw this young chap's tanned leathery face - he is very much of our time, with his hip tattoos and daft quiff - because it would mean staring at his face.

14. Bellingham has flushed out the ladies loo problem. I often scrapbook stories from the Hexham Courant, it is my favourite newspaper and handily only comes out once a week.

15. I went to yet another Star & Shadow AGM - I wonder if I've been to them all. It's having to move by Christmas, so I would like to do some group documentation of what's been done within that big old building. Keep yer eyes open for a callout.

Monday, 14 July 2014

If they use this interview, they're gonna have to edit it to f**k

Some uncommonly kind people asked me to answer some questions about zines. My answers are below.

How did you first become aware of zines and how did you get involved with making/ distributing them?

I'm probably one of the last generation who still learnt about new bands through fanzines : when I was at school I picked up flyers at gigs and used to get cassettes & fanzines through the post: crusty folk/punk and shoegaze indie psychedelic stuff, along with underground comics, pamphlets, antifascist stickers. My mum worried for me!
I only started making my own zines much later, beginning by photocopying a few drawn mementoes to share with friends who I'd been on trips or at events with. Then I got hooked and started going to zine fairs, reading reviews, shelling out a bit of cash and getting to know the sheer diversity that there is out there.

Can you tell me a bit about some of the zines you've been involved with over the years?
I've drawn or written single pages for several collaborative zines that range from 'zine in a day' affairs, poems about Fenham, comic jams, film review zines, travels in Teesside, camps in Siberia, allsorts. My own ones have covered Miss Marple, Anti-establishment Roman Philosophers, the Secret Anarchist History of Newcastle, a blind cat called George, comments written by teenagers in the exam papers (which I mark for a living). I've done over 30 zines, some just a couple of dozen copies but for one I printed a thousand. Most are scrappy and done in a rush, for the love of sharing - I find it very hard to sit at home in front of a computer and take my time to do things 'properly'.

'Opinionated Geordie Monsters' saw contributors reviewing the local band scene. How did you get contributors involved and what are the positive outcomes of having multiple contributors write/draw for a zine?
I just put posters up, pestered friends and made sure the back page called for contributions, and for each of the 10 issues I got a stranger or two posting a picture of a monster and their review of the gig - simply the best mail to receive! This worked pretty well (there was no editorial policy) except for the zine's deliberate amateurishness and on-the-spot quality made a lot of my own 'reviews' rather hard to read, or not always worth the reader's attention. They were often drawn drunk, or on the bus on the way home from the gig. I had access to a very cheap photocopier with sometimes atrocious print quality, and every 3 months or so I printed 150-odd and moved on to the next edition. It was fun.

What was/ is your method of distribution? Are the venues you drop zines off at always indicative of the target audience?
I almost never charge money for my zines, because that turns something free and fun and casual into something rather too similar to work and filled with the buyer-seller guilt/manipulation of commerce. Every month or so I did the rounds of the small gig venues of Newcastle to leave a handful (the Head of Steam were especially lovely, making space for them), plus ones and twos in cafes, libraries, sometimes bus seats, sometimes phone boxes and the metro. And I made a zine box at the Star & Shadow where free zines could be dropped (& not just my own - I came across some ace Newcastle zines in that box).

Can you tell me a bit about the coffee shop zine you have in the works and the thinking behind it?
Yes I'm currently cutting & pasting some bits of books about the old coffeeshops and circulating libraries of Newcastle, from a period that really inspires me - when radical thought & scientific enquiry and new energy brought an enlightenment to Tyneside that must have been amazing to be part of. I'm mixing these in with some doodles and sketches I have made with friends in the various coffeeshops of Newcastle - that is, I've invited people to sit with me and draw a mug or a chair or a feature of the room, not aiming for high illustration but just that spontaneous 'what draws your eye' feel. I'll get as many copies printed as I can afford at the end of the month and leave a couple of copies in the places that feature. Then move on to the next idea.

Why do you think people are still mad about zines despite the existence of blogs, fan pages etc (not to mention professionally published magazines)?
I think what we see and share on the internet gets very boring very quick, and mainstream culture makes us want to kill ourselves if we let it persuade us that that is all there is. Zines are one of the very few ways that you can get a glimpse through another person's eyes, and see, feel, hold the little attempt that they've made to convey it. They're honest, personal, flawed, funny, not made for reasons of career or exploitation. They make us remember the diversity of people and possibilities that this world contains and that is such a very special thing that I treasure it more than I could say.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Coffeeshop Zine

June's almost gone, and I'm busy with things including one zine project that got delayed but should finally appear this summer. Here is the introduction, to give you a clue about what it's about :
Welcome to this zine, or call it a chapbook if you like.

It is hardly a pamphlet, and nor is it a sequential comic or personal account of life.

