Wednesday 17 July 2024

One Old Man on a Bench

I’ve always had a thing for benches, so much so that they feature in three of my four all-time happy places. Benches to rest on. Benches to think, write, and dream. Benches to sit and talk with friends. Benches with a view. Benches with memories. This evocative photo by Huy Phan inspired me to explore the role benches have played, and continue to play, in my life.

To Sit With Friends

There are two wooden benches in the middle of the village of Great Musgrave in Cumbria. I’ve shared many calls there with Fran on my evening walks from the holiday cottage I used to visit almost every year. A little further on, down a narrow avenue of horsechestnut trees, another of my favourite benches sits in a field outside St Theobald’s Church beside the River Eden. Another happy place bench is in the beer garden of The Wateredge Inn, in Ambleside.

From my table, less than twenty feet from the waves lapping against the pebbles of the shore, I have a perfect view south along the lake. It’s early evening and the last few ferries of the day ply their trade from the Ambleside jetty to Bowness and beyond. It’s simply, breathtakingly, beautiful. On the table is a pint of beer, my beloved brown passport-size Traveler’s Notebook, fountain pen, phone stand, and journal. On my head, my Bluetooth headset, anticipating a call. Fran and a few other close friends have shared moments with me there.

Dismantled in 2022 to make way for an unspectacularly banal office complex, former music and social venue STACK Newcastle holds a special place in my heart.

I have great memories of sitting by the roaring open fire in the Tipi Bar or at the benches in the main area, catching up with my journal, capturing ideas for future blog posts, or waiting for friends. As well as local friends, I’ve shared time at Stack with Fran and others through photos, chat, and video calls.

Other benches come to mind. Beside the River Wansbeck in Morpeth, where Aimee I had a picnic a few years ago before cracking each other up (“Know what I mean?” “I thought I did!”) and climbing Ha’ Hill to look down over the town. The blue painted bench at Beaulieu in Hampshire where I sat with Fran on the first, and so far only, occasion we’ve met in person. The ocean view bench she shared with me many times when she lived on Peaks Island in Maine. More recently, we had a video call together on a bench in the grounds of Fran’s former school in New Jersey. We shared the events of the day, stories from her past, and the local wildlife. “Marty, look! A bunny, a robin — and a deer!”

My favourite bench of all, though, sits at the intersection of Fawdon Walk and Brunton Lane, less than ten minutes’ walk from my home. It’s not the most comfortable or delightful to look at. It doesn’t have the best view. It’s nevertheless witnessed a great deal of my life and a few of its most significant moments over the past few years. I’ve spent hours on that bench talking with Fran and other friends, sharing the highs and lows of our lives no matter what was going on at the time. This was never more valuable than during covid lockdown when local walks were my sole escape from the disruption and uncertainty playing out in the world. I remember the chat and voice messages I exchanged with one friend a few years ago, discussing our respective blogs and podcasts. (Hi Liz!) Most of all, I treasure the selfies taken with my friend Louise when she came to visit. Lou, I adored your excitement at finally seeing the bench of which you’d heard so much! Hopefully, it won’t be too long until we’re sitting there together again.

Solitude and Contemplation

There’s more to benches than sharing time and conversation, however. They can be a place to be quiet, with and within yourself. I almost always have my diary with me on my walks, and keep my eyes open for somewhere to sit and catch up with the events of my day. During lockdown, I’d go out two or three times a day if the weather permitted. I start every diary entry with the date, time, and where I’m writing. There are literally hundreds of entries through 2020 and 2021 that begin with the words “Fawdon Walk bench.”

Another great location to sit and think is the white metal bench beside the lake at Kirkharle in Northumberland. Originally designed by English landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who was born at Kirkharle in 1716, the lake was created in 2010 after his plans were discovered. Continuing the benches-beside-water theme, I wrote a piece for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 sitting on a bench at Tynemouth.

Today — Saturday, May 19, 2018 — is the day of the Royal Wedding. I wish Harry and Meghan well in their life together but I brought myself out to the coast to avoid the media, and social media, onslaught. It’s just not something I feel a part of. Here at Tynemouth there is calm and space and air and sky and sea. And a bench where I can sit and write.

That was a time of excitement, motivation, and change, with new opportunities and projects opening up for me. Sitting there with my Midori Traveler’s notebook on my lap, I explored how I was feeling. Of two fundraising events I’d attended that week, I wrote: “[they] were a lot of fun and raised much needed funds for local mental health projects. They meant a lot to me on a personal level too. I came away with a stronger sense of belonging than ever before: of belonging to a local community of people who accept me, who are genuine and open, and passionate about making a difference. Borrowing words from Fran, I feel I have found my tribe. And that’s a powerful thing.”

Loneliness and Exclusion

Keywords for the image I chose to illustrate this post include senior, depression, mental health awareness, mental health, person, man, bench, adult, and alone. At first glance, I saw an old man sitting on a bench in the city, head down, excluded from — or at least on the outside of — everything going on around him. I marked my sixy-third birthday a few months ago. I wonder what people see when they pass me sitting on the bench at Fawdon Walk. I’m almost always alone. Head down, more often than not, on my phone or writing my diary. There’s a poem by M. W. Ketchel which addresses this directly.

Old Man On A Park Bench

The old man stops and exhales life,
sitting down on a park bench, if but for a moment to rest.
He ponders the decades, his many years of strife,
and his heart grows weary in his chest.

The elder reflects on his better years,
and happier times that have passed him by.
What remains now is loneliness, some tears,
and memories of a time when he might ask, why?

Age and wisdom, he looks across the park to watch the children play
and he smiles a private, sad, but tender smile.
Was it so long ago or only yesterday
He closes his eyes in the sun, and decides to stay awhile.

A far more sinister interpretation of the “old man on a bench” trope can be found in the decrepid character of Aqualung in Jethro Tull’s song of the same name.

Sitting on a park bench.
Eying little girls with bad intent.
Snot running down his nose.
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.

According to the band’s lead singer Ian Anderson in a 1999 interview for Guitar World, “The idea came about from a photograph my wife at the time took of a tramp in London. I had feelings of guilt about the homeless, as well as fear and insecurity with people like that who seem a little scary.” He continued, “I suppose all of that was combined with a slightly romaticized picture of the person who is homeless but yet a free spirit, who either won’t or can’t join in society’s prescribed formats.”

There’s a milder, albeit still disturbing, echo of Aqualung in my unpublished short story “And Men Myrtles.” The principal character Bill Stokes is fifty-three years old, “perhaps a dozen fewer than he appeared to casual observance.” The tale opens in Oxford’s Wolvercote Cemetery where Bill is tending his wife’s grave. His world and life are overturned by events he’s incapable of understanding.

There was a bench along the path and he made his way towards it with shuffling steps. It was close — too close — to this strange party but he needed to sit down. And there was something else, something that might be curiosity but felt to William rather more like need. The arrival of these people into his world, the tall man and the girl with the raven hair, was a more than incidental event. He did not know what it meant but, good or bad, he needed to find out.

He’s more than aware how he must appear to others.

He felt himself being swept up into the darkness but he was afraid to open his eyes in case the crowd had noticed him sat there. In case she had noticed him sat there: an old man on a cemetery bench. Decrepit. Pathetic.

In many ways, it’s a tale of redemption, transformation, even hope. There’s a price to be paid, however, and it’s not paid by Bill alone.

Loneliness and exclusion remind me of Ronan Keating’s brilliant song When You Say Nothing At All from the soundtrack to the film Notting Hill. The video opens with Keating sat at one end of a park bench. As he sings about knowing what his lover means “without [her] saying a word” a woman joins him on the bench. The secret thoughts of visitors to the park are displayed as they go about their lives. The woman on the bench reveals a certain enigmatic claim to truth — “People think they know him, but they don’t.” — but there’s a hint of more. Disappointment, perhaps, or something darker. “What you see is never what you get.” The video spotlights the disconnect between what we naively tell ourselves — that there’s no need for honest and difficult conversations because if we love someone we intuitively understand what’s going on — and the reality of people unable to express their genuine thoughts and feelings.

A Place to Rest

I don’t want to overplay the old man card, but at sixty-three I’m increasingly grateful for benches as somewhere to sit and rest. I recognise this can be frustrating for anyone out with me who may be younger, fitter, or simply less in need of a sit down every twenty minutes. I’m happy, nonetheless, to take the weight off my feet when someone went to the trouble of providing somewhere to do so. Perhaps that’s what the man in Huy Phan’s photo is doing. Maybe he’s waiting for a friend to join him, minding the bags while his partner looks round the shops, pausing to consider what next to do with his day, or simply letting the world go by without him for a while. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”

Less literally, being on the bench means sitting things out, watching from the sidelines as the action plays out in front of you. A number of years ago I was unable to support a friend who was going through a really rough time. I felt on the outside of things, although I respected the fact I wasn’t who they needed at that time. Louise reminded me that I was still on my friend’s team, I just wasn’t on the pitch at that moment. I was on the bench, waiting until I was called back onto the field. The analogy helped me greatly at the time, and has done so on many occasions since.

Over to You

Do you have a favourite bench? Do you enjoy sitting there with a friend, or taking a few moments for yourself? What would your ideal location be for a bench? Overlooking the ocean, perhaps, or some other scenic vantage point. Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Huy Phan at Unsplash.


Wednesday 10 July 2024

Lost and Found: Glastonbury 1983 and Other Memories

You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.

— Fran Houston

This post was inspired by two recent conversations. The first happened a week or so ago at work when the discussion turned to music festivals. Someone mentioned Woodstock. I said I was a little young to have attended (I was eight years old and on the wrong side of the Atlantic) but I’d attended Glastonbury twice, in 1983 and 1984. One of my colleagues asked what bands I’d seen. I couldn’t remember. I told him I’d have to look in my diary!

The second conversation was with Fran. A few months ago she began keeping a journal, in the form of weekly letters to her mom. Discussing her most recent letter, she commented that it isn’t necessary to write everything down. I asked what she meant. “You can trust your consciousness,” she said, “that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” That struck me as an interesting insight. I decided to use it as a jumping-off point to explore my experience with journaling and memory.

I’ve written a daily diary for almost fifty years. I’ve long been aware of the interplay between what I choose to write down — events, feelings, details of friendships and relationships, hopes, fears, and dreams — and what I remember. I’ve always felt that I don’t need to remember things, because at any point I can take down my diary from the shelf and remind myself what I was doing, thinking, and feeling. Whatever I chose to record at the time isn’t lost to me. The flip side, of course, is that what I don’t write down — either deliberately or because it’s not possible to record everything that happens — is likely gone forever. At best, it’s subject to the vagaries of my organic memory.

I decided to reread my diary for June 1983. Before doing so, I asked myself what I could recall of Glastonbury. I couldn’t remember who I’d seen perform but there was plenty that came to mind. The three friends I went with: Pete, Richard, and Dawn. The weather. Both weekends were blisteringly hot. (I’m aware that for seasoned festival goers you’ve not really been to Glastonbury unless you were knee deep in mud for three days!) I remembered Pete and I being offered weed within hours of arriving, and politely declining the offer. I remembered our tents. The Pyramid stage. Cutting my foot open on a discarded tin can. That last one turned out to be 1984.

Glastonbury was a revelation. I’d never experienced anything like it, not least the number of people there. The official website records attendance in 1983 as 30,000. Most were in their late teens or early twenties but there were plenty of older folk too. Some as old, if not older, than I am now, forty years on. Couples with young children. Babies. What struck me most were many different lifestyles, attitudes, and cultures on display. The colour. The noise. The sense of being free to express who you are, no matter how or who that might be. I captured the essence of the weekend in my diary:


Children — Sun — Rock/Reggae
Hash — black — hot knives
Everyone/everything accepted
Lack of privacy
Women topless — men naked
Stalls — food — clothes — records
jewellery — alcohol — candles
CND — Greenpeace — Ecology
Relaxed — Slow — L. O. V. E.

It’s worth saying that no gathering of thousands of people is without its issues, up to and including criminality, serious drug use, and violence. I felt totally safe both years we were there, but there will be people whose experiences and memories are far less rosy than mine.

Reading through my diary, it turns out I saw some pretty significant bands and performances. These included Marillion, ASWAD, Incantation, and UB40 who I’d previously seen play at the Student Union in Bradford. Most significant to me at the time — and I can hardly believe I forgot this — was seeing American singer-songwriter Melanie Safka perform on the iconic Pyramid stage.

After eating we went to the Pyramid for what must surely be my most personal memory of this Festival, watching Marillion and Melanie.

Don’t ask her why she needs to be so free | She’s gonna tell you that the only way to be | She just can’t be chained to a life where nothing’s gained and nothing’s lost | But such a cost ...

If you’re interested, the following performances from Glastonbury 1983 are on YouTube: Incantation, UB40, and Melanie Safka.

As I turned the pages of my diary the memories flooded back, tender and bittersweet. The following paragraphs are excerpted from what I wrote over the festival weekend.

As I begin, it is about 1:15 am Friday morning and I am sitting in the car at Glastonbury. Pete is in the film tent watching a rather silly sci-fi film, which I walked out on, mainly because it was getting a bit cold. Rich and Dawn are in their tent.

We spent all afternoon sunbathing and listening to some excellent music, including the Enid. It was very hot — several woman were topless and there were even a couple of naked men (for Dawn!)

Around 3:00 pm I drove Pete into Taunton where he was catching a coach to Barnstaple for his interview tomorrow. When I got back, R+D were in their tent. We had tea of cheese and corned beef sandwiches, then R+D had to pack up to leave. I didn’t stay to wave them off, but went for a wander up to the market area to get Dawn a rainbow belt she wanted. Then to the Pyramid to hear some more music — reggae and African roots — and watch the fireworks display. It wasn’t very late when I went to bed.

It’s natural enough to forget details after forty years, but there are some things I can’t recall at all despite the evidence of my own hand. A prime example occurred a few days before Pete and I met up with Dawn and Richard at the festival site.

Pete and I got up very early this morning and caught the train from Durrington to Portsmouth, then the ferry over to the Isle of Wight for the day. We first went to Alum Bay via Newport, on the bus, saw the Needles and the lighthouse, then walked along the clifftop for a few miles in the gloriously hot sunshine. After that we caught another bus to Shanklin where we had tea on the prom, by which time it was about half past six and time to head back.

I have zero recollection of that day. If anyone had asked me if I’d ever been to the Isle of Wight, I’d have said no, never. It’s odd — even disturbing — to have no memory of what was clearly a significant and enjoyable day. This exercise has highlighted to me the complex interplay between memory and reality. I can distinguish six categories of memories.

1. Things I remember, despite never having written them down anywhere. My diary can’t add to these in any specific way, but might help set them in context by recalling other events and experiences of my life at that time.

2. Things I remember, that I recorded in my diary at the time. My diary might add context, clarity, and details to my recollections.

3. Things I don’t recall, but am reminded of when I read my diary. My diary helps bring these back to me. Watching Marillion and Melanie perform at Glastonbury are examples of this.

4. Things I wrote in my diary that I have no recollection of, even when I read about them later. My visit to the Isle of Wight is the perfect example.

5. Things I don’t remember and didn’t record in my diary at the time. These events, feelings, and experiences are lost to me unless something happens to bring them to mind.

6. Things I remember that never, in fact, happened. I still hold fast to treasured “memories” despite having been reliably informed they’re factually incorrect.

Maybe this is what Fran was hinting at when she said, “You don’t have to write everything down. You can trust your consciousness that what needs to come back into your mind will come back.” Her words seemed naive at first, because I interpreted her as saying “don’t worry about recording things, you’ll remember what you need to.” Having thought things through, I parse it differently. She’s not saying “what is important will come back to you” but rather “what comes back to you is important.” Journaling has a role to play in that, as does writing letters, blogging, or talking with people who were with us at the time. In the midst of the covid pandemic, I discussed this in a post titled Remember When? Building Shared Experience in Unprecedented Times.

The people we hold close now will forever be part of our coronavirus experience. We will turn to them in months and years to come for comfort and to validate what it meant to live through these times. “Remember when?” will help us make sense of it all. That is something powerful and profound, and worth preparing for.

But what we forget is important, too. Dementia and other forms of memory loss extort a terrible price, but forgetfulness can be a blessing. There’s a grace in letting go of the need to remember everything. After forty years of daily record keeping, I sometimes wonder why I bother to write a diary when I rarely revisit what I’ve written. Fran’s insight might hold the answer. Journaling allows me to release thoughts and feelings onto the page so I no longer have to carry them around with me. They can be retrieved, but there’s no imperative to do so. Opening a diary — including one’s own — is a perilous undertaking. My 1983 diary contains much more than my three-day weekend at the festival. It was one of the most intense years in my life to date, which is saying plenty. Engaging with it now is not without its challenges, as warm as most of the memories are. I’m content for some things to remain unremembered. My diaries serve their purpose even if they remain on the shelf, unread.

As I’m writing this, Glastonbury 2024 is in full swing. Headlining this year are artists even I have heard of, including Dua Lipa, Coldplay, Shania Twain, and Cyndi Lauper. I could watch online, but I’ve no interest in doing so. It could conceivably bring some forgotten memory to the surface, but it’s as likely to taint those I hold dear. Things change. For context, official attendance in 1983 was 30,000. The ticket price was £12 (£40 in today’s money). This year’s attendance is estimated to be 200,000 with tickets priced at £360. It bears the same name, but it’s not my Glastonbury.

As fickle and fragile as my memories are, I’ll let go of the need to remember everything. As Fran suggested, I’ll trust that what needs to come back into my mind will come back.


Photo of Glastonbury Festival 1983 by Martin Baker.


Wednesday 3 July 2024

Six Feet Above: A Conversation With Ellis Ducharme

... at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life.

— Ellis Ducharme

Fran and I recently shared our experiences visiting the Portland Museum of Art and the Laing Art Gallery here in Newcastle upon Tyne. Continuing the Art of Friendship theme, we’re delighted to showcase photographer and videographer Ellis Ducharme, whose exhibition Six Feet Above showed through June at the Peaks Island library in Maine. The website described Six Feet Above as “a collection of thirty-six photos from a personal project to fight depression and raise awareness of mental health. Ocean themes and many cityscapes focus on finding beauty in places most deem undesirable and ugly.”

Fran lived on Peaks Island for many years. Although I’ve never visited in person, I feel a great affection for the island as Fran’s shared so much of it with me. She still visits regularly and attended several of this year’s PeaksFest events, meeting old friends and making new ones. She spoke with Ellis about his exhibition and how photography helped him climb out of depression. She shared with him her experience living with bipolar disorder, commenting that it was nice to meet “a fellow understander.”

Afterwards, I reached out to Ellis and invited him to share the story behind his work. He described how the project began seven years ago when he was going through a particularly difficult time.

The project started and pretty much concluded as a method to keep my spirits up, and was never really intended to see the light of day. I’ve suffered from severe depression from an early age, and at the time that I started this project I was at an all-time low.

I was working a one-on-one job with an employer who made me feel worthless on a daily basis. Since my wife was working three jobs and my social circles were slim at the time, my employer was the only person I was seeing regularly, and I was very susceptible to her comments about my value. I truly didn’t think I was capable of doing anything right, and I was ready to end things.

Ellis described how his wife suggested a way for him to regain a sense of agency in his life.

Thankfully, my wife could see what was happening to me, and she suggested that even though I was incredibly busy and didn’t have time for much, I had time to go out and take a single photo each day just to prove to myself that I did have the ability to be creative and make my own decisions. Additionally, this was a task where nobody could tell me I was doing it wrong. I had complete control over this one aspect of my life.

So, the next day after work, I just remember walking past my car and out into the little downtown of Biddeford, Maine where my office was. Camera in hand, I just started aimlessly walking through back alleys and parking lots, looking for something to shoot. I settled on the spire of Biddeford City Hall, owing to my love for the architectural style of the area.

At first, I wasn’t very sold on this photo, and admittedly, it is far from the best photo in the set. But I brought it home, retouched it, and posted it on my Facebook along with a brief but honest explanation of my hopeful commitment to do this each day, and why I felt it was important for my well-being. As soon as I posted it, I felt incredibly empowered and clung to that feeling.

I would continue on this schedule for about three years, taking a single photo somewhere in the natural span of my day, retouching it and posting it with a timestamp and where my mindset was that day. I still will occasionally add to this series, but at the beginning where I was doing it every day like clockwork, it entirely carried me out of that low spot, and I believe that it saved my life. I owe that to my wife, Justina.

Ellis’ account reminds me of Fran’s experience when she lived on Peaks Island. Emerging tentatively from a desperate winter-long depression, she’d leave her little house to walk on the shore. As we describe in our book, the haiku poems that came to her on those walks fed the tiny flame of hope that there could be better times ahead.

The wild, personal, and passionate poetry which flowed during Fran’s major episode of mania ceased when she fell into depression. Her creative voice was silenced for months. When it returned it was completely transformed. The haiku forms that emerged as she began to climb out from depression were more than descriptions of the island scenery around her. They were Fran’s attempt to find a reason to go on living.

These poems were written on Centennial Beach, a short walk from where Fran lived at the time. She would return home, show me her latest poems, and then share them on her social media page. It was her way of reaching outward again. As she said later, “I was trying to save my life, to get out of the house onto Centennial and wait for the haikus to come. That was all I had.”

High Tide, Low Tide

Fran used her fingers to remember the lines until she returned home and could write them down, a memory technique she uses to this day. Despite differences in their situations, Fran and Ellis are describing very similar experiences, each grounded in their creative response to the world around them. It’s clear that Ellis’ project has had a long-term positive impact on his life and wellbeing.

As of today, there are almost 900 photographs, most of which I can still remember what was going on in my life on that day, how I was feeling, and what I was going through. When I started this, I was in a place where I was questioning my own validity and how real of a person I even was. Having this concrete evidence of my mental journey documented in a way that only I can decipher has been very grounding.

Ellis selected five photographs from the collection.

1-4-17 — Biddeford City Hall, the first photo
1-8-17 — Bailey in the bath
2-24-17 — One of my favorite photos in the set, visually
9-20-17 — Photo taken the day I left the job that made me start this series
4-8-17 — Photo taken on an especially low day

Fran and I are immensely grateful to Ellis for sharing his story and work so openly. If you’re interested to learn more, check out his website, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Flikr.

Over to You

Does Ellis’ story resonate for you? What activities have helped you with your sense of self-worth when you’ve been going through a difficult time? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo of Ellis Ducharme at the Peaks Island library by Fran Houston. Other photography by Ellis Ducharme.