Dabbling in hobbies

I’ve always had lots of things on the go and I am always attracted to learning something new. I’ve finally realised that it is ok for me to try things out and see if I like them, and I love doing ‘taster’ sessions of new skills and crafts. I may take them up for a little while and let them go after a period.

Many crafts that I have done fall into that category and I’ve enjoyed making the ‘thing’ and then moving onto the next thing. My house is full of quilts i have made, one of them filled with embroidery. At one point I had a lot of knitted dishcloths. I have lots of sketchbooks from when I fell into sketching and painting. I hope at some point to go back to that, probably when I have more space to do the bigger paintings I dream about.

It is fine to have hobbies, things we dabble in and more importantly that they are not about making money. They may only be with us for a season, or something we do at the weekends, or something we return to every few years for an obsessed period of time.

I am currently working on an embroidery kit, which has the pattern all printed out, and all the threads and needles in the pack, only scissors were needed. This is perfect to do when I am having a sofa day watching undemanding tv!

The trick is to make sure that the remains of old hobbies are let go of, or at least packed away. It’s quite helpful to put things in boxes or bags to contain all of the bits. Really Useful Boxes are indeed extremely helpful in this sense. When I am sure I am not going to go back to a hobby I find someone to pass all the bits onto. This is especially important in a small house like mine!

It has taken a lot of effort to accept this idea, that I can enjoy tasting new hobbies and not taking them into my life at a deep level, in contrast to my deep and abiding loves of reading and music.

The joy of ukulele

The ukulele is such a joyful instrument, it gives me a huge amount of pleasure. It always sounds uplifting. I took it up four years ago now and I’m very happy I did.

I’m glad that there are whole classes in schools across the country learning to play it, I suspect they all sound a lot better together than a bunch of squeaky recorders. Don’t get me wrong, I love the recorder and I seem to recall learning to play the tenor which had a much mellower sound, but a whole class on descant recorders can be a little whearing.

I have tried to play the guitar in the past, but I found that my hands didn’t have the strength to stretch and hold the chord shapes, and I found the strings too rough on my fingers. That isn’t a problem with the uke, it is smaller and the strings are nylon, so it is much easier to play.

It’s also easy to get going and to be playing songs with just a few chords, which are easier to reach, especially for smaller hands. That’s not to say it is an easy instrument, like all music it takes dedication and practice to get good at it. None the less it is hard to make the ukeule sound horrid, (unlike the flute) which means playing it is such a joy.

And for some serious inspiration, there is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I went to see them last year and it was an amazing show. For practical inspiration, and actual music to download I recommend Ukulele Hunt.

If you want to take up an instrument which is great fun and deeply rewarding, I really do recommend the uke, you can pick them up quite cheaply, although it will sound better if you invest a little more. And at this stage I would like to make a plea to find your local music shop, rather than buying online, you will get help and advice which you just don’t get from online.

Going deeper

At the end of last year I passed my grade 6 flute, which I am very proud of. When I joined my band I was grade three, and January marked the start of my fourth year in the band. In the exams I do – ABRSM – you have to take Grade 5 theory before you are allowed to do grade 6. I honestly think this was the hardest thing I have done, much harder than my MA. My friends on Facebook were treated to a lot of swearing about it!

Partly I think is because it is harder to learn as an adult, not least because of time pressures. It’s partly because I hadn’t done the theory as I did each grade (I didn’t want to), but had to learn all five grades in one go. I think the fact that I resented doing it didn’t help. There was one point when it finally clicked and everything made so much sense. I remain grateful for my extremely patient teacher.

I take great pleasure in playing my flute, because I am getting to a decent standard now – please note I am not claiming to be fantastic, just good! Being in my band is no longer hugely frustrating, but much more enjoyable. They recommend you are grade 5 to join, and that is for a good reason, the pieces are exceptionally hard. There is a joy to be had in being good at something, and working hard for that ability. I have worked hard, and I continue to do so. I have an hour’s music lesson each week, go to band and generally do at least an hour of practice each day, often more.

I got a piano last Christmas and after moodling about on it for a while I am now seriously studying it. It feels so much harder than the flute right now, being right back at beginner level is challenging. There is no getting away from it, learning to play music is hard (unless you are truly gifted). You have to put the time and effort in. But I know from my continued flute studies that is worth all the time.

There seems to be a lot of rhetoric around that you can achieve the perfect body in ten minutes a day, meditate your way to calm in 5 minutes a day. Speed read books in half an hour. That’s not the way that life works. Anything worth having takes time and effort. That’s not the same as pain and struggle, you can enjoy things which require effort, but you have to put the work in if you want to go deeper.

Thurrock 100th Parkrun

This weekend the Thurrock Parkrun celebrated its 100th run, just a few weeks before its two year anniversary. I was invited along to photograph the run, as well as Griffin Estate agents presenting a cheque for the Community First Responders for them to buy an Automatic External Defibrillator – which are popping up across high streets.

These are just my favourite images, not least because of the joy in the faces of the runners! You can see the full gallery of images here.





Soul of a nation

Visiting the Tate’s Soul of a Nation exhibition reminded me how important art is, how it has the power to show others how things are, highlighting what is happening, both positive and negative.

Image from Tate.org Carolyn Mims Lawrence Black Children Keep your Spirits Free

This is an extremely well curated show, with the first rooms shocking in their intensity and the outright hatred and violence that Blacks were experiencing in America during the Civil Rights Movement. This was portrayed explicitly and was harrowing to experience. The later rooms are still intense, but highlight positivities of Black culture, as well as questioning what is ‘Black art’. Quite frankly it feels like a lot of the issues are still there, especially in America.

The Tate have curated a Soul of a Nation playlist on Spotify to listen to as part of the experience.

The whole exhibition reminded me of the importance of art. During Greenbelt, I met Wiyaala, a young artist from Ghana, who is singing songs about sex, and challenging Female Genital Mutilation through her work, this is deeply shocking – sex isn’t mentioned in polite company, but she goes about it none the less.


I went up to her and explained that when I was growing up there was a girl duo called Salt ’n’ Pepper who sang ‘let’s talk about sex’. To me, growing up in very rural Surrey this was astonishing. They were singing about sex! In a positive way, it was a good thing! Then I read Color Purple at school and found out about race issues and what it was like a in a completely different world from my comfortable life. Although, my teachers managed to skip over the whole lesbian scene, I was shocked on reading it as an adult to find that! I’m quite impressed they managed to gloss over that one. Those three black woman had a massive impact on me and helped me to see the wider world apart from the tiny one I inhabited.

Art – music, literature, photography, visual art, can all share our world with the wider world. It can highlight injustice, it can support revolution. Surely today, we need that in our lives, art is vital, there is a reason that political parties who are trying to control the population kill or suppress artists. What are you doing with your art? I feel like I am not doing enough, I have Beautiful Thurrock, where I highlight the positive here in Thurrock, but is that enough? Probably not.


Featured image from Tate.org

Real Equal Access

These days I am doing quite well physically, I haven’t used my wheelchair since February, and I am gradually pushing myself to do a little more and more over time. It is paying off and I am now able to go and do all day photography shoots, run workshops etc. It is wonderful.

None the less, my confidence has been knocked considerably by getting so ill. My body betrayed me, it literally refused to take another step one day and I spent a huge amount of time in such an exhausted fog of pain and fatigue that Disney films were beyond me. Not being feeling like I can trust my body is an expected side effect of this.

I used to have an abundance of confidence. I commuted across London on a bike, well before it became as bike friendly as it is now. I drove across the country and London on my motorbike. One year I decided I was going to sign up for a Sprint Triathlon the following weekend as a birthday present to myself. I was doing quite a bit of running at the time (I think I had already run a half marathon) and swimming too, but hadn’t really been on a bike for years. I also hadn’t done any outdoor swimming, beyond paddling in the sea. That didn’t stop me, I did it anyway, and did surprisingly well!

I want to start pushing my boundaries again, I’m up to 1800 meters in the swimming pool and I am generally feeling a lot fitter and stronger, but I wanted to really test myself and do the things that I used to do. I wanted to go to a festival by myself, and so after a bit of Googling, I found Greenbelt, a Christian festival.

A couple of months ago I called them to talk to their team and what a lovely, kind and understanding lady she was, I’m sorry I didn’t get her name. It was wonderful to be heard, understood and for them to have already made provision.

I explained that I have an invisible disability and she said that was fine. This is what they do which she said might help me:

  • I can arrive a day early so I can recover from travelling and setting up and leave a day later too
  • There is a camping field which is nearer to the festival
There is a little truck to carry my camping stuff so I’m not exhausted by the time I get there
  • I can use the disabled toilets, so that I don’t have to stand in queues
  • There is a haven in the main festival area to calm down and rest
The stewards will look after a chair for me
I can park in the day car park, so if I can’t cope and I need to go home it is not too big a deal
If I need it I can hire a mobility scooter
Ask any steward and they will help

I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to have all of my concerns addressed before I even asked them.

This is a true understanding of disability in all its forms, they had made provision and there was no fuss. These are just the services they provide which are relevant to me, I know that they have a sign language team, charging stations for medical equipment and much more. There is even a sign language session for hearing people to learn how to sign key parts of worship.  Access is so much more than making sure there are ramps and an accessible toilet and Greenbelt shows they understand this.  They have even been recognised for this

We are really pleased to have been awarded the Gold Level on the Charter of Best Practice by Attitude is Everything for our commitment to improving access for deaf and disabled festivalgoers at Greenbelt.

We’re one of only two mainstream multi-arts festivals in the UK* to have achieved this standard. The other being Glastonbury! (Greenbelt and Glastonbury in the same breath – it has a certain ring to it.)

Once I had bought my ticket there was a form to fill in, to make sure they have the right number of people and support available. The questions they asked shows their true understanding of disability.

In the run up to the festival I have received detailed emails explaining how they want bags packed so they can transport them for us easily, and explanations of how to identify the access team from other stewards and other details. 
I cannot tell you how excited I am, it’s like the first time I got my whizzy wheelchair and I was able to go to the supermarket, which had been out of my ability for ages. I can go and do what I want, spend time at a festival, with access to talks on social justice, music, performance, workshops, worship (including a Goth Eucharist!) and all sorts of activities. It maybe that I go and it is too soon for me, if that is the case that’s fine there are people who can help me. I may have to rest more than I want to, but at least I will be there. I will plan my days accordingly.

My biggest hope is that I don’t need all of this extra provision, but I certainly wouldn’t have risked going to a festival without all of these things in place, or I would have done, but my excitement would have been blunted by worry and anxiety. In an ideal world, all festivals would provide this level of access, but that is just not the case.

Thank you to all the people concerned at Greenbelt, I am really looking forward to it. I think you are already living up to the ‘you, me, us’ and the ‘common good’ straplines you use! I’m heading off on Thursday, to arrive a day early so I can set up and rest before the festival starts on Friday.

Images taken from the Greenbelt website

ThAT2017 Poetry evening

As part of the Thurrock Art Trail I curated and compered a poetry night at St Mary’s church in Grays. There is still time to see art work and events across Thurrock until Sunday -including my exhibition! More information here 

I also read my poems too, but I couldn’t take photos of myself. What a shame!

Phil Smith
Anthony Hicks
Tim Harold
Steve Lawes
Phil Smith & Tim Harold


Thurrock Art Trail now live!

The Thurrock Art Trail is now live and happening in Thurrock.

You can find out more here 

I’m exhibiting at Thameside Theatre, Grays town centre and it’s open until the 30 July – although the Thameside is closed on a Sunday, so if you want to see my exhibition it closes on the 29th.

There are so many exciting events and exhibitions in a variety of places across Thurrock. I’m hosting a poetry event this Thursday too.

Come along and take part!

Photography in the community

I’ve been running a series of photography workshops across Thurrock, as part of the Thurrock Art Trail 2017, where I am a featured artist.

