The sights and sounds of summer . . .
To start, why not put some sounds in your ears while you read over this post? Below is a compilation of various recordings I made (on my camera, so not brilliant quality) during June. Originally, I intended to do a recording every day for 30 Days Wild, but didn't manage it. Speaking of 30 Days Wild, it was fantastic to get my pack from the Wildlife Trusts, featuring cards with pictures that I drew! It was very exciting to have my art going out to thousands of people. I talked about the process of creating the cards here.
So, back to our activites in June. We paid a visit to London for a family wedding at the start of the month and enjoyed some green spaces in the city.
The wedding cakes were a sight to behold. All the fruit and flowers inspired me to try something I'd been meaning to get around to for the last few years: cooking with elderflowers. I foraged a couple of flower heads and made them into pikelets (sweet little pancakes), which worked quite nicely.
It's hard to fit in outdoors time around a full time job with a 1-2 hour commute each way, so we decided to start a little tradition of going on a walk on the way home at least once a week. We chose Arlington Reservoir, because it's a one hour circular walk on an easy trail, with a variety of stuff to look at: the water and waterbirds, a bit of woodland, views of the South Downs, animals, buildings, fields. It was satisfying to watch the evolution of the micro-ecosystem that is the reservoir wall over the course of the summer and autumn, until it got too dark to walk any more.
There was a gorgeous Chicken of the Woods fungus growing on Battle High Street, of all places. I didn't want to take it, as it looked so lovely and colourful. Somebody else didn't have any such qualms - it had been cut down when we next went past, a couple of days after I took this photo. (I later heard it was a friend of a neighbour, who presented it to a family member for their birthday!)
We had an amazing microadventure on the South Downs with probably the most beautiful scenery I saw this year. The HRRA walk this month was also on the South Downs, which meant even more fabulous views!
Small tortoiseshell butterflies, which have suffered a population decline, especially in the south of the UK.
And at the end of the month we went Champing for the first time. Despite quite a grey and drizzly month overall, we did manage to make the most of it.
Last June, I had a great time doing #30DaysWild, and I drew a little doodle or sketch each day to show what I’d got up to. It seems that some of the folks at the Wildlife Trusts appreciated my little pictures, because they asked me if I’d like to do the illustrations for the Random Acts of Wildness cards in this year’s pack. Of course I wanted to! How cool is that?! Anyway, I thought some of you might be interested in hearing a bit about the cards - thanks to Mags (of With Each New Day), Helen (of Stresswitch) and notso (of Bus-Stop Birding) for the following questions. If you’ve got other questions, feel free to ask in the comments.
What determined your choice of subjects? Did you think of the acts yourself or were you given a list?
I liaised with the fabulous Lucy McRobert at the Wildlife Trusts and she sent me a list of activities, along with some instructions about the shape and layout of the cards. Other than that I was left mostly to my own devices, which suited me. It was a nice way of working, to be free to think about the story I’d like to create around the text on each card. Some of the pictures are straight up illustrations of the text, others work in tandem with the statements.
On the other hand, this freedom meant that when I got stuck with what to draw, it took a lot of thinking to get me out of my pickle - I didn’t have many pointers! But, as is so often the case with creative things, some of the pictures that puzzled me the most ended out being my favourite illustrations. I had a hard time figuring how to illustrate "Google wild facts" without just showing a person at a computer. Hopefully the end result, although slightly fantastic, shows how research can bring ideas to life, off a screen and into reality (or at least into imagination).
Did you work on the art at the location or from photos? Were any of the cards inspired by specific locations?
I was doing most of these illustrations in February and March, when it was cold and bleak and I was not surrounded by the flora and fauna of summer. This was one of the most difficult parts of the process. I couldn’t walk outside and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting flower,” and draw it. I had to try to remember what kinds of flowers or fungi or birds are around in June, then find images of them to work from - photos, diagrams, other illustrations. Inevitably, that meant I was limited to the things I could remember names for, or which showed up in my many Google searches on variations of “wildflowers in Devon” or “fungi UK June” or “summer migrant birds Scotland”. I also drew on the pictures I did during #30DaysWild in 2015, and on my photos from the last few summers, using them as inspiration.
(Incidentally, I just read this great conversation between Sarah Perry and Amy Liptrot at Caught by the River, which includes a discussion about the difficulties in writing out of season - I can relate!)
