Over the summer I have moved to Norfolk. Apart from a week’s holiday and a couple of weekends, it’s completely new territory for me, and I am enjoying getting to know my new habitat. Here are a few pictures from recent trips out. Norfolk is well-stocked with some of my favourite things (beaches, ruined monasteries, interesting medieval churches, nice places to eat) so I’m having a good time!
This week I have treated myself to a three day course on Media Skills for Creative Writers at the Manchester Writing School. This centre of excellence in all things writing related has a formidable reputation, and given the quality of the tuition I’ve received here, I can see why. Under the direction of unit leader James Draper, we have been taught by journalist and lecturer Rachel Broady. Rachel has grounded us in technical aspects of writing (especially features) and facilitated us in workshopping our ideas. Guest tutor Kath Grant gave us valuable input on working as freelance writers, and how to pitch our ideas to commissioning editors. The small group format means that we have had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and to receive advice tailored to our interests and circumstances. Having a more journalistic slant on writing has been an especially good discipline for me. Watch this space…
I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset! I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city. So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf. Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%. Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…
Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre. Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city. Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way. It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.
Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition. I’ll be blogging in more detail about the Tate on my other blog at LisaTulferArt.com in due course. The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken. I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!
I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy. Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers. It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful. To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch. Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops. To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf. I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch. I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients. A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy). It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.
Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city. There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.
Last month I bought a record player. I had been meaning to do this for a very long time – years – but was daunted by the prospect of nursing a vintage record player which might be quite poorly, when I had only a hazy recollection of how they work. The only new ones I had seen were by the kind of brands that have showrooms rather than shops, and where I could probably just about afford a stylus.
But then, to my great joy, I found that I could buy new, inexpensive record players! OK, the online reviews made it clear that the sound quality wasn’t going to be fabulous, but hey, it’s not about the sound quality – if you want perfection, play a CD. An exciting box duly arrived and was unpacked. In anticipation of its arrival, I had gone down to my local junk shop where I’d recently seen loads of vinyl records, and bought a small selection – LPs, 45s and – new for me – 78s.
In honour of a recent trip to Paris, it seemed appropriate to inaugurate the machine with a 78 of Edith Piaf. Wow. Sure, there are crackles. And a hiss. And a bit of sound from the turntable. But – wow. There is a depth, an atmosphere, a living quality to this music that I had forgotten. Entranced, I played record after record.
A few weeks on, I am a little less giddy. But most evenings I will pour a drink, set up the record player, and listen to a few records. This is the main difference to playing a CD – I really listen. I don’t do anything else. I give it my full attention. Playing a record is an event: opening the lid, removing the cover of the stylus and the catch of the arm, turning up the volume knob, selecting the record and carefully sliding it out of its cover, centring it on the turntable, placing the stylus, standing back to listen in anticipation to the hiss of the first few revolutions…
Not only is the nature of the sound quite different from what a couple of decades of CDs and downloads has accustomed me to, but so is the nature of listening. Listening to music is once again something to do, not just as background but as the main event. It is considered, not casual, done mindfully and attentively. It restores music to being a thing of value for its own sake, not as a mere soundtrack to my day. And what has it cost me to acquire this thing of value? £35 for the record player, and I haven’t paid more than £1 for any record – most at 50pence each from junk shops or charity shops, many free via Freecycle. I am aware of the current resurgence in interest in vinyl, and no doubt prices will increase accordingly, but while there continues to be little demand for these unregarded trifles, I shall continue to explore a whole new/rediscovered musical world.
So – the move is done. I have been in for a few days, the unpacking is almost completed, and I am (after many years of living in 1960s and 70s houses) reminding myself of the joys of living in a 150+ year old house, with not a straight line in it! Almost every piece of furniture upstairs has had to be sured up with wedges to make it even vaguely level. My miscellaneous vintage home wares and country furniture actually look like they belong here, rather than being an anachronism. The cat has moved in and seems to approve of her new abode.
What have I learned, as the detritus of my life has emerged out of boxes?
I have too many shoes. No, really, I do. Because I have never seen them all out at the same time in the same place, I never realised just how many pairs of very similar shoes I have. I haven’t depressed myself further by counting them – I just know I have too many. I understand why – I have difficult feet to find shoes for which are both stylish and comfortable, and therefore I tend to stockpile when I do find suitable ones, even if I don’t actually need shoes at the time. But this is ridiculous. I would have ample for most eventualities even if I gave half of them away. Which is what I shall do. The hospice shop at the top of my street is in for a surprise! I have already sent half my handbag collection their way…
I have too much stuff relating to projects which I shall never finish. Freecycle is helpful here – gifting my stash of fabric which I know I shall never make clothes from, and the things which were in job lots which I purchased for one or two pieces which I have used. More challenging will be the process, which I must undertake, of getting rid of a proportion of of my yarn and fibre stash – realistically, much of it is in colours I now know I am unlikely to use. I can make a couple of nice bundles and donate them to my local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for someone else to enjoy.
