Friday, 10 April 2020

Who Cares Wins...


What’s strange for me, is that a sometimes-cavalier attitude to my own health has mutated into something else. A hardy perennial, happily ploughing through the vicissitudes of existence - a cancer diagnosis brought me up short and inevitably initiated some reappraisal of life - but still, through the realisation of my own and others mortality and the sometimes gruelling treatment, I still keep a hybrid optimistic/cynical eye on the things around the edges of our lives. All the while the world turns and Venus shines oh so brightly.

I’m awash with a billion useful online interventions and everyone’s artistry, but as people seemingly try and cheer each other up, it often feels like all those attempts at doing a Marie Kondo or collective online sing-a-long-a-thons are well-meaning, but there is an over saturation and sometimes I’m just left with a niggling cloying feeling: either that or all the doom and gloom of the virus itself. Though I’m sure that when all this thing begins to fade, there will be new creative uses of technology and apps that haven’t yet been imagined. Then there are those great poems and performances that will be born of this period. Suzanne Moore wrote a brief article whose title alone piqued my interest: How can you feel safe amid coronavirus? Swap mindfulness for mindlessness. Bravo - have a quick read HERE. And for those of you wanting up to date information on wider arts/health/covid things, I always recommend the Culture Health & Wellbeing Alliance resources page HERE.

So here are one or two things that may be of interest.

Come Up With Your Own Ideas
I’m never quite sure what’s ‘safe’ to recommend to the diverse of this blog, and as the online world is overflowing with peoples own offers arts interventions, I’ll leave all of that for you to filter and plough through. After all, I am guilty of a little self-indulgence, as I share a little of my current plight here, but then the opportunities I normally post are increasingly thin on the ground right now. I did see a great big gurning mug shot of Tracey Emin ‘CBE’ looking grumpy, nay - angry - and who is ‘commissioned’ by White Cube to keep an online diary. You can read, see and hear her contribution by clicking HERE or on her mugshot. There is a much more charming and I’m sure un-commissioned on-line contribution from Bob & Roberta Smith which you can find HERE, Including - Come Up With Your Own Ideas.

Circle of Care
Putting Tracey's angry head aside for a second, here's a very timely share from Performing Medicine.
Circle of Care is a relational framework for care, created by Performing Medicine in collaboration with healthcare professionals at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust. We hope it may be useful to everyone right now, not just those who are not healthcare professionals, as we try to collectively look after ourselves & each other. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the multi-directionality of care feels important between housemates, neighbours, healthcare professionals and communities. It's not enough to ‘feel’ caring – care needs to be demonstrated and embodied through actions and behaviours. Circle of Care identifies a set of skills that can help to support the flow of care and remove any obstacles in its way. See our blog Circle of Care in Communities by clicking HERE.

Frustratingly, this interesting, very creative set of small commissions has come very late in the day, with a Monday deadline - but if you’re kicking your heels over the weekend, what better way to get your creative juices flowing.

HOME WORK - the opportunity- 10 x micro commission opportunities (£300 each) on the theme of ‘care’
- For artists, freelancers, and collaborators
- St Helens, Merseyside and beyond.
- Deadline: 12 April

Theme What does care look like? How do we recognise it, how do we value it? Care is a central element of our programme here at HoG. Our programme only happens because we work with a whole ecology of people who care - artists, community workers, facilitators, activists, hosts, producers. Format What could this look like? We’re open to any form that your work might take - for example a performance, a sound piece, an online conversation or masterclass, a zine, a blogpost, an image - anything which considers, embodies, speaks to the theme of care.

Thinking about ‘care’ We’re not interested in the making of stuff for the sake of making more stuff, so be honest with us, if you’d like to use this fee to spend some time thinking about how to support your community, share that with us This is only a little support (equivalent to an average artist day fee). Please only spend up to 8 hours on this. We know that our circumstances are all different. Whatever way you’d like to structure your work on this is the right way! We are prioritising applications from communities who are at the heart of our programme, if you identify as disabled, working class, LGBTQ+ or if you have refugee status, let us know. For more info/to apply click HERE.   