In terms of specific places, I worked from memory a lot of the time - not to create exact replicas, but to get the feeling of a landscape. In the "Meditate in the wild" illustration, the bay was inspired by the beach at Hastings or Bexhill (near where I live) looking towards Eastbourne and Beachy Head. In the sketch a wild landscape illustration, I drew on our walk along the Grand Union Canal. For other pieces, I looked at photos and films of relevant landscapes to try to create appropriate backgrounds. In the "Watch a wild webcam" picture, there’s an osprey in the foreground and a landscape inspired by the hills of midwest Wales in the background.
What is your artistic process for something like this? Straight in with the pen or pencil sketches first? What equipment do you use?
Interesting questions - though talking about “my process” makes me sound like I’m a pro, when I’m really not (this is the first time I’ve ever been paid to draw things, as far as I recall). As I said on Twitter, "Just have a bash at it!" is probably my first step.
All of the final images are black ballpoint pen on cartridge paper (sketchbook) - and a bit of whiteout, too! (That's Tipp-Ex or correction fluid to you.) There wasn’t a lot of reasoning behind that choice other than it’s what I had on hand when I began - and once I’d started I wanted to be consistent. If I did it again, I’d be interested to try out felt-tip pens. I knew the original images would be reduced a little in size for the cards, so I deliberately tried to keep them simple - lots of bold outlines, not too much shading. This also made them a bit like children’s book drawings, which appeals to me. I think Alison Lester’s artworks are gorgeous, and if my pictures captured even a little bit of the joy she is able to convey in her books, I’m happy.
For the first few images, I started with rough sketches and studies, but because pencil and pen are such different media (for me, anyway), I didn’t find that process very useful. As I continued, I tended to draw in proportions and light outlines with pencil and go at it with pen almost straight away. Some subjects required a bit more work, especially animals and people, where the proportions needed to be more accurate.
Were there any unused designs?
I ditched a couple of designs at draft stage, because they were boring or didn’t work for some reason. One of them was rejected as not being relevant enough to the text and I made a couple of spares just for the sake of it (again, I don’t think they were used). And then I did seven more on request that were to be part of the social media campaign - I haven’t seen them yet, though!
Which illustration did you do first? Which is your favourite?
The first one I did, though I ended up redrafting it later, was the "Switch off to tune in" picture of the electrical cord turning into ivy. I was pretty pleased with that visual pun. It’s too hard to pick a single favourite, though. The pictures that were my favourites to draw aren’t necessarily the best images; and my favourite illustrations aren’t necessarily my favourite cards (some were changed around in the design process). But here’s a few . . .
Have you tried all the activities yourself?
No! I’ve managed a few of them this month and I did many more of them last year. One I really do want to try - hopefully more than once! - is a proper digital unplug. My partner and I go through stages of having a weekly screen-free evening, and that’s great, so a whole weekend must be even better, right? Think of all the books I could read! I wouldn’t mind setting up a bird picnic one day, too. And making a bug hotel. And making seed bombs (I love the idea of guerrilla gardening!). And, and, and . . .
So, how was #30DaysWild for you? Have you followed people's adventures on Twitter? I have been a bit slack documenting my attempts to add some extra wildness to my days. Hopefully I'll do a summary post sometime soon. Meanwhile, if you have any more questions about the cards, pop them in a comment below and I'll try to give you an answer!
We spent the second week of our Australian holiday in Melbourne. We had a fantastic time, meeting up with loads of friends and eating loads of food. It would be impossible to write about everything we did and everyone we saw, so instead I'm sharing some photos and a few snippets of writing. Once again, I hope they give you a bit of a feel for the place.
Melbourne is built on the traditional country of the Wurundjeri people (Woiwurrung language group), Bunurong people (Boonwurrung language group) and Wathaurong people (Wathaurung language group) who along with the Taungurong people (Daungwurrung language group) and Dja Dja Wurrung people (Dja Dja Wrung language group) form the Kulin Nation. Watch a welcome to Wurrundjeri country and learn more about Indigenous histories of the area here.
We cross the Maribyrnong River on our first morning in Australia, then again as soon as we return to Melbourne after a week in East Gippsland. It’s wider than I remember, the surface laid out silvery under clear autumn skies, looping beneath concrete bridges, here presided over by the golden presence of Heavenly Queen (Mazu), there sidling along past cranes and shipping containers to join the Yarra just before Westgate Bridge.
