Wednesday 27 December 2023

2023: My Year in Photos and Blog Posts

I used to spend hours with my diary each December reviewing the year that was coming to a close. I’d recall favourite moments, examine things that hadn’t gone so well, and summarise my key relationships and friendships. I still write a daily journal, but I’ve not done that kind of end of year review since I posted my 2016 retrospective here on our blog.

For a few years, I shared a “things I’d quite like to do” blog post in January, with a review at the end of the year. If you’re interested, you can check how I got on with the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2017, the Seven Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2018, and the Six Things I’d Quite Like to Do in 2019. Any plans I might have had for 2020 were overtaken by events. That December, I shared one photo and one blog post for each month of a year that no one could have predicted. I did the same thing at the end of 2021 and at the end of 2022.

Continuing the tradition, here’s my personal look back at 2023 in photos and blog posts. I hope you enjoy looking through it as much as I did putting it together.


I’ve chosen to start with a photo of my favourite coffee shop, Costa Coffee in Kingston Park. It’s a ten minute walk from where I live, one of my four all-time happy places, and my absolute favourite place to sit and write. I no longer visit seven days a week but I’m here almost every Saturday and Sunday. In the past year I’ve spent more hours in Costa than anywhere apart from home and the office. Many of the staff I’d come to know over the past few years have left now but the cosy, friendly atmosphere remains. The two messages on the wall ring true of this place. We make our coffee to make you smile and Businesses don’t make great coffee. People do.

The blog post I’ve chosen was something of a departure from my usual writing here at Gum on My Shoe. To begin with, it wasn’t a new piece, having been written in 1999 for Middle-earth Reunion, a Tolkien fan group I ran between 1996 and 2005. Seondly, it’s a short story, with no obvious links to our blog’s key themes of mental health and supportive friendships. Without giving too much away, Home Eleven describes me meeting some very interesting people at Newcastle’s Green Festival. I explored the broader relevance of storytelling in We Are All Made of Stories.


This photo was taken at my local Metro train station just after seven in the morning on my commute to work. For the whole of 2023 I’ve been hybrid working: working at home on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, and going in to the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s a pattern which suits me well enough. Skies like this are a bonus.

Awareness events such as Time to Talk Day encourage us to open up to family, friends, and colleagues about how we’re feeling, and to be there for others who want to share with us. It’s an important message, but things are often not as simple as that message suggests. In It’s Time to Talk. But What If You Don’t Want To? I addressed a question I’ve encountered at various times: “What if you don’t want to talk about what’s going on for you? What if our friends and loved ones don’t want to talk to us?”


This photo makes me smile every time I see it! My birthday falls in March and it’s become something of a tradition that I celebrate it with my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson. It’s fair to say I was totally spoiled this year! Aimee, your friendship, care, and support are the best gifts of all, but I also loved the pressies, cheesecake, Guinness, and pizza!

Most of the people I talk to about mental health — theirs or mine — are friends, family, or colleagues I’ve known for some time. Sometimes, though, I find myself discussing mental health topics with strangers or people I hardly know at all. In How to Give Mental Health Help and Advice to People You Don’t Know I describe how I approach such situations, because it can be very different from talking about mental health with people you know.


This dapper gentleman was spotted at The Badger pub in Ponteland. Built in the 1700s, The Badger is a short walk from Newcastle Airport and a lovely venue for a spot of lunch. On this occasion I treated myself to mushroom burger with fries. I may never get over the closure of my all-time favourite drinking establishment, STACK Newcastle, but I’ve visited a few local pubs this year. In addition to The Badger, I’ve been to The Snowy Owl, Cramlington; The Falcon’s Nest and The Job Bulman in Gosforth; and The Windsor, which is no more than a five minute walk from home.

I’ve written several open letters in the past, including to my mother, my father, several to Fran, and even one to myself. In April, I shared something slightly different. Ten Things I Want You to Know: An Open Letter from a Supportive Friend isn’t written to any one person in particular. Instead, it’s drawn from a number of friendships, some of which were current at the time, some of which had come to an end. It includes things I’ve said in person, as well as things I wish I had.

One of the things I love most about us is that we’re open and honest with each other. We talk about pretty much anything and everything. There are some things, though, that maybe I’ve never told you. Things I’d like you to know. Maybe you already do. You’re a smart cookie! I want to tell you, nevertheless, because sometimes it’s good to hear things, even when we know them already.

The letter closes with the most important thing of all, my gratitude. Because no matter what happens in my friendships, no matter whether we’re still friends or not, I am and will always be grateful for the people who have graced my life.


During the first part of the year I found myself paying attention to my appearance. I still wore — and wear — my BOYS GET SAD TOO hoodies and my collection of mental health t-shirts, but I wanted a new look. After some deliberation I treated myself to four new t-shirts, three of which are shown here. The first two reflect my passion for writing and blogging. The third, celebrating the band RØRY, is the first music-related merchandise I’ve ever owned. I also bought a t-shirt by German band AnnenMayKantereit (not shown).

It might seem silly or even a bit sad that the purchase of four new t-shirts features in my highlights of the year, but it represented more than a few additions to my wardrobe. It was, and is, more about exploring what and who I am, and which aspects of myself I wish to project. Mental health remains an incredibly important part of my life, but it’s not the only thing I’m interested in or that motivates me. (Just the other day I was complimented on my flower-design BGST hoodie, which led to a nice little conversation about the brand and what it stands for. Thank you, Bethan, you made my day!)

I’d not heard of RØRY or AnnenMayKantereit until this year, but both affected me deeply in different ways. My blog post RØRY and AMK: Two Brilliant Bands Living Rent-Free in My Head discusses the bands, their music, and my responses to it.


This photo was taken at Kirkharle Courtyard, birthplace of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Britain’s most celebrated landscape gardener. Over the years I’ve grown to love the place. The serpentine lake was installed in 2010 following Capability Brown’s original design. The lakeside walk affords plenty of opportunity to think, to not think, and simply to be. The courtyard hosts a number of speciality shops, and a café that’s well worth a visit.

The blog post I’ve chosen is How Are You, Really? Eight Things I’ve Learned About Suicidality and Self-Harm. It’s a piece I’d wanted to write for some time, reflecting the importance of the topic and its prevalence. As I wrote, “[w]hether you realise it or not, whether they mention it to you or not, you know someone who lives with thoughts like these. That may or may not be an easy realisation, but it’s true.”


The photo I’ve selected is one of many I took on a week-long vacation in the English Lake District. It shows the view along the River Brathay from the lounge of River House, Ambleside. It was the only time away from home I’ve spent this year, and provided a wonderfully peaceful escape from my usual routine. I revisited several places I love, including the boat ride from Ambleside to Bowness, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and the Wateredge Inn on the banks of Windermere, another of my all-time happy places.

I shared two related posts in July. The Currency of Friendship was inspired by Fran telling me she felt friendship was her only currency; the only thing she had to offer to others. It led to me exploring the idea of friendship and relationships as exchange. (“Whatever their nature, relationships are transactional. You offer something and I offer something in return.”) I pondered what “currencies” I value in my relationships, and indeed what I bring to the party, as it were. What is my currency of friendship?

My questions were answered by my friend Aimee Wilson in a guest post titled All The Currency I See in Martin Through Our Friendship. It would be immodest to quote from it here, but Aimee’s testament to our friendship reminds me that no matter the doubts I often have about myself, my abilities, and indeed my qualities as a friend, I am valued and loved. Thank you, Aimee.


I mentioned earlier how I spent part of this year seeking a new look. This came to fruition in August when I visited an optician for the first time in many years. I explored the background to my visit and what it meant to me in To See and Be Seen: My Visit to Grey St. Opticians.

The crucial thing is to see clearly again. [...] But choosing new frames is also important. That bit’s down to me and it’s the part I’m most nervous about. I’ve never been cool or stylish, or even had much of an idea what those words mean. My new glasses will be a statement of who-I-am-now that I’ll be living with for the next few years. I want to get it right. I’m hoping the folk at Grey St. can give me some advice and suggestions.

This aspect was so important that I put considerable thought into how I presented at my initial appointment. I chose my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt because it expressed an important aspect of who I am. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as I covered in that first blog post and a follow-up piece when I went back to collect my new glasses. On that occasion I wore my beloved Scottish tweed jacket and my AMK t-shirt. The photo I’ve chosen was taken minutes after leaving Grey St Opticians. Four months later I’m still delighted with the look, and how well I can see! Many thanks to Nic, Becks, and Fran for all your help, and for taking such good care of me.


Earlier in the year I wrote about how I tend to live vicariously through my friends’ adventures and experiences. There was a fun example of this in September when my friend Louise travelled abroad on holiday. She was delighted when I offered to follow her flight in real-time. The image I’ve chosen is a screenshot from the Flightradar24 app as her plane approached Palma de Mallorca airport in Mallorca, Spain.

It was Louise’s month because she also got a mention in my blog post Six Times I Felt Proud This Week, in which I shared occasions I’d felt pride in myself or in other people. Way to go, Lou!


