Category Archives: Creative

Piano Dreams

Back in my teens, I had some memorable dreams about living under a baby grand piano. I played the piano from aged eight into my early twenties, and I admit to seriously coveting baby grands. Especially Broadwoods – which used to be made locally. 

A little while back on Facebook, author and artist Imelda Almqvist asked something about dreams in relation to instruments (it was a while ago, I don’t remember the prompt). I shared my dream, and she’s gone on to make this amazing piece of art inspired by it.

I’ve been a fan of Imelda’s work for years, and I own one of her originals. 

Pianos are very much an ancestral thing for me – I learned to play on my grandmother’s piano, in the house that had first belonged to my great grandparents. My son taught himself to play one autumn, on that same piano, in a house that (with he and I living with it) had been a home to seven out of the last eight generations of my family. There is of course also an ancestry of tradition, because of the piano music that I greatly loved when I was learning to play, and all of the people who played that work before me.

Find out more about Imelda’s work over here –

More than colouring in

The photo is from last week’s gallery show, where we took Hopeless, Maine original art out in public. I admit that I felt a bit fraudulent as we put the work up – most of what’s on the walls, I had coloured and I felt very odd about having my work in a gallery. Through the week, as people came in and asked who the artist is, I have mostly pointed at Tom.

In comics work, it’s entirely normal for people to do different jobs. Drawing, colouring, and inking are often handled by different people. It’s not even a comics specific issue – famous painters often had teams doing work for them. I live just down the road from Damian Hurst’s art factory and it would be fair to say he isn’t the only person working there. There’s also a place near here that makes big sculptures for artists.

However, when we think about art, we often think in terms of the single artist alone doing their thing, and not the process that involves many people. It’s the same with books, and in both cases most often it is the work of the wife of the artist or writer that disappears from view, these days. 

So here I am, not disappearing but standing next to the work I coloured. And yes, every now and then some bright spark insists on phrasing that as ‘coloring in’ which evokes the kinds of things children do with printed images. Being a colourist is very different from colouring in. My colour choices have to support the work as a whole, and have to be to a certain standard. 

I’ve been through some anxieties along the way because my colouring is so different from standard digital colouring. But, as we’ve seen more generic AI art in recent months, I’ve been ever more aware of the advantage of having a personal style and the obvious presence of a physical medium. Even when scanned and tinkered with using art programs, what Tom and I do retains the signs that someone physically created it, and increasingly I’m recognising that as a good thing.

I like helping create images, and I like having this be part of what I do. Writing is always going to be my primary focus as a creator, but I need the music and the visual art, the dancing and crafting and all the rest of it. I’m happier with more diversity in my life.

It’s also worth noting that there are diminishing returns on doing one thing all the time. Doing one thing for an hour or two every day will eventually make you an expert. Doing one thing for four hours a day won’t make you an expert twice as fast. There are things about how we learn and grow that work at their own speed. If I spent ten hours a day writing I would not progress more rapidly as a writer. If I spread myself around a bit, I can have more skills at a decent level, and I find I prefer that.

Silliness and Animism

Those of you who have started following the blog more recently may not be aware of the work I have already out in the world, so every now and then I like to revisit what’s available.

Wherefore was my lockdown project, guided by suggestions from various of my friends, but chiefly Bob Fry (who appears as a character) and Robin Treefellow (who appears under a different name). Wherefore is set around my hometown of Stroud. It features many actual people, and a whole host of imaginary people, some of whom are based heavily on real people. It became a way for some of us to connect with each other and to have something to talk about – which helped a lot with lockdown and social isolation.

The stories come in bite sized pieces, and the whole thing is more of a soap opera than anything with a coherent story arc. It’s mostly silly, occasionally darker and more serious, and pushes the notion of were-entities far further than any sensible person might go. The stories exist as readings, and as ebooks (which you can have for free).

Series 1 starts here –

Series one as an ebook is over here, for free –

Series 2 starts here –

Series 2 as an ebook –

Series 3 starts here –

Series 3 as an ebook is over here –

It is an entirely silly project, but at the same time, some of my best expression of animism are in here, particularly when it comes to very small things such as oolites, and yeast.

This complicated heart

I lined my heart softly, with moss

Invited in scuttling beetles, slow worms.

Planted apple trees not knowing if they

Would bring knowledge, life, beauty,

Or the mayhem of fruit loving deities

With all their jealous foibles.

I am ready for epic, unreasonable things.

This heart is laced through with promises

Bonds and binds, pledges and vows.

I am old scar tissue and new growth

A forest unfurls inside me, deer roam

Trees above and mycelium below

I am an ecosystem, a habitat for ideas.

My wild heart, my dirty, unkempt heart.

Small enough to take in your hands, this heart.

Small enough to hold, and needing to be held.