It draws us in. We walk with our friends through Fairbairn Park and cross the river to Pipemakers Park. We pass a few afternoon dog walkers on the banks and joggers huffing along the paths. Half a dozen commuter cyclists whizz by, squinting into the sun. But the river itself is empty - or rather, it belongs entirely to the pied cormorants, wood ducks, mallards and little egrets. It strikes me as odd that nobody is on the water, but not because I’ve ever seen many people on the Maribyrnong. It’s just that the familiar has become unfamiliar. I think of how every river or canal in our south-east corner of England seems to come with a floating jumble of boats - narrowboats and barges with people living on board year round, motorboats hauled up on the banks waiting for their few weeks’ use in the summer holidays, sculling teams skimming across the early morning, weekend kayakers and canoeing school groups in raincoats and oversized life jackets, picnickers clunking their wooden rowboats in awkward circles. I wonder if there are restrictions, bylaws that keep people off the Maribyrnong, but we find a launching place down on the bank. When or if we come back to live in Melbourne, I’m going to get a pack raft and go exploring.
A couple of days later, we stop off on the way to Footscray to follow a pathway between the Maribyrnong and Edgewater Lake. The sky is flawless blue, the water still. Swallows dart above the rushes, crested pigeons and wood ducks potter around the grass, gulls and cormorants survey the park from posts and footbridge railings. The wetlands are overlooked by suburbia and a shiny new residential development, where a swanky boats rest empty in a small marina. It’s hardly secluded, yet only a handful of people pass us as we dawdle along. It feels like walking into a secret.
A few years ago, the height restrictions in the local planning regulations changed and low-rise apartment blocks have sprung up in almost every street. But it seems the council is keen to preserve something of the historic character of the streetscape, so many of the new blocks bubble out the back of old single-front timber clad houses, like geometric steel aliens trying and failing to fit themselves into human bodies, wearing human faces without quite getting it right.
The changes are disconcerting. This doesn't feel like the suburb I moved to when I first came to Melbourne, the homeliness has been stripped away. Driving down Union Street and Brunswick Road, some intersections are unrecognisable. The sky is hemmed in by steel, coloured concrete and glass. I mourn all the back yard lemon trees and hills hoists and despise the creeping inner-city-ness of it all. It’s all changed so quickly, I think. It’s all different. (But it’s not. There’s always been a mishmash of architecture here and I’ve always loved it. And later, when I take the streets at walking pace I start to enjoy the changes, the way the old houses with their lace-trimmed verandahs act as a familiar, friendly entrée to a menu of contemporary apartments.)
To everything there is a season
I've never spent time in Melbourne without living in Melbourne - not since I moved here aged 18. (Does it feel like home?) It’s strange to be a guest, to be staying in our friends’ house, to be travelling by car, to be meeting people almost every day for breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and/or dinner. We’re very busy. (Does it feel like a holiday?) I feel out of time, plucked from the damp chilliness of early spring in East Sussex into the cooling but still-warm early autumn in Melbourne. The rain falls with more determination here, the fruit is ripe on the trees overhanging the laneways, people talk about rugging up, they breathe out with relief that summer has finally finished, but it’s still 18, 20, 23 degrees every day. (Do you want to stay?) I am split between places, longing for all my homes even when I’m in them. There are bellbirds on Merri Creek, people are catching Australian salmon on drop lines off Altona Pier, there are sunsets over Brunswick that flow warm in my throat, there is the mournful call of Australian ravens - ah, ah, aaahhhrw. The grass is greener than usual for the tail end of summer. Soon the creeks will be full. We will not be here to see it. In England, the long drawn out pause of early spring is about to break, the blackthorn will burst into white blossom, the hawthorn will unfold green, the blackcaps and swallows will arrive and the season will come tumbling too quickly to hold. I am almost superstitiously worried that we’ll miss it. (Will you come back to live?)
An incomplete list of things that make my heart skip with gladness to be in Melbourne: the street art in Footscray; friends; Ceres; the street smells that never include the same whiff of sewer as European cities; potato cakes of varying quality; doughnuts at the Vic Market; wide streets with parking spaces that don’t require cars to mount the pavement; cars all parked in the same direction; people only half-ironically Australianising place names (Brunnie, Knifepoint, Feddo, Flemmo, The Vale, the Oppie, Melbs, Chaddie, Woollies); the smell of eucalyptus and ti-tree; the sign advertising land for development over which someone has painted NO NO NO NO NO NO; the ears of the Daimaru building (yeah, I still think of it as that); anti-fashion fashion; cheap pizza, expensive brunch; people complaining about the trains; people saying “soy milk” instead of “soya milk”; the sound of magpies, kookaburras, currawongs, wattlebirds, parrots, bell miners - and starlings, swallows, feral pigeons; ridiculous postmodern-pastiche architecture; graffiti; verandahs; Victoria - Garden State, Victoria - On The Move, Victoria The Place To Be - and new since we left, Vic - Stay Alert Stay Alive and Victoria - The Education State; good coffee that’s not too hot to drink; phone numbers that are the right length; the lack of litter (OK, there’s some, but the roadsides are so much cleaner than SE England); the spot on the Merri Creek where, when the water is low, you can jump across the stepping stones; seeing souvlaki and dim sims advertised in chip shops; bluestone; sandstone; pedestrian crossings that go pyeeeeeew-dikka-dikka-dikka-dikka; Bonsoy; overhearing someone on the phone saying “under the clocks”; a ring tailed possum on Barkly Street; Franco Cozzo; the clean glare of the sun and how high it is in the sky; wait staff taking a coffee order ten minutes before they take a food order; all the food - so much food; tattoos; the sound of (old) trams rumbling down the street; the grid; hook turns.
