Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lights are changing

I don't work on Fridays, as a rule. I generally use them to get things done (admin, digging, shopping) but I spent a good few hours of this one lying in bed, interspersing staring at the ceiling with staring at the wall. I associate this kind of lying around with grief, I did a fair amount of it after my mum died. And if I try to untangle the thoughts in my head, I think I am grieving. Not for anyone in particular, though I have read and heard stories over the last few weeks that have had tears rolling down my cheeks, and I have a few (#metoo) of my own. But for all of us who will never express our fullest humanity, never do our best work, because we are too scared. I'm going to be generous and include the men, even the ones who are very much not woke, because we are taught to be endlessly generous to the men, and I haven't run out of that yet. It's like Catholicism, never quite leaves you.

This stuff has been building for a year at least, since the US managed to elect a full strength no filter misogynist to the most powerful office in the world. History will damn them for that, if there are any of us left around to write it, but in the meantime we have to live with it, and the pressure is starting to build. The pussy grabber in chief seems fairly inviolable himself (he is the President, ergo his conduct is presidential, right?), but elsewhere, cracks are appearing in conspiracies of silence that have lasted near-lifetimes. And it's waking up all kinds of sleeping feelings.

(No content warning here apart from general fucking patriarchy, but I know it's been a hard month)

I think what set me off was the Hallowe'en episode of the new season of Stranger Things. It ended with the Ghostbusters song and suddenly (and unexpectedly) I wanted to cry. I was back on an overnight ferry to Rotterdam, in the autumn of 1985. I had just started my A-level Geography course and we were going on a field trip. There was a bar, and a dance floor, and I was a couple of Southern Comforts in (nobody bothered too much about underage drinking in those days) and Ghostbusters came on. And I *knew the moves*. So I was up and out there and giving it my all. Very enthusiastically, as I recall. At some point during the song, one of my schoolmates came and shouted in my ear. She said 'Joella*, stop it, you look like you're for sale'.

Seems weird that I remember this so clearly, but it was a proper Moment in my young life, and I do. I remember stopping my dancing, a little out of breath and a little sweaty, and wondering what on earth she meant. I remember looking down at myself, and I was wearing a white T-shirt tucked into a pair of (I now realise) terrible 80s jumbo cords, and bare feet - I still prefer to dance in bare feet. I probably didn't have a bra on, but I was a late developer and didn't have much to put into one at the time, and I could never really be arsed with them till I did. Then I looked around me, and I realised that everyone else who was dancing was a boy. I think that was her issue. That, and my inelegance maybe. I've never been a smooth mover.

But seriously, I was DOING THE GHOSTBUSTERS DANCE. I was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD. I was dancing with boys my own age, who were doing the SAME DANCE. It was FINE. None of them fancied me anyway, because I was stroppy and had no tits. We were CHILDREN.

I mean, I say that, but I had a Saturday job in a bread shop by then, and I'd already experienced (among other delights) its owner coming over while I was setting out the barmcakes, sticking his erection into my thigh and muttering 'if you were sixteen, I'd rape you'. I knew about the evil that men did, all fifteen year old girls do. I wasn't an idiot. But I was at a fucking disco on a fucking ferry getting a bit pissed and having a laugh, and I got policed by one of my own. That's what stayed with me. They make us police ourselves. Then it's even more our fault if something bad happens.**

I could tell you more about my schooldays but life's too short. I genuinely worry for people who see them as the best days of their life, and suspect most of them weren't girls. But whatevs. We grew on up and we grew on out. And we ended up in a world where versions of this self-policing are entirely normal: don't do this, don't wear that, don't go there.

For example. Some twenty years later, I was completing my plumbing NVQ, and installing a pretend bathroom in a workshop to get the requisite number of points. This required being in college in the daytime, with the apprentices doing their day release. It was educational, though none of them took the slightest notice of me. Apart from the only girl among them, who came to talk to me. How do I get them to leave me alone, she said. They never leave me alone.

Well, I said. I can tell you it gets better eventually, but in the meantime, the only thing I can say is, tie your hair back. Don't wear any make up to college or on site. Wear a crew neck top so they can't look down it when you're bending over, and find workwear trousers that fit you round the waist, so they can't look down those when you're installing your pretend bathroom. Don't flirt, don't giggle, and get the best marks. Basically, don't give them anything to work with.

What I *didn't* say was 'talk to the tutors and let them know you're uncomfortable', because they were my tutors too, and I knew it wouldn't have made any difference. It's on you to manage this, is basically what I said, and you will have to learn how to do it.

I might as well have said, don't look like you're for sale. Don't have any fun, don't play around and explore the power that you *do* have, don't mess with the programme. I thought I was giving sensible advice, and - given that not long before that I'd been squatting on top of an industrial fridge in a pub kitchen drilling holes in the wall for pipe clips and one of the chefs reached up in passing to squeeze the only part of me he could reach - arguably I was. He got my knee, which was his bad luck, as my trousers had kneepads, but seriously, you're out there, you're fair game, even when you're nearly 40, even in a fleece hoodie and steel toecaps and armed with a drill, even when your boss is two metres away.

But it's not the answer, is it. It just makes us all responsible for our own vulnerability, and that fucking stinks. These stories that are tumbling out now, piling up like snowdrifts, are the consequence of that. It's not like we haven't had feminism for decades, it just hasn't been enough. It still isn't. I feel a strange sense of shame that I've internalised all of this, developed my strategies, been grateful to get older and have to deal with it less, while more generations of girls grow up and go out into the world and find themselves needing to work out how to deal with something they should never have to experience, at best, and survive something much, much worse at worst. The stories from women in their 20s and 30s have made me rage. We should have sorted this shit out by now.

But this might be a moment that there's no going back from. We might get to smash a little bit of the patriarchy, finally. I hope I'm not too old to play my part in that. I'm certainly angry enough.


tl;dr: (and related to the title of this post) oh my heart is sore at the moment. If yours is too, listen to this and it might help a little.

* Not actually Joella, but I don't go by the name they called me at school no more. 
** She went on to become Head Girl, and I, despite my "Oxbridge potential", subsequently realised, did not even get to be a prefect. I don't really know why (and at this point I really, really don't care) but I expect it was because of this kind of behaviour. They knocked my school down the other week, and I can't say I was sad. I always had the impression they never really wanted to let girls in in the first place, and they certainly didn't want ones who made any noise. 

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wearing badges is not enough

All Jeremy Corbyn references entirely subconscious

I'm not a campaigner. I'm too anxious, too cautious, too self-conscious, too easily daunted. But I know a lot of campaigners. They are some of my favourite people. They fight the good fight, and they fight it for a long time, because change, if it comes, is usually incrementally, glacially slow. They have thick skins, boundless energy and creativity, and eternal optimism. They get knocked down and, usually, they get up again. They do it, I think, because they have to, and I have massive respect for them, not least because they throw some of the best parties you'll ever go to.

Campaigners fight for and give a voice to the world's, the country's, the neighbourhood's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. And over the years, they've made some serious progress. Many of the rights now enshrined in law, at least in the global north, would pop the eyes out of the average Victorian. So much progress on so many fronts, so many opportunities for more progress. Things can only get


I'm descended from travellers, pipe makers and smugglers. Not so many generations back the birth certificates are signed with an X because nobody involved in making the baby could write their own name. Two world wars stirred shit up a bit (short version), and I'm a half immigrant social mobility success story. I am a home owner. I am part of the 'knowledge economy'. I've travelled to five continents. I am vaccinated against all the things*. I have controlled my own fertility since I became sexually active. I have all my own teeth. I've read Infinite Jest (though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it).

I also have a degree in social and political science from one of the best universities in the world, gained in the dying years of Thatcherism. I loved studying the politics of the welfare state: I got a first in that paper. One of the quotes (I've always loved a good quote) I wrote over and over again was RH Tawney's "The most important thing about a man is what he takes for granted."

Isn't it though. I think one of the things I took for granted till just a few years ago was that social progress was irreversible. That we would gradually get more multicultural (whatever that means, but I thought I knew, once), less unequal, with our life chances less defined by our gender or our caste or the colour of our skin. That we would combine our resources and our knowledge and our talents and our energy to tackle the huge challenges facing humanity and the planet, and together we would adapt and survive. The campaigners were out on the front line of that fight, and people like me were in the background, keeping the faith, doing our bit, applying the metadata, caring for the evidence base.

But I increasingly feel that this faith was a product of two things: my own life, spent bouncing between a series of interlinked and mutually reinforcing liberal bubbles, and the era I came of age in. For most of the New Labour years, many of the indicators were moving in that direction, and unless you're a better historian than I am I think you have to live long enough to see things turn back on themselves to realise that actually, this shit isn't linear.

