Friday, 5 February 2016

An Evening with Paul Watson

Paul Watson should have been on my radar years ago.

I didn't go to film school, so I can't really be labeled a philistine. I'm just happy his work has entered my documentary lexicon now.

I subscribe to an e-bulletin for a bi-monthly arts and culture event called Ebenezer Presents... based at a way-off-the-beaten-track venue called the Seed Factory in Aller, Somerset. Not everything on their events list appeals to me, but a night entitled: 'Splat! A Fly on the Wall, An Evening of Conversation with Paul Watson' caught my eye and I decided to go, accompanied by my mum who lives not far from Aller.

Paul Watson's repertoire spans approx. 300 documentary films, and yet I hadn't heard of a single one. Watson is said to have spawned the reality TV genre in the UK, and this was plenty enough of a draw for me to make the journey from Bristol on a wet January evening.

Watson hates modern reality TV programmes, and he made this exceedingly clear in his opening sentence. I should have defended it as I work in the industry, but I can see how his fly-on-the-wall style has been eaten up, and mutated into a colder, less authentic way of portraying 'real life'.

I do side with Watson, especially after watching a montage of his work, and a feature length documentary titled 'The Fishing Party' (a portrait of 4 racist, misogynistic toffs enjoying a watery, rum-fuelled jolly in Scotland - which apparently was Margaret Thatcher's most hated film!). 

Watson's main bugbear with modern documentary is that there's not enough time spent with contributors. Directors don't self-shoot, they watch from remote galleries with hot-head operators controlling multi-rig cameras. From the very start of his career, Watson was truly in the thick of it all. Through the lens, he's witnessed: death, marital breakdown, and had puke sprayed all over him.

I agree that you loose a sense of intimacy with fixed rig cameras and there's never enough money in the budget to spend a decent amount of time building trust with your contributors. Although programmes like 24 Hours in A&E and First Dates give you unique access to some very volatile and unusual situations - the contributors are not spilling their hearts out to a filmmaker who's been filming with them consistently for 6 to 12 months.

Trust is something that is lacking when the cameras are fixed to walls and ceilings rather than being an extension of the filmmaker's body.

We have an appetite for mindless, rambling, product placement-heavy TV now so I've no doubt that the industry will provide fixed-rig formats and 'structured reality' shows for sometime to come. Programmes like TOWIE and MIC are basically soap operas, except the 'actors' don't have to try too hard to learn their lines.

Like any genre of popular culture: documentary production has strayed from its origin in an avant garde fashion - but there are always going to be purists sticking close to the roots of the movement.

I'm guilty of watching (and making) mindless TV: sometimes I just need a warm, colourful, sugary piece of escapism.

However, there is nothing more engaging and tantalizing than immersing myself in a proper independently made feature documentary authored by someone who's spent a year or more with their subject(s), stayed by their side while the subject wrestles with their personal demons. To Molly Deneen, Vanessa Engle, Louis Theroux and Asif Kapadia I will now add Paul Watson as my top-ranking UK documentary filmmakers.

Their films may be uncompromisingly intimate, beguiling or tragic. Their films will also undoubtably make me question the nature of humanity and how we fit into this crazy, topsy-turvy world of ours.

They keep my brain ticking over and encouraging me to be brave and dare to make challenging content too.

Links to articles and interviews with Paul Watson:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/3560798/Paul-Watson-The-Family.html 
http://www.bafta.org/television/features/paul-watson-a-life-in-television 
http://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/nov/20/mondaymediasection4
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7140605.stm 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Mendip Marauder



What kind of title is that I can hear you thinking?

Sounds like some kind of distressing encounter in the countryside?

I'm actually talking about a running race, that sits within the 'Ultra' marathon category. 30 whole miles across the Mendip hills spanning the hinterland between Wells to Weston-Super-Mare.

My old friend Maeve and I have been testing the waters with half marathons over the last few years (I've done 5 in total). 

