Wednesday, 2 December 2020

How to Choose the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post

If it’s true that a picture paints a thousand words, the thousand or so words you’ve written for your latest blog post deserve the very best picture you can find. But it’s not always easy! Do you struggle to find that perfect image to accompany your lovingly crafted words? Do you ever wonder if it’s okay to use that photo you found on the Internet? Read on.

What Kind of Image Are You Looking For?

It’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about what kind of image you’re looking for. Are you after a banner image to go across the head of your post, or one (or more than one) placed within the body of the post itself?

What aspect ratio do you need? Square? Landscape? Portrait? Some image library sites let you search on aspect ratio which can help you find the right image quicker. Bear in mind that you can crop an image yourself to whatever shape or size you need.

Is the blog post one of a series? If so, are you looking for an image that matches others in the series? Do you have a house style or branding that it needs to align with?

Do you want an image that works on its own or are you intending to overlay text or other elements? If so you may want something that is not too detailed or “fussy” so the other elements can be seen clearly.

Are you looking for an image that matches the subject or content of your blog post, or one that is more generic? If you want a matching image, your blog post key words or labels should help you narrow your search.

People Not Necessarily Like Us

If you are looking for portraits or photos that include people, pay attention to the people you choose. It’s easy to select pictures featuring “young beautiful people,” or people from your own social and cultural demographic. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but think about who you may be excluding. How often do the images you choose to illustrate your blog posts represent people of different ages, cultures, or races? A good friend of mine, mental health writer and coach Julie A. Fast, brought this to my attention when we were discussing the choice of images for her guest posts at Gum on My Shoe.

“In the future,” she said, “let’s use some pics with older people that represent my age group. So many images today are youth-oriented and yet many of us with bipolar are older.”

It was a valid point and one I’ve kept in mind ever since.

Special Consideration for Mental Health Bloggers

If you blog in the mental health arena there are some additional things for you to consider. The first is not to reinforce unhelpful or unhealthy stereotypes concerning people living with mental health conditions. As an example, avoid using the mundane or stereotyped image of someone holding their head in their hands, when illustrating depression or other mental health diagnoses. Check out this article on why journalists should avoid using “head clutcher” stock images.

The second important consideration is to avoid images that may be unnecessarily triggering, especially when illustrating suicide or self-harm topics. UK charity Time to Change has published guidelines on the responsible use of images in such contexts:

Often the pictures accompanying stories around mental health are generic stock showing people isolated and in distress. In fact people with mental health problems come from all walks of life and will have much more going on than simply their mental health problem.

The National Suicide Prevention Alliance has published its own media guidelines (PDF) for mental health promotion and suicide prevention.

Copyright or Wrong?

There are few things more frustrating than finally finding that perfect image and discovering you don’t have permission to use it, so let’s get this out of the way. If you didn’t take the photograph or create the image from scratch, you can’t use it unless you have permission. Read that again.

That awesome pic on Instagram or Pinterest. The photo your mate shared on Facebook from some group he’s in. That product image on Amazon or Etsy. Unless you’ve obtained permission from the copyright owner, or you’ve bought a licence covering what you intend using it for, or you’ve checked (not guessed) that it’s in the public domain, just don’t.

Copyright theft is a thing. Litigation is a thing. Yes, really.

So, What Can I Use?

In The Essential Guide to Using Images Legally Online, Kristi Kellogg suggests the following approaches:

  • Public Domain Images
  • Creative Commons Images
  • Stock Photos
  • Your Own Images
  • Social Media Images (but only with permission)

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Public domain images are those whose copyright has expired or never existed. They can be used by almost anyone for personal and commercial purposes. This article lists 31 free public domain image websites.

There are six Creative Commons (CC) licences which grant different permissions, plus CC0 (CC Zero) which means creators have given up their copyright and put their works into the public domain. CC0 allows others to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, with no conditions. The Creative Commons website offers a useful image search tool.

Stock photo websites such as Shutterstock and iStock offer photos that the creators have licensed for use to anyone who pays the appropriate fee. It is important to read the license details carefully to ensure it covers what you want to do with the image.

If you took the photo, you own the copyright so there are no restrictions on how you use it.

As Kristi Kellogg says, “Images appearing on social media are no different than any other image you’ll find online, in that you must act responsibly and ask for permission.” Bear in mind that the person who posted the image may not be the copyright owner and it may be difficult to determine the status of a particular image. In my personal opinion, unless you know you are asking the creator or copyright holder, it’s far safer, and easier, to look elsewhere.

Three Online Image Libraries

I routinely use the following image sites because I know the photographs will be okay to use. Check the sites’ respective license pages for full details.

Unsplash is my go-to site for high-quality photographic images. It has over two million high-resolution images which can be downloaded and used for free. The Unsplash licence means no permission is needed to use the images for commercial and non-commercial purposes, although an attribution to the creator is appreciated.

Burst has free stock photos for websites and commercial use. Some images are released under Creative Commons CC0 license. Others are made available for use under a nonexclusive license. See the Burst Terms of Service for full details.

Pixabay shares copyright-free images and videos. All contents are released under the Pixabay license and can be used without permission or giving credit to the artist, even for commercial purposes.

For more options, check out this article at Verve which lists 27 sites offering royalty-free stock images for commercial or non-commercial use.

Four Image Editing Apps

The following websites and applications are useful for editing and cropping images.

Pablo is a simple browser-based app linked to the Unsplash library of royalty-free images. You can search for an appropriate image, or upload one of your own. Once loaded, you can crop the image (square, portrait, or landscape), convert to black and white, apply various filters, and overlay text. You can download your finished images and use them in any way you wish. Check Pablo’s licence page for further details.

Pixlr offers powerful free browser-based photo editing. Supported image formats include PSD (Photoshop), PXD, JPEG, PNG (transparent), WebP, SVG and more. There are two browser applications: Pixlr Express for quick edits and beginners, and Pixlr Editor for advanced editing and professional-level tools.

I recently discovered and fell in love with Affinity Photo, which is a fully-featured photo editor akin to Photoshop at a fraction of the cost. At the time of writing, it is available for download for PC/Mac at GBP 48.99 (Ipad GBP 19.99). Far too many features to detail here, but check out the Affinity website and tutorials.

Canva is a template-based design platform for creating social media graphics, presentations, posters, documents and other visual content. It is available for browser, Windows, Android, and iPhone and is free to use. (There is a subscription service offering additional features.) My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered is an avid user of Canva and was keen to share her impressions:

I discovered Canva through a digital marketing internship and immediately found it incredibly easy to use. Over the past year, I’ve continued to learn about more of Canva’s functions and love that it allows me the opportunity to use my creativity and imagination to produce images for my blog.

A Worked Example

I thought it would be helpful to see how I select images for my own blog posts, using this article as an example. I began as I usually do, with a visit to the Unsplash website. A search for “blogging” returned 277 images. Limiting it to landscape orientation reduced the number to 158. A quick scan through them yielded nothing promising so I refined my search to “blog photos.” One image immediately caught my attention: a number of vintage photographs on a desk, by Joanna Kosinska. I bookmarked it and continued looking.

Searching for “choose photo” yielded several similar images. I bookmarked two, by Dan Gold, and Sarandy Westfall, respectively. Equivalent searches at Burst didn’t return anything I liked, but at Pixabay I found a photo by jarmoluk which I added to my shortlist.

I had four excellent but similar images to choose from, but I wasn’t finished yet. I returned to Unsplash and searched around concepts such as “choosing,” “choice,” and “website design.” Nothing came up that caught my attention. I put the title of my blog post into Google and scanned through the image results. Two links stood out for me: How to Select the Perfect Image for Your Blog Post, and 11 Best Practices for Including Images in Your Blog Posts. The banner images their authors had chosen were similar to the four I’d selected. I downloaded the images I’d shortlisted and set them aside until the next day.

Clockwise from top left: Dan Gold, jarmoluk, Sarandy Westfall, Joanna Kosinska.

Dan’s and Joanna’s photographs stood out for me and I tried each as the banner image for my article before deciding to go with Joanna’s. I hope you agree it works with the theme of my post.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash


Wednesday, 25 November 2020

How To Understand People and Be Understood

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.

Someone once told me we have no right to expect others to understand us. She was adamant about that. Angry, almost, that anyone could imagine otherwise. The most we can expect, she said, was to be heard. I was reminded of this recently when a close friend said it felt like I didn't know her at all. I got to thinking about what it means to know someone or be known by them.

