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Stallholders at the fair

This morning I intended to get up nice and early so Ashis could teach me proper Indian yoga. He had explained it all to me the night before, but we had yet to have a physical run through. Yoga is best in the early morning, and Ashis is an earlier riser than me – it seems the country is, actually! In the UK it’s usual to sleep until a time the Indians would consider late (7.30/8am), perhaps due to the cold, grey weather making it far less attractive to get out of bed. 8am is usually considered a reasonable time to get up, but 9 or even 10 is perfectly acceptable. Over here the bustle of life outside begins permeating my windows at around 6.30am, but this morning I had to go back to sleep, a situation I blame entirely on the mosquitos who had kept me awake half the night buzzing my ear. I have been bitten alive by mosquitos since I arrived. I knew it would happen, the gnats at home cover me in bites each summer. I must have tasty blood. The mosquitos have delighted in a fresh blood bank to drink from and have taken a liking to my forehead of all places. Around 10 bites now cover my face, with more on my feet, arms etc. I’ve become paranoid about getting bitten even more, so during the night when I heard that ominous bzzzzz in my ear, I awoke ready for battle. But they are extremely crafty, and being small and almost transparent, camouflage against almost everything. I spent an hour trying to catch it, then gave up and went back to bed. As soon as I turned the light off and laid down my head – bzzzzzz in my ear. They’re trying to drive me mad, I thought – and succeeding. I imagined I could see them smirking as they teased me incessantly, knowing they had the advantage against my comparatively sluggish attempts to quash them.

Sunset light through the trees

So, tired and grumpy, I postponed yoga until tomorrow. Ashis went out and brought back breakfast from a local street stall – a thin red liquid curry sauce, with steamed white dumplings called Idli. They are fluffy and fairly bland, so you dip them in the curry sauce. The sauce (Ghuguni) is packed with flavour and perfect with the Idli, but almost surpassed my meagre spice limit! I had to eat it very slowly in between gulps of water and hope that my stomach didn’t complain later…

After breakfast I went to get dressed, deciding to up my game a bit after visiting the slums and seeing how beautifully dressed the women are, with their jewellery and brightly coloured saris. My plain face and clothes looked drab in comparison, so on went some jewellery and a little make up to hide my spotty face.

As I went to open the window and let some of the beautiful warm Indian breeze into the room, I came face to face with a lizard. Now, not being a regular traveller, this was somewhat of a shock to my system. A mini dinosaur…in my room…with me…all night… I told Ashis, who replied oh yes, we call them Laxmi. They eat the bugs and spiders, they won’t come near you. Also, if you are saying something and you hear them make their clicking noise, it means you are speaking the truth. Hmm, OK, I replied, smiling hesitantly. After returning to my room and re-introducing myself to what appeared to be my unexpected new roommate, I decided I would call him Brian. My dad was called Brian and passed away 3 years ago. I have felt a strong sense of him with me on this trip, particularly as he was from the west indies, and many of the cultural elements cross over with his and my uncle’s colloquialisms from growing up there. So, me and Brian are now on great terms, I chat to him and say hi when I come in and he is less inclined to run away from me now he realises I’m friend not foe.

I spent my day making some paintings, editing my photos and writing the blog. I also managed to get in some meditating and reading, what bliss! I will do a post specifically on the art I have made here after the diary entries, but if you visit my Instagram page / kate.withstandley you can see most of the work on there in the meantime.

At about 5pm we ventured out in a cab to the Tribal Festival, my first visit to the city! What craziness. I cannot imagine what the bigger cities are like – Mumbai, Delhi etc. I am struggling to envisage anything crazier than Bhubaneswar, although I know this is in fact tame in comparison to cities like Mumbai, with their populations of 30million+. I was skittish as we crossed the road, hesitating, then jumping back as vehicles of all kinds rushed past. Ashis just stepped out and crossed, with the vehicles swerving round him or slowing to let him go. They beeped, but then everyone beeps, for every reason, so it’s hard to know if he was doing something wrong, or not. When I found it impossible to follow – all my instincts telling me not to walk out in front of fast-moving vehicles – he came back and took my hand to lead me over. I felt a bit silly but reminded myself this is only my 3rd day in India – I need some time to adapt!

Street traders outside the Tribal Fair

The Tribal Festival was fascinating – there are 63 active tribes in Odisha alone. These tribes still follow the same lifestyle and traditions which they have done for thousands of years. There are modern additions, obviously, but the generations pass down the skills and cultural structures of each tribe and these continue to be preserved in the younger generation. Some are more advanced than others, while some still subscribe to a wonderfully simple lifestyle, relying on agriculture and growing their own crops. Almost all still make their own clothes, jewellery, and various living implements, from bamboo and other materials which grow nearby. At the fair each tribe has created a mock up of their style of house and there are clearly significant differences in culture, architecture and style depending on the tribe and the region in which they are based.

Mock up of a tribal house

A large stage sat in the centre of the festival, on which groups of dancers from each tribe performed their ritual dances in stunning outfits and with delight. The dances were spectacular and hypnotic, their drums and chants causing time to slip away as you become absorbed. Watching is difficult though, as the urge to dance is infectious; the rhythm is universal and primal, speaking to something deep inside you which was lost a long time ago. A connection to the earth and to each other which we in the West abandoned generations before now.

Children from the biggest Tribal School (20,000 pupils)

We dragged ourselves away from the dancing and went to explore the stalls. I hadn’t intended on buying much, this trip was mainly about art and experience, not shopping, but with the products on offer so beautiful and handmade (and of course cheap) I just couldn’t resist. I stopped looking at the jewellery stalls after a while, or I would have bought far too much! We happened upon a stall where they were selling tribal flutes. Being a (very amateur) flautist myself, I was drawn to these and Ashis asked the man to demonstrate. The construction of the flute was at once simple and complex, a piece of wood with holes, connected to a round wooden bung at the end with a piece of string around the metal mouthpiece. It seemed as though the bung had to be wet, and the string perfectly placed in proximity to the mouth and the metal, to be able to produce a sound. The sound itself was halfway between flute and trumpet, piercing in volume and epitomising the sound of the East. Ashis tried numerous times and finally succeeded in producing a sound, but his attempts to bargain with the man on price were in vain – mainly because of my presence, but also because it was clear he really liked it and being a local, he wasn’t prepared to pay over the odds, as I would have been. Next came a stall with stunning reed mats of all types, sizes, colours and shapes.  I spotted a yoga mat with matching carry bag, but when they said 600 rupees I baulked. Until now everything had been 100/200, and I politely said no. It wasn’t until later when I got home and worked out the conversion that I realised this was about £6.50, and I kicked myself for not buying that beautiful mat.

If I had room in my case, I would have brought back one of the these lovely sweeper brushes…
So much cinnamon!

On the way back, we stopped at a kiosk to try some freshly made juice. As we waited, I became distracted by what appeared to be an Indian soap opera. At first it seemed completely over the top, similar to American soap operas, with long dramatic pauses focusing on someone’s stricken face, then as I continued to watch it became increasingly dramatic, concluding with a woman drenching herself in cold water in some sort of penance for something, while her daughter watched and sobbed. I became completely absorbed in trying to decipher what was going on and interestingly was still able to be drawn by the TV show, despite the vast gap in language and culture. Along came my pineapple juice, which was delicious, but I was then asked if I wanted ‘salt’. I instinctively said no, but Ashis thought I should try it as it is generally what Indians add to their sweet drinks such as juice and Lassi (yohgurt drink). What he added was not normal salt, but some very strange addition which did not work for me at all. Next time, no salt.

