Monday, 29 September 2014

My summer in the "Ugly, lovely town"

The good, the bad and the Mumbles


I’ve landed in a foreign town, not far over a bridge that cost nearly £7 to cross. They speak another language. Welsh.

They speak a lot of Welsh too – I feel a bit like a teenage Exchange student trying to make sense of the pithy garble in perplexed excitement.

The Telesgop TV office is next to a giant Amazon warehouse, slap bang in the middle of a business park that is very much in the midst of major plastic surgery (the bit where the doctor draws dotted lines around the chubby bits, then prods and stretches the skin to work out what to do with the mess in between his fingers). On the other side of the park is a film studio unit where an American production company regularly practice explosions that rock the foundations.  

My colleagues at work chortle and cuss in their native tongue, and I thoroughly enjoy hearing the rollicking tones and try rather unsuccessfully to guess what they’re on about.

Swansea is an odd place.

I find it apt that Swansea’s most outstanding export (Dylan Thomas) brandished it the “ugly, lovely town”. 

A contradiction, but an accurate one.

Dylan was born but only a mile away from where I’m staying and yet the modern Swansea landscape is pitted and scarred by many a horrendous architectural malfunction and years of abject disrepair. 

It’s a bit of a wasteland with smidgens of joy to be found it you’re prepared to poke around a bit.

I like poking around. And I have a new bike.

It’s obvious that Swansea has been through some very tough times. Much of it looks cheap and poor – residential parts remind me of Channel 4s ‘Benefits Street’. Only there appears to be a Benefits Street lurking around most corners. Kids playing tennis across the middle of the road, not even stopping to let me pass safely on my bike.

I notice that the council don’t even provide residents with black wheelie bins. As I set off on my bike on collection days, the rubbish is piled high in plastic bags: thin cheap ones that are prone to sea gull attacks. 

It’s a coastal city – at least for protection against the razor-sharp beaks of sea gulls – give these people some bins!

You can’t fault Swansea in other respects, mind. The ‘friendly-smiley’ barometer points high up the scale, as if the city’s people (like many Eastern Europeans) have come through the oppression and can't help but put a brave face on things, an outward projection of strength – things are (slowly) on the up-and-up here.

Things are on the up-and-up. There’s SW1 and a new Uni being built near the marina.

You can buy two meals and two alcoholic drinks for under 20 quid (that's without stepping foot in a Wetherspoons I hasten to add!!)



You also have some spectacular coastline and hills at the periphery, the Mumbles and Gower beyond. I’ve peddling past volley-ball matches on the beach, a boarded up pier not quite ready for summer, yet bristling with gaudy promise.



And there’s been some sun. I wasn't expecting that. Especially after a local taxi driver proudly informed me that Swansea is one of the UK's wettest places. 



I suppose, like Dylan T, I have been inspired by the Swansea landscape, inspired to write this.


So Swansea, you still have the propensity to encourage creativity.  


Dylan T speaking beyond the grave??
   
P.S. I'd strongly recommend the Dylan T exhibition at the Swansea Museum. There is a replica of his favourite pub inside. And you can sit in the very spot where Thomas took many a boozy afternoon snooze (on the cold stone museum steps).

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Another one lost to the subliminal heights

It's no wonder adrenaline junkies are drawn to the mountains as thieves are drawn to diamonds.

Mountains are sublime and dangerous - a hedonistic and addictive allure. To those hungry for snow-topped peaks with hidden depths and untracked territories, the mountains are a candy store of endless curiosity.

During two unparalleled winters skiing and snowboarding in Chamonix in 2009/10 - I teetered on the perilous edge of danger more than a few times. After a knee injury mid-way through my first season (sustained during the first run of the day, skiing over-ambitiously, hungover, on piste) -  whatever 'no fear' attitude and bravado I had build-up over those first few months instantly diminished as my mortality became lucidly clear.

After a recovery which took about 7 weeks, I got back up the mountain (a gazillion times harder than getting back on a horse after a fall) and began to play safer - not veering off-piste too far, not going as fast as I knew I was capable of going. I decided to check into the 'safe' skier brigade. Definitely a minority group in Chamonix.

Last week a friend phoned to tell me someone we knew had died in an avalanche out in Chamonix. He was 27, a very skilled skier - well-seasoned seasonnaire making sausages (his nickname was Davey Sausage) to pay the bills and training a local youth football team in his spare time. Always smiling.

I only met him properly once last year, when he stayed at my house in Bristol for one night with a group of my Chamonix friends. He got up early to buy and cook breakfast for us. Simple but kind gestures like this stick in your memory.

I was shocked to hear the news and it brought back a familiar pang of pain. Familiar because I'd lost someone special to the mountains the same year I had my skiing accident. Ed Cakebread (aka Gateaux Pain) chose the same shabby barely-chic art nouveaux-style watering hole as me to earn a living at that winter. Like freshers, we were thick as thieves: the gang competing to go out and get smashed every night as fervently as we promised to get up the mountain (with or without hangovers).

Like me, Ed was a beginner skier, but unlike me, he was brimming with testosterone and determined to fly through the ranks and become a pro asap. He did progress quickly, perhaps too quickly.

A short time after my accident (Ed was my knight in shining armour that day - buying sweets to get my sugar levels up after the shock, and looking after me until I was ready to get back into town), his family came out to Chamonix for a short holiday.

Keen to show off his new skiing prowess, Ed took his family to Grand Montets (the most challenging area of the resort), and proceeded to go over some of the jumps in the park. These park jumps were mostly reds - and fatally, he pushed himself too far, got too much air after one jump and landed flat on his back. His heart stopped instantly.

The news dented the town like a giant meteor. Mourning and longing took hold. In a way, having his family there helped - we were able to build a more rounded picture of Ed - the Ed who lived in England. We swapped stories and everyone wrote pages and stuck photos in a memory book for Ed's family to take back home with them.

Like Davey Sausage, Gâteaux Pain was charming, perma-happy and on thrill-seeker overload. On the hunt for that perfect day of synergy on the slopes.

I'd class myself as a fair-weather skier now, like the day-tripping Italians in their duffle coats and Ray Bans - content to do a few runs interspersed with generous doses of sitting on a sun-drenched terrace, sipping vin chaud.

