Monday, 11 January 2016

A belated best of 2015 (and why it’s important)

At the end of 2015 I couldn’t help but feel that I’d lost a year of my life. I entered 2015 with fighting spirit, as it was an important year that I knew was going to be a big challenge. I was going to crack on and write up all the wonderful research I’d done about Pictures for Schools into my PhD thesis, to submit at the end of the year. I was going to write a book chapter about my Woman’s Outlook research, for an edited collection. All fun was going to be cancelled, as I was going to put my head down and knuckle down.

2015 didn’t work out like this, at all. After starting the year with more optimism than I had felt for a while, two weeks into January someone close to me confided that they’d been having some very dark thoughts, which made me feel sadder than I’d ever felt in my life. I advised and empathised, then bottled it up and tried to carry on. By spring, though, I’d become so consumed by worry it felt as if my brain wouldn’t work any more. Trying to read, think or write felt like paddling through treacle. I felt as if everything was going in slow motion, with the result that I became angry and frustrated, both with myself and with those close to me. Over a period of weeks that then turned into months, I woke every day and felt so overwhelmed I cried uncontrollably. I tried to get up and get on with the day but ended up going back to bed, and sleeping, as it seemed the only thing I could do. Gradually, I’d started to withdraw from a lot of the things I’d previously enjoyed doing – reading, listening to music, going to the cinema, writing. I felt like I was no longer producing anything, and was just existing in a state of limbo. Because I wasn’t creating, producing or achieving, it was as if I’d lost all sense of myself, who I was, what I did, and why.

On top of this, my partner and best friend of more than three years had decided, out of the blue, to move to Rotterdam to study, just 18-months after we had set up home together, and wouldn’t tell me if he was ever coming back. Over time, in his absence, I became more and more obsessed with a fantasy vision of our future together, with children and our own home, that made it increasingly impossible to live in the present and was starting to draw me into a dream world. I repeatedly told myself, even though a large part of me knew it was ridiculous, that if I was more creative, more imaginative, more intellectual, more productive, he wouldn’t have left, or that he would have at least had something to come back for. His family, and their kindness towards me, became a life-raft which I was clinging on to desperately, and I was terrified of what would happen if I set myself adrift and let go. In May, however, I decided I needed my life back. I couldn’t continue to wait around for someone who wasn’t prepared to commit to any kind of future with me. I also took official leave of my PhD.

Since then, I’ve removed the pressure on myself to be creative and productive and immersed myself in a series of experiences, visiting all sorts of places I’d long wanted to visit and doing lots of things for the first time I’d long wanted to do. I still might not have produced much in this time, but I’ve been living, doing something, thinking, learning, feeling stimulated, and I’m sure I’ll be able to draw on these experiences in the future. Oh, and I’ve also found a new partner, the type of person I always hoped to meet as a teenager, who shares my love of sixties and seventies American powerpop (as well as all sorts of other music, an enthusiasm for food, picnics, home-made recordings, postcards, hats, day trips, and a willingness to jump into bodies of cold water for an impromptu swim). We've made each other feel like teenagers again.

Towards the end of 2015, I had two long chats with friends about the act of writing, about the challenges it can present, and about their approaches to productivity. In different ways, they both told me that the most important thing is to produce something. Even if it seems inadequate, it’s a starting point, something to build upon and improve. This is the message I am taking into 2016. I have to keep doing something. I have to keep on creating, producing, writing, making, achieving something. I can’t let myself ground to a halt again like last year, because it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.

Looking back over 2015, there have been a lot of experiences, cultural and otherwise, I have enjoyed and in spite of everything I’ve still been out and found a lot of things that have inspired, encouraged and excited me. Here they are.