To Know or to Understand?

What exactly do we mean by knowing or understanding one another? Is there a difference between knowing someone and understanding them? Ephrat Livni drew a distinction in his article It’s better to understand something than to know it:

“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Livni was discussing these concepts in a business and scientific context, but I think the distinction is useful when we’re thinking about our awareness of ourselves and others. Our friendships and relationships are not static things we can ever fully grasp or know. They are dynamic. They wax and wane over time. They deepen as we learn more about each other. Sometimes they fracture or end. They may pause or stall for a time but their nature is to change. The same applies to us as individuals.

We might seek to know each other at any point in time, but for me, the fundamental need is to be understood at a deeper level. Our lives are incredibly complex and interlinked, and our understanding can only ever be partial, Nevertheless, it is this yearning that underpins our need to understand and to be understood, and our pain when that need is unmet.

Is It a Healthy Need?

I disagree with the person who said we’ve no right to expect understanding from others, but am I right? Is it a healthy need? The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) includes the need to understand others and be understood in its needs inventory. I’m no means an expert but NVC’s approach to communication makes a lot of sense to me. Fran and I have used it when we’re exploring issues that arise between us or with others. Ralph Nichols, “Father of Listening” and author of Are You Listening, went further. He claimed “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

What Do We Want People to Understand about Us?

A few months ago a friend asked me twenty questions she’d found in an online “How Well Do You Know Me” quiz. It was fun and we had a good laugh at some of the questions — and my answers! I surprised myself actually, in getting more right than I’d imagined. Understanding is more than a game of twenty questions, though. What do we want others to understand about us? It will be different for everyone but here’s what I’d like people to understand about me.

  • My likes and dislikes
  • My values and red lines
  • My plans, hopes, and dreams
  • My issues and triggers
  • What scares and delights me, what makes me smile and cry
  • What I need when I’m sad or struggling

It may be a tall order to expect someone to understand me on so many levels, although Fran comes close. On the other hand, I believe it is possible to have people who understand certain aspects of me really well. What counts is whether someone is willing to engage, to learn, and understand — and allow me to do the same. Taylor Swift captures this commitment in her song Stay Stay Stay:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes and dreams

It’s worth remembering that no matter how close the relationship there will always be things we choose not to share; aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish to hold secret from most, if not all, others.

What Does It Take to Be Understood?

We can’t hope to understand or be understood if we’re not prepared to truly communicate; in NVC terms, to listen with empathy and express ourselves honestly. We all like to imagine we’re open and honest with everyone, but this is perilous work and not to be undertaken lightly. Allowing people in close requires trust and courage, and the more we engage the more vulnerable we make ourselves. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore describes this well in his book Care of the Soul:

We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.

It’s very important who we choose to open up to, as Brené Brown makes clear in her book Daring Greatly:

You cannot be vulnerable with everyone. It is important to build trust and boundaries before being vulnerable. Otherwise, more times than ever, you will end up getting betrayed and hurt.

This is especially true where experience has taught us not to let people in too close as a defence against betrayal, abandonment, and loss. Psychic and life coach Jamila White expresses this powerfully in her piece Ultra-independence is a trust issue:

You learned along the way that you just couldn’t really trust people. Or that you could trust people, but only up to a certain point.

Even without such issues, connecting clearly and cleanly is not as straightforward as we sometimes imagine it to be, as Fran and I discuss in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively is the belief it should be easy. When you think about it, it is amazing anyone manages to communicate anything meaningful at all. Each of us has our unique mix of thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, joys, pains, plans, worries, and views about how the world works. We scarcely understand them ourselves, yet we hope to share them with someone who has their own mix to contend with. And the only tools we have are the sounds we can utter, and the marks we can make on paper or a computer screen. It is no wonder we struggle at times!

Given the potential for misunderstanding and hurt, why do we risk it? Why do we want to be understood at all? This can only be a personal thing but for me there is a deep joy in feeling known in the moment, and understood at a more fundamental level. It’s expressed beautifully in an anonymous quotation which inspired a previous blog post of mine.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.

The fact that this understanding can only ever be partial and temporary doesn’t lessen the reward. On the contrary, it deepens it. The gap between what I understand of myself and what my friend understands of me is fertile ground. Any difficulties that come up are part of the journey towards understanding, rather than problems to be avoided or shunned.

