Saturday, 31 December 2016

Meh

I'm not sure why I am writing this, neither am I entirely sure who will read it (and indeed, if I even care). But I have to be honest.

It is the last day of 2016, and I am tired. New year always brings self reflection. And this year is the same. However, every year always has ups and downs, good and bad, and we are misguided if we ever think any different.
But the tiredness I feel is an indescribable cacophony. Its the type of tiredness that no amount of sleep will ever cure, even if you could sleep for multitudinous decades. I am drenched with fatigue. And its the exhaustion of being me.

This 'me' doesn't even feel like me anymore. Someone has stolen my being and sold it off cheap on eBay like a broken piece of brick-a-brac. I don't even know who me is. Making the mistake of looking back on that digital BEST FRIEND! Facebook, I was dumbfounded. Was I that? Was I this? Social media lies and masquerades; a deadly online menace. Even I start to get fooled. The pixelated versions don't show the pain, the darkness, the terrifying anxieties. The hatred. The reminders of constant failures.

Maybe my inherent need to be busy, to be occupied, to be overly-exerted comes down to a single thing. I'm running away. And I think I am trying to escape from who I am, who I have become. A poor imitation copy of a person that won't even end up on the 'novelty' section of antiques roadshow; a Margaret Thatcher-esque-haired expert grinning inanely scoffing patronisingly that the carcass isn't worth a penny but 'is tremendous fun' as if 'fun' is a synonym of 'stupid poor person things'.

My body & brain is riddled and disintegrating. My enthusiasm is the cardigan I once spilled photography chemicals over; eventually browning and shrivelling up like a rotting apple. I forget things. I sometimes can't get out of bed. Coming to terms with losing who I was is the most upsetting. Am I grieving? It is utterly ridiculous to write this and not scold myself for sounding such a melodramatic odiferous pillock. But I am that too.

Some writers describing depression and decline, say the terrible disease creeps up on you. I can relate to that. In some respects it is the small shadow tied to your boot laces that somehow expands up like a bloated sponge. But for me, it has been more like that bathroom tap with the dodgy leak: drip, drip, drip - fine at first, until you realise it's 18 months down the line, and you're submerging in a room full of water. There's nothing more lonely than drowning in your own self doubt.

In the summer, I was at Barry Island and sat watching people play the penny slots. They're glued to these seedy structures, feeding in coin after coin like robots. So much effort, for such little gain. That's how I feel I have existed for too long - a worn out dismaland penny machine that should've really paid out more by now, but has a few springs missing and is just waiting to be replaced by a newer model.

So here we are. Stuck in the hard shoulder whilst the world flies by picking up speeding tickets. I still do not know why I have written this. But things are very difficult. Very difficult indeed. And I apologise to anyone who actually has to endure me. But at least you can walk away. I miss who I was, and the life I used to have, but I'm not even sure I know what any of that was.

Maybe I just need to pull my socks up. But buy new ones first.


Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A bug in the code

Processing power, gradually slowed,
Hardware and wires, begin to corrode.
Memory leakage, renders in vain,
What once was strong, is now on the wane.
Bright lights that were a glittering zone,
Now grey and dark, the pixels are blown.

There's a wretched bug hiding in code,
Contaminating; nothing will load.

Spiralling icons spinning and pending,
Churning and twisting, so never ending.
A tiresome flailing nonchalance,
Waiting for.....no response.

An Epidemic of bugs velcroed in code,
And my own sad self, won't try to load.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Visiting Chernobyl

There are a few places in the world that just by name, conjure evocative reactions. Often these are areas where, unfortunately, tragedy has struck - places where events unravelled that have sent tremor waves of shock felt across the globe.

One such location has been a fascination of mine for a long time. And that place is Chernobyl.

Photographing decaying and derelict buildings has long been an obsession of mine, something I've written and blathered on about many times. I yearn for it. I crave the ability to traipse through stale, dank crooked structures; rotten walls, peeling paint. Their ghostly existence crying out to be photographed - the documentation of manmade decline as nature engulfs it.

Photography lends itself so well to capture these haunting scenes, the emptiness, the decay - which never stops, never pauses - only within the four walls of the photograph.

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Visiting Chernobyl had become a dream of mine. I had dreamed of seeing Pripyat, the city near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, where nearly 50,000 people had lived between 1970 and 1986. On April 27th 1986, the day after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the city was evacuated, what is left is a ghost town. Buildings not used in thirty years; roads not been driven on, the swimming pool not swum in, the kindergarten cots not slept in.