Wearing badges is not enough**, but right now I have no idea what is. I have fantasised about taking all of the post-truthers out in one go with a strategically placed measles germ, but I suspect that would only deal with the stupid ones (and the collateral damage would be unpalatable: I have a heart). It's the clever ones, who foment backlash against 'experts' with the zeal of the architects of the Cultural Revolution while maintaining cutting edge healthcare and offshore banking services for themselves, that we really have to worry about, and they are in the ascendant.

And of course it hasn't just been a terrible year for politics: I've shed tears for the loss of Bowie, Prince, Leonard and George, who all shone a light into the dark places and made them a bit more livable. And then there was Jo Cox (the only person I knew with a name shorter than mine), who was so skilled, so committed, and so clearly on the side of progress, tolerance and love. She was the ultimate campaigner, and she paid the ultimate price.

I'm obviously not alone (just check the MSM!) in proclaiming this a uniquely shit year, and I do believe it has something of the night about it. But I remember a message I got from a friend who lost his mum about five years before I lost mine. I had written something about how much I'd learnt from my mum and how sad I was to have lost that, and he said he had learnt more from his mum since she'd gone than ever before. And you know what, he was right.

So maybe 2017 is the year all us PC SJWs have to reach for our inner campaigners. We got the education. We got the love. We've got to use them.


* Well, not rabies. But pretty much everything else.
** Kind of terrifying how this song has come back around.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

TW: meta-blogging

I woke up on Friday morning - the beginning of my non-working week - wondering what to do with myself. There are some chunky items on the not-so-rolling Big Ticket to-do list. These include
  • Work out what to do with the rest of my life 
  • Turn vague pension-related anxiety into concrete (and therefore potentially actionable) pension-related anxiety. Something to do with SERPS. I have no idea 
  • Finish Marie Kondo'ing. Have got only as far as the fiction plus putting all the non-fiction in a heap, have had a heap of non-fiction for over a month now
  • Paint the entire house apart from that one wall we've managed to paint and buy some blinds for the bedrooms
  • Make a new will 
  • Change the filter in the cooker hood and find some bulbs for it that don't buzz. Doesn't sound chunky but somehow is 
I do know that if I threw myself at any item on the lower end of this list I could make a dent in it. I can be effective. I have skills. But I lack momentum, and am easily daunted at the moment. Well, usually. I need to wait for a gap in the mental traffic and then dart into it. 
And I wasn't feeling very darty so I moved on to the Granular to-do list. This is largely made up of smaller but still life-enhancing items, such as 
  • Make that third string lampshade
  • Make that third and fourth rag rug seat pad for the outdoor chairs
  • Design the Hanging Gardens of Babylon* and go buy the guttering (watch this space)
  • Download bank statements before they disappear forever (am pleasingly ahead of the game here but you only get so many months stored online and it never seems to be quite enough for the tax return)
  • Hassle the plumber about the toilet and the pressure reducing valve on the hot water cylinder (we are binning one of the eco-toilets. It leaks, it doesn't shift solid matter, it means we get through toilet brushes like there's no tomorrow, and it is generally shit. If it wasn't one with a STUPID concealed cistern I could do it myself, but it is. I have the plumbing skills but not the carpentry and tiling skills, and I don't want a bathroom that looks like I would leave it looking. And the cylinder is an ongoing saga. But the plumber is good, which means he's busy, and this is small beans) 
  • Find a home for that extraordinary goth-meets-fuchsia ball dress I wore in 1989 that my mum kept all those years that I can't quite bear just to give to Oxfam
But even this list felt a bit ambitious. I sensed myself gravitating towards the Maintenance of Status Quo to-do list, which includes such lofty ambitions as 
  • Make a plan for that parsley in the fridge
  • Go to the allotment 
  • Laundry
  • Ring my dad
  • Deal with Ecoville email backlog
  • Read books
  • In fact do anything that isn't Candy Crush alternating with Twitter and existential despair
In my defence, all this thinking happened before I even got out of bed. Perhaps less impressively, I didn't get out of bed for quite a while. But just before I did, I settled on a manageable-yet-slightly-stretchy item: write a blog post. 
I love this blog. I am its biggest fan. For its first 10 years it documented many of my best thoughts, and many of my stupidest actions. It's been faltering for its last few years though. This is partly because first Facebook and then smartphones came along, and something that might have developed into a blog post became easier and more immediately rewarding to post as a status update - and when you can post something NOW why would you let it settle and ferment, and who would even read my thoughts on Ken Livingstone fully two days later? But also because the internet has become a nasty place for women who express opinions - I've had only the mildest of these experiences (despite being a holder of some pretty strong opinions) and I know that's because, recently, I've done most of my opinion expressing in a less public space than this. If I've expressed them at all. 
Which is all a bit sad, and I want to do better. But also one picks one's battles, and I've had some others on closer to home. And some of that is why I decided to write a blog post on Friday morning, and it's taken me to nearly midnight on Monday to squeeze one out. I have the words, but I'm a little constipated. 
In between, for the record, I've taken pure pleasure in the appearance of my first asparagus spears and in the progress of the baby blackbirds currently living on our balcony. I've had thoughts about privilege and aggression. I've engaged in, and quickly been exhausted by engaging in, FB conversation about Ken and Israel and antisemitism and yada yada. I've made (partly in response) some proper Israeli-style houmous which I enjoyed with my two favourite cis straight white able bodied middle class men (one of them Jewish, which shouldn't matter, but then none of this shit should matter). I have mopped up the urine of a small dog on steroids who had an accident. I've administered pain relief to a terminally ill gerbil. I've drunk too much red wine. I've danced to Prince and sung Springsteen into the wind. I've spent yet more silly money on deodorant that isn't all chemically but probably won't actually work. I've momentarily overcome my fear of Ecoville communal eating and enjoyed a delicious, spicy dinner and a lot of laughing squidged around the All Foods Table. I've learned more than I thought I'd ever need or want to know about the Peninsular War. I've delighted in Lindy West's latest. I've read the first third of Wool
And I've written this. It may be a new start, it may not even be that. But I'd like to keep it up. 

* I do still intend to write a post about the many good things about living in Ecoville. But not today. 

