Weaving the sea

Seascape blanket 9

I decide to return to Devon for a pit-stop, and go via Dublin for a shorter ferry journey, a superhero gig, an invitation to the Etsy Ireland headquarters, and an evening with someone special. Though I give the van a good wash, I bail out of going to the Esty Ireland headquarters, as a few days in the city, a ferry journey and an evening with someone special feel like daunting enough challenges all at once, without also inviting a bunch of strangers into my tiny winter-worn workshop-home just now. I’ll have to come back soon for the honour of a work lunch and open studio.

I spend a night in a campsite on the outskirts that is next to an enormous park and which has rosemary hedges dividing some of the pitches. I’m nervous about parking in the city – all the car parks in the safer zones have prohibitive height restrictions – but public transport is the scarier option for this country girl, especially late at night, and difficult too with Hound. However, when I find a nice spot very near the centre the next day, just round the corner from the Palestinian embassy, I decide to overnight there. (Gotta be one of the weirdest.)

I pass a curious shop, the kind I might have expected to see in the Outer Isles, or in my childhood in the provinces: a narrow, high-ceilinged Georgian house has its ground floor hung unslickly with wovens and jumpers, and the lovely girl attending shows me the Swedish loom she is resuscitating in the basement. We make friends and I feel at home.

I visit some Viking textiles in the archeology museum, and wish I’d allowed more time for my visit, as Irish bogs have preserved a plethora of intriguing artefacts down the centuries.

Murphy finds some fans as ever, and I meet with said someone special on Stephen’s Green. A native Dub departed, he delights in showing me a corner or two, and we natter without pause, and though we are late for the gig, we have to stop so he can demonstrate somethingorother (Celtic? Viking? Identity? Equality?) properly with his hands. They’re beautiful hands, so I stop and watch. A swan makes her presence felt, and we exchange folk tales about swans, and then later Andy Irvine sings a beautiful version of the tale I have told, as if for us. Afterwards we head to O’Donohues, the pub he said that changed his life five decades ago, and the musicians are all still there, and we dig it.

I sleep well enough in the street, and walk Murph along the canal in the sun and cherry blossom next morning. There is a poet’s statue, a discarded sleeping bag, and a homeless man’s tent. Dublin is my latest love, and somewhere I plan to return, even live, though god knows how.

The next day the sky is blue, the sea calm, and our journey smooth. The only traffic jam occurs by a beach in North Wales, so Murph and I have a walk and it clears. Late at night we get to Gloucester Services and there the next day meet for lunch with the old schoolfriend who bartered me the big accordion there when we were on our way out to Ireland six months ago.

Devon feels busier than Dublin felt on St. Paddy’s bank holiday weekend with a rugby match (Ireland beat England, yey)! But it’s warm, and it keeps being warm for weeks on end, and so I keep on staying.

We spend a couple of nights camping with friends near Land’s End, in Cornwall, as a gig at the outdoor amphitheatre carved into the cliff coincides with my needing a crystal blue sea to photograph my latest weavings, and the last day of sunshine. The climb down to the first beach is steep, the afternoon late, the tide just turning, and my camera batteries failing. But fortune brings it all together in a narrow window and, after several years’ gestating these weavings and several months’ gestating the photography, here are the first of them:

Picture white sand and crystal blue green waters at Cliobh (Isle of Lewis), Husinish and Luskentyre (Isle of Harris), Langamull and Calgary (Isle of Mull), Glassilaun (Connemara), Allihies (Cork), Pednvounder and Porthcurno (Cornwall)…

I planned to return to Ireland, but it’s not quite right just now. Week by week I hit on other exciting ideas, research them, make initial enquiries, resolve to realise them, then replace them with another: ruin renovation in Ireland’s West? Canal boat on England’s waterways? Agro-forestry in Wales? Weaving shed in Devon? Permaculture in Cornwall? Crofting in the Scottish Isles? Urban life in Glasgow? Cottage in Brittany? Finca in the mediterranean? Something in Scandinavia?

Britain’s general election will be a watershed and I may decide according to what this country looks like on June 9th. After an anxious drive to Make a Plan, I accept the uncertainty and concede that this lush Devon valley will do fine for a time. It serves a quiet working routine very well, and I meet up with old friends, unearth some great gigs, and plug back into political networks. A canvassing experience in a nearby marginal constituency has me enjoying knocking on doors though I thought I wouldn’t:

We’re voting Labour [all thumbs up and the warmth of conspiracy] I don’t know what I’m voting but not Tory [Then Labour is the only probable alternative, pleeeease!] We’re voting Lib Dem, even if they’re statistically unlikely here [Good for you for your conviction] I’m not voting for that Corbyn plonker [Well, he’s the very reason I’m here, but I respect you] And I respect you too [respectful smiles all round] You won’t get anything out of me [What, not even a vote?] You can’t speak for this city, you woman, you won’t seduce me with your party mantra [nastily, before I’ve even opened my mouth] Maybe… I’m going through a bereavement… Yep, Labour… Election?

No progressive alliance deal is made locally and so the left-of-centre parties are still pitted against each other. Even though this is supposedly an ultra-safe Tory seat, I make a quick straw poll to gauge the local mood for tactical voting and share it on social media, and the response is encouraging. What the metropolitans often don’t know about the blue and purple South West is that this is the cradle of Britain’s green movement; that, briefly a UKIP stronghold, nonetheless we were part of Devon’s only Remain area; that the NHS was conceived in talks here at Dartington College of the Arts; that radical and creative things can happen here first.

With our artistic and social innovations let us use our Pen against fascism and likewise redirect the Marche of greedy neoliberalism and its false freedoms.

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.

West Cork weaves

dusk-on-barley-cove

Though a bit of me is left behind in Connemara and I’ve been feeling very lost (like, what the hell am I doing with my life?), time and Cork are doing their job, thanks to good people and good music.

My host is cheerful, thoughtful, generous, unimposing and kind, and parked up by her chicken run in a farmyard that is cared for but not manicured, all my practical and many of my social needs are met, for a modest pitch fee that I’ve had to insist upon paying. Striking and Goidelic, she also models my work beautifully.

b-purple-sky-snug-looking-left

She invites me on walks with her great friends, and we sometimes go into town on errands together (‘town’ being any one of the many small, colourful, lively, harbour hubs that are within striking distance of this hill). I buy not one, but TWO new Donegal wool jumpers. They are both green (though different shades), and for a proper good Irish look I am given a daringly-orange beanie by the lady in the jumper shop because she’s our neighbour and she likes my dog.

On one such trip to town we stroll along a pebbly beach, watch dolphin fins in the bay and hear a birdlaugh from a nearby island that we don’t recognise. My host’s son works the mussel boats and, cherubian and yellow sou’westerlyed, he gives us a wave and a large sack of shellfish. Meeting the boat (by happy accident) as it docks, it feels as if we’re receiving smugglers’ treasure or cocaine (have you seen the Cornish film Ondine?). We also receive a bag of dirty laundry (mother makes a good mule). Later, well feasted (onion, garlic, parsley, cream and cider), despite curses at extending his working day, the mussel cherub answers my questions about mussel farming:

– How do you breed them?

– We don’t, they’re wild; we just provide the breeding ground.

– Oh?

– Beneath the floating black barrels you see there are hundreds of metres of looped rope; they cling to that.

– So they believe that they’re free and they choose to live on your farm. Poor buggers. Do you feed them?

– [Laughs.] Nope, they feed themselves.

– Do you medicate them? Antibiotics?

– No way, that’d ruin the water!

– Yes, but that’s what industry does, isn’t it? Well, good, I’m glad you don’t! How long do they live? When do you harvest them?

– We separate the smaller ones from the larger ones for harvesting between one to three years’ old. You can come on the boat if you like.

– I’d love to [she says, a little nervously; how many hairy arsed men?]!

I conclude that mussels may be reasonably sustainable, as well as healthy, fare and resolve to eat them more often.

In the Irish farmhouse kitchen by the warm range, some music: his melodeon (only it’s called an accordion here); my accordion; various guitars, voices and congas. Just as an Irish kitchen is supposed to be.

And then top-of-the-trad-canon fiddler Martin Hayes comes to town, with astoundingly good Waterford piper I haven’t heard of (apart from on Radio Na Gaeltacht in the car on the way there), David Power. I take the lovely French WOOFA and though she may not have been into Irish traditional music before, she loves it and says that a gig this good is truly the stuff of memories, and my heart is warmed. It is a fabulous gig, by great masters, and the venue has an excellent upcoming programme including many of my heroes and heroines – another pot of gold.

I’ve co-designed a weaving with a wonderfully engaged, artistic and sympathetic customer who cites Rothko, Klee and Matisse as possible influences on our shawl design. I see the colours she chooses in my much-photographed Connemara-autumn-birch-in-front-of-bracken-hill-and-purple-mountain-snowy landscape and wind a warp I hope she’ll like. I spend January working on various iterations of this.

The first iteration is a washing machine casualty (as you may have seen me rant about on my other platforms): with wools that are still ‘in the oil’, i.e. ‘greasy’ from the oil put in by the mill to aid the spinning process, I have to wash them. I can either soak them overnight in a large, bendy tub I carry on board, which is risk-free, or I can put them in a washing machine on a 30º wash where a delicates cycle will turn them over in both directions for a little agitation that will ‘full’ the cloth, i.e. rough up the fibres for a softer, woollier cloth with less stitch definition. If I get this wrong, I can shrink, distort or otherwise ruin my work. In this case, the drum has had its aelerons removed (I’ve no idea what the proper name is for the plastic ‘sleeping policemen’ inside that move the washload? Fins?), exposing sharp metal tabs, which I fail to spot. In future I will check every new machine I ever use outside and in: these sharp tabs cause disaster by pulling a hundred threads in my loose weave.

I list it as a second when a genius weaving friend admires the ‘hawthorn snagged chic’. To my delight, it sells within minutes to a good woman who says upon receipt that she is gladdened by its dose of landscape medicine in her currently-urban life. I’ve been gladdened by the making of it, too, if not the ruining of it.

The second iteration, despite double-checked calculations, comes out smaller than requested, and I do not get away with the liberties I have taken in representing closely the particular view from my autumn home when some colours and details deviate from my customer’s requests. I’m attached to the highlights of gold leaves against the red birch twigs, and pleased with how they capture the scene I have in mind, and I hope someone will love this one modelled by a Massey…

birch-shawl-1-whole-on-wheel

However, for the third iteration, she asks me to remove the dark red section with its tiny stripes and make a couple of other little tweaks. I am lenient with her and happy to make a third attempt because, whilst we have very amicably discussed my creative freedom, I know I have stretched the spec too far according to my whim. Finally this third one touches her heart, and I am content.

The Connemara autumn series of weavings has left some lovely offcuts that are in my shop’s ‘Sale and miscellany’ section for you creatives who wish to do something clever with them (do get in touch if you’d like me to combine lots at better rates).

 

I take my bike for a second tyre replacement in the snow and go for a long bike ride the next day (only getting off to push it up *two* of the many hills). The 27 year old water pump in my van dies, but I order a replacement and fit it myself and feel smug. Then I forget to replace the oil filler cap and the van cries black tears and I have to order another filler cap and I feel less smug. However three different men get involved to help and that’s nice. Irresponsibly (for a hole is immediately blown in the temporary tin foil oil filler cap), on our way home from the beach we nonetheless stop to enjoy a Chinese takeaway in a hip and welcoming, unpretentious, pub with a great singer/songwriter and other friendly folk, and then a visit to a new friend’s beautiful home, banoffee pie with her many kids and a drink with them and some musicians in another great and curious little pub. She relates intriguing tales of mysterious family constellation therapy happenings. I have strange dreams, but since I have had three sociable and musical evenings in a row with a beach walk in between, and made a bunch of new contacts as well as friends, life is looking brighter again.

 

Focus and uprootedness

perfection

I’m harbouring some kind of vague hope that last year’s drama will depart with last year’s departure; that the suspension of reality during the festivities together with celebration, ritualistic appreciation, farewell and release will bring in the new. But it’s mostly all still there, isn’t it? Domestic, emotional, political, financial and environmental upheaval, personally and collectively; the pressing need to make one’s way in a world bled ever drier

But I write to you because your responses remind me that it’s ok, even beautiful: my taste of homelessness before Christmas alarmed me and some of you, but the silver lining was in learning that next time I can put word out and the magic carpets will be woven in an instant – thank you. You have to line them up as best you can, and learn to surf!

Pin board

Photo by Alice Carfrae

Christmas was, after all, a family occasion, and lovely. An Indian, a German, several Brits, several Irishmen and an Italo-Celt prepared and enjoyed a delicious meal together.

Then I headed back up to Connemara for plans made last month.

*

The route through mountains that touches the weed-dressed backs of the bays in Cork is stunning – I missed it in the dark on my way down earlier.

Descending into Kerry lowlands a disturbed character by the side of the road flashes his bits at me, and later I follow a hearse for ten minutes. The two incidents are not related except that a Kerryman I meet on a Connemara mountain a few days later confirms that Things Happen in Kerry – the rest of my journey is uneventful, and enjoyable enough.

I meet the first of my friends in welcoming Galway City, and after five years, it is lovely to catch up. The next night at the coast we discover an incredible tonsil of three or four beaches, welcome the twilit wind in our hair and tidy a tangled lifebuoy rope. In a pub we find an excellent young duo making trad music on guitar and banjo. The following day, New Year’s Eve, we meet the other two of our party, and take them to my favourite beach – which is always the first beach, where I land in wonder – before preparing and eating another good meal together.

On New Year’s Day I clock about 20km with a dogwalk followed by a group walk: country lanes and mountain tracks are great settings for a natter. 

At a mass rock (where Catholics worshipped in secret when ousted from their churches) on a low mountain pass a group of young Irish folk say their prayers aloud and then chatter, friendly, as we climb back down the hill together. I apologise for the Brits, as I often feel myself compelled to do, though they show no grudge.

western-way

Photo by Zinny Ross

The following day Murph and I take advantage of the incredible sun. Every time I get into the van to go anywhere it feels like an adventure, and today is no exception: the corner of Connemara I’ve not yet seen is the north west and its convoluted coastline is littered with islands and inlets. With little information as usual I just follow my nose and hit gold: the road turns into a lane and the lane turns into a beach, only this is a beach with a difference: the signs direct drivers straight across the sand to a two-mile island that’s accessible for twelve hours a day according to the tides. I scowl at those over-enjoying the novelty and driving around the whole beach as if it were a car park, and leave the van on the near shore, walking to the island instead. I wonder how fast the tide will race over this flat strand and whether it catches people off guard. I meet an interesting young couple (and my radar for new friends says they’re definitely good contenders, but they’re in a hurry) who’ve actually read the tide tables. They reassure me I’ve quite a few hours, and keeping an eye out for the time of slackwater I calculate that they’re right.

sandbus

The rural Irish, like the rural Scottish, tend to bury their dead in wildy places with stunning sea views. I pass a large graveyard on the island’s shore as I head north for an anti-clockwise circuit. I wonder whether I will be walking on white sand all the way, but the western shore is rockier, and so we traverse the machair (which must be full of meadowflowers in summer). I’m told, though have not yet been able to verify, that Connemara detached itself from Scotland, and so the accumulating number of parallels I identify between the landscape and culture of here and the Hebrides/West Highlands ceases to surprise me. I am in love with them both.

I eat my picnic on the farthest north west point of the island, gazing on the glittering blue and green and black and white of the Atlantic and its other islands. The wind is cold but the sun warm and Murphy quite patient. Behind us the Twelve Bens and Maumturks of Connemara have white peaks. Walking down the outer shore we pass rock formations and a shrine, one of which may be a ruined church I’ve been told about. There’s a lough in the middle of the island with swans and cignets, and I’m reminded of Heaney’s Flaggey Shore again.

