What’s the point?

Events like food can take some digesting. The urban sketchers symposium in Manchester was exciting, tiring, disappointing, and inspirational. (More on this later).That was last week. Now I’m beginning to appreciate it in from a calmer, well-fed perspective.



I saw a lot of very beautiful sketchbooks, each page skilfully drawn, coloured and often annotated. Part of me wants my own sketchbooks to look so perfect and impressive, but then part of me reacts against that constraint. Sketchbooks of artists’ as opposed to ‘sketchers’ have a different purpose. They are not in themselves the ‘art’ but underpin it, sometimes detailed, sometimes minimal, and often messy, explorative.

What’s the point of my sketchbooks then? I enjoyed being challenged  by Marina Grechanik who asked us ‘why are you drawing this?’ in her workshop.

Is there a story I want to tell? Something I want to point out? Or am I just drawing whatever is in front of me? Am I making a visual diary? Is each page part of a longer narrative or a self contained instant? Am I going to use the sketches in some way?

Does it have to have a point at all? Isn’t it about looking at the world from new perspectives, learning to see? Learning a new skill?

So far I can list the personal benefits of sketching. It’s absorbing, in the moment, challenging, and creative. It makes me look at my environment rather than glide through it inattentively. It can often be fun. It brings me into contact with a large and varied group of people and has been the starting point of some lovely friendships.

It provokes lots of thoughts connecting different aspects of my life – hence this blog. It challenges me to do more, in different ways, to develop and grow rather than recycle what I can already do and know – so life affirming!

But despite this impressive list, I do still come back to the ‘what’s the point?” question. The idea that urban sketching could make some contribution to the community still hovers around. I admire Len Grant’s sketches of food bank users in Manchester, for example, or Richard Johnson’s sketches and conversations with the homeless. The urban environment shapes so many lives. Looking at it critically, sketching it, can make visible  the people and things that often get ignored.

I was disappointed not to be able to get to the ‘ Loitering with Intent” exhibition at the Public History Museum  whilst in Manchester. Here are a group of people discovering the urban environment through walking together, noticing CCTV cameras, ‘no entry’ signs, the fences and obstructions that control movement in the city, demolition and construction. Finding the history as they walk and realising what has been lost and found as they go along. How fascinating to link urban sketching into this sort of project!






Conducting the group



The large group is a particular species in group analytic terms, and personally I have shied away from it. But last weekend I was one of 850 people singing in the park in Bath, raising money for WaterAid – a completely new venture for me and definitely a sign that changing environments has a profound effect!

I’ve not done anything like this before, and I was amazed at the difference the conductor could make to the singing. We had 5 different singer/songwriters conducting their own songs so it was a good opportunity to contrast and compare. All were smiley and encouraging, but……

What is the ‘but’ ? At one stage I felt that the conductor was frustrated that we weren’t performing ‘her song’ quite as she wished, and in response I felt I didn’t like the song very much. It’s that childhood experience of encountering a teacher who is disappointed in you, and feeling that you are not good at whatever subject they are teaching. Chemistry, for example.

One conductor I felt seemed tired somewhere deep in herself, beneath the warm and nurturing surface, and I felt concerned, a little anxious, whereas there were others who seemed calm, alive and very much in dialogue with this unwieldy gang of 850. This of course may turn out to be all about me and my projections! However, as a great believer in unconscious communication, I’m not going to dismiss it, especially as it reminded me so much of group facilitating.

Calling it ‘conducting’ has gone out of fashion in some circles, but in my supervision I often find it such a helpful word. In the choir, the conductor at different moments emphasised, drew out, calmed down, provoked, encouraged the different voices so that together they created a rich and balanced sound. The parallel is clear I think! Add to that their ability to be personable – to incorporate their skills, techniques, talents with their own unique style and identity – and you have a great facilitator!

Of course, the relationship between choir member and a conductor that you meet once or twice is very different from that that develops between a therapy group member and the facilitator. Expectations, commitments, the long-term revealing and working with rational patterns – all very different, but there is some common ground, I believe. Few group facilitators are waving their arms, swaying, clapping, and pointing; but the ways in which they use their voice, body, facial expressions, the way they communicate warmth, displeasure, approval, enjoyment, frustration – these all very much part of conducting a therapy group.

My brief experience at the weekend as a group member reminded me how powerful this could be. I felt quite differently with each conductor. At best I felt open, light hearted, alive and enjoying the task. I would describe this as being contained- clear boundaries, clear signals, and challenged – let’s try that again – within a relationship that felt mutually creative. There was familiar ambiguity about control and authority. I was being told what to do by someone who I felt was fully aware that I could choose to wander off whenever I wanted. Power sharing ! However bossy I might be as a group facilitator, I know I have absolutely no power other than that given me by a fragile consensus in the group.

I started off writing about an experience that felt like new territory and have ended back on familiar ground. Being able to hold together the old and the new seems like a good way to proceed, and not only in psychotherapy.

Thinking, printing, & sketching



Thinking is not easy, I’ve been thinking. But on my own, the thought stops there. If I search out a book about thinking, trawl the internet for relevant articles, then it might get further. But what really gets me thinking is talking about it with other people.

There have been many gains from moving house and area, but there are things I have lost that I am still trying to find again in this new setting. I miss the conversations about ideas, thinking aloud with other people that were a part of my psychotherapy world. Talking with an old friend and psychoanalytic psychotherapist who came to visit, I realised just how much I enjoyed that process of shared exploration; how we nudged each other into new pathways and expanded what it was that could be thought. And my experiences of thinking in groups were even more challenging and productive, and I remember the buzzing, fizzing energy that seemed to fill my head afterwards.

Next day I went to visit some of the nearby Open Studios nearby with some ‘new friends’, and suddenly the fizz came back! Here was the visual equivalent of thinking together in a group. We were sharing the experience of encountering some stimulating (thought provoking) art, and the interplay of our individual responses expanded what could be felt and seen. Part of the magic is that mixture of common ground – shared cultural references, for example, and unique appreciations that come from our distinct experiences and inner landscapes. The other factor, of course, was the art and the artist – the stimulus that initiated the process, itself the product of a complex interbreeding of cultural backgrounds, individual experience and imagination. Clare Bassett, step forward!

Interestingly, the other artist I was really drawn to (!) was in fact a collective, Pine Feroda, who discuss the group effect in this lovely video clip.

So as always I come back to the group. As for sketching, it goes without saying that drawing in a group has all that fizzing quality too, sharing views, vision, techniques and kit. On that note, I’m off to join up with the Bristol urban sketchers for the first time, in Bath. More to follow … meanwhile some sketches  below from another sort of group – a twitter hashtag, drawing together many and varied sketchers each month,  and at the top of the page, my first ever screen print done with at group at the Gloucestershire Printmaking  Co-operative.

No Pain, No Gain?

Personal and professional development is a big issue in the psychotherapy world. My professional organisations (BACP: UKCP: UPCA) all demand that I engage in the stuff called ‘continuing professional development’ with the personal bit assumed to be somehow incorporated or concomitant. However, having written a book on this subject I think I am on firm ground when I say the definitions of development are somewhat sloppy. Is change the same as development?

I’m thinking about this now for two main reasons. The major push comes from agreeing to write a book chapter on the subject. Out of the fog of procrastination, some embryonic thoughts are emerging. The other impetus comes from having moved from the Midlands to the South West. The change in environment and circumstance has had a big impact on me ‘personally’ – but have I ‘developed’?

fox lodge

I think I have been freed up to experience what is around me in a new way. Of course it is unfamiliar and exciting, and perhaps in time it will all become taken for granted – but I don’t think so. It reminds me of holidays in beautiful places, where you get up every morning and are bowled over by the view; but now there is no going home – I live here! Unlike a holiday I now have the opportunity to appreciate a beautiful physical environment over a long period of time. Right now this is still difficult to grasp, whilst at the same time I feel I have a significant relationship with the place already.

Our relationship with place is something that I have been exploring here in the blog before. I see now that my proclamation of love for the boatyard was just a foretaste of what was to come. With this positive and very visceral relationship with the physical environment I feel that I am moving into new territory. If this had been an outcome of therapy, I’d call it a great success.

A great success but also a great challenge. The moving process itself was riddled with anxiety and shock, and despite the enormous gains there were many losses. It challenged me in all sorts of ways, and that, I am sure, has got to be a part of the process of development. It has to be more than reading the book and doing the ‘self reflection exercises’ that are now in every psychotherapy book I come across!