Rather, it is a combination of several thoughts and several experiences that I wished to make public and share, and so I’ve made these few paper copies and left them out in the coffee shops of Newcastle that inspired them.
The contents are composed of two different elements mixed together without much attempt at structure. Part one is excerpts from our history : of the history of coffee shops and how they were (perhaps are still) an integral part of our enlightenment, of reasoned debate and the public meeting place for enquiring, thoughtful people.
These excerpts are taken from books to be found in the public library and I recommend them – I learnt a lot about coffee culture, about how the interplay of politics and freedom came to exist in these public, spied-upon, caffeinated but non-drunken open venues.

And I think we should all aspire to be kin to the Scriblerians, the republicans and pamphleteers, the refugee intellectuals and creative get-togethers that have – sometimes – used the coffeeshop.
The second element comprises of rough sketches made, usually with invited friends, at coffeeshops in Newcastle. Many of them are from 2012, when I first meant to make this zine. Some have been lost, and more will be made. If you would like to sit out in the public sphere with me, drink black coffee and scribble with your pen, get in touch at : or Mike, 42 Curtis Road, Newcastle upon Tyne.
No funding, sponsorship or other agenda is involved in this zine.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Darlington Typed

Last weekend I went to Darlington. They had the Salford Zine Library up, so there were zines all over the old card shelves of a an ex-card shop on High Row. I'd popped in the weekend before and liked the people, so agreed to go down and do a bit of collaborative typewriting on the 2nd weekend that they were open.

I quite like turning up to a new town with my portable typewriter, ready for action like some old-fashioned typing-pool hero. It was pretty poo-ey weather though, so I wasn't sure how busy things would be. The square was all filled with foodstalls for a 'Darlington loves food' type event - cooking demonstrations in a marquee, that kind of thing - but as the day progressed and weather worsened, a lot of these packed up early and left. What was q surprising for me, though, was that despite this, Darlington had a buzz and was busy with people coming in for the town centre shops. It seems to actually be a functioning market town in a way that is rare these days. And what was really q great about it is that each time I went, there was some fun street theatre going on that was mobile and engaging people and gave folk something beyond the shopping and their usual routine to interact with.

Vicky from Navigator North had gone shopping and brought a roll of fax paper that has to be on the 'nearly defunct' list of things to buy. It worked well with the typewriter so we got started, and I got my first collaborator called Mel sitting with me so that between us we got a ball rolling and I started to quite enjoy myself. While she was typing I would doodle in my sketchbook, and when folks came in we'd get them to add something and see how things went. 

In the last hour I looked around and suddenly realised we'd got quite busy. Friends of the Darlington arts scene had come in and were checking out the zines and it was nice - a proper temporary functioning zine library. 

(this and all photos of the day by Navigator North)

I don't know anyone apart from the Salford Zine Library who are actively taking zines out for people to see, but it's something I really think is valuable and I hope they don't stop. 

This was the same weekend as a London event that got a little TV feature on the internet, here, and the points made by people on it are I think quite good at suggesting why zines are important. Especially in an increasingly monotonous world, where print media just reflects the lowest-common-denominators and marketing-driven repetitions, zines are one of the few places where people are encouraged to be different, do things differently and in their own unique way. One zine is not the same as the next. Your life is not the same as mine. Our interests do not need to coincide to be interesting. The more diverse perspectives, interests and passions there are, the less dead we are as a people.

We closed the shop late, because of the late influx of people, and in fact I left before the last visitors finished browsing - they were a couple of zine enthusiasts I know from other events and it was really nice to see they'd come to check these ones out, on their first ever visit to Darlo. 

I headed down to Bradford, to catch something of the excellent Threadfest they do each year. Free bands in a half dozen venues, of which I saw an amazing guy called Matthew Bourne by the ice rink, and then some of the acts at the New Playhouse, of which my favourite were the female-vocals+drums of Rattle.

(sketch of the crowd at the Matthew Bourne gig)

Sunday, after a night at my folks', and back to Darlington for a slightly sunnier day. I took the typewriter outside, and with a local photographer collaring people he knew or recognised, we got more people taking part. An inveterate drunk. Market traders. Families. People who used to have them. "I had a pink barbie one when I was a girl". Some really muscly young guys out from the gym. Street performers - the grannies on bicycles and segways who were chasing people and playing old tunes on their sound systems. We tried making pictures with text, we did typewritten interviews, we took jokes that we found in zines and reminisced about fanzines bought at gigs in the eighties.

And what was nice was at the end of the day, some folk who I had just briefly interacted with on the street had come into the shop and were spending a good while just sitting and reading through different zines. Perzines, anarchist zines, travel zines, punk zines, art zines, zines full of jokes, zines produced as part of degree shows, zines I recognised, zines I had a copy of, zines that were funny or cleverly made or intriguing and suggestive of other ways of seeing the world.

Thankyou Darlington, I enjoyed spending some time with you, and I hope to come back again soon. It's a recommended town!