For the moment, I must set aside training as a traditional upholsterer. In this much smaller house, I do not have the room for the supplies, beyond my toolbox, or for pieces of furniture waiting to be worked on, and in a mid-terrace house it’s not realistic to do the amount of hammering involved, without seriously annoying the neighbours. If I can find a workspace away from home, I can re-visit this, but for the moment I must leave it, and not beat myself up about it.
I have too many books. I must admit this is a surprise – as I had already culled several boxes of books (to Oxfam) over the past few weeks, I didn’t expect this to be an area that would cause me problems. But I have realised that as well as the books on the shelves, I had nearly as many again lurking in piles beside my favourite armchair, under the desk, under that pile of magazines that I never seem to get round to finishing, on the windowsill…I need to assess whether it is realistic that I will read them in 2015. If not, it’s Oxfam again…
It really is possible to declutter, even things that have been around for years through umpteen housemoves, without feeling bad. I have always had guilt about getting rid of things which were, long ago, gifts or which have some association with someone or some event. I’ve been able to ask myself, as things emerge from the boxes, whether I am keeping something just through habit, or whether I am making an active decision to have it in my home. Things (of no great value, but nice, and often recollected from my childhood) which I have inherited from my beloved grandparents, I have kept – a vase, a rug, the child size chair which they brought back for me from a holiday in Spain in 1973 and which now provides a suitable home for my very grown-up bear. I have allowed myself, also, one small storage box of ‘nostalgia’ items. Interestingly, it’s only half full. The one area where I will have to put in some time is my office – I seem to have reams of paper and piles of files kept in case it ‘comes in useful’. Going through several years’ worth of work output will be tedious, but should free up several shelves as I think it’s likely that very little of it will be relevant in the future (and most of that is probably on computer/backed up anyway).
Moving to a much smaller house has been a great discipline. There simply is no argument with not having anywhere to put it! The world really won’t come to an end because I only have a few tupperware food storage boxes rather than twenty. If I can’t store it, I probably don’t need it.
I stockpile things as if I am expecting a siege. The reasons for this, I know, go back to my childhood, but I must accept that in 21st century England it is unlikely that I need to stockpile groceries, ironmongery or toiletries. At all costs I must avoid multibuys. Any possible financial saving must be set against the costs in terms of my tranquility at home as I struggle to find houseroom for things I won’t need or use for ages. What price turning my home into a warehouse for things I can buy any time I need them, just by walking up to the shops? Is a few pence of saving really worth the aggravation of the item falling out every time I open the kitchen cupboard?!
Fitted kitchen cupboards hide a multitude of sins. Or, in this case, stuff. My kitchen here has few cupboards – four small wall units, one base unit plus a corner unit with a carousel for pans. But it does have three open shelves running the length of the kitchen, which I have used to display/store my crockery (including vintage tea things) and vintage enamel bowls and jugs. I now know exactly what I have got. Duplications have become apparent, and have been weeded out. I can see that I have enough – plenty – and will not be tempted to acquire more. The cupboards contain only consumables, and some cookware. I only have what fits comfortably in the cupboards (less than half of what I had before). So far I have managed to cook a range of meals without feeling the lack of any vital piece of kit. My surfaces are largely clear, and the kitchen feels very tranquil.
At the end of the first week in my new home/olde worlde cottage, I am keen to pare down my possessions even more. I want to have even more space around me, to reduce the visual noise of my stuff. I realise that I only really tolerate the ornamental in my home if it also fulfills a function – my ceramics are bowls or tea cups, regularly used and not merely gratuitously ornamental. Even the cat is a vermin-control operative!
I recently read somewhere that the sale of SUVs and other large, bulky and ‘safe’ vehicles had increased sharply in the USA immediately after 9/11. The analysis was that people, rendered fearful of everyday activities by events over which they had no control, were subconsciously choosing to fortify and protect their families in ways they could control, e.g. the kind of family car they bought.
Then I watched a documentary about the advertising industry, and how the whole basis of consumerism is based on fear – fear of being left behind, fear of social ostracism (e.g. the Listerine campaign which suggested that unless you used their product, you would have bad breath which might even prevent you marrying), fear of germs, etc etc etc.
