Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Magic Carpet

When I first met the family of Chris, Leto, Alamnesh and Theodore, I was struck by their sense of creativity, interest and engagement. So when the opportunity arose to do a fantasy photo shoot with them, I was intrigued with the direction it might go.

A circus was one of the first ideas, including a human cannonball and fire breathing, while another was based around an amazing troll puppet Chris had carved, with a 2-inch high family running away from it through the herb garden. The tricky bit wasn't creative ideas, it was finding one they could all agree on.

Eventually the notion of riding a magic carpet was settled on and the problem solving steps were begun. Tables were put together in the back garden with a carpet laid on top. A blue tarpaulin was put under the carpet to act as a sort of blue-screen to make it easier for me to cut it out in Photoshop later on. Test shots were started and abandoned because it started raining. Trips up the hills to find a suitable view to place the magic carpet against. And then waiting for the right combination of weather and everyone being available at the same time.

Amazingly we finally managed to get everything together where I was able to take the photo of the magic carpet in their garden and get up into the hills to shoot the landscape, making sure the angles and timing were right so shadows would match up.

Then came the far-more-complicated-than-I-could-possibly-have-realised editing process of fitting it all together. It wasn't just about how to cut out hair so it looked natural against the sky, it was also the finish I wanted it to have. As a straight-forward photo, it didn't work. What was required was to reinforce a sense of a fantasy tale. I went through many different styles, at one point even turning it into a cartoon image. In the end what I felt worked the best was to give it a look of a faded page from a storybook

I have to confess I was a wee bit pleased with the final result.

Click on the photo for a larger version.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The night before the night before the Referendum for Scottish Independence

On Thursday this week, more or less everyone over 16 years of age who is resident in Scotland will get to vote on whether this country remains a part of the UK or goes its own way as a completely separate nation.

Although I was born in England, this vote is not about birth or inheritance, it is about where you live and, as I live in Scotland, I get a vote. I get a say in how I want this bit of rock I live on to be governed.

While the passions have been strong on both sides of the debate, it has ignited a response the likes of which haven't been seen in the UK, or quite possibly the western world, for decades. 97% of those eligible to vote have registered to do so. It is reckoned turnout will be over 80%. And at this late stage of the game, there are at least half a million people who are still claiming they are undecided. No one, at this moment, knows exactly how it is going to turn out. Unless MI5 are involved and the whole thing is being orchestrated and controlled to make sure the outcome is exactly as the UK Government wants.

I am not undecided. I weighed it up pretty early on, came to some pretty clear conclusions and despite being as open as I can to the opposing views, have not been convinced to change my mind since.

I haven't been shouting my position from the rooftops, nor have I been condemning anyone who disagrees with me. Given all the information, arguments and passion out there already, I can't imagine for a moment anything I say or do is going to be a contributing factor to anyone else's position. I understand why some people want it, and I understand why other people don't, and I understand why so many are still undecided.

I'm not putting together this blog post to convince anyone why they should vote this way or that. I'm putting it here so I can look back in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years and see why I made the decision to vote the way I did. Either I will be pleased at how obviously sensible I was, or I will be cursing my naïveté. So in part, this is a message to my future self to remind me why I ticked that box rather than the other.

There are many different issues, arguments, facts, challenged facts, opinions dressed up as facts, cultural influences, desires, yearnings and fears. How can we navigate them all? The truth is, we can't.

Right here, right now, I have no idea how many barrels of oil are left in the North Sea; I don't know whether the UK denying the pound as currency to an independent Scotland is bluff or folly; I don't know whether Scotland will become a social utopia or will tear itself apart.

So what am I voting on?

The only thing we can do is look at what we currently have and project forwards as best we can to see how that is likely to pan out. Then we decide whether we want to carry on with that trajectory or decide to opt for a different direction, even though we might not know what direction that is.

Do we stay with the known or do we leap into the unknown?

Do we stick with the devil we know, or is that just a sure fire way of ensuring the devil stays in power?

So what do I see when I look at what we currently have as part of the UK and the direction it's going?

