Where the magic money tree grows

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

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

Summer hedgerow

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

 

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

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

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

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

Some fundamentals:

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

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

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

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

So now to explain the cost of money:

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

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

And back to the transaction of goods and services:

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

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

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

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

Something has to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

–:o:–

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

When you take off into the sunset: community and nomadry

When I first drove off into the sunset, as well as for the adventure, it was to leave behind various defeats, frustrations and feelings of claustrophobia. Fleeing a factory farm education sector, an overcrowded steading and a hippy-progressive enlightenment competition, I was heading to the hills in no uncertain manner, seeking the quietest, wildest, remotest places that I could live in awhile alone. The Outer Hebrides offered what I sorely needed. Yes, of course I was lonely before long, but the real paradox is this: though I found nurture in the spaces with the fewest humans, as soon as I’d touched base on the furthest western shore I was ready to delve back into the peopled pockets. To get to know the islands I had to get to know the people. (Not to mention the old getting to know yourself wotsit.)

Whilst ‘community’ had been just about top of my list of loathed ‘c’ words, straight away I was making connections that made me want to belong: to the Glaswegian/Leoisach selkie family swimming in from St. Kilda; to the Friday folk group in the old people’s home; to the monthly singaround sharing songs and stories and foul-mouthed craic; to the trad session run by young beauties in the arts centre; to the trail of daily dogwalkers in the Stornoway castle grounds; to the Harris Tweed weaving tradition in the mills and crofts and sheds; to the fishing villages who’d lost so many to the sea; to the community of ordinary folk doing ordinary jobs in shops and garages and offices, who said that I should stay; to the caravan of international surfers who’d found the lesser known breaks, who shared their beer and mackerel; and to the community of motorhomers who considered me a fellow motorhomer.

All this too in Brittany and Ireland: lonely timidity of a newbie with all the awe and wonder of an anthropologist child explorer. An adventure in every little exchange, and a welcome around every corner. (Where there wasn’t a shotgun, an agenda or a bad temper, that is. In those darker corners, the one or two newly-made, friendly contacts are lifesavers.)

Back in Devon for a pit-stop when the election is called, and it is a moment to plug in again here too: the local political landscape has been changing after a hundred years of the same old same old yellows being the only challengers to the blues. Green leaders Bennett and then Lucas came down here to promote progressive alliance, but it hasn’t got off the ground. Do the reds have a chance? I don’t know how to vote to best promote Corbyn/social and environmental sustainability, so I conduct some research in the local Facebook community, whipping up a stormy tactical voting debate and pissing off the local left parties who fear losing out to a voter alliance. Despite the fact that Totnes and Dartington make an ultra-progressive island in the Westcountry’s dominant conservatism of rural wealth, disappointingly the local left parties have resigned themselves to yet another Tory win, which duly occurs. (I stay up all night shouting at someone’s TV. It is a really good night.) The 450 people I poll forecast the Corbyn-effect Labour surge here too, and I make a number of new swing-voting and activist friends locally. The urgency and the enormity of the political struggle; the awfulness of terror and fire. Infighting, rank-closing, rabble rousing: we are alert and will change this shitty trickle-up system. Don’t wait for our leaders and parties and governments to solve things for us all; we must do it ourselves.

I go to Bovey Tracey Contemporary Craft Fair. Just a punter again, not ready to tie myself to being in a particular place ahead of time, just visiting for inspiration, professional development. Cool crystal water on the scorched earth of a ravaged Britain. I babble with a Welshman;  relieved to just look at pretty things and not talk politics – as I manically jump from the election to Corbyn to neoliberalism to the urban decay that inspires his striking ceramics, all at a rate of 2000wpm. I’m greeted warmly by the light-genius Valerie Wartelle, whom I interviewed last year. I also admire the work of a Cornishwoman making rusty wriggly tin landscapes, inspired by the stories she too sees in decay. Lisa Wisdom is the only fine artist we know of whose main medium is corrugated iron, and her work is a lovely surprise, her scenes parts of these isles that I know in my bones. Her sister describes the origins of Occupational Therapy in weaving, and when a basketmaker subsequently tells me that that happened very near here, I add it to the boast about Clement Atlee’s NHS-founding manifesto that was written here in Dartington Hall. Everywhere I go, I’m proud of my Westcountry upbringing.

Lisa Wisdom wriggly tin art

 

I get my head down to the loom again and weave a batch of ponchos and mauds: a summer hedgerow; a Rodolpi Mountain; a woman’s hand dyed Jacob; a woman’s handspun Jacob; a man’s handspun Jacob.  I curate a collection of images by artisans around the world and send them a link with a compliment and an invitation to share. I receive warmhearted replies from as far off as Peru. That awful ‘networking’ can be meaningful communitybuilding. (I’m reminded of the beautiful film ‘Even the Rain‘ with its subtle critique of the patronising Western people’s way. Cringe.)

Summer hedgerow green poncho banner

Rust Jacob poncho 2a

Dark Jacob poncho grasses

Dark Jacob poncho textures

Rodolpi maud portrait

Rodolpi poncho full height

Whilst waiting for some delayed wool, I cook up a new summer product idea: warp readywound for weavers. I struggle to scratch a living in the summer, and need to innovate. Piloting is exciting.

Last minute I put out a shout on social media about an eco-conference called Seed Festival at Hawkwood, Gloucestershire. Is anyone I know going? A dear friend, Imogen Di Sapia, as yet un-met except online, invites me to contribute to her workshop there: ‘The Craft Economy and Women Underground’. We talk about networking with meaningful human connection for moral support and pragmatic exchange. Another workshop, about land use, requires us to consider what landscape means, and my neighbour contests my limited definition of hills and open spaces: landscape is built and peopled, says he, citing the Welsh ‘hiraeth’. Something you belong to. A self-build workshop focuses on intentional community and though I contribute a word the leaders like, ‘inter-reliance’, my old allergic reaction froths to the surface. But I enjoy the conversations I have with (particularly) women who are looking to grow their art, build their business and find their way, a different way.

I interrogate the representative of Triodos Bank. He says he wants to restore relationship between savers and borrowers, but I’m uneasy at this sweet, simplistic representation of corporate banking. I’m nervous about describing in 30 seconds the injustice of our debt-based monetary system and the mechanism of its feudalism so that the audience understands and the speaker doesn’t feel attacked (plus my countercultural understanding of economics is far from complete). But I succeed, ‘hear hear’, many folk in the room are already onto this, and he answers well: though Triodos is a commercial bank working to the conventional banking model, its profits don’t trickle up to fat cats via derivative products, stocks and shares, but are reinvested 100% in worthy causes and the real economy. So the company is not transformative, but it is nonetheless a force for good. I hope the climate gives us time to change things slowly.

Molly Scott Cato, South West MEP, discusses Brexit as an opportunity to reshape British agriculture, and I realise more and more how dysfunctional it currently is, with small farmers paid to keep uplands desertified and the wealthiest farmers paid just to keep wealthy. Land ownership, like other wealth, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very few (some Saudi and Russian), and Britain is nowhere near capable of feeding itself. Cato is opposed to Brexit and feels the dire necessity of a left-shaped response to the crisis. She has drawn on expertise from the Soil Association and land rights changemaker Simon Fairlie to propose plans in the absence of government plans. (Incidentally, she feels there is, surprisingly, a teency glimmer of hope in the language of Gove and DEFRA despite Leadsom, though whether they will ever walk the decent talk is another matter.)

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth supremo, challenges notions commonly held by businessfolk that sustainabilityfolk are anti-progess. Sustainabilityfolk are commonly held back by businessfolk intent on a race to the bottom. Oh, I’ve got an idea: maybe we could work together?

I miss Caroline Lucas talking, but I pass Bruce Parry and we smile and he is as warm as in his films. I go to the screening of his as-yet unreleased Tawai. A popular headline act, we are spilling out of the curtained hall, standing for two hours with craned necks in a dark sauna. I only want to hear him speak, ask questions – not stare at a screen at a social event – but the opening scenes compel, and it is nice to watch it with the maker, and with a friendly bunch of concerned strangers. Seven of us standing in a crowded corner, hot and tired and, one, disabled, move considerately around each other to make spacesharing work, helping out, propping up, cushioning, commenting, swapping places, making room for latecomers, making room for shorter folk or older folk or tireder folk. His film is ostensibly an investigation into interdependency among members of the world’s last hunter-gatherer community in Borneo, but the profound and lightly-trod subnarrative is a personal investigation into ways of knowing, being, living and believing. The moment of his epiphany is understated but it reverberates as I think I spot a homefinding in his own quest for belonging. ‘If you’ve come to help us, then we have nothing to say to each other. But if you’ve come because your survival is bound up with ours, then let us talk.’ Later Parry asks to join us beside the campfire, and I want to talk to him about the inner journey, but he is quickly surrounded by beauties talking to him about the outer journey, and as I open my mouth a drunkard falls on top of us and the moment is passed.

I’m invited to contribute to another conference about community business, and though both these words have turned me off in the past, I’m starting to feel the layers in the depths of them. Interesting, the deeper significance of trade and trading relations. When I took to the road, I designed my livelihood and lifestyle for maximum independence, autonomy and solo agility. But perhaps I can plug back in by inspiring others to take off into the sunset before they plug back in empowered. 

And maybe my community doesn’t have to be in one place. Maybe I’m a child of globalisation, and happy that way.

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