The Brief 2016 Beat-Down: or, Blowing Up the Death Star and Blasting On to a Better Year, Yeah?

We need to blow this thing up and fly on.

Yes, indeed. In my mind – a mind that seems to comprehend everything through Star Wars analogies – 2016 is the Death Star and so I’ve come back at the climax to fire some farewell shots to set-up the spectacular finale where we destroy the big gloomy grey sphere o’doom and swoop off into a starry future full of hope. (Woohoo!)

So here we are primed for the finale and here I am, back out of nowhere (Hyperspace) after going missing for a while. (Sorry about that. I’ve been busy, y’know?) I’m Han Solo/James Clayton, it’s the end of the year and we’ve all had enough of 2016 so let’s be done with it and get on with 2017. In (very) brief, here’s my beat-down of the year that’s been this year, and the year that hasn’t been this year. (I really liked the year that wasn’t. Can we go back and have that instead?) After a cursory glance over some photos, I reckon that this is the image that encapsulates 2016 best…

Ruins, rumination...

Ruins, rumination…

Yeah, I’m feeling that (and as a big believer in ‘Show, don’t tell‘, I won’t write an essay explaining why this particular photo of me moping in Pompeii is the perfect summary of 2016). In total, 2016 has been, erm, ‘interesting’. To paraphrase the lady who works in the Asda down the road and who’s convinced that she’s the re-incarnation of Charles Dickens: “It were, like, sometimes like the best a’times, weren’t it? But then it were like, y’know, the vurry worst, in’tit y’know?

She’s right (about 2016, not about being the re-incarnation of Charles Dickens) but because I’m sick of dwelling on the dark, depressing, disappointing and just-too-damn-deathly I’m going to focus on the fun bits. Thus, [INSERT YOUR OWN END OF YEAR ROUND-UP OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS AND CELEBRITY OBITUARIES, ‘CAUSE I CAN’T DO THAT CRAP ANY MORE AND I HAVE NO DESIRE TO NOW… *single tear*]

First up, the personal stuff: over the course of 2016 I’ve taught a lot of English lessons, doodled many doodles, had a number of adventures and misadventures, geeked out on some great culture and not written as much as I’d have liked to. I’ve shared good times and bad times and rad times with ace old friends and excellent new friends. Lots of learning. Lots of experiences. Lots of stuff that is worth talking about, reflecting on and sharing with people. In total, I guess that means that the year can’t just be dismissed as a bad one to write out of the history books.

I’ve been places this year (geographically, I mean). I returned to Milan at the beginning of the year and enjoyed it afresh for a couple of months. Moreover, I explored Italy further this year and highlights include falling in love with all the creatures in Genoa’s aquarium (awww, the manatees!) and with Naples and its surrounding historical wonders (see photo above).

Later on I had a fantastical time in Prague with my bro, my dad, the Golem and Franz Kafka’s nightmares. Moving on to summer school work, the Surrey countryside and weekends hanging around in London were lovely and then I got to autumn when I completely upped sticks and moved to live and work in Bologna. Bologna is beautiful and now, at the end of the year, I find myself in Italy again – teaching at a superb language school and based in a city that, in so many ways, is brilliant. I’ll write at length about Bologna in the future. (Yes I will. I promise.)

As for cultural stuff, shout out to all the art galleries and museums I’ve popped into this year; thanks for blowing my mind. Shout out and thanks as well to Welcome to Night Vale (now 100 episodes weird!) and the Bruce Lee Podcast for stretching my mind and accompanying me on all these long walks I keep on taking. (Why? Because Bruce Lee once said: “Walk on…“) Musically, this year my favourite fresh things have been Babymetal, Weezer’s White Album and Square Hammer by Ghost (which I believe is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, for the record).

The vast majority of new movies I’ve managed to see have been terrific and my top five flicks of 2016 would be: Kubo and the Two Strings; Captain America: Civil War; Tale of Tales; The Revenant; and, of course, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It always comes back to Star Wars, and that brings me back to blowing up the Death Star and hurtling on into 2017. Right now – with a slightly fatalistic head on – as I face up to Reality and the challenges ahead I feel that my spirit animal is a bizarre amalgamation of all the lead Rebels in Rogue One. (In other words, in my mind I’m running around a cruel and ruined galaxy, fighting for impossible causes and I know I’m going to die but I know that I am one with the Force and the Force is with me and it’s all fantastically cinematic so I don’t give a crap.)

More optimistically, I’m psyched for 2017. I’m resolved to do even better and have some fun. I’ve got fresh inspiration and motivation to create things and I’ll be blasting ’em out as a work ’em out. (Yes I will. I promise.) I’ve got a very, very long New Year’s Resolution list but I won’t bore you with that. Ultimately, it’s all about positive energy and enthusiasm, essential humanity, creative action and love. It doesn’t matter if that sounds simplistic and vague – love is easy and it’s blatantly clear to me that, after 2016, we need to go forward with more love.

