Changeling

Gazelle Twin has become my latest synaesthetic experience, and if that’s too wanky for you let me explain with what I have – billowing smoke, purple and bronze and black. I love the word “bronze”, it’s one of those satisfying moments when language is more than tool and expression, it’s got a form of its own in your mouth, like a magician’s trick. A ream of scarves, pulled beyond the throat and the teeth into the air, sailing against the sky.

“Changelings” is a stacatto beat of swordplay and temple interior, a dark hallway with angled walls and ceiling lost in shadows. I could hide there awhile, for reflection, for loss, for sustenance, for something that would make sense in an increasingly fragile world.

I feel prickly with heat, unnerved by the walls and doors and corridors. Every room I went into had grown eyes; mine were blind and my mind stupid. Birds and words and stones, falling from my mouth, too much at once, and where there are eyes there are ears too. I ran.

My legs are pocked over with scars from a childhood of self-harm, beyond conscious thought, when eczema and short hair and bullying were the bane of my life, and the pain caused me to roll over and over on the floor just to leave it all behind, since my hands were bandaged into useless paws. I’d sleep on the classroom carpet during lessons, and lie awake at night staring out of the window.

Scars. I tried to hide them with make-up when dancing ballet.

This hide has always been a threadbare thing. While in hospital, they thought I was burning myself with a cigarette, until it became apparent that the surreptitious sit-ups had worn the hole in my back.

I talked about this yesterday with the girl-ghost of my past and future, whose energy leaves me cold with regret for her suffering, and more alive and fucking glad to be so, than I have in a long time. She sparkles as mountain water running downhill, running uphill if she so wished, because after what she’s been through I doubt anything would be beyond her capabilities. A rare IQ and a list of mental disorders long as her arm. Nature is a cruel joke, we laughed at it, and solemnly reflected on how her school system had let her down. For all that intelligence, the system couldn’t work to her mind and her mind couldn’t assimilate the system. It happens. She told me of one teacher who took her to the back of the room and let her work alone, out of sight and earshot, so that within ten minutes she was done.
Not all those who wander are lost.

I can sympathise, if never fully understand. Everyone’s illness and experiences are their own. But while talking to her, it’s so clear how her recovery came about and will continue to run uphill, downhill, because she notices Everything. Subjects beyond anorexia, beyond anxiety, beyond depression. She told me of a nurse who had talked to her about the Little things in the World Beyond, while inside. We agreed that this is crucial in treatment – to lessen the risk of becoming institutionalised, that white stick of a word, which so many of us carried in the end. It took months to get used to life beyond locked doors, beyond ever-watchful eyes.

They were only trying to keep us alive, of course. But you never underestimate the power of owning power over a lock, thereafter – or indeed, your own thoughts and movements. The staff were our saviours and our enemies; not every choice/action was induced by illness, but by personal preference and human nature, yet they couldn’t allow for the slightest imbalance of the delicate peer pressure which the system relied on. If one of us got away with something, the rest would buck up too – for various reasons.

Anorexia is a manipulative, deceitful thing. It can turn a loving human into a wiry demon with hot eyes, raking nails. It’s an external manifestation of rage, fear, doubt, guilt, all the things buried inside where hurt has been caused or neglect has festered wounds.
To come back around, you have to learn to trust again. Not only others but your own opinions, ideas, emotional reactions, physical needs. And you have to finally confront what is inside, nothing so mundane as “good” and “bad” but You, and your place in the world. Because it’s useless trying to love and learn when you can’t bear to look yourself in the eye.

Triggers catch me out. Getting past immediate reactions is often the biggest challenge. Yes, I have a temper and I’m not excusing it. Control is a conflict within and without. I can try to explain, and fail.

I am not a nice person. I am black and white.

Experience has taught me to be distrustful again; I used to trust and talk about anything. After years of silence, it felt good to spill over and run on, until I learned that this could be used for and against me, or for and against other people. I still don’t know enough about how the world works, and rarely think beyond Today’s consequences. Such is the habit of survival and ignorance. The consequences don’t matter when you can pin your own selfishness and inattentiveness and arrogance on an eating disorder.
(When you still don’t know how much is You, and It.)

I never could get across what I mean to say. Being held accountable, responsible, these are things I’ve run from for too long – pride and shame have their say, much of what I don’t understand frustrates me, and I’d turn my face away rather than ask. Even when I bite my lip and confront, often the answers are elusive and sliding away in riddles until it all becomes the waste of my very precious time.
But I need to stick it out and ask again.

Oh we talked about that, too. Time. How you can hear it passing. The deepening of your voice and the creaks in your lower spine, the way things become funny for no apparent reason, how the world suddenly holds colours and is vital for it, and how some friends slip away while others remain. Some become vacant spaces of themselves and others the tapestry of a life renewed. It occurred to me (again) the other day, my 30th birthday, that we all change our minds as well as our skins every few years or so.

Become a new person. Shift the mindset, the style, the tone. We leave traces of ourselves behind, for others to follow. My mother has gone from exasperated parent to fearful carer to curious friend and confidante. I never dreamt we would one day have this sort of closeness; she was drawn to my sister and my father to my brother, when we were children. Nanna was the one who sat with me to reminisce and to weave past and future together. Her stories of our ancestors, of vague sepia-tinged memories of post-WWII England, now ring through my mind with those history lessons of school when I wish I’d paid more attention, or that more details had been presented for me to memorise.

Hurtling forward. Glancing back. I felt it at age 15, something changed, and my spine ridged itself while tension squirmed through me. I remember standing in the tuck shop with my friend K, trying to tell her what was wrong and coming up with nothing. Only that it felt bigger than me, than us, than homework and boys and periods, all the minutiae of life-change we were going through. To this day, I still don’t know what caused it – pale mind – but it lasted weeks, months, possibly years. I’d always been a worrier, but this felt different.

Half my life time ago, and here. 30 was supposed to bring the answers. I feel more confused and fearful than ever, but within context… There have been a lot of recent changes. Perception and perspective are everything. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to cope well with moving to a new station. The distortion of routines would have brought on panic attacks, restrictive eating, over-exercising to compensate and alleviate frayed nerves.
Now, it’s a loose laugh and a weary rub of the cheek, and enjoying the tension-banter while everyone adjusts, and… Performing the funeral rites of a tired old building. Walking each corridor, each flight of stairs, each floor one last time – turning out lights, closing windows, watching the sun burnish the horizon line (still blue) before turning away and closing the door.

When the world takes priority, things start to make more sense. Not everything, of course, but enough that I can get by. I’ll still miss cues and wonder why and how I stepped off the edge, and I’ll still run and hide from company and questions when it all becomes a bit like that butter scraped over too much bread. Thank you, Tolkien, for I’ve never found a better way to describe what extended interaction can mean to someone used to being alone. Whether through forced isolation in illness or as a reflection of Self, the child on the windowsill behind long curtains, reading into the twilight.

Sounds of the rain at the window. I hate that what I loved can become tinged with negative emotions. Symbolism is my friend and enemy. I have to watch what I say, and it segues through to how I think. Exasperated and… To be left alone. That was all I asked for. Some damage can never be undone. One man’s objective view is another’s inability to let go, so that I start to question Everything. I hold fragments of trust in one hand and opinions in the other. The pressure behind my eyes is often unbearable. I used to fall back on what others told me was Right, wanting to be Good and to go along with it, not to cause upset… But I know what makes my skin crawl, my mind go dark with old fears, and won’t go that way any more.