I wrote a blog post for ThAT:

During this project, funded by ACE, and culminating in an exhibition at the Thameside Theatre, as part of the 2017 Thurrock Art Trail, I worked with four community groups, BATIAS, Tilbury Riverside Project, Thurrock Young Producers and Seabrooke Rise Community House.

During each session we looked at ways to take good photographs on smart phones, rather than snaps which are always slightly disappointing when you look at them, and never really capture the spirit of the occasion.

Interspersed with practical sessions working with the rules of photography we discussed what people liked about living in Thurrock and what was important to them.

Read the rest of the post


Rising Tide

Royal Opera House Bridge’s annual conference Rising Tide was held at the historic Dockyards in Chatham on Thursday. The speakers had been briefed to be provocative and they certainly were.

Julia Farrington in particular had me sat in my chair, jaw dropped and mouthing swear words to myself at her discussion of censorship and freedom of expression. It made me realise that I spend a lot of my time trying not to be controversial, not to rock the boat. My blog posts here are relatively bland as I try to make sure that I don’t put off any clients, a form of self censorship.

My photography and poetry is very safe, focusing on the positives of the world around me. This has been a deliberate choice, as I use both of them as a mindfulness exercise, a mental wellbeing practice. But could I be more challenging now that practice is established? I don’t think I am ever going to be a radical practitioner with protests at my work, but I do have some ideas which will be thought provoking for my next photography project (I’ve an exhibition coming up in a couple of weeks).

Matthew Taylor, the chief exec of the Royal Society of Arts spoke about how we need a 21st century englightment, not least because we have a very narrow interpretation of the oringal Englightenment core ideas and values. He feels that we are moving towards a later materialist society, that there is a whole generation who has grown up with the idea that we don’t get more money each year, that continual growth isn’t necessarily the measure of success.

This is something which I am very intersested in, I don’t write about it much here, but I try to be fairly minimalist in my life. I got extremely ill because I grew my business by working harder and harder until my body rebelled and I ended up in a wheelchair. I purposely don’t take on as much work as I can. Minimalism helps to support this because I don’t want lots of stuff in my life, buying more things isn’t key to me. My time to play music, write and do photography is.

Matthew spoke about the concept of universal basic income, something that I am very much a proponent of, and the idea that we need a much richer account of work with meaning, dignity and self fulfilment. He discussed self-fulfillment and expression as being core to society’s wellbeing, rather than money. Once we reach a level of income, extra money doesn’t make a difference.

Maslow identified self actualisation as being the highest level of developmental psychology and this is supported by the RSA’s research. There is an online zeitgeist around this, with an explosion of creative projects with support networks, especially helped by social media such as Instagram. I’ve written about my experiences at Sketchbook Skool, NaNoWriMo and there are many others such as a Year of Creative Habits.

The panel discussion with most of the key speakers could have been longer, which could be said for much of the talks and the workshops. It was hosted by Baroness Lola Young, a black woman, there 3 women on the panel (including a MBE), one of whom is a wheelchair user and one man. As so often panels are often entirely white and male this was wonderful to see.

I have pages of notes from the day, which will take me a while to digest and reflect on. I have only mentioned two of the speakers, when everyone was extremely thought provoking and interesting. The workshop I participated in with LV21, Full House Theatre and Kent Music on ‘Thriving, not Surviving’ was faced-paced with a lot of practical things for me to implement.

Most of the speakers mentioned how we, as arts and cultural practitioners, supporters and organisations are well placed to help shape the future through our work. The arts are being decimated in schools through current government practice and we need to stand together to protect them as the arts and culture, and the skills that they bring to young people will be instrumental to our future.

The day ended with poet Jackie Mackay, the Scottish Makar (Poet Laureate for Scotland), reading her work. This was such a wonderful, humorous and touching end to the day, her poem about friendship especially reached through to my heart.

Rising Tide was a wonderful day which I thoroughly enjoyed, I have many topics to go and research and a challenge to my own personal practice to think about…