Despite being one of the richest nations in the world, I see the growth of foodbanks; I see the vilification and withdrawing of support for the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable; I see the dismantling of the NHS; I see billions of pounds poured into nuclear weapons which are stored just 25 miles away from the most populated city in Scotland; I see the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and the vulnerable becoming more vulnerable; I see detached, power-hungry, money driven politicians serving no one but themselves and their wealthy friends.

So I'm voting for a chance of change.

Despite how Yes voters are portrayed by much of the media, this isn't about being anti-English - how could it be? I'm English, my siblings are English and my children are half English.

Nor is it about being brainwashed by Alex Salmond like he is some cult leader and will be crowning himself King. In the event of a Yes decision, Alex Salmond wouldn't become the ruler of Scotland - he would be prime minister until the following election at which point he would be up against all the other parties wanting a say in how this new nation would be run.

Nor is it about some stupid belief that the day after the referendum everything will magically turn into a land of milk and honey. It is the first step toward change and change will only happen if we keep making steps forward. There would be a lot of work to do and things are likely to get worse before they get better, but if the desire is strong enough, then things could get considerably better than under the current system.

The only thing that has really made me waver, pause and feel guilty at the idea of voting Yes, is the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will still be under the abusive power of Westminster but have less people standing next to them.

But under the current system, I have become disempowered. My vote means nothing in Westminster. If I convinced every single person in Scotland to vote against the Conservatives in the next election, it wouldn't make any difference. The UK government is mostly decided by those living in the South East corner of England.

But even if Labour got in at the next election, they have moved so far to the right in their politics over the past couple of decades, that they now occupy the same political space as Thatcher did back in the 1980s. They are a right-wing party that are less right wing than the current occupants of the ruling body. And they see their biggest threat as coming from UKIP, which is an even more right-wing party, so they are adjusting their policies to placate them.

Who is looking out for the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable? No one in Westminster, no matter who I vote for.

Scottish politics, by comparison, has always leaned more towards social justice and equality, while still respecting creativity and enterprise. Indeed, the creativity and enterprise has generally been encouraged for the benefit of all, and not just an elite.

I am not blinded by my hopes. I know full well the biggest problem with any new Scottish parliament is it will be full of politicians. They too will have their fair share of power-hungry, money driven people serving no one but themselves and their wealthy friends.

But - and this is a really important point - if I disagree with who's running Scotland - whatever colour their banner - my voice will carry greater weight in effecting change than it currently does in the UK as a whole.

And this is what my vote boils down to - my psychological makeup. I am the kind of person who, when faced with a situation I really dislike, I look for ways to change it - even if there is a risk it might be change for the worse. And if does turn out that way, then I look to change it again. And again. And again. Until things improve.

The most effective way of any bastard staying in power is by making those under them believe it wouldn't make any difference if they tried to change things, and would probably make things even worse. This is the ultimate way to disempower anyone.

And I kick against that.

For me, a Yes vote on Thursday is a way to make change happen. And if we end up with a government we don't like, then we can vote them out and try another, and another, and another, until things improve. Something I am disempowered from doing as part of the UK.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Cracked Man Live in Dumfries Town Centre

On Sunday, Marcus and I played under the Midsteeple in Dumfries Town Centre as part of the "In Our Town" summer festivities programme.

(Photos courtesy of Our Dumfries & Galloway - https://www.facebook.com/ourdg)

It was a dry and mostly sunny day and we played our set twice - once at 1pm and again at 3pm, with a bit of time off in between to eat our sandwiches, chat and be treated to a coffee by our friend, Rachel.

Fueled by a double espresso, I was on fire for our second set - completely in the zone - and I felt it was one of my best performances to date.

It's just a shame Dumfries Town Centre tends to be virtually deserted on a Sunday afternoon...

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Sloan, KSS Images - https://www.facebook.com/kssimages)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Bramble Hunting

Each year in the Ayres household, The Great Bramble Hunt takes place.

Brambles (or blackberries as they are known South of the border and in other parts of the world) are ruthlessly hunted down, picked, thrown into plastic tubs and brought triumphantly home for the matriarch to inspect. If she approves some will be turned into Bramble Crumble while the remainder will be frozen, ready for transformation into Bramble Ice Cream at Christmas.

One of the finest fruits in existence

Last year, due to a combination of weather and bad timing, the harvest was poor. We struggled to fill a small tub, and what we did gather didn't have the rich taste we so enjoy and required lots of added sugar to try and make up for it.

However this year my daughter, Meg, and I managed a bumper crop. We headed out with 2 litre, 1 litre and ½ litre tubs and managed to fill all of them, which amounts to about 4 pounds of brambles. Later in the day I managed another ½ pound from the briars in one corner of the garden.

Stained fingers

I am salivating in anticipation...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge

Unless you've been offline for the past couple of weeks you can't have failed to notice the proliferation of videos of people having buckets of ice water poured over them in order to raise money and awareness of ALS, or in the UK, MND - Motor Neurone Disease.

The idea is you succumb to the ordeal, nominate 3 other people and donate a bit of money to the cause, or chicken out and donate a larger sum of money. Film stars, politicians and all manner of celebrities have taken part, along with considerably more people who are not famous, and whose videos will only be watched by their immediate friends and family.

I've been watching and wondering - what would I do if I was nominated?

Do I want a bucket of icy water poured over my head? Of course not.

Do I want to be seen to be a killjoy, spoilsport and uncharitable? Well, no, not really. And of course that's where the strength of this fundraising meme lies - when so many other people have done it, who wants to be known as the one who said no?

If I'm honest, part of me was irritated by the whole thing. Why should I have to join in with something unpleasant, just to be seen as a good sport? Maybe I should kick against the whole thing - show I was not one to be bullied into it.

What to do? Could I write a blog post decrying a meme for excessive peer pressure? Could I claim my ME/CFS was coming back and excuse myself on health grounds? Could I not answer any emails, not post any blogs and avoid Facebook until it all calmed down? Could I cynically use the fact my daughter has Down's Syndrome and say I was already contributing to a noble cause?

Perhaps I would be lucky. Perhaps no one would ask me if I kept a relatively low profile.

Then my son, Rogan, said he'd been nominated and asked if I would pour the water over him and film it on my camera. Momentarily horrified he might include me in his nominations I casually asked who'd nominated him and who he would be nominating in turn. Fortunately it was all happening among his peer group. I was free to drench him with a 2 gallon bucket of water containing a kilo of ice cubes with no repercussions. There was something deeply satisfying about it...

All those nights he kept waking up and refusing to go back to sleep when he was a baby: finally, payback...

And then it happened.

I logged on to my computer this morning to discover fellow Galloway Photographic Collective member, Tom Langlands, had posted a video being coated with water and in it he nominated me.

In the space of a few minutes I ran through the complete gamut of grief emotions - disbelief, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression and finally, acceptance.

Now I was faced with it, did I really want to rant about bullying and peer pressure? Or was it actually more fun to join in, to be a part of it?

And I realised, despite all my worries and fears, there had been another wee thread running through the back of my thoughts. What if no one nominated me? Would that mean I just wasn't important enough to anyone?

Some were clearly nominating people they either didn't like much or were getting back at for past grievances. But far more often people were nominating their best friends, colleagues and family. People they had a strong affinity with. People in their tribe.

So now faced with the chance to nominate people myself, I thought about those with whom I can chat for hours without ever seeming to run out of things to say, people whose company I really enjoy.

This wasn't about punishment or revenge.

This was about belonging.

And all for a good cause.

After you've smirked at my expression as he's pouring the water over me, take a look at his - utter glee...

If you'd like to donate to this cause, with or without the bucket of icy water, then text ICED55 £5 (or any other amount) to 70070, if you live in the UK, or you can donate to their JustGiving page at https://www.justgiving.com/mndassoc/

If you live outwith the UK, then a quick google search will reveal how to donate to your own country's association.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Photography, Woodlands, Sunset and the First Taste of Autumn

When I've not been photographing for a few days, my fingers get itchy, twitchy, restless, fidgety...

Sometimes I can grab one of my children and stick a hat on them and go click, but this has become increasingly rare as they get older. These days I think even if I offered my 19 year old son money, he would still refuse.

On occasions such as these I've started going for walks in the woods, particularly around sunset. As the last rays streak through gaps in the trees and hit leaves, twigs or ferns in a deep golden, almost bronze light, it can sometimes be truly magical.

