A family walk down Cromford Canal

I’ve been keeping up my walking, arranged around my busy everyday life. I’ve realised that my overall carbon footprint must be going down as the miles I’ve clocked up is increasing, as now I’m looking for an excuse to pop to the local shops.

It’s my mum’s birthday tomorrow, and after a lovely lunch at Scarthin Books in Cromford in Derbyshire, one of the best bookshops in the world, with its own hidden vegetarian cafe. I had a lovely pie and salad, but we stood firm against the temptation of cake!

We walked back around the millpond, complete with resident ducks, swans and a heron, and crossed the busy A6 and walked past Cromford Mill, a world heritage site, where Richard Awkwright set up the first ever water-powered cotton spinning mill in 1771. The mill has now been restored and is open as a visitor attraction.

Next door to the mill is the end of Cromford Canal, which opened in 1794 and carried the finished cotton, as well as coal, lead and iron ore mined in the area. Nowadays, the canal doesn’t go anywhere, but is restored and used for trips along the stretch that is navigable. In its prime, the canal would have been a busy, industrial scene, but now it’s great for walkers and wildlife alike, although I didn’t see any of its famed water voles.

It was a lovely chance to catch up with my parents, and it was bracing, although the strong winds of earlier in the day had died down a bit. We clocked up 3.54 miles in today, which isn’t bad!

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There’s a stegosaurus in the woods at the garden centre on the other side of the canal. 

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Back to Sheffield for a Wyming Brook Walk

On the last day of relaxation before the New Year begins in earnest and many of us go back to work, I decided to take a solo walk at Wyming Brook on the outskirts of Sheffield. The skies were blue and it promised to be a crisp, bracing walk. A quick drive through Lodge Moor, the highest suburb of Sheffield and out the other side towards Redmires showed that lots of other people were having the same idea – I couldn’t get into the car park and had to park on the road, which gave me more mileage. There was black ice on the road, but the rest of the route wasn’t so slippery!

It was a mini-adventure, walking down Wyming Brook Drive on the way down the valley, which actually used to be a proper road, so it’s fairly solid underfoot and winds down the valley. I came out on Manchester Road, the start of the Snake Pass, which actually wasn’t too bad, as there was a pavement all the way until I turned off onto the narrow road that runs on top of the Lower Rivelin Dams reservoir’s dam and then back up the course of the Wyming Brook itself. I can’t believe it’s taken me over twenty years of living in Sheffield to discover this magical walk – rather muddy and a bit precarious in places, but it was great fun.

I saw lots of wildlife – the robins are especially tame here, so I got a good shot in silhouette, and according to the Mapometer website I’m using until my fitness tracker arrives, that was a 4.03 mile walk!

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Sunbathing and sautering on the Cote d’Bradfield. In November!

Hello! Long time no see. I’ve been having a whirlwind of a time recently, so I apologise for my lack of festival reviews, witty insights and updates about my life and my writing.

I was busy for Halloween last night, at a wonderful handfasting wedding ceremony. It was great – a very moving, entertaining ceremony. I’ve never been to a wedding before where most of the guests were in Halloween fancy dress!

This morning, I had a great lie-in and a cosy read and relax. I realised that the weather was too good to miss – clear blue skies and warm sunshine. After brunch, I jumped into my car and drove to one of my favourite spots for walking, Damflask Reservoir at Lower Bradfield, only eight miles away from the centre of Sheffield. The countryside is absolutely glorious, at any time of the year, and I’m sure that the village green, with its cricket pitch, should feature in a Yorkshire Tea advert.

By the time I’d walked around the shadier side of the reservoir, I’d stripped off to my t-shirt, and I sat basking on a bench in the village with a can of pop and a packet of crisps from Bradfield’s village shop. I couldn’t resist a bonfire toffee lolly either, and enjoyed it while strolling along in the sunshine.

Anyway, it’s now time for you to enjoy the photographs of an amazing afternoon, filled with mirror-still water, people enjoying the sunshine, and golden autumnal colours at their best.

Spring Starts to bloom

The Random Notebook has been a bit quiet recently…but that doesn’t mean that I’ve been quiet. For a while, it seemed like spring was very slow to arrive this year. The days were gradually getting longer, but it was still full coat, hat and gloves weather most of the time. I’ve been busy with my teaching and writing work, and I’ve been making sure that the blog for my work in hospitals with dementia patients has been updated: Dales Tales website.

After the Spring Equinox, we headed to Whitby to spend almost a whole week walking and exploring at the end of March. Actually, we’d visited most of the places before, but it was lovely to return and relax. As it was later in the spring than our usual trips to Whitby, it was a lot busier, especially on the Sunday, and we decided that we like the streets of Whitby better when they are quiet and atmospheric.

However, it was lovely to see the town in bright sunshine, with people and dogs enjoying the beach.

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

Whitby piers and some seagulls!

We had a great time looking around the abbey and taking photos from strange angles, and I bought a lovely hand-knitted beret for a bargain price from the church. I was glad of something to keep the hair away from my face, as our next stop was the East pier – quite dramatic with the tide rolling in. The piers in Whitby are part of the harbour for the fishing port, made out of rugged stone, with weathered lighthouses withstanding the winds.

On the Monday, we walked from Whitby to Robin Hood’s Bay. It really felt like spring and I photographed some stunning views over the cliffs. I was grateful for the “1,000-mile socks” that I’d bought the day before. Apparently, I get my money back if I get blisters while wearing the socks, and by the time I arrived in the picturesque fishing village, I was aching but my feet felt alright!

Tuesday was spend wandering around Whitby, having a lovely walk along the beach, discovering a strange alfresco sculpture garden, pottering around shops and enjoying chips and mushy peas from Robertsons (all the other chippies in Whitby seem to cook in beef fat rather than vegetable oil, which isn’t good for veggies!) We were under the watchful eye of some herring gulls standing on top of nearby parked cars, but they were more interested in a couple who had a battered fish. In the quaint bookshop on Church Street I spent my book token on the excellent Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor – a novel that brings to life the long gone world of the fishing village.

In the evening, we hit a few local pubs: the Duke of York, which overlooks the harbour, and on the other side of the river, the Little Angel, which serves great ale, and the Granby, where I unexpectedly won the pub bingo!