It’s not really anyone’s fault that this happens. But when these experiences are already known, and the prodding continues, I will give back what I can. Or turn my face away, whichever is easiest, since constant conflict is bad for the digestion and nerves. Fight-Flight is for the real moments of danger and fear, not an everyday experience. I’ve wasted enough time already.
Past still reaches out to present. I’m not an easy person to be around at the best of times. As Ma puts it, I walk into a room on heavy feet.

To quieten the room, damage limitation, I left by the side door and now Exile is a comfort I’ve longed for. It means I can concentrate in a quiet state, sitting in this library-mind where I’ve finally caught up on reading all those hoarded files, gratefully picked up along the way when offered; though whether I retain what is learned remains to be seen. Details usually emerge and flow back on a trigger, and then rarely when I need them, but it’s nice to know they lie there like neatly-folded blankets in the cupboard, ready for a change.

How to put them into anything useful that belongs to me, is another matter. Still too many gaps in my mind where context should be.
But listening helps. I pick things up as I go along, popping them on this shelf and that. I prefer listening to speaking.

What it’s all for, I couldn’t tell you. But it feels important to know how to connect past with present, conflict with peace, politics with people; and it staves off this Awareness, the fear that one day I’ll look around and realise I’m walking on the fence. Breathing underwater. When you become too Aware, you fall off, you drown.
Life just happens. That’s recovery.

Woven strands: Artistic Influence

“I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”

When interviewing Ernest Hemingway for The Paris Review, George Plimpton acknowledged the “occasional waspish tone of the answers”, born of the author’s belief that writing “is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work is done.” This sounds all too familiar. I’ve overdone my own exposure, in essays that – while useful at the time of writing my first novel, for relearning techniques – have left me somewhat strung out when it comes to starting anything new. I’m perhaps too self-aware now for a clear sense of originality. When Hemingway stated that “such ideas should remain unexpressed”, with probing questions leaving him “almost inarticulate”, I know what he means, with the usefulness of hindsight. That being said, the essays were good to write, in the way taking a clock apart allows you to know its mechanism for when something goes wrong.

But on one subject, Hemingway was willing to show his hand: those artistic influences found in the deftness of a painter with tubes and brushes, the composer his sheet music. Donne to Cezanne, “the good Kipling” to Van Gogh, Bach to Mozart – all creators that touched his life and his mind, to be called upon when he would “stand in absolute concentration” for writing. Nowadays, with the help of mobile technology, we can as easily wander through the minds of favourite artists via apps and websites like Pinterest, as we can take the conventional route of walking the echo-halls of an art gallery. Playlists can be tailored to a written draft. Dance and drama can evoke the method approach, for getting into the mind and moods of a character.

“Harmony” in music, is defined as “the simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear”, while counterpoint is “the art of combining melodies / the texture resulting from the combining of individual melodic lines.” Generally speaking, harmony and counterpoint are the agreement of elements distinct from one another, and “any element that is juxtaposed and contrasted with another”. Those moments are wonderful – aren’t they? – when you touch upon a particular paragraph that fits the background music of a bar or pub, at a time of day when you’re drinking something with the taste to somehow mirror the mood. When it feels as though everything has been geared towards inspiring an image or mood. As a method-writer, I work towards achieving this kind of interdependency of art to form a “backdrop” – something sustainable for the duration of a scene, perhaps. Watching Weimar cinema to add disquiet (in filters of blue, with nuances of light and shadow) or wandering into a particular gallery room to find the narrative of a display. When a piece of instrumental music seems to have been written for a character or scene, adding textures previously unthought of, there’s the chance to review your writing from a different angle, one governed more by instinct and mood than lyrical content.

Any piece of art can at once stand alone, and be linked to another in a different format/medium. There might be no apparent crossover, except in subjective terms. Time changes perspective too, with personal experiences adding emotional layers almost indefinable, except for the way they get under your skin and stay there. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Dead Flag Blues once belonged to a winter’s morning slog uphill, until I read the opening chapter of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger for the first time. Now the heavy-tread rhythm and bronze guitar twangs belong to Roland’s feet through the desert, on the trail of the man in black.)

When choosing décor, we look for the blends of tone and texture that will make a house feel like a home; furnishing the lines of a living space to present an image of ourselves. Even the sparsity of an office can be made to feel like an extension of “home”, with those framed works and prints by a favourite artist, drawings made by the kids, holiday souvenirs, newspaper cuttings, empty whisky miniatures lined up in a row. Each facet reflective of individuality, while shining together to create the image as a whole. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person, based on what they choose to surround themselves with – or allow others to surround them with.

Remembering and learning about WWI, we can read the words of Sassoon, Rosenberg and Owen to live in the immediacy of those desperate moments. They connect with the likes of Paul Nash and Richard Jack, whose work asserts direct historical links as well as the more subconscious achievements of art to carry emotional resonance forward in time.

ypres salient
Paul Nash, “The Ypres Salient at Night”

return to the front
Richard Jack, “The Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station”

As much to make sense of what they were experiencing, as to capture the rawness of conflict for the ones who would rebuild peace, the artists imposed control – a strange sense of beauty – upon the ugly chaos around them. Time has no way of diminishing their effect. Standing in front of Jack’s Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station in York art gallery, I couldn’t move for about twenty minutes, absorbing each detail. The scene is absorbing in its raw portrayal of human emotions, played out in the set of a jaw, the resigned curve of shoulders, downcast eyes, pity around the girl’s mouth, the looming presence of the waiting train. It was a world away from my own liberal time… and still, almost one hundred years ago. Art crosses the borders of time and geography, carrying emotional salience forward to our own time and circumstances. Somehow, the unimaginable becomes all too real.

And it’s still going on.

“On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”

But why is art necessary in a war?

Graeme Lothian, who was sent on the same trip as Jules George, has a unique perspective. Decades ago he was a commando before breaking his back. He sees the artists’ purpose as complementary to the journalists and historians who will also chronicle the war.

“It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”

And he believes the very act of deploying artists to Afghanistan shows progressive thinking on the part of the MoD.

“The Army have always said no to artists, now they are changing their mind. There is a sea change that artists are important.” –
Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

There are some works of art which must be experienced in their original state for the message to come across. A postcard rendition of a Mark Rothko piece has no chance of capturing the awesome (I mean this in the strongest senses), silent sentience, hung on a wall in the Tate gallery. When surrounded by them in the Rothko room, you are compelled to fall silent yourself; to stand still, and watch them breathe. Pulse with life. They draw you in, as though towards an answer for every posed question, or perhaps the end of time itself.

I can’t bring myself to look at some of them full-on, only with the sideways glance of a reluctant admirer, with defiance and submission both. The damn things speak for themselves. They make you listen.

Art allows us to learn as much about ourselves as each other. While inadvertent plagiarism (cryptomnesia) is an undeniable part of creativity, there’s no sense in shutting down a project for the tension between goodwill and guilt, and certainly no shame in reworking ideas as an homage to another. As Pete Seeger put it, “You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little… It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.”
(I wish I’d known about this as a teenager, when I gave up on writing out of fear I was just borrowing from all the inspirational childhood literature. Personal perceptions are what make us unique. Everyone has their own story to tell.)

I feel most at home among the Tonalist painters, who in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, established an American art movement based on “an abiding spiritual feeling for the intimacies of the human landscape.” The name itself alludes to “the use of muted natural tones… portraying the symbolic and abstract character of landscape forms.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a key founder, sought to bring harmony to the wilderness of nature with the essence of humanity. Like Hemingway, Whistler valued the idea of artistic crossovers.

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful — as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.” – “Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock”, Public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.