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Friday, October 09, 2015

On womb linings and associated detritus

At the end of last month, the Guardian seemed to have its own endometriosis week. I wasn't quite sure where the 'news hook' for this came from, and initially I wondered why it was making headlines in a week when surely we should have been talking about socialism. But then my endometrial tissue has taken up far more of my evenings over the last 30 years, so I figured I'd ride the wave while it lasts. 
I quite possibly have endometriosis. I certainly have, or used to have, the level of period pain that would indicate it. For years, I would hide away for hours every month, writhing, sobbing, furious and terrified, waiting for the codeine to bite me, the whisky to dull me, and my sanity to return. Few people ever got to see that, and the ones who did often didn't quite believe it. For each of my university exam terms, I went on the Pill, despite the side effects (weight gain, spots, tits like grapefruit) so I wouldn't be bleeding during the wrong week. Later, it affected my choice of job, the hours I could work, and the length of commute I could contemplate. I can tell if you are experiencing the kind of pain I used to experience. It turns you grey, you can't think straight, and you would genuinely lose a tooth, or a toe, or a family member of medium significance, if it would only just go away. 
The first time I "did something about it" I was 30, and it was because for a year I had a job with private health cover. I felt that the cover meant they could demand more of me, so I should demand more too. I had a vaginal ultrasound and then an investigative laparoscopy in a v swanky hospital in Oxford. I ordered a smoked trout salad which they brought me at 3 am. I remember the genuinely lovely gynaecologist who told me that my uterus was retroverted (no big deal except when it is) and there were a few 'possible endometrial spots' but he couldn't be sure without more invasive investigation and he didn't think it was necessary unless I did. Which I didn't, as I'd handed in my notice because I'd got my job at NGO X and my private health cover was about to cease. 
But it was useful information, and I looked after myself a bit better after that: watch how much you drink when you're premenstrual, watch how you plan your holidays, never make any major life decisions when you're within a week of bleeding (when you're actually bleeding, major life decisions are the least of it, so no worries). If you have to go home, go home. 
Which saw me through, mostly, until I hit my 40s, when shit totally went pear shaped. One of the few good things about my dreadful awful periods was that they were pretty reliable, timing-wise, and they were never that heavy (though of course that could be because the bleeding was happening in other places). I could tell the instant they started, often before anything had appeared. I wasn't one of those people who randomly bled through their clothes. Until I was. They used to come, nearly kill me, then go. Then they started coming, going, then coming back for more. They were slower and darker and heavier and bleaker and, while not so acute, generally just a whole lot worse. 
This coincided with the beginning of our Great Move North, so I would regularly (but not predictably) find myself sobbing in train toilets, improvising san pro from wodges of cheap-as-possible paper towel. There was one long, dark bike ride in the rain, back to a slightly damp room in a house with no warmth, that I will never forget. I took to carrying supplies - pads and drugs and my little microwaveable heat bag, a long-ago present from a long-ago boyfriend - up and down the country, just in case. It wasn't life threatening, but it was unutterably miserable. I can't remember what sent me to my GP, the changes were incremental but something must have tipped me over. She was marvellous - she was always marvellous - but she said that she wasn't the practice expert on 40+ hormones, and I should speak to Doctor Claire. 
Doctor Claire rang me a couple of days later. I was sitting on a bench at Radley station, waiting for a train. Can you talk? she said. Sure, I said. M was sitting next to me. Later, he told me (and he only heard half the conversation), wow, I had no idea. And he had been living with me for over 10 years. Doctor Claire recommended a Mirena coil, but I wasn't keen on that. I have heard about how they get those things in, I said, and let's just say I'm not going there without sedation. I haven't had children, remember. Well, fair enough, she said. We can do that (the sedation, not the children), but maybe we should check out your tolerance to the hormones first. Try this mini-pill for three months. If you have any problems you can stop, and if it helps then we can either knock you out and stick a Mirena up you (I paraphrase), or give you an implant. 
The next week, I went to pick up my prescription. The advice I'd had from Doctor Claire was that this particular pill had a transformative effect in around a third of cases, made naff all difference for another third, and for the final third, would only make things worse. You do not want to read the list of possible side effects. I thought myself a person who did not want to take hormones, having felt the combined Pill's side effects a huge price to pay for admittedly manageable periods. I knew myself to be unlucky in blood. I was not expecting to be in the magical third. But hats off to Doctor Claire, who at that point I had not actually met. By the time I did meet her, I had taken to singing 'Wo-oh, it's only Cerazette but I like it, like it, yes I do'. 
This drug CHANGED MY LIFE. Since I started taking it, over three years ago now, I have not had a period. Not a one. Not even a little bit of one. Not a twinge. No PMS. No pain. This is like being a child. Or a woman without a womb. Or a woman who's had the menopause. Or maybe a man. Someone who feels the same, every day of the month. Who doesn't get taken out of circulation three or four days at a time, and who can trust her own judgement from week to week. I don't shout at people. I don't sob. I don't think 'tonight, I will walk down the middle of the road and see if I get hit by a bus, and if I do get hit by a bus, I will see if it hurts more than this'. 
Full disclosure: I rarely got through my PMS and period pain without accessing other mind-altering substances, mainly alcohol and prescription painkillers, and usually both. If I'd been all about the flower remedies and the homeopathy, I might have handled it differently, but there is still no way on this sweet earth that I would have actively enjoyed riding that crimson, latterly sepia, wave. I made many efforts to accentuate the positives of the emotional rollercoaster (to be fair, I have done some excellent ranting, some of which can be accessed via the anger and hormones tags below), and gained meaningful awareness that one's mental state can be affected by things produced by one's body as well as things one has consumed. But with hindsight that was all set against a feeling that the alternative was weight gain, spots, and tits like grapefruit. And the slightly lobotomised dullness that came with all of that. I thought that this pain was part of the female experience. It was part of the miracle of life. It should, as far as possible, when it's not making you want to cut out your own uterus with a carving knife, be embraced. We're feminists, remember? This is WOMANHOOD. Not long after we met, M bought me a patchouli-scented second-hand copy of The Wise Wound. He meant well, but after much reflection I concluded that the hidden energies of my own moon cycle can basically do one.  
For realz. As one of the lucky third of Cerazetters, what I feel now is only the absence of bad things*. I have to struggle to remember them. I only remembered during the writing of this post what it was that first took me to the GP. I'd had three dreadful periods on the trot and I was beginning to think that I could only wear black pants and trousers and should have some kind of ceremonial bonfire for all the others. I was also getting through so many of those little packs of tissues (mostly for the crying, but also for the emergency san pro improvisation) that I'd started buying the shoebox-sized multi-packs. So I went to the doctor, the excellent doctor, and she said 'how can I help today Jo?' and I said 'I'd like a hysterectomy please, can I get one on the NHS or if not how much does it cost?'. 
So she did her excellent job, and Doctor Claire prescribed the Cerazette, and three months later I went to see her. She said, how are you getting on with it then? I said 'I think this may be the best thing that has ever happened to me in the whole of my life'. She said, well let's not mess with it then. 
And three-plus years later, here I am. I've kept all the empty blister packs as souvenirs (yes, really). Every six months I ask for a new prescription at my new GPs, and they book me in for a check up. My blood pressure is always a bit high the first time they take it, and I explain that it's because I'm worried that it will be too high and they won't give me a new prescription. How are you getting on with it? they say. It's the best thing that ever happened to me in the whole of my life, I say. And they write me a new prescription, and my blood pressure drops. 


*I do sometimes think I may be a little harder than I used to be. But then stopping bleeding is not the only thing that's happened to me in the last three years. 

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Me and JC

So, Jeremy Corbyn. I've never been a member of the Labour party, although I've always voted Labour in general elections. And this one was no exception, though they basically had to drag the vote out of me. I wanted to vote Green, because their policies were closest to my heart, but several thoughtful people counselled me otherwise, as this was a marginal Con-Lab seat that Labour could have won. And in the end I went to listen to the candidates, and I liked the Labour candidate the best. I'm sorry she lost and I'm glad I voted for her. I'm sorry Labour lost and I think it's a tragedy for the country. I liked Red Ed, the man and his politics, but I can totally see why many people couldn't see him as prime minister, and it was a pretty wet campaign overall. That stone. That sandwich. That mug. That van. And the whole messaging on the economy. It was there for the losing, with hindsight, and it was lost. And Ed had to go. 
My interest in Corbyn was first piqued by Cat Smith, new Labour MP for Lancaster & Fleetwood (I like to think of her as my MP, as my actual MP says nothing to me about my life), who nominated him straight away, boom. And it's just grown from there really. Ten years ago I spent three years working for NGO X's UK Poverty Programme and I learnt a huge amount about poverty and inequality in the UK. It's appalling, and over the last five years it's only got worse, and over the next five, well no prizes for guessing who austerity will bite the hardest. And since I moved back to the north west from the bright shiny Oxford bubble, with its artisanal sourdough, its Mini-driving students, its insane house prices and its, again with hindsight, extraordinary complacency, I've seen a lot more of that biting happening around me. 
And you know, #poorlivesmatter. Of course you know, you're my friends, you're not dicks. But it's easy to forget, when you're not living it and neither is anyone you know*. I'm ashamed of what this government is doing to people who were barely able to cope *before* this ideology-driven onslaught. There are plenty of economists arguing that there's nothing necessary, or inevitable, about austerity. It's a political choice, and we need to be putting forward better choices, ones that people who can see past the end of their own noses (and that's fucking loads of us, right) can, and will, vote for. 
And that's where Mr Corbyn has come in. Everything he's said on austerity, I've been 'why hasn't the Labour party been saying this all along?'. How on earth did the shadow Cabinet come not to vote against the Welfare Bill? What sort of bullshit opposition is abstention? Jesus. 
So there's that. And then the renationalisation of the railways, which is such an eye-wateringly obvious thing to do I would put it on the Jo Stone. And the buses. The way we run the buses in this country, outside London, is FUBAR. Come ON. It's 2015. We can do better. 
And then there's housing. You don't have to be a Marxist to know that the glorious free market will never, ever, deliver decent affordable housing to people in low paid jobs. Never has, anywhere on earth, never will. And when I stop to think about it, which is often (this being one of the things that *did* affect a lot of people in Oxford, and affects Morecambe in a totally different way) it makes me HOPPING SPITTING MAD that all that lovely housing benefit, which is public money raised by taxing the securely employed and housed, goes, in many cases, to exploitative dickwads who couldn't give less of a shit about the quality of the housing they are providing to the insecurely employed and housed. Market forces can do one here. Get in the fucking sea. 
So Jeremy C is a tick tick tick for me on those things. Other things, I'd say I'm broadly in agreement on the big picture, though clearly more work is needed on a lot of the foreign policy stuff. 
But that brings me to the man himself. I love the collaborative process he used to put together his Northern Future manifesto. I love the way he 'doesn't do personal' (something I totally fail at myself). I love the way he's a Marxist and he uses the royal We. He's not in it for the personal glory, and there seems to be a remarkable consensus, even among people who hate his politics, that has him as a decent guy who is doing this because he's the best person to do it right now, and hell, someone's got to. 
And yet there's been an immense 'anyone but Jeremy' Labour establishment backlash, culminating this week with the whole 'we want to be a party of government not a party of protest' thing.
Well, here's the other thing, If he wasn't standing, I wouldn't be voting. I have never in my whole little life seen anyone galvanise the young and disaffected like this. All those people who didn't vote. All those people who thought mainstream politics had nothing to offer them. All those people who couldn't make time for getting their vote out because they were too busy being ill / disabled / working three jobs on poverty wages and what was the point anyway? I love to vote, I've said so many times, but I get to participate. I get to matter. I am one fucking lucky individual and if there's a credible politician out there who speaks for and will act for the people who don't have my privilege, then that person gets my vote. 
And I don't appreciate the patronising tone of the party grandees and many of the mainstream media commentators with this 'oh you naive things, this man could never win in 2020' line. Really? And the other candidates could? All three of them are basically the same age as me, we have similar-ish lower middle-class public sector backgrounds, we all went to Oxbridge in the era when you could leave university with no debt at all if you drank cider and didn't buy too many books. I should identify with at least one of them. But I don't. They seem to have had a collective charisma bypass, though if you twisted my arm really hard and said I had to go to the pub with one of them, it would be Yvette. Obvs. And if *I* can't warm to them, people I could have read Marxism Today, drunk Newcastle Brown and danced to Free Nelson Mandela with, what hope is there for the rest of the Great British Public? Jeremy doesn't even go to the pub, and he's 20 years older than me, and I still think he's the best woman for the job. 
So Im voting for the politics of hope. I really can't see what else to do. YMMV, and I may eat my hat, but then again, it could be the Best Thing Ever. 
* Speaking for myself here, not making assumptions about anyone reading this. I know people in precarious situations, but nobody without some support from friends and family.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Creating new micro-rituals

