Blogging cycle

There was a time, many moons ago, when I wrote a blog entry each and every day. It was mostly during my heady days at the local newspaper when, if one was seen typing furiously, you could get away with pretty much anything, including blogging every day and also writing editorial for other publications on a freelance basis, merrily in opposition to one’s contract of employment. If you look busy and have somewhat oblivious and self-centred managers, they think you are busy. Life hack, all yours.

The daily blog was the result of interviewing Richard Herring on his Talking Cock tour, when he told me that the reason he blogged daily on his site Warming Up was that, well, it’s obvious now given the title of the blog, it warmed him up. Richard has written 6,500 consecutive entries (I’ve just had a look). So, having marvelled at his screen saver during the interview which announced ‘Richard Herring is Gay’ (recently changed to read such, Herring claimed, by Stewart Lee). So I started blogging every day to ‘warm up’ although the only thing it warmed me up for, in reality, was firing off 1,000 words to some magazine or other and an accompanying invoice for same, whilst ignoring all of the tasks that my employers assumed I was busy with.

Richard Herring, incidentally, gave me one of his sandwiches during the interview (maybe to distract me from his screen saver). When I interviewed Stewart Lee a couple of years later, I mentioned this and Lee was a little taken aback, “I’m surprised you got anything out of that fat bastard, well done,” and also denied any knowledge of the screen saver. A harmonious double act, those two. I have sat next to and within stroking distance of Stewart Lee on a couple of marvellous occasions – once on the back row of the Pleasance, at Edinburgh Festival, when he directed the Mighty Boosh’s Arctic Boosh, and more latterly at a gig in Brixton when he was working up his material for Content Provider. On both occasions I wanted to touch him and tell the real life, actual Stewart Lee of my love for the on-stage character Stewart Lee but didn’t because, well, I’m sure he didn’t want bothering because he was a bit busy. I’m nice and empathic like that. Lee is, perhaps, the only hero I have left in my life and the next time I find myself sitting next to him, which I probably won’t, I will tell him.

Anyway, blogging. We’re all told that the internet keeps things forever but, pleasingly, a lot of those daily entries have evaporated to an unavailable corner somewhere and, lo, my internet footprint is less than it should be. Some of it is still there, on an old blogger, but even the old wayback machine can’t find a few years worth of later entries. Most of my efforts in the ‘blogosphere’, as many a fool thinking diaristic daily writing was the future once described it, charted irritable encounters in corner shops and supermarkets where retail staff determined to hold conversations with each other left me waiting for more time than was necessary as I stood at the tills with a hot and spicy Peperami stick and a can of San Miguel. Occasionally, I’d document my interactions with the many racist Daily Mail and Express readers of York. That, or stuff about people coughing loudly in theatres (mostly the people I went to the theatre with).

I started writing this blog post, if they’re still called that, with some sense of where it was going. For last night, I had an encounter that reminded me of the stuff I might have blogged about and I thought, oh, if only I had a blog to capture this moment, then realised I do and that this is it.

It was a cycle-related incident. Now, cycles are a big deal in Hull right now as the council just splashed a load of government money on creating, at a fast and furious pace, pop-up cycle lanes here, there and everywhere. The money came from the £250 million emergency active travel fund, at the point when the new normal was being envisaged as a utopia where we’d all cycle for the rest of the limited life remaining for humanity on planet earth, before it’s done with us, and cars, rather than simply being convenient metal death traps oozing carbon and other toxic filth, would be consigned to the scrap heap faster than a nation could extract itself from the European Union. The first stage, I read, of an eventual £2bn investment to encourage alternative ways to travel, such as walking and cycling, thus relieving the pressure on public transport, which doesn’t and never will, serve the people that might like to use it if it ever turned up on time, got you to your destination and didn’t smell of wee, armpits and faeces.