These brave and peerless guys pushed the boundaries - gave everything they had, sacrificing themselves for that perfect moment in the snow. I hope their final moments were sublime, perfect, exhilarating. I also hope that when their bodies touched the ground, they felt nothing.        

There's risk in everything we do, and yes, skiing is definitely at the top end of the risk barometer.

Live each day as if it's your last.

Davey Sausage and Gâteaux Pain thrived on this mantra and that's why we'll always remember them for the amazing things they actually did.

Procrastination was not in their dictionaries.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Life in the Slow Lane

Being told you're fast should be perceived as a compliment.
Being told you're too fast might still be taken with some sense of achievement.
But being told you're too fast- in the context of slow lane swimming is not so much of a boost.

The first time I encountered fat man slow - it was his rotund belly with sticky-outy belly button and faded Hawaiian shorts that caught my attention. That was certainly not the pinnacle of his presence in the water though.

His repertoire of strokes seems to consist solely of the breast-stroke under-water style: blowing giant bubbles every time he goes below and coming up, he pulls the best drowning carp-mouth I've seen on a human. He must have impressive lungs.

I know toddlers who could take on an entire TA assault course in the time it takes fat man slow to complete one length.

I'm not one for over-taking (I'd rather cut my lap short and turn back the other way), but all three of the others in the slow lane were over-taking him, so I'm afraid I jumped on the over-take band wagon.

Wish I hadn't.

I've just made my third or forth over-take in 10 minutes. I'm at the deep end, about to set off on another lap. Fat man slow suddenly unleashes his pent-up fury on me. In a winey, loud Truman Capote toned voice he vents at me:

"You're too fast! You shouldn't be in this lane. You should go in the other lane!"

Too shocked to reply, I darted off very quickly. I avoid confrontation like David Cameron avoids answers in 'Prime Minister's Questions' and my brain goes to mush when it does happen, so there's no chance of me finding a remotely satisfactory rebuttal.

Another time at the pool fat man slow gets in just as I'm finishing my session. Phew.

However, I had been swimming with several fairly competent swimmers in the slow lane for 30 mins previously, and I can't help but feel sorry for them - knowing what they're in for, especially if they haven't yet experienced fat man slow's uniquely tortoise-in-slow-mo swim style.

As I come out of the showers, back into the changing rooms - I hear a bit of a din coming from the pool. Someone else is falling victim to fat man slow's angry vendetta against normal speed low-lane swimmers.

"You're going too fast! I wish I was as fast as you, but I can't go any faster! Please use the other lane, it's not fair." I couldn't help but chortle a little bit. I didn't hear a reply in defense.

It makes me wonder if this happens every single time he swims? What makes me angry about the situation is that if you're that slow - you've got to be acceptant of some under-cutting and over-taking - same as on the roads. There's no rules against it. It should be fine as long as the over-taker leaves a wide enough berth.

I'm also extremely annoyed that he vented his anger on me in particular. Why me when there were four other fellow over-takers in the slow-lane at the time?

I don't think he's ever likely to graduate to the middle lane, so to avoid any future slow-lane angst, I've decided to move to the middle lane instead.

Sure, I'll have to deal with being the over-taken one from time to time, but I'd rather that than being publicly humiliated or having my progress consistently hindered like a minnow stuck behind a whale.  

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A Dip into the Unknown

My friend Annie recently blogged about trying out a new pool as an alternative to running for safer pregnancy exercise. I'm doing the same (minus the bump!)

I've just enrolled at a private school Sports Centre just round the corner from my new flat. It's got everything you could ever need to keep toned (inc. badminton courts!) but it's weird because there's a constant stream of students either walking past the windows with swaths of text books held to their chests as I'm cross-training in the gym or clogging up the entrance in excitable teenage huddles.

I feel a bit out of place but at least they're polite, well-spoken kids who (hopefully) aren't likely to put chewing gum in my hair as a dare.

In her blog, Annie remarked at the awkward 'lane etiquette' at her leisure centre of choice, surprise at the very public communal showers and subsequent topical debates going on between the soap-lathering swimmers.

I'm glad there's private showers at my new pool, though I have to say I'd love to overhear a good debate between two pensioners on the morality of the people in 'Benefits Street' or Prince Charles' visit to the flood victims on the Somerset Levels. Hopefully I'll come across some eccentric characters soon.

They were certainly in abundance at a private hotel pool I used to be a member of in Falmouth. I'd do a ridiculously early swim six times a week so, believe me: I got to know the pernickety habits of the bemusing regulars. There was one Mrs Trunchball-esque battle axe who looked fearsome in her plastic cap and thunder thighs. She didn't budge for anyone. Her lane was her lane, end of.

The absolute pinnacle of eccentricity came in the form of a 70-something-old man smothered head-to-toe in tattoos and piercing. The cherry on top of this near-naked assemblage, as if he didn't have enough adornment already- was a speedo thong. Yes, really. They ranged in style from paisley to psychedelic swirls. Always colouful. Always a bit too much cheek on show.

What a character indeed. None of the regulars batted an eyelid. Funny to think that I probably wouldn't have recognized him in the street, with all that body art covered up. I wasn't phased by the tats or piercings particularly, but the thong was rather amusing.

You've got to have balls to carry that look.

 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Archlute

Having recently moved to Clifton (the poshest part of Bristol...where all the slave owners expressed their wealth by building the mansions that I can see out of my living room bay window) and having a curious nature, I decided to take a walk on the wild side last night. I went to a club. A club that plays music, but not of the kind that involves glow sticks and hot pants.

With boyfriend in tow, we entered the Bristol Music Club just at the end of our road. The programme was titled 'The Early Baroque', which I'm aware of in terms of the artistic movement, but I'm not at all familiar with the music of that era.

Taking our seats in the tired but comfortably warm auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised to see the isles filling up - bearing in mind it was a bleak and damp Tuesday evening in January.

I had a niggling apprehension that the night might be a bit old-school (fuddy-duddy) as the programme featured quite a lot of recorder, but the first trio up on stage was a man with an indistinguishable stringed instrument that nearly touched the ceiling even when he was seated, and two expression-full sopranos, one who was old enough to be my grandmother.

I scanned through the programme as the ladies belted out 17th Century songs in Italian - searching for a name to put to their accomplice's instrument - ah ha, it's an archlute!