It’s worth saying that being understood can be uncomfortable. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson shared this with me recently:

I feel like you know me through and through, Marty. Sometimes that’s annoying and I don’t like it, but ultimately I think it helps our friendship.

In what way is it annoying?

It’s like if I say something and you’ll be like “I thought so.” I’m in no way saying I don’t want you to do that anymore, just that in a funny way I’m like “fs he knows me so well.”

I find it disconcerting when someone can tell how I’m feeling before I’ve told them, sometimes before I’m fully aware of it myself. Fran does this a lot and it’s not always what I need, especially if I’m faking fine — pretending I’m doing better than I actually am.

Getting it Wrong

Understanding someone doesn’t mean never getting it wrong. In fact, we’re more likely to get it wrong with people we feel we understand because we tend to act on the basis of what we know, or believe we know. That’s what happened with me and my friend who said it felt like I didn’t know her at all. We’ve moved forward since then, but it was a valuable reminder not to become complacent or assume I understand people better than I actually do.

Another friend contacted me the other day. She wanted to talk but I was working from home and couldn’t pay her the full attention she needed. I told her so and we agreed to see how we got on, but it didn’t work and we soon ran aground. She messaged me later:

Understanding is hard and requires patience, which is in short order these days. To understand and be understood takes time. It’s [about] understanding when your friend has a lot to do, and also understanding when your friend is three days without sleep. It’s picking up on cues that can be silent, and not missing much when you’re with your friends …

Although unpleasant, mistakes like these can be valuable because they offer the opportunity to grow in understanding. I’ve written in the past about other occasions when I’ve worked through disagreements and issues honestly with friends. Aimee and I have had our share of misunderstandings, but we’ve been honest about them and emerged stronger:

I’m not sure if you agree, Aimee, but I’d say we understand there are times we will get it wrong, and that’s OK. It might not feel OK at the time but it will be when we are able to step back a little.

Definitely! And I think more and more we’re learning not to feel like total failures if we do get it wrong, and not blame one another for it.

I’ll close with another short passage from High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I believe profoundly that the secret to understanding is honest and ongoing communication.

Approach your friend on the basis that you are each doing the best you can. Be gentle with yourself and with each other when things are not flowing well, and celebrate when they are. Good or bad, keep the channels open.

Do you feel understood by your friends and loved ones? Do you have a good understanding of those you’re close to? If not, you wish you did? Fran and I would love to hear from you.



Writing this article has made me realise how fortunate I am to have friends who understand me — not perfectly, perhaps, but well. They understand what makes me who I am; the things that are important to me, my hang-ups, frailties, and strengths. They get it wrong with me sometimes, of course, just as I get it wrong with them. But they get me, and that’s a really good feeling. Oh, and the person who told me we’ve no right to expect others to understand us? Ironically, she believed she had a really good handle on who I was. She was invariably wrong.


Photo by Diego Sanchez on Unsplash

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

I'm Proud of You: Four Words That Mean So Much

This article was inspired by a conversation with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We discussed how valuable it is to feel proud of our achievements and each other’s, and how sometimes we hesitate to say we are proud of someone in case it comes across as insincere or patronising.

For me, telling someone you’re proud of them implies a degree of closeness and connection. An expression of pride means far more to me if the person has been there through my struggles, doubts and uncertainties. Their expression of pride acknowledges their role in what led to this moment without in any way claiming it for themselves. Aimee expressed this perfectly in a social media post which I quoted when discussing how to celebrate success.

After almost every blog post, Martin is there telling me how much they meant to him. After every achievement, he is there telling me how proud he is. Well, now it’s my turn! I’m a very proud bestie after all of his recent achievements at work!

Fran and I share several similar moments in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Bear in mind that the other person may not know how to respond. They might feel shy or embarrassed, or doubt they deserve the spotlight you’ve put on them. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for the other person to respond by telling you they’re proud of themselves.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too!”

My ego used to get a little bruised when this happened, as though my “gift” was being dismissed as unnecessary or inappropriate. I see things differently now. The gift is not me saying I’m proud of my friend, it is our mutual recognition that something pride-worthy has occurred. These moments can be profound. They reinforce the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and our successes, and the part we can play in supporting others.

It’s no less special when someone spontaneously shares that they’re proud of themselves. A friend talked to me recently about her experiences at work. I was happy to hear she’s doing well but what moved me most was when she said “I’m really proud of myself!” because she recognised her achievement and the contribution she’s making in the workplace. Another friend and I were discussing the inner work she’s doing in certain areas of her life.

“I’m just so proud of me!”

“I’m so glad to hear that.”

“It’s nice to feel proud and in control and working on a major issue.”

As we describe in our book, the summer of 2013 was one of the most stressful and perilous periods in Fran’s life. There were times when we both feared for her health and wellbeing, but there were rare moments of relief when things came together:

Yesterday was so soul filling for me, Marty.. The best day yet.. Makes it all worth it.. This is what I came for.. I am proud of myself and the work I’ve done on myself..

It’s easy to say “I’m proud of you” but the words can come across as patronising or insincere if you don’t have a meaningful connection with the person you say them to. Worse, they might give the impression you’re claiming a part of the other person’s success, or a role in their life you do not possess. It helps to be specific. “I’m proud of you for how you handled that tricky situation,” or “I’m proud of you for making time for self-care in the middle of everything you’re going through” are more meaningful than a vague “I’m proud of you” which suggests you want to say the right thing without engaging too closely. I sent a generic “I’m so proud of you” when a friend told me they’d signed up for a training course. She thanked me but considered it premature. She was concerned whether or not she’d be able to complete the training.

“Don’t be proud yet. I appreciate what you are saying but I haven’t done it yet.”

It was a useful reminder to pay attention to what’s important in someone’s life before leaping in to praise them.

When we get it right, expressing pride in ourselves and others can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Aimee and I both blog in the mental health arena, albeit from very different perspectives. This gives us a good understanding of each other’s challenges and goals. We were chatting the other day when Aimee mentioned a new blogging collaboration she’d landed.

I’m so proud of you, Aimee! Which is appropriate, because right now I’m blogging about how to tell people you’re proud of them!

Oooooo, that’s such a good topic! It means so much to me how often you say it to me.

It can take time — sometimes a long time — to reap the benefits, but it can be worth the wait, as Fran shared with me when we were writing our book:

Over the years one lady repeatedly told me she was proud of me. I didn’t understand at first. I never asked her why she did this. Then it began dawning on me. Each tiny painful baby step I took she saw. She saw the work I was doing. The struggles and successes. Who I was becoming. And the answers of why she was proud of me became clearer as I looked deeply and began seeing myself. I began to become proud of myself. I no longer needed her to tell me. In all my life I never had anyone say those words to me and now I realize how very important they are.

Do you have a story about a time someone was proud of you, or when you’ve been proud of someone else? Do you find it easy to say the words or hear them said to you? We’d love to hear from you.


Wednesday, 4 November 2020

VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health

By Sachit Grover

VRITRA is a short film on mental health. The film stars Sachit Grover, Ankit Prasad, Maya Patel, Bhumika Jain, Arushi Pahuja, and Snuggles. It is directed by Nipa Shah.

In Hindu mythology, Vritra was a dragon who blocked the rivers and caused a drought. Lord Shiva killed him with a bolt and released the waters. In the context of our lives, Vritra represents the mental dragons that grip us — self-doubt, anxiety, sadness, etc. and our friends and family collectively represent Lord Shiva to enable us to be released from our dragons.

This was my first ever short film and I was extremely nervous while filming this. I wanted to have a powerful performance, but I also wanted the performance to be very realistic. Finding this balance was a little difficult. To prepare filming, I had to talk to close friends and family who were dealing with mental health issues. After chatting with a few people, it became easier to get in character. I really wanted to do justice to this role and have this film help bring awareness on mental health.

In the south Asian community, mental health is often overlooked or ignored. I am confident that this short film will be a good step in raising conversation around the topic of mental health within south Asian communities.

Through my acting work, I constantly post videos that touch upon various social issues. On my YouTube channel, I have posted about suicide awareness and domestic abuse, among other topics. I believe it’s important to raise awareness on different societal issues.

To check out my work, subscribe to me on YouTube. You can also follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.


Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes

Two of my greatest passions are coffee and writing. I thought it would be fun to share a selection of cafés and coffee shops with particular links to my work. Over the years, my writing has moved through several phases. For ten years (1996 through 2005) I ran Middle-earth Reunion (“The alternative Tolkien Society”). I designed and maintained the group’s website, and published our quarterly journal and newsletter. I wrote articles and short stories which explored the consequences of asserting Tolkien’s role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. You can find many of these writings on the Middle-earth Reunion website.

My next major focus was High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder co-written with Fran Houston between 2012 and 2016. My blogging career began with the launch of Gum on My Shoe in 2013. I’ve written for many other blogs and organisations, including bp Magazine (Bipolar Hope), Mental Health First Aid England, I’m NOT Disordered, Bipolar Happens, and The Good Men Project.

I’ve listed my top ten writing venues in chronological order based on when I started writing there. All but one are in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne. I’ve included website links and full addresses in case you’d like to visit. (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson for that suggestion!) If you’re interested in what I take on my coffee shop adventures, check out my Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger.

1. Blackfriars Restaurant and Banquet Hall

Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4XN

I started going to Blackfriars during a period of unemployment. At the time I was running Middle-earth Reunion and worked extensively there on my personal project The Tresco Manuscript and the Lore of Life, Leaf and Stone.

The ‘Tresco manuscript’ is named for Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where it was reputedly discovered in the 19th century. It comprises the only documented link between Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth and our own, modern world.

Blackfriars provided a haven of calm at a time when my personal life and future were far from certain.

2. Boskoops

1 Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7JG

Situated on the second floor of the magnificent east terrace surrounding Old Eldon Square, and with commanding views of the square below, known locally as Hippy Green, Boskoops was a favourite of mine for a year or two.

My novella Playing at Darkness was inspired by the goths and other clans who gathered each Saturday in Hippy Green. There is more than a little of the author in the story’s socially awkward hero Malcolm.

Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite café; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.

The title — Playing at Darkness — was inspired by a conversation overheard in another café, at Newcastle’s old central library.

For all the black leather and heavy makeup, for all that several professed allegiance to the Enemy in their attire [...] the Gothrim were children. Children playing at darkness. At least he had thought so at the time and it had almost turned him away from them. That wasn’t what he was looking for.

I’ve reworked Playing at Darkness several times, and retain a hope of publishing it one day.

3. Elula

13 Ridley Pl, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8JQ
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The downstairs café at Elula’s was a hidden gem. It was the setting for my short story gamma in the wrong place.

3pm, Saturday afternoon

Sat in the downstairs café in the Otherworldly crystal and incence shop. Less a café than a space for coffee. Small. Cosy. Spiral staircase from the shop above. Friendly. Pan pipe music.

Four six form students at a table across the room. Two adult women to my right. Mother and daughter? Maybe not. Students happy together but a bit loud. Women commenting on them (“product of the education system”). Two more women enter. [...]

Why did I come here? To sit. To scribble (having just bought this exercise book for that very purpose ...) To capture some thoughts. Looking for the muse. Is this the kind of place a muse would frequent? Maybe. Ellen might come here. (Ellen might work here).

Wandering today in the sunshine, I thought of the Green Fair. It is the kind of day to meet them.

Mention of Ellen and the Green Fair connects gamma to another tale from this period. Home Eleven describes my first contact with Ellen and Kai of the Ylfe (modern day Elves) at Newcastle’s Green Festival.

More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend “Home Eleven.” I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.

4. The Grand (formerly Campus Coffee)

141 Percy Street, Grand Hotel Buildings, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

Situated opposite Newcastle City Hall, Campus Coffee was my regular Saturday morning haunt for years until dwindling custom forced it to close at weekends. I wrote my diary there each Saturday, also letters and cards to friends. One of the staff was passionate about archery, which inspired my short story Kindling.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance, the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.

5. Rendezvous café, Whitley Bay

Dukes Walk, Northern Promenade, Whitley Bay NE26 1TP
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This iconic Art Deco café was built in 1930 and was originally called Garden Restaurant. Its name was changed to the Rendezvous Café in 1957. It has been described as a “perfect example of a traditional seaside ice cream parlour.”

I used to stop there on “me days” at the coast. I’d catch the Metro to West Monkseaton Metro station, walk to the sea front at Whitley Bay, then head north along the beach and promenade as far as St Mary’s lighthouse. The café was roughly midway and provided a welcome stopping point for coffee, a sandwich, and maybe a slice of cake or tray bake. One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.

6. Pret a Manger, Northumberland Street

142-145 Northumberland St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7AG

Pret was my regular Saturday morning place for a while, although I’m struggling to recall exactly when or what I would have been writing at the time, aside from letters and my journal. It got busy sometimes and I never had a table I considered “mine” but the food was excellent, the coffee was good (and cheap), and the staff friendly.

7. Starbucks, Northumberland Street

137 Northumberland Street, Newcastle, ENG NE1 7AG

For several months in 2009 I got into the habit of catching an early train into Newcastle each weekday morning. I’d spend an hour or so in Starbucks with my diary and notebook exploring what was going for me at the time, then catch my train into work.

One Saturday in May 2008 is captured in one of my notebooks. Five years had passed since my friend PJ’s death, and the network of friends I’d relied on since university days had dissolved. Beyond my immediate family I felt adrift and almost completely alone. I was also struggling to find any sort of creative focus.

Right now, I have perhaps the fewest number of people ever. Is this a delayed reaction to losing PJ? There is no one and nothing for me to identify with. When did I have a creative focus?

Tolkien / Middle-earth Reunion (website, people, writing, artwork).
Poetry — “Aye! I am a poet” (School, University, London).

When did I last make a difference?

What do I need? A creative friend. Someone to teach me. A muse. Someone I can help.

“... only she was tired and sad and human.”

Those notes (the quote is from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer) are eerily prophetic of Fran, who I met exactly three years later in May 2011, and the close, mutually supportive, and creative relationship we enjoy to this day.

The line “Aye! I am a poet” is from And Thus In Nineveh by Ezra Pound. The poem affected me a great deal when I encountered it in high school. The title of my short story And Men Myrtles — which includes a café scene — is taken from the same poem.

He lowered the book and his fork and poured himself a cup of tea from the brown earthenware pot. As he did so he found himself staring at a small almost perfectly heart-shaped mark at the edge of the spout.

It was nothing: Maisie had chipped the thing putting it into or out of the dishwasher — or maybe it was a fault in the glaze. The mark could have no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless its shape — or William’s interpretation of it — felt as though it might be important. He had been noticing little things like this a lot recently. Ever since ... Ever since when?

He knew the answer well enough. Ever since that Sunday last September in Wolvercote cemetery. One year and a week ago. Something had happened that morning and though he had never met their like before or since he owed it all — his reawakening as he had come to think of it — to the motley group of visitors at Professor Tolkien’s grave.

8. Church Gallery, Kirkby Stephen

3-7 Market Street, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Stephen, CA17 4QW

This is the only café on the list outside my local area, but it’s been a regular of mine for years when holidaying in Cumbria. Strictly speaking, it’s less a café than a self-serve area upstairs in the wonderful Church Gallery shop, but it is one of the cosiest places I know.

Over the years I’ve written many postcards and letters there. I worked on the book proposal for “High Tide, Low Tide,” scoured my diaries for content for the chapters covering Fran’s time in Europe in 2013, and agonised over who to include in our acknowledgements page.

9. Caffè Nero, Saint Mary’s Place

4–5 Saint Mary’s Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7AA

My premier writing venue in recent years, Caffè Nero is located in a former post office building, as I describe in a blog post from 2017.

It’s hard to visualise, but this used to be the City Post Office. I’ve stood in line many times — where these tables are now — for postage stamps, or to send packages off all over the world. It looks so different now! And yet, there is a sense of continuity. I may have to go elsewhere these days for my postal services (as I did this morning, to buy stamps and to mail out a copy of our book) but it is here, a large black coffee to hand (“Would you like the extra shot?” “Yes please!”), that I write my letters, cards, and postcards.

It soon became my favourite place to meet up with friends, and played its own role in the development of High Tide, Low Tide.

Caffè Nero is my social hub these days. The staff have changed over the years but have always been warm, personable, and supportive of my mental health work and our book. If I am meeting someone in town, here is my first choice of venue, and I have made several new friends from amongst the other regulars here.

I had many fascinating conversations with staff and other customers as I worked away at our book week after week. When High Tide, Low Tide was published they graciously allowed me to display my contact cards and leaflets. That degree of support and encouragement meant a lot.

