If I could travel back in time to visit the me of ten years ago, when I started writing this blog, to tell myself that he/I would still be doing it a decade later, I doubt I would have been believed. That I would be writing this anniversary piece under the shadow of a global coronavirus pandemic, as the UK entered its third national lockdown in a year, would have been a greater surprise than the fact Richly Evocative was still going – but only slightly.
To learn that President Obama was to be followed by President Trump would have disturbed me – the craven anti-democratic actions of his enablers may have shocked me more, though I was fairly suspicious of politics and politicians already.
Brexit would have saddened and surprised me. The on-going failure to properly address climate disaster and habitat loss on a national and global scale would have depressed me, although the emergence of Greta Thunberg and a wider awakening to these issues may have given that younger me some hope.
In 2011, I was aware that Edward Colston’s name continuing to be celebrated on buildings and institutions all over my home town of Bristol was questionable, but had no idea that within a few years his statue would be gone, as people in the city where I grew up played their dramatic, live-streamed, part in a global Black Lives Matter movement. That would have made me smile.
On the blog, external national and global events have occasionally cast a shadow over some of what I have written, but if addressed, it’s been obliquely, rarely head on. Personally, a few things have changed: most significantly, having a second child, moving to a new area and going freelance. These have had a direct impact on the blog, not least in terms of the places and experiences I have written about and the time I’ve had to do it.
So, to the Richly Evocative blog in particular. Before you get too far in, I should be clear that this is not an attempt to provide ten or twenty steps to worldwide renown, celebrity, fame and fortune through blogging.
I possess no arcane knowledge.
I don’t have any killer tips to impart.
I have though, I think, learnt a few things over the years. One key lesson being, never to post something using new WordPress, tweak it on your phone, then make some further changes via the old style WordPress dashboard and expect all your edits to have survived…
(fans of listicles can skip to the end for my advice, such as it is).
However, the main reason for this post is to mark a decade of blogging. So while I wait for WordPress to issue me with a certificate and a gold star – they do do that don’t they? – I am putting this out there to give three cheers to myself.
Keeping a blog going is hard. So I feel having kept at it for 10 years is worth at least a post. And yes, I am aware that this particular one runs the risk of sounding a little self-absorbed. (What do you mean ‘what’s new?’)
The majority, of fresh-faced entrants into the blogosphere, equipped with passion, opinions and interesting ideas, tend not to survive for very long. Some blogs come to an abrupt end after their first and only post. In 2009, a study found that 95% of blogs on the web had been abandoned.
By 2018 bloggers globally were producing some 5,760,000 posts a day.
That’s about 2 billion a year. Most of those will now be lying dormant.
I certainly fled from a blog before starting on Richly Evocative. I can’t even remember what it was called. The first and only post concerned the Soho noses and talked rather portentously about taking care to look around you, noticing things! Apart from the few friends and relatives I begged to look at it and sent links, standing over their shoulders as they read, nobody saw it. After a week or so of disappointed stat clicking, I made like Brave Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
Yet something stirred me to try again. Using a name I’d previously given to a short-lived spoof book review website, Richly Evocative entered the world. Tentatively at first, with a recycled article on the Regent’s Canal that I’d originally written for a magazine called Territories. This piece owed a significant debt to Jonathan Raban’s Soft City, Nicholas Royle’s The Matter of the Heart and a Peter Jukes book, filled with quotes, about the modern city called A Shout In The Street.
With its talk of back-ways into cities, half-hidden portals and emotional routes, the piece set a thematic template for much of what was to follow. Although, not immediately. When I began I didn’t know what I was doing, who my audience might be, or whether I even had anything vaguely interesting to say.
Aside from reading other blogs, I was far from certain about what you were supposed to do with them, how they worked, or how frustrating the background dashboard stuff could be. This last tended to provoke anguished questions like: Why can’t you tag pages, only posts? How the hell do you get a video embedded? Why didn’t it occur to me to label photographs something other than jpeg01257?
At first I attempted to get the hang of things by reading WordPress expert blogs about how to get certain technical things done, plus exclamation filled articles about SEO, the ideal length for posts, building an audience, the importance of writing frequently and posting regularly. Little of it left any lasting impression.
Without a plan, or an editorial calendar, in the early days I’d just stick things out there as they occurred to me. My first few posts were rather scattergun in subject, length and type. These ranged from a rant about an apparently baby-loathing man in the LRB Bookshop café, which earned me my first positive comment, to some gushing fluff about the joys of twitter (oh innocent days) and even some poems. These last proved about as popular as the Vogon Captain’s efforts had been with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect.
