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.

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Let’s quit the race to the bottom

I’m sitting almost on top of the woodburner. It’s not cold today – though the week began in Narnia. I’m just enjoying the flames that used to be like the baby in my life – tended dawn till dusk, laboured for, loved, and with me 24/7.

 

This morning, Saturday, I walked into town for supplies: forty minutes each way entirely in mature woodland which disgorges mossily green into the town in what the French call a chaos: a dramatically boulderous little white river.

Rushing stream portrait      Murph on snowy boar pool bridge 1

Last night I talked for hours with a dedicated and inspired primitive living craftsman friend back in England. As usual the conversation ranged from our respective love stories and wishes, through weaving and making, low impact livelihood, sustainable economics and how communities organise themselves. Except that most of those are one and the same.

He’s living in – horror of horrors – a successful intentional community. The horror is all mine: he has been a periodic part of that community for some time, and is very happy there. He described the power that is distributed since ownership is shared in both financial and real terms; the rota of work that is full of choice and leaves more days’ free time than not; the minimal financial contributions made by each member; the separate dwellings with an unmarked curtilage of privacy field; the land that is full of ‘resources’ for all, and devoid of fences; the horse- and man-powered machines that minimise fossil fuel use; the separate projects that provide for the whole group; and the businesses that offer a little employment. In all, a smooth-running micro-economy – an open system linking into but softening the blows of the larger vampire economy that most of us feed with more sweat, blood and tears than we can afford.

And all of that makes so much sense that my horror of communal living is slightly reduced.

I’m temporarily in a borrowed cottage in Brittany, partly for the woodburner, but largely for the conservatory, which offers me a bigger working space in which to try out some new kit – a tiny upscale. I bartered a treadle with an Ashford dealer who (compliment of compliments) is also a weaver. My loom sits atop the treadle, which has pedals so that my hands don’t have to operate levers to change the shed, but are free to just handle the shuttle more quickly. The point is to see whether increased productivity increases sales, since sales are usually stimulated by new listings I post in my online shop. I have indeed been a little more productive so far, but financially have had the worst January – which is usually the best month of my year – out of four Januaries since I began trading. Shit.

Is it Brexit? Is it Trump? Is it neoliberalism tightening its grip of austerity? Is it me?

In creep those doubts that always hover: can I survive? Am I making the right product? What do my community want and need? More to the point, what can they afford, with the yokes of debt around their necks? Do I have to compromise by buying cheaper imported wool of unknown provenance and many air miles? Can my prices really get much lower anyway? Do I have to stretch myself and my combustion engine thin by running around after products placed in galleries on a high-hassle sale-or-return basis? Do I have to stress myself out in high-pressure teaching for a wage that is half of that I used to anxiously labour for as the lowliest band of teachers in Higher Education? Do I have to get into more debt to invest a chunk in something that might propel the business – upwards (financially)? Downwards (socio-environmentally)? Must I make more and more beautiful things that only the very richest can afford?

It might just be a blip – these worries are all pretty normal in the early years of business, and especially in the arts, and especially in a conscientious arts business – and especially in a conscientious arts business in a growth economy. Making labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were also labour-intensive to produce in the avoidance of socially and environmentally unfriendly shortcuts results in a very expensive product. And in current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only really affordable to a richer community than one’s own. In growth model economics, my peers simply cannot afford my labour costs. And this is a problem.

Environmental and ethical shortcutting for costsaving is the race to the bottom that I am giving my life to resist. But here’s the locking mechanism of growth model economics that makes it so damn hard for any of us to resist its downwards spiral:

The almost-universal, debt-based system of money creation by corporates is described in the Bank of England’s 2014 Quarterly Bulletin. (I explained it in layman’s terms in a previous blog entry.) Regardless of whether the individual or single company is literally in debt, debt money accounts for over 97% of all money in existence. Yes, 97% of all money is debt, which means that 97% of all transactions must cover not just production costs (labour and embodied labour) but additionally, an interest component: all individuals and companies (and even most governments, though they could technically take money creation away from corporate interests and into their own hands) have also to spend extra money to service the borrowed money, i.e. to pay interest on loans.  To cover interest payments, prices will be necessarily higher than wages (in aggregate), with the result that not all goods and services produced can be afforded, because the wages (which pay the producer to consume) won’t stretch to it. This is thus a problem of built-in scarcity and compensatory infinite growth (which is in vain, even in purely financial terms, never mind the destructive social and environmental impacts).

Here’s how it plays out in practice for makers/producers:

In order for our own goods or services not to be the ones left on the shelf, we must engage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining; we are more or less compelled to compete in ever more vicious ways. If we want or need ordinary folk in our own economies to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.

This race to the bottom is a vortex: with all its spinoffs of more and more ridiculous novelty items and worsening production practices, our current monetary system is like an autopilot driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Over in the Green Cloth Collective, where we believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability, we are discussing alternative economics. As a group we’re still grappling with understanding the problems, and then articulating them, before we can really envisage solutions. But as far as I can see, part of the solution is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing networks and communities in which collaborative credit and other barter-related schemes can grow.

Wouldn’t it be different if you all could afford my labour, and I yours. As attributed to philosopher Alan Watts, saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So how can we all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom?

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The impressive folk at lowimpact.org are addressing these issues too (along with alternative economists around the world). And, honouringly, they have asked me and the Collective to be their advisers on low impact clothing production. My shop is now in their directory too, and proudly sports their logo.

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