We can get round in sub 1hr 50 mins, we know about pacing and fuelling for endurance. We decided collectively that we need to stop procrastinating and test our strength by entering something more challenging.

The London Marathon is too big and busy, and the other popular marathons are expensive (and probably overrated) so we began researching off-beat races in the UK and further afield.

We looked into the Medoc (my personal front runner), more akin to a French jolly: you're given wine as well as water at pit-stops and fancy dress is encouraged, a Danish 'moonlit' marathon and a music-themed race in Portugal where rock bands play live at every significant juncture.

But via Maeve's contact at The Guardian, (a running correspondent) we learnt about the Mendip Marauder. We were assured that it's a well-organised race on mixed terrain.

One of the biggest selling points for us was the fact that the organisers generously give you the scope to complete the course in 8 hours.

Marvellous. We could crawl it and still finish in time. 

Some people will think we're crazy for jumping from half to ultra, but we've agreed that we're not going to take it too seriously. We'll walk up the big hills to preserve energy, take lots of healthy snacks and generally treat it more like a Duke of Edinburgh's Award expedition.

I know I will be fine getting to half marathon fitness. I could be ready for that in 5 or 6 weeks. 

For my last half marathon (which I completed in 1hr 44 min after completing a 60 mile cycle ride and attending a wedding in the same weekend!), I did some 15 mile runs around the North Devon coastline in training, so I think I'll be fine bridging between 15 to 20 miles.

I'm not feeling so confident about the remaining 10 miles I'll have to muster up energy for. My worst nightmare would be to pick up an injury before or during the race. 

To avoid this I'm going to apply a more mixed approach to training: running, cycling and swimming to build endurance rather than solely pounding the pavements/trails every weekend.

Obviously I will put in a few mega-long runs (aiming to do one or two 26 mile runs in July), but I know I'll avoid boredom and blisters by employing a triathlon style approach.

I've already made a few investments to bridge the void to ultra running: a decent pair of Saucony trail shoes, a squashable water bottle that will fit into a running belt, Compede plasters (I'm blister-prone) and a book written by American guru ultra pro Scott Jurek who has done loads of 100+ mile races on a vegan diet. I may try some of his recipes too.




I'll be fascinated to see how my body reacts to the strain of the extra milage, if my mind can block out the physical pain in those 20+ mile runs. At the moment I'm feeling quite positive and excited to finally be pushing for a really big personal goal.

If I hate the Mendip Marauder, at least I'll be with Maeve and we can cry together. 

I'd be content giving up running for good and saving my knees from further disintegration. 

At least the Mendip Marauder is a small race (less than 200 participants), and thus there won't be too many spectators watching as my beetroot red face and haggard body limp over the finish line on Weston beach in August.  

Fingers crossed there won't be a heat wave - for once in my life I will be preying for light rain.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Cornish Supper Club

                                         

What better way to say au revoir to 2015 than by being beside the sea side, pottering around the cobbled streets of St Ives: dodging the persistently pelting precipitation. 

The continual torrent of rain and blustering gusts ensured that our bikes lay dry on the back seats of the car rather than upright , tackling the hills and coastlines as (rather optimistically) intended. Instead of being active, we had to give in to the weather and become holiday slobs. 

Sometimes you just have to admit defeat and enjoy doing nothing much at all.

During an amble along a backstreet (St Andrew's Street) on our first day, we saw a blackboard with dates written on it, beside what looked like a residential house. Pinned to the inside of window was a menu and more details about Hidden Kitchen and Dining. 

I took down the contact details. Most of the month's supper clubs were crossed through with red chalk pen (fully booked), which we thought had to be a good sign. Luckily there were a few spaces for January 1st, so I hastily called to book. 


Hidden Kitchen was my first supper club experience. If I was shy (like I had been in adolescence), it might have been a nightmare. All 17 guests seemed to arrive at once, and we were thrown into a cosy, well presented reception room - promptly offered champagne and canapés by the hostess and her assistant. 