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This July, I was lucky enough to finally visit Chernobyl. The two day tour was probably one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I have explored many derelict buildings over the years, but apart from Imber, the small English village taken over by the military during WWII, I had never before had the chance to visit an entire ghost town - a cornucopia of abandoned treasures.

Trips to Chernobyl, have been allowed since the area has been deemed more safe, but there are still many precautions one must take when visiting (and quite rightly so). We had been given advice on what clothes to wear, and told to not touch things, or step on certain things. Moss for example, is particularly good at absorbing radiation so is likely to emit high levels of radiation so you are warned to not walk on it. You can imagine how difficult it becomes trying to avoid doing so whilst exploring Pripyat, trying to take in everything around you.
It is also strictly forbidden to remove anything from the exclusion zone. Entry into Chernobyl requires passport control, and the area is heavily guarded. You are not allowed to eat or drink whilst walking around Pripyat - and you can only do so whilst on the bus which would transport us around parts of the city which we could not travel by foot. During our stay in the Chernobyl hotel, there is a curfew by evening and no one is allowed outside after 8pm. You are screened regularly, having to stand in these bizarre 1970s sci-fi film-esque machines, that check you for any radioactive contamination.

When faced with these rules and regulations, the reality of where you are visiting very much strikes you. This is not a game, not a jolly. This is something that must be treated with respect, as you risked putting yourself in grave danger otherwise.








The trip began as we were taken to a kindergarten. The walls were seeping with branches and foliage and peeling crusty paint. What was left was a tragic reminder of the young lives who frequented there - dusty broken shoes, toys, torn books. So many items that looked like they had just been dumped. Rotting dolls like something out of a Stephen King film, and rows of skeletal wire cots that resembled an odd communal prison cell.

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The personal items strewn across the decaying floorboards conjure so many questions - who wore this small shoe? Who did they grow up to be? Did they survive? Who clutched the teddy bear and dropped it that day in 1986, not realising they would never get to return to fetch it?

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We were taken to many buildings and various areas in Pripyat. The culture palace, with a theatre and its stunning broken backstage.
Backstage at the theatre
It was a myriad of lighting rigs and grids of wires, now spookily silent, patiently waiting for the next performance that will never come.

The culture palace as it is today from the outside:
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As the same culture palace as it was originally:














We saw one of the vast empty swimming pools, looking gaunt and hungry without its water; bright light streaming down onto white tiles through the huge windows - bizarrely striking against the dirt and graffiti that was building up. The suicidal looking diving platform still proudly erect, angular and defiant.
swimming pool
swimming pool


We explored a school. Pripyat had around 20 schools for the 5,000 children who lived there.
School
The school we visited was a zombified grange hill. So much of the ghostly remains resembled memories from my own school days: the corridors, the small chairs, books, science labs - yet these were all decomposing and decaying - vast broken rooms filled with empty dying desks, crumpled text books, written work books in perfectly scripted Russian/Ukrainian which was still legible. The poignancy was striking - when a child had worked so hard and taken so much care on this work I was stood near, little did they know it would one day be dirt ridden and lying upon a decaying floor, as part of a strange time capsule fodder for photographers.
School book
Communist propaganda posters still hanging from the walls - Lenin, workers, anti-west diatribe. Cold war teachings. Something that seemed to only exist in history books I had seen in my own school - here they were for real.
school
It was in the school which I saw one of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed - a sea of decaying gas masks. Gas masks themselves always look so alien and menacing. This surreal scene was an infinity ocean of cold war atomic nightmares. It churned your stomach, it made you gulp. The black holes for eyes, they resembled deformed leathery skulls. Gas masks, war. The threat. It was, of course, a reality for daily lives for the people of chernobyl.
School room