The photo I’ve chosen is one of hundreds I’ve taken over the years of this specific view close to where I live. I began doing so to share the moment with Fran as I set out into my day. In time, it became a valued part of our connection; something we both looked forward to. This all changed in May 2021, when one tree — our tree, as Fran and I had come to think of it — was cut down with no warning and for no apparent reason. Had it still been standing, it would fill the centre of the photo I’ve shared here. Fran and I felt the loss deeply. I gathered together all the photos I’d taken, intending to do something creative with them by way of a tribute when the time felt right.

Sadly, it felt right in October this year, following the senseless — and illegal — felling of the famous tree at Sycamore Gap beside Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. I’d never visited the site, but I knew it well through the work of other photographers and artists. It achieved International attention in 1991 when it featured in the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The culprit or culprits have yet to be brought to justice, but the desecration of such an iconic tree led me to explore my response to the destruction of our tree in a post I titled Of Fellings and Feelings: An Exploration of Loss and Renewal. As I wrote there, “I’m still learning about the gap that was left when the tree close to my home was felled,” but it gave me the chance to share a few of the many photographs I’d taken of it over the years.

I’ll briefly mention another article I published during October. Communicate or Hide? The Creative Dilemma was inspired by a quotation by Donald Woods Winnicott: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” It allowed me to examine my reasons for writing, topics I’m at ease writing about, and those I’ve previously chosen not to explore, or have actively hidden from others — and in some cases myself. It’s a topic that strikes at the essence of my identity as a writer. As I wrote in that article, I do no one any good, myself included, by hiding away the dark bits, or hiding from them.


When it comes to writing with honesty and integrity, there’s no one I respect more than my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. I was proud and happy to attend the publication party for Aimee’s latest book, You’re NOT Disordered: The Ultimate Wellbeing Guide for Bloggers, for which I wrote the foreword. Great or small it’s a delight to celebrate friends’ achievements, and this was a big one. Well done, Aimee!

This year marked my having achieved thirty years continuous service at my place of work. It didn’t seem all that much of an achievement to me, more a case of never having sought alternative employment in all that time. It led me to examine how I feel at this stage in my life in a post titled Getting a Living, Forgetting to Live: A Few Thoughts on My 30 Years Service. As I wrote there, “[t]hese thirty years passed almost without me noticing. I doubt I’ll be graced with another thirty. Twenty, maybe. What do I want to achieve? How do I want to live?”


This photo was taken at 6:30 am one Wednesday morning as I made my way to work. As I mentioned earlier, all year I’ve worked two days a week in the office, and three days from home. There are indications this may change next year, possibly reversing the pattern so it’s three days in the office and two working from home. I’m not keen, but it won’t be a problem if it happens. Views like this definitely make the early starts worthwhile.

The blog post I’ve chosen to highlight is Present and Correct: How to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time. It was inspired by a conversation with Fran about when’s the right time to open Christmas presents. More generally, it’s about recognising that we all have our ideas about when things should happen.

So, whether it’s opening Christmas presents, spending time with a friend, or taking a significant life decision, being conscious of our needs helps us make the most of the current moment. It’s arguably the greatest gift of all.

And that, my friends, is why they call it the present.

Post of the Year

This has been a year in which I’ve thought a lot about who I am, how I present to others, and what my purpose in life might be. Spending a little money on new t-shirts — and rather a lot of money on new glasses — was an important part of that journey. Not the money as such, although it’s nice to treat oneself now and again, but the way these things have allowed me to explore new ways of expressing my identity. This photo of me wearing my LIFE IS SHORT BLOG MORE t-shirt was taken at Starbucks in Newcastle International Airport, and is my favourite selfie of the year. I hope to carry that confidence and sense of who I am forward into 2024.

Realising I’ve spent the past thirty years in the same employ led me to ponder what I’ve done with my life and still want to achieve. In doing so I chanced on the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus, with its emphasis on finding personal meaning and purpose in the absence of any outside references. In One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy: Encounters With the Absurd Man I described how and why I identify so closely with Camus on this. I also publically affirmed my lack of religious or spiritual belief for the first time. It’s an important article from my point of view, and one which takes me a few steps further on the path to writing — and living — authentically. For that reason, I’ve chosen it as my keynote blog post of the year. I feel it’s something I will be returning to again.

I’d like to close by saying a huge thank you to all our readers, and to everyone who has contributed, helped, or supported us and our blog in the past year. Fran and I are immensely grateful to you all.

Here’s to 2024, whatever it may bring.


All photos by Martin Baker.


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