There was one instantly obvious character in the room (Ray) who could have been mistaken for the host - he had a demeanor that reeked of confidence mixed with curiosity. It soon became clear that his wife (Mags) would also be fighting for the top dog 'character' position. They batted their seemingly innocent marital banter around like a scene from Abigail's Party. 

I am by no means dissing Ray and Mags. They were very amusing and helped break the ice: without them, we may not have partaken in much pre-dinner mingling. 

Turned out that Ray and Mags were from Harrow, but had a second home in St Ives (the old Post Office), and about 8 of our party were their house guests. The whole gang had a mischievous rapport that, (for the prudish) might have bordered on vulgar. They liked a drink too, so only continued to get brasher and more innuendo-driven as the night progressed. 

Tim and I are used to eccentrics, so this behaviour was no bother to us. The remainder of the party (a Brummie family of 5), arrived late, with no time to spare for the pre-dinner mingling. They sat together at one end of the gargantuan table - but although they seemed a smidgen fish-out-of-water at first, they soon began to embrace the high-jinx. 

I happily ogled the delightful dining room furnishings and interior design as our starter was served (a post-dinner chat with chef James revealed that the vintage chairs were all Danish, bought on Ebay. James took pride in telling me about his cunning money-saving trick of matching a midnight blue Farrow & Ball paint colour at B&Q.) 

The banquet style table (which seats up to 20), was gloriously rustic, cut from what looked like one giant piece of wood - complete with nobly bark edging all the way along both sides. James selects work from local artists to adorn the walls - these change seasonally and are all for sale. 

James came out to introduce each course, which was an intimate gesture that added to this type of bespoke dining experience. 

Our main course was superb: herb crusted salmon, risotto of parmesan and rocket with a generous splash of salsa verde. Massive platters of garlic green beans and roasted peppers provided a gorgeous buttery accompaniment. 

Fixed menus are perfect for indecisive people like me. 

The wine and conversation cracked on fiercely: there were some very interesting people in the mix. Plus everyone had one binding commonality: our love of St Ives. St Ives in the winter, St Ives in the summer, the conflict between second home owners and the locals - we covered all the bases. Although Tim was sat by my side, we barely spoke to each other all night!     

Ray and Mags swapped places just before dessert: I think perhaps they were worried about missing out on some juicy gossip at the other end(s) of the table. Mags moved in opposite me - she wanted to know everything. It was hard to avoid her eyes and questions. She's a teacher, so I guess she's used to being domineering and driving debate. Very sweet though - bags of character. She reminded me of Dorothy Parker in her latter years: slim, keen drinker, inquisitive, serious bob. 

Dessert was a scrumptious orange infused Tiramisu. Rich but not too filling, a zingy finish to a delightful evening. 

James and his wife Georgina (the evening's true host) mingled with us as we collected wet weather gear and braced ourselves for the first big rain storm of 2016. 

What a lovely couple. From a post-Cornwall gander at their website - it becomes clear that these two are no strangers to hosting intimate and luxurious dinner dos. They have a history of hosting Alpine chalet dining experiences for VIP guests. 

It's obvious they know their stuff. Their hosting approach is my favourite type: relaxed and attentive (in an inconspicuous way). 

Good luck to them - I hope Hidden Kitchen continues to thrive. 

They're doing something new in a coastal town steeped in a multitude of steadfast traditions. But times are changing and I'd advise anyone heading down that way to give it a whirl.

Going to a supper club might mean stepping out of your comfort zone briefly, but I can assure you: without noticing it, you'll be gently nudged back in... you may even have some new friends come the end of the evening. 

    

      

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Wedding Venture



My exceedingly talented friend Kerry Bartlett recently made the brave decision to branch out into the wedding video market.

A venture into the capturing of a couples' 'perfect day' on film would send most people into a panic-driven seizure, but Kerry is a seasoned pro - cutting her teeth in this market many years ago as a wedding photographer.