I began to think about fear, and began to see other signs of how pervasive it is. Maybe it always has been; but when I was a student 20-odd years ago, we had no tens of thousands of pounds of debt looming over us. No one I knew had a job during term time. Our grants were enough to live on (albeit frugally). We got involved in protests – marched – joined Greenpeace – protested against the Poll Tax. Worried about the state of the world, and looked for ways to change it. It never occurred to any of us that these activities would be a hindrance in finding jobs in the future. Very few of us were desperate about our grades – all work and no play seemed a poor way to make the most of a university education. At some point in the final year, it began to dawn on some that they might have to start looking for a job. But for most, this was the first time we had seriously thought about it. Most decisions about O levels or the new GCSEs, and A levels, had been made on the basis of what subjects we were good at, and enjoyed, rather than with analytical care to ensure those choices got us into the courses which would ensure a career path. There were exceptions, of course, for example my sixth-form friend who was thinking about medicine and who therefore made sure she did biology, rather than physics, at A level. But I recall little fear about the future. Something would turn up. Even for oddballs like me with a particularly esoteric humanities degree.
I listen sadly to the 18 year olds of today, and their parents, worrying about fees, debt, finding part-time work in term time as well as in the holidays, juggling workloads, choosing student clubs and societies according to what they think will look good on their CVs, and for the most part doing degree subjects selected for their future employability, rather than interest, passion or a thirst for knowledge. What happened to learning? What happened to impassioned debate over 3am coffee about historiography or philosophy? What happened to the ideal of a university education for the sake of broadening the mind and producing a generation of people who could think, use their critical faculties, make cogent arguments, be analytical? I grieve for that – education (even at school) seems now to be utilitarian, geared to passing exams and gaining qualifications which seem to be of less and less value with every year that passes. And fear is now in the education system pretty much from the reception class onwards. How can this be making the world a better place?
The whole consumer culture seems to be based on fear, too – I must buy this or that or my children won’t love me/my friends will think I’m tight-fisted/people will laugh at me/I’ll be a failure because I don’t have the latest thing. Even the housing sector is fuelled by fear: if I don’t own my own house (even if the mortgage company actually owns most of it) I will be at the mercy of my landlord, and have no security for my family. That’s quite apart from the concept of consumption, and home-ownership, as a mark of status.
And then of course, there is Gaza. And Syria. And Ukraine. And the ebola virus. Everything becomes something to be afraid of – the flight to see far-flung family or to go on holiday. The person at the airport who looks unwell. Where will the next war flare up? Is there anywhere left that is safe? What is our personal equivalent of buying an SUV after 9/11?
My challenge to myself is simple (but not easy). Will I too live fearfully, the safe space I occupy becoming smaller and smaller with each new danger? Or attempt to see the world around me not as threat, but as gift and opportunity? To ask myself what really makes me safe (not much – most big things are beyond my control in this globalised world) and what is instead just a waste of money, time and energy? To attempt to live a life that is about growth, not the shrinkage of fear?
Recently I met up with a good friend whom I have not seen for a while, and in between exploring the lovely vintage shops in the St Catherine’s area of Frome and enjoying a little something at the Diva café at Black Swan Arts, we were talking about issues like sustainability, mending, visible darning, ethical fashion and various related topics, and she wondered who was blogging about things like that. So, naturally, I asked on Twitter, and a deluge of responses came back to me! So, just in case anyone else is wondering the same as my friend, here are some of the blogs and websites I have come up with.
Based in Bath, Scrapiana offers what she describes as ‘scraps & scribblings on sewing, thrift, upcycling & vintage haberdashery’. She also has a comprehensive Blogroll with links to lots of relevant websites.
Jen, based in Wiltshire, blogged about her year of making do and mending, rather than buying new. This brought her quite a bit of publicity! Her blog now continues to explore sustainability issues. She also has a helpful Blogroll of links.
Tom, who is originally from the Netherlands, is based in Brighton and is a leading light in the visible mending movement. He writes and runs workshops on darning (I had no idea there were so many types of darning until I read his website…). He is also an accomplished and innovative knitter.
Based in London, Jo has an impressive background in historical and theatrical costume. Her website is the shop window for her alteration/conservation service and commissions, and her workshops. Lots of titbits about looking after your clothes, mending, alterations etc.
And today, this blog post from Donna Druchunas in Vermont, USA http://sheeptoshawl.com/buried-alive-in-stuff/ on making things, materialism and the future of the planet.
That little lot will probably keep you going for a while, but meanwhile, if you know of any other good blogs or websites on these themes which you would like to share, please use the comments box to suggest them.
Right now, I am off to do some more knitting on a project which is re-using yarn salvaged from an old jumper – the ultimate in recycling!