Wednesday 4 August 2021

Growing Old and Staying Young: Thoughts Inspired by an Urban Ramble

“We need old friends to help us grow old and new friends to help us stay young.”
— Loretta Cottin Pogrebin

I had the pleasure recently to meet up with two friends for an urban ramble in my home city, Newcastle upon Tyne. It was my first outing with Paul and Fiona since we first met three years ago on a bench overlooking Derwentwater in Keswick.

For anyone interested in our route, we met outside Newcastle’s Life Centre and walked down to the river via Central Parkway and Forth Bank. Passing beneath the Tyne Bridge we continued east along the Quayside as far as the Millennium Bridge. We crossed to the Gateshead side and stopped for coffee and cake at the Baltic gallery café, overlooking the river. Returning to the Newcastle side, we continued east to where the Ouseburn stream meets the Tyne. Turning left, we explored the winding Riverside Walk as far as the City Farm and Cluny music venue, then made our way through Shieldfield, emerging close to Northumbria University. We concluded our jaunt at Caffè Nero, St Mary’s Place.

The inspiration for this post, though, isn’t the ramble itself but some of the topics we discussed (or rambled on about!) in the three and a half hours we were together. We covered a lot, but looking back on the day there were several themes which can be summarised as newness vs. oldness.

New Friends and Old Friends

The most obvious new/old aspect was that despite having known each other on social media for three years, I was new to Paul and Fiona and they were new to me. It’s been a while since I added to my circle of friends — especially my circle of local friends — and I was happy to discover how well we got along. I’m confident it won’t be our last time out together. My local friends are mostly younger than me, and whilst that’s never been an issue it was good to be out with people a little closer to my own age. Almost all my close friends, local and otherwise, are women, and it was something of a novelty for me to get on so well with another guy! (Fiona, I think you’re great too!)

Sharing Old Memories and Building New Ones

Some of the places we visited held specific memories which I enjoyed sharing. The Life Centre which I visited with my friend Aimee on our first “bloggers’ day out” three years ago, and where I received my covid vaccinations this year. The Tyne Bridge from which I’ve zipwired twice for charity. The Quayside which I’d last visited in November 2019 on a sponsored walk for the Chris Lucas Trust. The Cluny, where I once performed a live reading from High Tide, Low Tide.

It was a day for building new memories too. The many sights we encountered on our walk, the conversation, the little interactions with other people we met, and (far from the least memorable) stopping at the Baltic gallery for coffee and cake overlooking the river. We each kept our mobile phones at the ready and shared photos afterwards, posting the best on social media and tagging each other with good-natured abandon. It added a lot to the day for me. I printed a few of my photos and added them to my beloved Passport Traveler’s Notebook, which Paul has always admired. Paul, you’re in there now!

New Tellings of Old Stories

Within minutes of starting our walk, and noticing the “Boys Get Sad Too” badge in my lapel, Paul commended me for my mental health work and asked how I’d found myself on that path. Most of the people I hang out with know the stories well, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share the highlights of the past ten years or so for a new and attentive audience.

I told them how it started when Fran and I first met online in 2011, and our first and only face-to-face meeting two years later when Fran stopped in Southampton en route to Germany. I described learning from Fran about the realities of living with mental illness, and how our book came into being. I talked about how I came to volunteer with Time to Change, my involvement with the mental health team at work, and some of the great people I’ve met along the way.

Paul and Fiona’s stories were new to me too, and I hope they found sharing their tales as rewarding as I did hearing them. I was fascinated to discover how neatly our life experiences interlaced in places and differed widely in others.

Old Labels and New

When I told my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered that I planned to blog about my day out, she suggested “Mental Health Conversations and How They Help” as a title. That didn’t quite work for me, but mental — and physical — health featured prominently and those conversations were amongst the most interesting and helpful of any we had that day.

Most of my friends have first-hand knowledge of living with mental illness. I learn a lot from those relationships but it was good to share insight and ideas with people who, like me, lack first-hand experience of mental illness, but understand what it means to love and care about people who do.

We discussed the distinction between struggling mentally where the causes or triggers may be short-term, situational, or environmental, and longer-term or life-long conditions which may be biologically or genetically based. (The term severe mental illness, SMI, is sometimes used to refer to severely debilitating conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but it’s not a term I favour because supposedly “lesser” conditions can still have a devastating impact on the people living with them.)