Thank you to Esther, Gabe and Martin for hosting us and to everyone who met up with us in Melbourne for a chat (and food, of course!): Esther, Julia, Kate, Toby, Sara-Jane, Essie, Arty, David, Jane, Mimo, Molly, Nathan, Oli, Mel, Stephanie, Danni, Emma, Emily, Moya, Nika, Steve, Di, Leigh, Ashling, Steph, Kerri, Sam, Anthony, Kate, Una, Rohan, Brooke, Darren, Del, Eliza, TJ, Nathan and Michelle.
Last month, we went to Norwich for a family wedding. After staying the weekend in a swish hotel (many thanks to my partner's parents!) we extended our holiday with a night of wild camping - from one extreme to the other! We set off towards Suffolk with our sleeping gear and new tarp in our backpacks . . .
This outing was part of Alastair Humphreys' Year of Microadventure challenge. You can read about our previous wild camping microadventures here: January, February, March, April, May and June. It's hard to say how much it cost us this time. We only spent a few pounds on food and petrol (though we were in the area anyway). Our new tarp cost £70, but now we have a tarp - great for keeping dry in the rain.
We'll also take the tarp on our Walk Across Wales this month. I'm having a few weeks off from blogging to go on this adventure from Aberystwyth to Hay-on-Wye via the Cambrian Mountains and the Wye Valley Walk. We'll probably tweet occasionally so check Twitter for updates!
June’s microadventure challenge was to visit a place of historic interest. We are spoilt for choice here, which made it all the more difficult to settle on a destination!
I'll be posting the July microadventure round-up soon, but if you're a keen bean you can peek through my archives and read about other microadventures and other walks!
In June, the Wildlife Trusts ran a hugely popular campaign called #30DaysWild, encouraging people to "make room for nature" by engaging with the wild world around them every day.
When I signed up, they sent a wall calendar with squares just begging to be filled with sketches and doodles. Here's what I got up to . . .
1. A cup of tea in a field. I took my mug of tea out into the field behind our house and enjoyed the view - starting off simple, because I was feeling a bit poorly.
2. A walk in the rain. I had just bought a new raincoat and I wanted to try it out. The hood is massive!
3. An encounter with a curious robin. I went to the immaculately kept Almonry Gardens and did an awareness meditation. Hearing a rustle at my feet, I opened my eyes to find a robin peering up at me as if to say, "What are you doing?!"
4. Reading in a wildflower meadow. A properly sunny day to do whatever I felt like. I took my copy of Roger Deakin's Wildwood out into the field across the stream and spent a pleasant hour reading, identifying flowers and watching clouds.
5. Watching a thunderstorm. I went to Hastings Country Park to do a walk for my monthly column in the Battle Observer. I was treated to a magnificent storm, with thunder that shook the cliffs! Look out for the article, coming soon to this very blog.
6. A dip in the river. Shortie wetsuits were on special at Mountain Warehouse for £20 - and they fit me! We went exploring and discovered a secret dipping hole in the river. It isn't deep or big enough to swim properly, but it is a lovely spot.
7. A picnic with friends and neighbours. A friend and I organised a casual get together inspired by the Eden Project's Big Lunch. About two dozen people showed up over the afternoon and we introduced several locals to an open space they didn't even know existed.
8. Finding foxgloves in the woods. (Not hollyhocks, silly!) We're lucky to have Battle Great Wood just down the road from us. I spent quite a bit of time there in June!
9. Dinner in the garden. We have a little courtyard for a garden and doing this challenge kick-started our summer-dinners-in-the-garden for the year.
10. A tadpole extravaganza. I'd noticed some tadpoles in a pool in Battle Great Wood, so I went back with my camera to take some photos and videos. Wow! The pond was writhing with them!