Big zoom lens. Really wide aperture. Sunset back-lighting. Great combination.

Here are some pics I've taken this month. Click on them for slightly larger versions.

This last one has a sense of the first taste of autumn.

Which is what we are experiencing in Scotland.

Having spent my formative years about 400 miles south of where I currently live, I have never really come to terms with the fact that by mid August, the air has a distinct chill in the morning and evening, the brambles are starting to turn a deep purple and the kids start back at school. Meg started the new term today. She's now in S5.

Every year it catches me out.

Every year it feels at least a month too early.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Depression is a lying bastard

A few weeks ago I saw a picture on Facebook of a lovely sunset with the words "Depression is a lying bastard" written across it.

I clicked "like" after an inward smirk - it's something I've written about before.

Depression is something I've had an ongoing battle with over much of my adult life. Currently I'm in the fortunate position to not be struggling with it on a daily level. Many of the techniques I have learned and used to help combat my ME/CFS also work against Depression. But I understand it intimately.

With the recent suicide of Robin Williams, there seems to have been a lot of stuff flying about on different social media sites, from understanding to non-understanding, confusion to condemnation. So I thought I would repost a blog I wrote over 6 years ago - and was titled, "The deepest lie is the one that FEELS true".

Perhaps it will shed a little bit of light on this dark condition.


The most insidious aspect of Depression is that you KNOW it to be TRUE. You know in the way you feel it in your bones: the world is not worth living in or making the effort for in any way.

And when you are confronted with this TRUTH, this absolute certainty you are seeing the world as it REALLY is, you have the overwhelming sense the veil has been lifted. Therefore, any time you might have been happy in the past must have been an illusion. Clearly you were distracted, you were being naïve, the happiness was hollow and false and you were too stupid to see it for what it was.

And what this means is that you can NEVER be truly happy in the future. The best you can hope for is moments of distraction when you briefly forget the TRUTH of the world. So is it really worth making the effort for these brief respites in a false reality? Of course not.

You feel all the hollowness, all the grief, all the despair, all the deep, aching pain and you KNOW with every fibre of your being it is REAL and nothing else is.

So when someone says, just pull yourself together, snap out of it, go for a walk – that’ll cheer you up, all you can do is look at them with pity and contempt for their shallowness, their blindness to reality, their assumption that their veiled illusory world is somehow superior to yours.

Let’s face it, they are happier in their illusions. There is no point in dragging them into the TRUTH. You wouldn’t wish this feeling on your worst enemy, let alone your loved ones. Let them stay in the Garden of Eden – it’s only you who really sees it is nothing more than a patch of overgrown weeds and poisonous plants. They are better off not knowing the full reality of it. They are better off without you. That way you cannot INFECT them with the TRUTH and destroy their lives too.

This is what Depression feels like.

How on earth can you battle against that, when you KNOW it’s pointless, that you’ve lost before you even start?

My way has been to deny the TRUTH of ANY reality.

We are 3 (or 4) dimensional creatures living in an 11 (or more) dimensional universe. We exist for a few seconds within Billions of years. We are the smallest speck on the smallest speck in a universe full of trillions of trillions of stars and is billions of light years (or more) across.

Anyone claiming to KNOW the TRUTH is lying or delusional. There is no way we can possibly know the TRUTH about the universe and our existence in it. And if any multi-dimensional being tried to explain to us what it was about, it would be like us trying to explain quantum mechanics to a pubic louse. We are so small, we are so insignificant in the universe, TRUTH is impossible to grasp.

What we do deal with on an everyday level are “truths” (small letters, inverted commas); relative “truths”, convenient “truths”, accepted “truths” which help us to operate in the world, as we perceive it.

All “truths” are man made; all “truths” are human constructs; all “truths” filter our perceptions of reality.

Most of them are created not by one person, but by many: cultures, religions, political systems, relationships, sciences, games etc, all have a set of accepted rules which we abide by (or kick against) for the duration.

None of them have a monopoly on TRUTH. To assume that any are ABSOLUTE TRUTH is like saying football is more true than chess, or yellow is more true than wicker baskets.

