When I first drove off into the sunset, as well as for the adventure, it was to leave behind various defeats, frustrations and feelings of claustrophobia. Fleeing a factory farm education sector, an overcrowded steading and a hippy-progressive enlightenment competition, I was heading to the hills in no uncertain manner, seeking the quietest, wildest, remotest places that I could live in awhile alone. The Outer Hebrides offered what I sorely needed. Yes, of course I was lonely before long, but the real paradox is this: though I found nurture in the spaces with the fewest humans, as soon as I’d touched base on the furthest western shore I was ready to delve back into the peopled pockets. To get to know the islands I had to get to know the people. (Not to mention the old getting to know yourself wotsit.)
Whilst ‘community’ had been just about top of my list of loathed ‘c’ words, straight away I was making connections that made me want to belong: to the Glaswegian/Leoisach selkie family swimming in from St. Kilda; to the Friday folk group in the old people’s home; to the monthly singaround sharing songs and stories and foul-mouthed craic; to the trad session run by young beauties in the arts centre; to the trail of daily dogwalkers in the Stornoway castle grounds; to the Harris Tweed weaving tradition in the mills and crofts and sheds; to the fishing villages who’d lost so many to the sea; to the community of ordinary folk doing ordinary jobs in shops and garages and offices, who said that I should stay; to the caravan of international surfers who’d found the lesser known breaks, who shared their beer and mackerel; and to the community of motorhomers who considered me a fellow motorhomer.
All this too in Brittany and Ireland: lonely timidity of a newbie with all the awe and wonder of an anthropologist child explorer. An adventure in every little exchange, and a welcome around every corner. (Where there wasn’t a shotgun, an agenda or a bad temper, that is. In those darker corners, the one or two newly-made, friendly contacts are lifesavers.)
Back in Devon for a pit-stop when the election is called, and it is a moment to plug in again here too: the local political landscape has been changing after a hundred years of the same old same old yellows being the only challengers to the blues. Green leaders Bennett and then Lucas came down here to promote progressive alliance, but it hasn’t got off the ground. Do the reds have a chance? I don’t know how to vote to best promote Corbyn/social and environmental sustainability, so I conduct some research in the local Facebook community, whipping up a stormy tactical voting debate and pissing off the local left parties who fear losing out to a voter alliance. Despite the fact that Totnes and Dartington make an ultra-progressive island in the Westcountry’s dominant conservatism of rural wealth, disappointingly the local left parties have resigned themselves to yet another Tory win, which duly occurs. (I stay up all night shouting at someone’s TV. It is a really good night.) The 450 people I poll forecast the Corbyn-effect Labour surge here too, and I make a number of new swing-voting and activist friends locally. The urgency and the enormity of the political struggle; the awfulness of terror and fire. Infighting, rank-closing, rabble rousing: we are alert and will change this shitty trickle-up system. Don’t wait for our leaders and parties and governments to solve things for us all; we must do it ourselves.
I go to Bovey Tracey Contemporary Craft Fair. Just a punter again, not ready to tie myself to being in a particular place ahead of time, just visiting for inspiration, professional development. Cool crystal water on the scorched earth of a ravaged Britain. I babble with a Welshman; relieved to just look at pretty things and not talk politics – as I manically jump from the election to Corbyn to neoliberalism to the urban decay that inspires his striking ceramics, all at a rate of 2000wpm. I’m greeted warmly by the light-genius Valerie Wartelle, whom I interviewed last year. I also admire the work of a Cornishwoman making rusty wriggly tin landscapes, inspired by the stories she too sees in decay. Lisa Wisdom is the only fine artist we know of whose main medium is corrugated iron, and her work is a lovely surprise, her scenes parts of these isles that I know in my bones. Her sister describes the origins of Occupational Therapy in weaving, and when a basketmaker subsequently tells me that that happened very near here, I add it to the boast about Clement Atlee’s NHS-founding manifesto that was written here in Dartington Hall. Everywhere I go, I’m proud of my Westcountry upbringing.
I get my head down to the loom again and weave a batch of ponchos and mauds: a summer hedgerow; a Rodolpi Mountain; a woman’s hand dyed Jacob; a woman’s handspun Jacob; a man’s handspun Jacob. I curate a collection of images by artisans around the world and send them a link with a compliment and an invitation to share. I receive warmhearted replies from as far off as Peru. That awful ‘networking’ can be meaningful communitybuilding. (I’m reminded of the beautiful film ‘Even the Rain‘ with its subtle critique of the patronising Western people’s way. Cringe.)
