Many, many years ago I started following Paul Clarke on twitter. I wasn’t sure who this man was particularly, and until today I had no real notion how digital he was, so either he was very modest or I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I liked his tweets. He was eclectic, witty, said it as it was, and he took awesome photos.
As context, I have a strict twitter rule with myself that I don’t follow over 100 people. I did for a while years ago and felt I was losing something of the experience, so I culled and have kept it at less than 100 people ever since. I interact with and pay attention to more than 100 people of course and I (sporadically) use lists and scour hashtags etc, but a lot of the regular input in my twitterstream comes from those 100 people. The plus side of that is that you get a relatively in-depth insight into their worlds, well actually we could probably argue whether it’s in-depth or shallow insight, however you get to see quite a lot of it. In a very unique way I feel like I know these people, the snippets gathered from twitter, their habits and behaviours, what people don’t talk about, all of these jigsaw pieces fit together to reveal something of the person. The reality of course, is that we rarely *actually* know people, there are people I’ve known offline for years who still surprise me, and there are many more people who I have forged relationships with online who are just different in the flesh. Hold that thought.
A little more context. Coming up for three years ago (in November 2010) I wrote a blog post called Cancer: the cost of no cure where I discussed the cost of cancer treatment, QALYS (quality adjusted life year measurements), my Dad’s terminal illness and the rationing of NHS resources. Paul left a comment that cut to my core, I had no idea at the time of writing but as I was musing on the theoretical issues of a parent with a terminal illness, Paul’s Mum was dying. If I were ever asked to pick my top ten blog posts, his post A pie for my mum, would be in it without a doubt. I am physically incapable of reading it without tears, even as I type now they are pooling, ready to spill over the minute I stop blinking furiously.
That blog post, that picture, that relationship that Paul described with his Mum resonates so loudly in my ears. Then, and now, it makes me stop and think about my parents, about myself, and about making the most of what time we have and forgiving the learning that we are all engaged in as we communicate with each other. I’m ruining it, if you’ve not read it please abandon this now and go do it. So it was almost three years ago that I realised that Paul Clarke wasn’t only an eclectic, witty, honest guy who took great photos, he was also a writer. A communicator. Shouldn’t have been such a surprise really, given his photography skills it was clear he could communicate, but I rarely read blogs that have such an instant impact.
Fast forward two years and my Dad was dying. A long anticipated, yet inevitably unknown death. Throughout the last few weeks of Dad’s life I kept remembering Paul’s blog post. I became fixated on thinking about it, wishing, hoping that there would be a pastry moment for me to blog about, to honour my Dad in that way, to remember him. I told Dad about that post, we discussed it and he reassured me that I’d better blog about his last days (a huge comfort ever since to know that he was comfortable with what I was doing), we also discussed his eulogy. I had been dreading asking him if he was happy for me to give it, he was a traditionalist at heart and I was worried he’d object. He didn’t, he was quite happy for it, and told me where he’d kept some notes he’d written about his childhood. In the end my Dad’s eulogy, writing it and giving it, became a little work of art for me. I wanted to get it right, I had no pie post, but I had his eulogy and having re-read it the other week I think it sums him up well. In some small way I think Paul Clarke has a lot to answer for there, it was his post about his Mum that I mused on for the best part of two years.
Last month Paul stole my attention again, combining my love of travel, with sleeper trains and photography. He travelled and documented what is quite simply, in my opinion, an amazing adventure at a ridiculous speed! The Great Circular European Railway Challenge, saw Mr Clarke and a small gang of people, travel around Europe by train for two and a half weeks, snapping as they went. I had the absolute pleasure this afternoon of having a guided tour of that trip as Paul talked me through his photos and we sifted out favourites. There were over 800 photos, mostly taken from a train, all taken by Paul. I’m no train spotter but it was one of the best afternoons I’ve had in ages. Thing is to call Paul a photographer is a bit of an understatement, he is a photographer and then some. What he really was for that trip was an ethnographer, documenting people, cultures, their relationship with the railway. He has scenery, landscape, machinery, people, dynamics, everything. He also has self reflection of the smack you in the chest and make you think kind. It’s linked there if you want it, or skip here if you’d just like pretty pictures.
Over the years my respect for Paul, or as I always call him in my head Paul Clarke (he is one of those people who has earned the double element of his name), has quite simply just kept growing and growing and growing. This is a bit of an odd thing really when you step back and look at it. I don’t know Paul, I’ve never spoken to him on the phone, never had a Skype chat, never bumped into him at an event, he was quite simply someone who to all intents and purposes lived in my computer or on my phone. Apart from his awesome pictures, but then they lived on the internet too. Until today. Today I got to meet Paul for lunch and spend the afternoon geeking out over european train adventures.
There are few people who I meet for the first time and feel that at ease with, like instantly from first hug. As an aside there aren’t that many people I meet offline for the first time and think they look younger and better looking than their avatars either! Paul Clarke in the flesh just confirmed what I’ve known in my heart for a long time. He is quite simply one of the most authentic and genuine people I think I know. I know a little more about him from talking this afternoon, but I think I know a lot more from just being in his company and it has just confirmed the mental image I’d created over the years. Confirmation bias if ever you needed an example of it I’m sure.
There was a beautiful sunset as I travelled back to the Westcountry this evening, I’m not for a minute suggesting my photography (caught with an ipad mini) touches on that of Mr Clarke’s, but I felt inspired and couldn’t not act on it. So I give you Taunton, UK, as evidence of what just being around someone positive can do for you! There’s a lot of stuff written about the problems and dangers of online interaction, but I’m bored of bad news, so in an attempt to focus on the positives, there are some amazing people out there just waiting to connect with you. Whether you need someone to capture the story of your wedding or event, inspire you to take photos, make you stop and think, or just accept who you are, then you too need a bit of Paul Clarke in your life!
As a disclaimer I should point out that about four years of connectivity between us has led to one meeting, so it isn’t a quick fix, but I’m sure your life will be better for having him in it!