I too have a lot of experience as a wedding service provider: many summers as a teenager spent behind the scenes at a stately-home-cum-wedding-venue gave me a robust 'bomb-proof' mentality and propensity to keep calm and carry on in the face of any unplanned wedding misdemeanour. I've witnessed fights, blood, oceans of tears (and some happy moments too!!). Nothing can ever surprise me at a wedding.

When you're backstage at this type of 'production' - even though it is an exceptionally special event for your clients, if you've prepared yourself for every eventuality, you will come through with a satisfying outcome (and a sprinkling of cinematic gold dust).

So, at the beginning of this summer I was delighted to be asked to accompany Kerry to a series of weddings, acting as her assistant (second camera operator). I was in the midst of a frantic spell on a medical documentary series for C5, but thankfully, weddings are generally on the weekend, so these extra curricular activities didn't interfere with my bread-and-butter production work. The weddings were a welcome glimmer of light relief to be perfectly honest.

I've witnessed most kinds of human drama during my TV production career, so working with a best friend, in a Mediaeval Barn on a bright and sunny Saturday in the heart of the Somerset countryside seemed like a superb idea - a stark contrast to filming in stressful hospital environments the length and breadth of the UK.

I'm pleased to report that we work very well as a team. We have a giggle: singing in the car, setting up Go Pros in unusual places, stretching our limbs in order to create the perfect pan across a high-growing maize field with a cumbersome crane.

We've produced three films together now. They're short non-dialogue music videos that capture the emotions and key points of the day. Kerry's style is elegant, intimate and ethereal. Improving all the time.

We thoroughly recce the locations in plenty of time before the guests arrive - looking for that prime backdrop that somehow encapsulates the bride and groom's personalities and also complements their outfits - without taking them too far away from the party they've been planning for months. 

Shooting with up to three/four cameras means we can cover things from a multitude of angles as well as making sure we don't get blamed for kidnapping the bride and groom in order to indulge in Hollywood-style auteur filmmaking.




I'm amazed at the standard of Kerry's work and her speedy mastering of Adobe Premiere Pro and editing to music. I'm proud to be involved and hope that we go from strength to strength as a partnership. Fingers crossed we double our bookings next year.

Here's a a taste of what's on offer when you book this wedding-proof production duo:

http://www.kerrybartlett.co.uk/category/films/ 



New Website

At the beginning of the year, I spent my 'down-time' working on a website. It's so difficult when you're promoting yourself as an entity. It's a minefield. I used background colours that reflected my sunny disposition. 

Seven months on and my website needs a re-vamp. Those colours and the 'sunny' style I had created made me cringe. I'm not really sure why, but it had to be changed.

I've striped things back: made the site cleaner and easier to read. I've also cut down a lot of text - I know the fickle attention span of the average web browser. 

Here it is, the new website:
http://www.hollywicks.com/ 

Creative comments most welcome readers!   


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Reality Killed the TV Star

Joey Essex winning 'The Jump'
Steph and Dom entertaining Farage
Chris and Stephen in an EE advert with Kevin Bacon

All examples of a new breed of TV personalities, known literally for their personalities. They don't have traditional star quality. They can't sing, dance or act.

Celebrity is dead. Year on year, TV schedules are upping their content of mockucelebs - cheaper to produce, just about recognisable enough to gain an audience.

Don't get me wrong. I adore Gogglebox. I even dabble in Made in Chelsea occasionally. But what I love most about Googlebox is the 'fixed' positioning of the characters. You don't see them making a cuppa or rooting around the sock drawer. And although the Gogglebox creators seem to want to keep that format going - the more outrageous characters are popping up in other realms of the TV stratosphere.

I wouldn't be surprised if Steph and Dom get a chat show deal soon. I'm alright with that, though I'm not sure I'd watch it avidly. Shows like 'I'm a Celebrity...', 'Strictly Come Dancing', and 'Celebrity GBBO' now rarely have a full-quota of bonafide stars. The liquid gold has been diluted with cheap yellow paint.

If a show has 'celebrity' in the title, you shouldn't have to spend thirty minutes of the show name-searching on IMDB.

