A response to: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars…” – Oscar Wilde.

The Gutter was real, but Stars were my muse;
In the Gutter I dwelled, bored but patient.
My time would come through a fear not to lose
The chance to ‘make good’, and plans were hastened.

My first tracks were slow, but others drove me
To the Stars I aimed, through charm and appeal.
My flight was clear for those below to see,
But to them I was blind; they were concealed.

On my bold journey, I never thought twice.
Exhausted yet encouraged, I went on.
Some travelled fast while others dropped like flies.
Kin watched with pride, till the voyage was done.

Among the Stars, I consumed my reward;
For it is where I’d always longed to be.
And yet what I can no longer afford;
The lure of the Gutter, that I now see.

The Stars sparkle still, ever compelling,
Yet I can’t help but ponder my descent.
Perhaps I should return to star-gazing,
Past versus future, confuses present.


Work for a taste of the local

Published by THE METRO

Are you willing to toil for a few hours a day in fantastic surroundings for board and fine food? Then meet the Help Exchange.

Main feature

For better or for worse, this is a sight you’d find trouble hearing of in any guide book of Italy: deep in its northern region of Emilia-Romagna, a narrow road splits an idyllic valley, lined with corn fields, grapevines and fruit trees. Where the road disappears into the distance, the Apennines stretch across the skyline. On the hilltop sits the sleepy medieval village of Dozza. There are no herds of tourist groups, no sticky airport shuttle buses and no squeaky suitcases-on-wheels. After all, the nearest bus stop stands outside a small cafĂ© at the end of the road, a 15 minute bike ride away from the village.

But, like anywhere in the world, there is work to be done. Carrying a bundle of hay on a rusty rake towards the cow shed on a small farm, I understand that I must earn the privileges of staying here in sweat – which I produce my fair share of in a consistent 37-degree climate. Though in exchange for working five hours per day, I am rewarded with food, shelter, and the pleasure of living as a local for next to nothing – thanks to the innovative ‘Help Exchange’ scheme which connects travellers and locals, or ‘helpers’ and ‘hosts’, around the world.

There are a few of us ‘helpers’ here on the farm; behind me is Gus, who’s carting a wheelbarrow full of vine leaves en route to the goat pen. Elsewhere, Vanessa is preparing dinner, and Margo is washing the vegetables she picked earlier from the garden. Steven is cutting the grass further up the hill, while Kyle weeds around the tomato plants.

We all consume the meat of the animals we feed on the farm with the fresh vegetables and herbs we pick from the garden, and it is all washed down with wine made from our hosts’ own vineyard. When we retire, we are provided with books and a computer in our comfortable en-suite ‘helper rooms’.

And with our time off, we get to explore. We sometimes take walks around the area (and occasionally get invited into local couples’ homes for prosciutto, cheese and grappa), take revitalising dips in an outdoor swimming pool just over the hill, or hop on bikes to Imola, the nearest town. Sometimes, we just stay on the farm and chat with our hosts, play with their kids, take photos, or read in the long grass.

A working holiday may sound like an oxymoronic way to spend your two weeks off during summer. Yet aside from the good company, cosy lodgings and fine cuisine, an excursion of this kind brings more significant benefits. I realise that while I will return to Britain only to continue working at my summer job, it feels like I’m experiencing something quite unique. I’ve not simply arrived in a foreign country to check in somewhere with all the customs and comforts of my own home. I feel more part of its civilisation; labouring in its fields, eating its food, interacting with its people.

Regarding safety, I was particularly confident that I would land this leap of faith on my feet, as my hosts had many reviews and references from former helpers on their online Help Exchange listing. Victoria and Davide told me that they’d accommodated helpers like me from all over the world in the four years they’ve been registered as hosts, although very few from the UK.

On the morning I am to depart, Victoria takes my photo to accompany my own page in a binded collection of helper profiles, which is bursting at its seams. They’ve kept the book since 2005, when their first helper arrived. Although I am the 110th addition to their collection, Victoria she says she never forgets a single helper. As I say my farewells to my work buddies and my host family at the end of my fortnight away, I am sad to be leaving the farm.

Most travellers would argue that there are richer ways to see and live a country than by tourist map and four-star hotel. Yet even the most ardent rambler would admit that touring a nation’s backpacker hostels – although exchanging travel tips and rounds of drinks with other like-minded nomads on the circuit can be rewarding – leaves a similar aftertaste of dissatisfaction and frustration, and the lingering awareness that you’ve only really scratched the surface of a culture and its native customs. Across all continents, the ‘Help Exchange’ scheme offers an inspiring antidote to this all-too-familiar feeling.

Side box

The Help Exchange, or ‘HelpX’, scheme has been providing the traveller with this innovative way of seeing the world since 2001, although it is only just beginning to grow in popularity here in the UK. You simply sign up as a ‘helper’, decide which country you’d like to experience a piece of or what sort of work you’d like to do, arrange a stay with a ‘host’ from the given country’s listings, and find your own way there. Types of work vary from host to host, and are described in full, but there are many such opportunities in farms, hostels, restaurants, hotels, teaching and au-pairing. In addition to the 88 hosts in Italy alone, there are hundreds more across Europe, North America and Australasia. Hosts also exist in fewer numbers in a number of countries within Asia, South America and Africa. Many farms require a minimum stay of 1-4 weeks; hostels are usually happy to accommodate helpers for a whole season, but almost everything is negotiable.

