Walking past Hillsborough Barracks

I was working today, in my new job as a project worker at the Burton Street Foundation, helping to support adults with learning disabilities. It’s the first job I’ve had in ten years that I can walk to! Now I’m wishing that it was a bit further away, because even with a walk to the shops of Hillsborough after work, I only managed to clock up 2.12 miles today, in distance anyway. Still, I did walk back carrying baking potatoes, sweet potatoes, an aubergine and a cauliflower.

I’m sure I’ll be walking around here a lot, and there is some interesting history in this part of Sheffield. One of the places I walked past today is Hillsborough Barracks. It’s a complex of buildings that many local people now take for granted, as in the 1980s-90s, it was redeveloped and is now the home of Morrisons Supermarket, various shops, a hotel, a job centre and part of Sheffield College, where I once learned about databases and spreadsheets! But it’s a Grade Two Listed Building and is the only surviving example of a walled barracks in the whole of the UK.

The barracks were built in 1848 and used up until 1930, and over the years, it gradually fell into disrepair before its regeneration. Thousands of soldiers, from officers to privates, lived here, and I’m sure I’ll find lots of links with it in my other walks around this area. It would be fascinating to step back in time and see what it was like in its heyday.

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The Chapel of the Barracks

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The main entrance to the barracks from Langsett Road

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The barracks has turrets around its perimeter

 

 

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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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We won’t sit down. We won’t shut up.

This was my first gig since the terrible events in Paris last weekend. As we walked towards Sheffield’s O2, we noticed that the lightbox at the entrance to the Crucible theatre had glowing lights in the blue, white and red of the Tricolour in solidarity with the French people. It’s a moving gesture.

The crowd at the O2 are excited, a sea of Frank turner t-shirts, with a couple of Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican supporters too. Frank Turner’s audience are dedicated, and this gig is a solid sell-out.

We get there in time to see the opening act, Will Varley. One man and a guitar, he exudes a laid-back, slacker persona, but holds the audience captivated with his mixture of crazy stories, comedy protest songs and sweary charm. I’ll definitely watch out for him in future.

Skinny Lister have quickly become festival favourites of mine. I saw them at Glastonbury last year, and then at Beautiful Days, when the PA cut out halfway through their set opening the main stage on the Friday. A lesser band would have stormed off in a strop, but Skinny Lister led the audience in A capella seashanties and crowdsurfing. Their punky folk goes down well. We’re stood at the front, at the side of the crowd barrier, with a great view of Michael Camino launching himself into the audience on his double bass, a sight not to be forgotten. The worried look on the security team’s faces as he (and his giant instrument) finally climb back over the barrier is really funny, and their set ends with singer Lorna Thomas climbing up the double bass.

It’s only then that I notice that the stage lights of the O2 are also in the colours of blue, white and red. And when Frank Turner takes to the stage, he’s wearing a Tricolour sweatband on his wrist. In the wake of what happened last week, at a gig just like this, it suddenly feels important, an act of defiance to keep on doing what we do, coming together to share a musical experience, listening to songs that mean so much to the people here. Tonight, Frank’s message of togetherness, love and having a good time while you can take on an extra significance.

We watch the second half of the gig from the upstairs balcony, where you can watch the audience as much as the band. Their devotion to Frank is enormous – during the quiet bits, there’s a reverential silence in the room, becoming a mighty roar in the sing-along choruses. There’s even a round of star-jumps, led by a crew member.

I’ve always loved watching Frank Turner live. I first discovered him at YNot festival in 2008, and I’ve seen him at a variety of festivals ever since. I felt a bit ambivalent about him, having discovered how posh his upbringing was. But it’s not where you come from in life, it’s what you do.

And when Frank Turner talks about last Friday’s attack on Eagles of Death Metal gig at the Bataclan in Paris, and the death of innocent people, including merchandise manager Nick Alexander, everyone is listening. For me, and millions of others, a gig is much more than a noisy room where you can buy an overpriced pint of lager. It’s where you come together to meet the other members of your tribe, experience the magic and wonder of live music, and share those emotional moments with people who care about them as much as you do. We won’t sit down, we won’t shut up, and if growing up means sitting in our homes alone, being scared of terrorists, we certainly won’t grow up.

 

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.

Mamawe! May 2015

I have been a bit rubbish with this blog. Not that I haven’t been busy – I think that my posts had just got longer and longer, with more detail, and they were taking a long time to update. From now on, I think I will concentrate on shorter posts, with more pictures. I’ve been to a lot of festivals and events, and I’m also now editing my second novel, which is very exciting!

Here’s one I made earlier though. Back in May, my friend Angelina Abel ran the latest of her Mamawe Multicultural extravaganzas, combining dance and drumming workshops with a good night out.

Dancing is good for the soul

MAMAWE! 9th May 2015

The gloomy effect of the General Election result meant that I woke up on the morning of MAMAWE! with a heavy heart. The weather wasn’t doing its best either – but MAMAWE! was just what I needed – a day of African drumming and dance, and an evening of performing with dance group Mulembas D’Africa, reggae and boogying into the night. The title of the day, MAMAWE! was just right, as it’s a multi-purpose African expression of frustration, anger or triumph.