In just the same way my sketching is unlikely to develop without something toppling me off of the current plateau and making me struggle.

sketchstroud1                window 1

sketchstroud3          blckbooks

It’s taken a while to get it going again after moving house, but it’s back on track – a track that will probably be ploughed up in the summer when I attend the Urban Sketchers international symposium in Manchester. Tickets sold out within 4 minutes of going online, so even the process of booking was a challenge. I’m thinking that the workshops will demand far more, shaking me free from my comfort zones but holding out the possibility of seeing more of the world than I can at present.

There is, it seems to me, no way of avoiding feeling useless, confused, upset, de-skilled, off balance –  if any new personal learning is to take place. I think this should be part of the definition!










A sense of place – falling in love with a boatyard

What makes somewhere feel comfortable? Why do we feel at home in certain places, and out of sorts in others? We can fall in love with places just as well as with people, and some of the processes are the same, I think.

I’ve been thinking about this, both as part of the ‘Home’ project that  Jo Roberts and I are working on, and through reading more about psychogeography . But the major impetus comes from a recent encounter with a boat yard. I’m involved, in a small way, with the restoration of a narrowboat, and have spent a few weekends sanding, scraping and sketching near Saul Junction, on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

There I am surrounded by boats of all sorts in various stages between construction and disintegration; rows of engines, from shiny to rusted beyond use; planks, cans, tools, ropes, gangways, drums, rags; an amazing jumble of ‘stuff ‘– in ordered piles or collapsing heaps where nettles and oil have reached a stand off. IMG_0018

This is a land of projects, overseen by an enormous crane routinely swinging a boat or an engine overhead. The most visible projects include the ‘pirate café’, rising to daring heights on the base of a river boat, with a life-size pirate at the helm and the ice cream refrigerator leading the way below decks; a former RNLI lifeboat, now being repainted in ‘rescue orange’: the restoration of various elderly narrowboats, motor cruisers, and something that looks to me like a small trawler.


Then there are the less visible – boats shrouded in plastic, mysterious tents under which men disappear for hours, or the business of boatbuilding itself in large industrial sheds.; and all around, the routine maintenance of canal life – hull surveys, jet washing, and blacking boat bottoms . It took me a while to realise that the plastic garden chairs with sawn down legs, spattered in bitumen, were a vital part of the action!

At first sight it appears unruly, unkempt and chaotic, but no – there are men who know what is happening in every corner, who are chatting with owners, assessing damage, planning repairs, organising, advising, bantering. They are the business, these men who know about engines, gearboxes, welding, tools, boats – craftsmen and experts in their trade.

It is another country, but one that I have visited in the past. There are no iPads or laptops, very few mobile phones, no shops, cafes, restaurants, or retail outlets. There is nothing to do but get on with the project, joke about others’, watch the passing traffic on the canal or admire the resident dog as it climbs ladders that it can’t get down. There is a great sense of relief to leave behind 2015 and the world of David Cameron et al.



There is a degree of shouting and swearing, mainly at the apprentice, but it feels ritual rather than aggressive. Most of the time the conversations are about engines, boats, boaters and sport. The swearing might be toned down in deference to the presence of any ‘ladies’, but this too feels familiar – the stuff of my childhood, ‘normal’ and unthreatening, where men held doors open for women who accepted it as their due.

The more I thought about, the more I realised that how much this other country echoed my past. I was fortunate in that the ‘menfolk’ of my childhood were in my eyes protective rather than persecutory or aggressive; the fixers, the craftsmen, the main wage earners,the respectable working class. It was only later that another, less benign side of all this became clear. I suspect another side would probably emerge in the boatyard too, if I spent more than a brief time there! But for now I love it!

I’ve written before about ‘resonance’ in our relationships – that very complex process whereby we recognise, or think we do, unspoken affinities or aversions; a map, only partly conscious, that guides our choices of who we stand next to at a function, who we avoid on the bus, who we want to spend time with, or who we fall in love with. The map is constructed through time from the experiences and materials of our personal and physical environments; we recognise familiar scenes and scents in some deep recess of our being way before we come to understand our responses.

Just as there is always more to discover in our relationships to people, our reactions to places can teach us a thing or two as well!


Waste products in the back passage

I have drawn my garden and my street so many times I can’t generate any enthusiasm for yet another try – whereas the back alley is virgin territory – as far as sketching goes, I mean. It certainly doesn’t have a virginal look about it, even though these sketches make it look cleaner and tidier than it is.



Here the wheelie bin rules, along with difficult to dispose of hard-core, building materials and general rubbish. In my newfound role as psychogeographer-cum-urban-sketcher, I found myself pondering the links between the wheelie bin, consumerism, capitalism, and of course, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, psychogeography, sketching – the words don’t roll off the tongue easily, but there is a fluid interchange between the three areas as far as I am concerned.


There is probably a long established sociological discourse on the wheelie bin, but apart from this interesting research project[i], I haven’t been able to track much down yet. So these are my uninformed thoughts!

The rise of the wheelie bin could be a metaphor for the rise of consumerism and an encroachment on the public by the private. Somewhere in the 1990’s it came to replace a system where ‘bin men’ – local government employees, collected metal bins, emptied and returned them to our gardens and backyards. Now it is the householders’ responsibility to take the wheelie bins to the public space of the pavement or roadside, and the ‘binmen’, working for private contractors, empty them and return them to any point along the street.

Many recycling centres – shared facilities- have gradually been overshadowed by roadside collections. Rubbish is a private affair, unlike for example, the French system where rubbish is taken to a communal area. Litter in the street is now deemed the responsibility of the council, whereas my grandparents would sweep the pavement outside of their house and expect the neighbours to do the same.

The size of the wheelie bin – about one and a half times that of the old dustbins –has legitimised a significant increase in waste as we buy more and more Stuff, along with its packaging. The way we handle rubbish illustrates the break down of a sense of community and shared ownership, the rise of consumerism and the packaging industry as well as the commercialisation of disposal. Waste is big business.

All this can be discretely ignored if you live in a large enough house to have a side entrance, or a large front garden to conceal your wheelie bins. Those in Victorian terraces with no/ tiny front gardens are forced to live with the bins as permanent plastic Daleks by their front door, who in time become disregarded and ‘normal’.CCI24082015_2

In the 1990’s too, my local alleyways were gated as a ‘security’ measure, no longer pedestrian pathways though the Victorian Edwardian housing stock. They passed from public into private space; a space where by and large, it was possible to deposit and forget any inconvenient truths – like the link between our consumption and climate change, for example. Again, the wider the alley (posher houses) the greater the space available. Poorer people can’t get away from their rubbish so easily, it would seem. If you can afford a new build however, Eric Pickles came to your rescue with new building regulations, which, whilst freeing developers of some inconvenient requirements to consider the environment, insisted that wheelie bins must have their own dedicated space.[ii]

So what about psychotherapy? Putting our emotional rubbish out of sight and trying to forget about it is a familiar story in all our lives. What we most fear to acknowledge is the back story, where our own culpabilities and shameful secrets lie at the bottom of the wheelie bin, concealed by more acceptable rubbish. The bad things people have done to us, traumas inflicted by others, are terrible enough, but our own cruelties and complicities are often more painful to acknowledge.

We are generally ashamed of our bodily functions, of mess, shit, pus, semen, vomit. We have designed a sewage system to sweep these down to the sea and beyond – where they can poison somebody or something else. But there are other things that won’t fit down the toilet that linger in our back alleyways and wheelie bins. Humans are messy, capable of unspeakable horrors that although repressed, damage the self, others and society. [iii]

It is one of the great strengths of group psychotherapy that it can provide a space where this distressing, painful remembering can take place, witnessed by others struggling with their own back stories of mess. Acknowledging culpability, discovering regret, facing up to past actions and the responses of others – not just the therapist – can begin a process of re-integration and healing.

Look again at the wheelie bin. What can it tell us?


[i] No. 08-2003 ICCSR Research Paper Series – ISSN 1479-5124 Hidden mountain: The social avoidance of waste Edd de Coverly, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson

[ii] Architects Journal 13 May 2015 G.Wilkinson 

[iii] Phil Wood writes about Lviv and the related attempt to forget the inconvenient and bloody history of genocide, in Walking Inside Out, ed, T. Richardson.