A month or so ago we went to visit the FinnFans. They used to live in Swansea, but now they live in Norwich. We used to live in Oxford, but now we live in Ecoville. K and I talked about this a lot, in fact we've been talking about it for years, as we both knew we were moving for a couple of years before it actually happened, this massive disruption on the event horizon that you can't stop and you can't really prepare for, you just know it's coming, and then it does.

And then you're somewhere else. You've left the town where they know what you're like and don't mind, where you know where to buy the right size bin liners (Boswells), or Dr Hauschka Melissa Day Cream (also Boswells), where to get a Thai curry with a pint of real ale (The Old Tom), and which bus to catch where. You emerge, blinking, onto strange streets, and you think 'what do I do here? what am I like here?'

Moving to Ecoville had its own special challenges in the early days of course, including living on a building site, not having a postcode, not having a car or a washing machine or a phone line or internet access, but any big move is going to have some of those. And then there was the shock and awe of the Food Wars and the Parking Skirmishes and the tedious-yet-terrifying prospect of spending the next x years arguing with the vigilante defenders of the two legs better stuff. But I've covered that*. Oh yeah, and my mum died.

K's also had seismic stuff to deal with above and beyond moving city. But we've all been where we are for a while now, and what I'm left thinking about is how hard it is, how long it takes, to feel that a new place is home. Not a new house, especially, I bonded with our new house almost immediately, but a new place.

On a sunny weekend afternoon in Oxford, we would probably go to the allotment for a bit. A while later, someone would go and get some beers, or we'd retire to the Rusty Bicycle. On a cloudy Monday morning between May & September, I'd almost certainly cycle to Hinksey Pool. Afterwards, there would be coffee and one of those little Portuguese custard cakes at the cafe round the corner on Abingdon Rd. I might meet ex-housemate S in town, in the cafe at Modern Art Oxford, or latterly at Zappi's on St Michael's St, and we'd mooch around semi-aimlessly with whichever of her children was of the appropriate age for mooching with. These things didn't feel like rituals at the time, and indeed they were fairly fluid, in that they came and went and changed (no longer does a Friday night inevitably end with after-hours messiness in the Kari King - there are no after hours any more, there is no more Kari King, and anyway I am too old), but they were how we engaged with the city.

And a lot of our friends would be doing those things too, so you'd bump into people, or make an easy arrangement to meet up, maybe. It was a 'this is how we live here' thing. When we moved, we didn't have them anymore, and we were lost.

But slowly, we're making new ones. I call them micro-rituals. Some of them overlap with Project Anywhere But Here, but micro-rituals are more about grounding than escape.

One of the first, and maybe still the best, is walking to Woodies. Woodies is a breezeblock hut in the car park at the Crook O'Lune, where you can get a bacon roll and a hot Vimto, Friday to Sunday, ten till three. Initially it seemed a strange place to fête, as I didn't eat bacon (though they will do you a beanburger) and hadn't had hot Vimto for many years, and, frankly, it's a hut in a car park which is hardly ever open. But I have come to love it. The bacon rolls are excellent, though I do still go for a beanburger from time to time, hot Vimto is the business, especially in the winter, and it's round the corner from one of the most glorious views in Lancashire, if not The World. You get there by walking down the river, through meadow and woodland, then across a field full of sheep. It's a sad day indeed when I can't be tempted to walk to Woodies.

A much less charming walk, but with a much more charming destination, is a trip to the Red Door. The Red Door is a cafe and gallery that opened almost exactly a year ago in what had for a long time been a derelict pub. The Red Door has changed our lives. Its opening hours are slightly more generous than Woodies', and although it doesn't have the view, what it does have is an Aga and a proper coffee machine, from which flow flat whites and fine, fine food. We love to lunch at the Red Door. There's a dog, a woodburner, interesting things to read, good music, great people. And in summer, a courtyard garden out the back with a little brook running past. Let's just say, when the going gets tough, the tough go to the Red Door for some quiche like their Significant Ex's mum used to make**.

And there's the allotment, of course. The allotment is a source of pleasure, exercise, glut-based creativity (rhubarb and lentil curry, anyone?) and easily accessible escape. It takes work, both physical and mental, and taking it on was a commitment I was not sure I was ready to make, but actually it's been a sanity saver. Five minutes walk away is a different world, where there's always stuff to do, and you always feel better for having done a bit of it. We go up there together, and spend an hour or two working on different things. We may barely say a word, but we come away happier.

Sometimes we go for a pint on the way home from the allotment, as our local pub is at the bottom of the steps in the far corner of the site. I'd like to say that going to our local pub is one of our micro-rituals, but it's never quite made it. I'm grateful to *have* a local pub, don't get me wrong, and we went through a phase of having our dinner there every couple of weeks, but it was just a phase. The vegetarian main course option is lasagne with garlic bread and chips, or as my vegetarian friend M puts it, carb with carb and carb. As I say, please don't close, local pub o'mine (and to be fair I am sure I give it more business than most of my neighbours), but I await your discovery of the pea shoot, the avocado, and the playlist that stretches past 80s greatest hits.

On the other hand, the local shops have revealed their micro-ritual charms, albeit slowly. Central to them (charm-wise, not geography-wise) is the butcher, who we know as Pete the Meat. Pete the Meat sells good meat (fell-bred beef and lamb, free range pork and chicken) but also vegetables, salad, bread rolls, pies, potted shrimps, and other local delights. If only he sold wine. The newsagents has good ice cream. The fish and chip shop has good fish and chips. The general store is very much at the Happy Shopper end of things, which is something of a disappointment (terrible wine), but it does exist. Likewise the pharmacy, the very part time Post Office and the ultra part time library. We are at the edge of viable walkable provisioning, but once you have the opening hours memorised, if you don't work on Mondays you can get a fair bit of it done.

This all sounds like it's stretched a little thin, compared with the delights of Oxford. And to be honest, it is. But living here is a fair bit slower, way, way cheaper, and I spend a lot more time outside, or inside looking out, at the trees and the birds and the river. I tell M that I would like to spend a year reading the London Review of Books and making art. That would have been unthinkable five years ago, in that I literally would not have thought it, but now it feels only a small (mostly financial) stretch away. Who knew? And we have friends who live next door, who come round to watch Orange is the New Black with us in their pyjamas. I haven't done communal pyjama-based television since we used to get stoned and watch Morse in a companionable heap at Cambridge. It's wonderful (though I am yet to convince said friends, or indeed M, of the merits of Endeavour, sadly).

So I can't say it's always existentially comfortable, and when I'm down I struggle being so far away from the easy pleasures of urban living, but I am getting something from re-casting those same needs differently. I"m not sure it's better for me yet, but I have some faith that it will turn out that way. If I can only handle the neighbours.


