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.

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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.

Things this blog is about…