Machair, music and motivation

‘Why are you making rugs?’ says my crofting host as I embark on rug no. 6 after a number of failures and less-than-successes. (I’ve recently written about the trickery of craft and market on No Serial Number magazine’s blog – keep an eye on my ‘Writings’ webpage and on NSN for more, too.)

I’m currently making rugs partly because I want to, need a change, enjoy the new freedom of working outside the parametres of clothing design (softness; drape; wearable colours). It’s partly because the sustainable native wools I love lend themselves to more robust weavings. It’s partly seasonal product development: because I need something that sells in the warmer months, which wearable woollens don’t so much. It’s partly because I’m thinking about home-making in a house, hopefully this winter, for some cosiness, security and, hell, some safety, actually. And it’s partly because, though I accept defeat more readily these days, I’m so near to successful rugmaking that after months’ of confidence-knocking frustration, I feel to push on through.

And so I embark on rug no. 6. I’ve got a new unbleached cotton/linen blend – it’s a pain to change warp material again, since every thread behaves differently, but I haven’t yet found out what works, and so haven’t been able to nail a constant source of warp yarn.

I generally love warp-dominant designs, so that winding the warp on the frame is about the most artistic step of the process – the bit where the seascape, or whatever it is, first emerges. However, this plain warp is easy and quick to wind (since for once I wind just one weaving’s worth at a time, to reduce frustration should things go wrong). I take special precautions and borrow some (full) tin cans to weight the warp evenly as I wind it onto the loom.

Weird loom shot - beaming with weights

I haven’t rethreaded the heddles for months, and there are some corrections and compensations that, I finally realise, are affecting tensioning. I compensate for this in the weaving. (What’s the difference between a skilled craftsman and a bodger?) It’s still not technically perfect, but it works, is robust, flat, and I like the character.

The Hebrides are famous for their machairs: in this peaty, treeless, topsoilless, rocky moonscape, a rainbow of wildflowers emerges like the Milky Way in summer. Out here on the west coast, the dark, iron-rich soil behind the sand dunes is sprinkled constantly with sand by the Atlantic gales. The sand, being crushed shells, is lime, and so alkalises the otherwise acid soil, creating the perfect bed for ragged robin, huge red clover, dwarf harebells, golden rod, eyebright, self-heal, louse wort, ragwort, wild thyme, buttercup, hawkbit, silverweed, plantain, meadoseeet, umbellifers, trefoils, vetches and more others than I can name. The Caribbean weather departed not long after I arrived here in June, but these eruptions of colour are all the merrier against gunmetal seas and skies. I was strategic, and though the machairs have gone to seed now, for once I took photos in time, and before, rather than after, making the weaving.

So here it is, the first machair rug: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/637779291/machair-wool-floor-rug-handwoven-in 

 

I’m also here for the folk music, and stay in Stornoway for five days over the HebCelt festival. I haven’t actually permitted myself time off, and have a to-do list and no arena ticket, but in between using the laundry, the library and the arts centre Wifi, I enjoy fringe events such as Gaelic singing workshops, young-peopled ceilidhs and music-rocked pubs. I make new friends (travelling and local) and bump into old ones who put me on the guestlist for the arena. However Mercury is retrograde, wires are crossed, and I’m disappointed on the gate, left to wander in the warm, wet castle woods that rave with the sound of some superb trancy folk acts that I can’t attend. I go lonely to one of the few pubs I’m comfortable in as a woman alone and play their piano for an hour, staring out at the grey-harbour rain, and feel better – or at least lonely in the way that proper musicians probably feel, which is better than ordinary mortal loneliness. Maybe if householding is an unrealistic dream I’ll go for studying folk music instead, and at least then be insecure doing the thing that I *really* love.

But then things liven up again on the weaving front: first I’m interviewed for a magazine article – a sensitive and passionate piece on me, maker politics and global economics by Kate Stuart will appear in the October print edition of No Serial Number magazine.  a photo of my tools is featured in an ad on American TV; a residency opportunity opens up, filming for the BBC; I go on a promotion blitz (get in touch if you want to help in exchange for some weaving credit); I see inspiration for weavings all around; I’m fired up with ideas for the Green Cloth Collective; I pitch a number of articles about landscape medicine and craft economics… So much to do. I’ll tell you next time what transpires.