Tomorrow we are off to see the Jaina Khandagiri Caves…

My second day in India began with a beautiful breakfast of pasta, potato and cumin soup, with cucumber and tomato on the side. It was at once delicate and packed with flavour, and testament to Ashis’s cooking prowess. It was also exactly what I needed, having just about seen the jetlag off and suddenly very ready for some food in my belly.

After breakfast we sat in the studio/communal area and had an interesting discussion where we shared our thoughts on what makes an artist and the nature of art. Ashis shared with me some of his background and experience in art, he is exceptionally knowledgeable and has spent years cultivating a wide-ranging artistic background in fields ranging from animation (where he ran his own studio) to setting up the first art gallery in Hydrabad, teaching art and much more. He is currently working on developing the Bhubaneswar residency into a gallery/art centre and has big plans in the pipeline. His goal, he explained, is to make India a global leader in art. The irony being that there is so much art already being produced in India, however until now it has not yet been coherently linked to create a recognisable movement. Ashis wants to change this and believes strongly that art can create a common bond not only within India but internationally. Through art and culture, sharing and experiencing, we can all grow and build a community of artists. He is clearly a determined, passionate person with knowledge, talent and drive – if anyone can do it, I believe he can! His philosophy resonated with me, as it encompasses the same vision with which I and others set up the Dartford Arts Network (DAN). Our goal was smaller, with focus on the local area and bringing artists together to create a community which can work together to drive creativity and artistic progression, but the principle is the same. Another commonality we share is the resolve to enlighten people to the fact that everyone is an artist and has a creative soul. It is inherent in our very being, no matter who you are. One of my primary objectives for DAN is to find a way to draw the artist out of non-artistic people, particularly adults. Children have no problem being artists, they have not yet lost their self-belief, a wonderful by-product of their innocent state. Adults on the other hand, regularly claim ‘I can’t do art’. Their fear of being ‘bad’ at it overwhelming any instinct to try. This is something I feel strongly needs to change in society and is a battle I personally intend to try to fight in my own way with DAN.

Following this stimulating discussion, we were visited by a local art student, Laxminarayan, who brought some of his work to show Ashis. Beautiful watercolours depicting the local caves included some delicate figures silhouetted against the sky, and clever, gentle highlighting gave the setting sun’s rays a voice of their own in the works. There were also some evocative pencil sketches, and an intriguing abstract work, which he explained was inspired by what it must be like to be a blind person, in a life without colour. He was motivated to paint this following a visit to a local blind school, where he met with students and felt moved by their experience. His work was very interesting, and Ashis gave him some pointers on colour technique, which I found thought-provoking too. Laxminarayan explained how Ashis is very well respected in his field – he is a great artist, he said, to which I agreed.

Laxminarayan showing Ashis his work.
Laxminarayan’s artwork

After this, we headed off to a community picnic for the residents of the local area – GA Colony. We got a lift with a neighbour and friend of Ashis’s family, and I had to remind myself of the freedom in India, as I instinctively reached for my seatbelt in vain. 3km or so down the road, we arrived at a large farmhouse with beautiful grounds. I got many double takes and was clearly a local novelty, but everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable, asking where I come from and even inviting me to the city’s rotary club meeting! Sadly, as I am not a rotary member I had to decline. The ‘picnic’ was being held in the gardens, with the food being prepared in huge outdoor pots on stoves for about 40 guests. As we waited for the food to be cooked, Ashis took me around the garden and pointed out the many different types of tree growing there. A stark contrast to our gardens, of course, there were lemon, guava and cinnamon, and many more of which I have forgotten most (forgive my poor brain, it is rather in a state of information overload). A group of women arrived and formed a beautiful sight, meandering through the fruit trees in their striking, vividly coloured saris. Food was served – a variety of dishes on one plate, including daal, rice, a selection of curries, chutney, and a mutton curry in a separate pot. Being my first experience of mutton, I was intrigued and apprehensive, but after one taste, it was all I could do to give a quick thumbs up before I shovelled more into my mouth. It was genuinely one of the best dishes I have ever tasted, with the meat so tender it fell apart gracefully as it hit my tongue, while the rich sauce awoke every single one of my tastebuds. After the main meal came a small pot of sweet dessert which tasted much like rice pudding and was utterly delicious. The leftover food and paper plates were tossed in a pile for the dogs to finish off and with my stomach still being a bit unsettled after the jetlag, the dogs were delighted with my decent offerings!