* Well, kind of. I have more to say, but the next Ecoville update will be positive, in the interests of balance.
** My own mum did not have an Aga, and rarely made quiche. Her mum also did not have an Aga, but made a lot of quiche. Unfortunately, it being the 70s, she used to put it straight in the deep freeze, to be defrosted months later into something resembling an egg-based jelly with bits in. Never freeze your quiche, kids.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness

It's my birthday today. I was born exactly 25 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, which anniversary is now marked every year as Holocaust Memorial Day. Today we remember the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, and all the other people that regime set about systematically annihilating because they were gay or Roma or mentally 'defective' or Communist or or or. We also remember those who died in subsequent genocides, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. Et al.

HMD was first marked in the UK in 2001. Until then, I had no idea of the date's significance. Initially, I was pretty pissed off that it was on my birthday. But I've been coming round.

This is me and my grandma in 1988, when I spent three months in Israel during my year off. She was born in 1920, and left Germany for Palestine, with her father and siblings, in 1928.

So she survived. My dad got born - during the war, when Auschwitz was still in full swing. Some years later, I got born too.

Today, I missed my mum a bit, had a lovely lunch with M and my dad, had a brief love-in with Otto the dachshund, bought some chicken noodle soup in Booths, and came home to do an hour or so's work. I could have gone to the HMD event in Lancaster, where one of Anish Kapoor's 70 candles for 70 years was being lit. But I went to yoga instead, and did my remembering there.

Check our matching noses. Keep the memory alive.


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Friday, January 09, 2015

More words about buildings and food

Happy New Year to all my readers! You're wanting a communal meals update, right? Sorry to disappoint, but let's just say me too. Getting on four months after the Fish Finger Hate Crime Affair, we still don't have a new Meals Agreement. Or a new Meals Policy. Or enough communal meals for some people's liking (though still too many for some other people's liking). And still many dark evenings with a dark Common House, while we sit severally and variously in our dimly-lit eco-homes, thinking several and various dark thoughts.

But hey, hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. And it's not all bad. There *has* been the review of the process of the review process, which didn't reveal any hate crime (phew), but did say that maybe the remit could have been clearer (yup), maybe the Meals Review Team could have had more process support (yup)... oh, and that just possibly we -- big we, not Meals Review Team we -- should have anticipated that by even raising certain issues, or, in some cases, any issues at all, we were essentially picking a giant scab off a giant flesh wound.

Yeah. That. Let's just say that if I had a fish finger / caper / anchovy / gherkin / jar of mayo / ciabatta roll / little gem lettuce / sprinkling of black pepper for everyone who's said 'it's not really about food, though, is it', I'd have a mighty fine fish finger sandwich.

*takes fish finger sandwich break lasting several weeks*

No, it's not really about food. I've identified four things I think it *is* about, and only one of them -- the extent to which being vegan/vegetarian friendly goes beyond providing high quality food for vegans and vegetarians and into guaranteeing entirely meat- and fish- free communal space (some of it sometimes? all of it sometimes? some of it all times? all of it all times? if I eat a fish finger sandwich in the Common House and I'm the only one in there, does a tree fall in the forest?) -- has anything to do with what any of us actually has for dinner.

The other three (in my personal view, YMMV, definitely not agreed by consensus etc) are...
  • Equity in current work contribution. At the moment, we're all supposed to do three hours a week on essential cohousing tasks, *and* cook once a month and clean up once a month. Some people clearly do more than three hours a week, and some clearly do less. A lot of people, in fact most people, even more clearly (because we have the numbers) cook and clean up less than once a month. This causes huge resentment. But does it make sense to require the same number of hours of everyone, regardless of how often they are on site / how old or strong or fit and well they are / how many hours a week they have other paid or unpaid work commitments? And should someone who eats a common meal once a fortnight be required to cook and clean as often as someone who eats three meals a week? 
  • Equity in historic work (and other) contribution. Some people spent years of time and effort and energy, in some cases to the point of burnout, fighting seriously hefty odds to get the project off the ground. They also took a much greater financial risk, and carried the majority of the project load all the way through the build. Those who came along later paid more, in some cases a lot more, for their houses, and inevitably had less say in the design and build decisions. That's just how it is, as in, it couldn't have been any other way, but it isn't necessarily fair and it's hard to know what we can do about that. 
  • Adherence to policy / agreements about how we live here that we may or may not have been directly involved in making. There was an explicit 'policy lock' in force for several years, so as not to deflect energy from the build, but I don't think anyone really knew what would happen at the end of it -- what's non-negotiable? What's totally negotiable? What's somewhere in between? And who decides? Yes, there were policies and agreements written back in 2006 about cars and food and smoking and pets (all available here if you're interested) but back then the plan was that it would be an urban project with around 24 homes. We ended up as 41 homes by a river, on the edge of a village, with lots of wildlife but a shitty bus service. And we're all new here. So what should we change? And do we all have the same ability to influence that? 
... and they’re about fairness and power and justice. The big stuff gets writ small in pizza toppings. We have some big cracks, and what the Meals Review did was remind us that in some cases we'd merely papered over them. That was expedient when we had houses to build (and sell) but now... well here we all are and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Well, it turns out we are going to approach it very, very carefully and very, very slowly. We will have conversations, but they will be very, very tightly managed. There will be meetings, but they will be very, very heavily facilitated. It will take a long time, but, ideally, no one will cry, or leave the room, or accuse another person of a god-damn hate crime.

Part of me is 'holy shit, we really have to do it like this?' but another part of me got accused of a god-damn hate crime for trying to do it in a more ‘given that we know all this, let’s get it all out on the table’ kind of a way. *And* that wasn't the end of the super-helpful 'feedback'. SO I get that we have to do it like this. No, really, I do.

No, *really*, I do. No, really, I *do*.

*checks privilege*

*takes another fish finger sandwich break lasting several weeks*

I might write a book about this one day, having assigned elemental pseudonyms to the key players (every community needs a Boron). But I might not. And really, I do know that here, I should basically Write About Me. So here are my two biggest thoughts from my first four months as a fish finger hate-crimeist.

1. Food is way more complex than I thought. 
We're not hunter-gatherers anymore. We're a long way past having any kind of 'natural' relationship with food. It's all about choices -- these may be heavily constrained in various ways, but anyone who fancies themselves some shade of green, or anyone who cares about animal welfare, or anyone who cares about their own health in a specific way, or anyone who has body-image issues, or anyone who has a physical or mental health issue which affects, or is affected by, what and how they eat, or anyone who has food allergies or intolerances ... all these variables and more need to be held in balance when deciding what to have for dinner.

These are mostly #firstworldproblems, for sure, but they all play their part in how we relate to food. And the more people you're trying to cook for, the harder it gets to find a way of doing it that works for everyone: if it's just me, and I have the time, money and skills, I can eat exactly what I like. If there are two of us, then I have another set of needs to take into account. Once you get to four, you're into complex territory (ask anyone who cooks for a family), and hell, we're looking at forty, sometimes more. Some needs are harder to cater for than others, some are in conflict with others, some are seen as 'normal', and some, at least here, are seen as... I don't know, 'better'. It's not an easy problem to solve, and logic and proportion can really go to shit sometimes.

Until I got here, unless I was in sub-Saharan Africa I thought I was pretty easy to feed (and being difficult to feed in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the reasons I stopped being vegetarian. I'm still an AVML on the way there though). My mum used to get all the major food groups into me without me complaining much; I have been able to feed myself, and indeed others, quite happily since I was a student (others may not have been overwhelmed by Super Noodles with tuna, tomatoes and Tabasco, but a variant of this is still a staple 10 minute dinner in these parts); and M has been very successfully feeding me for years. In terms of mass catering, I didn't have the best experience of school dinners, but by then I was a vegetarian, so it was cheese salad every day, and always the same cheese. But I managed reasonably well with Hall dining at Cambridge (soup and chips if I couldn't bear the vegetarian option, they weren't so great in the early 90s), and I actively enjoyed the food side of my brief kibbutz experience. Olives! Proper tomatoes! Coleslaw! Vegetarian schnitzel! But I find our communal meals genuinely profoundly disappointing and actually pretty stressful, so clearly there's something else at play.

I'm not 100% sure what it is. But it has to do with the fact that we live in a world where many, many people, especially many, many women, have a miserable, disordered relationship with food, and one of the things I am proudest of is that I am not one of them. I have been on a diet precisely once in my life, when I was 14, and it was a bleak experience. I got the recipes out of the back pages of a book my mum had bought me about Becoming A Woman. I ate meals without the good bits for a couple of weeks, maybe not even that long, and all I could think about was food. I drank black coffee and smoked out the window to dull the hunger pangs. It was terrible, and I decided that it was worse than Being Fat (which actually I wasn't, but I thought I was, not having a thigh gap). So I vowed that all the effort and energy I would otherwise put into Being Thin I would put into Not Caring About Not Being Thin, and that I would henceforth get on with enjoying my food.

