My uncle is dying of a brain tumour in a nursing home, and I’m on the way with hound and accordion having promised him a tune. Radio 4, which sometimes irritates the hell out of me when it does its privilege-preening BBC establishmentism that is abhorrently irrelevant to most of society (or should be, IMHO), is on form today.
Imagine knowing you’re in the path of the ‘perfect storm’, battoning down the hatches and praying they’re strong enough; or stuffing your car and praying you get to shelter in time; or turning away from the evacuation aircraft because they won’t take your dog; or tethering your livestock to trees as if holding them down will save them from hurricanes and floods. Imagine knowing that you’re not quite in the path of the storm but that the path of tornadoes cannot be predicted at all. Imagine knowing they’re coming but not knowing where.
Imagine being a Muslim in Myanmar, where the state for years denies ethnic cleansing, and the world doesn’t know.
Imagine being cleared by fire from your village because the land you inhabit is to be enclosed for the grazing of sheep for wealth to conquer other lands.
Journalist Dan Saladino takes us to Georgia, at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe – and here my tale beautifies, for Dan Saladino is a poet, and his programme is about wine.
We hear Orthodox Christians sing their prayers, and we’re told that wine here is truly sacred, exalted in love. But as the programme unfolds I observe that this sanctity is not religious, and this love not holy. This sanctity and love are heartwarmingly political and personal.
Georgia’s survival down the centuries, and therefore its identity, has depended on winemaking. Birthplace of wine some 8000 years ago, it has been the livelihood of a disproportionately high number of citizens. Caught in the crossfire of empire-building, her warriors tucked root stock from their vines under their tunics when they went out on the war path to defend their territory. Not religious or superstitious belief (although maybe it was that as well), but pragmatic: if, whilst out fighting, our villages are sacked, we can replant our vines and rebuild our livelihood.
Light enough to travel: your loom, your yarn, your computer, your accordion, your hound, all in your van. Your livelihood: freedom and resilience both.
Saladino visits a family who’ve been making wine for generations. Their vineyard is more like an untended garden, where vegetables and nettles entangle beneath the vines. The vintner, with a vesselful of chagrin, admits that this began with laziness but became culture as the grape thrived, and through the foreign tongue you can hear his grin.
My unplanned cloth colours, warp improvised with impatience, impulsiveness and a reckless glee in spontaneity. A deliberate practice in organicness: chaotic emergence of landscape inspiration; only slightly stylised, and often then by luck. And people kindly say I’m great with colour. We are but conduits: the wove weaves itself, as a song writes itself, as a story tells itself. Less choice than we like to believe; less control than we wish we could have.
The vintner describes a handful of a grape: difficult to grow, unpredictable as a plant and as a wine, changeable even through the day according to unknown factors. His wife, who has known him since childhood, names it after him, and laughs with great love in her voice.
With a qvevriful of pride, the vintner describes his zero-compromise approach. Non-judgmentally he criticises farming practices that correct and over-correct in constant compensation: put this in the soil, do that to the plant; do this to the land, spray that on the plant. A process of refinement that can easily go too far.
Every artist knows this one, and everyone else too: the table-leg job. Crazy artificial.
Every weaving has flaws, and I have a constant dilemma of which to correct, if any, and which to leave. As a bit of a pedant, this is good practice. My rule of thumb is whether the flaw compromises the structural integrity of the cloth. Will a mis-threading result in a constant crease along the length? Will a missed pick result in a loop of thread that will snag? My other rule of thumb is whether the colour arrangement is enhanced or compromised. If I’m working a neat geometric pattern with colours symmetrical (which is rare), I feel to correct everything. If I’m working a landscape with twenty organically-blended colours and a thread breaks, I sometimes like to tie on a new colour in its place – whatever is to hand, just for the sake of it. (Ooo, the rebellion.) Sometimes there are flaws which I take days to correct. Sometimes there are flaws which I haven’t time to correct. Sometimes there are flaws that I can’t correct. And sometimes there are flaws that I choose to leave. For Allah. Or someone.
Saladino talks with an American Gospel singer in her twenties who’s emigrated to Georgia. We hear her soulful voice soaring in praise above the congregation. Gladness and gratitude. She’s also got Wine, and has learnt to make it. She laments that Georgian wine is referred to as ‘natural wine’. Chemical free from good, simple, time-honoured, clean farming, she prefers to call it simply ‘wine’.
I think of ‘organic cloth’, ‘pure wool’ and so on. Cloth. My colours are chemically dyed. They are cheaper. Yesterday I bought some yarns imported from Peru. They were the most beautiful. I use wool. I love it, and it’s better than petro-fibre. Perhaps my own zero-compromise tendencies need the practice of compromise, even if it’d be better to avoid it.
But I’m hoping that a Green Cloth Co-operative might emerge from the Nettles for Textiles group. Maybe individual foragers around the country would do the first steps in processing plant fibres and then send the fibre to be spun in a waterwheel powered, co-operatively-run and commonly-owned mill. (Yeah, ok, the idea needs a lot of interrogation, and there may be better ones. But it’s one beautiful dream of many.)
The Gospel singer says every bottle of wine is different – some amber, some cloudy, some white with the character of red. I think of my accidental elderflower champagne: one magical bottle in a batch of cordial of very variable drinkability.
She says she’s not looking for perfection. She’s looking for honesty.