Alas, the reality TV format shows no sign of waning. No doubt there'll be weirder and wilder scenarios for the shallow reality puppets to go about their vigazzling and pejazzling in the public eye.

I won't be watching. I call for the merging of factual genres to cease. Get back in your boxes.  



Wednesday, 11 February 2015

A Dumb Crush

I feel the need to admit to something really embarrassing.

I have a crush. A dumb crush in the form of floppy-haired, Californian teeth-whitened, male bimbo extraordinaire: Joey Essex.

I don't exactly fancy him, I wouldn't actually want to spend any time with him (the constant hair playing would drive me to insanity), his brain is about 20 minutes behind his mouth, but I can't help admiring his skills. His snow sports skills.

I have a invested interest in Channel 4s The Jump   because I worked for TwoFour (the production company) recently, and I can ski/snowboard.

There's no way in hell you'd get me on that jump - not for money, not for TV exposure. Even though I can chuck myself down a mountain without any effing and jeffing or screaming, the thought of doing 'extreme' snow sports sends me into a shivery mess.

And yet, the camera told us that Joey was rather lacklustre in training (I dare you to refrain from laughing when Joey runs after his bolting snowboard, which eventually ends up in the river!), and astoundingly managed to avoid the jump till the final - Joey Essex WON! He won!

According to Joey - when he really puts his mind to it: he wins. And it's true. Imagine if Joey put his mind to world peace or running the country?

I was gunning for Joey to win almost from the get-go. He was the underdog. He defeated not only an Olympian, but a sturdier-than-sturdy rugby pro.

Joey. I don't know what the future holds for you now you hold this coveted yet superfluous prize. You can actually do something. You have actual skills.

You make a living from being dumb, but you fooled me for a week.

This crush may crumble soon, but at the moment - I'm transfixed by your gleaming Essex smile and exuberant tomfoolery.




Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pool-side lunging

I've witnessed many a social faux pas at the local sports centre of which I'm a member (see previous blog about excruciatingly slow swimmers). But pool-side warm-ups/cool-downs are a new experience for me. It's another socially unacceptable activity to add to the list, and this one rates very high on the cringe-o-meter due to the U.D.O.A (Unnecessary Display of Appendages).

I know of only one man who does this.
He can't be British. British men wouldn't have the balls (eh-hem, excuse the pun) or audaciousness to carry out this rather bold activity.

So, this guy comes through the changing room doors: tall, lanky, middle-aged. He is wearing tight briefs (not quite speedos, not quite trunks). He slowly walks around two sides of the pool and positions himself close to the life guard's tower, facing us swimmers in the water.

And it begins:

Hip rolls - slow and deliberate, protruding his groin deliberately and holding the pose there.

Lunges - All the way down, hands on hips, again tilting the groin forward.

Torso twists - exaggerated and repeated more than necessary.

Toe touches - thank god your butt isn't facing the pool for this one.

You repeat this routine after your swim too.

Is he showing off? Is he trying to pull? Is he so proud of his Speedo-clad appendages that he gives them two opportunities to be paraded every time he comes to the pool?

It's like car-crash TV - I can't help but glance over. Not to admire, no far from it!

I cringe deeply. Speedo lunges are not going to start trending any time soon.  

Monday, 3 November 2014

Goodbye

When you’ve been friends with someone for 28 years, you take it for granted that you’ll know them for at least another 40. Taking things for granted is dangerous.

You usually only learn this when it’s too late to change things.

In this instance, I’m talking about a beloved friend known since we were in nappies, who was stolen from us just as she was giving life to her first child.

This was not a natural misdemeanour – my friend forfeited her life due to the incompetence of the person responsible for her wellbeing. When she was at her most vulnerable, starved of breath, this person of supposed medical superiority made a catastrophic error.

I don’t believe it’s healthy to dwell on the crime – we can’t turn back the clock.

All I can hope for is that justice will prevail.

It happened a month ago, and yet, it’s still so hard to process.

There will be no more letters, no more calls, and no more get-togethers on birthdays and Christmases.