One Saturday I got talking with local poet, writer, and publisher Fred Lewis. Fred told me about Newcastle Literary Salon which met each month at Bar Loco. I performed my first ever book readings there and met a number of exceptional poets and writers. I wrote about my first visit to the Salon for the #BeReal series at HastyWords.

There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people.

And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be. Two pieces in particular summed this up for me: Angela J. Kennedy’s powerful poem “Women’s Work,” and Jenni Pascoe’s “One Day I Will Die.” I spoke with Jenni at the end of the event. We discovered a mutual love of hats and she told me she’d noticed her poems seemed to resonate with me. She was right. We connected.

You can watch me perform my book readings on our YouTube channel.

10. Costa Coffee, Kingston Park

Belvedere Retail Park, Unit 5, Belvedere Parkway, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 2PA
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I’ve saved the best until last! I started going to Costa Coffee a couple of years ago. It is a ten minute walk from my home, and it soon became my favourite place to sit and write. Before covid struck here in March 2020 I was visiting Costa seven days a week: on my way into work, for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning as prelude to whatever else I had planned for the day, and on Sunday afternoons before doing my supermarket grocery shop.

The staff are wonderful and several have become good friends. I was genuinely devastated when Costa had to close at the start of lockdown, and was one of the very first customers to return when it reopened.

My daily journal, letters and cards to friends, social media posts and blog articles — all have been written at these tables. Appropriately enough, the idea for “Coffee and Scribbles” came to me at Costa, and I’m sitting here now at my favourite table by the window as I draw the article to a close.


Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ever Wonder Why Our Blog Is Called Gum on My Shoe?

As our website and Facebook page declare, “Gum on My Shoe is a creative partnership between best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston.” That’s clear enough — and true — but you might wonder why we chose such an unusual name and what it means. It dates back to a conversation Fran and I had not long after we met in 2011.

“You’re stuck with me now, Fran. I hope you realise that.”

“Like gum on my shoe...”

The phrase stuck (pun intended!) and when we began planning our book late in 2012 it was an obvious working title for the project, and for our new online platform. You can read the concept statement for our book here. We announced our Facebook page in April 2013. Our blog launched later that year.

Welcome to Gum On My Shoe! I have created this page as a sort of travel diary as I journey along the long and winding (and glorious) road towards publication of the book I am writing in collaboration with Fran Houston. The book’s working title is “Gum On My Shoe: My Bipolar Bestfriend and Me.”

The image shows one of a series of concept cover designs we developed in the early stages of our project.

As for what gum on my shoe actually means, I can do no better than to quote from this article:

We liked the title [“Gum on My Shoe”] because it captured several important aspects of our friendship. First, that Fran is “stuck with me.” I am not going anywhere. I am here for her no matter what; through good times (there are many) and not so good (there are many). I am the “gum on her shoe” that keeps her grounded, and helps hold her here in this life even—especially—when she wants to leave. It also turns on its head the notion that ill ones are a burden to those around them. I am not locked into a relationship of servitude: we are equals in a mutually supportive friendship.

It was well-received by many who knew us. One friend said, “I love the title. It makes me feel comforted. What a blessing to have someone that determined to stick with you!” Others were less convinced, and it became clear that our book deserved a new title more descriptive of its content, audience, and purpose.

As a title, “Gum on My Shoe” was understood and liked by many, but it confused others. More significantly, it was dismissed by people in the publishing world whose experience and judgement we respected. We resumed the search for a title early in 2015. By April, we had settled on “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.”

The new title fit perfectly:

The title of this book — High Tide, Low Tide — is an apt one. Fran lived on an island for many years, including the first eighteen months of our friendship. The stretch of water that separated her from the mainland, and the rhythm of the tides and ferry crossings, influenced almost every aspect of her life and our relationship. The title also suggests the Atlantic Ocean, which lies between us. Most significantly, it conveys the periodic nature of Fran’s illnesses.

Our original working title remained — and remains — important to us and the brand for our online presence. In the epilogue to “High Tide, Low Tide” Fran challenges our readers to step up and “be the gum on someone’s shoe.”

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

You’ve read what “gum on my shoe” means to us. What does it mean to you? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch!