A culture of fear? Consumerism, education and global politics in 2014

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?

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With my artist’s hat on – August exhibition at Minehead

From Mon 25 to Sun 31 August I will be taking part in the Exmoor Arts exhibition, in association with the St Loye’s Foundation, entitled Beyond Barriers.  This will be at the Old Tourist Information Centre (also known as the Old Vic) in Minehead.  It is on the seafront: from the West Somerset Railway station, walk in the direction of Butlins, and the TIC is at the end of the short row of shops and arcades.  16 artists and makers, including painters, textile artists, ceramicists and photographers will be exhibiting a selection of our work, which will be for sale.

Opening times are 10.00-4.00, except on the Bank Holiday Monday when we open at 11.00 and have a preview and press event from 12.00 to 2.00.  The exhibition will be staffed by participating artists – I shall be there on the Monday and Thursday, and possibly other days as well, so do come and introduce yourselves.

Blogs and websites on sustainability, mending etc

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.

http://scrapiana.com/

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.

http://mymakedoandmendyear.wordpress.com/

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.

http://tomofholland.com/

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.

http://thedressdoctor.co.uk/

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!

The online vintage community

A friend of mine has recently opened a shop in Wellington, Somerset (3 Mantle Street TA21 8AR), selling painted furniture, Autentico chalk paints, and offering workshops in paint techniques.  I must admit to a little ambivalence about painted furniture (I’ve seen it done badly too often, in my view wrecking otherwise perfectly nice pieces of furniture) but when it is done well, and on appropriate furniture, it can be delightful.  I am very impressed with Cato Cooper’s paint technique, and also with the paint she sells and uses (personally I prefer the finish to Annie Sloan), and she doesn’t distress everything to within an inch of its life!

But talking to Cato, and encouraging her to use Facebook and especially Twitter to promote her business, has made me take stock of how I use social media and how it has benefited me.  I must admit to not being a fan of Facebook.  I use it (as an individual, not for my business) to keep in touch with a few friends, but keep it fairly compartmentalised.  My Twitter account, however, is indicative of my passions – art, heritage crafts, vintage, rural.  Through Twitter, for example, I have sourced rare breed fleeces for felting and spinning, I have found out about a living willow course (and enthused about it afterwards), booked myself onto a print-making course, found stockists, and I have come into contact with a huge, overlapping community of like-minded people with shared interests.

I have particularly enjoyed discovering the thriving online community of vintage enthusiasts out there.  March will be the first anniversary of #vintagefindhour, which has expanded to an hour and half because it has been so successful!  It takes place 8.00-9.30pm on Wednesdays, and is the brainchild of Sarah-Jane at www.vintagehomeshop.co.uk (see my earlier blogpost about meeting her).  Using the hashtag #vintagefindhour, Tweeters from all over the country (and beyond) share their vintage finds and treasures, things they have just bought/found/inherited/restored, and show things they have for sale.  The feedback is prompt and enthusiastic, and all manner of conversations and connections are started.

It is especially nice when people who have got to ‘know’ each other on Twitter actually get to meet up in real life! My first ‘TweetUp’ was last summer at the Giant Flea Market at the Bath & West showground, where vintage Tweeps from Somerset, Bristol and France got together – some stall-holders, some just visiting.  The next #vintagefindhour TweetUp is planned for Easter Saturday, when many of us will be converging on the Vintage Bazaar to be held at the Cheese and Grain in Frome, Somerset.  Plans are already being made for buying and selling (saves on postage!) and putting faces to Twitternames.

Meanwhile, I have encouraged @CatoCooper to engage with Twitter to raise her profile in the online vintage community, and have been re-tweeting pictures of her shop and furniture.  Already, because of Twitter, she is selling handmade bears produced by another vintage Tweeter in Devon!  I had been concerned, when we moved to Somerset 16 months ago, that it would take a long time to find people who shared my interests, and that I would be quite isolated for a while – not a bit of it! A few minutes a day on Twitter give me access to scores of interesting, funny, clever and inspiring people who are ‘into’ to same kinds of things that I am.

Barnstaple – celebrating the British high street

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in North Devon with a bit of time to kill and decided on the spur of the moment to take the turning to Barnstaple – somewhere I had never visited.  I had no particular expectations, but thought that at worst I could have a cup of tea somewhere warm, even if the shopping was disappointing.  I just hoped I could find somewhere to park, as this is often a challenge is small towns.

Imagine, therefore, my delight at finding there is a park-and-ride facility in Barnstaple.  Situated improbably behind what appears to be a school, it has a bus service into the town centre every 20 minutes and costs just £1 per person.  The friendly and helpful driver told me not to get out at the bus station but to stay on until the post office, as that would put me right in the middle of the shops.

On our way into town, I spotted a promising-looking vintage and collectibles shop, so once the bus set me down at the post office I walked back a hundred yards or so to Eclectic in Queen Street. Eclectic (www.abygoneera.net) is something of an Aladdin’s Cave, with cabinets packed with all manner of vintage and antique goodies.  I spotted a late Victorian sterling silver salt spoon with a gilt bowl which I thought would be a great addition to my collection, and had a discussion with the owner about possible ways of displaying such tiny spoons.

From Eclectic it was on to the main shopping streets, which sweep round the centre of the town.  This really is the British high street at its best – not only the big multiples like M&S (incidentally a much better stocked store than the one in my – larger – nearest town of Taunton), Primark etc, but countless independents, including no fewer than two cookshops selling more kitchen gadgetry than my imagination could conceive of,  a traditional (and competitively priced) gentlemen’s outfitters, and a surprising number of jewelers, who as well as new stock also sold an impressive collection of vintage and antique pieces.

Perhaps Barnstaple’s highlight is the Pannier Market, which dates back over 150 years and which has general, craft or collectors’ markets most days (see www.barnstaplepanniermarket.co.uk for details).  On the other side of the road is the picturesque Butchers’ Row, formerly a series of butchers’ booths but now also home to a coffeeshop, a greengrocer and a couple of delis.

I am astonished that it has taken me so long to discover this great little town with its varied and interesting shops – why is this not a shopping destination in the South West? Why is no-one talking about it?  It’s really not far from the M5, and more than worth the drive.  From where I live, it would take me roughly the same time to get to Cribbs Causeway, but I know where I shall be going back to!  In fact, I can’t wait to go back and explore more – there is apparently an antiques centre, as well as a couple of antiques shops, and several more streets with shops which I did not have time to visit on this occasion. All of which gives me a great excuse to return to Barnstaple soon, and celebrate this wonderful example of the British high street.

Vintage Home Shop – sharing the love

Last week I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning visiting Sarah-Jane, who trades as Vintage Home Shop (follow her on Twitter @VintageHomeShop).  Based at her home in Somerset, she presides over an Aladdin’s cave of vintage goodies.  Her main passions are 50s Meakin and Midwinter china, vintage mirrors, and also luggage – I have never seen so many vintage suitcases and trunks in one place!  Other vintage home items find their way into her emporium too, such as curtains and textiles and kitchenalia.

What made my visit particularly enjoyable – apart from drooling over the vintage treasures, of course! – was Sarah-Jane herself.  Vivacious and articulate, she is genuinely passionate about vintage, striving for a slower, more considered pace of life, and a more sustainable lifestyle.  Her period home has been adapted for contemporary family living with a deep respect for the form and features of the house, without being too precious or formal, resulting in a space that is homely and welcoming while also giving more than a passing nod to the generations whose home it has been before.  Having known Sarah-Jane for some time on Twitter, it was a real pleasure to meet her in person, and to have a glimpse of the person behind #vintagefindhour (Twitter, 8-9pm on Wednesdays) and the stream of interesting vintage-related tweets!

The items she has for sale are high quality and in good condition.  She has a genuine eye for the quirky, the pleasing and the usable, and it’s easy to see how her pieces would look fabulous as feature items in a modern home, or as part of an all-over vintage style.  For example, the luggage looks great as it is, but could also be used for its original purpose, or as stylish storage (and who doesn’t need more storage?!).  Vintage kitchenalia is eminently practical and usable, generally much better made than the modern equivalent, as well as making an attractive display in your kitchen when you are not using it.  And everyone knows that food tastes better when eaten from gorgeous vintage china!

Sarah-Jane has a website at vintagehomeshop.co.uk (new shiny website coming shortly) but if there is anything in particular you are looking for, it is worth contacting her as her Aladdin’s cave is so extensive that inevitably not everything makes it to the website!  And if you are in the area, Sarah-Jane welcomes visits by prior appointment.  I had enormous fun meeting her – it’s great to spend time with people who have a shared passion for vintage – and yes, of course, I bought something!  This delightful wooden chest is now storing wool in my textiles studio – Sarah-Jane had tweeted its picture and once I saw it had my mother’s initials on it, I just knew it had to be mine!

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New favourite shop: Sally’s Vintage Chic in Minehead, Somerset

I’ve been to Minehead a few times, but mostly by steam train, and have rarely ventured off the Avenue.  However, this week I was there to meet up with an old friend and went by car.  Consequently, I was driving round Minehead looking for somewhere to park, and that is when I spotted it – an inviting shop front in Summerland Road (turn off the Avenue at Westcott’s flower stall and you can’t miss it) emblazoned with the name Sally’s Vintage Chic.  So once I had found a parking place, and had coffee with my friend, I went back to investigate.

Sally welcomed me into the shop, and an hour later I was still there – there is simply so much to look at, admire and be tempted by.  Her painted and distressed furniture is absolutely beautiful, some of the nicest I have ever seen for sale.  There is a good selection of vintage costume jewellery, ceramics and homewares, but for me the star attraction is the vintage linen.  Customers are encouraged to open the drawers in the display furniture, and are rewarded with high quality, beautifully laundered and pressed embroidered and trimmed table linens.  Linens which are too threadbare to sell as they are have been cut down and imaginatively re-purposed as cushions and bags, complete with vintage trimmings, or as colourful bunting (before I left I gave in to temptation and bought a length of bunting made from pieces of an embroidered tablecloth).  I am still contemplating whether I can justify the romantic, nostalgic rose-printed eiderdown, or whether the cat would appropriate and destroy it!

Visiting Sally’s Vintage Chic was a real pleasure, and this is now one of my Favourite Places (friends, beware – Christmas and birthday presents are likely to come from here in future!).  Apart from the quality of the items for sale, and the loveliness of the shop interior which shows them off to best advantage without being overly cluttered, Sally is delightful and very knowledgeable about her stock, with a real passion for all things vintage.  The shop was opened last summer, and I hope it goes from strength to strength, which is one reason why I am sharing it here!  Sally has at website at www.sallysvintagechic.co.uk and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SallysVintageChic.  She promises to be on Twitter soon too.  Mail order is available, but for the full experience do visit the shop – why not make a vintage day of it and travel to Minehead by steam on the West Somerset Railway? http://www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk/