Tramway to Hell

This is a silly anecdote about a horrible tram journey I took today. Apologies in advance for the toilet language, but sometimes only a good swear will do.

Tram 11 made glacial progress up the long hill, packed tight with human cargo and hotter than the face of the sun. A quirk of the schedule meant that this particular service had coincided with two separate tourist boats arriving into Saltholmen harbour, and as a result the ageing streetcar resembled a warm tin of shop-soiled corned beef. 

My initial joy at grappling my way into a window seat had dissipated the moment that I became surrounded by human flesh on all sides, sticky and unpleasant from the unusually hot spell that shrouded the city. A young mother thrust a pushchair at my legs with the force of an aggrieved bear, making me bite hard on my tongue to avoid shouting “FUCKING TWAT!” directly into a toddler’s face. It wasn’t entirely the toddler’s fault, but he did have a shifty look about him as though he’d orchestrated the incident. As if to prove a point, the toddler looked me in the eye and began to scream. Continuously. For the duration of 14 faltering stops. The twat.

Looking away from the demon child gave no solace, as I found myself gazing directly into the groin of a rotund American man, all sweat and jowls and the scent of spam. It was a fairly unremarkable groin, certainly not one of the all-time greats, although presently it occupied a space altogether too close to my nose and mouth. After all, a groin is a terrible thing to taste (as the famous quote goes). To avoid the ominously jiggling nethers I braced myself in an approximation of the foetal position and stared directly at my feet. To compound matters, and to provide a counterpoint to the ongoing screams from the aforementioned toddler, the American man produced a prolonged coughing fit of such epic proportions that the world seemed to shake and shudder, flecks of spittle and fragments of windpipe raining down on all within the blast radius, myself included. It was a display of snorting and hacking worthy of the Norse gods themselves; he certainly failed to keep things low-key (Pun 1 – check). 

I closed my eyes and tried to block out the screams of beelzebub and the walrus-like ejaculations of the man with the Thor throat (Pun 2 – check), a tightly curled ball of stress and anger. Eons passed before the noises subsided, passengers gradually departing. The air became thinner and cooler, until I could breathe again. I uncurled myself and marvelled at the space around me, unencumbered by toddlers or tourists. I felt something approaching relaxed happiness, until I looked up and realised I had missed my stop by a spectacular margin. 

FUCK IT. FUCK IT ALL. FUCK IT RIGHT IN THE EAR.

Nordic Notions

Wanna hear a secret? For over a decade I’ve been having a secret romantic tryst. Shocking, I know. You’re probably appalled at me, but you needn’t be. My love affair isn’t with a person, but with a place. Scandinavia, Fennoscandia, call it what you will. This beautiful, strange little peninsula has changed and enriched my life beyond measure. This place is a part of me. It’s in my blood.

I’m in Sweden as I write this, ensconced in a small hotel in suburban Gothenburg. It’s 10pm, and the sky above me is beginning to fade to a deep indigo. Time moves slowly here, and the light is different. There’s a tendency to think of this part of the world as a cold, unforgiving place, and for half of the year that’s certainly true, but spring and summer at this latitude are joyous. It’s early June as I write, a time of endless days and the briefest of nights. A time of cloudless skies of the richest blue imaginable, a blue rendered in stereo by the seas, rivers and lakes that permeate this place. A cerulean plexus, serene and perfect.

A slash of green divides the blue, a jagged horizon that reminds me that this is a place of trees and forests where man is but an interloper. It’s been written that the human eye can detect more shades of green that any other colour, and sometimes it seems like this place has them all. Green is my colour. I derive a huge feeling of calm from being enveloped by it, from the deep, dark greens of the pine canopies to the soft, sun-dappled shades of the parkland broadleaves. As a functioning depressive it’s one of my great releases and a well of succour that I will always return to.

I felt a special connection with this region from the moment I first visited. I came here from a world that I always found, and still find, claustrophobic, a world of relentless cerebral overstimulation that comes from urban living, work pressure and family drama/tragedy. My standard response has always been to retreat and hide away like a modern day anchorite, venturing out sporadically to remind people that I’m not dead yet. I feel different here though, calmer and more confident. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about the wide streets and empty open spaces that nourishes me, both physically and mentally. I imagine it’s the difference between a caged tiger and one living freely. This is my natural habitat, my niche gestalt.

It sounds as though I’m unhappy with regular life, but that’s not the case. By any measure I have a very privileged existence, living in a place I love and doing a job that I enjoy. I’ve learned to accept the things that used to stop me from being happy and to live my life in a way that works for me. My frequent retreats to the northern latitudes are part of my self-prescribed therapy, and part of my attempt to live my best life. Maybe I’ve got some Viking blood in me – it would certainly explain the daft ginger beard.

I’ll draw this to a close now as my eyelids are growing heavy. It’s 11.45pm, and the sky is still a rich navy hue. The sound of trams rattling along outside reverberates in my ears as the gentle hum of the city at night lulls me to sleep.

Try to find your natural habitat. It’ll save your life x

Saturnine

I had the bird dream again. It never changes; the eternal corridor with the blinding light. I vary my direction but it’s always there. Hours pass, or maybe seconds. A silent world apart from my own haltering breath. Adrenaline surges. The quiet is crushed by wingbeats and the chatter of its cruel bill. I run from the cruel talons until my heart bursts and the light fades to black.

It waits for me there, always. Some nights I don’t sleep. It’s killing me.

Nature Rap

I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.
My flow is pretty weak but my words are effective.
I don’t have a badge.
I don’t have a gun.
But my bat detector is set to stun.

I’m a naturalist, not a naturist.
I keep my trousers on when I’m looking at tits.
The great and the blue.
The crested and coal.
All my homies need is a nesting hole.

Trails in the grass and tracks in the dirt.
I crawled through the brambles, tore a hole in my shirt.
Trapped on barbed wire.
Fox shit on my shoes.
It’s started to rain, I’ve got the badger sett blues.

A skylark in a country park.
A scratch mark on some tree bark.
Sunrise on the equinox.
Making friends with a city fox.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

I’m a nature lover, not a nature fighter.
Don’t be jealous of my A3 weatherwriter.
Don’t envy my hand lens.
Don’t diss my chest waders.
Save your rage for knotweed and the alien invaders.

I travel around in an old Citroen van.
Full of bottle traps and my beat up trailcam.
The idols I worship,
Are Rose and Rackham.
I was raised on Attenborough and schooled by Packham.

Winter hits and I’m trapped in the office.
Dreaming of hedgerows and the hazel coppice.
I’ve still got the fieldfare.
I’ve still got the redwing.
But I’m counting down the days until I hear the first cuckoo sing.

A bullhead on a riverbed.
A barn owl in a farm shed.
Barbastelle in a woodland dell.
A brown smear and a strange smell.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

I hang around at night in weird locations.
I swear I’m not a pervert, it’s my eco-occupation.

Grab your field guides and join my collective.
I’m special agent Tom and I’m a nature detective.

Strawberry Milk

The date was set months ago. He agreed in haste, unconsciously sowing a tiny seed of anxiety in his fertile mind. A hometown show by his favourite band, surrounded by his closest friends. Measured by any metric this was something to look forward to.

Four weeks to go. He was still excited, but the tiny seed had sent out green shoots of worry. He barely noticed, save for an occasional prickle at the edge of his consciousness. He thought about the club, an oppressive concrete box with low ceilings. It would be busy. Hot. Sweaty. Claustrophobic. He could still have fun though. Maybe.

One week to go. He was driving, listening to songs that reminded him of past times and places, words triggering vivid recollections of youth. Tunes first encountered when he was in his prime, if indeed those years could be described as such. It was a strange time, filled with academia, loneliness and a crippling lack of self esteem. He had largely expunged it from his memory, but he’d held on to the music. Always the music.

It’s the day of the gig. The anxiety seed is now full-grown, a complicated vine of creeping dread infiltrating every fibre of him. He’s at work, and whilst his body and mind are busy with the challenges of his job he can keep the unhelpful thoughts at bay. Work is his safe place, a sanctuary where his confidence in his own ability is unshakable. Within those office walls he is invulnerable, but the dread vine waits patiently outside. As soon as he steps out the doors it strikes, triffid-like, and panic sets in. “You’re the worst. It’ll be too busy. It’ll be too hot. You’ll look stupid. You’ve got nothing to wear. You’re going to embarrass yourself you fat fuck”. He doesn’t want to go anymore. He’s not going to go.

He is going to go. It’s two hours before the show and he sits waiting for a taxi. He feels uncomfortable in his ill-fitting clothes, and he’s started to sweat. Scared.

He meets his friends for a drink before the show, and the anxiety melts away slightly. He knows his brain is playing tricks, he knows he’s just the same as everyone else, but his mind won’t let him believe it. Alcohol gives the panic a fuzzy edge that seems less intimidating, and he relaxes slightly. They walk to the venue, and the cool breeze soothes his sweaty brow.

A short queue. Ticket scanned. A quick search from a security guard and he’s in. The wave of sticky heat hits him immediately, just as he predicted. The unique ambience of thousands of human forms temporarily entombed in a windowless bunker, perspiration condensing and dripping from the ceiling. Visions of wartime, but with a funkier bassline. He inhales a plastic cup of beer, then heads to the merch stand to waste some money. The endorphin boost is disappointingly brief, but it’s good to feel something. He buys another cigarette lighter. He doesn’t even smoke.

The venue fills, becoming packed like the metaphorical sardine tin. He takes up his regular position at the back, near to the sound desk. You always get the best sound near the desk. He struggles to find a position where he’s not constantly in contact with the writhing mass of other people, and gives up. The sweat comes again. He feels like a bear in a cheap man suit, and he convinced himself that people see him as some sort of landmark. “Meet you by the man-bear”. The lights dim and the band comes on. They start with an old song. His favourite. Adrenaline pumps, and he moves his right leg in an awkward near-dance, like someone trying to dislodge an amorous ferret from their trouser leg. He soon gives up and heads to the bar.

The bar. Thirty minutes spent in a seething ball of life, during which he sweats out enough liquid to fill Gas Street Basin. He emerges with a small cup of warm beer, which is immediately knocked from his hand by a man with a face that appears to have been drawn onto a deflating balloon. Fuck this.

He rejoins the crowd. Strobe lights flicker, framing the singer in a slow-motion sepia world. The crowd are mesmerised, but all our hero can focus on are those around him. The gig-talkers, the portrait-filmers, the pissed-up dancers windmilling their arms with gay abandon. An idiot in front crouches down, ingesting his MDMA somewhat less subtly than he thinks, before exploding back to a standing position and sending a young girl sprawling to the floor. The idiot doesn’t notice, and starts to windmill with renewed vigour.

His nerves are on edge, and all he can think about is how much he hates everyone around him. He imagines telling them to stop, imagines getting involved in an awkward fight under the strobe lights, all missed punches and kicks. He never wins his imagined fights, and he knows he’d never be brave enough to do it anyway.

A mid-gig lull. The band are playing new songs. The sound is muffled, and they seem to be coasting. Something is missing, some spark of danger and excitement. Before he knows it he’s heading for the exit, pushing his way through two sets of doors and out into the open. The cold air shocks him, a bolt of adrenaline runs through him as he realises that he’s free. He can still hear the band plodding through a disappointing album track as he skirts around the railings, ignoring the bootleg t-shirt sellers as he makes his escape. He doesn’t have a plan, but with every step away from the club the anxiety melts away. He walks the wrong way down the main road into town, away from the buses and taxis that could carry him home. At least a mile passes before he stops to collect his thoughts. He calls a cab, and heads into a nearby corner shop to buy a pint of strawberry milk. It’s been a bizarre evening by even his own strange standards, but sometimes the anxious thoughts win, and sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. That’s alright though, he doesn’t mind.