There must have been about 20 strings to it. It looked a bit like something Errol Flynn would have played in Sherwood Forest to woo the ladies... but the neck - the neck of it looked like a traditional lute spliced with a giraffe.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of the length of the archlute, with impeccable comic timing - when the player stood up to take a bow, the top of the archlute hit one of the spotlights in the ceiling.

As well as making a crashing noise, a cloud of dust (or plaster) showered down on him. This caused a bit of a titter amongst the crowd, and the man on the stage although looking a bit embarrassed, took the accident in good humour.

He must be used to it. With such a cumbersome piece of kit.

After the interval, archlute man and his sopranos came back for a second set - we had to wait a while as he tuned up. Yet again, he had to apologize - but made it into a joke by saying that the archlute was a labour of love as he spends about 50% playing and 50% tuning.

The recorders weren't actually too bad. In fact a Sonata in F major was quite captivating, especially when it was explained that the composer had written the sonata in imitation of bird song.

Will we go back? Yes, I think so but not every week. There was a bar with a bowl of peanuts on it. An eclectic audience - all appreciative listeners, though I was definitely the youngest person there.

Maybe I'm mellowing, but I'd rather be the youngest person at an intelligent and enlightening music club than the oldest person in a flea-pit 'clubbing' club.  

Thursday, 31 October 2013

St Jude Dog

Conversation overheard in a Glastonbury charity shop yesterday between a woman working behind the desk and a lingering female customer:

(As predictably British as ever, the conversation is about the wake of storm St Jude, three days after its unassuming wave of disaster tickled our coastlines)

Lingering Customer: "I had a dog called Jude... you know, named after the song 'Hey Jude'
Woman behind counter: "Oh, lovely."
LC: "She died last year, actually on St Jude's day. The feast day.
WBC: Oh, right.
LC: "Yes, it was terrible actually. She'd been ill for a while and I thought it was her time to go. I nursed her on my own, knew she was giving up. I was on my own and I had to make that decision.
WBC: Oh, oh dear.
LC: "I took her into the vets, the vet agreed to put her down. But it wasn't until this year, with the storm, and it being named after St Jude...that I realised my Jude had been put down on St Jude's day last year.
WBC: Oh right.
LC: "And it makes me think. Perhaps, if someone else, if my husband had been with me. At home, when I thought it was Jude's time to go - maybe he'd have said, no, it's not her time. She'll pull through."
WBC is silent, looks on awkwardly
LC: But it's funny how the storm last week was called St Jude. Makes me think it's somehow making me remind myself about my dog Jude - seeing how the stormed happened on the same day that Jude died last year...


Made me chuckle a bit and think how funny it is when people try to sort of free-style associate stories with current affairs and weather patterns...

Scurge of the press

Being a Bristol resident I was obviously aware of the Jo Yates story as it unraveled a few winters ago, and reading the vilified articles in the press about Chris Jeffries, landlord and for a time, suspected murderer of his tenant Jo.

The images showed a wild-haired man, looking somewhat wild and disheveled. Small-minded people reading the tabloids would have no doubt made assumptions about Jeffries. But the derogatory and hurtful words and misleading images of Jeffries used in the press at the time have no doubt caused his friends and family much suffering and stress before the full press liable story was exposed.

Until recently, I wasn't aware that Chris Jeffries is a member of the same gym as me - has been probably for longer than the three years I've been going - yet it didn't strike me that this was the man from that press frenzy, even though we've been in the gym at the same time probably a hundred times.

It was the gym manager who first alerted me to him - only because we got on to the subject of documentaries and he mentioned that a certain major broadcaster was soon to be filming in the gym as part of a documentary about Chris Jeffries and his ordeal with the press and the police - clearing his name and appealing for compensation for his treatment while being under suspicion for the Jo Yates case.

That image of the wild haired-man did stuck in my mind, and sure enough I saw a man in the gym (a few days after my conversation with the manager) with similar facial features - but now with very short, dark hair around the temples. A very slight and quiet man, who moves much more gracefully through the apparatus than any of the other men members.

Ah ha, I thought, that's Chris Jeffries. I wonder if the stress he's been through, (wether inadvertently or directly through that derogatory image and words used in the press) caused him to change his image?

Either way, I was intrigued to see him - to think about everything he must have been through over the last few years - all that unnecessary pain and anguish caused by a few vindictive, shallow-minded and callous editors. I'm happy to hear that he's at least received damages from eight newspapers who reported on the case. I hope he's finding peace now - I'll look forward to seeing the programme.

This article summarizes Jeffries' ordeal very well:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/22eac290-eee2-11e0-959a-00144feab49a.html#axzz2j9Dg9rc9

      

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

If you go down to the woods today...


Exactly what fairy tales are made of. I could imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland reclining on one of these. There were many others but this one was the most impressive as it was (as yet) untouched/un-munched. 

Such stark whiteness
pencil sharpener furled
embezzled in delicate lamb-soft moss

A twisted woodland fit for a Tim Burton movie

A quiet and special moment caught as the sun came through and made the earth warm after a torrential two-hour downpour. Could double for dawn mist - deceptively mysterious. 

Otherworldly light on an autumnal afternoon

A line of whipped clouds on the horizon at Porlock Weir

An endless wave of pebbles

Ships all at land

The pomp and ceremony of a Regatta circa 1908, Porlock Weir - a tradition that I hope has stood the test of time

Thank you Huxley

Antic Hay

I'm enjoying a bit of a reading renaissance. 

Maybe it's the turning of the seasons that breaths an instinct within me to snuggle down, in a comfy corner and disappear into someone else's life. It's about a book a week - or more accurately one a weekend at the moment.

I learnt to be a very speedy reader back in the days when devouring three/four books a week was standard procedure for keeping-up in BA English(with Media) classes. Then there was a time when 'the career' took over and books would be dipped into/skimmed/read but not consumed or unintentionally deserted for months at a time, so passages would be re-read over and over accidentally with only the vaguest feeling of deja vu. 

The follow up to 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls', which title evades me, is case in point - all I remember is that it concentrated heavily on the arrogant and fastidious early career of Quentin Tarantino, but was no way as engaging or memorable as 'Easy Riders' overview of the explosive arthouse scene in Hollywood during the 60s and 70s - before cinema got homogenized.

I really recommend devoting yourself to a book over a weekend. You're in absolutely no danger of forgetting characters, rereading chapters or loosing your page/makeshift bookmark. 

What I enjoyed more about consistently chugging through 'Antic Hay' by Aldous Huxley in less than 70 hours was the joy of finding new words and hunting down their definitions (somewhat lazily on my android). Maybe my vocab has diminished, or maybe it's just Huxley's superior possession of the English language but either way - there are some BIG FAT BUTTERY words in 'Antic Hay' and that's inspiring to me.

Here's some delicious, delectable Huxley-plucked words that I ear-marked because they're definitely worth trying to slip into conversation:

*Gormandizer = Someone who eats gluttonously; gorging

*Rabelaisian = Display of bawdy/earthy/course humor (Ref. to Francois Rabelais, a major French Renaissance writer of satire and bawdy jokes)

*Callipygous = Having beautifully proportioned buttocks

*Hobbledehoy = A clumsy or awkward youth


My favourite is hobbledehoy - mainly because of the way it makes your mouth feel quite awkward while saying it. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Last hint of summer...



I'm no stranger to mountain life (having spent two winter seasons in Chamonix), but I am unacquainted with the mountainous regions of Southern France, without that familiar dusting of snow.

Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I set off for Nice on a Sleazy Jet flight - destination: an apartment in La Brigue, a charmingly rustic village, close to the Italian boarder, north of the city.

As I've experienced many times in the past: reaching the mountains is no mean feat - that's why they're never densely populated. Life is hard beyond 1,000 ft.

Nothing gets the heart pumping more fervently when you're just clicking into holiday-mode and a seemingly minor faux pas quite significantly threatens your plans. In retrospect taking the laissez faire attitude on day one was a mistake: especially when you've only got one train service option that day, and the ticket office has a queue that would rival one at any UK Post Office during the week leading up to Xmas!

Jolted out of holiday-haziness by this distressing sight, I jumped on a much smaller queue for a ticket machine close by and nervously navigated the menus knowing that one wrong move could make the difference between shelling out for a hotel room in the city or claiming our pre-paid apartment in the mountains.

With a minute to spare we raced to the furthest away platform and claimed some seats literally as the departure whistle screeched out.

With two hours to regain our composure, we sank into comfortable train upholstery and bathed in the glorious scenery beyond the glass: interlocking mountain ranges, ravines and topsy-turvy dwellings clinging to rocks like sandy-coloured barnacles.



La Brigue proved to be a well-positioned base that presented us with the opportunity for many adventures, and a trainline that offered access to the varying terrains of an Italian ski resort (Lemone), the cote d'azure coast line and a menagerie of ancient French towns/cities. I say well-connected - but actually when the train is your only route out of the village (north and south) - you have to be astute to it's sensitive disposition and live by the timetable like a geeky university fresher.

Our apartment had two balconies - one of which opened onto the village square: the hub of the place, where dogs and drinkers and market stalls popped up at peak times during the week. There were four restaurant options (only one of which we were successful in sampling as the others either gave us 'no room at the inn' gestures or appeared to be open only on very special occasions), which was initially frustrating (for city dwellers far too used to having everything on tap within a half-mile radius), but encouraged us to become dependable on the local produce and cook our own takes on authentic cuisine. (Dauphinoise Potatoes, garlic chicken and lashings of cheese smeared veg).



A wood burner provided us with evening entertainment... to fall asleep watching the flames licking at the glass was a delightful alternative to a flatscreen TV. La Brigue was as quiet as quiet can be - though the day the fountain outside our apartment wasn't flowing really indicated a new level of noise-redundancy. It was a welcome retreat, but again, took a bit of time to adjust to after spells of manic work life in Bristol and London over the last six months.

We quickly got to grips with our surroundings - trekking around the hinterland, collecting wild-growing herbs, chestnuts and kindling on our rambles. On one of our walks up the valley, a group of old farmers were gathering apples from an orchard and one garçon kindly gave us a couple of handfuls - saying they were strictly only for cooking with. I baked them later that night, their waxy texture complimenting a locally-sourced honey, oozy, melty creme fraiche and a dusting of nutmeg. A simple delight tasting all the more sweet for the good-natured gesture behind their appearance on our table.

On another ramble back from Tende (ten minutes on the train, two hours or so by foot!), during the descent to La Brigue lingering tentatively around 1,500 ft, we very surprisingly met two people on ponies - the sound of their hooves scraping the rocky terrain reached us long before their physical form appeared. A salt-of-the-earth man (sans helmet), led confidently - (though the ponies' laboured breathing and foaming flanks signaled a turbulent mood), followed by a slightly nervous-looking young lady - also sans protection.



We joked somewhat tentatively about them being very brave for attempting this climb when we were tentatively planning our every step and we only had two feet to coordinate. Several minutes later we heard the clatter of hooves again, which I thought signaled more ponies coming up. I was quite wrong. What we saw was a rider-less pony wildly jolting and jerking down the mountain - nostrils flared and drenched in sweat. On approaching us, it whinnied loudly and tried to pass.

Flummoxed and worried, I tried to grab the mangled reins, but the pony kept prancing around. There was a ruin of a shack close to us, with the walls still intact, so I thought that maybe we should coax the pony in there until we could reunite it with the owner. Several tentative moments passed during which my boyfriend successfully grabbed the reins, and got flung around as the pony began to settle and we tried to calm it.

I waited around the corner to see if I could see the owner or hear any sign of distress. Shortly after, the man who'd been leading earlier came charging down on his pony, shouting in indistinguishable French. I admit that my basic knowledge of the French language has waned, and faltered even more in this stressful situation. He leveled with us, shouted more, gestured for us to give him the reins, jumped off the pony, grabbed both ponies and continued to run down the mountain with the ponies tumbling clumsily close to him.

We were rather shocked and felt perplexed as to how we could help the situation. I presumed that the man was going down to raise an alarm for the poor girl who presumably had fallen off the pony, and to tether the loose ponies somewhere in the village. We carried on our descent, and were surprised to see the man talking to someone on the road - the loose horse still roaming the grassy area close to the footpath. He was gesticulating - I guess to raise the alarm, then disappeared up the mountainside again on his pony.

It was a strange situation - we don't know what happened to the girl or the loose pony. I suppose the ponies are used to the mountain terrain, but they're also wild creatures, and why wouldn't you wear protection when embarking on such a precarious activity?



After a few days of challenging hiking and mountain biking - we treated ourselves to some city/beach leisure time - closer to civilization and simple luxuries such as supermarkets and bars that give you complimentary bread sticks and chips with your order. Villefranche-sur-Mer was my firm favourite beach town, reminding me of a scaled-down Barcelona with a much more idyllic and clean beachfront. The mid-october sunshine was warm enough to tempt us into the sea several times - definitely warranting an ice cream of the nutty variety as a reward.



Another sparky idea was hiring the marvelous 'Velo-bleu' bikes dotted around Nice, a scheme very similar to Boris's Bikes in London. The purchasing of a membership card was comically over-complicated, but once the account was set up in the transport centre, we couldn't help but maximize the service to whizz around the city - including the beach promenade (dodging bladers, runners and doddery tourists) all the way along to the airport and the seaport busting with bling yachts at the opposite end. We probably got a bit too carried away, as the bikes' rather ruddy three-gears certainly couldn't cope with the hills beyond the port, but we covered a lot of ground regardless and were pleased with the accessible and plentiful drop-off points for our weary steeds.



My other stand-out destination was a sleepy village called Saorge, perched, nay clutching onto the side of a south-facing mountainside that glistened gold when viewed in the early morning light the first time we were alerted to the existence of the village by an excited local on one of our numerous train journeys down the valley. I only wished we'd discovered Saorge a day earlier. Wednesdays seem to be a ghost-town day. Reading the tourist board on entry to the village we got excited by the prospect of a honey producer, butcher, plentiful dining options, a few bars and a cafe. Bingo!

However, after a diligent search through the narrow streets - the only establishments actually open were a small cafe and its adjoining gift shop. Having not eaten anything since breakfast (it was now 3.30pm, and we'd also failed at finding food in the village across the other side of the railway line), the cafe looked like mecca and there was a menu board outside that suggested that they sold sandwiches. Actual sandwiches, with about four fillings to choose from!



We confidently ordered a pan bagnet and a fromage et gambon in French, along with coffee and tea. The ethereally elegant lady who took our order said it simply was not possible to order sandwiches - why hadn't we phoned to make an order? There was nothing on the menu to signal the transaction she so fervently insisted was 'de rigueur'. We were flummoxed. Maybe the tea would come with a complimentary biscuit that would keep our appetites under control till dinner?

We waited with baited breath. The lady popped her head round the door frame and said something like, 'I've managed to order your sandwiches... they will arrive soon... though you should have phoned first.' Where were the sandwiches being made? Would they arrive before we needed to get the last train back up the valley?


In the meantime out beverages arrived. What a delicious sight: gorgeous china wear from a bygone era, tea in a massive pot complete with one of those contraptions that stops the leaves escaping into the water. Our cups were large, and perched on the side of my coffee cup was a petite homemade biscuit, and next to my boyfriend's teacup nestled a rather generous slice of honey cake (probably sourced from the honey shop just opposite - where we purchased a jar of chestnut-infused nectar and some hazelnut praline about half an hour previously).



The spread on our table looked so magnificent I had to take some photos. Saorge felt magical: verging on the edge of humanity - and this otherness was also reflected in the sublime-tasting produce. Our sandwiches were soon delivered by a local man, who then stopped in for some tea. Definitely the best sandwich I'd tasted all holiday: a fishy, crusty ensemble oozing with oil, herbs and juicy tomatoes. Such a shame we had to make a dash for the train and that the bar next door was closed - we both agreed that had it been open, we'd stay for some drinks and sample the enticing array of tarts listed on their specials board.    

On our last day we woke late to a rather cloudy skyline - the first during our holiday. Determined to make the most of it, we got on the train to Limone - a ski resort just two stops (through a very long tunnel) from La Brigue. A picturesque town only tainted by the fact that it was also a ghost town (inter season), and that the ski lifts were closed, but as the cloud wasn't lifting - we weren't too miffed.

We soon found a trendy cafe bar in the centre and I sank a few espressos laced with Amaretto to give me the energy to hike. The rather forlorn man in the tourist info centre (I suppose he had every right to be forlorn - being posted there to give info to people during the quietest time of the year) gave us a map and suggested a fairly short walk we could do that gives a good view of the resort at higher altitude. We set off and snaked through a wooded pathway that sadly illustrated a disturbing imbalance between abandoned chalet construction and natural beauty.



We reached the top following a rather quaint sequence of wooden signs with lemons depicting our chosen route, and settled with a bottle of cider - making sandwiches from our various scraps of cheeses, hams and pate. We hadn't passed a single soul. After our picnic we took the same route down and tried to find the ski lift station, to see if it might be worth making a return trip once the winter snow had made an appearance.



There were some good accommodation and ski pass combo offers in a brochure we picked up, but it's so hard to tell if the resort would be worth coming to if the place doesn't have that seasonal buzz about it when you're actually there.

Slaves to the train timetable, we waited for our final locomotive to arrive at La Brigue, 6:30am the following day. Uh oh, it's late. Not late enough to warrant panic, but enough to know we had to be on-guard during our change at Ventimiglia. That was fine, and we had enough time to grab a quick takeaway Italian style coffee, to go with our honey-covered croissants.



On arrival at Nice train station, I was desperate to find a toilet, so as my boyfriend went to join the queue for the airport transfer, I ran onto the platform to find the facilities. As I ran along, I saw some familiar faces. Not familiar faces from real life - but faces from the movies. And they were making a movie right at that exact moment. It was Jude Law and Richard E Grant, and the scene was one of the first for a movie coming out next year called Dom Hemingway. I didn't know that at the time - I only really realised it was a movie set as I clocked the director and started noticing people beyond with ear-pieces as well as a white Rolls Royce parked round the side, which I'm presuming was for the characters' getaway.

It was such a surreal encounter - I really hope I didn't interrupt the scene with my scruffy, end-of-holiday attire and manically contorting 'busting-for-the-loo' face. There was nothing holding the general public back, so I guess they didn't want to call attention to the production by cordoning off the platform.

I was so tempted to stick around, talk to one of the loitering techies/runners and find out more about the production - but we had a plane to catch. Emerging from the toilets I tried to walk past again - as nonchalantly as possible this time. I came out of the station grinning like a lunatic, bursting to tell my boyfriend about my first proper 'movie set' experience.

I know there's loads of waiting around and epic ego-clashing intrinsically linked with drama production, but that fateful day I walked into two A list actors' bubble for a fleeting moment, and I liked it very much.



    

   






Thursday, 17 May 2012

Doc/Futures

I'm overwhelmed.

After years of skirting around the media industry - not-quite finding my niche, but enjoying the tumultuous ride and various soul-shacking knock-backs: I've finally found my true calling.

Documentary. I love people. I'm curious. I'm a perfectionist when it comes to organising. What does all this tell me? I was born to be a documentary writer/producer/director.

So, thus far, I've dabbled (fairly successfully) in journalism (published in The Stage, The Ecologist, Stranger Magazine), copywriting (commercial clients include: RIBA, KIER Construction, TravelZest), PR (Clients include Barefoot Bride, Rainbow Fitness), short drama (writing/producing/directing/set design/marketing/distribution), commercial video/internet viral production, blogging and Tweeting.

That, coupled with a smidgen of life experience in rather exciting countries (two winter ski seasons in France, one summer in California), and more years than I'd care to admit part-timing in hospitality - well I think it's all stuff that's finally merging to give me a glorious advantageous view point of the world, its exceptionally diverse people and sources to draw on now I'm mature enough to process and reflect on everything I've learnt along the way.

From my hospitality experience I can boast a matrix of odd situations / people / locations that are ripe to be fictionalised or actualized in documentary form, I suppose depending on access to these people and their level of interest or receptivity to either proposition.

From my writing experience - I know I can churn out words at a smart pace, with as much artistic flair or user-friendliness as required. I can pitch, review, analyze, critique and create a tone for whatever audience I'm writing for. Long form or short - I'm undaunted by the variety of briefs I have to tackle, it's all experience and I think my journalist's 'thick-skin' helps me deal with rejection and realise that nothing is ever wasted, there's always another outlet that will more perfectly fit that particular idea. I will find a home for it. (But also know when something's dead in the water - to let it go and move on to pastures new)

It was a strong determination to re-connect with my grandpa two years ago that spurred me on to independent documentary production. 'Prickly Relationship' was born partly through curiosity and partly to re-establish a relationship with a man I'd know well as a child but not as an adult. I approached grandpa Stephen to ask if I could film him talking about his gargantuan Cacti plant collection. What ensued was a deeply moving exploration of a man with a life-long passion for horticulture that is as strong as his religious faith. I'm incredibly proud of the film, and incredibly privileged to have documented/archived one extraordinary man's story before his story is jumbled by old age and infirmity.

Most fittingly, Prickly was screened in Bournemouth (Stephen's home town) a few weeks ago. A proud moment for all the family, even though none of us were able to attend. I'm still touting the film around to festivals and such - but the excessive entry fees make it mean feat.

I felt completely at home interviewing (again, I suppose my journalist background plays a part in being able to strike up a good rapport with contributors), love listening to people's stories and piecing a story together in the edit. My editing skills are not very developed, but I like to think that I know how to construct a documentary narrative, helped by my screenwriting tuition and years of watching/reading drama.

Delightful how it all feeds in together. Love the fluidity and complexity - and that documentary is so outrageously unpredictable, yet you have to predict certain 'plot-points' and be able to adapt to situations that might either take you closer to the drama or inadvertently lead to a dead-end. I suppose, again, as I'm so used to the unpredictability of people in all areas of my work and social life - I know I can cope in any situation, keep a clear head and act diplomatically, or gauge the bigger picture and adapt to support and resolve.

Since making 'Prickly Relationship', I've mentored and developed a few other projects including Brave Face (working closely with award-winning writer/director Peter Snelling)- made teasers for and pitched 'A Stately Facade' at Cornwall Film Festival, Encounters Short Film Fest, DFG Mini-Meet Market, Doc/Futures workshop and even got invited to a meeting with Love Productions who are keen to develop the story further.

I'm beginning to develop a style and savvy that complements my personal outlook on life, and my grasp on the industry is increasing through an avid interest in research and a desire to be at the top of my game when it comes to marketing my work and keeping up with social media to hook an audience.

All this persistence is paying off. I was recently invited to attend a fabulous documentary workshop in Newcastle a few weeks ago (as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest Doc/Futures talent development scheme), where for the first time ever - I engaged with a room full of docu makers with an equal amount of passion for storytelling as me. An absolute pleasure and privilege to be surrounded by a bunch of caring and creative people all eager to share their ideas and give invaluable feedback. I felt at home in that realm, embraced and supported, ready to be nurtured and comfortable to talking about my projects and being open to future collaboration.

In the past (I've only ever attended short film festivals or events geared towards fictional film production), I've found networking events and festivals a bit excluding and cliquey - feeling like an outsider with no inclination to bother the commissioners/celebs/speakers or strike up artificial relationships with people who may or may not be able to further my career.

I've learnt to be an observer at these social events and act accordingly depending on the mood and my personal confidence to be brave enough to use my subversive schmoozing tactics. Sometimes I'm fairly successful, and the more natural and personable I am, the more receptive people are.

After the workshop in Newcastle, the twenty attendees were eligible to apply for an access-all-areas delegate pass, free accommodation, travel and mentoring for all five days of the Sheffield Doc/Fest this month. So fired up from my new learnings and new documentary contacts - I set about holing myself up in my bedroom/office (PJs being uniform of choice) for the entirety of the May bank holiday weekend in order to write two iFeatures2 submissions (5,000 words approx in total) along with my pitch for the festival pass. Not since my Masters dissertation have I written so much in such a short space of time.

I was in my element - thriving on the pressure/necessity to produce words... using the coffee hits and nervous energy/sleep deprivation to feed my creativity and test my capability to the limit.

I was ever-so-slightly-unhinged by the Tuesday deadline - having to write one of my partner's biography in the last half hour and find links to his work online certainly tested my shattered nerves - but by gosh, the sense of achievement as I hit 'submit' for the final time was well worth teetering on the edge for the love of story - or the distant yet vaguely realistic promise of documentary notoriety.

I leant a lot about myself that weekend - after I'd given myself a little time to reflect and come down from the adrenaline high. I learnt that I can perform under pressure, I'm willing to take risks - truly push the boundaries, and that I have a brilliant team of friends and collaborators to draw on when I can find funding for my next project.

Even if my two submissions don't get selected for further development, I've got two treatments to edit and improve on (giving them the time to breath and send out for feedback), a list of people I'd love to work with in the future and my name has been attached to two documents that may be being read by some influential honchos at Creative England which could somehow influence my career and get me noticed by the right people in the industry.

As if I wasn't already riding a high from all the writing, I then found out last week that I'd been one of the lucky 10 (selected from 40 applicants) to attend Sheffield Doc/Fest as a delegate. Over-bowled doesn't even begin to describe how privileged I feel. It couldn't be happening at a more poignant time, when I'm just brimming with ideas and passion for documentary. So eager to prove my dedication and determination to become a feature documentary producer/director.

I know I still have much to learn and that I really need to develop my director's 'vision', but this opportunity will undoubtedly give me that all-important push in the right direction.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Face to a Crime

I received a press clipping in the post from my mum the other day. She likes to keep me in the loop with various happenings in the area where I grew up.

This bit of news had a particular resonance for me as the startlingly pretty girl in the photo accompanying the piece was one of the documentary contributors I worked with on a First Light short film commission just before Xmas.

Rhiannon was the only girl at the young offenders residential centre who wanted to participate in the documentary, and she certainly made an impact - even before we knew her story. She was carrying around an aura of damaged hopelessness. She wouldn't hold eye contact with any of us, and her body language was very closed. I noticed scars on her arms from self-harming, and although she had a stunning figure, she seemed to be completely lacking in confidence - choosing to sit away from the rest of us in our first meeting... drawing her name in sprawling graphics on a piece of paper at the table - eyes down when she spoke and circling over the letters, tracing them like that's all she could do to keep her temper at bay.

The only twinkle of positively that we witnessed from this fragile-looking girl came when she exclaimed that we might be able to help her become an actress in Hollywood. My heart sank - I know most teenage girls dream of being enveloped in the glitz and glamour of stardom but did she really think that talking about one of more than 30 crimes she was waiting to be charged for (at that time) could possibly help project her as a screen siren?

Rhiannon's boyfriend had to fill in the permission form I gave her as she wasn't sure how to spell their address. The other four contributors (all boys under the age of 21) opened up quickly and told the stories leading to their crimes straight to Pete with the sound recorder - but Rhiannon asked to be alone for her interview. When they were finished - the anguish on Pete's face alone told us that her story had been tragic.

During a short break, Pete revealed that Rhiannon's story involved drinking, and a stealing spree - culminating in an unprovoked attack on a much younger girl in a park. Even though I knew she was incredibly damaged, I couldn't get my head around the fact that the quiet yet volatile girl in the next room had bitten another girls' breast, then pulled her along the ground by the hair, until friends stepped in to make Rhiannon let go.

The week-long shoot was incredibly haunting and emotionally draining, as the stories unravelled and our friendship with the contributors deepened. I didn't feel unsafe, or threatened - the only thing I was worried about was keeping an eye on the petty cash and camera kit, as we knew several of the resident were serial thieves. Ironically enough, although they didn't steal anything from us, the week after, Pete got a call from the kids' youth support leader to say that two of the boys we'd interviewed had been kicked out for attempting to steal the TV in the communal area - an area they blatantly knew was monitored by CCTV cameras.

I'd wondered why this First Light film had taken so much longer to be released - the other we made around the same time, Brave Face (about a community of young people affected by the summer riots in Edmonton) went live a few weeks ago. I suppose now, seeing Rhiannon's face in the local press means that she's finally been sentenced for the crime she talked about in the documentary. I haven't yet seen a final cut of the documentary, but I do know that Pete didn't want to show the faces of any of the contributors in case it threw up any legal disputes.

Rhiannon has been sentenced to ten months at a Young Offenders Institute, and pleaded guilty to the crime. At the time of filming, she showed little remorse for the attack - as did all bar one of the other contributors. Will this sentence put Rhiannon on course to a happier life? I'd like to hope so - it would be such a waste of life to see her get sucked down again, repeating a routine of escapism sort through drink and drugs which will inevitably lead to violence.

I feel such great sadness looking at her face in the black and white picture in front of me - I mean I have no doubt the courts reached the right decision, but I spent a week with this girl and I definitely witnesses moments - no, sparks of intelligence and wit hidden - buried below a steely exterior scarred by years of neglect and abuse. It's going to take a lot to make Rhinannon whole again, but I think the first and most poignant thing that's missing from Rhiannon's life is love. But who's going to give that to her when most of the people she knows are also lacking the capacity to love and be loved?


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Needless worry or needful adrenaline-kick?

Well. I needn't have worried about the race - my finish time, or what to eat the night before - anything really. I made it. My second Half Marathon outing, was actually (a bit of) a breeze in retrospect.

I was sick with nerves the night before. Woke up at around 5.00am on race day with enough nausea blighting my stomach to render sleep obsolete. I wasn't actually sick, but I then spent those tentative pre-race hours rushing around worrying I would forget something important like my timer chip or race number, or safety pins.

I got my bag of stuff together and walked up to the bus stop, thinking that today of all days, my legs could do without that 40 minute walk to Temple Meads station. However, there wasn't another bus (being a Sunday after all) until 9.30 and I needed to be on a train to Bath by then. In a panic, I ran back down to the flat (only about 30 strides away) and rather apologetically got my housemate Victoria out of bed to give me a lift. The station was heaving with runners and a barrage of spectator-baggage, but somehow I managed to get a seat in 1st class - there wasn't an inch un-trampled anywhere on the length or breadth of the train.

I agitatedly listened and watched as close-neighbouring runners discussed their morning routine, pinning their numbers on - eating bananas: checking playlists. I felt alone, scared - like waiting for the first day of an elite club I had tasted but didn't quite feel qualified to be embraced by. But, I knew that I'd see a few familiar faces at the Penny Brohn Cancer Care tent, and that mum and Phil would be there at some point, once they'd swum through the furor.