And it worked, and I have, and I do. I don't weigh stuff, I don't count stuff, I don't buy low fat cheese, I don't drink slimline tonic. I've never done a 5:2 or a juice cleanse or tried to live off cabbage soup or milk-free milkshakes or egg-white omelettes. I also don't weigh myself. I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't secretly love to be a thin woman (I'd have to live on another planet to be immune to *that* particular message), but I stand by my adolescent conclusion that a *lot* of things taste better than skinny feels. Food is GREAT. Food is one of the best things in the world, and being able to enjoy its delights with largely intact self esteem (I don't feel good about myself when I eat a whole box of Roka Cheese Crispies in one go, to be fair, but I will happily eat a butter pie) makes me One Of The Luckiest People Alive.

But an important part of that is not excluding things -- or at least not excluding things that I love to eat. Once I get into excluding territory then I start to lose my balance. This meal isn't a great meal. It's just calories. What's the point? I mean, we *need* calories, but I don't need as many as I eat, clearly, so why am I eating this? Should I eat it? I get anxious going off in that direction. That way Issues With Food lie.

The things I love to eat have changed radically over the years. As a child it was sausages in finger rolls with tomato ketchup. I can still remember the texture of the rolls, spread with butter from the fridge, the slightly burnt sausages. And vegetable biryanis with omelette baked onto the rice, I bloody loved those. As a teenager, it was Marks & Spencer cheese ravioli with garlicky tomato sauce. I was gutted when they discontinued it. Also those layered salads with cheese or prawns on top. Glad to see those have survived. My 20s were about making friends with chilli and becoming a serious fan of Tom Yam Goong. But it was also when I learnt to cook for myself and discovered the joy of a nut roast with buttered pasta, and Greek lentil soup. And then I met M, who is a fantastic cook and loves food as much as I do, if not more. Ranchos huevos, carrot fritters, smoked tofu carbonara, all manner of curries and noodles and salads and soups and stews. And that's all *before* I started eating meat and he could devil me some kidneys.

But essentially I am about the umami, the contrast of tastes and textures, the sharpness and the spice. I like my food with salt in and my salads dressed. I am not a fan of the sweet (which has in honesty probably saved me from being the size of a house) or the creamy or the heavy or the bland. Many of the things I now love (kale with chilli and garlic! raita! smoked mackerel! pomegranate seeds! avocado! almonds!) are "healthy", but I do not love them for their "healthiness", I just love them. Likewise, many are vegetarian, even vegan, but many are not.

And there's the how as well as the what. I like to eat my dinner in a calm environment, once I've decompressed from the day, with good lighting, off a nice plate, with a knife and fork that match, and a napkin (paper is fine, I'm never sure about how often to wash cloth ones). We usually have a glass or two of wine, and some of our best conversations. If there are four or six or eight of us, (or three or five or seven) even better. I am not so great if I'm eating alone, but I still set food out on the plate with care, sit at a table, listen to Radio 4, think some thoughts.

So I have realised that I make my food choices based on taste and a very personal perception of 'goodness' (avoiding foie gras and air-freighted asparagus, for example, but maybe not avoiding sashimi or out of season green beans if they're Fairtrade), rather than because it's healthy, or because there are things it doesn't contain. That's how I like to eat. That's how M likes to eat. That's how a lot of people I used to eat with like to eat. I kind of imagined it's how everyone would like to eat, if their circumstances permitted, so *there's* a big fat learning point. Another big fat learning point is that if my relationship with food is to stay healthy and happy and un-disordered, and by extension if *I* am to stay healthy and happy and un-disordered, I think it might be how I *need* to eat.

I just can't do food I don't like at a time I don't want to eat in an environment I don't enjoy eating in. I mean, of course I could if I had to, if I didn't have a choice, but I do have a choice, and because I do, I can't. If I can't have something, I just miss it more and want it more. And *that* way also Issues With Food lie.

That may not be as convincing a reason as some can produce for wanting things a certain way, but it's the best I can do. And at this point I'm not even trying to persuade anyone that how I like to eat is the way to go, just to be left alone to cook and eat in peace. I *did* like the idea of shared meals. I still do. Just not these ones.

2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket
This time last year, I didn't have a lot of energy. I was low on spoons. I was still very much  dealing with the trauma and grief of my mum's death, which itself was layered on the disruption and uncertainty of moving up north. I'd left behind old friends and familiar places and decent internet (not to mention proper sushi) for a whole new way of doing things, and then the world suddenly tilted on its axis, never to tilt back. It felt like I'd fallen off something, hadn't landed, and didn't know who I would be when I did. I still don't really know how I didn't break anything, or myself, though there were definitely a few times when I came close.

As the days lengthened, and the distance grew, I did start to feel a little resurgence, and a few more spoons appeared. It was unpredictable, but it felt like it was going in the right direction. I'd pulled right back from a lot of cohousing things (apart from managing the laundry tokens, because that's a job you can do sobbing at 3 am) and I was feeling that I should start re-engaging. This place doesn't run itself. So while I didn't nominate myself for the Meals Review Team, when lots of other people did, I thought, well, it's a dirty job but someone's got to do it, and it looks like it's got my name on it.

From this vantage point, I mostly* wish I hadn't thought that. Because I didn't really have the energy. Or rather, it took all the spare energy I had. We did an extraordinary amount of work over a bunch of lovely summer days when I could have been digging my allotment, or painting the house, or walking in the hills, or sorting out the office, or basically anything that would have been fruitful, in a mental and physical health sort of a way. This was not fruitful. It felt like it might be for a time, as we uncovered stories and sorted statements and looked at possibilities, but if ever there was a poisoned chalice it was this one. I didn't really see it coming, but at the moment it feels like we could have pulled a bunch of ideas out of a hat and saved ourselves the time. That was precious time and precious energy, and I spent it on the wrong thing.

M has made some similar mistakes, we both have a tendency to get over-invested in these things. At work I'm pretty good at picking my battles but it doesn't always play out in other areas. Anyway, we had a good old long old think and talk about it and decided to diversify. We have a new initiative, which is called Project Anywhere But Here.

Project ABH (as it was immediately dubbed by the first neighbour I explained it to) is very simple in concept. If it's not a working day, get up and get out. Anywhere. Do not lie around working on proposals for better ways to do things. Get your coat on and leave the house. The easiest thing to do is go up to the allotment, and the beginning of Project ABH coincided neatly with the onset of Digging Season. A couple of hours up there, in the sunshine with a view over the hills, and equilibrium starts to return. We also have a new local cafe, where there is a large dog to stroke, and flat whites and Aga-cooked lunches can be had. On our first ABH outing we had some of those before walking over the hill to Williamson Park, where we drank beer in the chilly autumn sunshine and visited the butterfly house. Sometimes we only get as far as cycling into town to go to the library and have coffee (not in the library, that coffee is not good), sometimes we go to Carnforth, or the garden centre at Bolton le Sands, or the beach at Hest Bank. But we do get out.

I have big plans for Project ABH in 2015, which involve writing ideas on index cards based on how long they take (and what the weather needs to be like), and then using them to plan ahead a bit. If you have a whole day, you can go and do something in Manchester, for example, and one day, when I wasn't far enough away, I was sorely tempted to get on a bus I saw idling in the city centre which was going to Knott End. They have a ferry there. And that's before you get to the joy of the 555. This is a beautiful part of the world, and we've barely started exploring it. There's joy to be had in that.

We made a healthy start by spending both Christmas and New Year ABH -- but not very far away. We went to Silverdale for Christmas and stayed at Holgates Holiday Park with M's offspring. I've never been great at enjoying Christmas, but it turns out that's because I've never spent it in a static caravan with a sea view, a big hill to walk over, a swimming pool and a real ale pub with a big fire and singalong carols. Everyone enjoyed it! It was great! And for New Year we went with good friends (also good neighbours, a fine combination, as someone may already have noted) to Black Fell Cottage, where there were Picklebacks (exhilarating), tons of cheese, jigsaws, blustery walks, films, Monkey 47 gin (terrifying) and a walk by moonlight to dinner at the splendid Drunken Duck. I still have party bruises. I love those guys.

It was all absolutely marvellous, but it was also good to get home. Which is important. I don't actually want to live anywhere else, I just need to get better at managing my boundaries. And hey, if you've got this far, thanks for sticking with me.

*fixes eyes on horizon, walks forward*


*I say mostly because it wasn't all bad. I enjoyed all the 1-1 conversations I had with people, and learnt a lot about different people's perspectives on cooking and eating, and just about them really. Conversations are good. And I really enjoyed working with the other three people in the team, we were very different people with a shared task and we did some good stuff together. 