The founder of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, “wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears”; he spoke of art in the synaesthetic language that is a characteristic blending of the senses. “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” In the same way as Whistler, who believed that “art should not serve narrative, but rather project the artist’s subjective feelings through the handling of the medium,” and who drew upon the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” Kandinsky wanted to further the internal appreciation of music through the colours he experienced; giving non-synaesthetes the chance to experience a sensory crossover too. But anything more would be a distraction from the audience’s emotional connection. A simple gratification was to be found in viewing art, without looking for any more meaning than what was before them.

As a chromesthete, I see colours and patterns in sound – predominantly music – and moods. Though abstract and impressionist art lend themselves towards some kind of external view of what goes on in my head, nothing comes quite so close as Whistler’s “Nocturne” set. The play between light and shadow, abstract over concrete, with things appearing not quite as they should seem. The once-firm lines of steel and stone are now seemingly spun from cobweb, and likely to be blown away in a wandering night breeze. Time is dialled down to sequential movements; less a narrative, than a handful of slow-shutter shots. The gluey state of dreams and drowsiness and half-light.

800px-James_McNeill_Whistler_-_Nocturne-_Blue_and_Silver—Battersea_Reach_-_Google_Art_Project
Nocturne, Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach

A construct undone, and somehow more accessible for it.

“Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress… as a ‘symphony in white,’ Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.” It’s not difficult to see how the French critic would have drawn comparisons; just as snow is never only one colour, “The White Girl” (or “Symphony in White No.1”) is composed of as many shades in a pale palette as you would find instruments in an orchestral piece. In Whistler’s tonalist work, the visual theme weaves itself into the very semantics of music: “Nocturne” is defined as “a composition inspired by, or evocative of, the night” – that resonance found in the twilight hues of a trickling character piece for the piano, played to a blue-and-silver garden or lowlit bar. Disbelief is more easily suspended when written between the lines. Whenever I’m feeling not quite myself – stuck with my head on the writer’s block, greyed-out by the Everyday – I go flicking through the works of Whistler and his contemporaries, to find the same fluid surreality of a moonlight sonata. It’s a bit of immersion, prior to writing.

As individuals bring their experiences to art for subjective interpretation, so the arts in turn allow creators to reflect upon and complement each other’s work. What is the first draft of writing, but a slew of words spilt with inspiration? We then edit to needs, as a gardener prunes a rose to allow it to flourish. The painter somehow knows when the next dab of colour will be as a jarring note in a composition. It’s not so much the willpower to begin, as the control to Stop – to insist and argue with the inner critic, that a piece is complete.

On Aphex Twin

Thoughts on Aphex Twin, by that mister Campkin.

jimmicampkin

I can remember the first time I heard an Aphex Twin song, and it would go onto become my favourite – a song that I would carry with me were I stranded on a desert island with only seven songs to occupy me for the rest of my life.  In 1999, whilst groin deep in nu-metal and teenage insecurity, I saw ‘Windowlicker‘ on MTV.  It was not love at first sight, but the briefest glimpse towards a new reality, a fast moving train passing through a station.  This strange and bizarre record confused me at first, but enough to want to see and hear it again, and in 1999 it was his breakout hit.  The stuttering beats, the ambient waves of sound and the constant clockwork groan of a distorted voice – I’d never heard anything like this before.  And then there was the video.  A disturbing satire…

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Wandering through Colours: Theories in Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia is not a product of conscious thought. Though it is possible to induce a short-term effect in the minds of test subjects, via hypnosis, mnemonic-training and drugs, the truth lies in the lack of consistency and prolonged reaction times between the inducer (trigger) and the concurrent (synaesthetic response.) To put it another way, regarding the more commonly known grapheme-colour type, the identification of colour in a letter will differ each time, with an “a” seen as red in one instance, blue the next. Synaesthesia is closer to the involuntary actions of a cardiac muscle; we don’t tell our hearts to beat or blood to flow, yet these will occur even as we sleep, and we are aware of them through the feel of our pulse and in our conscious state.

The Stroop Effect is used by researchers to “see if the reactions within a person’s brain are consistent with those standard in a brain altered by synesthesia.” Typically, a longer reaction time will be seen in the mind of a non-synaesthete (imagine a kick as opposed to a blink.) The Test-Retest measures consistency between inducer—>concurrent: subjects are presented with a set of objects, flashcards bearing numbers and letters/words, or an audio programme without visuals, and asked to attribute these with a synaesthetic response of colour, shapes/patterns, textures, taste, personality traits, moods etc. After a set period of time, the test is reissued, with a synaesthete producing replicate results, “as they’ve already made neural associations which are automatic and consistent.”

The answer then lies not in preference, but in a reflexive response. It’s also true of synaesthesia that, with increased awareness, its strength can be intensified. This was my experience last year, when I could finally put a name to what was causing all of the colours and shapes in my mind, in relation to sounds, letters, numbers and – more recently discovered – moods. I had experienced flecks of synaesthesia, in conjunction with sounds and some written words, since childhood, and had assumed everyone saw the world as I did. Now, it’s possible to distinguish one particular “mood” from another by the colour that defines it, like strata-nimbus layering up the sky as forewarning of storms, or wispy cirrus on brighter days. This is most likely through an increased awareness of what I’m “looking” at.

I did at first attribute every reaction to grapheme/tonal synaesthesia, but this couldn’t explain how I was also able to perceive moods in colour, independent of text or sounds. Further research showed that an emotion-based type does indeed exist. It’s possible for a synaesthete to present more than one type, often without realizing it, much as we experience crossmodal correspondences to enhance our awareness of surroundings (think of a cat phlegming the air, using both taste and smell, as well as sight, to map out relevant features of its territory.)

On top of all this are the actual means of manifestation, through internal or external perception. An associator-synaesthete will find their concurrent is based in the mind, as of an awareness, like ink sifting through water, while a projector will find synaesthesia in the world around them, as colours in letters or shapes moving around their body in connection with sound.

For my part, synaesthesia presents itself in indistinct form behind my eyes – I’m an associator. A grapheme won’t be defined in clear-cut lines, but I am aware of its inherent colour all the same; just as I know that singer Cat Power has a smoky-purple voice, and the colour of loss is milky-violet. It is an awareness of changes in light and darkness, a shape seen out of the corner of the eye. A sun-dial shadow moving silently over the plate. A painting in Tonalism.

nocturne
James McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach.”

I’m certainly no expert in neuroscience, but curiosity about the syndrome has led me to wander from one theoretical idea to another, linking proven facts relative to the brain, to what is known of synaesthesia through objective tests, research and subjective reports. Of particular interest is the chance of there being a deeper interaction between sensory modalities for a heightened synaesthetic response, like weaving orchestral instruments into a symphony. In my experience, reading aloud from a book can stimulate colours in sight and hearing, as well as evoke colouration in a mood. Do these always stand independently of one another, or can they mingle to create a stronger impression?

One theory holds that “synaesthetes have unusual connections between different sensory regions of the cerebral cortex, perhaps because of a failure to prune improper, under-used or redundant synaptic connections during development of the nervous system.” If what has come before sounded like gobbledigook, this one’s a clanger. It basically means that, in the creation of synaesthetic brains, some wires were leftover between important sensory regions; this allows unusual crossovers to occur between sight and sound, smell and memory, mood and touch. The cerebral cortex is responsible for information processing – everything from thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language – and is divided into lobes, each of which has a specific function for governing areas of response and interpretation. These are the important regions, while the synaptic connections are the wires.

cerebral cortex

This rather brilliant study of emotional-synaesthesia, goes some way towards supporting the theory of a “candidate region… implicated in both emotion and memory,” playing host to my own colour-associative experiences of mood, and certain letters/numbers. The retrosplenial cortex is “known to respond both to personally familiar people relative to unfamiliar people, and to emotional words relative to neutral words… Its location in the medial-posterior region of the brain also makes it an attractive candidate to interface with visual regions.” Which would explain how I am able to sense an internal response, while filtering out “neutral words” (and presumably sounds) with no emotional salience – could this be the reason that I have a strong reaction to letters “a” and “e”, because they happen to make up my own name – Rachael?