Last time I saw you, you were sat in the long grass at Kew Gardens, in a circle of adoring friends. A summer picnic, a baby-shower, the first I’d ever been to.

The weather was perfect – the food offerings bountiful, the banter whip-crackling. You were the picture of maternal bliss: make-up free and beaming with health, a spectacular bump, even at that early stage in your pregnancy. We talked of the house you were in the process of buying and all the exciting nesting rituals you were having fun with.

I have since visited that nest: it is just as you’d described it, but the tragic truth is I will never actually see you there, tending the roses or feeding Isaac on the terrace.  

When I start to think about not seeing you again – this is when I have to dig into the abundant treasure chest of memories I have of our lives together, very much entwined together from your year dot.

Although I was two years older than you, and can’t actually remember you first coming along – we grew close and spent many weekends and after-school nights coming up with enterprising business ideas and letting our imaginations run wild out in the countryside and gardens surrounding our childhood homes, separated by a measly half a mile.   

George’s Marvelous Medicine-style potions and perfumes were concocted from grape hyacinths and whatever flora and forna we could lay hands on. Dirt under the nails, a staple occurrence.
Pom-poms and friendship bracelets were made and sold from the wall outside your house – occasionally purchased by locals taking pity on us. The meager proceeds were swiftly traded in at the Spar where our penchant for E numbers was satisfied in penny sweets.

There was one time when a local mafia-type property tycoon stopped in his blacked-out Mercedes (rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror) to peruse our wares. He gave us our biggest sale, though I don’t know if he actually took his purchase away with him. I just remember a big shiny coin, maybe a 50p piece, the biggest one garnered from this particular enterprise.

Our parents were very salt-of-the-earth: we regularly swam amongst the tadpoles in a lake, ate strawberries till our stomachs hurt from fields owned by our parents’ friends, built dens on the farm, modeled for Homes and Gardens magazine. Sounds idyllic: it truly was.

Passengers in your mum’s Nissan Cherry, we’d often sing along to ‘You Drive me Crazy’ by the Fine Young Cannibals.  Long summers running amok, freedom never tasted and felt so good.

We also spent a lot of time in the pub. The Walnut. Oh course we were too young to drink, but drinking was the last thing on our minds – especially when there was a rabbit warren of hotel corridors to explore and cunningly acquire a stray bowl of chips when we knocked on the frosted glass window of the kitchen. Jolly chef Ali never failed to pander to our opportunist charms.

Summer pub expeditions usually involved us commandeering cardboard boxes in which we would either sit in for a different perspective, or try to race down hills in – though I’m not sure how successful this was. Boxes were also used to picnic in, out in the garden.

We went to different school, but after-school activities such as choir and brownies brought us together in the evenings, after which we’d watch East Enders together. We nicknamed you Sanjay. It was the era of hopeless Nigel and partner in crime Sanjay.  

As teenagers we had separate friendship groups, but then those groups came together for the awkward years of excess: alcohol, parties, mischief.

Then all of a sudden, you were grown-up, wise beyond your years and getting a serious career. Perhaps those years of friendship bracelet making were setting you up for the sales prowess you quickly developed as a young adult.

I selfishly hoped you’d take a job that you were interviewed for in Bristol, secretly looking forward to the potential of spending more time with you here. But you followed your heart back to Biarritz and the dream job. And the dream man.

You finally fell in love, the only thing that had been missing from your fruitful life. With all the pieces fitting neatly together, you beamed with confidence, self-assurance - reaching a higher level of happiness.

We were with you the weekend of the announcement. The youngest of our friendship group to become an expectant mum. We were overjoyed to hear the news and that most fulfilling of journeys started for you. Devastatingly, it was also the last of your journeys.

I have met you boy, held his warmth. He has your eyes. He is your being.

I will see him grow, develop his own unique personality. But I will be hoping he keeps your curiosity, your appreciation for nature, your verve, your calm and clarity of perspective.

Out of sadness there is light. He will be your light.





  

 





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.