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Monday, September 29, 2014

The hate crime that is a fish finger sandwich

It’s hard being a blogger in an intentional community. Hundreds of fascinating things happen, half of them inspiring, half of them infuriating, and you think about what a good blog post most of them would make. But is it ok to write about them?

I watched 20,000 Days on Earth last week, where Nick Cave talked about cannibalising his relationship with his wife for his songwriting. Presumably, she’s all right about that, and hey, she gets to be married to Nick Cave. I write about M sometimes, and generally assume that he doesn’t mind. I write about events long ago or far away, and generally assume that the distance is sufficient for it to be safe. And I’ve written about people who will never know, and I generally assume that they wouldn’t care.

But the space in the middle is a bit grey. If it’s something lovely, or about someone lovely, I tend to go ahead, though I might not use real names. If it’s something highly personal about me, but featuring other people, I tend to do the same. In the next circle out, I might change any identifying details, or be generally more oblique. If I have something I want to say, I try and find a way to say it, but I walk a delicate line. I had to retrospectively sanitise a few posts about NGO X once they introduced a blogging policy, but the policy itself was quite helpful. There’s a social media policy as well now, which says you can say that you work for NGO X, but you should include the statement “all views expressed are personal”.

And I’ve not written much about my (still fairly new) neighbours, because it’s hard to know where the boundary is between what’s my story and what’s someone else’s, so intertwined are they. And we all live in a yellow submarine, so the whole anonymity thing gets a bit challenging, and I don’t want to piss anyone off unduly.

But I figure once you’ve been accused of a hate crime, all bets are off.

So here we go. It's quite long. All views expressed are personal.

Over in Ecoville, we have a Communal Meals Policy. It was written in 2006, and it states that we wish to provide “a vegetarian and vegan friendly environment, whilst recognising that many members may also wish to eat meat from time to time”. The person who wrote it was vegan. She never actually moved into Ecoville, but I have heard various interpretations of this policy from people who were around at the time, ranging from “Y never wanted a vegan-only environment, that’s not the kind of community she wanted to live in”, to “if you didn’t want to live in a vegan community, you should have started your own”, via “the first three meals every week will be vegan”.

The person asserting this last, henceforth to be known as Z (for ZOMG!), told me this first on a visit to another cohousing project, a long time before we, or indeed anyone, moved into Ecoville, but several months after we’d parted with a large sum of money and put our house on the market.

It was news to me, and was the first thing that started my (then Ocado pescatarian, currently locavore omnivore, if you're asking) alarm bells ringing, because I Am Not Vegan*. Z was convinced this had been agreed at some point, and I'm not saying it hadn't, but unfortunately no one had seen fit to put it in the meals policy, the decision log, or the minutes of any meeting for which minutes exist. So it can’t reasonably be said to be something we’d “signed up for”... indeed, if it had been called Veganville, we’d never have got on the bus.

As we got closer to move-in date, M and I joined the team looking at how our meals would actually work, which process quickly revealed itself to be Extremely Hard Work. By the time what has become known as the August Agreement was finally hammered out, the Meals Team had to have their meetings mediated by the Process Team. (Not a joke, not even a little one).

And I think it’s a terrible agreement. I didn’t agree with substantial chunks of it at the time, though didn’t get to register that on the day except by proxy, as it was passed at one of the very few General Meetings I wasn’t able to attend. Its worst bit is the Plate Apartheid... if, in the limited set of circumstances when it is not verboten, one chooses to consume something non-vegetarian in the Common House, one must carry it in on a separate plate, use separate cutlery and serving utensils, and carry it all home again dirty afterwards. If you think this is overkill for a sausage roll, imagine how annoying it is when you drop your fork and have to go home to get another one because you can’t use one that’s already there and you can’t wash the one you already have.

The Plate Apartheid rules are, in my personal view, insane in the membrane. They mean that visiting friends and family, who we sometimes take in there to eat as we no longer have a large dining table at home (having donated it to the Common House because one of the things about cohousing is you don't need to have a big table in your house, or indeed a big house, because when you have guests, you can use the communal ones), think we live with a bunch of freaks and weirdos. They mean that you end up walking down the street with sharp knives sticking out at dangerous angles because you’re also trying to carry eight plates and eight sets of cutlery. They mean you are called over by one of your neighbours and asked to explain to his six year old son why he has to eat his pie off a different kind of plate, and you can’t give a reason that a six year old can understand, because there isn’t one. They mean that you have to gesticulate wildly at people who are about to pick up the wrong kind of plate, or stop them taking your wrong kind of plate away to put it in the dishwasher. And they mean that any shared eating experience that is conducted in this way, and they are few and far between because of all the other rules, starts with a good 20 minutes of talking about how insane in the membrane it all is. In no way do they promote peace, love and understanding, and quite often people break them, even when they’re trying hard not to, like when you turn on the light even though you know there’s a power cut.

So how's this all working out for us? Well, meals have happened, and do happen, and while I think they tend towards being brown, bland or bizarre (and sometimes all three), some of the people think they're great and some of the other people think they're fine... although they are not happening nearly as often as the seven times a week they are supposed to. In practice, it's averaged around four, because hardly anyone signs up to cook as often as they have in theory agreed to. Not much else happens in the Common House on other evenings, because there in theory *should* be a meal, so at any moment there *could* be a meal, so it's pretty difficult to organise anything else. So many nights, it sits dark and empty, and on some of those nights small groups sit in atomised small living spaces eating spare ribs off their laps and bitching about the August Agreement. Meanwhile, those who thought the AA was a great thing sit around bitching about the lazy arses who aren't pulling their weight / are shirking / are taking the piss / etc.

Why have we carried on like this? Well, another of the agreements that pre-dated our arrival on the scene, catalysed, so far as I know, by earlier challenges to the food policy, was that all policies and associated agreements would stay in force until six months after the last household had moved in. I can see the sense in that, you can't be going around moving goalposts while you're also trying to build and sell houses, but in practice the whole moving in phase lasted over a year, so the last person's six months was the first person's getting on 20.

But eventually, the requisite number of months had passed and the Meals could be Reviewed. We agreed that the Meals Review Team should be elected rather than made up of volunteers, and we were all invited to nominate people. I didn't nominate myself, because I had such a shitty experience the first time around. Let some other fool do loads of work and then get shouted at, I thought. I'm not stupid.

But then I got more nominations than anyone else. Which did genuinely surprise me, as I have largely been avoiding communal meals (which I have described elsewhere as food I don't want to eat, at a time I don't want to eat, in an environment I don't want to eat in), and I haven't made any secret of how much I dislike the Food Rules. I thought people would choose calm, kind, gentle souls to do this job. But I talked to a few people, and I thought no, there was definitely a reason people nominated me, so I stood, making my position as clear as I could in the process. And four people were duly elected, including me.

That was in February. Since then we've met nearly every Monday morning. We've had 1-1 conversations with every single person who lives here, we've recorded what they've said about what's working and not working for them and what they'd like to see done differently, we've sorted those (thousands of) comments into themes, we've held 'listening circles' to hear people's views on inclusion, integrity, and the purpose of meals, we've provided regular progress updates to our monthly General Meetings, the last of which, in July, said we would be bringing proposals to the September meeting. Which. We. Did... in the form of a draft new agreement, accompanying guidelines, and an evidence document explaining our findings and workings.

We followed the agreed process in submitting the agenda item, and we turned up on the day to present it. We knew that there would be some vegan resistance to some of the things we were proposing, and that there would doubtless be more work needed on these areas - around bringing meat and fish in from home (we weren't proposing that it should be cooked or even offered as part of communal meals), keeping it warm, and the whole Plates Situation - but we put them in because lots of people felt excluded by the current set of rules, and we wanted to propose softer boundaries and explore where these might be acceptable.

And then thirteen people -- most of the current Meals Team, most of the vegans, and a few of what I have come to think of as the Old Guard -- refused to agree the meeting agenda. They did not want this proposal presented, because they didn't like what was in it. No one's ever blocked a meeting item before, as far as I know. Nobody knew what to do. So we spent half an hour of a four hour meeting talking about whether we should be allowed to go ahead or not.

The whole thing was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to derail things, and the fall out has been enormous. Nasty little emails have circulated with accusations about "some people's intentions", and anonymous pass-agg things have been stuck up on noticeboards in the night. We're now in the process of reviewing the process of the Meals Review. It's like living in a cross between Heathers and Brazil, with a bit of Life of Brian thrown in for good measure.