One of the most impressive structures in Chernobyl that we visited was the  'woodpecker' - an incredible mammoth duga radar structure. It derived its nickname due to the sound it broadcasted - sharp, repetitive tapping noises, very much like a woodpecker.
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There were many conspiracy theories over to what the radar tower's purpose was - with many insinuations and allegations of spying, and even mind control. Of course, none of these were ever proven. Now, the structure still stands proud....just eerily silent. Standing near it, you marvelled at its sheer size and formed beauty. Climbing the tower, scrambling up wobbling ladders you got the overwhelming sense of how minuscule you were. You were just an insignificant entity. The machine was the dominate power.
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Inside the duga buildings, a control room contained warnings of attack, yet with oddly crude posters which almost resembled school drawings of nuclear rockets. It had a beautiful naivety, yet the science it was representing, was very much contradicting this.  
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One of the most famous areas of Pripyat was the fairground. It was meant to be opened on the May day celebrations - the disaster, of course, scupper these plans. The fairground that never was. The huge abandoned ferris wheel has become one of the icons of Chernobyl. Walking up to the area, the ferris wheel suddenly poked through the trees, its yellow carts so recognisable looming on the horizon. It made my skin prickle and the hairs on my arms stand up.
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The fairground had languishing dogem cars, rusting away waiting to be driven; empty swing boats waiting to swing. Still. Expectant but dead. No sounds of children happily playing. Just static rusty structures waiting to die.
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(For a peak at what the fairground looked like shortly before the evacuation - here is an interesting photograph of the ferris wheel)

We climbed 14 floors of stairs to the roof of a defunct crumbling residential building, and saw the incredible view across Pripyat. You could see for miles into the horizon. One side there was nothing but trees, the other side, the nuclear reactor stuck out into the landscape like a curved silver beast, glinting in the glorious sun shine. The reactor looked so close. The reactor *was* so close. You could imagine how quickly the radiation would have spread to the city....

Reactor from roof of residential building

And yet at times, as I gazed into the horizon on the gloriously sunny day, it felt so peaceful. So quiet. It was almost tranquil. Such a contrast to the thought of what had happened there.
View into nothing from the top of the residential building

We were taken to a shop, a factory, cafeteria, the hospital and the cinema. All places of such mundane daily routine, of pastimes, of work, or places of social interaction - now dying and deteriorating; signs hanging off, rubble strewn, windows broken, ovens caked with rust not baked goods. Vending machines. Beds. Random items abandoned - a pepsi bottle, a hard hat, pill bottles, an old vinyl record, a torn sofa. Objects of life, signs of life, yet there is no life.
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The beauty of these broken items sometimes took my breath away. The huge cooling tower. The light against the beautiful broken glassed windows of the cafeteria, crystalloid patterns that could be in another life, hanging in an art gallery. The creepy children's camp - set in the forest and evocative of as many woods horror films you can imagine. The stunning and oddly satisfying athestic of peeling paint - the crusty curls clawing out of the walls as if their bony fingers were coming alive. The dark rusty signs or faded red propaganda posters; beautiful in their colour and form. The emptiness of an abandoned room, now useless in its initial purpose, dripping with this tragic well of loneliness.

It was all quite overwhelming. And sometimes macabre.

Nothing was more a deadly wake up call of the dangers in chernobyl, than the sight and sound of the Geiger counter alarm, approaching one of the most radioactive items still left in Pripyat - the claw. The Geiger counter was brought out at various times during our trip. Sometimes it was unnerving (but also sobering and important) to how suddenly you would be near an item that was setting the alarm off on the counter. Radiation - the silent and invisible assassin. There is something more frighting about a deadly threat that you cannot see, cannot smell, cannot hear.

'The claw', however, was off the scale. You are not allowed close to 'the claw' - a terrifyingly industrial metal claw that was used to clean up nuclear waste after the disaster. Our guide placed the Geiger counter near, and we watched in awe as the alarm spiralled into high pitched cacophony. This was real. This was dangerous.

We slowly crept away.
the claw - used to clear up after the disaster. One of the most radioactive machinery pieces left

One morning of the tour, we visited the house of a chernobyl resident. An odd experience, one that I was not sure I was comfortable with. She welcomed visitors regularly, showing people around her home and land.
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Money was no use to her, instead, we brought her items such as sugar and salt. She spoke to us via an interpreter, explaining that she had worked in the reactor, and had been evacuated the day after the disaster, but had returned to live a year later and had lived there ever since.
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She grew many crops, and these were all tested safe for consumption. Her house was primitive, her life was basic. She lived alone with her dog and cats. Whilst she made us feel very welcome (she gave us her own homemade moonshine and bread), I felt intruding, I felt as if I was patronising her by just being there.