(footnote #9 - a rather disjointed but extend one!)
As our elected leader is being treated for the virus right now, I’ll lay off anything too harsh other than my ruminations on the inevitable state surveillance that are being born of this time - and what of all those other deals, policies, strategies that will be quietly being manipulated behind the scenes right now: quietly, invisibly perhaps. I understand that mobile phones in Turkey are being monitored, and judging by the amount of government and NHS messages I get to my phone, I’ve signed up for a very British kind of surveillance myself. While the ‘celebs’ are being accused of spreading fake news around 5-G and the virus, it really is interesting how these things take hold. Amir Khan seems to have led the pack with conspiracy theory, but while it would be easy to dismiss anything off-kilter, it’s worth noting the big business of 5-G is rocketing right now, and of course time will see the damage to mental and physical health that this ubiquitous connectivity has on us all. No, not novel corona viruses, but boy doesn’t the gibberish around this seemingly impossible link between biology and technology give those with vested financial interests in 5G a superb smoke-screen for the real health impacts it may contribute to?

We should digest too, that for many years we relished good old Porton Down where in fact, we cultivated all manner of hazardous biological and chemical weapons. I’m sure governments around the world have cachets of quite terrifying man-made things that we really, really would/wouldn’t want to know about. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see just where conspiracy theory and its cousin, fake news, spring from. And isn’t it the nature of Instagram to show the world our contrived aesthetic selves, but what of images of perfection in an age when social media’s flip-side offers the unattainable? What about all those people aiming for the ‘perfect’ Kardashian body, locked away at home trying their unachievable best - what will we make of all this - how will we emerge - body beautiful - or frustrated and full of self-hatred? It’s already begining to be reported that an increase in suicide is likely and given that key support services have been hit by the virus, people who are vulnerable run the risk of slipping under the radar. Please remember in the UK that the Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year on 116 123 and by email at


It feels like the supermarkets and banks and telecom companies are all doing their best, what with all those big adverts from CEO’s - in fact, my bank emailed to say they’d scrap any interest they would charge on a £5k overdraft facility if I wanted it until July. Then of course - they’d charge interest. There’s all the well-deserved applause NHS workers are hearing each Thursday at 8:00pm, to which our premier joined in prior to his admission to hospital. But all those frontline workers from care and clinical settings needed this acknowledgment a long time ago, particularly where cost-efficiencies and privatisation have been the way of the government. Will a post-pandemic period see a renaissance in our understanding of the ways health and social care are understood, funded and delivered? I’d like to think so, but will our premier (whose approval ratings have rocketed) be recorded in history as the victorious Churchill figure or a dithering Chamberlin. Then of course there’s that appalling propagator of fake news, histrionics and temper tantrums: up in the White House the leader of the Free World continues to defy belief. Still, he provides us with the blackest of comedy in the bleakest of times, but he also models his behaviour and when fake news and lies are spread, celeb’s are the least of our worries when you have this great ape on Capitol Hill.

Confined to barracks as one of the ‘extremely vulnerable’ and advised against leaving the house for my own good - though my best medicine is possibly wandering by sea and hills - I find myself having to drive up to Cumbria. What - flout the ban? Never! This anomaly in the interpretation of self-confinement can be cast aside for treatment and as my own local hospital has been repurposed as the go-to place for Covid-19, those of us having regular chemo attend a smaller hospital which aims to be virus free. 

I can’t deny being a little apprehensive as all things viral escalate and having got my home into a relatively safe space, with new routines to sensibly safeguard everyone’s health as best we can, walking into a hospital feels something akin to entering the lion’s den. But it’s a sunny day, the hospital is quiet and the people working there beaver away with that professional warmth I’m appreciating all the more, given the context that they’re working through. Waiting for another needle to be pushed into my flesh, through the window I watch a pair of buzzards slowly circling in the cool blue sky.

Back at home I read about the normal people wanting to do something pro-active in the here and now, like (ok, maybe not so normal) Bafta-winning Syrian photographer and filmmaker Hassan Akkad who has temporarily changed careers to spend his time disinfecting Covid-19 wards at his local hospital. He moved to London four years ago and wanted to give back to the NHS during the pandemic, and so has taken the minimum-wage job as a way of contributing. He is also is raising much needed awareness about the role of immigrants in the health ecology. Check out his twitter @hassan_akkad  Superb - and then there’s the army of new volunteers. Wonderful. Let's hope for more long-term future investment in care services and the NHS post pestilence.