After a few (perhaps unnecessary) portaloo stops on entering the Runners Village, I found the BPCC tent and Andrew (fundraising manager) wished me luck and offered me a banana. No thanks.... too nervous... hope I've had enough water to keep me hydrated but not too much to make me need another pee - (I have this OCD-esque tick with running where I'm not allowed to stop for ANYTHING, not to walk, not to drink, not to check my laces - once I'm going, I'm going).

As we chatter, I hear the anouncer calling us up, and I join the ever-expanding crowd of idiots in spandex, headbands, make-shift utility belts loaded with energy-fueling potions and bare skin - mostly silent, interspersed with nervous ramblings from (I'm being presumptuous) first timers.

It took around 15 minutes to reach my place near the front - I had a little 'c' next to my race number, which meant I was in the category of 1-2 hour finish time runners - felt good to be amongst the serious people. I looked to my left and saw not-to-convincingly-disguised actress/TV presenter, Nadia Sawalha on my left pimped out in all the latest gadgetry, calmly chatting to her partner in equally body-enhancing armour. At this point, even though I was tempted to listen to their conversation - I plugged into my iPod and began to zone out - as I always do when psyching up for a run. Music is an absolute necessity, and I'm glad Andrew told me to hide my iPod (they are banned, though I don't remember reading about it in the programme!), as I'd have been rather perturbed had it been confiscated at this pivotal point.

Vampire Weekend's 'A-Punk' got me off to a gleefully bouncy start - mood-lifting music for such a glorious morning. So glad I strategically crafted a playlist to accommodate the different transition points in the race: light-hearted and bouncy for the first 40mins, harder/faster for the mid section then euphoric favourites for the home-straight. Seemed to work pretty well, and I was very glad to have sewn a pocket into my shorts to hold my iPod and energy gel pouch so I was hands-free for maximum arm propelling.

I ran at a constant pace, just outside my comfort-zone for the duration and although I didn't feel quite the same adrenaline buzz that I had achieved at my first half marathon last year - I was still ecstatic to have shaved 8 minutes off my previous finish time. Did the handful of jelly babies grabbed and snaffled from a bowl on the sidelines of the second lap give me the extra energy boost I needed to push harder through the 'runner's wall'? Was it possible the weird pouch of sickly, banana-flavoured gloop (aka super intense-carb gel) provided a placebo or a real sixth-gear lever to help me sail towards the final straight? I'm pretty sure through sheer will-power I would have made it unaided - though I mustn't dismiss these man-made stimulants if they offer even a vague hint of physical/mental empowerment.

I'm annoyed with myself for not studying the course map more thoroughly before the race as I think I could have run faster through the last mile or two. But, as I didn't see the last couple of mile markers, and I wasn't really familiar with the end part of the route through the city - I didn't properly push for a sprint until the finish line was in sight.

I passed the line neither grinning like a lunitic nor waving my hands in the air. I didn't clock my time on a fancy-pants wrist watch, or collapse in a heap. I was relieved (as it was such a hot morning) though not too tired. I continued walking all the way back to the runners village - picking up my medal, and goody bag along the way. Mum and Phil were waiting for me at the PBCC tent, and both exuberantly hugged my sweaty torso.

I was one of the first PBCC runners back (out of 30 running for the charity) and also the first girl. See my official race placing here. I chatted to a guy who'd been level with me a lot of the course... we'd played a bit of a game of over-take, undertake - though I think he finished a minute or two before me in the end. I ate some gorgeously healthy PBCC-homemade flapjack and did some stretches in the sun. Mum handed me a hand mirror and a wet wipe so I could remove a crust of mineral-sweat from my eyebrows (who said running wasn't glamourous?!).

Mum, Phil and I then walked through the centre of Bath, stopping for a coffee and to watch the street busking. We were booked into Bath Spa at 2pm, and my god was I ready for some water-immersion to rest my bones. The roof-top pool was heaven - an oasis in the midst of a desert of sandy Bath stone and tiles. I lolled in the shallows until it was time for my treatment - a German sauna involving hay and camomile scented heat filtration. Strange yet oddly enticing. Couldn't quite imagine myself lying in a meadow but the naturalistic scent did make me feel deeply relaxed. I'm glad I opted for the medium-heat booth though as my body's capacity to fight light-headedness was on the verge of collapse.

20 minutes later I emmerged from the treatment room feeling calm, serene, hungry and a little dizzy, so we headed to the cafe for a smootie and chicken sandwich. Energy levels perked back up, we decided on one last 'scented pod' steamer, then I trawled through the rabbit warren of inter-compartmental changing rooms in an attempt to find my locker again.

I said goodbye to Mum and Phil as they caught their onward train at Temple Meads, jumped on a bus back to Redland and cooked myself a healthy yet decedent stir-fry with coconut milk and peanutbutter satay sauce. Followed swiftly by bed, though it took some time to drift off as I could feel every fibre of my being reconfiguring/rebuilding and contracting/expanding in order to repair from the race. It was such a strange sensation and then I suddenly got very cold, so I had to get up, boil a hot water bottle and take an iboprofen. Next day I was only achy round my lower back - headed off for work on my bike, walked off the back pain and was back in the gym the following morning, with achy knees being my only gripe.

I've officially been training for almost a year now (combo of running/cycling/gym) and it's just kind of become normality. I'm sticking to a healthy yet challenging routine - where variety of terrain and duration are keeping me on the path to long-term motivation. I've not felt this fit in years, and although the weight is not exactly falling off, I do feel strong and toned and ready for the next race.

I find it strange that although I am not a competative person, I do enjoy the buzz of race day - there's a need for the crowd to be there to help me face-up to those last few miles. I think I need it to make me forget my body and focus on mind over matter. The fundraising for Penny Brohn Cancer Care is another push - I don't think I could do all this as a personal challenge alone. I've raised almost £1,000 in two races, and although I know it'll be harder to beat higher money targets now most of my friends and family have contributed - I guess I'll just have to be more innovative with my fundraising methods/tactics. I'm thinking a spring fete themed cake bake-off may be my next endeavour to raise my combined target of £300 for the Bristol 10k and Half Marathon later this year.

Gulp. Better get my trainers on - it's Sunday and the sun is shining - absolutely no excuses not to activate those endorphins.

If you'd like to donate to PBCC, my JustGiving page is still open for online contributions: http://www.justgiving.com/Holly-Wicks0