It was a reality check to how some people live in the world, something I am far too often blinkered to - her oven was a hole in the wall, the sanitary conditions extremely basic. My life back home seemed as far away as the moon. It was like going back in time. Yet she seemed at peace; content with her lot. In some ways I left her house with almost an odd pang of jealousy.
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An unfortunate turn of phrase, but Chernobyl gets under your skin; the connotations of what happened there, the horrors, the tragedy. I have thought about what I saw, what I experienced, every day since. Did it happen? Did I really experience the sheer surreal of having lunch in the actual reactor canteen?
It is all a lingering spectre. Now, whenever I am in woods or see moss, I am suddenly wondering if it is safe to step on. The empty sadness of chernobyl shrouds you at times. What is left is a snap shot of a different time. Like many tragic events, it is a reminder of the human condition, both the bad side but also the good - let us not forget the heroic efforts of the firemen who sacrificed their lives and went into the reactor at the time of the disaster. Their selfless actions saving the world of a larger catastrophe.

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Sometimes I feel I am drawn to derelict buildings because I often feel a little empty inside, as if I am a derelict well, or as if large pieces inside are missing. But sometimes I think derelict buildings call to me so that the silent walls and objects can somehow tell their story, reveal their secrets and histories. One day we will be nothing ourselves, one day we will become these empty shell structures and nothing will be left of us but an old shoe, left languishing in the dust. And I would want someone to spot this remnant, and capture it, to speak for me when I cannot - 'look, I was here. I lived'.


You can see my full sets of photographs documenting my time at Chernobyl in my flickr albums - Chernobyl, Pripyat, Duga Radar, Exclusion Zone house visit, the Children's Camp, and Pripyat hospital.

For a fascinating before the disaster comparison, images of life in Pripyat can be viewed on Photos of everyday life in Pripyat before the disaster.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Iceland

Iceland. A mystical country that has intrigued me for years.

When I stepped off the plane at Reykjavik airport in August, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Beautiful clear blue skies, and blindingly strong sun. Not weather you always associate with the coldly named country. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting iceberg arctic conditions, and to be greeted by a north face clad penguin to collect my bags, but still.

As the bus from the airport took me to Reykjavik, I was struck by the volcanic landscape. Similar to the canaries, the land looked almost desolately lunar. It is an odd view, with its black, almost dead sensation, and yet not without it's own special kind of beauty. I was also struck by how sparse things felt - maybe too conditioned to the UK and in particular the city claustrophobic feel, where buildings are squidged next to other buildings to exploit as much millimetre of the space as possible.

Reaching Reykjavik itself in glorious sunshine, I could almost admit to feeling warm. I set out to roam. The city felt european, and yet also not quite. Buildings were colourful, something I often long for in the UK outside small seaside towns; how can you not find these inherently more cheerful than the drab grey slabs of concrete, or even worse, the red bricked modern housing estates sprawled across the UK that could be any mundane town in any ordinary place.

What I liked about Reykavik was how easy it was to walk to everything else - such a small city but packed with goodies around every corner. It's like sight-seeing christmas come early. I quickly established my mantra when alone in a foreign place - find a landmark. In Reykavik's case, you have easily, the Hallgrimskirkja.
Just before I left for my trip and on our weekend away, my friends gave me a lovely birthday card in which they wrote 'Have a great time in Iceland, look out for the big churchy thing that looks like a REALLY big set of pan pipes' which had left me chuckling at the time, but this is actually a pretty good description of the Hallgrimskirkja. A strikingly large cathedral that dominates the skyline; its blocky, concrete appearance overlooks proceedings, indeed, like a omnipresent....set of giant lego pipes.

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I went to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja tower and saw stunning 360 views of the city. I kept thinking of the difference between the last time I had been looking at similar 360 views - when I was on the top of the Tokyo governmental buildings - when the panorama before me was an endless mass Sim City sprawl of buildings until infinity. And yet here, in Iceland, was a little city of brightly coloured lego compactness.

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Reykavik is a culture hot bed. We boast in Wales of our cultural prowess for such a small country; Reykavik has it alone and yet is roughly around the same population size of Cardiff. There are many art and photography galleries, museums and a film festival. It boasts an architectural feast in the Haimj concert hall - an outstandingly beautiful construction of optically illusional glass. It reminded me of a beautiful giant kaleidoscope.