11. Counting wildflowers in the churchyard. Species, I hasten to add, rather than individual flowers. I found twelve varieties including clover, ribwort plantain, buttercups and the ones depicted here that I can't name.
12. A walk around an iron age hill fort. My partner dropped me off just outside Brighton and I spent a wonderful couple of hours exploring this hill fort, the downland, the golf course, the wooded valley and the allotments before heading into town to do a bit of work at a cafe.
13. Save a spider. This is my usual MO, especially when living in a country where the spiders are small and unlikely to kill you! I feel terrible if I don't notice them in the shower and they drown or get washed down the plug hole.
14. Bird spotting. We went down to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve with our friend from India and spent a while in the different hides discussing Indian and Australian wildlife, watching terns squabble with black headed gulls, laughing at the plovers scooting across the shingle, spotting well-camouflaged chicks and admiring the wading birds - avocets and redshanks amongst others.
15. Defending my chips from herring gulls. Almost ironic after the previous day's outing. As I said on Twitter, this was more the "exciting" definition of wild. I ended up yelling, "Take the chip!" and running away.
16. An all-day, mapless ramble. This is quickly becoming one of my favourite things to do with a day off! My partner drops me somewhere on his way to work in the morning, I walk all day, then he picks me up on his way home from wherever I happen to be. I've seen lots of wildlife and found some great spots. (Imagine that rabbit thing is a very cute baby bunny, please.)
17. A big, shiny, blue bee (in Paris). We went to Paris for a day trip! We met some friends there who were visiting from Australia and they whisked us around to some fab spots. We spotted what I think was a carpenter bee in the community garden at Jardin Villemin.
18. Unintentionally following a kestrel. I was out on another mapless walk and this kestrel kept landing on wires, poles and trees along the lane. I think I probably annoyed it!
19. Cleaned and filled the bird feeder. According to Springwatch, cleaning the feeder is one of those things you're meant to do every week or two, but which I hadn't done for a two months (since we bought the feeder). Whoops.
20. Moth trapping. This was the most eye-opening activity I did all month! Here's my blog post about all those amazing moths!
21. Wild camping in the woods. We're doing Alastair Humphreys' microadventure challenge this year. I'd found a promising spot while out looking for tadpoles, so we slept there for the summer solstice. You can read about some of our other microadventures here.
22. Make a bee hydration station. I'd managed a wild thing every day, but I felt like I hadn't done very much for the wild world around me. This was fun. I used pretty pebbles collected from walks and beach outings and the water made all the colours extra bright. I'm still replenishing the water every day. Better go and do that now, as it's going to be a hot one . . . OK, done!
23. Foraged sorrel in a wrap. I love popping into the field to pick a few leaves, or bringing home a tasty treat when I've been on a walk. Sorrel is delicious anyway, but the tanginess went well with our Mexican-spiced sweet potato wraps. Yum.
24. Sucking nectar from honeysuckle. My primary school had a fence absolutely covered in honeysuckle and we used to do this all the time. If you try it, you need to bite off the very back tip of the flower. Choosing the ones with lots of nectar is totally a skill and not at all down to chance.
25. A fox on the footpath. Wow! It popped out of the grass and flowers not ten metres in front of me, then disappeared between the foxgloves on the other side. I couldn't see if the fox was wearing foxgloves as gloves, though.
26. Watching clouds until they disappear. Cloudbusting! A very relaxing way to spend half an hour - or five minutes, if that's all you have. It can be quite a meditative practice, focussing on just one cloud as it is now, and now, and now, until it's gone.
27. Wild swimming in a deep river. A relaxing hour spent by and in the refreshing River Rother, floating on the current, watching birds and clouds and dragonflies overhead, making way for kayakers from the nearby boating station . . . Brilliant. We chanced upon two of my partner's former colleagues and their family who were also out to find a swimming spot, which was a nice bonus.
28. Spotted a yellow wagtail. We were out on a walk (coming soon to the Battle Observer and thereafter to my blog - watch this space) when a flash of yellow sped across the field and into a young oak tree. A yellow wagtail!
29. A mapless ramble on the South Downs. Another glorious, meandering day. If you know this end of the South Downs you might be able to identify some of the things in my sketch.
30. A cup of tea in a field. Ending #30DaysWild as I began it - only this time with my partner and a whole thermos of tea, watching the shadows lengthen across the golden hillsides. Beautiful.
So, that was my wild month! I had a fantastic time getting out into nature, doing activities I wouldn't usually do, or paying closer attention to the things I do regularly. I also enjoyed chatting to people on Twitter and seeing what they were getting up to. I was chuffed that people seemed to like my sketches - especially as I thought I'd taken the easy way out by not blogging!