Art

The big art event of the year was the reopening of the Whitworth Art Gallery. I generally find Cornelia Parker – the headline artist for the reopening – a bit artistically vacuous, so I was surprised by how powerful and poignant I found the engulfing red environment of her ‘War Room’, softly carpeted from floor to ceiling with the wasted bits of paper which from which remembrance poppies are cut. For me, Bedwyr Williams’ more recent, space-inspired installation was more successful, with its offbeat, absurdist and slightly grotesque humour, scale and ethos. I was pleased by the return of Tuesday Talks to the Whitworth, and was delighted to be offered a complimentary glass of gin and tonic at the start of a talk by art historian and curator Lynda Morris. Morris focused on her friendship with the artists Gilbert and George as a young student in London, giving insights into not just the contemporary art and social world at that time, with its personalities, friendships, cliques and rivalries, but the experience of being a young woman in a city, society and profession that was undergoing rapid transformation and modernisation.

The undoubted art highlight of the year was Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's pairing with Gerhard Richter’s paintings at the Whitworth for the Manchester International Festival to create an immersive audiovisual experience that was both subtle and surprising. Members of the Estonian choir Vox Clamantis, and later local community choirs, came out of the crowd and joined together in harmony that filled the room with tightly controlled variations on loudness and quiet, and shades of lightness and dark.

2015 also included some strong shows at the region’s smaller galleries, including Castlefield Gallery, Holden Gallery, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art and Untitled Gallery, reincarnated as Object/A. The International 3 has gone from strength to strength since its move to Salford, and Totaller, an installation of collaged ephemera a by a collective from Sheffield, was the most enjoyable show I’ve yet seen at Paper. After seeing her work over the years at Rogue Studios, it was great to see old and new pieces by Hilary Jack, on a large and small scale, come together in a solo show at Bury Art Museum.

Despite being ignorant of its existence for many years, I’ve now been to some good exhibitions and events at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Special Collections. I particularly enjoyed We Want People Who Can Draw, which used archival materials – including publications, photographs and posters – to explore the history of dissent in the British art school and its links with movements such as Situationism, feminism and street theatre.

Henry Moore Institute in Leeds remains my favourite gallery. At the start of a year I enjoyed a researcher-led gallery tour focused on newly unearthed archival material relating to the artist couple Trevor Tennant and Dorothy Annan, who were members of the Artists’ International Association and did a lot of post-war artworks for schools; the exhibition included lots of photos of their (now often lost, forgotten or destroyed) work in situ in public places. Towards the end of the year, Romanian artist Paul Neagu’s exhibition Palpable Sculpture pushed the boundaries of sculpture, incorporating edible and performative elements to create an impression of great fun.

Elsewhere in Leeds, I enjoyed questioning the concept of drawing and the form it can take at the Jerwood Drawing Prize at the Tetley. The British Art Show at Leeds Art Gallery was too expansive for a proper look, but it was good to encounter artists who were new to me as well as established names such as Bedwyr Williams, Ryan Gander, Linder, Will Holder, John Akomfrah and Laure Prouvost.

Many of the exhibitions I enjoyed most in 2015 were sculpture-based. One of the best shows of the year consisted the sculptures of Lynda Benglis, exploring form, femininity and feminism, at the excellent Hepworth in Wakefield. I also enjoyed Michael Dean’s solo show at Extra City in Antwerp, where small, rough sculptures filled the space, many strewn across the building at floor level, forcing visitors to renegotiate and renavigate the former industrial space, itself impressive in its size and scale. I also enjoyed Phyllida Barlow’s rough-hewn, large-scale transformation of Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, as well as Bernat Klein’s colourful, textural, almost sculptural textiles at Dovecot Studios.

The Grayson Perry exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate showed me an unexpected breadth to his work, encompassing not just his pots and tapestries, but detailed and imaginative drawings and films. It also gave an insight into his inspirations, including the suburban Essex of his upbringing, against which he reacted. Elsewhere in Kent, I enjoyed Eduardo Paolozzi’s collage-style, colourful and slightly surreal lithographs at the Beaney in Canterbury, which presented fascinating juxtapositions of imagery and a snapshot of popular culture and experience at the end of the post-war era.
After many years of wanting to visit the Merzbarn in Cumbria where Kurt Schwitters lived and worked in the late 1940s, I joined a coachload of artists from Manchester and Salford for a weekend in Elterwater coinciding with the anniversary of Schwitters’ birth. Magical seems a trite word, but we awoke in the woods to the sound of the loudest, richest and most varied dawn chorus I’ve ever heard. Later our hosts, Ian Hunter and Celia Larner of Littoral, led a celebratory procession incorporating a rambunctious rendition of Schwitters’ poem 'Ursonata'. Evenings were spent in the company of local musicians sharing food around a fire, and we couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome and encouraged to explore and share in the legacy of Schwitters’ life and work.
Manchester-based artist Lowri Evans’ performance 'I’m Glad You’re Here' was something special: it’s not everyday that you’re met off a train in cold, rainy Preston with a hug, presented with your favourite food and drink (pistachio nuts and Old Rosie in my case) and greeted by your favourite song blaring over the station tannoy (after much deliberation, I chose the Beach Boys’ 'Good Vibrations' – a choice which met with some approval from fellow passengers).

For Museums at Night, the Northern Quarter was filled with peripatetic street performers. New York Brass Band’s street corner rendition of Marvin Gaye’s 'Sexual Healing' didn’t just brighten my evening, but my entire week.

After being disappointed to miss it in previous years, I made a renewed effort to visit Stoke Ceramics Biennial this autumn. The vast, semi-derelict Spode site was a reminder of Stoke’s historic importance as a ceramics centre, as well its decline, but the exhibits themselves demonstrated the innovation and invention in forms and technique that is still going on today. The displays of graduate work were particularly impressive, and I also enjoyed Caroline Tattersall’s burbling clay geysers, along with Bruce McClean’s ongoing and unfinished series of pots and jugs, featuring scrawled and humorous observations about banalities such as food and showing his work in progress as an artist-in-residence.

I finished the year by going to see an exhibition of paintings and 3D constructions by Peter Lanyon at the Courtauld Gallery in London. Based on his experiences of gliding over the Cornish coast, they pushed the notion of landscape towards ‘airscapes’, depicting not just visual scenes but tracking movements through them in rich, dark blues and greens and swirling brush marks, engrossing the viewer in their colours, textures and mood.

The other painting exhibition I enjoyed most was a display of colourful paintings, drawings and prints by artists from the CoBrA movement, including lots of work by Karel Appel, at the Stedelijk Museum in Schiedam. As well as enjoying his images of birds, I thought Constant’s series La Guerre constituted some of the most powerful images of war I have seen.

Film 

Ever since I moved to Manchester, the Cornerhouse was a place of immeasurable importance to me, a home from home where I explored, indulged and nurtured a burgeoning love of film. In my first year in Manchester, one of the films which made the most impact on me, and sparked a passion for British film, was Powell and Pressburger’s gentle 'A Canterbury Tale', which was shown as a Sunday matinee classic film screening, and depicts a wartime England that is both shaped by its past but irrevocably changing. It seems fitting, then, that the last film I saw at the Cornerhouse was Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 epic 'The Tales of Hoffman'. By then, Powell and Pressburger had replaced black and white, everyday whimsy with lavish sets and costumes and full-on, unrelenting spectacle.

I felt privileged to be able to take part in the closing weekend for the Cornerhouse, as a performer with Manchester School in Samba, in Manchester-based artist Humberto Velez’s 'the Storming', a theatrical piece of performance art which led the public into the building one last time. The disco that followed, where I danced until I felt like I couldn’t stand up anymore and then danced some more, made me wonder why the Cornerhouse had never been turned into a nighclub before. It was an occasion of sadness, as the city said goodbye to an institution, but also of celebration, and as I wondered from floor to floor I bumped into familiar faces from different times and places, all of whom had turned out to say farewell to a building that had been far more than the sum of its parts and offered the city’s creatives a place for meeting, discussion, people watching and just observing the world go by.

I got out of the habit of regular cinema-going in 2015, and consequently missed out on a lot of the big releases of 2015. I did try to see Carol Morley’s 'The Falling' at Home, and was evacuated from the building soon after it had started, which was frustrating as the atmosphere the film created, conjuring the simmering tension and frustration caused by strictly observed rules and arbitrarily applied authority, must be familiar to anyone who has attended an all girls school and I was keen to see how the rest of the film turned out. I awoke on the most beautiful sunny morning on May 8 to the shock of the general election result. By the afternoon the weather had, like my mood, gone downhill. I couldn’t bear to be alone any longer, so cycled into Manchester. Dripping wet, I arrived at Home to see what was on, and found 'The Falling' in progress. I explained the situation to the cinema attendant, and they allowed me to sneak in with an hour of the film left to go. I must have seen nearly all of it now, but am still none the wiser about what happened.

I attended a special screening of 'Industrial Soundtrack for the Urban Decay', with Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire DJing afterwards to a room of awkward people who didn’t appear to know what to do with themselves. I’m pleased that two young film-makers have been inspired to make a documentary about industrial music, but it felt like a film made very much for the already initiated. The film did a good job of showing the economic, physical and social environments (and music scenes) that industrial music came out of, but frustratingly it was a bit of a whistlestop tour and by the end I still didn’t feel as aware as I would have liked of the key groups and songs of the genre.

I appreciate Iain Sinclair far more when he is in the company of film-maker Andrew Kotting, so I enjoyed their latest collaboration, 'By Our Selves', an impressionistic film about the poet John Clare and his escape and subsequent walk homewards to Northampton from an asylum in Epping Forest, which blended documentary and academic insights with disorienting dramatisation and tender cameos from Kotting’s daughter, Eden.

'Tangerines', an Estonian-Georgian film made a couple of years ago with an anti-war message, was the most extraordinarily powerful and moving film I saw in 2015. Despite its beauty, all the way through there was an ominous feeling that something horrific was going to happen, yet at no stage did the film become predictable. I went to see 'Tangerines' in the sumptuous surroundings of the recently reopened and refurbished Heaton Moor Savoy (the existence of a neighbourhood cinema was one of the reasons why I moved to Heaton Moor in 2014) as part of its regular Monday foray into ‘arts’ film. I also saw 'The Lobster' there, having really enjoyed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous films. 'The Lobster', which presented a self-enclosed fantasy world with one foot in reality, was everything I would like Wes Anderson films to be – stylish, darkly funny, critical and thought-provoking, making you think about the world we live in now and the ways in which our relationships are formed.

At the Royal Northern College of Music, an organist provided a sufficiently creepy soundtrack for the old-fashioned horror of 'Nosferatu'.

‘I Like Dreaming’ was an evening of varied archive films for LGBT History Month presented at Central Library, depicting different areas and representations of LGBT life and culture, from the personal and the political to the social. The highlight was a documentary in which a deadpan and dapper David Hockney demonstrates his working methods and printing techniques. Also at Central Library was a night themed around the late writer and presenter Ray Gosling, featuring both explorations of British cities in his irreverent style, as well as more hard-hitting and critical films with a campaigning focus.

After the release of 'Pride' in 2014, it was good to see a different take on events in documentary 'Still the Enemy Within', which was shown at the King’s Arms, Salford and followed by a charged discussion led by trade unionists. I also enjoyed the documentary 'Forever Young', made by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Centre for Youth Studies and screened as part of the always enjoyable Humanities in Public series, which drew together interviews with members of eight different generations who had been young in consecutive decades of the twentieth century. Asking what it is that makes young people tick, it highlighted both how our lives have changed, and what issues, concerns and pleasures remain constant in the lives of young people.

