Picture this.

[Author’s note: I’m publishing this post almost simultaneously with a subsequent one because I had both stored up as drafts in my paper notebook, but hadn’t had sufficient “get-up-and-go” to publish them until now. This was written a few days ago, and it doesn’t quite fit my current mood – the accompanying post does. However, I felt that this one was sufficiently time-specific to need publishing pretty sharpish.

Trigger warning: mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder.]


I’m writing this post with Blondie‘s ‘Picture This‘ playing on repeat in my head.

The copy of the song that I hear on my mental jukebox is the one on the secondhand vinyl LP copy of Parallel Lines that I bought during my second year of university. Scratched in parts, though not sufficiently damaged for the needle to jump. I can hear the particular qualities of my specific vinyl copy, with its fuzzy warmth and minor quirks, gently filtering the instrumentation and Debbie Harry’s vocals.

It’s in my mind because I had a documentary about the making of Parallel Lines running on the television as a soundtrack (preceded, no less, by a selection of 80s hip hop classics) to my reorganising of my CD collection following a redecoration.

But the documentary evoked so much more than simply the sound of the song.

I am at the opposite end of the visualisation abilities scale from someone with aphantasia. My visual imagination – nay, my three-dimensional, multisensory imagination – is piercingly acute, and at times seemingly all-encompassing. It can be as if I’m experiencing parallel worlds, alternate realities, or times long past, but not actually in parallel; one world is overlaid upon another. I experience both simultaneously.

I suppose it’s something like being a cyborg, a networked human, a ‘ghost in the shell‘. Simultaneously processing both what’s in front of me and also another, different but no less potent reality that exists, and is experienced, in a different portion of my mind.

Over a year ago, I was walking my daughter to preschool. It was late spring. Something about the quality of the crisp spring air, the golden glow of the sun still low and yet bright in the sky, the cold-warm piecing blue of the sky, led me back to an early-morning walk along the seafront of Thessaloniki, Greece at the start of February, 2011. I was both there, and walking my daughter to preschool. Both realities existed, there and in that moment.

Sometimes, the recollected worlds that overlay my present-day, real-time world are far less pleasant. For several years after breaking up with an emotionally and financially abusive previous partner, there were times when I really, honest-to-goodness, lived back in that council flat. The terracotta walls of the living room. The overly firm, overly shallow, institution-blue council issue sofa. The clunk of the door to the controls of the enormous floor-standing combi boiler. Clothes soaking in the bath for want of a washing machine. The cloying stink from the rubbish chute. The nightly whirr of the police helicopter in the sky above the estate, and the constant undercurrent of fear.

Those flashbacks often brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I was there. Again.

This evening, I went for a long walk. It grew dark as I paced the streets, ‘Picture This’ playing over and over. I bought Parallel Lines not long before the beginning of my biggest ever depressive episode. And it’s sad to think that so much of the music I love was purchased at a time when I was so sad. As I walked, I was back in my ground floor student bedroom, the living room of a terraced house poorly converted into sleeping and study space. The lime-green throw on my bed. Threadbare carpet.

I was so lost, back then.

Towards the end of my walk I passed through one of the local “student villages”. And although my own first-year flat was nothing like as luxurious, something about the landscaping, the carefully laid out paths and highly geometric medium-rise accommodation blocks, brought back the pleasant, sweet-sour smell of the glue on university prospectuses; the weight of each of those thick, wide, rectangular tomes, and the sheen of their covers.

It’s August, after all. All across the country, many will be preparing to leave home for the first time, with or without their anticipated A-level grades, whether or not to their original educational establishment of choice. I remember that feeling of anticipation. The anxious wait for something new. Something that just had to be better than what I’d experienced in life so far.

And I felt angry. I so often do these days. And desperately sad. Because whilst my life has, in many ways, been a good life, so much has not been the way it could, or should, have been. And whilst regrets are a waste of time and energy, I can’t help but grieve for lost opportunities, potential not reached, support neither given nor received.

Since my last post and the resulting comments, and after reading another author’s subsequent blog that references it, I’ve been thinking wistfully about my education. My years lacking in confidence. My years of self-doubt and shaky self-identity. And I think to myself: I wish it hadn’t always been so bloody hard.

I wish I’d known who I truly was far earlier in life. I wish I’d known far earlier in life that it was okay to be me, and to be the way I am.

My night-time walk, like so many before it, took me along streets lined with tall, mature trees. Occasional flashes of bright, vivid green leaves picked up by streetlights directly overhead. Noises from houses. My own footsteps, the sound of my breath, and the slight feeling of strain at my hip joints. My need to move my arms vigorously, coupled with a nervousness about doing so in a public place, no matter how late the hour or how empty the street.

Every time I must take myself out of the house for a walk, I am reminded of those countless other occasions just like this one. The worlds of those other space-catching, breath-catching walks layer and layer over my present world. Not all of them are distinct memories, of course, but the sense I get from each one is played out time and time again.

My walks sometimes clear my mind. Sometimes, they fill it. They may soothe my tingling, fizzing body’s need for “something” other than an indoor environment. And they may ease my pain in some ways, whilst also making more acute that other, remembered pain.

And as ‘Picture This’ plays over and over in my head, I’m reminded of just how often I’ve striven, and struggled, to find myself somewhere on those tree-lined streets.


[Featured image description: grainy, heavily filtered (blue end of colour spectrum) photo of a set of mostly-empty CD shelves, with piles of CDs stacked immediately in front of them, awaiting sorting and re-shelving.]

