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.
In recent weeks as the northern hemisphere transitions into winter, wrapping Britain in a damp embrace of fog and grey skies, I’ve been struggling to read. Two weekends ago, having contorted myself and my book to fit under the narrow beam of light cast by the little reading lamp on my bedside table, I found myself lying flat on my back on the floor trying to foam roll my spine into oblivion.
A woman in her sixties angles her phone camera up at the brick wall of the sports centre as students dressed in an array of pastel hued, skintight sportswear come and go around her. At first I can’t see what’s caught her eye, but then I follow her gaze and spot the patch of dappled sunlight illuminating the brickwork two floors up, and smile. I’m not the only dreamer out today.
Outside the Guild, a group of students gather around a trestle table collecting signatures to petition the Vice Chancellor to declare a climate emergency. All earnest nods and youthful self-belief, they manage to draw a small crowd. In stone washed denim and an oversized Jurassic Park themed Christmas jumper, a floppy haired teenager passes by on his way back to halls from afternoon lectures, phone in hand, eyes glued to the screen.
On the corner of Carpenter and Church as the sun begins to set, a white van eases out into the nose to tail traffic of the school run. In the passenger seat a young boy of eleven or twelve reaches his fingers into a packet of fries, the red of the cardboard matching the shade of his school blazer.
With rain hammering on the corrugated roof covering the vegetable market, two little girls run between stalls, coat pockets stuffed with handfuls of fun snaps. The fruit trader on the end by the bus stop jumps as the girls detonate a snap by his neat greengrocer’s display of apples, oranges and nectarines. Between half-stifled giggles, the girls insist “it wasn’t us” before scurrying away to play the same trick on another trader at the other end of the market.
Framed by plastic sheeting torn away from the unglazed windows on the ninth floor of a block of flats, a lone construction worker watches Saturday morning unfold at the market on Upper Dean Street.
The canal towpath is lined with rusty hunks of metal, abandoned after someone’s uninspiring game of canal lucky dip. I’ve seen him a few times recently, swinging his blue rope out into the murky water, sometimes on his own, other times accompanied by friends with cans of beer on the go who help him haul his treasures to dry land. A broken, twisted bicycle frame, minus the wheels, road signs, and other sharp pieces of metal line the banks of the canal, presenting an obstacle course and puncture threat to my bike as I cycle to the pool.
Fireworks night on the evening parliament is dissolved. The Jack Russell brothers downstairs can’t stop barking as the city skies are transformed by an enthusiastic display of light and sound put on by every amateur pyromaniac within a 5km radius. Launched from rooftops, alleyways and the canal towpath, the rockets are so close they make the building shake and windows rattle.
After dark as the working day winds down, a homeless man sits on the pavement outside the station with his sketchbook open to a detailed drawing of BMAG in Victoria Square. On New Street a team of construction workers, balanced on rooftops, assemble the wooden huts of the Frankfurt German Market. Opening earlier each of the fifteen years I have lived in Birmingham, this year’s start date is so early the trees above the huts are still in full leaf and decked with poppies for Remembrance Day.
In Tesco, a young woman of no more than twenty stands in the doorway rolling a cigarette from a newly purchased packet of tobacco, the envelope hanging open to display its unheeded warning: ‘Smoking kills. Quit now’. Office workers form a long queue which snakes through the shop. Hunched over phones, they tap, swipe and slowly shuffle baskets forward as a single organism, lost in their own individual worlds.
On my way down the hill to the vegetable market while England play South Africa in the final of the Rugby World Cup, roads are turned to rivers and the streets are quiet. Crossing the flooded astroturf in Chinatown, I spot a group of England fans gathered together for a half time smoke outside a budget hotel. A lucky cat waves from the window of a closed café and a row of roasted ducks hangs limply behind steamed up glass in a Cantonese restaurant on the lower floor of the Mapstone building.
I keep a notebook for the stories and scenes I encounter in my everyday life as well as for illustration ideas. It’s a commonplace book, of sorts, and somewhere I note down songs I hear, ideas that I have for new projects, and an assortment of other bits and bobs that I want to remember or use as inspiration in my photography, films or other creative projects.