‘If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room’

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As I opted out of tenanthood and employeeship and moved my weaving business into a motorhome to take to the road on a shoestring in 2015, a dear family friend, who knows me very well, sent me the postcard pictured below.

Living on the edge postcard

Powerful, isn’t it? And tensely ambivalent? On the one hand a proud, wild, free, low impact, low consumption life of resilience on the margins; on the other, guilt and judgment of any comfort, luxury, security, safety or anything else that could be considered a privilege. Underpinned by the universal human need for AND RIGHT to some of all of the above. And fraught by the inevitable tension between the magnetic poles.

Moving one’s weaving workshop around these isles in a motorhome was one thing. Moving one’s weaving workshop in and out of a motorhome around these isles is quite another.

2019 has been a disruptive year. I tried to move to Brittany for the better quality of life it offers on a low income, but Murphy, my amazing familiar, died suddenly the week before. I moved into my planned accommodation regardless, but immediately had to move out again for health reasons. (I’m electrosensitive and the mobile phone mast 3km away took just three days to make me horribly ill because my flat was in direct line of sight.) My motorhome, leaking, mouldering and harbouring images of Murph’s dramatic death and empty bed, was no longer a home.

Murph running happy in Breton woods

But the homelessness of the (relatively) privileged is very different from some people’s homelessness: since March I’ve stayed in three beautiful houses, and whilst moving all my worldly possessions and work from pillar to post has taken its toll on my health and productivity, there has been some positive impact on creativity.

Setting up house when I thought I’d be there a while, I made the effort to create a beautiful living and working space: a positive distraction from the greatest bereavement I’d ever suffered – for anyone who’s known the true and steady love of a loyal hound as their only companion will know that few other loves rival it. There was a sorrowfully empty corner by the woodburner where I’d planned for Murph to live, and the proximity of the beautiful woodland that he’d have enjoyed twice daily also taunted me cruelly. But neighbours were kind, friends were warm, the town was inspiring, and I created a lovely home. Rugs I’d woven looked (ahem) stunning on the pale floor complementing traditional Breton furniture unwanted by others and going for a song.

 

In anticipation of a larger home/workspace, though quite by chance, I’d seized upon a sought-after Dryad rug loom that I planned to install now my micro-business could expand a little. However, I had to change direction. Again. And fast. Again.

Never able to be off work for long (as craftspeople, artspeople and the self-employed well know), I packed what equipment I could into my old estate car and fled the Breton flat for a borrowed cottage. I hoped that just a brief retreat would bring me recovery, and so did not take my larger kit of loom and 100kg yarn stash. Instead I took the spinning wheel given me by my best friend for Christmas some years ago, and after a little input from another friend, hurriedly taught myself to spin.

At the time of buying the Dryad loom in Wales last year, the farmer had also sold me several kilos of fleece that his beautiful late wife had had prepared in Cornwall for the craft business she was shaping to replace her high-stress job. Life had other plans for her, alas. The fleece was beautiful too: lofty, lustrous Leicester Longwool from their own flock of ‘black’ silver sheep. I’d known that this, like the loom, was worth seizing when offered for sale on that serendipitous occasion, for both the quality and the tragic love story behind it.

So in the spring sunshine I foraged in hedgerows and meadows and neighbours’ gardens and in the kitchen and barn for dyestuffs, mordants and  modifiers to bring natural colour to my spinning. Murphy was sorely missed every moment and my foraging walks were curtailed by dogless nervousness, but I consoled myself with the thought that foraging was a more perfect thing than ever to be paid to spend my time doing. (Not that my business brought in any money in late spring, the ‘hunger patch’, which lasts for months.)

I competed with the birds for ivy berries (they stripped the bushes while I took care not to) and with the bees for dandelions (I left them the most pollenous heads). I picked ivy leaves wantonly, and gorse flowers laboriously, and japonica flowers hopefully, and birch twigs furtively, and fallen camellias michievously. I was offered frosted azaleas, sent some biscuit tin mordant, and given some copper pipe. I found rusty nails, and, living without electricity because my tolerance had got so low, had an abundance of aluminium nightlight holders which I also used to mordant. (I even had friends to stay who, lightless at night with all electrics off, peed in a potty and donated to the cause. Ammonia is a known alkaliser for modifying natural dye colours, used traditionally in Hebridean tweed and everywhere else, and so I used it. Is that too much information?)