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It also did not get dark until very very late. Wandering around Reykavik at night in August, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't still 3pm. The unbridled joy of going for a run around the city at 11.30pm in daylight will live with me forever (Iceland loves running. Another massive tick box of YES for me). Conversely, winter months must be bleak times (anyone who watches those endless scandinavian and nordic dramas on BBC4 will already tell you this). Icelanders must have a hard constitution, hardened by the incredibly high cost of alcohol (I think I felt drunk just reading the menu prices). It makes me feel a wuss for feeling miserable whilst running up Pen Y Fan in a January raining hale of gales.

Not far away from the concert hall that overlooks the docks of Reykavik and deep ocean, are the boats that can take you Whale and puffin watching. Having been lucky enough to visit Skomer island in pembrokeshire to see puffins, I was keen to look for Whales. I chose the smaller boat to go out to sea, for the main purpose of being closer to the Whales. What no one told me at the time, was that this of course, meant a bumpier ride as well as an increased chance of a Whale actually knocking the boat over. But luckily I am a fan of the sea and its roller coaster offerings.

It is luck and chance of the day to whether you see Whales or not of course, and I was blessed to see lots of Whales on my trip. Lead on the trip by a Scotsman (the accent threw me at the beginning), we were taken out to sea (and see) and learnt much about the sealife as a whole. And we saw many Whales. Lots of Minky Whales, gracefully gliding around the sea looking for food. We saw humpback Whales leap out of the water and land with a splash. Quite simply one of the most incredibly powerful and yet graceful scenes you could wish to witness.
The trip was utterly respectful to the animals - never deliberately approaching or getting too close, not wishing to disturb these most magnificent creatures. The girl from Wales finally saw her Whales, and I had a new found respect for these majestic, intelligent and stunning animals. That Whales must remain free (certainly not in any form of captivity), not exploited, and also not hunted, is absolutely a must.

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A short journey out of Reykjavik, and you hit the countryside. I was keen to see the beautiful landscape, the mountains and natural wonders. It is not long before you are out of the city and into the relative remote hills. The rolling hills were, to me, not dissimilar to the Brecon beacons in many ways - although that may have been because of the grey and drizzly weather. The difference being were more random houses potted around as we passed. At one point, we could even see the unpronounceable (and also troublesome to spell) Eyjafjallajökul; its looming peaks calling out to me tantalizingly in the distance between the clouds. Mountains call to me like sirens, their majesty and large forms bewitch me with their power and strength. There is something so reassuring about mountains and hills, they are stoic and reliable. Yet with a whisper of danger and intrigue.

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Then I saw the geysers. I am not sure if anything could have prepared me for witnessing large jets of hot water burst out of the floor like a bubbling random piston; it was as if the floor beneath us was alive. A dragon lay under the surface, roaming and stalking the underworld, until it teased the upside by spitting out its foaming shoots of water whenever it felt like it as if in a firy protest or just to amuse. That this natural phenomenon occurs still baffles and delights me now. It reminds me yet again that nature is so unashamedly, what it is.

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Even more incredible, was watching the people watching. Rings of people form around the geysers, phones and cameras held aloft, all waiting on baited breath for the geyser to perform. Sometimes it took ages. Sometimes the bubbling potion caused tourist oooos and ahhhhhs as the teasing water promised to deliver (and yet didn't). Even more curious were the people stood away from the geysers, hoping for a selfie. Watching the watchers became as fascinating to me as the geysers themselves.

As we drove through the hills and landscapes, I yearned to return in the winter; to see the snow and harshness - the equally beautiful but dramatic changes in season. No wonder Iceland has produced many great musical artists, with such landscapes to inspire ethereal electronic wonders. It feels an ethereal country, where volcanos rule above, and creatures tease below; where light lasts all day or darkness dictates instead. Where culture blossoms and history breathes. Beautiful, fascinating Iceland.

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See my set of photos from Iceland on Flickr.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Pen Y Fan

Peaked arms of comfort, beckon yet mock,
The luscious siren of greens & rock;
Nature's vast canvas, over it shrouds,
Charcoal sunk bleak, nefarious clouds.
Majestic beauty so persuasive,
Yet icy insults so abrasive. 
Drenched relentless, to the beat;
Yet un-abating, suffocating heat.

Through pain, 
Through pleasure,

The mountains call.

Despite the weary battle fight,
Unseen demons of hidden fright;
Suddenly I thrive.
Suddenly:

I become alive.