Sheffield based dance teacher Angelina Abel has been developing MAMAWE! for over two years now. Since establishing African fusion dance classes with live drumming and funky Angolan Kuduru street dance lessons in 2008, she has been on a mission to bring the best African dance and music teachers to South Yorkshire, and has built up a company of dancers who regularly perform at events such as Chance to Dance all over the region.

On Saturday 9th May, Angelina brought members of the prestigious Allatantou Guinean dance company all the way from Portugal to teach us in the colourful surroundings of the hall of the Sharrow Old Junior School.

Drummer Joao Russo taught a large circle of eager djembe players, from beginners like me, to some of Sheffield’s drum teachers and enthusiasts. For a beginner, it’s sometimes hard to keep up the rhythm – you get absorbed into it, and then suddenly overthink and lose the beat, but there were enough of us to keep up the complex drum-beats, and when Angelina started dancing along, I knew that the overall effect must have sounded good! Joao’s enthusiasm and friendliness was infectious, and he made sure that we played varied drum patterns. I was concentrating so hard, I was amazed that the two hours had gone by so fast, and the drum patterns stayed in my head all day.

There was time for a short break and to change into my dancing shoes before the class by choreographer Joana Peres. Her bubbly personality shone through the class, along with her love and passion for African dance. She threw us into learning a dance routine, and we were soon practising our moves up and down the room before putting it all together. I sometimes find that when I find dance moves difficult, I get frustrated in a dance class and think that I must be the only person getting things wrong! I felt a bit like that at MAMAWE, until I realised that everyone else was also learning and getting used to the steps – it’s all part of the process, and I ended the session feeling like I’d achieved something, not least conquering my own fears and hang-ups!

In the evening, the members of Mulembas D’Africa gathered in the Royal Standard pub beer garden to practise the dance routine we had been learning since February. Our last-minute rehearsal went well, despite the pub’s dog running circles around us! The area in front of the stage was cramped, but the audience crowded in to get a good view.

Joana Peres, Angelina and Mulembas D’Africa members wowed everyone with energy-packed samba-inspired dancing first, and then Angelina took to the stage to perform a poem about the vivid colours of Africa. The pub’s dog didn’t want to miss out on the action, and ambled up to smell the drum skins before being gently steered out of the way! Angelina remained passionate and professional throughout her recital. Our dance routine went smoothly, and we received appreciative applause before we scrambled out of our long grass skirts into our everyday clothes to enjoy the rest of the evening.
Reggae band Truly Apparent are becoming a firm feature of the Sheffield music scene – two female singers, backed by some great musicians. They sing their own songs, complimented by well-chosen covers, with a lovely inclusive sing-along feeling that had the whole audience bopping around.

After the band, DJs Papa Al and the Globologist played a set of funky world music from Africa to Latin America and Eastern Europe to round off the evening nicely!

Coming next…my belated account of Bearded Theory 2015!

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.

October: tea-towel raves and woodland walks

At the start of October, my working life was getting busier. At the beginning of the month, the Oxfam stewards gathered for the post-season briefing in the Forest of Dean. It was also time to say goodbye to John Picken, one of the Oxfam Stewarding managers. He’s starting a new, freelance career, and to celebrate, one of the volunteers had made him a very rude, but beautifully decorated cake. The attention to detail was quite astounding. Look away if you’re easily offended (by cake!)

A very rude cake for a man with a very dirty mind!

A very rude cake for a man with a very dirty mind!

After our top secret debriefing, we tried out the bouncy castle, played silly card games, such as Cards Against Humanity, and the evening culminated in a rave to Music from the Jilted Generation by the Prodigy played on an i-pod, with everyone waving fluorescent dusters around. I think you had to be there, but it was definitely fun!

A tea-towel rave!

A tea-towel rave!

In mid-October, I made a very brave move, and got a tattoo! I’ve already got a small one, but I decided it was time to make a personal “statement of intent”. I booked an appointment at Q Tattoo, one of the best tattoo studios in Sheffield. I felt a bit nervous, but it was something I’d wanted to do for years. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt too much, and I enjoyed watching it take shape. Over my right shoulder is the line “Libraries Gave Us Power“: the opening line from the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘A Design for Life’, and a statement about my belief in knowledge and education. The peacock design is the logo of Peacock books, the former Young Adult imprint of Penguin Books, special to me because of some of my favourite books, such as ‘I Capture the Castle‘ by Dodie Smith, published by Peacock.

Anyway, here it is!

Me with my tattoo!

Me with my tattoo!

On the 18th October, I led a really exciting event as part of the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. I organised the Rivelin Story Walk, a walk with families through the Rivelin Valley. The Rivelin is now a haven for wildlife, but in the nineteenth century, it was full of forges and mills using the fast-flowing water.

Luckily the weather stayed dry and very warm for the time of year, and the autumn colours were glowing. This was a walk designed to stimulate children’s imaginations, so the ruined mills became goblin palaces, and the remains of mill ponds were deadly enchanted swamps. We found fairy caves, magical trees, and the children loved exploring. A couple of children got a bit wet at the stepping stones, but everyone enjoyed the walk, and returning to the cafe for huge chocolate buns and writing about and drawing the things they had seen and imagined. It was great fun, and I’d love to do something like that again!

The children were very sensible when it came to wildlife – one little boy squealed a bit when a bulbous garden spider abseiled down from a tall tree and stopped right in front of his face, but then we all stood around and watched the spider at it climbed back up its web again. At the end of our walk, we found an amazing Pale Tussock Moth caterpillar on a bench, and everyone just looked at it in awe!

In half term, I and a group of friends had a great night on the folk train to Edale. It was a bit of a crush to get onto the train, as the folk train seems really popular these days, but we had a great time.

On Halloween, we didn’t have a particularly spooky time! I went to Clumber Park with my friends Kirsty and Katy, and Katy’s two dogs. It was a wonderfully warm autumn day – we were in t-shirts once we’d started walking, and there was lots of wonderful colour on the turning leaves. The only downside was getting slightly lost – hey, it was an adventure! And also, we started our walk later than planned because I was waiting for what seemed like forever for my chip butty in the National Trust cafe! I also found out that a beagle doesn’t make a particularly effective guidedog when I shut my eyes and let little Agatha lead me along when we were in sight of the car. I thought she knew where she was going, but it turned out that she didn’t! I don’t know where she was going, but both dogs had a great time.

I got back in time to hollow out my pumpkin, make some soup and settle in to watch ParaNorman, a great spooky animated film!

 

September: A whole lot of cider, art in Sheffield and a goth legend!

September was so warm and dry that it felt like summer was continuing, even though the nights were a little colder and it was starting to get dark earlier. I succumbed to the temptation to help out at another festival. Fellow Oxfam steward Jon Scott and his partner Sian had organised their own festival, the Bo Peep Cider Festival near Adderbury in Oxfordshire. My friend Alexa came too, and we travelled down on the Friday night, arriving in the dark to put our tents up and sample some cider from the bewildering selection!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

There were over 100 ciders to try to sample!

We watched some excellent local bands and enjoyed some fruit-flavour cider. A few more Oxfam stalwarts were also helping out, and we had a good catch-up.

On Saturday, we did some gentle stewarding. I wandered around the main field, making sure that everything was running smoothly, and even helped out with a giant dragon on parade!

Here be dragons!

Here be dragons!

In the evening, we drank cider until it came out of our ears and enjoyed more music. The cider festival was the last stand for George the Horse before his rest and recuperation on the Continent. He will reappear on the festival circuit next year with his woodwork and stuffing in fine fettle. So, feeling slightly creaky, George enjoyed rocking, but gently! We watched festival favourites Leatherat, and had a great time.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

George enjoys a final outing of 2014 with his foster dad Graham.

On Sunday morning, we reluctantly said goodbye to the Clydesdale horses who had been giving rides (and the remaining barrels of cider), and drove back home. It had been lovely to have a final taste of the festival world before buckling down to an autumn of hard work.

A big 'orse

A big ‘orse – bigger than George the Horse!

Later in September, I explored Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, an  explosion of art installations, performances and thought-provoking events around the city. My favourite part of the festival was the Sheffield Bazaar, an art take-over of the old Co-Op department store in Sheffield City Centre. It was a chance to see the craftsmanship and pride that went into this stunning 1960s building with sculptures, stained glass, fine woodwork and its beautiful spiral staircase.

I used to shop in Castle House for shoes and towels, and it was the end of an era when it closed down four years ago. It was great to see its doors open again, full of weird and wonderful things: an experiment in living, where a group of people were living in a temporary space inside the department store for the ten days of the festival. There was also a castle built out of cardboard, graffiti art combined with living plants, small spaces to watch films, virtual reality helmets to try on (they made me very dizzy), a tent with an installation about the human nervous system, photography, lectures, and even a poet who could write you a haiku to order!

There was a great atmosphere in the city while all this art was going on – unexpected things happening everywhere, and the weather sunny and warm. There was also a mini “Chance to Dance” event on the Moor in the city centre, and I performed with Mulembas D’Africa.

We also enjoyed the first gig of the autumn season: Wayne Hussey from the Mission (one of the biggest goth/alternative bands in the 80s). He was playing a solo acoustic gig at the Greystones on the outskirts of Sheffield. It was a brilliant, intimate gig, and Wayne did a brilliant job, swapping from ukulele to mandolin and many beautiful guitars. The gig was slightly marred by a drunken idiot, shouting “Wayne!” and stumbling around and pushing into people. Thankfully, he got thrown out, but not before Wayne Hussey swore at him!

It was good to go to a gig with my other half, as this was one of the rare occasions when our musical tastes converge and we want to do the same thing at the same time. As we left the pub, the rain started to fall – it was the start of Autumn proper at last.

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

Wayne Hussey with Simon Hinkler

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