Let’s go do that then. Now I’m going to blow up a Death Star ’cause it was just too doomy and hug a Wookiee. So long, 2016. Here’s to 2017…

Winter of Post-Discontent, or: How I Learned to Stop Griping and Just Chill with the Killer Chill…

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Into the winter wonderland woods…

Oh, snow way! Yes way. Everything went white and the temperature turned subzero. Winter came and my neighbourhood transformed into something resembling Narnia or an Ice King freakout. It’s really, really cold. Even prior to the snowfall it’d been nippy and, to be honest, pretty glum weather-wise most of the time (you probably know what they say about rain and Manchester). It’s winter, so all the green things are dead and now all those dead plants are symbolically buried beneath several inches of snow.

I tend to associate winter with death. I’m a summer sun child, somewhat afflicted by SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and I’m uncomfortable if the temperature dips below 15°c. I’m charged by solar energy and I feel best when I’m wearing only one layer of clothing. My natural temperament is entirely at odds with the winter and, to put it simply, winter kind of kills my buzz. (And in the UK, if winter takes up roughly 2/3rds of the year, then I’m at odds with the season most of the time when I’m here.)

Thus, musing on death happens more often in the bleak midwinter. All the trees are dead. All the flowers are dead. By 4.30pm daylight is dead. All my summer spirit is dead (or, at least, it’s ebbed away). And what’s more, in the real world, great famous people keep on dying and the news reads as a list of obituary notices and posthumous tributes. There is much mourning. It’s dark and cold. Chilly shivers course through my marrow, and then I go to the movies to watch dark, violent films about people dying in unforgiving winter conditions (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight).

And then I take all of this death, darkness and dreariness and I dash out into the snow, slide around a bit and say to myself “Hey, you morbid drippy bitch! Smile! You’re alive and life is beautiful!” And I am smiling and I am alive and life is beautiful (it always is, in spite of it all). Good news! Somewhere along the way I seem to have found a way to co-exist with winter and reconfigure the whole experience as something that’s actually pretty cool (cool as in ‘good’ good and not ‘mildly cold’). Somehow I managed to significantly downgrade my level of SAD and I did it without resorting to indoor hibernation and death by tea, heavy metal and hot water bottle burns (my usual survival remedies for the season).

I’m not sure how this happened, and all I can conclude is that I just acquired a more enlightened and upbeat attitude. I also probably got bored of being freaking hostile to forces far beyond my control (keeping up constant bitterness and antagonism is wearying, y’know). Winter has to happen so I may as well just accept it and enjoy it as best as I can. I operate in this fashion in the summer months – soaking up as much sun as possible while others hide in the shade because I know that the heat of the moment will pass. Winter shall also pass and the cold won’t linger forever (this isn’t Narnia or Hoth). Neither will the fleeting flakes of winter magic that I’ve noticed when I’m not too busy muttering: “Damn, it’s too bloody cold!

Simple pleasures like knitwear, hot showers and steaming teapots after a day out in the cold make winter alright. I’ve also found tremendous beauty in the season this past week. Those aforementioned films showed me humans (and horses) suffering in extreme winter conditions, but they also reminded me – through film artistry and the language of cinema – just how beautiful winter can be. Winter isn’t a war on nature or on me or the pretty precious little flowers and suchlike – it’s a part of the grand cycle of life and has a wonder of its own.

(I apologise for turning into Captain Obvious here. Try and appreciate that this is written by an over-sensitive, simple soul with poor circulation and he’s only recently come out of the cave and cast off his snow-blinds. You may take this stuff for granted but, for me, it’s a psychological breakthrough and personal psychological breakthroughs deserve a “woohoo!“)

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn...

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn…

When I emerged from the cinema having watched The Hateful Eight this weekend, I discovered that light snow was falling. Frost had been on the ground when I entered but now little floaty motes of white were lighting up the early evening dark. It felt a bit magical, and I wandered around Manchester city centre marvelling at the sight, well-aware that I’m about to leave this place for few months. I stuck my tongue out to catch snowdrops. I idled around in neon-lit Chinatown a while, just watching snow fall on the Chinese Arch. Then I got on a train home and, arriving in my neighbourhood, found that the Saturday snow was even thicker up here.

Sunday morning it was thicker still. I woke before dawn and went out on a trek through white stuff at sunrise just to appreciate the winter wonderland that had occurred. I made my way to a vantage point and gazed across the landscape, from Winter Hill right across to the redlights atop Beetham Tower. It struck me that Greater Manchester and the moors of Lancashire in my relative backyard have never looked so beautiful to me. I felt connected to my homeland, and that was the work of winter.

Walking onward, the world woke up and I started encountering people – some walking excitable dogs, some clearing driveways and de-icing cars while kids built snowmen and played around with sledges. Little birds bounced around the frosty branches overhanging the footpaths and all the familiar roads looked so picturesque and clean coated with snow. So much for death and dreariness – there’s life, energy and pleasure in winter.

I’ve made peace with the season and had a profound moment the past week that helps me appreciate home all the more before I head off to foreign climes (and those climes aren’t much warmer than Northern England right now). I’m now going to head out for a walk in the snow and enjoy it while I still can. The moral of this winter’s tale, then? Acceptance; living in the moment; appreciation of natural magic and the beauty in all things; opening your mind and venturing outside of your comfort zones (though be sure that you have a hot shower and a cup of tea ready for the aftermath.)

Brrrrr, it’s so pretty…

There's Winter Hill in, erm, winter...

There’s Winter Hill in, erm, winter…