82/365 Procrastination and its flirtatious younger sibling Displacement

I’ve not written for ages. I’ve not had enough head-space. It’s been taken up with daydreaming about a different creative medium: video.

Over the past few weeks (ever since my visit to Kathmandu), I’ve been conjuring and concocting all sorts of different visualisations.

That process has been incredibly invigorating. It has been as though someone has unlocked a door to a room in our house which for years I’d forgotten we even had.

On the other side of the door is a freshly decorated room, with a bed covered in cotton sheets, and a big Georgian window through which strong warm sun is shining. This room is the kind of rediscovery that makes my eyes widen.

Day after day I’ve coldly passed-by the room I’d previously been occupying (the space in my head I usually visit when I write) in favour of my recently rediscovered playroom on the top floor. Sometimes run to that new room. Sometimes I realise I haven’t even left it. There are even moments when I think I’d quite like to stay here for as long as I possibly can.

Writing has been passed over in favour of video.

If I step back momentarily into that writing room what I find is a little disappointing.

The room is cold and dusty. The bulb has blown in the overhead light, and it appears that someone has popped whilst I’ve not been here and taken the desk light. They’ve returned the light, but haven’t bothered to plug it back in again. They just left it on the desk. They thought I won’t notice they’d borrowed it. But I do. “Well,” they’d said if I mentioned it over breakfast, “you weren’t using it.”

Piles of books have been left on the floor. Now they wait to be put away on the oak shelves that line the walls of the room. Everything looks rather unloved, perhaps even dispensed with.

This sometimes happens. I can go weeks or months without even realising I haven’t written anything. There a few stages in my growing realisation. First I’ll not notice anything has changed except for a strange nagging feeling. Then when I start to put two and two together, I’ll wonder how it was I hadn’t noticed something had changed sooner. Only then will I try to work out what happened to stop me from writing in the first place.

My diary — a journal I’ve kept since I was a teenager — is littered with gaps in time. The longest leap is twelve months. Most are between weeks and a couple of months.

When I return to the writing its always with a sense of disappointment. Probably a bit of guilt. Expectations loom large. Writing becomes rather difficult all of a sudden.

But soon after I’ve got cracking, I’ll quickly realise that the writing process isn’t anywhere near as onerous to get started as I’d tricked myself into thinking in the intervening weeks or months. Then the inevitable: why didn’t I do this before now?

Procrastination and its younger more flirtatious sibling Displacement are the unhelpful habits at play here.

It’s no surprise really that video has taken over my thinking in recent weeks. It’s more colourful. It’s more immediate. The different effects don’t need to be described in words in order to conjur up a feeling, the visuals trigger the emotions themselves. Suddenly, words get in the way.

Video promises a quicker kind of gratification. Importantly, it’s also a kind of storytelling which is more manageable. Great long passages of rambling prose risk putting the reader off. Video insists on succinctness.

If writing were a person then that person appears to me right now as a little huffy. It’s pleased I’m back but its not going to let me get off lightly.

The irony is that writing demands constant, regular attention. It requires routine. Yet that very routine is susceptible to distraction, especially that which delivers a faster and quicker kind of gratification.

It’s difficult to know how to reconcile the two, or indeed whether they even need to be. I don’t know what is the best way to strike a happy balance.

At least, I don’t know yet.

72/365 Kids in Kathmandu

Children and teenagers are different here in Kathmandu.

Some sit on walls looking out on the world with adult eyes. Others busy themselves with adult work maintaining a childlike curiosity on their faces. Both sights are compelling.

There is no undercurrent of aggression, no surly teenagers hanging around street corners. You’d just as likely ask an adult the way to a restaurant you can’t find, as you’d approach a kid with the same question. An odd thing for a Londoner.

A lot of what I say comes from me falling back on non-verbal communication this week. I rely on it whenever I feel apologetic about my presence in a particular country. That comes from being British.

The more time I’ve spent here in Kathmandu, the more I’ve recognised how there’s a basic humility in everyone, young or old. It’s a world away from my experience. It’s as though the human spirit is easier to find here.

I think things clicked for me after I’d visited a couple of schools and homes for disabled children. This week I’ve come into contact with somewhere in the region of 160 disabled children, and a variety of different conditions.

I’ve learnt more about disability in the past seven days than I ever have. More on that a little bit later in this post. 

In a lot of cases, orthodox methods of communication aren’t an option. Smiles turn out to be the only reliable currency. And they come in spades too. And it’s heart-warming. Because as soon as you start communicating with your eyes or with a smile, then suddenly everyone regardless of their age is a human being.

