Montreal

Montreal

I recently spent a few days in Montreal working on a film/poetry collaboration with fellow students from Sheffield Hallam University. Each day I walked across the city choosing a single route without deviation. I had a sense of the colour red, the cold, the rich and the poor. I discerned a confidence in the place on my first day, a day of -20 degree temperatures and a clear blue sky. As the weather warmed to +4 degree on our last day I was starting to become familiar with the city, noticing how frayed at the edges it was. The warmer weather had brought the homeless and the beggars back on to the streets.

Walking down the 8 mile Rue Ontario I passed through the layers of a modern society many times as though the road was punching out the vagaries and fortunes of human life like Morse code. At times the city seemed to hesitate, unsure of what to be. The Olympic Stadium on the edge of the metropolis nudged the edgelands between Montreal and the other worlds. It felt like something the city was trying to hide as though it’s attempt on the world stage had fallen short so the inhabitants decided to hide it away like one of those kitchen appliance fads that everyone has in the back of the corner cupboard.  Yet a community had grown up around the stadium and gave it a sense of belonging, as though people were saying you are ours we won’t abandon you like the rest have. 

Perhaps the lesson the city wanted me to learn was the fact that everything needs to belong, to have a place.


Montreal. Sheffield Hallam University Film/Poetry 2018

The living River Don, Sheffield

Heron on the River Don, Sheffield
Heron on the River Don, Sheffield

There was a time, back in the 80’s and much further back than that and nearer today too, that you would not have dipped the tip of a finger into a Sheffield river. The rivers stumbled through the city’s valley’s, those conduits of filth, filled with a chemical soup of toxic substances spewed out by industry, commerce and the less enlightened inhabitants who saw nothing but a receptacle for prams, shopping trolley’s, garden waste and that most ubiquitous of all hinterland treasures, the car tyre. Common amongst the areas anglers was the belief if you cut yourself in the brown scummy water you needed to get to the Northern General Hospital fast and have nurse pump some anti tetanus oil into your veins. Optimists to a man, and they were all men, rejects from the steel mills that were silenced and left to rot on the river banks, they fished not to catch the fish that could never have thrived but to rake back a little control over lives ruined by the money people elsewhere.

As industry left the city’s valleys the silent buildings stopped spewing their orange and brown liquids into the rivers. Derelict buildings don’t attract casual passers by or anglers with time on their hands. Men with no jobs want to sit in nature with at least a hope of catching something, rather than have to scrunch their nose at the scum that drips from the line as they reel in to try another day.  So the riverbanks fell silent, only frequented by those bent on dumping bin liners of rubbish and anything else that was cluttering the view across the patio.

The money people had abandoned the rivers like the steel mills, how can you make money from space where no one wants to go? The politicians turned away from the rivers as they turned away from the people.

Take humans away and nature will take its course. Trees along the banks of the river will flourish, weeds will colonise the edge space between water and dirt, the water will begin to cleanse itself of all that humans have done to it. At some point the city’s rivers got a little help, maybe we just cannot wait, maybe the damage we had caused was too great for the river to be able to heal itself, maybe we are still so arrogant we think only humans can clean up the mess humans make.

Then one Sunday morning whilst people were singing “All things bright and beautiful” the rivers quietly came back to life.

Humans once again frequented the river banks, this time they stepped into the water, bent down stuck their gloved hands into the cold soft liquid and pulled out not a plum but a pram or, prize of all prizes, an old car tyre. Scientists and conservation specialists planned a recovery of a near dead being. And ordinary people saw some hope that their local environment could be made better, but knew it was they who had to do it.

The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.
The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.

So they did. Local residents, families, school children, anglers, birdwatchers, naturalists, anyone who suddenly found that they could make a difference, they could be heard, were to be found on and in the river. This space lost to junk and nature was awash with voices and sounds and piles of rusting metal and bin liners, and heaps of car tyres.