Wednesday was our only chance to explore the Mulgrave Estate near Sandsend, just a couple of miles further north than Whitby. The estate is only open at weekends and Wednesdays. In the middle of this wooded private estate, lie the ruins of a medieval castle. This time, we thought we would also check out the waterfalls marked on the map, and the remains of an older Norman motte and bailey . We found everything we were looking for, but the paths marked on the OS map didn’t seem to coincide with reality, and we got ourselves a bit lost and muddy into the bargain! We did find the atmospheric ruins of an old water mill though.

We managed a quick trip to Whitby museum in the afternoon, savouring the gruesome “hand of glory”, a desiccated human hand used by burglars, and learning about the First World War torpedo raid on Whitby and Scarborough in a great new exhibit.

When we woke on Thursday morning, the sunny weather had disappeared, to be replaced by heavy rain showers and leaden skies. There was just time for a final walk around Whitby before heading back to Sheffield.

The Easter holidays officially started with several days of grey, gloomy weather, which was very wet, filling the streams and reservoirs. Maundy Thursday was bright and sunny – the Queen even visited Sheffield, but I kept out of it and went for a lovely walk up to Ringinglow on the edge of the Peak District instead.

Good Friday was terrible again, but the weather started to pick up on Easter Saturday, when we walked around Damflask reservoir and laboured up to Higher Bradfield to look around the medieval church that was bustling with people creating floral displays and Easter decorations.

Easter Monday was a beautiful day – more like summer, and I joined friends at the Endcliffe Park duck race, an annual event to raise money to restore Forge Dam, a pond further up the river that has become badly silted up. The event has quickly become a Sheffield institution, with thousands of people buying ducks and watching the race. We walked to Forge dam later on in the afternoon, and I had one of their legendary chip butties!

I’ve been catching up with some freelance editing work this week, and it’s been great to be able to work outside again on my laptop – it’s great for concentrating too, as my internet connection is poor to non-existent at the bottom of the garden.

This Saturday was much cooler, but the evening held something exciting in store. Scott Doonican, the singer from one of my favourite festival acts of recent years, The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, was playing a sold-out solo gig in the intimate surroundings of the Lantern Theatre in Netheredge, Sheffield. The gig was a triumph, showcasing hilarious songs from their new album as well as old favourites. If you like comedy folk bands and witty covers, they’re the band for you, and the friends I took along with me are now firm converts.

But we had to be up early this morning! One of my new “Dooni-fans” from the night before was taking part in the Sheffield Half-Marathon, re-launched this year with a new route that stretches into the Peak District. The weather was quite sunny, but so windy that I was almost blown off my feet several times, as we waited for the runners at the side of Ringinglow Road. There was a great atmosphere, as athletes jogged past, having just completed the dramatic hill climb out of the city. As spectators giving encouragement to the runners, we weren’t going anywhere as far or as fast – in fact, we just returned to the Forge Dam café for another chip butty. I’ve now mentioned chips a record three times in one blog entry – that’s truly Northern!

It’s been good to change the pace of life and work a little for the start of spring, but for now, the whirl of teaching and writing begins again in earnest. But with warmer weather, lighter nights and great music, festival season is just around the corner!

A Spot of Urban Birding

My January has been fairly quiet so far. Instead of crazy nights out and lots of live music, it’s mostly been about settling down to work and creativity, and catching up with friends by going on bracing walks in the parks and countryside around Sheffield.

I’ve been swimming a few times at my local pool, dodging dive-bombing kids and people ploughing up and down. There have been a few pleasant nights in the pub, but more often, I’ve been watching episodes of Dr Who while wrapped in a blanket on the sofa while finishing off the Christmas cake. Very rock ‘n’ roll! And finishing off all those Christmas treats has cancelled out all the calories burned by the brisk walks. But it’s been a happy time of making plans and trying to establish good routines.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending thirty minutes of the day at least working on my novel. It doesn’t sound a lot, and there have been days when I haven’t even been able to manage that, but since New Year, I finally feel that the end of the first draft of ‘Distortion’ is very close. Just a couple of chapters to go, and I’m starting to tie up a lot of the loose ends in the novel.

I think the secret is to write a little and often, doing it first where possible, rather than leaving it until everything else is done – including chores like cleaning the bathroom and sorting out laundry! And when it’s just not possible to do any writing, I’ve prioritised it the following day, rather than beating myself up for “failing”. As humans, we seem programmed to be “all or nothing” – just as many people seem to give up on being vegetarian after giving in to the temptation of eating one bacon sandwich, I wonder how many aspiring writers lose faith in themselves after setting themselves a much too ambitious routine?

If you’re trying to write something and you’re feeling uninspired, or worried that you’re going to churn out a load of crap, just set a timer, get on with it, and don’t worry. A first draft is supposed to be rubbish. But a crappy first draft is better than a blank page. It’s something to tinker and fiddle with until you’ve got it right. Those rough words on the page can generate brilliant new ideas. The main thing to concentrate on is whether the words you’ve written have got you from A-B in your story.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in Ruskin Park

This morning, I set off on a micro-adventure: a journey of discovery in my local green space: Ruskin Park in Walkley, Sheffield. Amazingly, this park is only about as old as me, having been created following the slum-clearance of Victorian terraced houses. In that time, the park has grown several copses of fir, ash, alder, willow (there isn’t a stream, but the ground must be quite damp in places with those species), hazel and elder. The playground is very popular with local families, and there is even a zip-wire! At the opposite end of the park from my house is the Blake Hotel, refurbished several years ago following years of lying derelict. Now it’s one of Sheffield’s favourite pubs with its wide selection of real ales. Ruskin Park also had a cameo role in blockbuster film, The Full Monty!

It was such a lovely morning – much milder than the snowy, icy conditions we’ve had recently, and there was a real feeling of spring in the air. I wanted to get out into the park, rather than sitting in the house, looking down into my tiny garden. I’ve spotted plenty of wildlife there in the past, but I wanted to get some fresh air and look for some wildlife.