He sits back in the taxi seat, strawberry milk in hand, feeling calm. Until next time.

Renewal

Spring changes everything.

The viscous fog that held me bound is melting away. I’ll soon be free, born again into the realm of the May Queen. She walks the wild places, making everything new. Untold shades of green are a canvass for wildflowers of every hue, each a rare gemstone shining light into the dark corners. The spring flowers are the pioneers, harbingers of impending summer.

The air is different. The thin, biting wind of winter has been replaced by something new, a zephyr dense with pollen and scent, imbued with warmth. Close your eyes, let your other senses assume control. Breath it in. Taste it. Stand still and listen to the sound the spring breeze carries to your discerning ear. Birdsong. Nature’s great chorus, performing cantatas of endless variety for you alone.

Foremost among the May Queen’s haunts are the woodlands. I know she’s been as soon as I skip over the shallow brook and step past the hazel threshold. I’m not religious, but at times the divide between nature and faith seems paper-thin. The woodland in spring is my place of worship, my cathedral. The mighty boles of ash and oak are its great stone pillars, the crown-shy canopy its vaulted ceiling. Each glade is a quiet chapel, and each shaft of sunlight permeating that leafy ceiling shapes a dappled glow more beautiful than any stained glass lancet. The fallen log is my pew, a place for quiet reflection. I consider the elegant mosaic that stretches before me. Bluebell, anemone and archangel, a carpet woven by the seraphim.

The winter malaise is banished for another year. I step out of the woods renewed, more alert than ever to the world around me. I am part of nature, and it is part of me.

Spring changes everything. Blue skies bring joy.

Declaration of War

Depression is a fucking liar. If I could reach out to you, I’d tell you that. The sad thing is that you wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true.

The sly voice in your ear tells you that you’re worthless, but you’re not. It tells you that you’ve made bad choices and done bad things, but you haven’t. That you’re a fraud, an imposter, a chancer. You’re none of those things. Look around you. Look at the things you’ve achieved, the places you’ve been, the people that love you. When did depression last tell you that you’re amazing? You are. Depression hasn’t got a clue.

Depression is a fucking liar, but it’s also a fool. Its arguments are weak, falling apart at the merest hint of scrutiny and fact, yet we fall for it every time. Depression is Boris Johnson. Depression is Jacob Rees Mogg.

I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of people I love being lied to. I’ve had enough of beautiful souls being wounded by slander and deceit. We need to rebel, to look the black beast in the eye and let it know that it can never win.

We are many, yet we are one. Look out depression, we’re coming for you.

 

* The crow sketch on cardboard is by my lovely talented friend Sarah.  Check her out on instagram @sarahrussell_illustrates 

 

Delete?

I realised today that I still had Dad saved as a contact on my phone. We used to talk a lot, before he was sick. I try not to get too emotional about things these days, but pressing delete sent a jolt of sadness through me.

It’s strange how we attach sentiment to such things as a number in a phonebook, but sometimes they’re all we have to connect us to a vanished time. Today I resolved to be less afraid of emotion, and less reluctant to think about the past.

Here’s to loved ones that we’ve lost, and to all of our shining futures.

Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Avocado Man

I am the avocado man;
inexplicably popular with millennials.

I am the avocado man;
good for the heart when consumed in moderation.

I am the avocado man;
gleaming stone of sadness hidden within.

I am the avocado man;
green and fleshy, spongy when squeezed.

I am the avocado man;
frequently mashed and enjoyed by Mexicans.

I am the avocado man;
shrivelled yet shiny, like a varnished scrotum.

I am the avocado man.

🥑