A study conducted in 2010 by Romke Rouwe and H. Steven Scholte of the University of Amsterdam, saw the recruitment of “16 projector and 26 associator grapheme-colour synaesthetes”, who were each placed in a brain scanner and “shown letters and numbers to evoke synaesthetic experiences.” Of the structural and functional aspects tested, one striking difference between the brains of the two types lay in the volume of grey matter density of particular areas. Projectors were seen to have increased levels in the visual and auditory regions, the activation of which caused the perception of “real objects… letters and numbers, to evoke the vivid experience of colours in external space.”

Associators, on the other hand, were seen to have increased grey matter in the hippocampus and surrounding areas known to be “critical for the formation of autobiographical, semantic and spatial memories.” The hippocampus is involved in connecting “emotions and senses, such as smell and sound, to memories” – that’s the wonderful nostalgia found in the smell of frying bacon on a golden morning, or the wind-rush excitement that spikes up the skin, evoked by the spice of pine needles. The location of the hippocampus, in the temporal lobe – itself responsible for the interpretation of sounds and language -gives a boost to the possibility of a crossover occurring via “unpruned” synaptic connections, in the brain of an Associator. Furthermore, it would allow for a range of synaesthetic experiences, perhaps activated simultaneously by the same stimuli, for that “symphonic” effect. It would certainly help to explain how I am able to experience writing, music and other inducers, on a multi-sensual level.

It is noted in the study that this region, with its wholly internal perceptions, would resemble “memory retrieval”, in that letters and numbers would only evoke “recollections of the experience of colours, rather than vivid impressions of the colours themselves.” This goes back to the issue of recall v.s. actual sense-crossovers, and would lead me to question the validity of my own experiences … were it not for the undeniable presence of colours in relation to moods, as well as the additional (and consistent) features found in inducers, such as texture, personality traits and spatial awareness. These are all experienced on such a unique, nuanced and involuntary level, especially where there is strong emotional resonance, that I find it difficult to attribute each one only to memory-recall. But the study does serve to highlight the crucial differences in construct, for understanding how one synaesthetic mind will differ from another in practise. Variations between regions of the brain that are stimulated, will dictate whether an internal or external effect is produced.

Timing will also differ between the two types, based on interference between actual visual perceptions, and the external synaesthetic responses of a projector. While a grapheme-colour associator would read a coloured letter and find their concurrent “in the mind’s eye”, a projector would take longer to identify what they are seeing in the external world, as evidenced in Stroop tests, when a “colour word is printed in a colour that differs from the meaning of the word… When asked to name the printed colour, the discrepancy causes longer response times and more errors, because we can read words more quickly than we can name colours.”

This is not to say that I don’t have my fair share of distractions and crossover-confusions. The colours of individual graphemes can be altered by the presence of a ‘dominant’ colour in one letter (“i” is white, and has a tendency to “bleach out” other letters around it; the word “institutionalized” appears as a blind man’s stick, tall and upright), while a mood-concurrent may overwhelm a song, cancelling out the colours inherent of vocals and music. The National’s “Slipped” appears in the silver-lilac of an evening sky; these are the colours of loss and longing. No instrument stands out, and vocalist Matt Berninger’s chocolate-baritone is obscured in the haze.

Lake heart 1

Some prominent grapheme-colour features:
a = navy blue
ae = blue-green
c = canary yellow
ch = canary yellow
e = green
h = kelly green
i = white
m = red
o = ultramarine
oo = teal / turquoise
s = mint green, silver
t = black
u = yellow
x = grey

3 holds very favourable connections, as its turquoise appearance has a silky sheen reminiscent of sunlight twinkling in a thousand sparkles on the ocean, or a beautiful ball gown cunningly sewn through with glitter. It is also of moderate size, neat and compact, with positive traits of independence and intelligence. 6, on the other hand, is little and silly; light green, and quite youthful. 9 is enigmatic and purple, towering-tall as a solemn older lady in heels; while 7 is brown and cheerful. 3 also runs concurrently with the letter C, which begins many of my favourite words; but in this case, the colour-perception is far less appealing, in solid canary-yellow (think of a child’s box of poster paints, or a piece of plastic.) Again, this points towards a reflexive, rather than a preferential reaction.

0 = no colour
1 = red
2 = yellow
3 = turquoise
4 = dark green
5 = yellow
6 = orange
7 = brown
8 = pink
9 = purple
10 = no colour

The name of my friend, Carlotta, is dark blue (“o”) and pale pink (“a”). There is no sign of canary-yellow “c”, and “a” is normally blue when beginning the alphabet; it also stands at odds with her Twitter handle, @1chae, with the consonant diagraph “ch” appearing in yellow, while somehow lightening the blue-green of “ae” into turquoise.

The presence of “name colours” has a mnemonic effect that’s handy for social situations – I can pin a colour/colours to people, as you would bookmark a page. Similarly, synaesthetes who experience sequence-space and colours in relation to time, are able to create an internal diary or an external calendar; in a projector type, the latter is known to appear around their bodies, with more recent dates featuring large and prominent, and later dates “further away”.

“For me, the days of the week go from left to right, and the months go round in a wheel, with January meeting December in the bottom centre. Oddly, I don’t have this for numbers. So when I think “I’m meeting Lizzie on Thursday”, my mind jumps to a low space in front of my torso, towards my right. (Thursday is brown; Lizzie is blue).” – Holly Williams, “I can smell a Rainbow.”

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Brainpickings, “Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.”

The texture of a letter can be altered between its written and spoken forms, with certain phonemes silvering-up words that would otherwise have a matte or solid appearance. The sibilance found in “city”, “cerulean” and “strata”, for example, whittles their shape down to something delicate, like a crystal glass or fine-link chain; at odds with the boldness of phoneme /k/ in “cat”, “clover” and “kill.” It’s for this reason that I consider words based in Old French to be of paler hue and lighter substance than those of Germanic origin, which appear more jagged.

While a lower pitch equates a darker tone, the colour of a voice or instrument will not change; a swift climb up the scales produces a narrowed effect and lighter shade. Should one instrument take precedence over others, an overlay of colours may appear, as with the ostrich guitar in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” – those brass flares claw at the smoky teal background like forked lightning over a midnight sky. The two colours stand out, distinct from one another, yet the image is still wholly internal; there are no external projections onto the world around me.

Timbre dictates shape, with folk singer Nick Drake’s voice appearing in the rounded fluidity of an oboe, rippling green as river water, occasionally gritty with oak bark. Canadian singer Leslie Feist appears in pale mint-green, woven through with striations of darker and lighter shades, in a texture best described as “tethered” – a matte, frayed-edge appearance, as of a strip of papyrus or woven cloth. A broader stroke (e.g. a guitar chord or throaty voice) produces a wider sweep of the brush in a range of shades, while a single monotonous note or thin/quiet voice appears in the trail of a fine-tipped watercolour pencil.