Cities and Memory
There’s been much coverage of the increase of bird song in the UK and I’m sure the phenomenon is global. The calls and songs are amazingly loud and beautiful, and as a result of some rather beefy steroids I’m taking, I wake up well before dawn and wait with real excitement to hear the slowly building dawn chorus from my room. My avian friends have accompanied me through my treatment like nothing else. I live in a terrace house on a city street and have a small back yard - but boy, am I lucky to sit in this small square and feel the sun and hear and see those birds. 

If any of you are interested in sound, field recordings and connecting/hearing other people’s collected sounds around the world, I can recommend nothing as highly as Cities and Memory.

This is a global collaborative sound project encompassing field recording, sound art and sound mapping – remixing the world, one sound at a time. Every location on the Cities and Memory sound map features two sounds: the original field recording of that place, and a reimagined sound that presents that place and time as somewhere else, somewhere new. They have a wonderful Covid-19 resource page with some superb links HERE. 

Before the virus took hold so miserably, dealing with my hitcher was something I was focused deeply on, and with some recent degree of success - imagine a successful restraining order - and you’re not far-off. So the virus gives me a bleaker situation to consider and I’m doing my bit. But frustration - you bet. This spring I was determined, in between treatments, to drive down to the Forest of Dean and pay some kind of homage at the blossom tree outside Dennis Potter’s house. I imagine it must be gloriously frothy right now, and with my heightened awareness of being in the present, it would have been a treat to commune in some way with Potter. Alas, not this year. But...

Here’s what I do. In the wee early hours at first light, alone, in my exercise slot, I break away onto silent back streets and alleyways and wend my way from home making no contact with other humans. In the distance I see the occasional runner, but at this time, only the hardcore are out. I find my way to that lovely space between the edge of town and all that’s urban, and the last vestiges of farmland that kiss the motorway, where lorries and the odd car still hurtle past delivering some sense of normality. Sandwiched like this next to a reservoir and housing estate and with a lame threat of a bull’s presence, this narrow band of unassuming offers some rural sanctuary - an edge-land. Inside there is a dip and a small stream, and a hedgerow coppiced many years ago, with ancient hawthorn, oak and holly and old lichen covered gateposts long out of use, are reassuring and cold to the touch.

Here’s what I plan. I’ll gather the soft new leaves of young nettles and dandelions, as like everyone else, I hope for small miracles out of things beyond the evidence base. I understand that nettle soup, along with my daily consumption of fresh turmeric might have some health-giving properties, both to subdue the malevolent hitcher, and specifically the nettles on respiratory conditions (there are in fact interesting small-scale research findings on this). My personal armoury is indeed like nothing I could have imagined a year ago.

Here’s what I see. Walking home I swatch healthy black beaked crows perch on top of the pad-locked children’s play area; guardians perhaps. The play area is a health & safety eco attempt at one of those Notting Hill or Tottenham adventure playgrounds of the 1950’s where kids could play with rusty metal, splintering lumps of wood and stoke fires. A mad and wild and wonderful post-war liberation of the cities land enabled by visionary artists and activists and a product of a progressive time. Risk and chance and wild experimentation. What might emerge over these next years?

I see bags of dog filth thrown into bushes and on to pavements.
I see the skies empty of planes.
I see and hear the empty roads - in the future will we share cars - or will we be terrified of sharing?  
But strangers smile and wave.

Here’s what I feel. A neighbour who lives down the road, who I’ve said hello to for 30 years, but never really known, brings me a newspaper each morning. I now know that Bernard has lived here since he was a child and now a good few years older than me, he is a new kind of friend. It’s unexpected and liberating. At 8:00pm last night, I stood and clapped my hardest in gratitude to those working at the coal-face of this thing. As cynical as I am to tokenism instead of resources, it’s all I can do to hold back the tears in my eyes, as a recipient of this care we have so long taken for granted.

. . .

Here's a little whimsy.

Carelessly drinking wine
Walking through fields and streams
Licking salt-sticky fingers
Fresh cut grass and creosote
Tarry oozing telegraph poles
Tramping moorland through woods to shore
Sun on skin and harsh winter winds
Hugging you so fucking tightly

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