Further info

Steve arranged the stay with www.helpx.net - £18 or 20EUR for two years membership as a Premier Helper (which allows you to see the contact details for host listings in every country)

Daily flights to Bologna G Marconi (nearest airport) from London, Edinburgh and Birmingham often on offer for £5 one way, though average prices are about £30-£40 one way. Train travel from Bologna to Imola (nearest train station) was 3EUR.

Steve’s hosts also rent private rooms for paying guests, with dinner, bed, breakfast and WiFi available – contact details and further information on their website www.farmstayitaly.org


Home-coming or home-going

This poem is written for a University of Glasgow competition, the theme of which is 'Homecoming'. It struck a cord with me, as I constantly feel my relationship and sense of place in Pickering or Glasgow changing with age and experience, which is hard to pin down as life in the two locations operate at very different speeds. The contrast between the two couldn't really be much greater. I wrote the poem in pentameter and it's the first I've written for a very long time... I just hope that next time it won't take a competition to entice one.

Ang-el-ic-al-ly and men-ac-ing-ly
my train crawls be-tween a house in the fields
and a flat in the street, sea-son-al-ly
I have prob-lems know-ing which to call Home.

Home-com-ing or home-go-ing, matt-ers not
the di-rec-tion, a di-lem-ma per-sists:
long-ing for ex-clu-sive com-mun-it-y
re-mains per-pet-ual-ly out of reach.

Here chal-len-ges, re-coils from, and ig-nores
There, which tea-ses, mocks, and is blind to Here.
Their grow-ing con-trast makes it diff-i-cult
to know my-self: I’m ei-ther Us or Them.

Or is mul-ti-pli-ci-ty health-i-er
than ex-ist-ing in a sing-u-lar nest;
the poss-ib-il-it-y for se-lect-tion
is a si-tu-a-tion u-nique-ly mine.

Home-com-ing or home-go-ing, I’m not sure
I be-long to Here AND be-long to There,
as to one I’m too old and to one too new.
Or in fact am I att-ached to the two?


Diaries and Dad's Army

Apologies for the sparseness of entries recenty, but I've had some terrible luck with arranging articles recently. Over the last few weeks and months I've had some of my best ideas to date, although crucially ones which have relied on things I couldn't control (i.e. people). So alas, they remain in the proverbial pipeline, as opposed to the proverbial dustbin of history, be it as they were articles about taxi drivers, prisoners studying for degrees, and the porn industry. I won't go into detail.

With a published article not on the horizon until the summer, I'll take this window of opportunity to spill some more of my unpublished thoughts onto this blog, as I've been encouraged to do...

...and you - if there's really a 'you' - might not realise it now, but those ellipses (...) represent 5 or 10 minutes of wondering what sort of thoughts I'd feel justified in placing on a blog. I've always longed for the habit of keeping a diary, or a journal - a room in which to store some thoughts which I'd actually be interested in digging up myself when I'm older, or which could comprise an experiment with my subconscious. I'm talking about a diary which would ideally have about a dozen entries per day of things like this:

I walked to the shop to get some food for tea. En route the streets were peculiarly empty... so empty that the few strangers who walked them were acutely aware of one another on the street even when divided by some distance... what happened at that moment happens occasionally. I was walking down an empty street towards a stranger who was walking towards me. We'd both clearly and consciously made arrangements about 50 yards prior to the inevitable event of us passing one another - I took my stride slightly left, he took his right, then corrected himself so we wouldn't bump into one another. In a mathematical world we would. Anyway, because of this conscious act of indirect interaction, we were then alert to the fact that we were conscious of eachother. Thus, eye contact was awkward. I pretended to be interested in the time by looking at my watch, then through the shop windows I walk past most days, trying my best to act otherwise occupied... it was very contrived. On most occasions I'm not this over-aware or concerned when walking past strangers, as usually, I don't have to anticipate walking past them for long, or I have a predominant thought to busy myself with in ignorance of them. Walking past strangers is supposed to be unconscious. When we think about it for too long we mess it up. Just like breathing or your style of walking. Or maybe it's a question of place? In my village it wouldn't be as awkward and might lead to a conversation about dogs.

I'm not sure if anyone else would ever ever think or act like this. It would perhaps comprise a decent piece of characterisation and nicely fit into my common themes of divides between strangers and human beings... But nevertheless, if I wrote things like this in a potential diary I'd be writing in it all the time, which wouldn't be economical. Yet I'm certainly that some interesting thoughts and observations, ones which I want to hold on to, will be lost if I don't document them somehow. I keep a journal every time I go travelling, so why not in everyday life?

Here are some ideas I've been having to write up into the format of 4 plays, like with 'Small Talk', an avenue for some sort of surrealist social commentary with a comedic potential...

1) A sort of 'Dad's Army' or 'Blackadder' take on suicide bombers. Featuring all the usual loveable characters, witty dialogue and slapstick scenes and a studio audience on stage laughing along. Turning the tables on the war comedy genre.

2) Working-class snobbery. From experience, the working classes can be just as ignorant as the upper classes.

3) The fickleness of human rivalry. Pickering v Scarborough easily becomes Pickering-Scarborough v York easily becomes North Yorkshire v West Yorkshire easily becomes Yorkshire v Lancashire easily becomes North v South easily becomes England v France easily becomes Europe v America easily becomes Earth v Mars...?

Anyway, to conclude, I've rarely been this frank on this blog before - perhaps someone could give me a thumbs up or thumbs down, or am I deceiving myself that people are actually reading this?