Instead of resting after huge upheaval and physical breakdown, I was as driven as a mad professor working sixteen hours a day seven days a week, leaping out of bed in the mornings to check my dye vats, stirring pots and pans on the stove, making copious notes, photo-documenting on my Instagram, filling endless buckets of water, whirling wet skeins around my head, burning my skin with caustic soda, provoking the occasional explosion, dropping bowls of boiling water between the stove and my dye station outside, and charging out of the house screaming like a fishwife at the birds for plucking fluff out of my drying yarn for their nests (I ended up donating a skein or two to their cause).

 

The outcome was five kilos of low impact art yarn, in (rare and exciting and not always fugitive) blues, mauves, pinks, greys, browns, rusts, yellows and greens. Some were dip dyed, and these are the most exciting to ply, knit or weave, as the end result is unpredictable and variegated across the finished project. Once plied, I felt that I’d taken the fleece to the most beautiful state that I could, and that the final step should be somebody else’s to take. And so I offer this range for sale especially for knitters.

 

I then had to vacate this lovely cottage, and, the flat investigated for electro-magnetic fields and deemed a write-off for me, moved to an equally lovely farmhouse elsewhere, thanks to some dear friends. (My middle class, privileged homelessness again: I used to work in Higher Education with her; he got me into these stalwart old Mercs.) This was a huge, woodfired, haunted, isolated, gingerbread house in unfamiliar, agricultural countryside. I felt very alone, especially when my car broke down, passers-by declined to jump start me and I thought I’d have to leave it in a layby until… what? But then friendlier neighbours familiar with old cars and undaunted by the two-minute and very simple manouevre helped out, deduced who I was, and then kept an unintrusive eye on me thereafter. (I’ve bought more bottles of wine as thanks for kindly neighbours and strangers than I’ve drunk myself.)

I then spent a very quiet, meditative period, unwell at times but largely in a gentle weaving rhythm, producing several grand’s worth of stock, going to bed with the sundown and watching the moon rise over the red tin roof of the barn through my open bedroom window at night.

Of course you’re never alone. During that peaceful time I had the most magical companionship: two kestrels were raising two young in the eaves of the gingerbread house. It was my fortune to be there at fledging time, and I watched the young, one male, one female, tumble and fall and stretch and jump and then fly. I witnessed them stooping submissively as they were dive-bombed by the swallows nesting in the barn, and hopping and squeaking as they were stalked by the cat, whose cover of undergrowth I cleared. Hopefully I was a help, and at close quarters they swivelled their heads and set their huge eyes upon me even in my bedroom. One evening I slurped up spaghetti on the patio while just ten yards away beneath the oak they slurped up entrails on the woodpile. Daily at dawn I saw their first landing and watched them assess the new day as they woke me with the sound of their claws on the red tin roof of the barn through my open bedroom window in the morning.

I was quiet. I read books about islands and their non-capitalist communities. I wove snugs and shawls as winter stock, and weaving a little of my ownspun Leicester Longwool was joyous, but never more joyous than weaving my ownspun Leicester Longwool dyed in kestrel colours.

Kestrel snug 5

So that was the spring and summer. Autumn brings autumn colours and selling season, and more househunting, and political activism. I’m in a warm, dry room in a different, lovely house in Devon, my semi-derelict van outside with the loom set up on a treadle and my workbenches still packed in my car and a question mark over my health and my next chapter. I was not in a position to catch the seasonal wave for the winter frenzy this year, but unless I find another way to stay afloat, I guess I’ll carry on weaving these isles nonetheless.

 

Old endings and new stories

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How many of my blog entries begin ‘it’s been a while, and much has happened’?

Absorbed in the scarily high-stakes parliamentary chess game of Brexit… Will Northern Ireland achieve reunification by default? Does England need her own independence, instead of co-dependently dominating her neighbours? Is Scotland the only healthy corner of the UK? Will we all end up prey to big bully American corporate interests? Is it a choice between those and the likes of pharmaceutical Bayer as our overlords?!

Brexit is a terrifying, but also thrilling, three-way fork in the road between centrist capitalism (business as usual in the EU), Tory capitalism (extreme Thatcherist business in the WTO) and the remotest chance of the beginnings of a mutualist utopia (relatively speaking) led by Corbyn and McDonnell in partnership with the Greens, the nationalist parties and the British people, all informed and energised by the wonderful, furious, counter culture and the equally wonderful, furious European left who’ve actually tasted successful socialism and municipalism in living memory. Maybe we (the Eurpoean left), can supersede the EU’s neoliberal treaties and help thoroughly green the whole bloc – there is certainly some appetite for that in France, and I should imagine especially in socialist Portugal, progressive Catalonia, suffering Greece, mutualist Sardinia…

And if we don’t turn the growth-dependent capitalist ship around, and fast, will climate change leave all or most of us screwed – us and the thousands of species we are taking down with us? Chances are.