Any efforts to encourage cycling and the abandonment of motor vehicles shouldn’t be contentious. Certainly not in Hull, a city so flat that there’s no excuse not to take to two wheels, other than the population is incredibly wary of any ride out involving an encounter with an object known as the Anlaby Road flyover, one of the few gradients on the city’s road network, a whoppingly insignificant climb that is to be avoided at all costs, as if it were K2, Everest or Kangchenjunga, lest there be a requirement to shift down to a low gear on the stolen bike you bought off some gadge at Walton Street market. There is some talk, among the city’s cycling fraternity, of the pleasure of freewheeling back down once the summit is reached – people, often those that wear clothes purchased at Sports Direct, or those with Kestrel lager fuelled self-confidence, or some with self-evident dietary problems, and often those with a combination of all three – push their bikes up to experience this thrill – yet this is an extremely rare occurrence.

Yet the recent pop-up cycle lane has been met with much criticism, some of which even makes sense.* Even from me. It appears, in the haste to create these new lanes, and in the giggly excitement around the bright future on the horizon, that the safety of all road users has been somewhat cast aside. Not least by the council, who, in a moment of temporary insanity and once the green lanes had been painted on the existing tarmac, promptly (and mistakenly, they said quickly afterwards) also painted some parking bays that meant the ‘cycle lanes’ were also parking bays and that cyclists would have to zip out of the side of the road they had been bequeathed and back into the carriageway containing a load of frustrated drivers, irritated not only by having to watch folk on two wheels sailing by much faster than their expensive cars leased via confusing personal contract hire and personal contract purchase deals but also looking at a bus lane, recently extended to 11 and a half hours (a move “to protect cyclists and encourage more bike travel under an Experimental Traffic Regulation Order.”) with very few buses in it. Grinding slowly, as they did so, on a journey towards the city centre, while also wondering why, at a time when there has been a reduction to cars on the road because a) people are still working from home and b) those that aren’t working from home have been made redundant, an effort seems to have been made to recreate the type of traffic we might have experienced back in the good old days of pre-Covid 2019.

Now I like Hull City Council, they’ve done some great things over the last two decades but on this, this road madness, they’ve fucked up majestically. It’s almost as if nobody at the Guildhall has ever been to the Netherlands – despite it being a simple hop away on a P&O Ferry, or via a quick flight from Humberside Airport to Schipol that is now faster than a trip down any of the city’s main arterial roads into the city centre – and experienced what actual cycle lanes are all about. A place where cycling is prioritised – which it should be – and a place where they haven’t simply painted green paint onto tarmac and a load of accompanying, accident-baiting white lines. No, in the Netherlands they have separate bike paths that run parallel to the roadway and everyone is very happy and safe and nobody is thinking, as they drive alongside the cyclists, I know I’ve got a blind spot but I’ll be fucked if I’ll slow down to let that man in extremely tight cycling shorts nip in front of me because he’s having to leave his cycle lane behind. Separate bike paths that run parallel to the roadway would be a very wise investment of £2bn. Green paint and white lines and endless zigzagging fuckwitery are not, government money or no. It is only a matter of time before a cyclist is killed, sadly, due to this scheme.

So there’s the context. There is friction between road users in the city at the moment and those of us, and there are many, who are both car users and cyclists, are no doubt caught up in very serious conversations with ourselves.

Anyroad, I had navigated my way past this new vehicular and transportation madness last night and, as I almost hit the home straight, I witnessed two junior cyclists ride out of a park nearby, straight onto a zebra crossing sans looking left, right, left, because it’s been decades since Kevin Keegan or that bloke that played Darth Vader reinforced the message, forcing a car to swerve around them, although in doing so he saved them from a nasty accident and certain death. Such is contemporary life that the lead young cyclist, a rather stocky, ugly looking child with an enormous, potato-like head and riding a bike that was a not cool several frame sizes too small for him, shouted abuse at the driver.

I turned a left after the zebra following this incident and, lo-and-behold, the same potato-headed youth, having crossed the road, rode his cycle across the pavement, over the grass verge and onto the road I was traveling down at a speedy but accelerating 17 mph and right into my path. I applied the brakes, as you do, as I don’t like riding over cyclists because, remember, I am one too.

I stopped and wound the window down to have a chat with Potato Head Kid, whose little friend was now at his side. Now, back when I was watching a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm I might have been somewhat more Larry David about it, hurled some abuse to make me feel better and driven off smugly in my protective steel can. But, given that there is a lot of animosity between road users on the streets of Hull right now due to the aforementioned reasons, and that, while he was Potato Head Kid, he was also an actual child not a character I had swiftly invented with very little consideration, I thought it better to impart some wisdom, politely. I saw myself as a diplomat in this instance, the man that would, magnificently, bring road users together, one that the city would talk of for years to come.

“Hey lads. A word of advice. If you are going to pull back onto the road, don’t forget to look over your shoulder to check for cars. It might save your life.”

Potato Head Kid smiled at me, then laughed. I took him in. Having dismounted, his disproportionate body was revealed. Not only did he have a large head, like a potato, and a stocky frame, his torso was much shorter than his legs demanded. If this was an art school and I’d turned in this creature as a portrait, I’d have been asked to leave immediately, escorted off the premises and be banned from the purchase of any sketching materials for eternity.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Fuck off, you cunt,” came the swift reply.

I liked his candour. It had no doubt been fuelled by all of the reports he’d read – if he could, in fact read – about the new cycle lanes in the city and the reaction to them from motorists.

“Seriously, just pause and take a second to look over your shoulder, that way everyone is safe and sound and you’ll get home in one piece.”

“Who the fuck are you talking to?”

“It’s really as simple as being aware of other road users. It just requires you to open your eyes.”

“Fuck off. I said fuck off, you cunt.”

Clearly this wasn’t the moment that I would unite the city and all that travel around it. Although I wasn’t giving up. I must have the final civilised word.

“It would be good if you listened to me. And opened your eyes occasionally, as you ride your steed through the streets of this fair city.”

He threw his cycle, way too small for him, despite his lack of height, down to the ground. I considered suggesting he purchase, or steal, or buy a stolen bike from that gadge at Walton Street market, a bike that wouldn’t accentuate his alarmingly weird aesthetic. Then thought, no, Potato Head Kid deserves some love. He clearly lives a life devoid of affection, he has no positive role models, he is left to his own devices on these tough avenues and alleyways. So I pondered suggesting to him that, rather than throw it to the floor aggressively, he take care of his cycle, and then it would take care of him.

“Fuck off. Fucking get away from me,” he shouted, winding up his arm like a cliche from a first generation console game fighter, “fucking get away from me now, drive on, you fucking cunt, drive on.”

So there we have it. When I blogged on a daily basis, often events like this would happen and I started to wonder if I was making them happen just so I had something to write about. For example, I was rear-ended, had my car written off and was hospitalised by a Kwik Fit lorry once, and once I’d recovered from the shock of said lorry introducing itself to the interior of my car, almost breaking my wrists due to clinging like fuck to the steering wheel on impact and had the glass removed from my hair, I thought, hey, what a great blog that’ll make. Which is why I don’t blog so often these days.

*But not that recent criticism from an ‘actor’ who was affronted by cyclists choosing to ride on the pavement because they didn’t want to risk their lives by riding in the cycle lanes, and shouted at them “there’s literally a cycle lane, right there, next to you,” as if they didn’t know. They did know, they just didn’t want to die that day, and would much prefer Netherlands-style bike paths that run parallel to the roadway and for every road user to be happy and safe.

£1.57bn: Getting out of this arts hole

The £1.57bn ‘rescue package’ (as it was described by Chancellor Rishi Sunak) announced by the government clearly offers some hope to arts organisations, venues and institutions, including those in Hull, who were facing a rapid descent into oblivion, closing their doors and winding up their operations. Thousands of people in the arts are facing the threat of redundancy and I don’t want to see any organisation going out of business and their staff thrown on the scrapheap so let’s hope they all get the urgent help they require so that the show goes on.

As a freelance, I’m used to living a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence and never knowing where my next source of income is coming from, so it’s clearly important that those that might provide this stay in business. Yet, looking at the amount on the table and the battle ahead, £1.57bn, which on the surface looks like a tremendous amount of cash, won’t go too far for too long once it’s divvied up. It will clearly enable many organisations to stay operational but, with so much uncertainty regarding what ‘normal’ might be when we return to it, I’ve got serious concerns about how much of that money may, or may not, trickle down to those of us that bounce idiotically from project to project.

For context, in the couple of decades that I’ve worked in the arts, it’s been a game of diminishing returns. While commissioning fees have generally moved upwards, there’ve been less and less commissions, and a declining amount of scraps thrown our way. Despite guidance on fees and payments to artists, often artist’s fees are palpably laughable when you consider how much time it might take to, in my case, write a piece of work. So, in real terms, income was already getting smaller and I know, because I talk to lots of other artists, that this was already the case for lots of us way before Covid-19. So, with the dramatic changes to life, and the arts only just hanging in there, the real concern is that things will get worse and it will be decades before everything recovers and we can get back to the business of being underpaid at the same levels as previously.

Like many artists, I have some revenue streams that I’d have the audacity to regard as ‘regular income’ – projects and work that are stable enough to allow me to plan long-term, pay some bills and buy food to eat. Yet even that work is under-threat right now and is serious cause for concern. If other industries are fighting for survival (which they are) and employees in other sectors are facing redundancy (which they are), then this amount of support for the arts sector is nowhere near big enough because, if the choice is between putting food on the table for kids and paying the rent or mortgage or buying a ticket for a gig, or an armful of books, or getting lost for two hours in an immersive performance, or going to see a play, we know where that’s going. 

Naturally, I’d be looking at the big arts organisations in Hull to take a lead once they’ve steadied their own ships but they also need to consider this changing landscape, rather than pick up where they left off. It’s time for them to reset and reimagine their purpose and role in the community. If the many freelance and self-employed artists that this city has, who do so many wonderful creative things, are to survive, then this resetting and reimagining also needs to factor their talent in and conversations going forward need to include them. We need to smash some of the old hierarchies apart in order that we’re strong together and to ensure that we’re all doing something that’s relevant to the city that we serve. Hull Truck, Artlink, Absolutely Cultured, Freedom Festival, Hull Jazz, Back To Ours, all good organisations who do good work, need to continually consider, and reconsider, how they work with freelance talent and grass roots artists as we all battle to get out of the other side of this mess.

I’d encourage freelancers to share their homework right now. I’ve spoken to a few other writers about their many concerns and fears for the future, what they’re doing for work, how they’re generating income, if at all. Lots of us have fallen through the gaps, that’s the nature of freelance work and life, and many have not been eligible for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, or found applying for the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund too difficult, and welcome the re-opening of Arts Council’s project grants but are already in fear of form-filling and rejection. We have to face the sad fact that some freelance artists, and other freelancers who make arts and cultural events happen, will turn elsewhere in order to survive and leave this industry which, even at the best of times, offers little in the way of security and stability.

I’ve spent time in the last decade reminding influential people whenever I can of the importance of investment in the arts sector, through the What Next? movement and during other conversations, so reminding politicians of the need for ongoing investment and support in the arts is nothing new, even in these unprecedented times of emergency. The argument for investment in the arts is an easy one to make and win but, sadly, the case has to be made with infuriating regularity. It’s always worth reminding ourselves of the numbers – the arts contribute £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and the sector contributes £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. For every £1 of funding in the arts, the government recoups £5. Not my figures, those of the most recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research based on ONS stats. More broadly, the wider creative industries contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018, which is almost £13mn every hour of the day. Suddenly, £1.57bn looks like small change, doesn’t it? There’s no further case to be made here, no sob story, it’s a proven model of success.

Personally, I’m worried about what a future working in the arts might look like. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m a working class Hull kid who was encouraged to find his voice, battled hard to get it heard and wants to help others to do the same. I’m not in it for the riches – there aren’t any to be had, most of us just get by – but because creativity is the only way to make sense of an increasingly confusing world. The arts have never been more important than right now.

Missing people

There seemed to be a large, and somewhat banging, gathering of people last night somewhere behind the house. And who can blame them? Seeing other people is important for mental health reasons and, judging by the amount of fucking shouting going on, they were all at a cautious and state-approved public distance from each other. It was rather nice to listen to.

Earlier in the day I’d sent a text to a mate of mine. “I’m at the missing people stage.” The response was rapid. “Why don’t you come to the garden for a socially distanced beer next week?” Which was nice.

Not sure, though, that socially distanced meeting up will quite have the desired effect. If I’ve learned anything these past *sub, please insert the correct number of weeks here, I have no idea how long it’s been. But it feels like another lifetime ago since I sat in a beer garden wishing I could escape from the horrors of being in other people’s company because, ultimately, I don’t know how to behave appropriately in the company of other people, and return home to do nothing* few weeks, it’s that I’m rather tactile. I like a hug. I like to give a hug. I fucking adore a group hug. Without that tactility, it’s just talking/shouting/acting like Brian Blessed at someone two metres away.

Anyone that does creative things for a poor excuse of a living and/or that is on the autistic/artistic socially awkward ‘do we have to go out?’ spectrum will no doubt have found themselves convincing themselves of late that they have been preparing all of their lives for this moment in history. We live in our heads, we like our own company, we don’t like to get dressed and washed, there’s nothing better than escaping into our blank canvases and filling them up with the madness that runs through our minds.

There is that but if, like me, you mostly string words together in the hope that they might resonate with other tortured souls, kindred spirits and rather odd people you wish didn’t come see your work and email you feedback afterwards, it’s always useful to get out and about at some point (even if you don’t get washed first). If nothing else to fill up a notebook, like the thieving magpie that you are, with overheard conversations from beer gardens, cafes or public transport. And to keep your finger on the pulse of what people are worried and concerned about, or who they’re fucking. That kind of thing.

Mornings are usually productive for me. By 1pm, on a writing day, I’m usually throwing in the towel and pondering where to go and have a cold one and stare at and eavesdrop on other humans. With that out of reach, I’m now obsessing about who the dirty cereal bowls belong to at the side of the sink, or ordering shit I don’t need with money I don’t have from ebay. It’s not a healthy state of mind, is it? It’s insular and tedious and there’s only so far I can dig inside myself to yank out terrible memories before I realise I’ve already mined that seam for all that it is worth.

Anyway, it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which might never have been more important than this moment in time, as I imagine that we’re all suffering to a lesser or greater degree with anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness and my favourite of all the French words, ennui. You’ll get more sense out of other people than me on the subject of mental health but, if it helps, I’ve rebooted the filing system that exists in my head on two separate occasions after total mental collapse and I can tell you that, however down you might be, however nonsensical and difficult life might appear right now, the light will shine on you once more. As Leonard Cohen wrote, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. So hang in there. Other people can’t wait to see you again.

So, yes, I’m at the missing people stage. That’s not to say I’m not seeing anyone else – luckily there are a couple of important others around me right now (most definitely their bowls sink-side). Sadly, my mum died in the early hours of April 5th, passing away to a dreadful and tasteless soundtrack of Aled Jones which, I hope, made her laugh in her final moments in her care home. We were not with her as she danced her way towards the afterlife to whatever tune she’d selected from her inner playlist to drown out the sound of the disgraced Songs of Praise presenter. I imagine the Glenn Miller Orchestra or something more kick ass. Yes, I’m missing her. She made me laugh. A lot. And encouraged silliness at every turn in life. And not being able to give her a hug at the end, and having to attend a funeral with only seven other mourners, has added to the surrealness of losing someone that meant everything.

I don’t write the above paragraph for any sympathy – I’ve had some tremendous and meaningful support, love and affection thrown my way so don’t feel in need of any more – but to serve as a reminder that, behind all of our closed doors, people are dealing with the normal pain and twists and turns of life right now. You included. All of us have shit going on and some of it is unbearable.

Life is more real and raw than ever. Yet, these moments are so much more difficult to deal with when our support networks are only reachable via Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp or by standing at the garden gate, flicking open a letterbox with a long stick and shouting at each other. People are losing other people, and not just to coronavirus, and realising that grieving is so tough right now; access to children that don’t live with parents is impossible; people are losing work; incomes are shrinking and bills are piling up; people are realising that those essential payment holidays will make living as hard as fucking nails on the other side of this; people are suffering, collapsing, feeling fragile, at a loss; so many people are falling through the net and have no support at all. And to think, we thought the only thing we needed to do was stock up on toilet roll and order a facemask off the internet.

So, yes, I’m missing people. Because people, and being there for other people, these are the only things that matter. In Mental Health Awareness Week we need to think about others and to work out how to best help them out. Don’t be like the shoddy state, who were willing to sacrifice some of us because they’re fucking inhuman, self-serving Eton educated toffs. Be the very best human you can be because, come the great day when we can enter the new ‘normal’, having each other’s backs and giving a shit might be the only thing we have left to sustain us as a species.