So what does this tell me?

It tells me the idea my view of reality when I am Depressed is the TRUE one, is complete and utter bollocks. It is a lie. All it is, is a construct for the duration, which I accept as TRUE. It as a “truth”, not the TRUTH.

Don’t get me wrong, this understanding doesn’t stop me feeling everything associated with the condition, but what it does do is allow me to know it is lying to me: it is NOT the ONLY TRUTH, no matter how convincing it seems.

And this in turn allows me to understand there are other ways of perceiving and interacting with the world, which are just as valid.

It doesn’t HAVE to be this way. It IS worth taking the time and making the effort to try and find a way out, and keep going until you do. The notion that it isn’t - one of the cornerstones of Depression – is a LIE.

In order to combat Depression, I have out-argued reality.

Not everyone’s route, admittedly, but it seemed preferable to suicide.

There are other benefits to this approach too, the most notable one of which is you don’t have to accept other people’s constructs of who you are. You are in fact free to become who you wish to become - you don't have to stay being the way you are.

But I’ll leave that one for another day.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

An Analogy, of sorts...

Imagine for a moment, there is a tall building, packed full of ordinary people going about their lives. A criminal gang enter the building. Perhaps they are even let into it by a few of the residents who feel they have been poorly served by the police in the past and are looking for an alternative source of protection. Some members of the gang, perhaps as a show of strength, or even out of a bloody-minded fanaticism, decide they will take shots at people walking past on the street, and especially any policemen, who happen to come near the building. In fact, they proclaim loudly and clearly all police, their families and anyone who supports the police should be killed.

Before you know it, the building is surrounded by armed police and virtually all of the exits are completely sealed off - either by the gang, or by the police. Everyone is now trapped inside, whether a member of the criminal gang or an ordinary person just trying to get on with their life.

The police decide to shoot grenades into the building through any window from where they think a shot might have come from a gang member. If there happens to be an innocent family in the room where the explosion takes place, the police say it is an unfortunate outcome, but the innocent people were not deliberately targeted. The criminals were clearly using them as human shields, so the blame lies completely with the criminals, not the police.

Let us step back for a moment.

Would they be allowed to get away with this behaviour? Is the killing of innocents ever justified in the pursuit of criminals? If you are prepared to kill the innocent, does that not make you as bad as those you pursue? Does that not make you a hypocrite of the worst kind?

To continue our scenario. Imagine, when questioned about their justifications, the police were to excuse themselves by saying they text the people living in the room they are about to shoot the grenade into, to tell them to leave right now. The family in the room have less than a minute to grab any possessions they might have and rush into a neighbour's room. Family photo albums, children's toys, clothes and anyone just a bit too slow, are all destroyed.

And when people who don't live in the building become outraged with the police's tactics, they are told they are being anti-police and pro-criminal. The police point out that there are other places in the world where the authorities don't send warning texts and are far more indiscriminate with their killing.

The idea seems to be we are not allowed to condemn their practice, which results in the deaths of children, because there are other people who kill more children.

I wonder if there is any court in the world that let off a thief, rapist or murderer because the defence claimed there were other people out there who stole, raped and murdered more than their client?

Now before anyone accuses me of being one-sided or anti-this-or-that, let me say one of the things I am most proud of, with regard to the regular visitors to this blog over the years, has been the sheer variety of backgrounds people have come from: Christians (many different flavours), Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, fence-sitters, teens, middle-aged, retired, singles, couples, parents, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, American, European, African, Australasian, Middle-Eastern, and the full range of social, economic and educational backgrounds.

Variety and inclusiveness are at the heart of my love of people and the world. On the flip side of this, I condemn us-and-them mentalities, because when difference is not celebrated, but used as an excuse to dehumanise and attack, the worst of atrocities take place.

As I have said before - whether you are a member of Al Qaeda, The US Army, the IRA, The Israeli Army, Hamas, The British Armed Forces, or any other armed organisation - if you kill non-combatants you are a terrorist and a murderer. There is no justification, ever, for killing innocent people to satisfy your political leanings.

And I am sick to my stomach at hearing the constant barrage of apologists and justifiers when the remains of small children are splattered among the rubble.