Soon the river flowed and those who knew built staircases for Atlantic beasts, so they could walk up onto the moors and bring new life. Came the fish too, trout and grayling and they in turn brought the heron and the dipper and glory of all glory’s the kingfisher. Children played in outdoor classrooms in woodland glens, people walked and cycled safely away from traffic, reaping the health benefits of a cleaner, quieter, calm environment. No longer was there a smell of raw sewage no tangy essence of rusting metal melded with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

On a sunny day recently I walked with friends along its eastern bank heading out of the city following the rivers course as it worked its way to the source high upon the moors above Sheffield. We came across an old weir, the steel mill it was built for now long gone and forgotten. It was possibly built of cut Crawshaw Rock from Wharncliffe Crag. It is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, wide enough to wander about on at low water the blocks so well made and packed together that they have hardly moved in what must be over a hundred years. At some point it must have carried traffic, like a ford, the cut stone was bordered by oak set into the stonework with holes where handrail pillars must have been placed. I stood in the centre and looked up stream gazing along a wide settling pond sitting on a bend of the river surrounded by trees the sky breaking through at their highest point, it’s almost still water waiting to slip over the weir edge. As I pondered this marvel of engineering I became aware of the quiet and stillness and peace.

The stone weir come ford across the River Don
The stone weir come ford across the River Don, Sheffield.

The Don Catchment Trust

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Wardsend Cemetry

Extreme Destinations development at Parkwood Springs, Sheffield

Woodland management

These summer days have been stifling, particularly in the afternoon, so we have resorted to dog walks early and late in the day through the forest. The later walk I suspect is the most favoured by the dogs as it always involves a dip in the river and a game of sticks.

There are no other humans around that I can see this morning, but I can hear chainsaws working somewhere deep in the interior. I choose a favoured route along wide forest roads that gives long vistas down through the trees. Scout works from side to side, sniffing out the scent of numerous animals, sometimes darting into the trees and disappearing for several minutes. I listen for the rustle of the leaves and bracken, the tell tale signs he is following some scent track. Eventually he will re-appear back on the track, sometimes he comes from behind his paws cantering along like a racehorse as he blasts past.

The track takes me through plantations of pine, larch, oak and birch. In small clearings ash is also evident and in the older woodlands there is a preponderance of Holly from the days when this was a hunting forest and holly was a mainstay winter feed for cattle. We skirt the edge of grazing land; there is no stock today. I notice near the fence a charred and blackened area where fire has taken hold. It isn’t too large so must have been extinguished quickly, but maybe this is why the stock have gone.

The chainsaws are louder now so we must be near them. Turning the corner of the track we enter an area of birch and ash, lots of saplings and young trees. Piled along the side of the track is a long line of twigs, bundled together and stacked chest high. This is what the chainsaws are cutting. The twigs are all the same length as I look at the ends a breeze brings their scent to my nose. It smells of freshly brewed tea. I stand there and take it in. The aroma ranges from fresh green tea of the newly cut saplings to full on thick builders tea of the oldest stacks.

I notice Scout has gone ahead and is sniffing around a car parked at the side of the track. Then I see a man knelt on the ground filing a chainsaw. I call Scout back before he starts to make a nuisance of himself. As I get up to the man he stands and says hello. I ask about the twigs and he tells me it is brush for racecourse jumps. I see it now; it makes sense.

The long read…Trust your dog

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Scout. Trainee border collie search dog.

Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.

I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.

Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.

Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.

There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.

We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.

As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.

What do you mean I ask?

He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.

I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.

Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.

The daily life of a Magpie

Jake, our resident magpie has been hanging around the garden a lot lately. He spends his day driving our two terriers mad, tormenting them from various bits of house and landscape.

One of his favourite taunts is to walk along the roof gutter. He starts at one end, always announcing his presence with a call to arms that get the dogs barking and jumping up and down in a mixture of excitement and frustration.  He walks along the edge of the gutter, gaining maximum exposure until at the other end he drops down onto a neighbour’s roof. From this vantage point, he is tantalisingly close to the dogs but far enough away to be out of their reach. Perfect for strutting and shooting them cheeky looks. The dogs spin around and run up and down the garden maddened by his display of hubris.

After a few minutes of this he gets bored and hops his way up the roof and without looking back goes over the ridge and out of sight.