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Inklings of renaissance

Happy New Year! Well, I had the sweetest Christmas, how was yours? Always exhausted at the year’s end, I crashed before getting to the end of the working year, but was able to do a little more, if not round off the batch of seascapes I was in, and stave off a proper bout of lurgy.

In a lovely Devon pub I met a beautiful, high-powered friend who works for a big NGO and we talked about how localism had left her discourse but how that was probably because it was by now a given in her development projects, so that ‘developing’ countries don’t just ‘develop’ in the same fatally flawed way that ours have done. Instead, like a good un, she’s getting anti-neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism on the table at talks with bigwigs from multiple southern hemisphere nations. We egged each other on and made a toast.

And in a lovely Devon café I met a gorgeous, bright woodman who’s looking for a smallholding partner. We had a dimpsey walk by the river, visited a printing press, sung into a mini-amphitheatre, enjoyed coffee and cake and a harp recital and browsing the right-on books for sale. We are also egging each other on and making toasts (and porridge).

However, I did then leave Devon regretfully to come to Brittany (optimistically), where a borrowed cottage affords me the comfort of a woodburner, beautiful extensive forest and a bigger workshop space. This last gives me room to try out my new treadle that I bartered in the Green Cloth Collective, where – compliment of compliments – another weaver and Ashford dealer traded it for a bluebellwood shawl of mine. I’m hoping that higher weaving speeds will increase productivity and thus sales, because sales tend to happen when new listings flurry my shop. This year, despite an excellent November/December thanks to BBC Radio 4, sales/orders have dropped off more over the Christmas/New Year period than they have done in the past. That’s nailbiting since the ferry and cottage cost a little more than staying in my van – which still costs, nonetheless.

I finished the batch of seascapes and found a Breton beach to rival the most stunning Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones. The bitter squalls rivalled the most stinging Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones too, and the breakers were bigger than the islets in the bay.

But in between  horizontalpours I crabbed around patches of virgin sand, leaning in as far as I could to place a weaving on the clean canvas, occasionally falling on an elbow and spoiling it, then following my tracks back around to move to another virgin patch, one eye on the rising tide, fingers freezing, admiring the view, missing the shot of sunlight, getting back to work, positioning everything perfectly, waiting for another shot of sunlight, running out of camera battery, replacing the camera battery, returning to catch the blowing-away garment, anchoring it with rocks and weed, awaiting another shot of sunlight, readjusting my metre, greeting the sunshot, cursing Murph who was clingy and cold and casting a shadow, getting him out of the way, awaiting another shot of sunlight, and throwing my arms up in the air at another dog hurtling towards us and skidding into my vignette, and crabbing around to another patch of virgin sand… And so on.

Petrol blue alpaca infinity scarf in landscapePetrol blue alpaca infinity scarf ring 2dark royal blue sea cowl round knotsBlue snug knots

Two blue snugs

Vertical seascape cowlDark royal blue snug round close

Largest all-Shetland sea cowl round on beachSea lettuce scarf knot

Grey green sea cowl ruffledGrey green sea waves weed detailSea remnant detail blurGrey Shetland sea scarf flotsamFoggy Atlantic purple grey green cowl blown open

 

I think 2018 is going to bring renaissance. Be at the heart of it. Join the Green Cloth Collective, for a start. It’s wicked.

Where the magic money tree grows

So I was looking for home and love. Home keeps reconceptualising itself; love was ever thus. And now I am looking for my role in the revolution and my place in the new order. By this I mean the campaign against feudalism and the growth of something that somehow marries the best of socialism, capitalism and anarchism.

Maybe one day I’ll buy a little land, but something stops me now: not only limited choice, and not knowing where I want to settle and invest, but also concern that land ownership is such a problematic part of the old order. When one person owns, no other can be an equal on that territory, is my experience – no matter how careful, generous and skilful the parties, it seems.

Summer hedgerow

I’ve been inspired by the words of a woodsman fellow weaver who made the below short film. Self-proclaimed ‘nettle nerd’ Allan Brown considers his nettle textiles a symbolic act of resistance, since wildgrowing nettles are the ‘fibre of the landless’. 

 

Because sheep farming is tied up with land ownership, reduced bio-diversity and the meat industry, ultimately I wonder whether I should move away from wool – even the local, undyed, vegetable dyed and/or handspun wool that I prize and can ill-afford – and towards a more sustainable fibre source such as an abundant wild British plant.