I had a great time in the park, exploring the woods and paths, dodging dog poo, avoiding patches of remaining ice and snow and getting my boots muddy! It was worth it though. The park is full of signs of spring: hazel catkins, daffodils starting to push their way through the grass, and some elders in a clearing were putting out their first leaves. This morning, urban sounds mingled with birdsong and church bells. In the Big Garden Birdwatch (you’re allowed to do your birdwatching in a park too), you have to record the largest number of each species of birds that you see at the same time. It doesn’t say anything about birds that you can hear but not see, so even though I heard a robin singing and house sparrows chirping from a bush, I couldn’t count them!

Here’s the full tally from my hour of bird-watching – the numbers indicating the biggest number of each bird I saw at any one time:

Blackbird: 1
Woodpigeon: 3
Chaffinch: 5
Bluetit: 3
Crow: 1
Long tailed tits: 5
Great tits: 2
Bullfinch: 1
Goldfinch: 6
Blackheaded gull: 1
Starling: 8
Magpie: 1
Wren: 1
Collared doves: 6

And finally, here’s the poem that I wrote about the experience!

Bird Watching in Ruskin Park

In dense hedges, sparrows chirp,
A blackbird skulks by the path.
Children jump in the playground –
Chimes ring under their feet.

Collared doves call, complaining.
In the copse, blue tits call and scold.
Police sirens, a helicopter’s whirr;
My face warm to the winter sun.

A small dog barks, starlings chirr,
Crow surveys the view, perched high –
Comments with a hoarse caw.
Woodpigeon naps in a fir tree.

Dirty snow litters the ground.
Treetop nests from last year, stark
Against blue sky and white clouds.
Cold nips my fingers but doesn’t bite.

Like a burbling fax machine modem,
A cacophony of goldfinches in gangs
Perch on twig-tops of hawthorn and willow.
Long-tailed tits dart, poised; scruffily puffed.

The church bells chime; a robin sings –
Elders in the clearing burst into leaf
Hazel catkins tremble in the breeze.
Mud underfoot: footballers shout.

Chaffinches, launched like bobbing missiles:
Wings folded, cross the snow-flecked pitch.
A small plane chugs over the city; high above
The daring stunt-fliers in the winter park.

December: A Manic Month of Mayhem! (Time for a rest?)

If I thought there were lots of gigs in November, the pace was set to continue, with lots more gigs and events – and that’s on top of Christmas and the New Year.

During the start of December, I was working hard, and gently starting to prepare for Christmas. But that was all about to change.

The 11th December had been in my diary for months. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for the Manic Street Preachers, playing The Holy Bible album in full. It feels unbelievable, but 2014 was the twentieth anniversary of this harrowing, critically acclaimed and essential album, an album influenced by angular post-punk, rather than the glam metal and grunge of the previous two albums. In the months after its release, lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared from a London hotel room, and has never been found.

Against all expectations, the Manic Street Preachers continued as a three-piece band, and they have now released twelve studio albums. They seemed busier and more productive than ever in 2014, having released Futurology in July. A tour to commemorate The Holy Bible was fervently wished for by fans, but it was unsure if the band would want to revisit old ground that invoked such painful memories of their friend’s disappearance.

But in late September, the band officially announced the tour dates, and my friend Louise managed to get tickets for the  Albert Hall in Manchester. On a stormy, sleety afternoon (I didn’t dare to cross the Pennines by the Snake Pass or the Woodhead) we drove to Manchester, arriving in good time at Louise’s boyfriend Peter’s flat, where he cooked a lovely meal, and I opened a bottle of red wine as a reward for battling the rain and the rush hour.

The gig was everything I hoped it would be. The Albert Hall was build in 1910 as a Wesleyan Chapel (very fitting when you think of the Methodist upbringings of the young Manic Street Preachers and the religious title of the album they were about to play in full. Ornate tiles, stained glass and cast-iron pillars added to the atmosphere of the venue. There was no support band, and we enjoyed the DJs and drank beer with mounting excitement.

The band appear onstage. The thing that hits me first is the empty space – the space where Richey Edwards used to perform – front left. This space has always been left, but as they launch into ‘Yes’, the first track from the album, about prostitution and exploitation, it feels incredibly stark. The stage is draped in camouflage netting, and James, Nicky and Sean are wearing their combat chic, just like in 1994. Nicky is all in black, his face half-hidden by outsize shades, and James Dean Bradfield wears a black sailor’s top. The songs are tight and powerful, and in such an intimate space, it becomes obvious what an outstanding guitarist James is, and also how hard he has to work: carrying the weight of these songs about human suffering and cruelty. It was brilliant to experience The Holy Bible being performed live, but the gig went far too fast to take in.

After all the emotional intensity, the Manics then delivered a brilliant second set with songs from the rest of their career. A particular highlight for me was Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) from Futurology, really allowing James’ guitar heroics full reign. The Manics ended with their traditional closing number A Design for Life, before we were kicked out into the pouring rain. It had been an amazing night!

The next day, I was doing it all again, this time seeing another of my all-time favourite bands, Gogol Bordello at the O2 in Sheffield, with my friend Kirsty, her husband Mark and old uni friend Katy. After stopping off in Pennine town New Mills to take photographs for an adult education session, the drive back was a little stressful, due to a blizzard in the Peak District. I didn’t fancy taking any of my usual shortcuts on minor roads as it looked too slippery, but luckily, but the time I arrived back in Sheffield, the long way round, there was no sign of snow!

The O2 felt pretty chilly though, but support band Mariachi El Bronx, who combine punk with Mexican Mariachi music, including tiny and gigantic guitars, trumpets, violins, accordions and maracas! I think it was Mark’s Santa had and Christmas tie (he’d just come from his work Christmas party) that made the singer announce that he was feeling Christmassy for the first time! The band looked great in proper gold-fringed Mariachi outfits.

Gogol Bordello themselves were a riot of colour, attitude and fun. Singer Eugene Hutz is the only person I can think of who would get away with wearing satin boxer’s style shorts and pointy black and red cowboy boots. Since I last saw them at Download last year, they’ve had some line-up changes – a leather-clad accordion player called Pasha, and bald, Les Paul toting guitarist Michael Ward (Eugene Hutz lied in his announcement – he’s American, not from Sheffield!) They played songs from their breakthrough album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, right up to their latest album Pura Vida Conspiracy. Gogol Bordelo have built up a big cult following over the years, with a devoted audience wearing the t-shirts and outfits inspired by Hutz’s off-kilter colourful sense of style. The place was packed, but the crowd were friendly and up for a good dance/mosh.