As a general rule, music I would file under “wandering / nostalgic” – almost invariably in minor key – will appear in colours evocative of the bittersweet tang found in a sunset, regardless of unique instrumental and vocal features. Gold, brass, copper, cream, honey, fawn: twisted scrap metal, the jagged hues of a landlocked barge; the haze of an early autumn sky, the sepia tones of an old photograph. Mogwai’s “Too Raging to Cheers” is one such song, reminscent of a fiery day’s end, wandering an abandoned railway line, smelling the thick richness of oil leaking from heat-baked sleepers, listening to the scrunch of gravel underfoot, the bony clatter of weeds in the wind.

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Flickr, “The Disused Railways Pool.”

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When depression begins its slow creep-crawl through my head, I know of its presence through the gradual fading-out of all colours. While this can happen in connection with weariness or low blood sugar, a prolonged state of “pale mind” is a signal for me to look around at circumstances, experiences; if I’m not pushing the buck with excessive exercise or lack of rest, something else is at work. In similar fashion, a stark “whiteout” represents real fear and/or shock, caught in the camera flash of a moment. This reaction has been known to intrude on actual visual perceptions, much as someone suffering with a migraine would find it difficult to see properly. Other synaesthetes have reported similar instances of their concurrent producing a warning signal:

“Since I was a child I have had vivid visual images in response to fearful or uncomfortable thoughts. Intense ones, that is. The fear-induced images take the form of highly wrinkled bluish-greenish paper moving around in an irregular pattern. It’s a whole landscape. Sometimes the images consist in large quantities of quickly presented irregular and wrinkled pieces of bluish-greenish cloth moving around very quickly. Not all of my uncomfortable or fearful thoughts are associated with this sort of phenomenology but the occurrence of this kind of phenomenology is a sure sign of uncomfortable or scary thoughts.” – Berit Brogaard, DMSci, PhD and Kristian Marlow, “The Superhuman Mind: Cases of extraordinary mental ability.”

I always know when a feral mood is coming on. It’s in the glossiness of a raven’s wing or a beetle’s back; the purple-blackness of a forest full of thorns and silent trees, all shot through with the pale claws of the moon that lick off dark eyes. It’s the wilder side we try to conceal from the grey reality of Everyday. It’s an amalgamation of those raw emotions that are rich as soil and hard to deny. It’s the source of my insomniac nights, spent wandering the orange-splintered lamplight haven, kicking up old leaves. It’s the hot hard feeling in the back of the throat, the burning eyes and iron-grin, when reading something that fills you with a sudden savage desire to act – to run, fuck, claw the walls. Sometimes it appears without any prompting at all. When I’m at work, it’s best to keep my head down. Left unfulfilled, it can fall into a nimbus-mood, which is closer to repressed anger and a bad mood.

beetle black

For all of these words and theories, I still have no clear idea as to the origins of the synaesthesia that colours up my mind. Perhaps it’s better this way, wandering through the half-light, in unfinished lines of what-might-be. All I can be sure of is the consistency. Even when talking with another chromosthete (sound—>colour), I would find discrepancies between our reactions; particularly if they happen to be a projector-type, able to watch the flux-flow of colours and patterns externally. My internal perceptions are as much a focus of life as the normal five senses, and – as a writer – it’s priceless in figurative language. I can simulate (and stimulate) versions of what I perceive, through sensory crossovers that will allow a non-synaesthete to know how a word relative to cold may appear blue, how a situation full of tension can be tasted in the iron-tang air.

I’ll cover my own influences in the next blog post.

In Love, On Time / Album Review, “Secrets Spill Over”

Every now and then, an album or song will come along and look you squarely in the eye, take you by the hand and walk through your mind; it will speak with the words you’d come out with in your own time… if you dared. A period of your life becomes framed in the overall structure; listening to a particular track, you find the starburst of images and emotional connections, and it’s all that you can do to wander off down an alley somewhere, to be quiet and alone, to make sense of it all over again.

I’m a method-writer, and rely heavily on these sensory triggers to re-enact or replicate an emotional reaction to a situation (which may have its place in my history, or someone else’s.) Music is an excellent conduit, leading with words and a mood-colour of the moment. As much as we might cringe at the cliché (Dylan Moran worked this “Song is all about me” phenomena into his Monster tour), it is the familiar resonance of what remains linked to the chords, the lyrics and melodies, which we fall back on when the going gets tough. We look to our pasts to learn how to govern our futures. It’s a bit like going home to stay with the folks, or crashing with a best friend after a bad break-up.

There is no emotion more riddled-up with clichés than Love. I try to avoid them wherever possible, in writing and my personal life, though inevitably will fail in both, because the clichés were born out of some kernel of originality, which is old and dark and far more important than my opinions, or the vacant stare of a fluffy bear haemorrhaging its heart.

Time shares this duality. It is at once a continuum of ghosts on a wild road, a stream of collective conciousness … and a heady flux-flow of emotions bound up in reality, strung like beads along the ribbon of Always be There, and Beyond Death. It is the difference between dust motes drifting through bars of sunlight … and the wind that stirs them away with a footfall. Or better yet, not dwelling too much on Where is this Going? in favour of I’m still with you; and you are You, while I am Me. That’s only my take on things, you understand. I’m not averse to anniversaries, but continuous counting along a calendar tends to feel like heading for an end, rather than a limitless horizon.

Secrets Spill Over, the fifth solo album of artist Paul Gonzenbach and his eighth overall, is a narrative of the continuity of Love and Time, their moments of raw reality. Not so much a nostalgic contemplation, as a fine expose of the mood swings which can be our undoing, when communication breaks down and self-doubt wells up; when frustration boils over.

Every time I listen to it – and it has been on repeat for the past couple of weeks – I find myself walking through the soul of a clock, watching the slide and shine of wheels and cogs and bars; a symmetrical dance that somehow brings form and control to what is otherwise abstract, would remain forever elusive and unknown.

inside a clock

The opening chimes of the guitar ring pure and crisp through the mind, a harmonic overlay of silver bars, which soon prove to be a running motif through the album (with varying degrees of volume-inclusion; they become more noticeable on the softer tracks, which take on an ethereal quality.) These shining silver bars offset the black-fuzz of bass, which in harder songs runs us ragged, burning the heart and filling up every corner of the mind, while the bite behind some of the lyrics is unnervingly belied by the gentle tone of Paul’s voice. It’s a brilliant effect, direct without loss of control, like the dark wind which blows between icicles.
(On a side note: as a synaesthete, I have to say that this album is almost entirely silver and black. Just so you’re not thrown off by my references to cold colours; it’s not a negative slant, only how the music appears to me.)

“An obligation you blew off … Where did the drive go, the sense of devotion? When’s the last time you had that?”

the-large-clock-inside
Image: http://www.tripadvisor.com

Time. The word comes back to haunt us, with the two-way mirrors of “fault” and “disappoint”; it’s always pleasing to find a narrator who is willing to stand and confess to his/her own flaws and faults, even while delivering an expose of other’s (“You broke up with him by just not returning phone calls … And you have to admit, it’s not like you’re blameless.“) In this, Paul Gonzenbach bears more than a passing resemblance to The National’s Matt Berninger; their narrative styles read like pages torn from a personal diary and thrust under the nose, while there is something of the Ohio/Brooklyn band’s baroque-rock aesthetic, in the use of guitar, drums and fine-angled cello. But while Matt’s chocolate-baritone vocals hold the dust of an open road, the longing for loved ones left behind in pursuit of the rockstar life, Paul wears the iron-smile of one who knows what he is due. The burning-bass intro and echo-effect of vocals in “Consequence” make the hairs stand on end, even before the lyrics have begun to sink in: “Another chance to miss / Another option to dismiss / You haven’t got the sense / We’ll never face the consequence.”