Outdoor kitchen at the farmhouse
Community picnic
Ashis’ friends and family

After meeting some of Ashis’s friends and family, we set off back to the house on the scooter. I was nervous, as this was my first time on a scooter and no helmets in India, obviously (although I have seen a few signs since then saying ‘better safe than sorry, wear a helmet’ – which made me laugh as I may have seen 1 person wearing a helmet in nearly 2 weeks) but didn’t have time to worry as we were off, me riding a gracefully 19th century side-saddle style, due to wearing a dress. My worries soon faded though as we set off, the warm wind flowing over my face and head, smells of every kind ebbing and flowing as we passed street stalls, cows, groups of dogs and houses. I felt at that moment that I would probably feel I had lived more in India in 2 weeks than a lifetime in England. The whole place just feels like LIFE. It’s a cliché and a simplistic explanation, but it truly cannot be expressed in words. It is a combination of sight, smell, sound, every sense you can feel. India opens them all up, like the lotus flower, you suddenly feel as if you are awake. Oh, so this is life. While many places in the West supress the experience of living, for various socio-political reasons developed over generations, India expresses it with vivacity.

Cooking en mass on outdoor stoves

On our return to the house I had a little nap to indulge the jetlag before a 40minute meditation, which reached deeply enough to make me feel almost asleep, but not quite. I felt extremely relaxed afterwards and instantly made an abstract sketch, which looked very different to my previous work. Day 2 and my work is being influenced by India already, I thought.

Dinner was Chapati and vegetable curry made by Ashis’ mum. It was astounding and is so far beyond the Indian food I have had from takeaway restaurants at home, that I fear I may never enjoy UK curries again! After dinner we set my programme for the week, a packed schedule full of culture and exciting trips, before a final few days working on my art using my experiences as inspiration. Tomorrow is the Tribal Museum and my first trip into the City proper…very exciting…

Me with Ashis’ family and friends

My first experience of Asia begins with India; a place I have always felt a spiritual connection with, and for which I have harboured a desire to visit for as long as I can remember. Unsurprisingly, I have not been disappointed. I feel a slight envy of those people who travelled here in the 60s and 70s, people like my Uncle, who must have been unprepared and overwhelmed in every way, by the stark contrast in culture between India and the UK, which would also have been an even greater gap than today. For my generation, we already have an idea of what awaits us on a visit to this astounding country – social media, photography, film, books, all of these have painted a picture of the way that India impacts on the senses.

However, no book or film can ever prepare you for your first experience of India – mine was riding in a tuk tuk from the city to the suburbs. An onslaught of horns filled my ears, instinctively making me glance around to see the problem. There is no problem – every single car, bike, tuk tuk, beeps its horn as a matter of course. They use the horn in the way we would use indicators – to alert other traffic you are coming up behind, are about to overtake etc. They also use it in the same way we do, to express annoyance, to tell someone to move, to go faster, etc. The multipurpose use of the horn means that there is never a point at which someone is not beeping theirs. Add to this the Indian rules of the road… there are no rules! No seatbelts, no indicating, no hesitating. You drive and others move out of the way, this seems to be the basic concept. With what appeared to be a near miss every split second, I struggled to stop myself from incessant wincing and soon accepted my lack of control and went with it.