Such is the daily life of Jake.

Mental Health Awareness Week

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Back in 94, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I’d had it awhile but not realised what it was. I think my brother suffered as well, his way of dealing with it was to lock himself away in his room for 7 years. I chose a different, more physically and mentally destructive path that eventually led me to a doctor who prescribed me some drugs and 3 days later I was stalking around the house like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It wasn’t good, or healthy. I asked to see a psychiatrist or is it a psychologist, and Kathy Whittaker at Rotherham General saw me for 6 weeks and bingo I was back to what could be classed as normal. Kathy has all my thanks for that.

The depression never went away it just lessened in the degree to a point where there were days I didn’t notice it or feel its effects on me. I saw it as a black Labrador dog, probably because I’d read that’s how Churchill saw his. It IS real in my mind. Most days I don’t see it, but I do feel its presence. Other days I see its shadow walking down the corridor to my room and sometimes it stops at my open door and looks in then walks away. I’ve learned that this has connections with the levels of stress I am experiencing in my life at that time, so I try to take steps to reduce the level to keep the dog away.

But this time that hasn’t worked. This morning the dog walked into the room and came right up to me; he’s here by my side now as I type this out. The depression is back.

Looking back I can see the pattern forming a year or so ago.

There is no single thing, rather a collection of seemingly disparate events, things and people. It started with lack of trust in an individual and organisation along with a feeling of not being in control of my own life. I was subject to some trolling, both online and off, from someone I thought of as a friend but in reality, wanted to inflict harm on my well-being. Financial worries played a small part, but only when large bills presented themselves. There was nothing, taken in isolation, that would cause any great concern, except perhaps the trolling, but taken together they flipped the switch.

One of the ways I have of dealing with this is talking about it honestly, something that has helped me in another area of my life for decades. So that is what I am doing now. Keeping things bottled up leads to people harming themselves or others, sometimes both. I’ve seen it happen and I have lost far too many friends to suicide to think it cannot happen to anyone.

Another action that helps my depression is removing negative and destructive influencers on the equilibrium of my daily life. I started doing that a month or two ago, there is still some way to go, but already it is having positive outcomes.

I have just spent an hour with a friend over coffee and cheesecake. He doesn’t know it but the chat and the laugh we had together helped me in my day enormously. For a brief period, I felt positive and normal. Spending time with friends like that is something I need to do more because I have begun to isolate too much.

Taking more time with my wife is something I need to do because she is my best friend. Other than my parents Alison is the person I have spent the biggest part of my life with. She really is the one great stabilising influence on my life and a great example of how to live

Lastly is walking. I love to walk. I am fortunate to write about walking in the countryside, two things I love to do. There is always a point on a walk where I feel everything is just right with the world, it’s a physical as well as mental feeling. Walking gives me pleasure and a different view of the world. If I am lucky I get something new to see or experience too. I recently walked through woodland and felt, then saw, a Barn Owl gliding silently across the open space I was in. I have thought of that moment many times.

It took me many years to learn that good mental health was everyone’s right, and no one has permission to take that away from a person. Sometimes it has to be fought for and that is a battle for the individual. If they are lucky it’s a battle fought with the help of good friends and loved ones.

Sheffield Ghost Buildings

The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.
The ghost building at the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre St, Sheffield.

Ghost buildings are a sign of a past use gradually diminishing backward as time moves forward. This is the rear of the former PCL works on Eyre Street. It is within my lifetime that this site lived and died as a manufacturing works, in the heart of Sheffield. The company decamped long ago to one of the industrial estates on the outskirts.

I walked around the works in my early days selling them engineering products, but I cannot remember what happened in this ghost building. Women making air inflators and such populated the floor, the men mended machines and managed everything. It was a common setup in those days. Almost everyone was on the clock and those on the floor had a piece rate bonus. People worked in groups and they looked after their own, managing the workflow so no one got left behind. On Saturday nights everyone went to the Working Men Club, had a game of bingo, watched an act and had pork pie and pickled onions with ham sandwiches. It was a micro community that had common social values and standards of conduct. They sorted their own problems out and kept the cohesion in society.