There is the familiar push-pull of individuality and pining, the I need You / I don’t Need You’s which Leonard Cohen once spoke of (“And you know that I stick around for your getaway, even if I say that I won’t.”) Housing developments, drunken dizziness and fair-weather fathers, make those pockets of reality all the more tangible; these are essential for grounding what might be mistaken for youthful laments, in an ageless insecurity and self-flagellation (“It’s all in my mind, and conscience, all the time / I was too much of a coward for you to be mine.“) Frustration jars in the dissonance of chords and vocals, the staccato of drums and the burning heart of that bass, in “Break your Lease” and closing “Say you’re Wrong.”

Of the latter: I’d had it in mind to criticize the positioning of such a frantic track, in what is otherwise a very compact album. Surely the cathedral-ceiling pathos of penultimate “Worse for you than smoking”, would have made a more fitting closure? But further listens shifted my perspective. Following the themes of Love and Time, the album is not linear; it isn’t going to stride off into the sun-soaked distance, having completed its work. It is going to lead us back around, with the exodus/genesis of “Call me in the night, with your eyes wide open”: a demand for responsibility to (at last) be taken for actions. This is another wheel in the mechanism, a recurring theme often found in eye rhymes that give a fluidness to some of the lengthier lines, akin to poetic enjambment (“You fantasize about working the graveyard shift / It’s a grave way not to be missed.”)

Along the same eloquent lines of colloquial-singers Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, each track reads as a short-story or chapter, gathered to a collective whole. While the message is coherent, there is the risk of stylistic overlap about midway through the album, which is prevented by the counterbalance of differing tempos. Written between the recording sessions of its predecessor, Notify your Friends: Everything Ends (released September 2013), Secrets Spill Over employs a slalom-run of pacing that brings relief in a breath-space, before the next adrenalin rush.

In love, no one is ever truly free, or perfect (“I’ll be waiting at the bottom of a pool… And I know that if I surface, I’ll disappoint you again.”) When we acknowledge ourselves to be wrapped about the little finger of someone else’s powerplay, we accept the consequences and get on with it, bringing our own resilience into the mix. The game is set accordingly. Time and Love can be found in the changing faces of the world, in the shifting scenes; but ultimately, it comes down to the hope for continuity to keep us going, regardless of screw-ups and misunderstandings.

There is always time for one more song, for one more page to turn; for one more evasive smile, and forgiveness found in a sigh. Secrets Spill Over is testament to this.

secrets spill over
Image: http://www.paulgonzenbach.bandcamp.com

Secrets Spill Over is available at www.paulgonzenbach.bandcamp.com/ iTunes, Amazon.co.uk/Amazon.com and eMusic.

Huge thanks to Matt Foster (@mlpfoster) for putting me onto Paul’s music.

Songs that saved my life (Pt 1)

You’ve probably experienced this yourself at some transitional point in life – listened to a song, and its melody and/or lyrics leapt out to fill your mind with stunned silence, that weird missed-step feeling of Fate having a hand between your shoulder blades. Regardless of its release date, that song would then become synonymous with a fragment of time when, for a few moments, you didn’t feel quite so unique, or so alone and unheard by the world, depending on how you viewed it.

This is how music has always underscored different aspects of my life. Each year, I’ll find at least one song/album which can define the overall mood based on events, or my mindset. It’s been an ongoing game for a while now, one I believe to be integral to building something like a rapport with the artists involved (though they’ll never know my shadow, of course.)

Taking a leaf out of Simon Goddard’s excellent chronological analysis of The Smiths, I’ve compiled a series of these songs to mark significant periods of time, either in my life or the lives of those I care about. They’re listed according to the chronology of when I first heard them, or how I “relearned” them through the filter of changed circumstances.

Since musical taste is an excellent way of getting to know people, I invite you all to join me; either as entries on your own blogs, or as stand-alone articles. I’ll include relevant personal meanings for each song, and ask that you do the same; as descriptive/sensory as you like. Paint a Vulgar Picture, if necessary – or indeed, a Starry Night. Make it a journal-account of sorts. Keep to around 15-20 songs, include music videos and pictures if you wish; but above all, go in-depth about how these songs wove themselves into the fabric of your being, how they mark those defining moments.

1) Leonard Cohen, Suzanne / The Smiths, How Soon is Now? (1985-9)

This was the period of time I spent in Gutersloh, N/West Germany. Those were golden days, when my child self would wander carefree (and carelessly, regardless of my poor parent’s feelings) up and down the sunbaked crazy paving of our little cul-de-sac, just outside the old RAF barracks where my father was stationed. Those were the years of the Falklands – not that I was aware of it at the time, only of the screaming whine of Harrier jets overhead, the guttural throb of Chinook helicopters (the sound of those twin rotors would become intrinsically linked to Johnny Marr’s oscillating guitar.)

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The days seemed full of green and gold light, the evenings with street BBQ’s, where our neighbours would gather to discuss whatever it was adults found interesting at the time (no doubt, the ongoing conflict was high on the topic list.) My four-year-old self would be allowed to stay up later than usual on these occasions, so long as I stayed within the boundaries of our garden – ringed about as it was with tall Leylandii, like so many silent solemn sentries. Their sap released a spice to the warm winds, which always takes me back to that time of BBQ sauce, chattering crowds along the sun-struck streets, and standing on tiptoe at the window of my bedroom, to peer out onto the horizon which was already calling my blood. This song permeated that time, for it was one of my father’s favourite songs to play whenever we were packing to head back to the UK, for family visits. So it goes that Suzanne is synonymous with travel for me; of wandering, and longing for something that I couldn’t (and still can’t) put my finger on. It remains my favourite song to this day – one that could best define my character, if I may be so bold to say so – while The Smiths were firmly set as a mainstay in my listening experience.

Formation

2) Tracy Chapman, Fast Car / Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes / Don McLean, Vincent (1992-5)

Having a father who DJ’d part-time in the NAAFI at the German RAF base, meant I was exposed to songs from across many genres and eras. He had a particular love for the acoustic guitar, and would often host impromptu parties at our house, inviting musical friends over just to practise together over beers and talk. It was one of my favourite pastimes to sit quietly in a corner, knees tucked under my chin and listening to their harmonies. Among the repertoire would be contemporaries like Art Garfunkel, Don McLean and Tracy Chapman – all of whom left an integral mark on this period of my life, when we were living back in the UK and I was becoming dexterous enough with my hands to warrant the gift (after much pleading) of my own acoustic guitar, Christmas 1993. I had an ear for music, it turned out, though still can’t read a note; like Dad (and my younger brother) I learned to play by ear, as well as by the strange mnemonic effect of all the colours I saw/see in my mind, which is akin to using Post-It notes in a literary text.

Hence, Vincent is synonymous with the colours blue and silver, as it appears to me with each listen; while Fast Car is broad strips of umber and desert blacktop, wavering with heat (well, that’s the image I’ve developed over the years; the actual “sight” is just a cloud of these colours, moving with the trail of sound.) Bright Eyes will forever be silver and green, the paleness of living death. Incidentally, it was a song I would play a lot in later years, when anorexia took hold.

These were some of the first songs I learned to play, and are the ones I return to when feeling particularly nostalgic, or am back in the South visiting family. Then, my old man will hand me one of his spare guitars, and we’ll sit together as father and daughter again, rather than two adults who’ve become loving strangers over the years. Music has always been one of the few understandings we have – a wordless agreement between two different personalities, that the songs we play are vital to our bond.