Despite this initial, inconsistent floundering around, I plugged away at the blog. As of January 2021 I’ve written 110 posts. This one will be number 111. That’s an average of 11 a year, though in 2012 I posted 26 times and during one thin year, only 5.
Gradually, I began to find focus and a more consistent theme, with an approach, that might be described as: ‘finding something interesting in an encounter with a place that doesn’t seem all that interesting.’
Since my random first year, many posts have concerned urban sites where I’ve noted some spirit or atmosphere that seemed to hint at the place having more about it than might at first be apparent. These locations have included pocket-gardens on back streets, unattractive squares, half-hidden medieval lanes, or seemingly random urban fields. On further investigation – ‘desktop research’ some might call it, I’ve been able to pull together strands of information to spin into posts that hint at richer, more surprising histories and backstories.
Bristol, where I grew up and Lambeth, West Norwood in particular, where I now live have been the locus of many of these. I have often also strayed into writing about places beyond my immediate postcode, ranging into deepest Charente in France, the tiny city of Ely, Yorkshire Ghylls and even birds and bush fires in Australia. A glance at my tag cloud on the blog, might suggest a surprisingly keen interest in Reading, but it is in fact, reading that concerns me greatly, not the Berkshire town.
Some might call this sort of thing ‘psychogeography’, though I wouldn’t. To me the term is all too redolent of a certain type of man, overly pleased with the depth of his obscure knowledge and the density of his prose, grudgingly sharing tales of roguish 1980s book-runners as they unwittingly trace the steps of ancient forbears, who first walked these occult lines long before the Brutalist architecture arrived. Ok I’ll admit to tagging a lot of my posts with ‘psychogeography’ but that’s just for attention grabbing, SEO purposes. Honestly.
When not talking about place, I have written about books, bookshops, bookmarks – somewhat inevitable as the son of second-hand booksellers – and have produced the odd, ill advised essay on digital photography, Goya, The Sundays, fondly remembered Bristol Record stores, trees, ghosts, cemeteries and railway architecture.
I have reported, at length, on a Balham Literary Festival centred around Nature Writing (featuring my proudest title Balham enters the Anthropocene) and, in 2015, felt provoked into an impassioned defence of certain ‘New Nature’ writers, a post that began life as an emotional diatribe, but evolved into a more considered piece. This continues to be updated as I find links, articles and arguments that may add something worthwhile for readers old and new. It’s also one of a few posts that still attract regular views.
Which brings me to my central lesson – I still don’t know anything.
The one aspect of blogging I wish that I could understand, or predict, is what kind of post – subject, length, title – works best. What might never fail to attract multiple readers, comments and shares? If there is a secret, I couldn’t tell you what it is.
Until recently my most popular post was one about my Mum’s bookshop, The Wise Owl. First published in 2012, my love letter to a particular Bristol second-hand bookshop and bookshops in general has continued to be read. Recently this was overtaken by a post about Poet’s Walk in Clevedon. Why a piece about a coastal-stretch of a slightly grey, slightly furtive, small Somerset seaside town should prove such a hit, I don’t know. My only guess is that not very much else has been written about the place – despite its association with poets.
When I say ‘hit’ of course, it’s relative. My top ten posts by number of views currently all stand in the low thousands. But, given that when I started I had no followers and no views or visits at all, I consider this is a small triumph.
Looking back over these, I can discern no clear pattern. This top ten of the last decade gives no clear pointers towards success:
1. Lyrical by the sea [About Clevedon, go figure.]
2. I owe my life to a second-hand bookshop [Click-bait title, though true, for bookshop lovers]
3. Record Store Day – Here’s to Revolver Records [Piggy backing on an annual event with memories of a beloved store – this pre-dates Richard King’s book on the same, so there!]
4. A half-hidden route to the past [Johnny Ball Lane – a dreary looking medieval lane in Bristol]
5. A Stray field in South London [a patch of grass at the foot of Gipsy Hill]
6. Common Ground or Private Park: Whose Nature writing is it anyway? [A diatribe on gatekeeping in Nature Writing]
7. Reviving a ghost-wood: the Great North Wood project [a London Wildlife trust project I volunteer with]
8. Shopping for Identity: a trip down Norwood Road [what it says on the tin]
9. About [See, somebody is interested]
10. A Child’s Map of Crystal Palace Park [Psychogeography, 6-year-old stylee]
I couldn’t honestly say that these posts are the ten best written, the most genuine, topical or even the ones I was most pleased with. Though, my favourite Bristol character; medieval topographer and antiquary William Worcestre, does appear in the one about Johnny Ball Lane, which is nice.
My personal favourites – a memoir, come essay, on Robert Holdstock’s sadly underrated Mythago Wood and a tribute to Bristol’s Brandon Hill and Bristol hills in general don’t make even the top 15. All I can say is, bah humbug, you fools.
A heartfelt post on bushfires in Australia, written around this time last year; one that I spent ages crafting and rewriting, so that it was filled with beauty and insight and poignant prose, comes nowhere near. If Victoria or birds of the southern hemisphere, small penguins in particular, appeal to you, I’d urge you to read it. I’ll also avoid using the word ‘sustainable’ in future titles.
The only common factor I can see that may have aided the ‘success’ of my top ten posts, is perhaps that they have a slightly broader reach than others: a lot of people like book and record shops and nature writing. The most pleasing thing for me is that they all seem to have legs – most were written three or more years ago and therefore more readers have had the chance to find them.
Oh no the poems, don’t talk about the poems…
A glance, however, at my twenty least popular posts is rather more revealing and provides some obvious findings. All scrape sub-50 numbers in terms of views – with a few having taken several years to climb into the teens. More than half of these are poems, clearly not something people are keen to see from me – at least on this blog.
I have actually in the last year had some poetry published in one or two respected magazines and sites, so the answer isn’t simply that these must be terrible; more, to be sure to send them where the audience is. And have someone, who isn’t me, appraise them first.
As to my audience on the blog, in ten years I have managed to gather one, which is something. Admittedly I don’t have a vast, global following, but it is large enough to reassure me that I do have readers, some of them repeat visitors.
Views overall have increased from 934 in the first year, to regularly topping 10,000 in the past three. Apart from an unexplained dip in 2017, views and visits have climbed steadily every year. Last year, perhaps helped by lockdowns, I had over 12,000 views and almost 8,000 visitors – that’s actual individual clicks onto the site, rather than me coming back again and again to read about me.
Staggeringly, I even have several hundred direct followers who get emails, or other notifications when I stick up a new post. If you add in my Twitter followers and Facebook friends, which WordPress likes to do, I have a direct potential audience of a few thousand.
Clearly, with those numbers, I’m never going to be a fabulously wealthy social media influencer, but fortunately that was never my ambition.
One thing I did long for was to be discovered, or shared, on WordPress’s own feed. A few other bloggers I’d followed had gained this distinction and the badge to go with it. Finally, in 2019, with a post about a walk along the River Wandle through South London, I got noticed and earned myself the right to display a coveted ‘Featured on Discover’ logo. Perhaps it was my Womble-punning title ‘Wandling Free?’ that did it. As an unexpected side-effect of this day of blog fame, I picked up a surprisingly large number of followers from India.
So, given all that, have I managed to learn anything at all from ten years of blogging?
As stated at the outset, I have no insights that can handily transform the prospects of other blogs. But I have picked up a few pointers worth considering.
Always write a draft. Despite what the internal ads might suggest, directly hammering a post into WordPress – especially the smartphone app, doesn’t tend to make for great copy. Hold onto that inspired idea, nurture it before you share it.
Don’t feel that once published you should never revise a post. Unless you’re writing a topical news blog, tweaks, new relevant quotes, smoothing things out, even killing your darlings can all take place and make posts better long after you’ve pressed ‘Publish’. And try to update your links.
Share where it’s most relevant. If you can find a Facebook Group, or page, a newspaper article with space for comments that is relevant to a post – share it there. Local groups in particular, unsurprisingly, quite like reading about their area. Twitter and Facebook are always useful places to share posts, but relying on your own friends, family and followers to read them, let alone share, won’t always reach the readers you’re after.
Cross-promote. Follow blogs that interest you, link to people writing about similar things. You’ll find interesting articles to read and might even gain some followers and shares back. Ones I like a lot are linked and listed on Richly Evocative.
Name/Label your photos. An interesting title might help attract more search hits than an anonymous jpeg number.
Be prepared to be disappointed. That magazine or newspaper you really love, may not discover you and offer you paid work off the back of your blog. The writer you really hoped would read your piece, like it, share it even, quite possibly won’t. That’s not to say it can’t happen, just don’t expect it. At least, not if you write fairly niche, slightly prolix stuff, filled with meandering digressions like mine.
Your best work won’t necessarily be your most popular
Sometimes the posts you’re most pleased with don’t take off. There may be occasions when you firmly believe that this time you’ve really nailed it. That this is the one. This eloquent, meaningful memorable, passionate post, filled with salient points, and lovingly crafted lines, will go viral, score you praise, love, affection, retweets. And then for no discernable reason, it falls utterly flat. Why this happens from time to time I don’t know. I’ll never know.
All I’d say definitively about blogging is keep going. Simply by doing that I’ve got better at writing.
Editing not so much, but writing, I think so, maybe.
Happy blogiversary to me!