From a charity perspective, I'm interested to find out whether the Wildlife Trusts think this has been a successful campaign and why. Obviously, #30DaysWild has been extremely popular: it's captured the interest and imagination of many people around the country. I'm pretty sure it's achieved the aim of getting more people out into nature and getting people out into nature more. I wonder how many have (or will) become members of a Wildlife Trust as a result? How many people did something for wildlife during the month, rather than just doing activities they enjoyed (I felt guilty of this myself)? How many will follow their new or renewed interest in nature into political action or campaigning? I eagerly await the impact report, because I am a nerd.
I also hope lots of great photos continue to come in on Twitter via @30DaysWild and #StayWild!
Did you blog about #30DaysWild? There's a huge list of bloggers on the website, but if you'd like to share your favourite posts/activities in the comments here, I'd love to read them - and I'm sure other readers would, too!
I’m sitting in the window at the front of Hastings Library, staring at the rain, headphones on, deep in a good book. I’m not reading, but listening to a young man who, in 2012, got a call at work.
“I said, ‘No, it’s fine, you can tell me over the phone’ . . . I just wanted to crack on with my day . . . There was a pause and they said, ‘You are positive, you do have HIV.’ And I’m sat there at my desk thinking, You need to control this, there are people all around you, they’re your colleagues . . . For a split second you almost don’t think it’s actually happening, this phone call isn’t quite real.”
I am there with him on the precipice, imagining myself at my own desk, in my own workplace. How would I react? His narration makes me feel it in my gut, in my heart. This is not the strange word I vaguely misunderstood when I was a child in the 1980s, it’s not the academic papers I read at university, it’s not a poster in my doctor’s waiting room. This is someone just a few years younger than me, living and working somewhere in Sussex. His HIV+ diagnosis feels urgent, immediate.
Speaking Volumes is a project that aims to combat misconceptions and ignorance about living with HIV. Project participants attended creative art and storytelling workshops, then recorded their stories. These fifteen recordings are inserted into hollowed-out books and illustrated with participants’ artworks, each book displayed on the Speaking Volumes shelf. The volumes are broken into chapters, or audio tracks, based on themes such as diagnosis, treatments and side effects, sex and relationships, work, spirituality, isolation and support.
Visitors to Hastings Library in October could take a book from the shelf, a set of headphones from the box beside it, and listen to diverse life stories of Sussex-based men and women living with HIV - aged from their 20s to their 80s, parents, people with disabilities, hailing from the UK and around the world. “The project was particularly relevant to Sussex,” says Speaking Volumes Project Manager and Director Alice Booth. “It's an area where there is higher prevalence of HIV than the national average - especially in Brighton and Hove, but also in Hastings.”
The project was inspired by human libraries, where people who have encountered stigma or oppression can be “borrowed” to talk to a member of the public about their experience. “I thought this was a great idea and would be a brilliant thing for HIV positive people to do,” says Alice Booth. “But I was aware that the stigma associated with the condition meant that lots of people who would like to share their story would be reluctant to appear in public.”
Sitting in the library under a sign saying “HIV stories”, amidst posters encouraging me to get tested for HIV and booklets with numbers to call for HIV support, I get a tiny hint of what that stigma could be like. There’s nowhere private to turn and wipe my eyes when I hear from people who saw almost all their friends dying around them in the 1980s, about people disowned by family members, from someone who was deported from Taiwan for being HIV+ and has been living apart from his partner ever since. I feel exposed.
However, for every negative experience in Speaking Volumes, there seems to be a positive. While the deeply personal stories resist neat narratives about progress, one of the overarching themes to emerge is the extraordinary change in attitudes towards and treatments of HIV in the UK over the last three decades. “The general public, I feel, still do not realise that HIV is no longer a death sentence,” says a participant named Scott. “They need to be educated . . . people need to know.”
The installation at Hastings Library marked the project’s first East Sussex exhibition location. Abigail Luthmann, Equal Access Manager for ESCC libraries, says, “For libraries, stories are what we are about - factual or fictional. Listening directly to someone’s own story is a very powerful way to understand a different perspective and experience of life. As some of the participants are East Sussex residents we are particularly pleased to be able to host it.”
This article first appeared as "Speaking Volumes at the library" in Hastings Independent, Issue 18, 7 November 2014, p18.
An exhibition hosted by Hastings Library throughout October allows visitors to listen to life stories from people in Sussex living with HIV.