A world both grand and small: the beauty of Brambly Hedge

My childhood was one filled with books. In my spare time, I was usually found doing one of two things: drawing, or reading. My parents don’t remember teaching me to read; I just did it. And from an early age, my world, my life, and my head were all filled with stories.

I had various favourites over the years, but there was one series in particular that especially captured my imagination, and whose appeal outlasted many others: the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem.

This was, a series of gently-evocative stories centred on a close-knit, rural community of mice. One story each for every season of the year, with a handful of additional tales; the Hedge’s customs, traditions, feast days, and way of life documented in a descriptive style that was both reassuring and exciting to me.

Part of the appeal, for me, was the rural setting. I grew up in a village, and – when not reading or drawing – was often out paddling in streams, climbing trees, or picking blackberries, just like many of the inhabitants of Brambly Hedge. I loved the outdoors, and the countryside, and felt an affinity with this world.

And the illustrations. Oh, the illustrations. Delicious Victorian-esque period detail. Tantalising depictions of cakes, pies, puddings and other delicacies. Perfect capture of the flora of the Hedge; each plant, flower, or fruit instantly recognisable. The essence of both the grand and the everyday. An entire world captured visually on a scale that was at the same time both immense and minute. Brambly Hedge was presented to me in such glorious, beautiful intricacy that I felt fully immersed in this world-in-miniature. Captivating artwork, at the same time both full of detail and full of heart and soul.

My parents thought highly of this series, and kept hold of our volumes – all hardback, some a little tatty with their dust-jackets missing, but otherwise cherished and taken good care of; far more so than many of our other books. These stories were well-loved, but they were also precious to my brother and me. And it was such a joy to me when my mum brought them out for me to begin reading to my daughter. And they have captured her imagination too.

Yesterday evening, my hyperlexic four-year-old (she was reading fluently at two-and-a-half) had chosen The Secret Staircase as her bedtime story. She has chosen it many times before. As always, she repeatedly interjected and interrupted my narration, journeying off on her own verbal flights of fancy inspired by the words, or eager to stop and examine an illustration close-up, for a little while longer, before turning the page. And though it was bedtime, and my daughter needs time to become calm and settle herself before sleep, such was my love of this story that I was bloody well encouraging her.

I’ve always been preoccupied with patterns, networks, and connections. I have, at various points in my life, created my own imaginary worlds as a way to entertain myself. And the layout – the topography, the landscape, the floor plans of buildings – have always been a hugely important aspect of this visualisation. I always have to make the physics, geometry, and geography of an imagined place “work in my head”. This can become quite an obsession at times.

It’s hard to convey the wonder of Barklem’s illustrations, and I don’t want to reproduce the images here without permission (but take a look round Pinterest, and you can find thousands – these books are clearly a passion for many). But one of the most magical, wonderful features of the Brambly Hedge books is the use of “cross-sections” through the trees, hills, and burrows that the mice use for their homes. A slice through Dusty Dogwood‘s flour mill, the Store Stump, or Crabapple Cottage, depicting the layout of the rooms, staircases, stores, entrances and exits – rather like a woodland doll’s house opened up for play, only ever more intricate.

And one of the things I loved to do as a young girl was to “cross-reference” the images – examining a particular room in a large cross-section image from one book, and then going to off to try and find a larger, close-up depiction of the same room in another volume. I never had one, but I would have loved to have seen a map of the entire Brambly Hedge landscape; nevertheless, the interconnectedness of the images allowed me to damn near conjure this up for myself, in my own mind’s eye. In this way, Brambly Hedge appealed to my holistic-yet-drilled-down, helicopter/magnifying-glass, “pattern” way of looking at the world.

And this evening I found myself doing it again – ignoring the need to calm things down and bring my daughter back to earth in time for bed, because on seeing one glorious cross-section of Old Oak Palace yet again, the need to go hunting for close-up images of its rooms in the other books was too exciting for me to ignore.

And my daughter gets carried away with it all too. At weekends, when we’re out in one of our favourite parks (which we have to do at least once every weekend – familiarity is important to my little girl), the beautiful mature deciduous trees become the homes of her own community of mice. We pretend to shrink down to mouse-size so we can join them for acorn coffee and a slice of cake. We make-believe our attendance at mouse birthday parties and mouse afternoon teas.

These stories – both words and pictures – fulfil a need for my daughter and me to think simultaneously big and small.

Other books similarly quench this thirst.

For my daughter, Sadie the Airmail Pilot, by Kellie Strøm – though vastly different in its illustration style from the homeliness of Brambly Hedge – is similarly evocative in its highly intricate, complex and detailed illustrations of transport hubs, cityscapes, and diverse weather systems and habitats around the world.

For me, the written descriptions of structures, buildings and landscapes in megascale in the science fiction novels of Iain (M) Banks serve a similar purpose; as do any fantasy or SF novels in which worlds are mapped out (I have to say, however, that I probably like the idea of Middle-Earth more than I actually like Tolkien‘s writing).

But Brambly Hedge was my first love.

I’ve realised there are a couple of books in the series that we don’t yet own. And I must seek them out, for my own enjoyment as much as that of my daughter. Revisiting these stories after so many years feels like coming home. And being able to share these stories with my little girl, and to see how they fill her with such enthusiasm, excitement, and inspiration, is, to me, the most comforting and yet utterly magical thing.