Turning the corner of the stairs leading down to the basement kitchen of YHA Penzance on a camping trip two springs ago, the smell of burnt toast mixed with the scent of wet foliage drifting in through the open fire escape and I found myself back in 1996, aged nine and choking back a panic attack over morning grace.
Monday morning and as the sun rises over ice covered streets, rush hour traffic builds on the Middleway. The city council has just announced plans to ban through traffic into and out of the city centre, and for a moment I dream about what weekday mornings could look, sound and smell like before the real world pulls me back to earth with a jolt. A car jumps the lights at the junction just as I move to cross on a pedestrian green and a commuter on the opposite side of the road to me smiles and shakes his head in solidarity. Covering my mouth and nose with one hand I power walk past a stationary bus in a queue of traffic and turn on to a side street.
On the quiet streets of Edgbaston, little children in old fashioned school uniforms climb down from their wheeled fortresses and walk in to school, book bags swinging at their sides, heads held high. In the midst of a global climate crisis, it’s business as usual this morning.
I am three weeks in to my latest attempt at teaching myself Polish. I first tried to learn Polish ten years ago while studying for my PhD. My research was based out in northern Poland in and around the city of Gdańsk, and so I put myself on a sort of crash course to learn the very basics so that I could get about the city, order a cup of tea, buy a ticket on the metro, that sort of thing. I worked with translators from the University of Gdańsk for my interviews, but I had to manually translate documents and newspaper articles myself which meant that the progress I made was in a very small, technical area of the language. I knew the words for ‘nuclear power’, ‘electricity’, ‘local government’, ‘international’, ‘solidarity’, but I couldn’t hold a simple conversation with the hostel owner’s six year old daughter.
On Sunday afternoon I said a very emotional farewell to the digital piano I have had for twenty-three years. In my pyjamas with a cup of tea next to me I pulled my grandfather’s crumbling score for Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier down from the shelves above the piano and played goodbye to my Roland with Prelude in C Major. It’s such a simple piece, but it’s one of my favourites. When I had finished, I closed the lid for the final time and began to disassemble the piano ready for the family who were coming to collect it from me later the same day.
And so we come again to the last month of the year. I’m not the biggest fan of November or December, but beautiful moments can still be found in amongst the dying of the light, mass consumerism and prescriptive bonhomie that the season brings.
2019 was the year I fell back in love with reading. I used to read a lot as a child, but I fell out of the habit of reading fiction while I was at university. While studying and spending all day everyday reading and writing, the last thing I wanted to do at night was pick up another book and read some more. Between 2010 when I started keeping a log of my books and the start of this year I read 63 books. This is a figure I have almost matched book for book in the twelve months of 2019.
Here are a few photos of my first attempt at bookbinding. I wanted to make a sketchbook with paper that would be suitable for watercolour painting, but I couldn’t find a vegan watercolour sketchbook that I liked. It might sound like a funny thing to worry about being vegan, but quite often watercolour paper is coated – ‘sized’ – with gelatine. Gelatine helps reduce absorbency and allow you to rework wet paint on the surface of the paper, but it’s a by-product of animal husbandry and something vegetarians and vegans avoid. I thought it would just be easier to make my own sketchbook so that I could have full control over the paper, the binding, the covers and the size.
In the late summer of 2018 construction work began on two high rise tower blocks north and west of our flat. As seasons passed I watched as planning permission was granted, the old buildings on the two sites were demolished, foundations were filled and the steel skeletons of the two towers climbed ever higher. By the spring equinox I was worried that the tower to the west of us was going to block golden hour.
On the way to town to buy birthday cards on Sunday afternoon, a man stopped us to ask if we were local and if so, where he could go for some lunch. Reliant on a walking frame he explained that he couldn’t go very far and that he wasn’t familiar with Birmingham, but that he happened to end up here as a result of a mix up with the trains. The question, it turns out, wasn’t really about lunch, but rather an excuse to start up a conversation. Step by painful step we continued in the same direction as him for some twenty minutes, covering just twenty metres in that time, but also more than twenty years of his memories. Love, loss, disability, loneliness, despair and the cost of living, but also his love of classics, philosophy and memories of all the places he has called home over the fifty seasons he’s seen come and go.