Vast enough to shelter you, offering comfort

Enter in and rest here, amongst my trees

Lie down in my cool moss, in damp fecundity

I am fungi breaking down the old life

Into sweet, renewing decay.

I am live wood rising from out of history

Turning lost existence into living strength.

Growing the future with determined love.

Being an anomaly

On the 4th of February, The Eldritch Broadcasting Corporation ran an online event called Anomaly. The whole thing has been divided into segments, which you can watch on Youtube – 

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the one in the octopus hat, and the thumbnail on the video is my band – The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine.

The segment above is all Hopeless, Maine stuff (massive, sprawling project taking many forms). Those of you who have been following the development of the Annamarie Nightshade song will particularly enjoy this because Keith Errington – the songwriter – is actually performing his song as part of this video. 

We’re looking at getting Nightshade onto the Ominous Folk album, and the conclusion we’ve all come to is that it would make far more sense to have Keith sing it, with the guitar. We also need to record the Hopeless anthem that features in this section.

I do this to people, often deliberately. Susie (far right in the video above) joined a mumming side some years ago in all innocence and I’ve been luring her into increasing numbers of outlandish things ever since. Keith started out writing small, amusing things for the Hopeless, Maine blog and for performance at events, and now… well… we’ve happened to him.

The event as a whole includes a few people I’ve happened to. Last year for the online festival, Pauline Pitchford read something of mine. This year she’s reading something of her own. Last year, James Weaslgrease read something of mine and he too has written his own contribution for this event. This is something I’m particularly dedicated to – opening up spaces where people can have a go, and where there is room to stretch and try things. I love spaces where people who have found their feet then start lifting and supporting other people. Life is so much better when we get rid of the gatekeepers and start holding doors open for each other.

Developing a song

A few weeks ago I shared a song in progress as The Ominous Folk work on a song about Annamarie Nightshade, written for us by Keith Errington. Annamarie is a character from the Hopeless, Maine project and The Ominous Folk started life as a Hopeless project too, although it’s definitely now a project in its own right as well.

In the first blog and video, we were breaking the song in and just getting a feel for it. By the time we got to this second video, we’d had time to think about the song. Susie has taken the lead with arrangement decisions, particularly in changing the pace and establishing an underlying beat to sing it to. We usually handle arrangements in this way. We try things, we discuss them, we see what ideas arise and we go with those. No one goes into a song with an exact sense of how it should work, and the process of figuring it out is always collaborative.

I’ve changed my harmony line slightly – the last note at the end of each chorus, and a rather more ambitious high note at the end. I’ve kept the uneasy harmonies. I have work to do with the first verse – nothing unusual there. One of the things we’re able to do as a group is sing together without using an instrument to give us the notes, and without pitch pipes. This takes a lot of practice. We will get to the point where Susie and I will just look at each other and then hit the starting notes. It’s the sort of thing that looks like witchcraft when you do it live, but actually depends on putting in the time and work.

With current conversations around use of computers in art, I’m conscious that a lot of people see the magical bit and not the process that gets you there. The difference between people who create and people who don’t isn’t magic, or luck. It’s just a question of spending the time on it. Equally, no one needs a machine to do the creative process for them, it’s just a question of patience and effort. In this case, being willing to sing the same song, over and over until it works.

At the next round of developing this song, we’ll have a harmony line from Tom underneath these two – that’s most of the way there as well, and James coming in to bolster up the chorus.

Puddings, tradition and magic

The tradition goes that everyone in the household has to stir the Christmas pudding, for good luck, and everyone gets to make a wish. A traditional pudding would have been made weeks ago, but I don’t have anywhere suitable to keep a pudding dry and cool for that long. For some years now, I’ve assembled my pudding on Christmas Eve, or the day before intended consumption, but I keep with the stirring traditions.

Kitchen magic

Grating the apple, first

I am making puddings

With my great grandmother

Who cooked them up

In a copper boiler

Lit in the scullery

That became a kitchen

Long before my birth.

Orange peel, lemon zest

Breadcrumbs, suet.

She was long buried

Before I started making

Festive puddings,

She is with me, each year.

We make puddings for people.

Rum, whiskey, beer, spices,

Dried fruit, not traditional

Fewer currents, more apricot

Stirring for good luck,

A household makes wishes

Spooning hopes into the mix.

Boiling. Great grandmother’s anxiety

Becomes my ease, slow cooker

My friend and accomplice.

Feeding friends, family, futures

Comfort, fruit, sweetness.

Wishes, witchcraft,

Pudding magic

Offerings. Hope.

Song in progress

I know it’s more normal to wait until something is entirely finished before putting it out into the world. However, I’m excited about this song, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about processes. Song arrangements don’t happen by magic, and how we do things as The Ominous Folk is quite interesting.