Freedom, said my host, you have a lot of freedom here. In the UK there are too many rules. To a degree, I agree with this – the West has almost achieved full evolution of the nanny state. You have to concentrate very hard in the UK not to break the law every 5 minutes. Rules abound: rules, rules, rules. When you come to another country such as this, you realise the joy of freedom from everyday rules. It’s intoxicating not merely because of the novelty, but also because of the simplicity, the weight of fear lifted. It is something we do not see because it is so ingrained in our society, yet I think it contributes significantly to our high levels of anxiety and depression. To live in a constant state of fear as we do, always watched, with someone waiting for us to break the rules. It’s stifling to say the least. You feel that in India, a lifting of the spirit – not merely because it is a spiritual centre (which you instantly feel to your core, too) but from the sense of freedom the society affords its people. The argument against this is obvious, with more rules comes less accidents etc. but the weight of the fear impact on our generation and the next is already beginning to show, with higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide than ever before as young people feel trapped and overwhelmed by the burden of fear society places on them.

Anyway, I digress. But I digressed because freedom from incessant public restriction is a significantly noticeable aspect of life here. Another is cows. Cows everywhere. EVERYWHERE. You cannot walk for 100 metres without seeing at least one cow wandering around. They don’t belong to anyone, nor do they seem to get looked after by anyone in particular. They fend for themselves and no one takes any notice of them. They are as much a part of life here as rain in England. As a foreigner, this charms me no end, a fact which the Indians find hilarious. Sitting in a house, a cow walks past the door. Walking along, a cow trundles past. I turn in amazement and delight as these noble animals are treated as equals, in stark contrast to our brutal farming and consumption of them in the UK. Although they are mostly ignored here, they would never mistreat them. The Hindu cow is sacred, and it is clear that all animals are respected in this mostly vegetarian country.

So, I arrived – my host Ashis took me by tuk tuk back to his home and art residence in Bharatpur on the outskirts of the city of Bhubaneswar. The traffic and the cows were my first major introduction to the contrast of life in India to that of where I had arrived from, just outside London. The residency, at Kalanirvana, is held at a beautiful house in a fairly rural area, quiet except for the ongoing sounds of building during the day. Construction here is in full swing, every other house is being built and workers (men, and women in full sari) trek up and down stairs all day long carrying 8 bricks on their heads at a time, or bags full of sand in 28-degree heat. I am in awe. They grin at me as they pass, and I grin back. Namaste I say, and they nod with a grin. I am a novelty here; being particularly fair skinned I stick out like a sore thumb and have had a taste of celebrity status as I am often asked to pose for photos with locals, or encounter those who ask me to take photos of them, and who beam in delight at me as if I am an alien species. I have had very little animosity, perhaps a handful of looks, but these could probably be construed more as a confused frown than hostility. Interestingly, more than a few children, particularly the very young, toddlers, have squirmed away from me in fear. The fear of the other, which they do not yet understand, being too young to have learnt of other cultures by TV and schooling. I found this fascinating, as in the UK, with our now very multicultural society, the vast majority of children will come across other skin colours and facial types regularly from a young age. I do not remember my son ever reacting like that, as he has seen a variety of faces since he could first make out a face at all.  

The day I arrived, the previous resident artist Paula, a musical performance artist from New York, was leaving. Luckily, I got to meet her, and even more fortunately, was able to join them on a visit to the local ‘slum’ village to distribute solar lamps she had been given by a company as part of her project whilst here. Before we left, she gifted me a number of beautiful treasures from her trip – a red dupatta, for which she gave me a lesson on the many ways to wear, a pile of collected local handmade paper and a US sci-fi book of short stories to help if the jetlag kept me awake. I was bowled over by this show of generosity for someone she had met only moments before. Her husband Richard, another New Yorker and a high-profile pianist, joined us, despite being rather seriously unwell after some suspect food in Calcutta.

The four of us walked to the village, guided by Ashis, who, being a local, is well known in the area. His father was the first person to build a house in this community and, employed at the time in the power department of the government, had the connections to ensure that roads were built, and electricity installed. More people in turn followed, and the neighbourhood is now busy and thriving. The high-profile nature and longevity of his father in the area means he knows the local people well, which makes for useful security and access to all areas in the local vicinity. On arriving at the ‘slum’, we were greeted by children playing with monkeys in the street. Monkeys which took off sharply when we arrived, aware perhaps of our foreignness, as they took to the high walls to observe us from above. Monkeys in the wild is a sight I have never seen, and a thrill which infuses the soul with happiness.

We were invited into the house of Laxmi and took off our shoes to enter – this is standard practice here, in houses always, and often in shops too, shoes off and left outside. It is a seemingly small thing, but yet another practice which stops me short in my own automatic behaviour, to challenge my views of how society works. Although a respectful and cordial social norm, an equivalent in England is not at all practical due to the weather – in minus 5-degrees who wants to be removing shoes and socks outside every time they go in and out of somewhere?!

Entering Laxmi’s house, we were greeted with delighted smiles from the adults and suspicious frowns from the beautiful wide-eyed children, which made me grin at them even more. Paula presented them with her gift of the solar lamp and explained to me that when the electricity goes off in the area (which is a regular occurrence) the slum is without power. When it is dark, that means the teenagers cannot study their schoolwork, no one can cook or do work around the house, and any job which needs to be seen to be completed, is unachievable. The solar lamp will make a huge difference to the practicality of their household. We were offered beautifully small, delicate cups of delicious sweet tea, which I managed to drink despite feeling rather sick from jetlag, having only arrived that morning. We then visited a neighbouring house and were offered more tea and snacks. I ate as much as I could, so as not to offend, and enjoyed the exquisite tastiness of a local banana – a third of the size of the ones we get in the UK, packed with ten times the flavour.

As we left, the sound of drums and chanting filled the air. That’s the Bajan, Ashis said, come, I’ll show you. We walked through the streets to a small temple, where a machinated drum played a fast, repetitive beat as offerings were made to Shiva. Ashis pointed out that every house has a small altar at the front, no matter the status of its owner, where a candle is lit at dusk each night and communal thanks and prayers are given to Shiva and other Hindu gods. The beat of the drum was intoxicating and hypnotic, and I learnt that the Bajan is a daily occurrence, a form of public call to prayer.

After an overwhelming first day, my first impressions of India are nothing but positive. As I always expected, this place speaks to my soul and feels as natural to me as if it were home. It is a place of acceptance, of freedom; of simplicity but enthusiasm and drive, of overpowering colour and sound and smell. It’s everything you think it will be and much, much, more. I can’t wait for tomorrow….

She stood, wondering.

How did I get here?

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick

It goes on

Despite us.

Irrelevant inside our own self-obsession.

And knowing it.

Getting closer, closer, closer to God.

To understanding. To beginning,

to see our insignificance

And it hurts.

And it’s vengeful.

The opposite of appreciation, or

perhaps the essence of it.

Fulfilling our pointless lives

Living out their lack of purpose

Every sound a beautiful reminder

of why nothing matters.

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One of my favourite things about this idiosyncratic little Isle we call the UK is the quintessential seaside town. There are few other things which encapsulate so specifically the unique facets of the British psyche into one small microcosmic burst of sublime kitsch consumerism, freezing waters lapping on dirty beaches and cheap, melting ice cream cones (with a flake, of course). It’s fabulous. Tasteful is sometimes lovely; a middle-class cup of Earl Grey on a Victorian garden terrace in Cambridge can be all well and good, but really it has comparatively little soul. Stick me on Margate beach surrounded by gobby kids with parents no less refined, half-blinded by the reflections from the arcade frontages which prove that all which glitters is definitely not gold, and I’m in my element. I can’t help but assume you are all suspecting that I am a typical product of my upbringing in this respect. That I relish these, to some, distasteful scenes with glee because of their centrality to the 1980’s childhood of a working class Southerner. Correct. But it is not only this geographical circumstance of birth which causes me to grin as soon as my internal satnav senses I am within 10 miles of a sugared doughnut shack; British seasides truly are on their own merit singularly enjoyable.

Growing up in Dartford in the 80’s and 90’s, Margate was our closest beach and still a fairly thriving hive of domestic tourism at that point. We would plead with our parents to take us there, as yet uninterested in foreign climes or the lure of saccharine Disney marketing. The swingboats at Margate beach were the highlight of our summer. How tantalisingly simple life was then! As we got older, Dreamland, that disintegrating grandfather of theme parks, became the focus of our pubescent attentions. The lure of its death-defyingly ancient roller-coaster structures stoking the fire of our naive, thrill-seeking bellies. The what we considered subtle experimentation with the mating ritual, (which in hindsight consisted entirely of stalking a group of usually slightly older boys, acting as if we hadn’t noticed them and reaching the end of a whole day having never actually spoken to them) was played out around the grounds of Dreamland like groundhog day. We could get angsty conversational mileage from that kind of near-encounter for days.

Then one fateful day Dreamland surrendered to the inevitable and impending padlock of the health and safety regulators. A thousand teenagers loitered, bereft, with only the arcades for entertainment. But soon these began to wither away too, the effect of the 1960s emergence of cheap package holidays abroad becoming visible on the face of the town. Less families, less fun, less income; more unemployment, more pound shops, more crime. Seaside towns have always been particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic shift; their seasonal nature meaning winter is often as bleak as summer is bright. But there came upon British seafronts in that era a tidal wave of degradation, half-empty swingboats standing then as monuments to a lost age of contentedness.

Margate soon became known to those who hadn’t spent childhood days there as a bit of a dive, its slightly more well-to-do neighbour Ramsgate wringing the mileage out of its nouveau-riche marina facade and characterless wine bars, attempting to emulate the seafront harbours of its continental competitors. Margate stuck to its guns; sun, sea, sand and some truly great fish ‘n’ chips. As with so many other nearby towns it is now only just starting to see some semblance of a recovery. Interestingly, this regeneration is seemingly part of a pattern; a swathe of curious ‘cultural quarters’ beginning to emerge from the wind-battered frontages of these former summer holiday havens. Folkestone, Margate, Dungeness; all have been sprinkled with a relatively recent dusting of artistic and culturally important spectacle. Without further research I can only speculate as to why this might be, but educated guesswork would lead me to suggest the gradual migration of the middle classes from London might have had at least a partial impact. Commuter towns now reach even as far as the southern coast, much as a result of the bordering areas outside London observing a continuing rise in living costs. It’s obvious then (to some councils at least!) that you would try to appeal to the interests and expectations of London commuters; to put in the worthwhile effort and investment which might encourage them to stay in your culture-rich but comparatively affordable and close to home surroundings.

Down at Margate, the most visible and high-profile evidence of this artistic injection is the new Turner Contemporary, all classic Chipperfield wide and light exhibition spaces and orgasmic interspatial elements. But it may not hold this title for long; I hear on the grapevine a most exciting rumour. It seems grandfather time may rewind his clock for Margate and resurrect my childhood pleasure park, Dreamland, like an old but cocksure phoenix ready to swagger back into the consciousness of the town.

Of course the obvious artistic link to Margate is through someone who may well not agree with my sickly-sweet love for it; Mad Tracey from Margate, aka 90’s artworld darling and one of my personal favourites, Tracey Emin, her often biographical works shocking staunch upholders of the British taboo with graphic representations of the gritty side of life in the town during its decline. Or maybe she would? Without her difficult upbringing amidst the area’s grim social scene and degenerate male contingent would she ever have achieved such fame and fortune? Tracey Emin’s wistful recollections of the area in her artworks have greatly influenced how much I enjoy her work. Aside from respecting the brutal honesty of her cathartic subject-matters and refusal to bow to the mummified art establishment, I feel an affinity with her attachment to the town in which I spent countless fun-filled days circa 1989.