High damn stakes indeed.

I’m currently convalescing in a pretty borrowed cottage in Brittany (temporary accommodation has its upsides). Nearby is the only village in France to have held out against Nazi occupation. We’re in the middle of a vast forest. Next door is a café-librairie, centre of high culture and hub of resistance extroardinaire. Brittany has always known resistance, and I’m told that the protest vandalism of the gillets jaunes elsewhere in France will never harm a crêperie, out of respect.

The weavery bus in a Devon valley saw winter trade that was busy busy, thank god – and thank you to my customers; after a business-threateningly slow 2018, the winter compensated and brought my figures to something resembling an actual wage. My March monthly income fell back to zero. This is not entirely surprising, but the panic re-emerges nonetheless, as a constant threat underlying everything, like Brexit, and like climate breakdown.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, prematurely, on a night when I’m feeling sorry for myself and counting the biggest blessing in my life that is Murphy, Murphy gets a twisted gut, somersaults out of the van vomiting with a heart attack, and dies.

Here he is, from the nervy, ratty, rescue youngster I nearly overlooked, to the crown prince, drawer of crowds, maker of friends and love of my life that I thought I didn’t coo too much about on social media but which your wonderful, overwhelming condolences confirm that I must have done at least a little. Ouch.

I’m also nursing another heartbreak – one that paled briefly into insignificance on Murph’s death, but one which has taken a great deal of processing nonetheless, both before and since: someone I perceived as steady and a friend for life, and then fell in love with, but whose parting poetry proved hollow as he disappeared for good. A very Irish story (in case you were reading between the lines of my blog back then).

I’m also facing, after about seven years, that I have a serious health issue: ever-increasing electro-sensitivity. Like any allergy or intolerance, it sets in when you’re down, and now has me unplugging appliances, disconnecting batteries, flipping trip switches, avoiding devices and having to stay in the wilds to avoid being a nervous, sleepless, nauseous wreck. And this at a time when I thought I might have had enough isolation in the wilds and want to rejoin ‘civilisation’ and community.

It has serious implications for both social and working life: mobile internet access is a toxin to which I’m having to limit my exposure to about 10 seconds a day – and still pay for for an hour or so, if not a whole night. (An actual, physical marketplace would be every bit as bad due to everybody else’s mobile phones, cell towers and neighbours’ Wifi.) And so, when I’ve managed to make business and lifestyle so apparently miraculously synergistic so far, for want of a landline and a Murphy, I may have to make some very big changes.

Electro-sensitivity is a very 21st century problem, as yet little known, under-researched and poorly understood, though it apparently affects some 25% of us, in different ways, and military research has long recognised the impact of high frequency radiation on health. If you have persistent unexplained symptoms like non-specific anxiety, insomnia, headaches, nausea, tinnitus, nosebleeds, then SWITCH EVERYTHING OFF! (In fact, please switch everything off in between use always and anyway, for everyone’s sake!) I recommend the work of British radiographer Dr Erica Mallory Blythe (helpful videos on Youtube); TED talker and Silicon Valley ‘refugee’ engineer Jeromy Johnson; and the Stop Linky anti-smartmetre brigade in France, who have put me in touch with knowledgeable doctors, geobiologists and eco-electricians. (Thank goodness, again, for the French spirit of resistance, for in this, as in many things, they are more advanced than the British.)  Most people will suggest a tinfoil hat, but increasing numbers do actually understand and can help. You can’t imagine my relief to hear that Brussels has just become the first city to refuse 5G. For the sake of the electro-sensitive among us (including birds and probably most other wildlife), please let’s halt the indiscriminate march of radiowave technology that may be mass suicide by sterilisation! (And yes, maybe our species is actually killing itself off for the sake of our host and our fellow guests on this planet.)

Anyway, back to the wool (always a relief): meantime I’m treating this hideaway as a product development period. I’m honing my spinning skills and experimenting with plant dyes and will shortly have a range of subtle coloured earthen yarns to offer for your own creativity to flourish. Unless and until I work out a better way to trade, they’ll be in my Etsy shop as usual.

As a taster, here are some adventures in ivy, dandelion, gorse, alder, birch, chestnut, lemon, avocado, pomegranate, japonica and camellia… 

Above, my own-spun Leicester long wool, and below, Shetland, Blue Faced Leicester, Alpaca and lambswool. All on my shop ‘shelves’ soon.