Theatre 

I first set foot inside the Cornerhouse’s shiny new replacement, Home, for a test performance of Salford-based Company Chameleon’s 'Beauty of the Beast', an exploration into masculinity through dance. It wasn’t at all the type of thing I would normally go to see, but I was amazed not just by the dancers’ athleticism but by the potential for expressiveness of the human body.

Similarly, I went to see Jamie XX and Olafur Eliasson’s Manchester International Festival collaboration 'Tree of Codes'. It was the first time I had been to Manchester Opera House, with its vertiginous seats and shabby grandeur, and it seemed an odd place to watch something so aesthetically modern. As an experience, 'Tree of Codes' was better than its constituent parts – at times the music was a little uninspiring, sounding like electronica-by-numbers, and there was a lot of filler between the livelier bits I did enjoy, which referenced gamelan and samba percussion. I have no idea what was going on in terms of narrative or plot – if, indeed there was meant to be any – but Eliasson’s visuals were absolutely beautiful and mesmerising to watch, and striking in their apparent simplicity.

Radio

I might have missed Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture on art and creativity had I not received a rare text from my brother telling me it was on and that it was something I should listen to. Afterwards, I found myself sending the link on to friends and family telling them they must hear it too. Eno’s Peel Lecture was something rare in our mainstream TV and radio nowadays: current, thoughtful, considerate, informed, opinionated and honest. Eno himself was warm and relatable without being distanced, preachy or dumbed-down: exactly the type of presenter, tone and content I’d like much more of.

I also enjoyed the Radio 4 documentary 'Wittgenstein’s Jet', which explored the life and work of Wittgenstein at the same time as attempting to recreate and test his patented, but unbuilt, design for a jet.

Talks/tours

Bristol Festival of the Future City was a stimulating combination of tours, speakers and discussions about cities, and different approaches to writing about place, from William H Whyte to Jane Jacobs and Iain Nairn. Among the highlights were a slightly shambolic coach tour in which Jonathan Meades remembered the Bristol of his childhood, and a later screening of selections of Meades’ hilarious and incisive work on cities and urbanism for TV – much of which you can’t imagine would be made today.

Gigs 

I went to see LoneLady a total of three times in 2015 – at Soup Kitchen, during Future Everything Festival, at Sways Bunker in Salford, a fittingly industrial setting, and at Gorilla. Each time it got better and better, as the band seemed to get more confident and relaxed. I also enjoyed the melodic punk energy of Sacred Paws at Soup Kitchen. The coolest performer I saw must have been Whyte Horses at Night & Day. Singing in a winsome French accent from behind a long fringe and flowing, hippyish clothes, she appeared to be channelling the anarchic, carnivalesque spirit of Os Mutantes. The glamour of Whyte Horses and her band was almost matched by Saint Etienne, who played against a backdrop of retro modernist films at Manchester’s refurbished Albert Hall, a venue that was more cosy and intimate than I expected. I went to Salford’s Sounds from the Other City festival for the first time in several years, on the strength of one song by Sauna Youth, but ended up being mesmerised – along with the rest of the audience, who were stunned into a rapt silence – by a set by Manchester’s mournful balladeer Irma Vep.

Another highlight was a trip to International Pop Overthrow festival in Liverpool to be reunited with my Greek friend Euripidis, who was playing with his Tragedies at the Cavern Pub. I first heard Euripidis and his Tragedies nine years ago at Barcelona's Primavera festival, when as an Erasmus student I was won over by Euripidis' swooning, piano-based songs combining girl group influences with indie-pop. I befriended Euripidis on Myspace, and then at his DJ nights, bonding over a shared love of music and British pop culture. For the Liverpool gig, the band was stripped right down to Euripidis and two Catalan friends, but he still managed to make catchy, perfect pop songs of love and regret.
I usually prefer informal gigs at small venues to large gigs, and I had the pleasure of watching Dublin’s Cian Nugent and local experimental guitarists Tom Settle and Jon Collin at a community garden in Whalley Range on one of those early, advance days which point the way towards spring. In mid-summer, Daniel Voigt, Jon Collin and Flamingo Creatures played out the remaining evening light in an evening gig at Chorlton Meadows, before drawing the assembled crowd together by firelight. I also enjoyed a grungy, folky house gig in the front room of a shared house in Withington by Grubs and King of Cats.

Many of the best gigs involve sitting on the floor drinking cups of tea and eating cake. Nexus Art Café provided the perfect venue for Calvin Johnson – although I was slightly embarrassed to be wearing a beret, and felt that the young, bohemian audience sitting in front of Johnson had probably changed little in style, appearance, dress or music taste from the audiences he played in front of in the 1980s.

For years and years and years I’ve wanted to go to Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but never known what to see or who to go with. This was the year I finally went, to see veteran experimental group AMM, in a converted church. Combining conventional instruments such as a piano with a stripped down drum kit and transistor radios, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before or will see again. Astonishingly, I had never been to Manchester Jazz Festival before, and rectified that by seeing John Surman in the reading room of Central Library – there couldn’t be a more appropriate venue for the band’s elegant, autumnal string and wind textures – and a lunchtime concert by Norma Winstone's in St Ann’s Church.

By far the most fun gig of the year was WE and Onion Widow, hosted by the Exhibition Centre For the Life and Use of Books in a rambling event space above Fred's Ale House in Levenshulme. WE is the musical side-project of art project Pil and Galia Kollectiv. Part visually inventive performance art, incorporating costumes and mirrors, and part surf-rock meets catchy party-pop, WE reinvent well-known songs by replacing the word 'I' with 'WE', to entertaining and sometimes sinister effect. I was honoured to be invited to DJ between and after bands, on a makeshift pair of decks.
Finally, in September 2015 I celebrated my tenth anniversary of moving to Manchester. One of the first things I did when I arrived was join Manchester School of Samba, and the band celebrated their twentieth birthday in September with an ‘encontro’ at beautiful Sacred Trinity Church in Salford. As well as reaching out to and learning from other samba bands, who made the journey over from Chester, Macclesfield and Buxton, it was a chance to reunite former members from across the years and make a big noise together once again.
Records 

Low may have spent decades doing more or less the same thing, but it sure is a great thing that they do and I, for one, am very glad that they are still doing it. Ones and Sixes is up there with their best albums, combining the fragile desolation of Mimi Parker and Adam Sparhawk’s vocals, drums and guitar with a robust undercurrent of rock and even the occasional pop song. One of the singles from Ones and Sixes, ‘What Part of Me Don’t You Know’, often found its way into my head, and stayed, in 2015.

LoneLady’s Hinterland is tight pop music whose basslines, drum beats and sparse, insistent guitar melodies will make you just want to dance. It draws on the eighties, sure, but it also sounds completely of the here and now.

My favourite record of the year, however, was Six Songs by Trash Kit side project Sacred Paws, a record that managed to be both punk and pretty at the same time and whose gliding female vocals over taut guitar, drums and bass make me melt inside. The dancing colours of the sleeve, by Alexandra Humphreys (who designed the cover of the Shrieking Violet issue 22), make me love it even more.

Clubnights 

If I could have chosen any way to turn 28, it would have probably involved dancing and the Star and Garter. With perfect timing, I did turn 28 on the dancefloor at the Star and Garter, at a special edition of the clubnight Let’s Make This Precious with one of my long-time musical heroes, Kevin Rowland of Dexy’s, DJing. It wasn’t just the music he played – mostly soul, with a bit of reggae thrown in – that made the night so great, but the way that he played it. Rowland seemed genuinely delighted to be there. He danced, and even sang along, karaoke-style, into a mic, to the tracks he was playing.
I feel like my life has become poorer in some way since I stopped going out dancing regularly, so it was a pleasure to welcome back Underachievers Please Try Harder, which I’ve really missed since it wound down a few years ago, for a special one-off Hallowe’en event at the Museum of Science and Industry during Manchester Science Festival. There was one important addition – an adults-only ball-pool, full of indie legs a-flying – which meant that occasionally you had to dig your way out of balls to go and dance to your favourite song!

Books and literature 

Caitlin Davies’ Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames is a thorough social history of swimming that blends extensive archival trawling with travel, exploration, interviews and in a couple of instances participation. It traces the story of swimming in one of the seemingly most unlikely of places, the river Thames, throughout history to the present day, and from its rural source through central, workaday London to the sea near Southend. The book does a particularly good job of bringing to life the champion swimmers and record attempters of yesteryear, male and female, conveying both their motivations and their obstinacy in overcoming physical, bureaucratic and meteorological hurdles. This book may well make you want to make plans to swim in the Thames immediately – and wonder why it’s not something people do all the time. It will also make you frustrated for all the outdoor swimming opportunities that have been lost in Britain over the years due to lack of upkeep or health and safety, from informal river swimming spots to floating lidos on the Thames.

I hardly ever make it to live literature events in Manchester, as all too often they are on a Wednesday night, which clashes with samba practice. I made an exception for The Real Story at Gullivers in the Northern Quarter to hear Stuart Maconie, a favourite broadcaster and travel writer of mine, read extracts from his books, old and new. Maconie was both insightful and hilarious, and his reminiscences about the letters page of the NME in particular were laugh-out-loud funny. I also loved local writer Kate Feld’s cautionary and evocative story of her schooldays and the blurring of teacher-student boundaries, which was structured around Revolver by the Beatles.

Thankfully, Fallowfield literary night Verbose is on a Monday night, meaning I got to enjoy a rerun of Re/Place, a Chorlton Arts Festival project which I missed the first time round. Four local writers read creative responses to real places and landmarks around Chorlton and Trafford, conjuring new mental pictures of places many of the audience would have known well, which continued to linger and unsettle long after the night was over.

I went to see blogging Huddersfield postman Kevin Boniface read once again at Marble during Chorlton Arts Festival, and found his succinct observations about the characters, places and experiences he encounters on his rounds as fresh, funny, poetic and poignant as ever.

Trips 

I spent my birthday high above the Calder Valley at pretty, cobbled village Hepstonstall and the dramatic wooded, hillside Hardcastle Crags. Heptonstall met with my approval by containing a village museum staffed by local eccentrics, which told stories of civil war, elaborate fraud, clogs and strange games; at least one pub well-stocked with real ale and cider; and the most picturesquely situated row of prefabs in Britain.

Despite being put off by the distance and the cost, I finally visited Portmeirion, accompanied by a big fan of cult TV series the Prisoner. I wasn’t prepared for quite how kitsch and colourful the town itself was, and the contrast with its scenic wooded, watery setting. 

I’d long wanted to visit Barrow-in-Furness, intrigued by its geographical isolation, islands and the way in which it had been shaped by the shipbuilding industry. On arrival, I couldn’t remember why I wanted to visit, and ended up being driven around in circles. Eventually, we drove across a bridge to one of the islands, where the terraces and industrial scenery of the main town, which is dominated by the huge BAE systems shed, changed abruptly in style to more spacious semi-detached housing and villas. It turned out this was Vickerstown, workers’ housing built by Vickers, one of the reasons I had wanted to visit.
After a trip to Sunderland – where I enjoyed a cliff-top walk past gnarled limestone formations – I made the pilgrimage to Peterlee, and picknicked by Victor Pasmore’s concrete, lakeside Apollo Pavilion on the hilariously named Sunny Blunts estate. I was pleased to see that the pavilion was well-populated by local youth, who were not just walking through it, but appeared to be holding meetings and even doing press-ups. True, the sunshine probably meant I saw Peterlee in its best light, but I was struck by how green and spacious it seemed, and the way in which the buildings interacted with the gently undulating landscape.
2015 was also the year I finally visited Coventry, to be overawed by the cathedral and see some 20th century murals in places such as the local Sainsbury’s, the exterior of a pub (William Mitchell) and a shopping centre (Gordon Cullen). Coventry felt to me far more like a northern European, than a British city, in its density and building style.

Inspired by the artists of Great Bardfield, many of whom were involved in the Pictures for Schools exhibitions, I visited chocolate-box pretty Saffron Walden and the small Fry Art Gallery, which houses a lot of the work of the Great Bardfield artists. If ever a place in England lived up to the idea foreign tourists have in their heads – narrow streets, thatched cottages, colourful houses, village greens, etc – this is it. I also finally visited Essex University, one of the purpose-built post-war campuses, which combines interlocking, colour-coded buildings linked with series of steps with wide plazas and open, landscaped grounds containing a lake and sculptures. I had long wanted to visit, not just to see the architecture, but because my parents went to many gigs there when they lived in Colchester. I went to see the Fall there when I was in my mum’s womb and apparently ‘went mad jumping about’ as my dad pogoed into her.

Shrewsbury, meanwhile, struck me as one of the greenest and most genteel cities in Britain. With a river running through the centre, it seemed to me to be a city built around parks, trees and green space.

Swims 

I’ve continued to seek out old, interesting and exciting swimming pools, from Bedminster’s small, friendly and slightly scruffy around the edges neighbourhood pool Bristol South Baths, to Bath’s spectacularly decadent Thermae spa complex, where the roof-top pool provided a place to contemplate the city’s skyline through the rain of a cold November day. I also got the train to Antwerp (en route to Rotterdam) to swim in a restored art deco pool in a multicultural area of the city, contemplated two huge, groovy, tiled poolside murals in Halifax’s modernist municipal pool, where interlinked patterns of fish, butterflies and dragonflies depict life below and on the surface of the water, and swam in a light-filled Olympic-size pool in Coventry. I also experienced the full luxury and relaxation of a Turkish Baths experience in Harrogate.
I also had two of the most bracing and invigorating wild swims I’ve ever had, in green, translucent, sparkling Cumbrian rivers, clambering over rocks to swim near the waterfall at Skelwith Bridge, and being driven over a mountain on high, narrow roads to swim in a gorge at Birks Bridge, near Duddon that was so atmospheric it was almost unreal. By contrast, the clear waters of Hatchmere, surrounded by the trees of Delamere forest, were positively balmy. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the strangest swim I had was at King's Cross Swimming Pond on a grey London day. Despite the incorporation of natural filtration and floating pondlife into the pool, the sensation of swimming in a the middle of a giant building site surrounded by new high-rise flats was difficult to escape.

Cycle rides 

I went on a series of cycle rides in the summer that I’d long wanted to do just to know it was possible. I’d long wanted to cycle through the Cheshire lanes, and decided Tatton Park would be a good place to aim for – along the Mersey, over a bridge to cross the border into Cheshire, through the jumble of estates on the outskirts of the city that are Northenden and Wythenshawe, through leafy Altrincham, and then finally along winding country roads that were much more hilly than I expected.

Many times when I’ve got the train to Rochdale and I’ve seen the canal passing through the fields that break up the former mill towns between Manchester and Rochdale, I’ve wanted to follow it to Rochdale. I finally got the chance one hot June day, following the regenerated canal through Ancoats and onwards through inner-city Manchester, over the M60, along back routes through towns and into the countryside, before coming off at Castleton onto busy roads. I was, kindly, offered a bottle of Lucozade by two men in a van stopped at traffic lights; they said I looked tired.

I’ve often cycled along the Ashton Canal to Ashton before, but long wanted to continue along one of the other canals it meets at Portland Basin. After struggling to pick up the canal, which was dwarfed by a large ASDA, I followed the Huddersfield Narrow Canal as far as Stalybridge.

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