Whilst waiting for some delayed wool, I cook up a new summer product idea: warp readywound for weavers. I struggle to scratch a living in the summer, and need to innovate. Piloting is exciting.
Last minute I put out a shout on social media about an eco-conference called Seed Festival at Hawkwood, Gloucestershire. Is anyone I know going? A dear friend, Imogen Di Sapia, as yet un-met except online, invites me to contribute to her workshop there: ‘The Craft Economy and Women Underground’. We talk about networking with meaningful human connection for moral support and pragmatic exchange. Another workshop, about land use, requires us to consider what landscape means, and my neighbour contests my limited definition of hills and open spaces: landscape is built and peopled, says he, citing the Welsh ‘hiraeth’. Something you belong to. A self-build workshop focuses on intentional community and though I contribute a word the leaders like, ‘inter-reliance’, my old allergic reaction froths to the surface. But I enjoy the conversations I have with (particularly) women who are looking to grow their art, build their business and find their way, a different way.
I interrogate the representative of Triodos Bank. He says he wants to restore relationship between savers and borrowers, but I’m uneasy at this sweet, simplistic representation of corporate banking. I’m nervous about describing in 30 seconds the injustice of our debt-based monetary system and the mechanism of its feudalism so that the audience understands and the speaker doesn’t feel attacked (plus my countercultural understanding of economics is far from complete). But I succeed, ‘hear hear’, many folk in the room are already onto this, and he answers well: though Triodos is a commercial bank working to the conventional banking model, its profits don’t trickle up to fat cats via derivative products, stocks and shares, but are reinvested 100% in worthy causes and the real economy. So the company is not transformative, but it is nonetheless a force for good. I hope the climate gives us time to change things slowly.
Molly Scott Cato, South West MEP, discusses Brexit as an opportunity to reshape British agriculture, and I realise more and more how dysfunctional it currently is, with small farmers paid to keep uplands desertified and the wealthiest farmers paid just to keep wealthy. Land ownership, like other wealth, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few (some Saudi and Russian), and Britain is nowhere near capable of feeding itself. Cato is opposed to Brexit and feels the dire necessity of a left-shaped response to the crisis. She has drawn on expertise from the Soil Association and land rights changemaker Simon Fairlie to propose plans in the absence of government plans. (Incidentally, she feels there is, surprisingly, a teency glimmer of hope in the language of Gove and DEFRA despite Leadsom, though whether they will ever walk the decent talk is another matter.)
Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth supremo, challenges notions commonly held by businessfolk that sustainabilityfolk are anti-progess. Sustainabilityfolk are commonly held back by businessfolk intent on a race to the bottom. Oh, I’ve got an idea: maybe we could work together?
I miss Caroline Lucas talking, but I pass Bruce Parry and we smile and he is as warm as in his films. I go to the screening of his as-yet unreleased Tawai. A popular headline act, we are spilling out of the curtained hall, standing for two hours with craned necks in a dark sauna. I only want to hear him speak, ask questions – not stare at a screen at a social event – but the opening scenes compel, and it is nice to watch it with the maker, and with a friendly bunch of concerned strangers. Seven of us standing in a crowded corner, hot and tired and, one, disabled, move considerately around each other to make spacesharing work, helping out, propping up, cushioning, commenting, swapping places, making room for latecomers, making room for shorter folk or older folk or tireder folk. His film is ostensibly an investigation into interdependency among members of the world’s last hunter-gatherer community in Borneo, but the profound and lightly-trod subnarrative is a personal investigation into ways of knowing, being, living and believing. The moment of his epiphany is understated but it reverberates as I think I spot a homefinding in his own quest for belonging. ‘If you’ve come to help us, then we have nothing to say to each other. But if you’ve come because your survival is bound up with ours, then let us talk.’ Later Parry asks to join us beside the campfire, and I want to talk to him about the inner journey, but he is quickly surrounded by beauties talking to him about the outer journey, and as I open my mouth a drunkard falls on top of us and the moment is passed.
I’m invited to contribute to another conference about community business, and though both these words have turned me off in the past, I’m starting to feel the layers in the depths of them. Interesting, the deeper significance of trade and trading relations. When I took to the road, I designed my livelihood and lifestyle for maximum independence, autonomy and solo agility. But perhaps I can plug back in by inspiring others to take off into the sunset before they plug back in empowered.
And maybe my community doesn’t have to be in one place. Maybe I’m a child of globalisation, and happy that way.