We’ve been out for five hours and as the sun slants even more I worry a little about the tide as we skirt farmland and follow the lane back through the few houses on the island, but we are fine.

As I leave the peninsular I see a patch of land for sale that captures my imagination. My heart is still in Connemara.

Returning to Cork offers comfort though: it’s full of alternative types and I am not weird here. By the time I’m back in the Kerry mountains I’m rocking through the tunnels to American Pie and even the furniture crashes around in the back as I sweep too fast around 180º bends. (Back on the hillfarm the frost is heavy and an hour after I’ve gone to bed I recall my host’s warnings of icy roads and shudder at how I might have killed myself with excessive jubilance rolling the van on the trickiest mountain passes. But it was fun and I didn’t.) I meet an interesting woman on the most southerly point who has read about me, and she offers me a parking place at her rural home. I’ve also been offered an isolated bothy on a rocky shore if a hermitage is what I need, which it might well be if I can cope with only a woodburner, no electricity and an earth floor in winter.

I’m still feeling disoriented and in limbo, and where I thought I could write myself back into focus I have not, so the only therapy left is to set up the loom. Thank god for that.

*

murph-pine-lough

Midwinter flight

The fieldfares have finished all the berries but I’ve a host of colourful photos and a lifetime of inspiration from this very berried Connemara autumn. I have two sightings of a black hare on the hill, both at dusk, and both after hearing tales of darkness. (I know it is real because the second time Murph sees and smells her too and gives chase.) What I would usually consider a beautiful gift sends a little shudder and a homeward turn. I also learn later that this hill was the site of Ireland’s last wolf, and I wonder who shot her.

And then of a sudden I have to go. Not for the murders in the glen or their mammalian reincarnations; not for the dark winter nights and rain; not for the isolation, but for the politics of the place. Dread has been accumulating and I’ve been denying it – I don’t run, I stand my ground – but now in a panic I pack up and take refuge in a nearby glen.

Parked outside the empty house of some sympathetic folk on a different mountainside, the weaving soothes my nerves, and I re-inhabit the van full time, relieved to be back in my own little home, and mobile. Anxiety and insomnia still do not subside, but overnight I write a song about a near miss, and that is probably a better antidote than some find in lithium. It’s an innocuous-looking little ditty masquerading as a lovesong but actually concerning possession, and it’s called ‘A Wolf in Love’s Clothing’. The accordion accompaniment has a tricksy, driving rhythm delineating the dark edges: ONE two three ONE two three four five.

For only the second time in my travels I feel scared of being alone. For all the unconditional generosity, I feel like a trespasser in my kind new hosts’ realm, and feel their absence too. I drive into town but others’ Christmas efforts make it worse as I wonder where on earth to go for the festivities – to enjoy them or avoid them. Hopping on a ferry is a hugely tempting prospect. I consider far flung and far fetched refuge options such as familiar Brittany or the Hebrides. At least I have options – although on an average of two hours’ sleep a night I’d hardly be safe to get us there, and my money certainly wouldn’t stretch to getting us back here again. There are friends and family I can call on in Devon, if my pride and patience will allow – though I conclude that they won’t.

I’ve barely felt lost since being on the road, but I guess this is an inevitable part of it at times. ‘This is what I do’, I think to myself. This not knowing where I’m going, ‘this is how it is’. This is part of the joy of it. Ha. Not at Christmas, nor when the nights are this long.

Hardly able to think straight, not wanting to leave Ireland lest I cannot afford or face a January return, I eventually send an email to County Cork. I have forgotten, but this woman is essentially family; her Irish hillfarm, sheep-rearing, carding, spinning, weaving and self-sufficiency shaped my dreams some thirty years ago, and now she extends a warm and open-ended welcome.

I drive all day, for Ireland is not so little, especially in a big old yoke like mine. Even exhausted in the dark I recognise the buildings from my childhood. In the daylight, I find megaliths in every field, which each has views of mountains, islands or sea, or all three.

We go to the beach, and my host points out the oil works where an explosion killed several hundred crew. Everywhere in Ireland there is tragedy: lazybed reminders of the famine; Satanic references or historic multiple murders on every hill I occupy!

However this is also the birthplace of the author of the Irish Bible (folkies will know that I exaggerate hardly at all):

Despite the upheavals and emotional rollercoasters, through the adventures I have to keep the business going of course.

I’m relieved to receive a glowing email from the initiator and recipient of the Glencoe shawl who, despite misgivings on seeing photos, is overjoyed at the wove ‘in the flesh’ and at how it makes her feel and look. This like a trickle of warm water down my spine.

I’m approached by a journalist to write about why tiny house/small-scale living/working is increasing in popularity among creative folk. At this dark midwinter I have to push away the word ‘desperation’ and opt to say ‘making do’. Creatives have to learn to make do: even in good times, living by our art is extremely difficult, but living by any other means, or not living our art, is destructive and even impossible – and especially in bad times. But more positively, Leonard Cohen’s recent song ‘Traveling Light’ comes to mind: the flow and dynamism of mobility. Creatives think out of the box – that’s what makes us creatives – and so we find out of the box solutions for living our creativity. Because we are born free, standing in line or living in rows is not acceptable. Because we think conceptually and are among the biggest challengers of mainstream ills, greedy unsustainable living is not likely to be an option. Besides, greedy, big properties guzzle up all the time and energy that our creativity demands for itself – and it does demand. Woe betide you if you don’t heed its call!

In between completing my tax return we go to a session and a dance. I tentatively join in the first and more vigorously the latter. There are some hundred local dancers young and old, and enough who know the steps, slides, swings, chains, houses and baskets to whirl us novices around at speed. An Irish céilí has more verve than an English one, and as the second half begins after food at 2230, the feet and fiddles are rocking this remote community hall and the dancers are set in for several more hours after our frail 2330 departure. There are more céilís coming up, and more musical events, and my host and I compare looms and weavings and bodges and I know that here too, again, there is a lot for me, and so I plan to stay awhile.

Gusts in the glen

I finally find my working rhythm and weave and weave (though never enough), and November sees a steady trickle of sales. The ‘Snowdonia in Summer’ shawl commission (which is actually meant to represent a very similar photo of Glencoe, the wearer’s birthplace) is complete, which is a relief, as it’s been a challenge.

From the same warp I also cunningly craft ‘Dartmoor in Summer’, ‘Connemara Autumn’ and ‘Mountain Skies’ snugs, soft with alpaca.

 

 

 

 

I also make a huge, heavy, waxy, rugged blanket commissioned by a friend as a swap for some beautiful yurt doors we made a few years back of reclaimed timber, old stained glass and cast iron hinges. The blanket, to be worn as a mantle, is of brown, rabbit and cream sheepy undyed Rodolpi Mountain wool which is so thick that weaving it batters my back, shoulders and loom, which I lift clear off the table with every beat. The process is slow, inefficient, painful and risky, and tries my patience sorely, but the final result is the kind of wholesome stuff of the 70’s craft revival that I envisioned making right from the start. (If only we didn’t all get so seduced by soft luxury and colour…)

richs-blanket-folded

I am shocked, if not surprised, by Trump’s election – what a crazy world in which the monsters of neoliberalism and fascism now wrestle and procreate and threaten to take us all down with them – and then very saddened by Cohen’s death. Clicking straight through to hear his newest and last album, the opening track tolls like a requiem for a pained prophet relieved to depart.

Another of my heroes is in town, and I make my solitary way to Galway to see world fiddle maestro Martin Hayes. I’ve not seen him in his core duo with Dennis Cahill before, and although their sensitive souls are shaken by recent events – and I am close enough to see their hands shaking too – they are superb. They are shamen, crafting slowbuilding tornadoes that soothe and stir and drive the heart, mind, pulse and spirit of every person in the room. The mostly-young audience *roars* at the finish of the first storm.

I’ve been advised to introduce myself to a famous craftsman who lives in our glen, and so I’ve dropped him a line. Though I’ve heard nothing back, of all the people in the world I should sit next to at the feet of Hayes and Cahill is the craftsman’s son, who’s picked up my message and who is also overjoyed at the coincidence. He is pissed as a fart, raving like a lunatic and ranting like a Toretsian. He wants to give me a lot of hugs and hi-fives but his humour is Trumpist, so although he sweetly shares his line of pints with me, I am wary of the shadow. Still, it is a great evening, and I listen to Irish language radio there and back with the largest lunar standstill and a heart full of hope.

The next day I exhaust Murphy even more than myself taking my bike along the lough in the next glen, and every nook is even more beautiful than the last, though none moreso than the one I’m currently calling home.

My only other outing, apart from walking to the Post Office – which doesn’t really count because it’s all within the family – is for food shopping. However even this can be a special occasion: confusion at a cash machine leaves me mentioning to a woman that I’m looking for a shop that can print a document, and she kindly takes me back to her house to print it. Craic at the counter has another old guy and I exchanging verses of song. The butcher, a rare farmer of free range pigs, now knows me and we exchange pleasantries. Then on our way back we wander around a ruined abbey, a ruined castle and another ruined abbey in the dimpsy.

Then there’s a week in which I don’t sell anything, just weave, though even in this remote place I don’t see no-one, but get to watch some good shepherding and pass the time of day with one of the farming neighbours. Another knocks on my door – I have been warned that he might and he has been warned not to. A rough old hillfarmer reported to be aggressive at times, he is nonetheless touchingly, shyly polite around me. He is impressed because I knocked on his door once to report a sheep in trouble, and touched because more recently I knocked to see how he’d recovered from a general anaesthetic. He comes sweetly and courteously to report his fury at having had to strip off his rags in the hospital and be cold and starved for hours, and says ‘fooking’ this and ‘fooking’ that and we laugh and he considerately takes his leave after only a short rant.

There’s another elderly death in the glen, and at the same time a wedding scarred by a recent young mother’s death by cancer, sister of the groom. People were dreading the wedding but I’m told that, as I’d hoped, it was deeply moving and beautiful, and involved full 48 hours’ drunken craic.

Seven days without even a trip to the Post Office leaves me cabin feverish and, after a few hours’ brooding about past ills and future threats, I take myself in hand: what will make today a great day? A trip to the beach. I haven’t yet been all the way west to the open ocean – so no wonder I’m feeling claustrophobic (actually I’m feeling like I’m in a pressure cooker!). I need to see into the distance and make some friends.

I stop at a garage and a kindly elderly man who looks like a priest peers closely at me as if he knows me or wants to, but doesn’t communicate what his interest in me actually is, so I’m slightly nervous. Even before this I fail to work the pump – that feral creature venturing into civilisation incompetently again. When to the garage attendants, quite normal people (phew), I describe the sand and open water I’m seeking, they make a recommendation and give me a map. I pass another ruined castle (‘oh, and another one’) and an unruined one, and stop in a shop, where the nice girl (also refreshingly normal) behind the counter says that for sure that’s the beach to seek and you go down there and then up there and turn down there and then you’re there.

Then I see a sign on someone’s house for something I need, and my phone fails me, so I knock on their door. A man in his sixties invites me in and wants to tell me all about which saint lives on which island and which poet in which house and his grandfather’s t’hatched cottage in a famous painting and that I should read Seamus Heaney and why homosexuality was the downfall of Oscar Wilde and whether Britain is facing an uprising. He gives me a book he’s authored that spins all the same yarns in exactly the way he would speak them on his doorstep, and later I try to hear the wonderful accent in his disorganised prose.

And then, disregarding alluring glimpses of nearby white strands, I head at last as the light fades for the furthest shore, and like the bolt that comes off Heaney’s Flaggy Shore, or the bolt that hit me at Husinish on Harris, it does not disappoint.

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Seamus Heaney

It is all shades of muted pearl blue grey with the highest peak on one side, mountains around two other sides and a bay full of tiny islands, and I notice how each bayful of water leaves its own distinct patterns on the sand. The stunning white, wide crescent looks deserted, but then I see a sturdy figure wading at the other end of the beach by the nearest island where the tide is rising. A tough-looking girl with five fat dogs, one of whom she’s just had to carry after getting caught by the tide on the island, confides in me her love for the place. I recall another tough-looking girl on a beach with five dogs, a job in an abattoir, a kind heart and Tibetan prayer flags on her cabin in the Hebrides.

Clambering over beautiful stones to another little inlet I wonder whether having children is an antidote to loneliness. Not a fair one though, I conclude.

Having a dog isn’t bad, obviously. We walk back into the wind, passing a man who’s just heading out in the dimpsy. A semi-urban progressive in farmer’s wellies, ashen and withdrawn inside glasses and flatcap, he offers a hesitant hello as we pass. Maybe he too feels the awkwardness of interaction when you’ve been hidden away in the hills. Then Murph stops him, turns him around, leans on him and a lovely voice remarks upon my lovely dog. He looks like he wants to engage then but the wind is loud and the moment for conversation is passed as I’m heading into my van for a twilit lunch. He walks the length of the beach, hands in pockets, hunched into the wind both purposeful and unmoored at once: a husband bleeding for a marriage on the rocks. I put the kettle on as he comes back and we natter. On retreat from Britain, he says that Trump and May and the Labour Party injustices don’t matter out here, though I’m sure he minds as much as I do.

After sideways buffet after sideways buffet after sideways buffet – some soft, some markedly not – an anchorpoint now finally begins to clarify again after a year of seismic shifts. It’s to do with stillness in the heart and how the material upheavals don’t matter if there’s clarity there from which the mind can draw. That new, nomadic understanding of home again, as a state of being, not a place.

Back on our hill Murph and I hike to a children’s graveyard, where those littlies who died unbaptised were laid apart in earlier centuries. My host cannot bear the thought of one’s children not being allowed to be buried where you will be buried. Worse, for me, is the thought that perhaps even the parents feared to be laid beside their own unbaptised infants. My host does not drive past here at night. In similar excruciating shame, the locals avoid any mention of the three generations of family who were murdered one night in their cottage behind the hill and the wrong men hanged for it. A 19th century British miscarriage of justice in Ireland, I wonder at how we Britons continue wreaking injustice now in the Middle East, in our well-meaning but arrogant drive to ‘civilise’, ‘liberate’ or ‘pacify’, and our darker drive to commandeer.

Weave the threads, keep weaving the threads. Unable to get enough of the Connemara autumn around me, I’ve just wound a warp with the reds and silvers of birchwood with scatterings of clinging yellow leaves against a background of retiring green, ochre sedge and red bracken winter hill. With some purplish blue for the mountains in the haze and a grey-purple sky, it should fit the bill for my next shawl commission, and provide warp for a few additional woves besides.

Fruits of Connemara

rowan-loughen-mountain-view-from-the-horse-fair

My first full day here is a Sunday, and my host offers a tour he offers many, but with thoughts to my professional interests too. His battered, blackened, little van hurtles Irishly along Irish roads, by Irish loughs, through Irish mountains, and its passionate driver rants and laughs and pores all the wounds of Irish history. He laments Irish subjugation by the British, and Irish dependency on the British, but thanks us for our bridges, castles, railways (being granddaughter of a civil engineer, I graciously accept), landscaping and the general confident sophistication and infrastructure of imperialists, damn us.

We somehow charm free entry into the Leenane Sheep and Wool Centre’s museum on Killary Fjord and talk national character, unions and divisions, elections and referenda. The curator, voluble, good-humoured and generous-spirited, is a great advocate for the museum’s drive to inspire interest in rural crafts.

My host curses the average Irishman’s obstinate lack of regard for heritage, which he attributes to a deliberate disassociation with past poverty and strife, and from the vantage point of his tiny, pretty, lovingly restored crofthouse we complain about the plague of bungalows that spoils much of the land. I dislike them aesthetically, but after my first dismay some years ago on seeing one built every mile, I now look upon them as a sign of better land distribution and wealth equality than we have in Britain, where the countryside is painfully exclusive. Here in the mountains there is still plenty of wilderness, and in a total population of only about 4 million, this little community is underpopulated, crying out for more residents and, especially, children, as the locals age and die.

There is a funeral soon after I arrive, and I wish I could pay my respects to my new neighbours, but not even having even seen them yet, I avoid intruding.

I make my first weaving here, and though the colours are far more muted than the ones I’m living among, and though in my altered state and with its particular challenges it causes me much frustration, it is a good, Irish start. 

Tucked back in the hill and nestled in a divet with mountains, woods and loughs all around and no-one in sight, I only have to walk five mnutes down the humpty, bendy lane to the little wiggly main road to get to the post office. So far from ‘civilisation’ and yet surrounded by everything I need, easily. 

My host’s sister sells diesel and gas bottles there, and eggs that are free range. One of her staff is also a weaver, and, expecting me, we chatter for an hour and make plans for excursions and reciprocal workshop visits. A man comes in for some shopping and amid the craic we exchange a verse of an Irish song each and agree to gather a few folk for a musical evening. Later I’m told that he is known to be a great singer.

The following weekend we go to see my childhood hero, Christy Moore, who is utterly on form and who plays almost all of my favourite songs, and I remember a little bit more about why I am who I am.

christy-moore-in-ballina

The next day I head to another nearby castle to meet one of the new backpacking friends I made on the boat. It is another bright, sunny, jewel of a day. The van rocks and rolls its way to Galway City and I teach him a song all the way. The way into town is reassuringly easy; I find a suitable car park immediately, and the familiarity of a place I’ve loved before is like a hug. The streets and pubs are full of music and dance; I find a wholefood shop; we sit by one of the canals and natter long.

Back home, Murphy and I walk up the hill every day, and I worry on finding a dead sheep that he will be blamed. I have taken care to introduce him to the neighbouring farmer, who warms to him as everyone does. I can see that the ewe has died of natural causes, and my host is reassuring.

I weave snugs as the autumn colours intensify. Connemara is good for my weaving, and though I do not capture the colours as such, some spirit of the place brings the weavings alive, and two out of three are snapped up as soon as I list them.

Truer to the colours of the place and the tangles of my thoughts, I make a square for a Sussex project called ‘Blanket without borders’ that addresses questions about migration, home, settlement and inclusivity sparked by the Brexit upheaval and the Calais refugee crisis. I ponder my own relocation to Ireland, which feels as big as emigration, and likely will be.

Then comes Samhain bank holiday weekend, and though my weeks have been under-productive and my nights troubled with huge life questions, I cannot refuse a few great invitations: hiking to the very top of a deep gorge; paddling the full 5 mile circuit of the nearest lough; taking in some trad at Chieftains flute player Matt Malloy’s pub. (The man himself is there, though does not play, but we get a friendly nod, and we sing along to Christy songs and tap along to some tight tunes, and there is a young player too.)

I go also to the famous Maam Cross horse fair, and could bring home a dozen Connemara ponies. (My host says I can bring back one, and chickens, but I keep my head.) I guess the Spanish Armada stragglers here account for why the Connemara is so similar to the Spanish horse – see my Spaniard in the last picture below.

I have some ideas for a Connemara in Autumn shawl and blanket, and leftover inspiration for a Dartmoor in Summer batch too. I am commissioned to make a Snowdonia in Summer one, and have nearly secured the Shetland wool I will use.

snowdonia-heather

Photo from Gazette Nucleaire

I drop my host in Galway as he heads for Knoydart to climb mountains that must surely be twinned with these ones, and we eat good hake and chips. I end my blog post here as I go out into the dusk to mind his cows.

me-at-the-house-bw

A little bit north and most of the way west

So I went back to what used to always be home, Devon, for unturned stones and unburnt bridges, and turned over and burnt a few of each, and found refuge, and found that the remaining untrodden paths had dead ends or were overgrown, and then had to go again, and here I sit by a Connemara fireside ready for a new year as the old Celtic year draws to a close.

I make ready for a five day voyage, departing Devon with some lovely fruit and veg from my folks’ orchard garden. The old van, hardly driven for a while, starts on the button and roars up the motorway to super-posh Gloucester Services where I meet a dear childhood friend, natter and eat, and swap a few weavings for a hefty, light, sweet, Hohner Contessa II accordion (whose livery even matches that of my van). I’ve been looking forward to having it for months, formulating ideas for how songs might be accompanied if one could actually play it. Having got the feel of how a free reed instrument breathes thanks to the melodica, and then having been given a little accordion not long ago, I’ve finally understood what stirs these beasts – so now to develop some technique.

It is particularly right and lovely to see said friend, Welsh, before heading into Wales by a route I don’t know. Ross > Abergavenny > Brecon, beautiful, and good to be back on the road.

However I make a stupid mistake in a queue of traffic: lulled by empty roads and feeling quite vacant, I simply don’t make sense of what the cars are doing in front of me and embarrass myself illegally passing an angry policeman and getting flustered and in everyone’s way and manoeuvring badly and feeling completely thrown, wondering what on earth has happened to my faculties – a feral creature brushing accidentally with civilisation for a bewildering moment.

As dark falls I’m nearly at our destination and, too tired to keep pulling over to let faster vehicles pass, someone comes and sits right on our tail. Hassled on unfamiliar roads, I keep missing opportunities to pull in. A barn owl flies into my path. Braking gently at first and enjoying the gift sighting, I think she’ll make it across the road before we reach her, but she changes direction at the last second, turning her back to me and flying forwards on the same course as us, but more slowly than us. I can’t brake hard for the tail-hogger, and my over-cab bedroom tips her into a tumble down onto the other carriageway. A few cars pass and I hope she’ll launch back into the air. I turn and go back and find her heartbeatless on her back, in seemingly perfect shape, wings neatly folded in. I pick her up and lay her on the wide verge, troubled by such a potent and perhaps portentious happening. My animal medicine cards say that owl upside down represents deception, and I wonder sadly.

We camp comfortably in an unfenced moonlit field surrounded by bracken and mature trees, our back to a river. Next day we get to Pembroke Dock – charming in a bleak, militaristic, grey, overgrown sort of way – with sunny hours to spare. I notice a couple of backpackers boarding and, spying a ukelele, put my melodica in my cabin bag, just in case.

If the ferry goes down, our pets in cars go down with it. I have to check this every time, just in case some kindly staff happen to be on the car deck, or letting me onto it, to break vehicle windows to give Murphy and others a chance in an emergency. The answer is always the same: in an emergency they don’t think about the animals. So I go up the stairs pushing the images away.

I spend twenty minutes walking the maze of stairs and decks seeking outside seats in the sun (and noting the locations of the lifeboats, since yesterday’s mishaps have left me feeling nervous all round). There are no seats in the sun, but I settle where said backpackers are in the shade on the smokers’ deck, and one of them strikes up conversation. They’re from Oregon, and we do the usual traveller thing of comparing notes on adventures and homelands. We talk about landscape, politics and gun culture. Then I wonder aloud where one of the other young passengers is going, hoping that my new American friend will ask, bloke to bloke, so it doesn’t look like I’m picking him up, and he does. He’s Romanian, and though not confident in English, with some Spanish between us we learn a bit about the wealth of resources in Romania and how he feels that the EU has robbed them, and how as a driver he can earn only €200/month back home – where he’d rather be – but many times that if he drives through Europe. Homesick and proud, he declares that if there were a dictator to vote for in his country, he would. His eyes are intense, his skin yellowy-grey, his clothes cheap and chilly, his manner both cheeky and gracious, and his sense of humour dry. Underprivileged but generous, he buys us a drink. We play a tune in his cabin and then some more on a glass-covered deck, and I find that I have met great people and made music before even touching Irish shores. We say a warm goodbye and the Americans and I agree that we may meet in Galway.

And once on Irish shores, the insect bites that have been driving me unusually mad for a week suddenly cease their itching entirely. However I worry myself again taking endless wrong roads as I leave Rosslare and keep having to give up and turn around. Such defeats are uncharacteristic and dent my confidence further, but at least I like the look of the roads even in the dark, and a dedicated camping spot on a promontory beside an estuary eventually yields a warm Irish welcome and a curlewcall lullaby that sends me to sleep.

The next morning I photograph dawn over the mudflats with rook clack, and we have a lovely walk along the shore before heading to the Burren.

I continue to drive badly, distracted by castles that appear around bends, dual-track roads made for Lilliputians, broken yellow lines that I don’t understand, and the general wonder of homing in Ireland. Ill-prepared again I don’t have directions for the campsite I’m heading to. I make for Kinvara and gasp as golden light slanting beneath heavy gunmetal clouds illuminates a ruined castle on an island-strewn sea lough and a strew of painted houses on a small harbourside. I fail to photograph what I call the ‘Irish light’ but later gladly take the ‘Fairy Queen’.

kinvara-harbour

Kinvara is touristy and alternative, with a lovely market in a gardenlike corner, and trad sessions in several pubs if you get the right day (though there was both a wedding and a funeral the day I was there, which replaced the music). Four proper good Irish rustics propping up a bar give me directions and I find the colourful gipsy wagons of our campsite where the folk are rough as nails with hearts of gold.

The Isle of Lewis reminds me of Ireland, and the Burren – curious, bleak, transfixing moonscape-come-hobbitland – reminds me of Lewis. On the bleak, dreach, high ground a ruined abbey suddenly appears in the mist.

Kilfenora is miserable. I park in the wrong place, and get told off, and feel my alienness.

Ennistymon, also colourful and with waterfalls, offers a riverside walk, traditional shopfronts, musical pubs and a friendly library where I print a document even though it’s evening. They are holding a fundraising event for the coastguard: a children’s and adults’ choir have joined together in a memorial for a recently drowned 40-something coastguard, mother of two.

Doolin may be the best bet in most or all of Ireland for a trad session, I’m told, but I press on past the Cliffs of Moher, wishing I were seeing all of these roads in the daylight, and gladly turn in early, a little overwrought.

The Burren, though busy, feels like a place I could settle, and as I leave it the next day for the more ordinary landscape around Galway City I wonder if I’ve made the right choice as I head north to a remoter corner. Turning off the Sligo road the landscape pretties again – it’s much like Devon – and the mountains come into view. When I’m almost there, then I am sure again why I am.

Dreams of Scotland that I’ve not yet found in Scotland appear in the loughs, mountains, streams, rivers, mature oaks, yellowing ashes and red-laden rowans. Winding up to my winter cottage every berry affirms: this is the place.

mjs-rowan-copse-landscape

A small herd of cattle, big, clean and contented Charolais, Friesian and Holstein cows, greet us with quiet eyes from their sunny dozing spot in the little walled field by the buildings.

wds-coos

Slate floors, granite shelves, handmade stairs, stunning views, a woodburner and a mezzanine bedroom – finding this place online in the spring, though unready to set my plans in stone, I was unable to pass up this winter hideaway; I felt its inevitability.

After a walk up the mountain behind the house, sunlit till six o’clock with views of three loughs, I am picking holly when the owner appears up the lane and is just the sensitive host I’d thought he’d be. An all-Irish, travelling, vegetarian, tiny-scale cattle farmer and builder. He and Murphy warm instantly too.

Murph is glad for a bed by a fire. Making myself at home in the cottage I sing and dance and toast the luck I can hardly believe. Now all I need to do is bend my head to the loom day after day to ensure I can stay the winter. A grey-brown scarf a little like my very favourite one, and a huge blanket poncho more tightly woven than this one, are the custom requests awaiting. Inspired by all of these isles, they’ll be made in Ireland.

A photoshoot, a following, an unfair expulsion and a good politician

I love being in the driver’s seat. To eat a meal, to admire the view, to take us to the next place, or to write. (It’s amazing how one can slip quietly but extremely uncomfortably into the passivity of the passenger seat. iNunca más! Not that there’s a passenger seat in my van – Murphy lives there instead.)

Many of you will have seen the beautiful Etsy piece that Julie Schneider wrote about me and which Alice Carfrae illustrated. Here’s the backstory (especially for makers and wanderers who could benefit themselves).

I pitched to Etsy about my ‘Inspiring Workspace’ (the name of their series of features on makers’ studios around the world). A key theme was the interplay between craft and place. Julie picked it up, offering the highest praise. She then interviewed me by phone from New York, quietly listening long and inviting me to go on and on spinning the yarns beyond our allocated time, with only the lightest prompts from her. She’d invited me to make a photographer recommendation, and by chance, pro colleague Alice, whom I hadn’t seen for years, was due to be back here from Asia for a few months. I asked Alice for some dawn and dusk shots, as well as daytime ones, and we became aware that photographing the van interior, and, especially, seeking to capture the interior and the spirit of the location in the same shots, would be a huge challenge (not to mention the vain weaver at work who needed flattering lighting and lengthy post-production to minimise the rings under her eyes). Alice kindly suggested staying with me overnight to get some night-time shots as well. Etsy paid for part of Alice’s time, and I paid for some more with weavings.

For reasons that I can’t broadcast, I seldom carry passengers. Nor has anyone else stayed in the van with me: it is a space designed for one woman, one loom and one large dog. (Although I will soon have two accordions. What on earth would I have done had I been a cellist? Obviously the piano had to find another home, though I did wonder.) It’s the biggest possible vehicle I can get up the smallest possible lanes. It’s for working and sleeping in, not socialising.

I collected Alice midmorning and after briefly exchanging ideas about the most beautiful spots on Dartmoor (of which there are millions) we nattered as I drove: daily life, environmental, social and gender politics in Delhi, Beijing, the Hebrides, England; loves past and present; old friends and workplaces in common. My van’s not easy to drive on these tiny, crowded roads, but with the professional challenge ahead we talked contracts and vignettes too as branches tore at our sides (Alice airbrushed out the dents afterwards).

Eloise

These Isles workshop on the move, by Alice Carfrae ©

Eloise

Among the Dartmoor tors, by Alice Carfrae©

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Another photobomb, by Alice Carfrae©

Eloise

Dartmoor ponies, by Alice Carfrae©

Choosing a photographic location was almost as tricky as choosing a night-pitch alone – every detail matters! We found a spot, but the bracken was too tall. We found another spot, but there were people there, and another, ditto. We found another spot, but the road was in shot. We found another spot with grass in front and a panorama of tors if we faced west as desired – though we would need to relocate for the sunset.

Eloise

Finding the right spot (for a few hours, at any rate), by Alice Carfrae©

We began photographing, though the overcast light that Alice would normally find perfect left us with insufficient light inside the van. She got some good outdoor shots, though I twitched when someone zoomed by leaning on their horn shouting an abusive ‘Pikey!’. (C’est comme ça at times; you have to be brave.)

In the sunset spot there was someone else overnighting, so we had to be really clever about photographing from angles that didn’t show his van – it’s just not as romantic, being parked up with neighbours, is it? (My natural instinct is to find the most remote spots, though sometimes I welcome the security.) We barely got a sunset, as, despite the forecast for Dartmoor’s typical changeability, the (even more typical) damp grey settled in. Hard as we tried, we were not quite ready for the three thirty second breaks of amazing light we got – although we snatched a few shots nonetheless.

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I call this ‘Irish light’, after first noticing it with my mum in County Cork as a child.               By Alice Carfrae©

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The light, by Alice Carfrae©

We worked until 10pm, when I cooked supper, and heroic Alice also went outside after that hoping to shoot the warmth of the 12V battery-powered interior lights of the van starlit against a turquoise sky. But the damp grey at night offered only a velvet black in too stark a contrast with our indoor lighting, so that shot was not to be.

Darning at night

Darning the cloth. Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Darning skipped picks (stitches). Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Cooking in my fully-equipped kitchen, by Alice Carfrae©

Dear Alice slept (fitfully) on a mattress on the floor, and, exhausted and overstimulated, I didn’t sleep much better either – though it was nice to be in a beautiful spot with a friend.

Not an early riser, I nonetheless awoke early as usual, and at 6am the first hint of sunlight was showing over the hill, so I reluctantly roused Alice, who was straight outside again with her camera within seconds.

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We’d done three hours’ work before breakfast, getting some of our best shots in the soft, sweet morning light (though it certainly took a while for my face to wake up).

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The view from the workbench, Alice Carfrae©

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Yarns in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Tools in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Heather in the gorse, Alice Carfrae©

Murphy was ever-patient, as his walking routine was neglected – but he enjoys being out and about in different places meeting people.

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Finally the light was on our side and the camera rolled until after lunch, when, with almost all of Etsy’s shotlist covered and with some spontaneous shots besides, we finally packed it in, packed up and got back behind the wheel, seeking out an ice-cream reward on the way back to Alice’s house.

After much backing and forthing between Julie and I and Alice and I and Alice and Jen, the photographic manager for Etsy on this assignment, the article was published. I knew I needed to be prepared to make the most of the exposure, but I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming wonder of people’s enchantment: I certainly had not allowed time to spend most of the subsequent fortnight responding to people’s incredibly affirmative comments where they shared deep feelings and snippets of lovely stories, though it’s important to. It’s been amazing: I can’t thank you all enough.

My stats (views, favourites, likes, subscribers) spiked tenfold in some cases, and in a week my turnover exceded that of my best month yet in this two-year-old business. Phew. A lot of hard work, but it’s going places. (Obviously I’ve had to cut my living costs right down in this travelling life.)

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Even more special are the amazing contacts made as I catch a glimpse of your lives – in vans and RVs, on boats and crofts – and your projects that are visions of mine too – growing vegetables and dye plants; raising sheep and awareness; musicmaking, wordsmithing, spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing, travelling, dreaming, remembering, wishing, working, working, working for change. I’m really glad to know you’re out there, and hope our paths will cross in the flesh sometime (I’d love to build an itinerary of parking-up spots, and though I can’t imagine bringing this old van to the US, the Americas are seemingly calling me, so maybe one year…) The number of you who have expressed thanks for my inspiration is the most heartening bit. A somewhat desperate bid for survival, I nonetheless felt selfish deserting the worthy cause of teaching in mainstream education, but if I can still inspire, then I’m still contributing.

Says Gayathri from India: ‘I just pinged to say that I loved the article … it’s by far the best post I’ve read on Etsy! I have never sent a convo to anyone other than my buyers. It was such a beautiful article and I couldn’t just sit here without appreciating you. It would be an understatement if I say that your wonderful journey gives me so much hope and happiness. Thanks a bunch for making me smile 🙂 keep living that beautiful life for all of us! Lots of love from across the oceans’

Says Nicole from Quebec : ‘Eloise, you are an inspiration. I think I could do this with my soapmaking! I would like to bring my horses along….. Thanks for sharing.’

Says Emm from Wales: ‘Your story and life style is inspiring. My dream but I am a lone parent of four. Feeling a bit trapped but you give hope for a one day change.’

Says Frances from North Carolina: ‘My daughter and I are just now starting to clean out our house and get it ready to sell. Sitting in the yard is a new 5th wheel camper and a truck. We are are embarking on a similar journey and I have been wondering if I should close our business or try to take it with us. After reading your story and seeing that it is possible, I feel so much happier now, knowing it can be done. Thank-you so much for sharing. You made my day! Keep on going. Live the life you love.’

Says Jenn from New Hampshire: ‘Love this feature! You are an inspiration and a fabulous weaver. I have often thought of doing what you are doing, but here in the US. Maybe we should start a small traveling colony of Etsy sellers:o) Wouldn’t that be grand!’

Says Lisa from the Treehouse: ‘This has moved me. On many levels. Thank you for sharing your spirit and work and words. You may have just started a movement.’

And this is just a few of the few hundred.

I haven’t started a movement, but there IS a movement. A ‘normal’ way of life is failing ever more people who, squeezed and wrought, must, like me, think outside the box in order to make do. Wellbeing is not a luxury: everything goes wrong without it.

(By the way, if you have questions about the small-but-dealbreaking pragmatics of a lifestyle like mine as you work out an alternative way forward for your own life, then please do post them in the comments below. I generally prefer holding this kind of discussion in the public domain so that more people can benefit by reading and/or joining in – plus then I don’t have to type the same things loads of times; I’ve done little weaving this month!)

Me, me, me. I’m extremely lucky – and pretty damn resourceful. Brought up with no money, no property, with state benefits and state education, I nonetheless had art, craft, culture, animals, wilderness, business and critical thinking capital (not to mention kind and talented friends and family). England voted to leave the EU, but I have dual citizenship and the right to a European passport, so I’m just fine. So many are so much less well off. And here I have to get back onto the soapbox, and cannot keep it out of my ‘weaving’ blog, because I think in systems, and the whole lot is connected, and there has been more drama that I want you to know about.

Fearing an even more unjust Tory-shaped independent Britain, I put my support behind democratic socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (who, incidentally, happens to have been a prominent figure in a textiles union decades ago). Labourlist says ‘Corbyn’s status as frontrunner in the leadership election is secured today as a new poll finds he is on course for a 24-point victory’, but he is being attacked ever more viciously (as this satirist hilariously sums up – NB expletive torrent). Since I think he is a rare source of hope, I want to be among the voices speaking up for him, so I offer you my reasoning (forgive me some repetition of previous writings):

I don’t think that socialism holds all the answers, and, understandably, a socialist is having grave difficulty holding together a party that is half constituted of neoliberals, but he is the only person anywhere near the premiership whom I trust to recognise what are NOT the answers (inequality; austerity; neoliberalism; authoritarianism; war) and resist the kind of constant compromise that leaves a Labour government looking so very similar to a Conservative one. Corbyn, McDonnell and their young team are intelligent, sensitive, passionate, steadfast and dynamic. I think their minds are open to new solutions: I’m wondering whether inequality could be addressed by state control (as opposed to global, corporate bank control) of our monetary supply creating a non-debt-based economy. It seems to me that money creation as debt is basically the modern feudalism, whilst fairer distribution of currency would mean fairer access to markets so that they worked for the many – markets which kept well away from services (currency, health, education, welfare, infrastructure) that are at risk from distortion by commodification. Obviously this plays havoc with the international financial markets, and I’ve no idea how a transition could be made, let alone smoothed, but I do think that making survival a bit less hard for the masses would free us up to better look after each other and the environment. (And if overpopulation is a concern: we breed more under stress, don’t we?) Corbyn’s the only one who could do this, I think.

I think the UK Green Party offers some such answers, but they are so far off being elected that I joined the Labour Party instead. Ideally I’d like to see the parties of the left join together. Goes the old adage: ‘the reds ain’t green enough, and the greens ain’t red enough’. And the yellows (the Liberal Democrats) are committed to electoral reform so that we actually get democracy, probably in the form of Proportional Representation. In post-referendum hysteria during a week of intense passion nationwide, fearful news stories, keen motivation and seeking to support the emergence of a Progressive Alliance, I also briefly joined the Lib Dems. I shout my politics from the treetops: my personal Facebooking is largely campaign activity. Intelligence agents for the centrist neoliberals of the Labour Party who have been trying to unseat soft-but-firm-left Corbyn by purging the party of newly joined ‘Corbynistas’ have seen my hundred pro-Corbyn posts and they’ve also unearthed a pro-green-and-yellow remark of mine, and expelled me from the Labour Party, ostensibly for the latter reason. I am distressed to be disempowered by being denied a vote in the upcoming leadership election to renew Corbyn’s mandate, but on the other hand I am furiously empowered. I’ve replied to Labour’s secretary general, who seems to have been blocking democracy at every step as hundreds of thousands of us subscribed on the explicit understanding that we could vote, then had to pay an extra £25 for the privilege as the goalposts were moved to exclude us, then paid again, then had to be screened all over again, then went to court, then won the ruling, then lost the appeal, then got expelled as well. (And when a whole lot of people get blown up by a terrorist over there, it’s got a lot to do with this shit happening right here.) Yesterday a young journalist from the Guardian (Britain’s most major centre-left intelligent broadsheet newspaper, who’s been disappointingly cynical on Corbyn too at times) contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, asked to talk, and asked whether my page was covered in pro-Corbyn material. Oh yes, says I, how did you guess? Laughs, does he. And will I tell him my story? Oh yes, says I, for sure.

So we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned for the next instalment, and please comment and share, share, share, and meantime I’ll perhaps see some of you at Exeter Green Fair (Devon, UK) on Saturday as I show off my wares and meet some more good folk.

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Comfort blankets?

Amidst the intensity of my feelings for the current political landscape, a little hiatus as my next work deadline is postponed for reasons to do with rain, and so a moment of stillness to write about weaving.

Weaving is almost always a relief, a comfort blanket.

 

To fit in with a once-dreamed smallholding life, I chose a methodical, solo craft because I knew I needed the soothing, and so it is. I feel a little selfish just getting on with my own, enjoyable, thing though when there is so much wrong in the world. Is this the current dividing line between political left and right, where in the latter you just get on with making things work for you?

Is it possible to feather one’s own nest without exploiting others? The debt money analysis would have it that it’s not, given that our current mechanism of money creation is through the generation of debt, *requiring* everyone to extract surplus value from any transaction simply in order to service loans, and thus inclining the dog to eat the dog. On Saturday I heard, and met, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s right hand, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and though monetary reform does not yet seem to be an explicit part of his ‘New Economics’, his proposals could begin to lay the foundations for nationalised positive (non-debt) money. It seems that this could release us from a deadlock that currently severely limits the effect of most policy for wealth equality. (Above all, I came away feeling that he was a good, bright, trustworthy man; not radical, but a wholesome, committed, social democrat.)

One of the key messages I’m reading into politics at the moment is that things need to and are starting bottom-up, i.e. we are the change. If we are the new economics, what can each of us do in our little spheres to change our own habits and the wider culture?

I don’t consider money a necessary evil, but as something neutral that can oil the wheels. Currency is like lubricant: it needs to flow evenly throughout the engine, not pool or leak or sput with airlocks. However perhaps there are parts of the machine that can operate without lubricant – perhaps with a coolant, instead. If the oil in the engine is money, then the coolant is perhaps goodwill.

You may have seen my post about barter, and new dedicated webpage. I’m relocating from a lush Devon valley to nearby higher ground for a short time, and my pitch fee will be looking after a polytunnel. I’ll do some extra harvesting in exchange for eating from it. I’ve mentioned already that as well as ongoing mechanicry/scarves exchange I’ve been offered an iPhone for a snug (only sadly the older US iPhones won’t work here in Europe); an impressive accordion for a couple of family picnic blankets (thanks for your patience, Sarah); and I’m about to receive a ready-to-go DSLR Nikon D80 camera as part-payment for a shawl, so my photos will be much the better. Very excited.

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My weavings are expensive: I can’t compete with the low labour costs of some countries, so it’s nice to offer flexibility for those less able to afford costlier UK-made crafts. As well as barter and the option to pay in instalments, I’m wondering about introducing a Robin Hood pricing system in which I offer weavings at two different prices: the ‘Sheriff’s’ price and the ‘Merry Men’s’ price, with the former being above the cost of production and the latter below. It would rely on honesty (I wouldn’t want to vet people), with those able to afford more subsidising those able to afford less.

Thinking about feathering one’s own nest and those who’ve had to flee their nest, another idea is to test the water for selling blankets at one and a half times their production cost and undertake to make a second blanket half-covered by that price which I and the buyer would jointly donate to refugees or other homeless people in the winter. If you haven any experience of this kind of arrangement, I’d be glad to hear your comments below.

I started getting excited about blankets as soon as I started this business, and though I’ve not made that many I’m still compelled by them more than by any of the other things I make. There’s something truly honest about a blanket.

Bearing in mind the picnic blanket photoshoot I did on a Scottish island beach where the wind was so strong I had to stake the thing to the sand with knives, I was planning a similar scene down here in Devon…

Picnic hamper close up

…but then had another idea. You may have seen it already: ‘Never mind the picnic…’

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Does this make the blankets a little less honest?! After the saucier scenario I enjoyed a return to a more innocent vignette:

 

The top key phrase that people use in searches that land them on my weavings is ‘men’s poncho’. I never wanted to make ponchos – though didn’t mind if instead I could call them ‘ruanas’ (for red-haired Irish maidens) or ‘mauds’ (for kilt-clad Scottish shepherds), or ‘capes’ (Johnny Depp or some such swarth on horseback). Just not ‘ponchos’. But people don’t search much for ‘ruanas’ or ‘mauds’, and I’m not sure that ‘cape’ is an accurate description of what I make (suggestions, anybody?). However, when someone approached me requesting a ‘poncho that looked like a roe deer’ I was inspired to take the challenge.

I had a practice-run with some chunky undyed Bulgarian wool from Rodolpi Mountain sheep and made this large blanket-poncho whose neck I’m considering sewing up (against the votes of some kind poncho-loving followers) to make it into a plain blanket.

Rodolpi poncho draped on wall enhanced

Then I found this photo of a roe deer (by Neil McIntyre) and rummaged right to the back of my man-sized woolstore and found all the rusts, browns, greys and creams requested, and, with much trialling, undoing, redoing and cursing, made a roe deer poncho.

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I used 12 different wools: undyed Rodolpi Mountain (Bulgaria, cream and rabbit coloured), Jacob’s (Devon, dyed rust), luxury Alpaca (Devon, chestnut and chocolate), Welsh Mountain (black), Shetland (light brown), Castlemilk Moorit (Midlands, milky coffee colour) and tweed (Scotland, cream and dark brown). Here are some pictures of the happy wearer wandering in the woods (we just hope that he is not so well disguised as to be shot!):

I’m wondering about weaving a barn owl one too…

In other news, things are exciting on the publicity front: I had a poetic, rambling interview conducted by Etsy’s soft-spoken, attentive Julie Schneider by phone from New York, whose eyes, I could hear, were wide with flattering wonder (some people just have that way about them – the type who sees magic everywhere). I gave her a tour of my motorhome-workshop, revealed a few practical secrets and told her a few tales from the road. She will write it up soon and publish it as part of Etsy’s Inspiring Workplaces series, where you can read other examples of her beautiful storytelling.

Julie asked me for a photographer recommendation and I was really glad to be able to knobble old friend and photographer colleague Alice Carfrae, whose adventures in photojournalism find her mostly in China but, luckily for me, briefly back in the UK at just the right moment. Alice and I are going up onto the open moor (Dartmoor National Park) tomorrow for a photoshoot to accompany Julie’s text. To make the most of the light and atmosphere Alice will stay with me overnight so as to capture some dusk, night-time and dawn shots too, and in our own time Alice has suggested we cook up an additional pitch for a magazine. She’ll be earning some more weaving credit, as another happy barter. She will be my first overnight guest, probably sleeping in close proximity to Murphy – good job she’s a dog-lover! (If you are too, keep an eye out for her upcoming assignment for Dog TV, where I’ve heard that there will be some exciting action takes.) The fruits of our labour will appear here next time (and there will be some blankets involved).

Meantime, back to the political campaigning in the hopes that social/environmental justice and true democracy rather than neoliberalist guzzling will come to define post-Brexit Britain. I’m looking forward to seeing Corbyn live in action in Cornwall on Saturday. I’ll probably need to write about it, as I’ve needed to write about a couple of other significant political meetings lately – one here, and one forthcoming on the emerging Progressive Alliance. However I’m endeavouring to get my purely political rants heard elsewhere so that this blog retains some focus on weaving and the handmade lifestyle and doesn’t bend your ear.

Onwards!