Their sound is fresh and still evolving, with heavier guitars combining with Latin rhythms. They are one of the most multi-national bands I know of, formed in 1999 in the cultural melting-pot of down-town New York; the vision of Ukrainian immigrant Hutz, who was hungry for success as a musician and actor. A Gogol Bordello gig is a very entertaining experience – each member of the band is a stunning musician, and although Eugene Hutz is one of the world’s most engaging frontmen, every member of the band has a chance to shine, and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev deserves a special mention for his virtuosity and on-stage antics. The first time I saw them, in 2006, at Rock City in Nottingham, I hugged him! That’s my claim to fame, anyway. He looked quite surprised! This time, we just left with smiles on our faces and our ears ringing.

I felt a bit wrung out after two big gigs in a row. I don’t know how I hack it when I’m at a festival, but going to see a band in a proper venue is always a treat. I concentrated on Christmas and went back home to stay with my parents and see family members on the next weekend – it was good to calm down for a bit!

My mum is a volunteer room steward for the National Trust at Kedleston Hall, and she recommended that I visited the stately home while it was open for Christmas. My dad and I went along and I’m really glad I did. The sight of Grecian statues covered in fairy lights really made me giggle, and I loved the atmosphere of the grand rooms lit only by flickering LED candles. Even when it was lit for grand dinner parties and balls, this eighteenth century mansion must have been full of shadows and mystery. It was really a visit to spark the imagination.

The next day was the winter solstice. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll remember that I spent the summer solstice up Glastonbury Tor. That was a long way away, so I suggested that we should wake up before the official sunrise (8.15am) and walk to Bunkers Hill, a viewpoint near the ridiculously posh village of Quarndon, a mile or so up the road from my parents’ house. The sky was already turning red as we walked up Woodlands Road up to the park, but we got to Bunkers Hill just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. We were lucky, because it started raining just as we got back to the house. Later on, we met up with family members and went to my Aunt Marion’s annual Christmas party. It was lovely to see everyone. I’ll always remember the 21st December as the anniversary of my grandad’s death, thirteen years ago, so my mum lit candles in his memory, which was lovely.

On Tuesday 23rd December, I gathered up some friends for a Christmas dinner (nut roast with all the trimmings) and lots of mulled wine. Eventually, we made it out of the house in time to catch the folk train! It was rammed, but very good-natured. Some of my friends managed to get seats, but the rest of us were crammed into the corridor but we didn’t mind! On the way to Edale, local choir The Sheffield Folk Chorale entertained us with Christmas carols and gave out song sheets so we could join in.

I hope the customers having a quiet night at the Rambler in Edale were warned about the hoards of people who descended on the pub in one go, once we got off the train! It was like being part of a huge procession walking from the railway station to the pub just around the corner. Surprisingly, we got served fairly quickly, and found a corner with seats to drink our pints. In the main room in the pub, the choir conductor stood on a table, and the choir started singing! They did a great version of Fairytale in New York, as well as more traditional carols.

On the way home, the choir sung some traditional Sheffield carols, such as Sweet Bells, which is a version of ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’ which originates from Stannington in Sheffield and has now been made famous by folk singer Kate Rusby. It was a beautiful moment. At the other end of the journey, the choir sang around the Christmas tree at Sheffield railway station before we all headed off to the Sheffield Tap for a final beer.

I spent Christmas Eve collecting holly for a touch of traditional decoration, and preparing a mountain of vegetables for Christmas, even though there were only four people eating, enjoying listening to the radio adaptation of Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, followed by a selection of rockabilly Christmas CDs played by my other half!

Christmas Day went smoothly, except for my dad’s self-timer on his camera not working, and then the batteries ran out, but we used my camera instead, and we went for a lovely afternoon walk in the local park and took the chance to have a go on the huge swing that’s popped up near us! Even my dad had a go!

On the morning of Boxing Day, we had a bracing, if a little foggy walk to Stanage Edge from Redmires Reservoir, which was popular with a lot of other people trying to blow away the cobwebs after a Christmas blow-out! And then at tea-time, it started to snow…and snow…and snow… until we woke up the next day in a winter wonderland /nightmare, depending if you had to get anywhere. Luckily, we fell into the first category, and the snow looked very pretty, with lots of families enjoying sledging in Ruskin Park.

A few days later, and the snow had turned very icy and slippery on the pavements, which is tricky if you live in such a hilly city, so we caught the train when we went to meet an old uni friend in Castleton in the Peak District and went down the Blue John mine at Treak Cliff Cavern, which truly has some stunning sights, and actually felt quite warm underground!

And so we come to New Year’s Eve! The pavements were still icy, but I headed out to the city centre for some early drinks with a friend. It was very quiet, but I was due at another friend’s house for a small gathering with wine and pizza (I supplied my own vegan garlic bread and some Christmas cake – which I always seem to end up eating myself!) It was all very civilised, and for a while, it looked like we were destined to enjoy Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Queen concert that followed on TV. But my friend Angelina was determined to drag us out to enjoy ourselves, so we put our boots on and slid out onto the melting ice and headed first to the Three Tuns, a lovely little pub on the outskirts of the city centre, where the party was in full swing, with DJs playing some great music.

After a pint…or was it two? I can’t remember, we ended up at the Dada bar, where the Dub Central New Year’s party was happening. It was a bit quiet, but we know the lady who ran it, and I vaguely remember a round of aniseed flavoured shots! This was probably the point where things got a bit hazy.

We’d heard about a party in the Wicker Arches, so a group of us stumbled out of town, towards the Victorian railway arches. Over the years, several of the arches and the tunnels underneath have been used as party venues, and we headed to the last place we’d been to a party near there, only to find it all very quiet. Maybe the party was in one of the arches further along? I have vague memories of walking along the “spider bridge“, suspended over the river that runs through one of the arches. And then we found the party.

It was in the old “Arches” nightclub, which I hadn’t been inside for at least ten years. Angelina and I met in 2004, working together in a building very close by. The nightclub was already closed then, and shortly afterwards, the new ring-road was built, right next to the railway arches. Then the dramatic floods of 2007, when the river burst its banks and swept down the Wicker, must have caused terrible damage. But there it was, like some kind of mirage from 1999.

When we were students, a long time ago in the 90s, the Arches was a by-word for a crazy night out. Headcharge played dance music of all kinds, but mostly house, techno and trance. Rough and ready, it was the place to go if you wanted to rave all night long, with the main club inside the old railway arches, and metal stairs leading up to the bar, toilets (always a bit crazy in themselves), and a weird, corrugated iron-roofed chill-out area. It’s all still there. I was amazed. We just walked in through the fire escape, and it seemed to be a free party of some kind, but it was packed, and lots of people we knew were there – and lots of other people who were also veterans of the club scene in the 90s, who’d somehow ended up here. It was like being in a dream – a very strange, euphoric dream. It had to be a dream- the toilets had toilet paper! The music was thumping… it was like we’d taken a trip in the Tardis (although it had actually just been some wine, several pints of ale, that weird aniseed spirit, and some rum). I can’t even find anything about it on the internet…It was like a mirage.

Eventually, we looked at our watches and were absolutely mind-boggled to realise what the time was. It was about to get light! We were absolutely shattered. Within a few minutes, we’d flagged down a taxi and were on our way to a terrible New Year hangover. It was worth it though. The only clue that my Wicker Arches adventures were real was the mud on my coat and all over my boots. In my drunken state, I somehow managed to get the dustpan and brush and the carpet cleaner out before I stumbled into bed.

After all that excitement, I’ve been teetotal so far in the New Year. I’m looking forward to an action-packed year, when hard work and creativity are combined with good times with friends and amazing music of all kinds!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

November: a Levellers double-whammy!

On the first of November, I belatedly got my “spooky” on, and went to a brilliant Halloween party at Hagglers Corner, a wonderful arts venue set around a courtyard. My friends’ band The Hot Diamond Aces were playing. The band combine funk with Afro-beat and jazz and are, as they describe themselves “the ultimate party band”. They are amazingly talented musicians with a gift for getting the audience’s feet moving. If you like infectious grooves and hot horns, then they’re your thing. This sounds like an advert, but they really are that good! We had a fantastic time, dancing and drinking real ale in our costumes. Angelina had particularly scary latex zombie make-up, but it all peeled off when she started dancing!

As the weather got colder, and the nights got darker, I managed to fulfil one of my artistic aims for the year and completed my triptych of three canvasses for my dining room wall. They are all collages, and all Neil Gaiman quotes, to inspire me as I live and work. Now the pictures are up on the wall, they look great and really make the room vibrant and arty.

The first collage is from the Sandman graphic novel Brief Lives , and it’s all about change. The quote, cut out of newspaper letters, ransom-note style (which took blooming ages!) is positioned around concentric circles made of gold wrapping paper and a green collage, made out of cut-out pictures from the RSBP’s magazine, Nature’s Home, including an otter (the otter isn’t green!), and a green lighter which was found in the stomach of an albatross! The other smaller canvas has the quote: “Writing is like flying in dreams”, from the front page of Neil Gaiman’s short story anthology Smoke and Mirrors. This canvas has pictures of birds, from Nature’s Home magazine, and also real feathers, gathered over the year.

Finally, the huge canvas has the slogan “Make good art“, which was the theme of Neil Gaiman’s speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts graduates when receiving his honorary doctorate in 2012. Since giving the speech, the video has become viral on the internet, and has also inspired a lot of beautiful artwork. Mine is just one example! Before I left my sensible 9-5 job and ever since, I have listened to the speech at regular intervals, and I’m listening to it right now. His advice and experience is priceless and reflects everything that I’ve been through as a creative person. I wanted to create a piece of art that would inspire me and cheer me up when I lost faith in my way of life, so I cut up festival programmes for images to remind me of the times when art and creativity have created the most thrilling experiences and memories. Life would not be worth living without the creativity of others – or your own creativity. And I’ve been lucky enough to build a new career out of creativity, which is truly amazing.

Make Good Art

Make Good Art

This November was also about seeing the Levellers twice as well! The first time was in Birmingham, en route to another gathering of Oxfam stewards in Tewksbury. Louise and I did battle with rush-hour traffic and the one-way system of Birmingham, and we only missed a few songs by support band, the legendary two-tone band, the Selector. Singer Pauline Black is full of attitude and sharply dressed, and the other singer, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson was also very energetic – so much so that his suit was dripping wet by the end of the show! I enjoyed having a good skank, dancing around until Louise managed to find Fraser. Oxfam friend Alexa was also there, and it was a great mini-reunion.

The Levellers were on great form, blasting through their “Greatest Hits” set. The O2 in Birmingham was packed, and people were crowd-surfing to the front – mostly middle aged men, re-living their youth! We had a great view of everything from the side, right near the front, and we danced around being silly. I didn’t even mind that all I could drink was a couple of shandies.

After dropping Alexa safely off home, I drove Louise and Fraser to our log cabin weekend in Tewksbury! We got there safely, to find the others enjoying the end of their party, which for some reason involved Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts. I was exhausted though, after all that driving!

On Saturday morning, some of the others were busy having a watersports session on the lake, which involved a giant swan-shaped pedallo, canoes and a wind-surfer! I love doing things like that, but for once, I was pleased that I hadn’t signed up for watersports. Even though the participants were wearing wetsuits, it looked very cold. So Clare, Jez and I went for a short walk, and we were rewarded by finding a £10 note on the grass verge, which we took straight to the pub!

After a leisurely lunch, a group of us went for a wander around Tewkesbury and the Abbey. Tewkesbury Abbey was really special and spiritual – I don’t think anyone could help but to be moved by such an ancient, beautiful building. The atmosphere of the golden stone and soaring arches was enhanced by a rehearsal of the Elgar concert, A Dream of Gerontius. Wandering around with the sound of the instruments and voices reverberating around the Abbey was very moving, and as we sat in the pews to listen to the singing, I even wrote a couple of haiku poems. Susie Morley has the only copies of those, as I wrote them in her notebook!