We also discussed some of the labels — clinical and otherwise — used to describe mental and physical health conditions, and how labels and treatments have changed over the years. I was reminded of the novel I recently reviewed (Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, by Anne Goodwin) which describes life in mental health institutions in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a society, we can be rightly proud of the advances in treatment and care, but I think Paul and Fiona would agree with me that there’s still much work to be done.

One of the most interesting things that came up was how such labels as “cripple,” “mental,” and “mad”, long used as terms of discrimination and abuse, are being taken back and owned by people to whom they have been applied by others. It’s a topic with broader relevance, given that certain diagnostic labels are hotly contested by some to whom they are applied by clinicians. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — variously referred to as CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis, ME, CFS/ME, or Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease SEID) — is one example. Borderline Personality Disorder (also referred to as emotionally unstable personality disorder, EUPD) is another. Our conversation was a valuable reminder that the words we use matter, but that there is no universally accepted or acceptable lexicon when it comes to matters which affect large numbers of people deeply and personally.

Urban and Personal Regeneration

The second half of our walk, after leaving the Baltic gallery and returning to the Newcastle side of the Tyne, took us along the Ouseburn Riverside Walk. Paul and Fiona knew the route from previous trips but it was a revelation to me. I was especially fascinated by the mix of old and new. Seeing our photos on social media, a friend commented: “The whole area is gradually being developed, often very sensitively. Brilliant vibe, a bit ‘hipstery’ but it’s transforming what used to be a rough and extremely run-down area.”

The hodge-potch of buildings reminded me of the decaying sprawl of Gormenghast Castle in Mervyn Peake’s eponymous trilogy. We even saw a horse on a rooftop, although unlike Peake’s it wasn’t swimming! Gormenghast was locked in its past, however. Attics and extensions had been tacked precariously onto the castle’s crumbling edifice over the years but there was no sense of development, growth, or progression. As my friend noted, the Ouseburn is opening to new investment, input, and creative expansion.

As I thought about it afterwards, I drew parallels between these outer examples of regeneration and the inner, personal changes I’ve been working through of late. Architecturally or personally, it’s not always clear which things can be salvaged, repaired, or repurposed, and which are due for replacement. It can be tempting to bulldoze everything to the ground and start again. That may seem cleaner and more straightforward, but a great deal of value can be lost in the process, or buried beneath the concrete and glass of new construction.

I’m reminded of a line from a poem of mine from years ago, complete with pretentious Homeric references:

How fair the stars beneath an Illian sky … but concrete and prestressed demands a new vibration

In that poem and others, I sought to explore the changes I was experiencing as I left my cloistered life at home for university. I’m not sure how successfully I regenerated myself in the process. I’ve often found myself on the outside of things rather than integrating into a new environment. I’ve struggled to find that sensitive balance that might have honoured both old and new and allowed for growth and development.

The challenge for me now is to achieve the kind of transformation that eluded me in the past.

The Old World and the New

At the end of our walk, I introduced Paul and Fiona to my favourite city coffee shop, Caffè Nero at St. Mary’s Place. Our conversation turned this way and that as we explored more of our stories, experiences, and beliefs, including our thoughts about covid and the wider world situation. Even for someone like me who has been described as “pathologically positive,” it’s hard to remain optimistic in the face of such monumental change and uncertainty. The past eighteen months have overturned everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world in which we live. There’s no way back to how things were before. I’m no fan of the phrase “new normal” but in a very real sense we are already living in a new world (not so much post-covid as alongside-covid). Individually and collectively, we are figuring out what that means.

My friends’ essential hopefulness provided a warm and welcome reminder that there are good people in the world doing good things. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and uncertain for a time, but if life has a purpose it is surely to live as well and as creatively as we can. I can do no better than close with a quotation from arguably the most inspiring artwork we encountered on our urban adventure. Arch 4, Stepney Bank hosts the beautiful Ancient Place mural by artist Faunagraphic, with lettering by Ciaran Globel.

An ancient place / Of lead and stone and steel and scrap / Sluice gates, water, tunnels, mud/ Children, artists, beasts and birds / Where future grows /and shakes its wings