What those disabled and disadvantaged children don’t realise when they’re smiling at you is the effortless way they’re forcing you to reflect on yourself. In every interaction you’re battling with your own thoughts and feelings. What’s the right way to interact? How can I help? What’s the most valuable way to help? Care? Encouragement? Assistance?

One school here — one I can only describe as progressive — does something startling. It takes the assumption we all secretly still have about severely disabled individuals and turns it on its head. It challenges the assumption that ‘nothing can be done for them’ and endeavours to help them help themselves.

It chooses the hard path, painstakingly training those with severe motor problems to do the things the rest of us would assume they will never be able to do. Clenched fists aren’t unusable. People who can’t walk can, after 6 months of intensive physiotherapy, gingerly make their first steps, and its a joy to witness.

Other therapists in other homes I’ve visited have demonstrated equally remarkable things. Mute children can, fuelled by love and patience, be encouraged to make sounds and, over time, say words. And when they do they make the rest of us snivel. Teenagers who maybe overlooked because their families can’t integrate their challenged child into the day to day life, are given a helping hand and an education.

One such kid came up to me asking my name.

“Jon,” I replied.

“What’s your surname?”

“Jacob.” “Jon Jacob. That’s a great name.”

Only one other person has ever said that to me. Sandi Toksvig. On-air.

Elsewhere this week I’ve seen determination of an entirely kind than I’ve ever seen before. On my first day here I saw a boy with motor problems fitting his own prosthetic legs after which he tried to clamber in the back of the minibus we were using for a journey we were making. He didn’t quite make it unaided. I’m in no doubt he’ll manage it next time. He’s that kind of individual. You can see the determination in his eyes.

Later in the week I watched another young boy with a clenched fist struggle but succeed to complete an alphabet jigsaw. There was no pressure on him to achieve. There wasn’t any impatience from me either (surprisingly). I held off from helping him, using willpower alone to encourage him. It was a magical moment. Precious.

And, yesterday, I walked through a gate opened by a disabled boy who had been appointed as the school’s security guard. Not only was he being given a task which maintained his attention and movement, but it also taught him the importance of responsibility. I struggled to lock the gate behind me. He lunged towards me attending to the latch with a warm smile that made me feel like a complete fool. Good for him.

Such projects as these are, inevitably, going to be littered with such stories. And when you’re thousands of miles away from home, they’re bound to tug at the heart strings more. Perhaps in our charmed UK life we’re siloed. Not so here. Everyone’s on the streets. Earning their living. Keeping alive.

What amazes me most is how it took me coming this far to learn about something which I really ought to have known about already: how disabilities occur, and how they’re overcome. Instead, what I know of is the story that is written about disability within a diversity narrative: equality, targets, and representation.

These are all important, of course, but they skew things unhelpfully. If we were to educate and empower might the narrative change?

67/365 Filming in Kathmandu

The past 48 hours have been a whirlwind.

Heathrow on Thursday night, Qatar early on Friday morning, and Kathmandu late afternoon the same day.

The morning after arrival at the hotel I’m staying at, a meeting to discuss the week’s filming for the video I’m producing for a charity supporting disabled children out here. The plan includes six interviews, a day out of Kathmandu visiting families in an outlying village, plus a few tourist visits for a few colourful inserts into the final product.

In unfamiliar circumstances my heart can race. At those times I suspect it’s the lack of a plan which sends me a little awry. Once we’d got the week ahead mapped out I suddenly felt a little calmer and then eager to get cracking.

The first shoot was at a local care home for disabled children. I found it an emotionally challenging experience.

Bright eyes, wide smiles and an unequivocally welcoming atmosphere made it appear as though any disabilities the children had were to them incidental to their main priority, enjoying life.

On at least two occasions — one when a young girl was persuaded by her ‘brothers and sisters’ at the home to sing ‘her song’ — I had to turn away from the camera. Utterly beautiful. Utterly heartbreaking.

What lingered the most was one club-footed teenager coming up to me after the filming was complete and putting his arm around me. He smiled at me and thanked me for coming to his home. I complimented him on his English. I learnt later that he arrived at the home following a psychotic episode that occurred after he was caught up in the Nepali earthquake in 2015. Untreated for months, he was in a poor way when he arrived at the home. Nearly two years later he appeared to be back on track.

In situations like these interactions with other human beings are primarily based on non-verbal communications. Sparkling eyes and warm smiles are a distraction from the plight which surrounds you here. Such interactions hold up a mirror to my own inadequacies as a human being, at the same time as reminding me how ridiculously helpless I feel. The generosity of spirit forms an unshakeable lump in the throat.