The song then – is about Annamarie Nightshade, a witch from the Hopeless, Maine project. It was written specifically for Susie to sing, and it was written for us by lovely Keith Errington. Keith has been part of the Hopeless, Maine project for many years. He’s written in the setting and he’s also performed with us at events. This is his first song for us, and we know there are more to come. I’ve known for some time that Keith is a songwriter, but it’s not something he’s been putting in public. It’s great being able to give him space to share more of his many talents.

The process then. When we start with a song, one of us will have undertaken to lead on it. Or we’ll have decided who is leading which bits. Where it’s feasible, we listen to as many different versions as we can – easy enough with folk. For covers we try to find a few live versions as this helps us get to know a piece. When a song has been written for us we only have one version to listen to, so we’d all spent a few weeks getting familiar with Keith’s recording of his song.

When we sit down to figure out arrangements, we’re a democracy. We try things and we see how we feel about them. This invariably means that the first few runs at a song are messy and chaotic. We drink a lot of tea, and talk to each other about what we like in each other’s interpretations. Usually once we’ve been through a song half a dozen times we start to develop a sense of how we’re going to handle it, and usually the arrangements start to settle from there. We’re not far on from that point in this video, and the opening isn’t perfect but by the end it’s starting to sound like the song it will be.

It takes a while to sing a song in – this is as true for us as a band as it is for working alone. Learning the words will be part of that process. As we sing it together, it will evolve. Singing from a place of really knowing a piece is always different from those first, more tentative experiments. It will be interesting to come back next year when we have this one properly up to speed and compare recordings.

It isn’t like any other piece we have in the repertoire, which delights me. Songwriters all tend to have habits and we get more diversity of sound by mixing covers, trad and original music. None of the things I would normally do on a harmony line quite worked for this, so it pushed me to think in a different way. It’s good to be challenged like that! There are some beautiful words in there, and the notion of ‘dangerous care’ absolutely nails Annamarie as a character. 

I love working collaboratively, because it’s always a process and because more happens than any one person would have managed on their own. It’s always an adventure, and I’m conscious of being blessed with some really awesome people to create with.

Three ravens

I’ve been singing this song for more than twenty years, on my own. I found it in a book and while I can’t recall the title of the book, I can remember the feel of the dark blue cover in my hands. 

Recently we added it to the Ominous Folk repertoire. This was very much for the purpose of singing it at Woodchester Mansion. We are stood a matter of yards from where the ravens nest in one of the big estate trees. I sang it for them.

Tom is off to the right in this video, you can hear him…

She saw the water-lilly bloom

(A little bit of fiction that might be part of a larger project)

You are pretty sure the man who said the answer to everything is make good art had no idea what he was talking about. You make the tapestry anyway because it’s all you have, and it’s that or throw yourself out of the window. It is not enough to make the tapestry. Not enough to watch the world through a mirror and always be separate from it. But you make good art in the hopes that you’re going to figure out an answer here. As though this mess is a puzzle to be solved.

The only way to know if the curse is real is to test it. There’s a fighting chance that you are trapped here under a misconception and that all you have to do is resist and the nightmare will end. If the curse is real, that choice is death, simply.

Every day your life hangs between the window and the loom. The world you cannot be part of and the pale reflection of life you make with your own hands. It is never enough. Every day so far you’ve chosen the loom, because it is a bit like being alive, and maybe that’s as good as anything can ever be. Perhaps the answer is to learn to live within these limitations and make the best of it. You try to be grateful for what you have, for the colours and textures of threads and for the reflected view of the world. It is something. You are alive and outside your window the seasons turn and you can smell the world even if you can’t touch it.

Today is the other sort of day. The need for sun on skin, and to sink your fingers into the long, damp grasses and down into the soil itself, is so strong it hurts. The need to feel the wind touching your face. To put bare feet into the cool expanse of the river and feel the water moving against your skin. Not to be separate from the world, but to be part of it. 

Today the bigger curse is this chilly, lifeless, lonely room. Today the living death of making sad, pale imitations of dreams is too much to bear. You finally choose to leave, because this half-life that avoids the danger is no life at all and you can no longer bear it.

Is it the curse taking effect? Or is your body so weak from its long imprisoning that your legs can barely hold you up? You find a boat, and you write your name upon it in case someone finds you and wonders. The river takes you, and holds you and carries you. Above, the sky is more beautiful than you remembered, and birds fly across your line of vision, each one of them miraculous in your hungry gaze. The taste of the river is in your mouth and the sensual warmth of the wooden boat is under your fingers. Willows at the river margins, workers voices from the fields. Life embraces you. If this is the end of the story, you regret nothing.

(Based very slightly on Tennyson’s Lady Of Shalott. I was curious as to what might happen without it being about Lancelot)