At Seed eco-conference I met not only virtual friend, drop spinner and weaver Imogen Di Sapia, but also a Saori weaver, Erna Janine, freely weaving chaos principle. I have another friend, Richard Toogood, currently staying in a Neolithic reconstruction village and rough hewing his own primitive looms. Together with Allan we are cooking up ideas for a ‘Green Cloth Collective’: a Green Cloth Camp; a Green Cloth Fair; a Green Cloth Co-operative. How to make local labour viable in a globalised neoliberal world? Meantime I have some nettle yarn from Nepal out of which I’m planning a poncho. Despite that the Nepalese yarn cost me about twenty times less than if I’d spun it myself, the garment will still be pricey, alas, because of the cost of my labour at even about half the UK minimum wage. Perennial problem for craftspeople: I hate that the many cannot afford my goods. I wonder if a different world economics could alter this.

The money question. At times it’s been a relief to leave complicated barter arrangements aside and resort to the supposedly neutral tool that is currency. Like many, I have a long-held suspicion of money, but in moments like those, see its true value as a tool. I’ve never understood money markets, nor, till recently, been interested in economics at all, though now have become fascinated with the both, together and separately. Here’s why.

Contrary to what the dominant neoliberal culture would have us believe, there *is* a magic money tree, but it’s currently in the wrong hands. Money can be a common good, but the way we currently create it is not in the interests of the common good: money creation as debt forms a locking mechanism that keeps us hellbent on the impossibility of infinite growth: boom, bust, guzzle, crash. Humankind is great, but we let our shadow run the show. And the essence of our modern economic model inclines us to act more exploitatively than most of us would naturally act. *This is how it works (it’s a simplification, and it’s dry, but it’s important, so I invite you to read carefully and share widely – and of course feel free to contest).

Some fundamentals:

Firstly, apart from the tiny proportion of money that is represented by coins and notes, money is not a *thing*: money is a token, an agreement between parties, a currency that serves as a tool to be used to aid the fair exchange of actual things.

Next, a brief look at the monetary cost of *things*, that is, of goods and services:

Raw materials do not cost us money, because we do not pay money to the earth herself for the minerals and other raw materials that we extract. What we pay in money for raw materials is for the labour required to extract and process them. So the financial cost of every product or service is mostly constituted by the cost of labour, including what I will call ‘embodied labour’.

In our current monetary system, over and above the cost of labour and embodied labour, which represent the true monetary value of a thing, there’s an additional cost. On average in each monetary transaction, there is one winner and one loser, financially speaking: in order to keep afloat, the vendor must charge more for his product than the product is technically worth in terms of labour. This is because he has to pay not only the cost of labour input, but also the cost of money.

So now to explain the cost of money:

Only 3% of all money in circulation has been created by governments. The other 97% of money is debt that has been created by corporate banks who have special governmental permission to manufacture money for the purposes of lending. When a loan is agreed, the lender simply writes the money into being in their electronic ledger as they transfer it into your bank account. That’s right: they create it from thin air, as confirmed here by the Bank of England. The magic money tree is currently operated by corporate banks who commodify money, hiring it out as if it were a thing.

The borrower does not just pay a hire fee or service charge, but an exponentially growing rate according to volume and timescale: interest. As the borrower repays the loan, the money loaned is written off again by the lender: it ceases to exist. Meantime the lender has extracted surplus, in the form of interest, which far exceeds the labour costs of lending the money, and which constitutes profits for the bank’s shareholders. (Who holds the most shares and thus gains the most income from this? The richest few at the top of the pyramid.)

And back to the transaction of goods and services:

This ‘surplus’ is the additional cost that a vendor has to cover in each transaction in order to service his borrowing. Hence the consumer pays a price that is more than the true value of the actual good/service.

These individual transactions aggregate to constitute the wider economy. Because of the the moneylenders’ interest hoover, vendors charge more than the actual value of their goods and services in order to cover debt, and consumers are out of pocket. The dynamic is mathematically imbalanced: prices are higher than wages/salaries, and so wages/salaries can never cover the consumption of all the goods and services produced. This means that some vendors will make heavy losses, even while consumers everywhere borrow more and more to afford less and less. The result is an impossible quest for infinite growth: basically productivity booms as we chase the shortfall, and busts when we fail to make it. The failure is inbuilt, never-ending and relatively predictable. (So if you’ve a shrewd eye and a purse for gambling…)

Consider the human and environmental cost of all this. Most of us have our backs against the wall for at least some of the time, or are at risk of it, and fear or memory of this discomfort or strife compels us to earn harder to try and alleviate the impact of the next squeeze. Depending on our place in the hierarchy of the economic pyramid, we are either stuck on survival, running just to stand still, or, if we’re lucky/ruthless, climbing at great expense. (Perhaps even those at the very top feel they struggle financially to maintain their castles, yachts, grouse moors, oilfields.) It is hard for anyone not to feel poverty conscious. When do we have the leisure to consider the sustainability of the system, the sustainability of our households, the sustainability of our relationships, and the sustainability of our impact on the natural world?