Yesterday’s interview (Saturday) went well — short but beautifully lit (see image above). It amazes me how a small amount of light cast onto a subject and his/her surrounding can transform things.

I’m reminded of how spoilt I am when interviewing contributors at the BBC. There, interviewees have been media trained, understand instinctively how long a response needs to be, and make allowances for poorly phrased or garbled questions. I need to slow, simplify and pre-brief a lot more here.

Today we’re back to the care home to get some slow motion shots of the kids playing football and throwing paint dye (more on that story in a later post), and this afternoon to time-lapse a massive temple in Kathmandu.

65/365 Lights, stands and a kettle

Of all the things I’ve ended up buying for the Nepal trip at the end of this week, my new travel kettle may well turn out to be the thing which brings me the most joy.

The cups that come with the Cookworks Travel Kettle are utterly ridiculous, a guaranteed way of sending any serious tea drinker around the bend. I’ll take a mug with me instead.

But why the joy from something so painfully bland? I adore the simplicity of the kettle. I like the way it promises to reassure me if things appear a little weird. I love its sturdiness too. It’s a tea-drinker’s teddy bear.

Today marks the last of the purchases too. I’ve received the second of the Bestlight LED lights, so too the backdrop stands which will double up as light stands. A couple of battery chargers, plus some extra alkaline batteries should be a reassuring backup on those days when we’re heading out of Kathmandu.

I’d normally hire all of this stuff from work, lug it into a taxi, set it up in a hurry and take it back again so as to avoid an extended hire charge.

Now, at a fraction of the cost I’ve invested in my own kit- the camera stabiliser, slider, backdrop stands and lights the total cost is £100. Now it feels all the more real — something I really do. Something I can return to time after time in the future, experiment with different ideas as and when I want to.

I laid out all the gear on the spare bed in the guest room tonight. I felt a weird crackle of excitement when I look at it. I can’t wait to use it all, to see — hopefully — the subtle differences it will make to the finished product.

An unexpected thought emerges from all of this too.

I come from a family of photographers and videographers. My father and his brother set up a photography business in the town where I came from. Both worked for the fledgling independent television station, Anglia TV, my Dad as a ‘stringer’ cameraman, my uncle full-time for the organisation (he trained one of the BBC’s now regional news anchors).

Photography and videography was part of my upbringing I now realise. God only knows why its taken me so long to realise.

So, what changed? The opportunity to do a degree in something I wanted do — Music and History — took me away from that which I’d known as a kid. I passed up the opportunity to work in the family business. Pursued my own path. Struggled a bit (at least, in my head).

Now, thirty years later, I’m buying the basic equipment my Dad had lying around the place when I was a kid. It’s only now I’m excited by the prospect of using that kit. It feels like I’ve come home.

61/365 An Unexpected Delivery

I’ve bought some new equipment for my filming trip in Nepal next week. It arrived this morning. I was expecting it to arrive on Monday.

Up until the moment the man from Royal Mail tapped on the front door with my purchases, I was feeling quite anxious about the trip.

After I’d thanked him profusely, shut the front door and removed the camera stabiliser and tripod-mounted slider from the packaging I began to get a little excited. Never before has the prospect of being able to create smooth-moving hand-held shots filled me with quite so much joy.

Cost-Effective Camera Stabilizer

The stabiliser is at the cheaper end of the market, it has to be said. The counterweights which come with it are just enough for using a point and shoot camera, but using my old DSLR will demand the purchase of 800g of additional weights (around £20).

Judging by some articles like this one on the internet I suspect it will take a little bit of practise to master the technique. But that’s just fine. I like learning when there’s a impending deadline. We all need a little pressure to achieve.

Manual Slider

Since signing-up to an iPhone 7 Plus and fiddling around with my first time-lapse videos, I’ve got obsessed with whizz-bang sequences like time-lapse. They’re mesmerising things, condensing moments we wouldn’t otherwise take any notice of. I see an unorthodox beauty in those frenetic snapshots.

Like the stabiliser, manual time-lapse sequences take some practise. I like that. The automation the devices in our pockets tempt us with denies us creative joy. I don’t especially want to reinvent the wheel, but I would like to take a little time to understand what’s involved in the process, opening up more creative possibilities when I end up in different settings.

The pay-off with a manual slider (as opposed to an automated one) is that I have to gently nudge the camera on each half-centimetre as opposed to a motor doing it for me. No matter. There’s pleasure to be derived from manually investing in the process, I think: the promise of a job well and truly done.

With these two physical devices next week’s trip has been transformed into a tantalising opportunity. I cannot wait.