Berrow Beach, 1987

An old oak bench stood beyond the ruined pillbox, long forgotten and lost amid the marram. The old man sat there often, his regular perch a polished oval within the lichen-encrusted wood. Precious few ever noticed him, but that day I did. I saw him staring sadly across the bay, a faded photograph clutched tightly in his arthritic hands. I saw bright tears tracing a haphazard path down his weathered cheeks. I saw him silently talking to a companion unseen.

The tattered picture barely held together, glossy paper turned to fragile vellum by years of adoring study. The girl in the photo was beautiful, wide-eyed and happy. I asked him about her. They were in love, he said, long ago, before the bombs came. Nearly half a century past, and yet he still thought of her every day when he performed his lonely vigil. He never loved anyone as he had loved her. As he still loved her.

We exchanged the briefest of nods as he shuffled away. I took his place on the worn seat, continuing his solemn watch as I drifted into a reverie, mind filled with wistful notions of love, time and loss. Footprints in the undulating dunes were the only sign that the old man had ever been there, but the thoughts and feelings of that day still remain.

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.

Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most beautiful. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

Time

I had my semi-regular checkup this week to assess how mental I am. The answer was, reassuringly, not very mental, although two days later I had a bit of a wobble that could have gone either way. It got me thinking.

Firstly I should explain how I perceive time. It sounds daft, I know, but recently I’ve learned that we all experience time slightly differently. Some see a calendar year as a linear thing, beginning in January and following a straight line until the end of December. Others see time as a loop, or clock face, months ticking by and years beginning afresh. Personally I visualise each year as a parabola, with January to April a shallow incline to be conquered, May through August almost a plateau, and September onwards a sharp, uncontrollable fall. Don’t ask me how I perceive longer time periods, I don’t even know how to explain it myself. Suffice to say that there are right angles…

I don’t think I’ve always experienced time as a curve. Certainly as a child I belonged to the ‘straight line’ crowd, with acute peaks during times of excitement like summer holidays and Christmas. The warping and curving has only really happened in the past decade or so, which broadly correlates with the period I’ve spent tussling with the world and my place in it. Ergo, time passes differently when you’re mad. I’m not very mad, but just enough to see beyond the magician’s curtain (and occasionally the wizard’s sleeve).

The slopes of the parabola are the times that I find difficult. Like many who suffer with relatively benign depression, the black dog comes with the dark. Summertime is generally fine, with the long sunny days keeping the silos of good chemicals in my strange brain topped up. Vitamin D, serotonin, dopamine, all present and correct. Autumn is when things start to change, happy chemicals starting to deplete as the nights draw in. I can generally feel myself weakening, as the sun-fuelled forcefield melts slowly away. By the time November comes I’m quite fragile, and during the bad years this is when the real tussle starts. It’s a tussle with myself, so you’d think I’d know the rules and how to win, but apparently not. It’s frustrating, because autumn and early winter are two of my favourite times of the year. I’ve said it before, but I prefer Bonfire Night to Christmas. It’s the smell of woodsmoke and candy floss that does it.

I’m going to gloss over the winter part because I want to write about it as much as you want to read about it (i.e. not at all). Suffice to say once you’ve tried to push through three months of feeling broken and worthless, you won’t want to do it again. It’s a handy learning curve if nothing else. Finally you get through to the other side and spring is on the horizon. The nights get longer and the lazy sun starts to make an effort once again. It’s an upward struggle to drag myself to April, but that’s usually the time where my old friends the good chemicals generally kick back in.

Back to the parabola again. It was only this week that I finally worked out why I see time that way, or at least I’ve come up with an explanation that my brain finds convincing. I think I want to see time as a loop, probably an oval, but my broken brain can’t connect the two loose ends of the curve. December should grade into January and begin the annual cycle afresh, but for some reason I can’t handle that. I fall into a void between the two ends of the thread, and it is often a real fight to end one year and find my way to the start of another. January and February are when I’m at my least motivated, and I sometimes obsess over the fear of getting back on the treadmill and living through another year. It doesn’t last long, but it’s always there.

I’m lucky in many ways that my job is also my passion, namely nature and wildlife. Nature can, however, be a real bugger for those with a tendency to dwell on the passage of time. Nature gives the open-minded depressive any number of allegories to cling to, some helpful but most less so. The birds are the worst offenders, the spring chorus of the migrant breeders raising our spirits and gladdening our hearts before they abandon us to our solitude once more. The swifts are the ones that get me, one moment wheeling through the sky en masse and screaming with the pure joy of being alive and free, then August arrives and they depart suddenly on the changing winds. They’re oblivious of course, but the swifts taking their leave is a sure sign that I need to batten down the hatches for the gathering storm.

It’s mid August as I write this, and I’m fine. I’ve been on my second spell of antidepressants for over a year now and they seem to keep all my chemicals balanced without making me an emotionless robot. The swifts are preparing their exit strategy and the leaves will soon start to turn, but I’m fairly optimistic about the coming months. I think Bonfire Night should be a good one this year.