Speaking Volumes aims to combat misconceptions and ignorance about living with HIV. Participants attended creative art and storytelling workshops before their stories were recorded. These 15 recordings form the centrepiece of the installation, with each “volume” displayed in a hollowed out book on the Speaking Volumes bookshelf.
The project highlights the diverse experiences of people living with HIV: men and women, aged from their 20s to their 70s and 80s, parents and people with disabilities, hailing from the UK and around the world. Each volume is broken into a number of chapters, or audio tracks, based on themes such as diagnosis, treatments and side effects, sex and relationships, work, spirituality, isolation and support.
The installation at Hastings Library marks the project’s first East Sussex exhibition location. Abigail Luthmann, Equal Access Manager for ESCC libraries, saw the installation in Brighton and was so impressed that she asked if ESCC libraries could host the exhibition. “For libraries, stories are what we are about - factual or fictional,” she says. “Listening directly to someone’s own story is a very powerful way to understand a different perspective and experience of life. As some of the participants are East Sussex residents we are particularly pleased to be able to host it.”
Speaking Volumes Project Manager and Director Alice Booth notes, “The project was particularly relevant to Sussex as it's an area where there is higher prevalence of HIV than the national average - especially in Brighton and Hove, but also in Hastings.”
The project was inspired by “human libraries”, where people who have encountered some sort of stigma or oppression can be “borrowed” to talk to a member of the public about their experience. “I thought this was a great idea and would be a brilliant thing for HIV positive people to do,” says Alice Booth. “But I was aware that the stigma associated with the condition meant that lots of people who would like to share their story would be reluctant to appear in public.” The format of Speaking Volumes allows participants to be as identifiable or anonymous as they wish.
HIV: evolving treatments, evolving attitudes
One of the overarching themes to emerge through the stories is the extraordinary change in attitudes towards and treatments of HIV over the last three decades.
People diagnosed in the first few years of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s saw partners, friends and communities dying around them. Elfrid Walkingtree, who was diagnosed HIV+ in 1989, comments that, of the support group he attended at that time, “I am the only person alive today. Everybody is dead.”
One participant became ill in the mid-1990s and started on anti-retroviral treatment, which had become available only months before. Two of his friends died that year, choosing not to try the treatment. “I know now that if they had started anti-retrovirals they would very likely have lived,” he reflects. “But at that point we’d had maybe eight, nine years of different research medication, different trials and nothing had worked for anyone for longer than six months with lots and lots of side effects - so why think this would be any different?”
These decades of ignorance and shot-in-the-dark trial medication seem to have come to a close, with many participants diagnosed HIV+ in the last few years receiving swift, respectful and effective treatment, as well as greater understanding and support from friends, family and support groups. Scott, diagnosed in 2013, thanks those people who were “guinea pigs” in a process that has allowed his diagnosis to lead to him feeling healthier ever before.
“The general public, I feel, still do not realise that HIV is no longer a death sentence,” says Scott. “They need to be educated. . . people need to know.”
This is not to say that everything is rosy for people living with HIV.
Although Scott’s story is largely positive, it took several misdiagnoses from his GP before he decided to get tested for HIV. In the meantime, he had become seriously ill and, as a result, had lost his job. Other participants speak eloquently about negotiating diagnosis and treatment in the workplace, as well as the shock, disbelief, relief, grief and numbness they felt following their diagnosis.
Questions about if and when to disclose HIV+ status to colleagues, family, friends and partners also continue to play a big part in the lives of people living with HIV.
Angelina Namiba was “closeted” about her HIV status in her first relationship post-diagnosis. “Of course, we practised safer sex. But it was quite difficult because I couldn’t be myself in my own house. I had to hide any literature about HIV, you know. It was really hard - being a stranger, almost, in your own home.” Now, she says, she would disclose sooner rather than later. But “it’s a bit of a dilemma,” she adds. “Sometimes I like someone to get to know me so that they know me as Angelina, rather than Angelina-the-virus.”
One story highlights the heartbreaking results of discrimination against HIV+ immigrants - especially relevant given Nigel Farrage’s recent comments that people living with HIV should be banned from migrating to Britain.
Lin Stevens Yian was living in Taiwan with his partner when he tested positive for HIV. His doctor was required to report the diagnosis to the authorities, who then informed him that, as an HIV+ foreigner, he was no longer legally allowed to live in Taiwan. He had to leave within 14 days of taking the test or be deported.
At the time of recording his story, he had been living apart from his partner for two years, unable to work due to his illness, and therefore unable to meet the UK government’s income requirements in order to bring his partner to this country.