3) Ralph McTell, Streets of London (1998-9)

When my Year 8 English teacher told the class that we would be writing about personification – a subject recently delved into – the room held its collective breath. This wasn’t to be a regular essay, with easy copy ‘n paste lines from texts we’d thumbed through; it was to be the very definition of “personal”, taking a theme or topic that we held dear and were familiar with, and animating it with such description that it would stand up from the page, full of character.

Well, I’d recently got into reading Robin Jarvis’ excellent Deptford Mice trilogy, as a progression from Brian Jacques Redwall saga. Both employ personification, with the animal protagonists given human qualities and traits to make them more easily accessible for the target audience of primary / middle school children. I was 13 years old at the time, and as impressed by the strong characterization as by the settings. London, in particular, was brought to vivid life in Jarvis’ books – both its medieval and modern versions.

While reading these books cover-to-cover, and agonizing over what to turn into a Who for this damn project, I’d been listening to one of Dad’s albums from the 80’s – a favourite of ours, which has proved largely influential on my own personality and writing. Vincent by Don McLean was the opening track, with Cohen’s Suzanne a bit further down; and towards the end, Ralph McTell’s Streets of London.

The latter, in conjunction with Jarvis’ stories of murder on moonless nights, sunlit cobbled streets and the do-or-die attitude of the city’s animal denizens, brought the answer home to me. I was in the right frame of mind, and in one evening rapped out the poem “London” (how original), submitted on the penultimate day of our allocated time to complete the project. I always leave these things to the last minute.

It was my first published piece; not that I knew about it for weeks, for my English teacher submitted that poem to a creative writing competition which happened to be doing the rounds of our college at the time. No one was more surprised than me when the result was a certificate, and the promise of two free copies of the poetry anthology it was to be published in. Turns out the competition was a country-wide gig, plucking poetry from various middle schools and colleges, to showcase the student’s work.

It’s always nice to have a little ego boost. I guess that was the pivotal moment, when London became more than just a dream but an emblem of my future writing career, for I began to take the latter seriously thereafter. I have only to listen to McTell’s guitar-trickle melody to go back to that time – that priceless moment, when I saw the printed copy of my poem for the first time, and felt its ink tingle through my hands.

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4) Fastball, The Way (1998-9)

Summers 1998 and 1999 were heatwaves to remember. I’d recently fallen in with a gang of friends from school, all of whom were – no other way of putting it – misfits like me. We were readers and dreamers and IT techs; some had military backgrounds like me; the only other two girls were social butterflies too, and we meandered from one group to another, with their own idiosyncrasies and levels of “popularity.” Yep, that was the unspoken rule of the time, when age 13-16 was the hellish era of Look but Don’t Touch among peers; when a lot of the better-looking girls were nicknamed The Goddesses, by boys too scared stupid to approach them even for a glance, let alone a lighter.

Well, this little group of mine, we started hanging out down the old Clay Pits near to my home, on a housing estate bordering the town. Being “out in the sticks” as we were, it was easier still to define ourselves from the main bulk of the teen-scene, who in the majority hung around bus shelters and became known (originally) as The Townies. Yes, it was that embarrassingly sincere.

But for the six or seven of us who scratched out old rabbit burrows to make firepits, climbed trees to watch the sinking sun, and had more dens in the hawthorns growing thick and wild in the fields surrounding the pit, these were halcyon days. We spent them hunting each other through the long grass, crafting catapults and snares to string up around our dens (there were other kid-gangs running around the estate, too – we liked to imitate what we’d seen in war films, and could only guess at in history lessons) – oh, and scooping up great jelly-globules of frogspawn, to be tenderly replaced further downstream, beneath our favourite climbing tree. Needless to say, a lot of very confused frogs soon made this stretch of water their home, where the evening sun would slant in through the overhanging boughs of that vast oak, along which we all lay, to watch the silt turn from brown to gold.

“It’s always summer, they’ll never get cold
They’ll never get hungry, they’ll never get old and grey
You can see their shadows wandering on somewhere
They won’t make it home, but they really don’t care
They wanted the highway, they’re happier there, today
Today.” – Fastball, The Way

That summer, it seemed to go on forever; a handful of moments, a world of tomorrows. Still, we all grew up and away from each other in the end, as friends sometimes do, without malice and with faces turned to the changing winds.

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Clay pits

5) David Bowie, Heroes / The Levellers, Too Real (1998-9)

Around the same time, when the nights were too sultry for sleep, I had started jumping out of my bedroom window to climb down the garage roof, and run off through the lamplight haven of orange and black. It was the only way to expend all that energy, to burn up the wanderlust in my blood, which had only increased from childhood. Ma had given me The Best of the Levellers album, and I was listening to it pretty much solid – stoked up on the thrilling dream of leaving home for good, to live in a tree with Swampy (remember him?), if only to royally piss off my father. Wandering through town barefoot, with twig-knotted hair and long gypsy skirts, I wasn’t far from realizing my unwashed ideal already. Teen years are fun, aren’t they.

The 1998 remake of Godzilla by Roland Emmerich was by that point out on video, and I’d watch it at least twice every 24 hours for that entire summer; staying up until 3am to eat raw crackers and sketch images from the movie book, while the film flickered in the background on my little TV/VCR combi. I ached for Manhattan, had a huge street map of the city pinned up on the wall by my desk. There was this romantic dream of journalism growing behind my eyes, of constant action and rain-slicked streets – whenever anyone asked what I planned to do with my life thereafter, this was my answer, since up until then I hadn’t had any real crystallization of what I wanted to do. Dad had already made it clear that writing, while handy as a hobby, would probably remain as such unless I struck lucky with a book deal. Ever a realist, but I owe him on that one, since it grounded me in the truth that to sell writing, was to have some kind of format.

Even at age 13, I knew that by just throwing stories out there, I wouldn’t make Things happen. Since journalism seemed to encapsulate an awful lot of what I was interested in or had natural affinity for (or as Dad put it, “you’re bloody nosy enough”), it seemed one path to tentatively walk down. I could also use it as ammo against my year group’s careers advisor, who was by that point tearing her hair out over my wispy answers of what I wanted to do with my life. I was signed up for GCSE Media Studies.

Yet another reason to stay up ’til 3am, reading all the books that were stuck under my nose. But Godzilla usually won out in the end, along with the soundtrack, movie book and all other related paraphernalia. Over time, with research, those romantic notions would fade away; but I still have a soft spot for the silver-glint skyline of Manhattan and all it represents, in conjunction with a transitional period of my life, when the world opened up a little more.

brooklyn bridge
Image courtesy of WiredNewYork.com

6) R.E.M, Daysleeper, Everybody Hurts / Del Amitri, Driving with the brakes On (1998-2000)

Sad to say, it was around those formative years that my parents began – quite out of the blue – to argue in earnest. They’d always had little spats here and there, but this was the Real Deal, and could no longer be contained behind Ma’s pained eyes and Dad’s newspaper (though when she began flinging words like darts, he would conceal himself there nonetheless.) I still can’t work out what was worse – the stony silences, or the screaming matches. It was like tasting the iron-air before a storm; as soon as I heard the raised voices in the kitchen below my bedroom, I would hoik my earphones up over my head, and get lost in music and writing/reading. Or if they were down in the lounge, I’d slip out of the window and out to the Clay Pits, to wander aimlessly in the rain.

I can hear it now, pattering down on the low roof of Kensington Olympia station, where my father and I waited for our train. It was December, a night of raw black wind, skirling leaves and silver rain coming down in sheets; we’d had our annual father-daughter day out in London, attending the Grand National cat show, as had been our habit since 1995. It was a day of bonding, since we had little else in common, other than music; and one usually full of grins and admiration for all the breeds paraded on the show bench. But the strain of his marital-storm was clear on Dad’s face, and I knew to keep my mouth shut; we huddled together, staring out along the gleaming line in silence, until I heard a faded sound – my Dad, crying so quietly that at first I mistook it for the voice of the rain.

I hate seeing men cry. I know how awful this sounds, as though they have less right to, or that women are more overly given to it; but when I was growing up, it was my mother who expressed herself far more vocally, in fits of temper and golden gales of laughter. With Dad, it took a good deal more to get him to crack a smile, or to lose his temper (though when he did, it was all the more frightening for its previous absence, as of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting out of nowhere.) So to see my father standing there, unable to hide the tears anymore, was something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what had gone wrong between them – still don’t, really, since it’s not an issue I ever wish to press – but what I did know, was that words wouldn’t come up my throat. So I just reached out and took his hand, instead.

Later, at another station where a music store was still open, he bought me the REM single Daysleeper, which was a favourite song of mine at the time – synonymous with the green-gold light of dawn, pouring in through my eastward-facing bedroom window. But it’ll always be Everybody Hurts, by the same band, which will stay attached to that fragment of time – when for once, it was my old man leaning on my shoulder, and not the other way around. If he ever reads this, I hope he won’t be ashamed that I’ve included it here, for it was a pivotal moment. I learned that even the strongest souls will bend under pressure, might even break; but they can reset themselves.

the wild road

7) Alice Deejay, Better off Alone (1999-2000)

With the acrimonious divorce proceedings, and all the shit that would accompany it, I started going off the rails. In school, I was thrown out of pretty much every lesson I walked into, wearing trainers that went against uniform regulations, and with a wire-smile to twist around the throat of any teacher. I was a nasty bitch, truth be told; making my parents’ lives hell, even as they went through their own problems with each other. My older sister and I were for once linked in our hormonal shifts into puberty, though this was little comfort to anyone, since we fought over makeup and outfits probably too adult for either of us, at ages 14-17 respectively. Our poor little brother was caught in the middle, a wobbly-lipped bystander. He was one of the few people I could bear to be around, and felt more like my childhood self with.

Still, when he wasn’t there and I was out facing down the world, it was with the new group of peers I had fallen that I’d find solace – with cigarettes and alcohol (the usual suspects), and a new kind of lamplight haven, far distant from my old solitary wanderings. This was full of spiralling laughter and diagonal pavements, hiccups and sometimes puddles of puke in the gutter. The music scene changed with the faces, too – I was inducted into dance and trance, though I still sought out some kind of meaning behind the lyrics (such as they were.) It was that typical whirligig of hormones and Everything Bright, while we ducked beneath the shadows of our own loneliness and melancholy. No one talked about it, though when inebriated, some of the “harder” lads would suddenly break down in tears for no reason – and we’d all offer more beer, and a cigarette as comfort, with perhaps an arm around the shoulder if someone was feeling particularly mushy.

Needless to say, I didn’t hang around with this crowd for long. It wasn’t my scene, and I felt less than myself, even without the upheaval at home. The clincher was the abuse, which took place when one of that group betrayed me to her older boyfriend.
I never looked back.

That being said, I still listen to a few of those songs with a wry half-smile, remembering who I’d tried to be, and the reality of my bitchy teen self. I was a nasty piece of work, and gave my parents – already going through tough times with the divorce – absolute hell. We lost count of the yellow slips sent home from school; I collected them, with that bored sneer, to light my cigarettes, while totting up the average number of detentions at the end of each month.

But the music plays on, and I only ever really listened to the stuff that made my chest ache, as with all the music I choose to keep around. Alice Deejay was a perfect example.

8) Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven / Joni Mitchell, A Case of You (2000/01)

With the abuse weighing heavily on my soul, I retreated into myself, went back to being a loner – more so than ever before. This was just prior to the period when I would nosedive into anorexia. Immersing myself in fantasy fiction (Dragonlance – a saga so long that I’d never run out of books) and squirreling away old favourite albums Dad kept in the schrank (cupboard to you), I became a recluse in my bedroom. Scribbling out stories, sitting in the windowsill to watch the sky, I found one unpleasant habit had remained from those scarum-days with the gang – I needed to drink, to disappear. So raids on the fridge began in earnest, until Dad finally figured out where his beer bottles were going. His punishment – grounding me to my room – was just another excuse not to walk around town, to be seen, to talk to anyone.

I’d always heard him play Stairway to Heaven downstairs, on the magnificent Hi-Fi and its upright speakers (which I’d already blown out twice, with house parties.) Still, the haunting melody came second to the lyrics, when I actually started listening to them properly. He’d described it once, in a rare moment of whimsy, as something like “prophecy in a song.” Indeed, these lines would make my eyes fill with tears when I heard them, as though resounding down the years of wandering and loneliness; it finally felt like someone else “got it”, whatever It was:

“There’s a feeling I get / When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving.”

No lyrics have ever struck down inside as deeply as these did, when I was that 15 year old, on the cusp of something she could feel was going to be life-changing – for better or worse.

apola sun

9) Gary Jules, Mad World / Bruce Springsteen, Streets of Philadelphia (2003)

Well, it turned out to be worse.
Anorexia had me snarled up in its reins by the end of 2001. The school prom, around July, had seen me at the fittest and healthiest I’d ever been, thanks to plenty of sunbathing, a new-found link to makeup and my feminine side, and a regular fitness plan. Oh, and the dieting, let’s not forget that. It began with cutting out sweets and “bad foods” –

Cut to November, and I wasn’t smiling for the camera anymore. I was staring out my GP, who had just diagnosed me with anorexia; trying to fathom how this illness (which then, I knew very little about, except that it involved supermodels) could be assigned to a boring, lazy fat fuck like me. Listening to my mother quietly crying beside me, for she’d been through her own twists of an eating disorder when the divorce proceedings were at their most stressful, I felt numb in mind and fingertips. You could collect rainwater in my collarbones.

People had alternated between praising my weightloss, “You look great!” and warning, “Don’t go too far, Rai.”
“Oh I won’t,” was my laughing reply, “I love my food too much.”
Well.

My first attempt at sixth form, in the college of a beloved town which will forever hold memories of walking in the rain, white cliffs and the green-black smell of the river, ended badly. By January 2002, I was too frail to walk, and living with my grandparents. Days bled into each other, full of heavy meals made with desperate love, reading in the conservatory (words swimming into each other) and surreptitious exercise whenever/wherever possible. When I was finally admitted to hospital in September 2003, it was to the vast relief of everyone – including me, that tiny fragment which was still Me, shoved up against the inside of my head by the screaming white monster that was anorexia.

Those were strange days. I can’t listen to Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia without seeing the green light on dark walls, when one of our number fell; and the little cat-face of the Scottish girl we loved/hated for her so-loud illness, the shreds of mischievous personality she did sometimes show when her health improved. Her heart gave out in May 2004, just after leaving the ward.

She always had that apricot-syrup smell of slow decay about her, so bittersweet and cloying. She would sit in front of me, still as a unicorn, while I carefully straightened the fragile lengths of her hair. For all the dreadful manners she sometimes displayed, thanks to her own raging monster, she could also be very sweet. Though the strands in my fingers were brittle with malnutrition, and the blades of my straighteners so terribly hot, I always ceded to her requests – figuring that if this rare need for attention kept her still and quiet even for a few moments, it was worth it.

This year marks a decade since her death, and my leaving hospital for the last time.
Never forgotten, Lindsay.

That’s enough for now. Part Two, next Monday.