It seems almost bizarre to me that I will soon be showing 3 of my own photographs in one of the new art galleries in this town for which I hold such affection. Aside from the encouraging fact that these modern and exciting spaces now exist there at all, it’s interesting that artists from the South-East are coming to Margate to exhibit instead of heading into London and seems to me indicative of a gradual shift in collective focus onto non London-based art. It’s high time we began to look locally at the wealth of unrecognised and underdeveloped artistic talent on our doorstep, not solely in my hometown of Dartford and around Kent but further out and beyond. London art has been done to death, let the artistic era of the provinces commence!

A selection of my photographs will be shown, along with the work of some of my fellow Dartford Arts Network members (Kasia Kat Parker & David Houston), as part of an exhibition primarily featuring the paintings of Tunde Odelade at the Pie Factory Gallery in Margate. The exhibition runs from 8th May – 21st May and is free to visit. For directions and further information see their website and if you’re in the area on 10th May do come in and say hi – I’ll be there milling around from 10am – 6pm.

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Flood: Former footpath between Dartford Park and Brooklands Lake on the left. Original path of river on the right.

Living in a town adjacent to the Thames and with a river running through its centre, people quite understandably keep asking me if I’ve been affected by the recent floods. Have I been plunged into watery despair? Am I wading despondently knee deep in sewage, being accosted by politicians on crucial PR pity visits? No, I answer. Thankfully, that is the truth (Farage and Cameron grinning at me in wellies would no doubt push me over the proverbial water’s edge). As the result of a simple principle which appears inexplicably not to apply to other parts of the country, it was spotted back in the 70’s that we were at risk of flooding and so precautions were put in place. Dartford hasn’t flooded seriously since the late 60’s, a happy statistic our current environment minister seems intent on disproving.

What I carefully neglected to point out to my concerned inquisitors was that last weekend, whilst wandering around Dartford taking the photographs you can see below, it happened that the floods were a momentary blessing to me, bestowing upon my camera some unique shots I do not get to see every day. Passing the much-needed tunnel between our local park and the beautiful yet underrated Brooklands Lakes, I discovered it is currently no longer a tunnel for pedestrians (unless going for a rather cold and boisterous swim) but more of a secondary river with decisively white-water tendencies, the original river spilling over onto the footpath in the manner of a makeshift weir. We can but stand back and concede defeat as nature spits her contempt upon our concrete interventions. It’s a striking sight, and an interestingly microcosmic glimpse into a future decimated by climate change. At the time of writing I believe Owen Paterson, our illustrious Environment Minister, is still in a job. I doubt for very long if the population disagree with his comments implying that climate change is an ’emotional’ response rather than a reality. A news report I read recently hit the nail on the head when it stated that appointing an environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change is much like appointing a health minister who thinks cigarette risks are exaggerated.

Scientific climate change experts almost overwhelmingly concur that we have been gradually killing our unique ball of gas, with quantifiable evidence in the bag and more to come.  I assumed it was a given nowadays. I thought we all pretty much accepted that we are highly likely to be the victims of nature’s wrathful death-throes unless we begin to accelerate very hard in reverse gear (excepting the US bible belt who are all busy polishing their arks, having been significantly forewarned).  Sadly, even if Mr Paterson realises his potentially catastrophic error of judgment in the next, say, day or so, we are still 10, 20 or even 30 years too late to put the brakes on the destructive weather changes we see battering the planet and which we were first warned about in 1957. Mitigation is the key at this point; damage limitation. If we act immediately, we might just save the planet from complete destruction. If it turns out that even this is now up for debate, I might just start building an ark myself. 2 cats – check. Now where did I put those spare fence panels…?

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Debry abstract

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2010-07-23-Big-Society

When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.

Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.

There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.