Being debt-free as an individual does not aid the debt-based economy, since 97% of the population will necessarily be in debt (as per the current percentage of money that is debt). Keeping consumerism down does not aid the debt-based economy either: with insufficient custom, our businesses fail, and our families suffer. A debt-based economy requires consumption to be maintained at a certain level – a level that our planet cannot sustain.

Something has to change.

We reject hunting and gathering, by our land ownership, agriculture and desertification. We reject self-sufficiency, for it does not allow for specialisation. We reject communism, for it reduces us to the lowest common denominator. We contest capitalism, but even without land or property ownership, we all have capital on which to capitalise, be it time, energy, or competency. We had democratic socialism, where the welfare state looked after those in need and business gave opportunity to some. We now have neoliberalism, a barely-regulated capitalism in which voracious big business dismantles the state, looking after fewer and fewer and giving real opportunity to fewer and fewer. We rejected feudalism, but it has emerged in another guise.

Said Indian ecologist Satish Kumar of Schumacher College some years ago: ’It’s not poverty that’s the problem, but wealth.’

So what can we do about it? A pivotal measure could be the nationalisation of money creation: it could remove the locking mechanism that keeps us in wealth-hoovering, planet-devouring chains.

When things get sticky, our governments shake the magic money tree themselves and, in partnership with the central bank, perform Quantitative Easing. In other words, they print money. They can do this in any number of ways – they don’t necessarily literally print banknotes, but may create digital money to invest in particular ways with the aim of stimulating growth in a certain sector, banking on positive knock-on effects for the wider economy. It doesn’t always work, and depending on the way QE is deployed, sometimes it serves only to create yet another trickle-up mechanism to boost the already rich. But the point is this: that *governments*, the folk we elect to work for the common good, can get involved in money creation.

So what if a government took the powers of money creation largely into their own hands? President Lincoln did this successfully with ‘Greenbacks’ before he was assassinated; JFK apparently was moving in a similar direction, and other isolated economies may have done and be doing this around the world.

positivemoney.org proposes such a sovereign money system in which a friendly government works in partnership with a committee at the national bank who are independent of the governing party for the sake of neutrality. A sovereign money system would not be gameable in the way that money creation as debt is currently gameable, and should thus eliminate and/or dilute the mechanisms by which wealth is currently hoovered upwards and concentrated in the hands of a few. Sovereign money could begin to create a stable economy in which costs, wages and prices all matched. Just imagine what we’d then all be freed up to achieve if we weren’t hellbent on the myth of growth.

–:o:–

And meantime what can we as individuals do to resist, prepare and act otherwise? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Visit the Positive Money website and read Bank of England literature for technical details – the more of us know what we’re talking about, the better
  • Join your local Positive Money group and campaign for monetary reform
  • Check out the New Economics Foundation
  • Consider your own business model (bottom up? collectivist? co-operative?)
  • Read Marx, Raworth, Reich, Roebottom, Monbiot and Noakes, or just interrogate bankers, economists and Positive Money folk, as I do
  • Watch Bruce Parry
  • Think collective, collaborative, co-operative and municipalist 
  • Study the economics of differently-organised countries and communities
  • Support local and regional banking initiatives, including credit unions and building societies, or otherwise Triodos Bank
  • Boycott
  • Barter
  • Share
  • Discuss
  • Contest
  • Write letters
  • Vote wisely
  • Ask questions
  • Gain insight
  • Consider the overview
  • Think in systems
  • Crowd fund
  • Crowd source
  • Guerilla garden
  • Rewild
  • Recycle
  • Reinvent
  • Repurpose
  • Upcycle
  • Be vigilant
  • Dream differently
  • Plan carefully
  • Create alternatives
  • Support each other
  • Remember Camus: ‘The only way to be free in an unfree world is to make your very existence an act of rebellion’

 

 

  • [Please add to this list in the comments below]

 

*With special thanks to Chris Noakes for guiding my study of monetary reform.

When you take off into the sunset: community and nomadry

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.

Lisa Wisdom wriggly tin art

 

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.)

Summer hedgerow green poncho banner

Rust Jacob poncho 2a

Dark Jacob poncho grasses

Dark Jacob poncho textures

Rodolpi maud portrait

Rodolpi poncho full height

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.

West Cork winter: inhabiting the seasons

Killarney National Park 3

I gradually emerge from midwinter’s emotional shroud and begin to enjoy getting out there a little.

Having fled down here in a state, with no heart and no plan, for a few months I’ve been feeling very lost and stuck. So then when I actually get the van stuck in the mud and have to wait twelve hours (at a very awkward angle) for a tractor, the stuckness slaps me in the face and prompts a meltdown.

I change locations and the change of scene helps. Although I’m feeling uncomfortable about being on others’ land no matter how kind they are, I enjoy the company of a different lively family and new lanes to walk. A thespian tells me about a singaround in a pub on the south coast and it is nice to be recognised by the host as I walk in, and waltzed by her at the end when an accordion plays a dance tune.

I meet a French WOOFA randomly in a pub – both of us females alone – and we are surprised to find that we both have family connections in the same remote part of Brittany. We go out together a couple of times.

After a while I go back to the family farm I initially fled to and am, again, warmly welcomed ‘home’.  There is a new lovely WOOFA, American, and we have great debates walking the lanes and going out to pubs.

The sow farrows a huge litter of piglets while I’m there. She is an enterprise that the youngest son, now a full time farmer, took on in his early teens, and the family’s source of pork.

(I never understood why the world goes crazy for pigs – I’ve never seen Babe – until one sunny autumnal day a few years ago when eight huge grown piglets joined me lying down in their field: they literally stretched their bodies along the length of mine to share warmth, and I laid my head on another. That was the first time we’d met. Amazing creatures.)

In a wholefood shop in town I natter with a self-taught perfumer from Carlow, Jo Browne, whose kitchen-table business has taken off like wildfire, here and abroad. I put my foot in it but she is tactful, forgiving, warm and inspiring and I am glad to have met her.

There’s a flurry of activity on the These Isles publicity front: first I’m invited to contribute some words to an article on tiny house living (‘Small Wonders’, by Carol Anne Strange, in the fifth issue of Breathe, a magazine by the Guild of Master Craftsmen). Then I’m asked out of the blue whether in a hurry I can get a spring green blanket to a photoshoot in a Welsh castle for the New York Times style magazine. Good people help me get into gear to make things happen in both cases (thank you Carol, Alice, Niall), and we’ll see what comes of it.

Then I go to the Killarney trad music Gathering. None of the campsites are open, so I will have to bite the bullet and do my first wildcamp in Ireland. I didn’t plan to do this in winter with her short days and early dark, and this winter’s twists and turns have left my confidence at an all-time low, but the line-up is so good that I go anyway – after all, what am I really in Ireland for?!

The first night, after delightful performances from musicians I’ve been wanting awhile to see (Bríd Harper, fiddle; Dermot Byrne, accordion; Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, singer), I make the cowardly choice to stay in the huge hotel car park. I am reassured by the presence of other festival-going motorhomers, but WiFried by the electromagnetic radiation of too many routers. During the next two days I enjoy superstars Dervish and younger genii I’d not come across: Goitse, Full Set, and husband and wife duo Caitlín Nic Gabhann (concertina, dance) and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh (fiddle). Mustering my nerves, I stay in the woods by the lough, where Murph and I have beautiful walks. Storm Doris brings snow here. When the festival is done I go into Killarney National Park proper, and after a weekend of blowaway music, I am blown away by the mountains too.

Back down in West Cork I negotiate a Donegal jumper or two to be made for my mother with our neighbour the woolshop owner, and buy some rich-coloured Donegal wool with which I plan to make a snug or three sometime.

Donegal green

With Alpaca and Shetland wool I weave a run of springlike woves, and for once am ahead of the seasons. This makes photographing them in the right settings difficult as the greens in the landscape are not yet acidic enough. That might not sound like a problem, but it is! A problem of lifestyle, also, I realise: I have often moved on from the source of inspiration whilst still working on the weavings it inspired. And I am frequently one whole season behind in my colourways. (Hmm. Constantly dwelling in the previous season rather than the present? Or just getting good at slow? Ahem.) Being a whole year behind would work ok. The fashion industry probably mostly works one year ahead.

In fact, though it’s still wintry, I fail to photograph even the few wintrier woves in the right landscape: they are sea-inspired but the sea, weather, light and opportunities to go out with a camera don’t all line up. I take a day trying to find the right seascape, but the weather changes and the beaches I find here are just wrong for it, and I spend the whole day driving. (Oh well, at least I like driving – and have a good soundtrack, after buying great CDs from the amazing young Killarney performers. I put Caitlín Nic Gabhann’s haunting ‘Last Port of Call’ on repeat, and later learn it on the melodica.)

 

This winter I’ve expended an unhelpful amount of energy worrying about how to make life work.  Being on the road proper in winter doesn’t feel feasible – it’s lonely and less safe. Being on others’ territory is often uncomfortable, no matter how good the arrangement. To my disappointment, though there are parking up places, land is less accessible here than in Scotland, and although actual gypsies have just been granted official recognition in Ireland, beach car parks and the like tend to have height restriction barriers and ‘no camping’ signs. Landowners are more forgiving of walkers than they are in England, but less so of dogs, and there are far fewer actual footpaths/public rights of way. I get excited about the possibility of buying my own small plot of land, perhaps a derelict house, and even view an interesting place in a good location, but don’t feel ready to set up house alone.

For a month I’ve barely made music myself either, despite making more and more friends in the sweet West Cork folk scene, which offers lots of non-scary opportunities. I’ve had something hurting my throat and crouching on my chest for ages – damp and unvoiced worries. I have a little bout of bravery on the melodica (and getting that out in public *is* brave): a new friend hosts a fireside session in a tiny pub at the end of a long peninsula, and we share tunes. When there’s a song, all ten people in the pub listen and/or join in, and suddenly we are one family in the same conversation. The next time I return there through the fog, the locals recognise me and ask if I ‘have the music tonight’. Though I don’t that night, in an instant I glimpse a life exactly as it should be.

In another pub nearby, the landlady requests a reel and a jig of the accordionist, and dances some traditional steps; the young barman gets out guitar and harmonica and sings soulfully. Though I only visit the once, and am songless and subdued, sad that I’m about to leave the area, I am touched by the staff waving me off as my van pulls away.

Says Shetlander Malachy Tallack on his journey through Siberia in search of home: ‘the longing for home and the longing for love are so alike as to be almost inseparable. The desire to be held by a person, or by a place, and to be needed; the urge to belong to something, and for one’s need to be reciprocated’…

Welcomed by family I didn’t know were family; by neighbours, townspeople, new friends and friends of friends, I start to feel a sense of belonging in West Cork, and that, though not everything is here, still there are things that I would love to be a part of.

Conversations with craftspeople: light, colour, technique, tools, process, livelihood, story and business model

So, as introduced in my last post, the annual Contemporary Craft Festival in a wooded park in Bovey Tracy, Devon, is probably the Westcountry’s finest. Much of the work doesn’t even look handmade, it is that well crafted. It is a very glamorous, smooth-operating, but nonetheless human, event, with rusticity poking out and real people shining through.

Contemporary Craft Festival makers' cards

Woefully underprepared, inadequately kitted, hurriedly crazed and over-excitedly voluble, I dove back into the middle of Saturday’s throng fearing that stallholders would be too busy to talk, but found my most exciting snippet-giver momentarily still between sales, and warmly receptive.

Valérie Wartelle is a textile artist whose treatment of light, contrast and depth in her wet felted wool landscape abstractions is as striking – or moreso – as Turner’s treatment in oils, and even more of a marvel. Let’s call her ‘the felter of light’. Like the artist says of herself in my recording, I’ve never been drawn to feltwork, but Valérie’s is truly magnetic.

Small, blonde, French and beautiful, she met my intensity immediately, and as with the succeeding conversations, we were forging into rich, dense matter before I’d even had time to explain my interest, ask if I could record and press play. She explains that, as with many of us, she ‘fell into’ her craft and loves the surprising emergence of it as the materials and light ambitions lead her a merry dance which, her work shows, she steps with masterful agility.

Here are 9 minutes of our snatched discussion – Valérie Wartelle podcast.

I’m just editing my conversation with second craftsperson weaver Sarah Beadsmore and will post that soon, but first, below a screenshot to entice you to Valérie’s stunning website:

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