Many people diagnosed with HIV decades ago now face new challenges. Elfrid Walkingtree comments, “People do not seem to be interested in getting old and living with HIV, or [getting old and] being a gay person or a lesbian. . . People who came out of the closet maybe ten or twenty years ago face the reality of having to go into the closet again in order to go into an old people’s home.”
The deeply personal stories in Speaking Volumes resist neat narratives about progress. But visitors who take time to listen to at least parts of a number of volumes will come away with a richer understanding of the history of HIV in the UK and renewed appreciation for the unique experiences of local people living with HIV today.
Speaking Volumes is at Hastings Library until the end of October, at Lewes Library in November and at Eastbourne Library in December. On 1 December, World AIDS Day, there will be an event at Eastbourne Library followed by the annual Aids Memorial March from the Town Hall in Eastbourne.
Richard Long’s land art makes me think new things, or think things in new ways. His walking pieces are exciting because they offer a space to reflect on the nature of both walking and art.
Rather than analysing his works (there are plenty of places you can find analyses, and Long is also articulate in his artist statements), I will simply link to some of his pieces, along with some of the questions they raise for me. I highly recommend you click the links and have a look!
Lines made by walking
Maps and stone lines
These questions are not abstract. To me, they are deeply connected to the physical, mental and emotional experiences of walking. They encourage me to think of different ways to map, record, approach landscapes and conceptualise my experiences.
I have no idea what Richard Long's opinion might be regarding the ‘penis runs’ recorded by Claire Wykoff in San Francisco, but I like to think of Wyckoff as the latest in a long line of people engaging with and interpreting the landscape in new ways!
My partner and I will be heading off on a walking holiday soon. I'm feeling inspired to record it in a different way to usual. One word per kilometre? A poem per day? The name of every dog we meet? What do you think? Share your ideas in the comments - I'll try to produce a record using my favourite of your suggestions!
A recent exhibition at Hastings Trust combined architects’ eye-catching visions for Hastings and St Leonards with a lo-fi interactive display (map and sticky notes) of community suggestions for improving the area.
The “So Create A Difference” exhibition was organised by Hastings Urban Design Group under the RIBA’s local initiative fund and was first displayed in Priory Meadow in April 2014.
Proposals from 13 local and regional architects and designers included a pedestrianised Hastings seafront with new trams, refurbishment of the Lido site to create a modern bathing pool, an infinity ice rink in West St Leonards and attention-grabbing student accommodation. Architects HazleMcCormackYoung also joined a long line of dreamers to reimagine Hastings Pier as an undulating “sculptural caterpillar” that would move with the tide.
Perhaps the most striking and whimsical exhibit was DD Architects’ “Kype Steps to Nowhere” – a stairway to the open sky, carved into a series of huge, precariously balanced solid blocks jutting out from West Hill. While hard to imagine such a project ever gaining planning permission, the audacious design admirably fulfilled its aim to “recreate the engineering marvels of the Victorian period”, taking Hastings’ much-loved funicular railways as a starting point.
Rhonda Ellard of Hastings Trust said there had been plenty of interest in the map display from passers-by and that local people were keen to share their ideas. Suggestions for a market in Bottle Alley (the beachfront space beneath the promenade) had stimulated lively discussions among exhibition visitors, said Ms Ellard. Sticky notes from residents argued both for and against permanent market structures, claimed a white floor would make the alley more inviting and pushed for the inclusion of performance areas.
On the whole, the community’s suggestions steered clear of the professional designers’ statement pieces, opting instead for practical plans to improve everyday liveability. There were requests for showers and drinking fountains on the beach, play/hangout spaces, exercise parks, allotments and a park and ride scheme for commuters. The future imagined by the community also emphasised creativity through art hubs, designated performance and busking posts and a legal graffiti wall. Notes ranged in tone from the quietly ironic (“A harbour?”) to extremely enthusiastic (“MORE CYCLE LANES! like Amsterdam! haha!”)
Hastings Trust’s Development Officer Jon Aldenton said, “At Hastings Trust, we want to make sure that what happens in the future is based on local demand and need. The idea behind the exhibition is to help the charity set an agenda for Hastings and itself, and to move forward on a firm base.”
There are plans to take the exhibition to local schools and colleges in the future. Meanwhile, members of Hastings Trust (membership is free to local residents) are invited to a meeting on 30 September 2014 to evaluate the proposals. Those who did not make it to the exhibition are encouraged to bring their suggestions on the night.
This article first appeared in Hastings Independent, Issue 14, Friday 12 September 2014, p14. Photos: Daniel Katz.
In which I
In which I do things and write about them
In which I tag
In which I archive