And it's exhausting. The best thing for me, personally, would be no communal meals at all, and a space we can use to do what we want in. Want to eat some brown pasta with some lentils (seriously, what is it about brown pasta?) Be my guest. But me, over here, I’m having a pint and an organic pork pie. But I wouldn't get close to proposing that, because I am an adult and I know I have to live with other people. And equally, if everyone else thought that meals were just awesomely excellent for them, I’d have backed off and worked out what to do next for myself, rather than proposing changes to a functioning system. But that’s not what happened.

This was a fair proposal, in that it took into consideration the views of the whole community, not just those who have the loudest voices or those who have been here the longest. I have no doubt that it would need to be modified before it could be agreed, but to say that it can’t be heard is... illuminating. There’s a reason we haven’t been able to debate this before now, and it’s because there are people who are scared of having the dominant orthodoxies challenged, in case they don't remain dominant. We don't want to talk about this, and we were here first, so *you* can't talk about it. It’s not been a fun couple of weeks.

We would never have deliberately moved to a hotbed of vegan zealotry**, trust me... though I do wonder if we should have asked, at our first communal meal, which was pretty awful, food-wise, if this is what people had in mind. We just assumed it was because everyone was tired after a full day of meetings and they couldn’t find the butter or the cheese, or, for that matter, the salt, the lemon juice, the Tabasco or the salad dressing. It's possible that if we had asked, and they'd said yes, we are happy to eat like this all the time, we wouldn't be here. This is no place for an Ocado pescatarian.

But we are here. And 'here' is a place where M says hello to Z in the street, in the interests of neighbourly living (he is a gentler soul than I, I am still burning with fury at being silenced after having done a job I was elected to do, which involved a fuckload of work), and was subjected to a rant about the obscenity of us proposing something that Z once nearly did himself***, that was in line with a definition of ‘vegan friendly’ that he put forward himself****, and how our proposal generally amounts to a “white collar hate crime”.

That’s a serious accusation. And, seriously, Z and his separatist mung bean manifesto can fuck right off. I give slightly less of a shit about how he feels than I did before I spent two years getting treated like a menstruating Bangladeshi peasant woman for wanting anchovies on my pizza, it’s true, but I’m still not the one around here doing the hating.


*I have had some awesome vegan meals, truly, but they have been awesome because they’ve been awesome, not because they’ve been vegan. Most vegan meals are at the ‘this might be ok if it had some cheese on it’ end of things, in my experience. And you don't persuade people of the merits of veganism by making them cook food they don't want to eat, or eat food they wouldn't want to cook. 

** Not all the vegans are zealots. One of them is on the review team, and I now actively want to cook him dinner. 

*** One Friday night there was no meal arranged and another neighbour, let's call her X, suggested a chippy run. Our local fish and chip shop also does veggie burgers, which are vegan, so everyone had an option that was better than 'just chips', and Z went along with X to pick it up. They brought it back to the Common House, where Z suggested putting it all in the oven to keep warm... until (pescatarian) X pointed out that this is verboten under the August Agreement. Yet proposed use of the hob and oven for the keeping warm of non-vegetarian food is one of the things that is now 'obscene'. 

**** This comes from the 'Fellowship for Intentional Community' -- there are levels 0 (we kill vegans) to 10 (a vegan world) and v7 ("All dishes, including desserts, if not vegan, have sumptuous vegan equivalents; everything is well-labeled, and non-vegans don't consider it a hassle or burden to provide vegan food") is the level that was proposed by the vegans who live here. We thought that was fair and achievable, apart from the bit that describes how people should feel. You can't tell people that they won't find meeting your needs a pain in the arse, especially if you accuse them of hate crimes while they're attempting to find an inclusive way of doing just that.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower

The day we arrived on the Isle of Man I made a waxing appointment. It's one of my few grooming rituals, maybe the only one (bar moisturising every day) since I stopped dying my roots. Every four weeks, half leg and eyebrows, sorted. But I missed one, and hadn't managed to remake the appointment... I've not been up north long enough to be a regular with anyone yet, and I called a couple of times but didn't get a call back and I just got hairy. It's not the end of the world. But there was a beauty room right there in Peel, and she could fit me in at the end of the day on Monday. Perfect.

There's something about being a beauty therapist, you have to be good at talking to people or it can make a strangely intimate situation pretty awkward. And this one was very good... quite a lot younger than me (they nearly all are these days), a little self-conscious (also not uncommon) but at the same time self-assured - it takes skill and hard work to run that kind of business, and while she hadn't been set up on her own there for that long, she had big plans.

But what I found fascinating was that she was born in Peel and had lived there all her life... although she'd been 'across' (as she put it), I got the sense it hadn't been for very long and she had no great interest in it, or anywhere further afield. Her parents live up the road, and she and her sister have daughters the same age, who go to the same primary school as they did.

If I'd grown up in Peel it would have driven me CRAZY. A small town (village, really, even though it's got a castle and a cathedral, so is technically actually a city) on the other side of a small island from its capital, which itself isn't very big - essentially a place where the main story is a) the best part of 1000 years old or b) about a motorbike race that regularly kills people... I can't imagine the depths of anomie to which my teenage self would have sunk. I was once at a Mick Thomas gig with my friend Pete, and at the opening bars of The Lonely Goth he leant over and shouted 'this song always reminds me of you!' in my ear.

I protested that I was never (really) a Goth - I wore a lot of black, and I had hair like Robert Smith for a while, but there was no PVC in my wardrobe, and I did have other looks. But I know what he meant. I grew up in a small town - bigger than Peel, but with less to say for itself... also on the coast, also (in those days) playing very much second fiddle to Blackpool, where the bright lights were, and Preston, the nearest town of any size. It was intensely suburban. It was intensely provincial. I was intensely bored. There was (of course) nobody who understood me. Well, there were a couple of friends, and we would exchange books on radical feminism and tape albums for each other, but there was no critical mass of interesting, no cultural stimuli that I was drawn towards. I would play my Springsteen, my Leonard Cohen, my Suzanne Vega, and literally ache to get out of this place, to where there were highways, there were ideas, there were tea and oranges that came all the way from China.

And as soon as I could, I did. I went InterRailing with my friend R after my A-levels, and saw the Eiffel Tower and the Berlin Wall and the Anne Frank museum, slept in a train station a couple of times, and learnt that you *can indeed* live off bread, Laughing Cow cheese and cheap red wine. By my early 20s I'd spent three years at Cambridge, getting off my head in various new ways and absorbing as much horizon-expanding input as I could fit into my expanding horizon. Then I went out and saw as many different places as I could fit into a year on a shoestring. It wasn't wildly original, even then, but while there were Lonely Planet guidebooks in the early 90s, there wasn't any internet or any mobile phones, so you were on your own out there, even when there were two of you. And we went to the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal and Masada and the Great Wall of China and Lake Baikal, did a bungee jump in New Zealand, spent Christmas Eve on Had Rin beach, travelled to mountains and lakes and jungles and deserts, nearly died of typhoid (that was just me, but my Significant Ex did get dysentery three times *and then* giardia), recovered, had some meals I remember to this day for their fabulousness (a Yemeni lunch in Israel cooked by my cousin's husband's mother, my first masala dosa in what was then still Bombay, a fish and chilli salad near the Thai-Burmese border) or for their awfulness (instant noodles in Australian hostels, the food desert that was Moscow in 1993, 'vegetarian' options with bits of fur and claw in in China).

I'm not claiming any of this changed the world, apart from messing with the ozone layer more than staying at home would have done, but I couldn't get enough of it. And I didn't stop there, and I still haven't... when I joined NGO X I said I'd stay till I'd been able to see more of Africa than Egypt. Fourteen years later I've got a yellow fever vaccination certificate in my passport, together with stamps from South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique. Not forgetting Sudan. As if anyone could forget Sudan. And if you said to me tomorrow, hey, fancy a couple of weeks' work in Dakar / Dhaka / Dili I'd still be there like a bear.

And yet. As the Charlene song so beautifully put it, I've been to Nice and the isles of Greece, and I've sipped champagne on a yacht. But does it make any actual difference? Am I a better person than if I'd never left Lytham St Annes?

I think probably yes. I wanted to know what was out there in the world. No doubt having the option to find out was, and still is, a huge privilege, but if I hadn't I think I'd have been miserable. I've never actually *lived* anywhere but England, and I've never wanted to... I've thought about it, but a summer in the isles of Greece put me right off. And yet here I am, living 40 miles from where I grew up, less than 30 miles from where I was born. And yes, I have a fair idea how lucky I am.

I first came across this (I now know famous) TS Eliot quote on the wall of my ex-mother-in-common-law's house in 1989.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Twenty five years later, I can see he had a point.

And yet. I admire you, girl from Peel.


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