Walking down the medieval streets in the twilight afterwards, I started to feel Christmassy, and the decorations were already up in the half-timbered pub where we stopped for a couple of ales, before heading back to our log cabins at Croft Farm. The staff there served us up a lovely meal, and then we had a brilliant disco, fighting it out using Spotify to choose the songs we wanted. We had a particularly stupid time dancing to “Ra Ra Rasputin”, pretending to do Russian dancing on chairs! Towards the end of the night, I even managed to put on some old goth songs!

On Sunday, we drove into Tewksbury again, and I bought an awesome Russian army greatcoat from an antique shop (I must have been subliminally influenced by “Ra Ra Rasputin”!) We had a lovely lunch at a big Wetherspoons pub, all the Oxfam volunteers sitting along a really long table we cobbled together from several little ones. Eventually, it was time to head for home.

The week afterwards, it was time to do the whole Levellers thing again, for Kirsty’s birthday! This time, we caught the whole thing, really enjoying The Selector. We got much closer to the front for the Levellers, and the Sheffield O2 seemed very busy but much less packed than the Birmingham gig, so we got a great view from the front, while still being able to comfortably dance around. The Levellers are a band that have a very close relationship with their fans – I think I’ve had conversations with all of them, and certainly camped in the same field with them at Beautiful Days. Being at a Levellers gig feels like being part of a big tribe – it felt like that when we were sixteen, and it still feels like being truly with kindred spirits, even twenty one years later.

I can’t take credit for these pictures – Kirsty took them, because she’s taller and has a steadier hand! I think she did a fine job.

Blimey, I’ve got some catching up to do! What have I been up to?

Hello! I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog for several months. I’ve been really busy – teaching courses for Derbyshire County Council, and also editing and publishing several books for clients.

I have been blogging though – I’ve been updating my Newholme Dales Tales blog every week with poems and pieces of writing created in my sessions with older patients in hospitals in Bakewell, Buxton, and now Chesterfield too. I love doing creative writing work with the patients and helping them to tell their stories and be creative – and it seems to be paying off. In the summer, the Dales Tales poetry anthology was published, and in the New Year, I’m due to do more workshops and sessions in hospitals and Age UK Centres.

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

I’ve also been teaching a story sacks course with parents in Staveley, which resulted in course participants writing their own books for Halloween and Christmas, and I’m teaching Functional Skills English in Chesterfield, which I’m really enjoying.

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

I ran a Story Walk as part of the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. I led two family walks through the beautiful Rivelin Valley, and we discovered goblin castles, fairy caves and mysterious beasts. The children came back to the Rivelin Park cafe to write their stories and enjoy huge chocolate buns, while the parents had a cup of coffee and a nice sit down! It was a beautiful day in October, when the autumn colours were at their best.

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

As an editor, and a “self-publishing enabler”, it’s great to announce that some of the books I have worked on have now been unleashed on the world, and I’m very proud of them.

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Former veteran Labour MP, Joe Ashton, has now published his memoir Joe Blow, which is available in the Sheffield Star shop: York Street, Sheffield, S1 1PU, which you can also order by calling 0114 2521299. Extracts from the book has also been serialised in the Sheffield Star and there are due to be more of them over Christmas. You can read the first one here.

The Woodhead Diaries

The Woodhead Diaries

Barnsley folk music legend Dave Cherry has been enjoying a big success with his novel The Woodhead Diaries, a historical murder mystery featuring the real life story of the construction of the Woodhead railway tunnel through the Pennines in Victorian times, and the 1950s detective who pieces together the mystery of the bodies which turn up during the construction of the third railway tunnel.

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Football coach and former international football player, Norm Parkin, has also published his book, Legends and Rebels of the Football World. The book is Norm’s journey to meet and interview some of the biggest and most notorious football heroes of the twentieth century, and all the profits will go to the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.

Joan Lee is 91 years old, almost 92, and she’s as sharp and bright as she ever was while she was working as one of Sheffield’s most long-serving pub landladies! She’s now a publishing powerhouse, as not only has she published her memoirs, with fascinating stories from the Sheffield blitz and pubs from the East End of Sheffield to posh Dronfield. Behind Bars has proved to be very popular. Now Joan has published Gammon and Pineapple, a novella with a new twist on romance!

Cover design version 2

And as well as the Dales Tales poetry anthology, I’ve also published the first collection of poetry by Darren Howes. Poems from A Room Beyond Awareness is spiritual, thought-provoking and also humorous – an exploration of a path into Buddhism.

I’ve also had some time to have fun – which I’ll update you on in my next few blog posts. Then I’ll continue as I mean to go on, with shorter, but more regular posts! I’ve been working so hard to publish my clients’ writing that I’ve neglected my own writing a little bit, and hopefully I’ll do something about that too.

We are Oxfamily!

Now I’m firmly into the thick of the festival season, I need to catch up and tell you about the last two weekends’ festivals.

On Friday 25th July, I set off for a festival with a difference. I was volunteering as a steward with Oxfam again, but this time, the festival had come to me – it was Tramlines, on the streets of Sheffield, my home town!

The campsite where the Oxfam stewards was camping was at Fox Hagg Farm in the Rivelin Valley. It’s only four miles from my house…but that’s further away from the festival than home two, which is only half an hour’s walk from the city centre if I hurry.

I decided that I would camp overnight on the Friday. To be sociable and chat to stewards old and new, and also because it was so hot that sleeping in the house was impossible. When I reached the campsite with my stewarding friend Jez, who’d given me a lift, it was surreal to see an Oxfam gazebo in a field on the outskirts of Sheffield, and strange to people that I knew.

I put my tent up, admiring the view of the valley, with horses and sheep grazing around the field. I hadn’t seen it from this angle before. After a while, we got a minibus lift into town with the amazing “Beardy Pete”, a long-term steward, and now logistics intern for the Oxfam stewarding team. Louise (who lives near me) met us in town and we got our wristbands. Even though we were volunteering to work, and the weekend passes were only £30, (although they’d all sold out) it was still worth doing.  Our wristbands would let us gain entry through the backstage area, with posh toilets and a bar. And we’d be able to get to the main stage on Devonshire Green when it was officially too full. On the other hand, many of the Tramline venues, such as the folk forest in Endcliffe Park, the bandstand in Weston Park and the multicultural acts at the Peace Gardens, are completely free, and so are many of the pubs and clubs.

After a pub meal and a lovely pint in the Devonshire Cat, Louise, Jez, Martin and myself headed back to Devonshire Green. We didn’t know what was on, and apparently, we hadn’t missed much yet, as Ms Dynamite had failed to show up! We stayed to watch the Toddla T Sound set. The others weren’t very impressed at all, but I had a good dance, looking a bit like a nutter. DJ Toddla T is so famous now (particularly amongst the younger generations!) but I remember seeing him playing in tiny basements at Kabal parties, almost ten years ago now!

Enjoying Toddla T - or maybe not!

Enjoying Toddla T – or maybe not!

It was time for a change of scenery and to go to the Leadmill to watch indie evergreens the Wedding Present. I’d never actually seen them before and don’t have any of their albums, but I enjoy hearing their songs on BBC 6 Music. I was really looking forward to it, even though we were enjoying being outside, and weren’t looking forward to spending a few hours in the Leadmill, a hot and sweaty venue at the best of times. The place was packed, and unbearably hot, but the band were great. I recognised quite a few songs, and I enjoyed their intense sound washing over me – and they now have a cool lady bass player!

We returned to the rear of Devonshire Green, where Pete and our minibus were ready to pick us up and take us back to the farm. It was very pleasant to be in the cool of the countryside after the furnace-like conditions of the Leadmill. It was nice to sit around and chat to everyone – a lot of the stewards had stayed on the campsite for a barbecue. But it soon started to feel really cold, because it was so clear, so I wrapped myself in a blanket – it was a cold night too, and I hadn’t brought very warm sleeping stuff, thinking that the night would be boiling.

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 7am, and it was already shaping up to be a hot day, with clear blue skies. The campsite had showers, so I felt fresh as we were whisked off to the city centre. We put our tabards on and had a tour of the venues and areas where we would be working. I was in charge of a team of stewards making sure that revellers didn’t get run over as the one-way traffic went around the city centre at two points on Division Street, the road leading to the Devonshire Green stage, which was closed to traffic for the weekend!

 

As the streets got busier, the job got harder, as lots of people were already drinking at lunchtime, and other people (mostly young men in their twenties) felt patronised at being told when to cross the road! But overall, most people appreciated having a bit of help.

"Yo! I'm a rapper!"

“Yo! I’m a rapper!”

We’d finished our shifts in time for the 5pm set by the legendary Public Enemy. I’d seen them last year at Glastonbury, but this time, they had Flavor Flav – with a smallish clock around his neck. They did a brilliant set with lots of hits, lots of positivity and attitude. I still don’t know much about Public Enemy but their songs are about politics and overcoming oppressions – ‘Fight the Power’, ‘Get up, Stand Up’, and they use live guitar, bass and drums – and the guitarist can really “shred”. Even if you don’t like rap, they’re one of the original, and best bands in the genre, and definitely worth seeing.

Louise, Paul and I decided to go for a meal at the Blue Moon Cafe, next to Sheffield Cathedral. Wandering through Sheffield was a bizarre experience, with crowds heading to various venues, and people spilling out of pubs and down the street, fairground rides in the middle of Fargate and continental market stalls. The strangest thing about it was the heat though – it was as if Sheffield had been transported to a balmy Mediterranean location. It was lovely and restful in The Blue Moon, and I didn’t realise how hungry I was, as I shovelled delicious vegetarian food into my mouth.

It was good to have lots of energy for Sister Sledge, the girl group famous for their Nile-Rodgers’ produced hits, such as ‘The Greatest Dancer’ , ‘We are Family’ and ‘Lost in Music’. Some people might think that Sister Sledge are a bit cheesy, but I grew up hearing their songs on the radio, especially ‘Frankie’, which was a massive hit for them in the mid-eighties. And everyone loves that funky Chic sound with the choppy guitars. The funniest moment was when they got several guys from the audience to each prove that they were “the greatest dancer”, and the guys were having such a great time that they didn’t want to leave the stage.

We had a drink in the backstage bar afterwards, and I got to talk to Sister Sledge and tell them what a great show they’d put on. They were really lovely as well, and posed for photographs!

To round off the evening, Louise and I ended up in the beer garden of the University Arms on Brook Hill near (you’ve guessed it!) the University. When I was a student, the University Arms was the private staff club for lecturers, but now it’s a beautiful Victorian pub with one of the best selections of ale in town, and certainly, one of the nicest beer gardens, tree-lined and secluded. The barmen were playing some great underground 1960s music that could be heard in the beer garden, and it turned out that there had been a full schedule of alternative live music outside too, but it was all winding down nicely. The guy who’d been organising the music was wearing a Cramps t-shirt, just like me; and we chatted to the staff at the pub. Tonight, I was going home to my own bed! We walked home to Walkley in a rain shower. I was glad I wasn’t in the tent, with only a thin blanket and sleeping bag to keep me warm.

My Cramps t-shirt buddy. Only the coolest people...

My Cramps t-shirt buddy. Only the coolest people…

On Sunday morning, Louise and I decided to walk to the Folk Forest in Endcliffe Park. It was lovely – a total contract to the mayhem of Division Street. We browsed artists’ and craft stalls, chatted to a yoga teacher, had lunch outside the cafe, and settled down in front of the woodland stage to watch the delicate Laura James and Lyres, followed by Sheffield’s own Nat Johnson, featuring our friend Kathryn on violin. After that, it was time to leave the tranquillity behind and report for duty again at Devonshire Green. It seemed a shame to start work so soon, particularly as the Beat were playing on the main stage as we signed in for our shifts.

Me and Neville Staple! Terrible picture of me!

Me and Neville Staple! Terrible picture of me!

I was back on one of the Division Street Road crossings. But this time, there was another supervisor looking after the other road crossing, an on the corner of Rockingham Street, the Viper Rooms bar were hosting Neville Staple from the Specials, as he played over two hours of ska classics on the bar’s patio. I decided that I may as well dance while I worked. It made it far more fun! The previous day, I’d been a bit fed up with shouting at people to stop crossing the road, and I found that dancing with my arms outstretched worked brilliantly, and gave the revellers a bit of a laugh. I also managed to get my photo taken with Neville Staple, who seemed to be really enjoying his set. We had to look out for the festival-goers, who were trying to get inside the cordoned-off area of road opposite the bar, but it was all good fun! After Neville’s set, there was a local DJ playing some great funk records, followed by a live band who combined funk and hip hop. Having some music definitely made the road crossing more fun!

I took a break for a snack and I managed to catch a bit of The Cribs, who were headlining the Devonshire Green festival. They’re a raucous indie-rock band, loved so much by former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr that he joined the band for three years. What an accolade! Johnny can’t be wrong, and I liked what I heard, so I’m definitely going to check them out again.

However, heading back to the road crossing, I knew that The Cribs were due to finish very soon, and that the organisers would be clearing the site. And in the meantime, all our metal barriers had been taken away from us! So we hastily made a human barrier that stopped the hoards of Cribs fans crossing the road when the lights were red, and it worked really well. Luckily, most of the Cribs fans seemed very polite and were more than happy to wait for the traffic to pass.

The Ratells

The Ratells

Soon afterwards, the security supervisor came along to tell us that we could dismantle the crossing point and allow the traffic to return to normal. So we had a bit of time at the end of our shift for a quick pint in the Red Deer, another classic real ale pub. But the live music wasn’t over yet. Jez and I headed to a new music venue on West Street, Maida Vale, to watch the Ratells, a really promising young indie rock band from Sheffield. I’d seen them at Bearded Theory, and I was really impressed. And I really enjoyed the gig in Sheffield – shimmering guitars, pounding drums, and a very charismatic singer/bass player, with a strong, soulful voice. The gig was hot and sweaty and absolutely joyous, enjoyed by fans and people seeing them for the first time. I bought a demo CD later, from one of the guitarists, and had a lovely chat with him.

I ended up walking home again, because there were no buses or trams going up West Street, due to engineering works, but it was invigorating to walk home, and leave the noise of the city centre behind me and see foxes running through the park. I slid into bed, with the sound of the Ratells still pounding in my ears.

On Monday morning, I drove back to the campsite to say my goodbyes and take my tent down, knowing that I would be seeing some of my Oxfam comrades in a few days’ time at Nozstock! But it was my shortest drive home from a festival ever!

 

 

 

 

 

A Life Less Ordinary – and a lot more busy!

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

On the 26th April, it was one year exactly since I left my old job! a whole year of being a freelance writer and editor, and finding my feet in the teaching world again. I wanted to celebrate, but I’ve been too busy. If I thought April was jam-packed with work and project – and running storytelling courses with kids and their parents – then May has been insane. A year on, my new life no longer feels brand new, but just like the right way of life for me. The uncertainty of having enough money to pay the bills is what drives me on to make damn sure I’ve got that money.

On the actual anniversary of leaving work, I’d been busy running an Oxfam stall and organising the car parking for the Derbyshire Eco Centre Spring Fair, which raised over £700 for Oxfam. Weirdly, last year, it was where my journey to becoming an Adult Education tutor started, when I boldly volunteered to do some storytelling! I did some storytelling at this year’s fair, with puppets, dressing up as a bear and children coming up with their own ideas for stories.

 

I was feeling a teeny bit smug that I’d managed to get my car through its MOT, service, and given it a new tax disc and insurance without too much trauma – only to find that the petrol gauge got stuck! Something I needed to get fixed, pronto! And then I needed a new laptop battery, and the toner cartridge started going…and the latest thing is that the pump in the cellar that stops us from having a soggy basement, seems to have stopped working on its own and we have to prod it from time to time.

I’ve been really busy with teaching work – running another memoir writing course, helping parents in Chesterfield to make Story Sacks, getting apprentices at Sheffield College through Functional Skills English, and working with patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell again. In the first week of the new term, Derbyshire Poet Laureate Helen Mort came to read some poetry and chat to the patients. I transformed what we’d been chatting about into poetry, and Helen has put one of my poems on her blog! Brilliant. Here it is! And we’ve had the exciting news that our project has been awarded an Arts Council Grant, so before the end of the summer, the work I’ve been doing with the patients and staff will be published. Watch this space.

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

And talking about publishing, I’ve been working really hard on a new edition of my first novel, Outside Inside, and now it’s available as a paperback, as well as an e-book from all major retailers! And even though I was rubbish at marketing the old edition, and I’d got it on the Kindle for the cheapest price possible, in the hope that it would generate sales, this week, I received my first ever royalty payment for my own writing, for my previous two years of writing sales. It’s only £60, but it makes me feel proud of my achievement. Now I can confidently guide other people through the same process, and I’ve got another client’s book well on the way to publication. It proves that self-publishing is definitely an option for writers struggling to get noticed by the mainstream, or for authors who just like more control over how their book is produced and marketed. It’s hard work, but worth it!

The happy couple, and their minions!

The happy couple, and their minions!

And I’ve had time for some fun too. On the May Day Bank Holiday week, I enjoyed a unisex “Hag” do, with my Oxfam friends Graham and Gaelle, who are getting married in July. A big group of friends and family accompanied them to the Swingamajig festival in Birmingham, dressed in 1920s themed outfits – we could spot each other in the crowd with our feather head-dresses that had been made for all the “Hags”, and we saw some brilliant live music and danced until (almost) dawn. It was a real taste of all the festival delights in fields that we’re going to enjoy this year, set among the old railway arches in Digbeth.

Today I’ve been to the Insect Circus in Weston Park in Sheffield, another brilliantly surreal thing I’ve seen around the festival circuit. And of course, I enjoyed watching a bearded drag queen win Eurovision last weekend.

And talking of beards, it’s only two sleeps until the biggest and best Bearded Theory yet! I’ll be helping kids and adults to write performance poetry with the wonderful kids’ area Angel Gardens, and also dancing and drinking cider!

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