The joy of flasks

A couple of days ago I made myself a cup of tea in a flask and took it to where I volunteer so that I could enjoy a beverage out of the tiny flask-top cup.

Flask tea is like camping tea. It’s invariably drunk outdoors and takes more effort than simply flicking the switch on the kettle. It also has that mindfulness and drinking in the present quality that means you really concentrate on what you’re imbibing rather than hurriedly just necking a mugful of something in front of your screen.

The joy of a flask is shared by that similar thing the picnic. In the summer my son and his friend packed a picnic, a few balls and a rug and then literally walked round the corner to a very unassuming playing field. It felt like a real adventure to the boys, they thought it was great. And grown up though I am, I found myself being carried along by the simple joy of it all.

We’ve also biked to our local woods with the flask and simply sat on a bench and had a cup of tea together. There really is something magical about a flask, and not just because it keeps my tea hot for ages!

Antidote: Pack a flask, or a picnic. You’ll always feel like you’re having an adventure in the most ordinary of circumstances!

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The world needs more gadflies

It took me a couple of days to stop thinking about it; the news that at a nature reserve in Germany insect numbers have dropped by 75% with accompanying reports of ecological Armageddon. It was one of those news items that stopped me short. Yes, I know, or I should do, as I work in the media, that each decade has its own end-of-the-world story, be it nuclear war, AIDS or terrorism. But changing climate and environmental damage is something that really needs to be given more attention, and not less, than it is getting in current news agendas.

There was something about this report that saddened me enormously. After all, telling people that the climate is changing and things are dying is such a big thing to take on board that you are left reeling and wondering what you can do about it. What can I, as a single person, do? In our house we recycle, as well as cycle, compost, and try to live a fairly balanced life. But what’s needed in this situation is the big corporations and governments, the ones with the real power and the ones with a stranglehold on the planet, to bring the anti-environment juggernaut to a halt.

The one tiny crumb of comfort I took from this story was that it brought to mind Socrates and the gadfly. Socrates believed that he had been sent by the gods to act as a gadfly to the Athenian state. He saw the state as ‘a great and noble steed’ which had to be reminded of its proper duties.

In the dark nights of the soul when it seems as though nothing can take on the might of American leviathans such as Trump, and win, I like the idea that something as small as an insect is actually more important than the sociopaths that run our planet. It punctures their power. They don’t in fact know it all. And you never know, this fact may actually arrest the hubris that’s currently destroying and despoiling our planet. It possibly behoves us all to be the modern gadfly to the state and fight for our local environments for the sake of the global ones.

What is a garden for?

I have a friend who wants to downsize her house, as she needs to reduce her mortgage debt, but is quite understandably is sad about losing her large garden.

I’ve spent years casting a covetous eye over anyone with a large expanse of grass and plenty of room to swing several cats. Yet, I’ve put a lot of time and effort instead to embrace the smaller garden that we have. As a result we’ve gone from having a rather mediocre space to having something that draws comments and admiration from visitors. I’ve chosen to celebrate the garden space we have and risen to the challenges that space limitation offers.

To do that I really thought hard about what a garden should be for, as for many things in modern life, gardens can also become status symbols, and as such appreciating them for what we actually gain from them and learn from them becomes overlooked.

Our garden performs many functions and meets many of my expectations despite its small size:

  1. I can grow fruit and vegetables in it. I grow up walls, in planters and pots and in our front garden. As such, despite the small harvests I have learned about the growing cycle and can eat food that has been grown in our soil.
  2. Somewhere to sit is important. Having somewhere to sit in a garden and listen to the birds, enjoy the fresh air and be among green, growing things is key for me, hence the six seating spaces. One allows me and my son to sit and watch the son come up and eat our breakfast. The second is next to our (very small) pond, but it is home to a frog nonetheless. The third is in the front garden. This is one of my favourite seats – in the summer the sun moves to the front of the house and it’s a great place to enjoy the evening warmth and stillness. A fourth is an area of decking where a living roof of a grape vine and boston ivy grows. Another is a raised bed on which I’ve built a little perch. I want to plant a scented clematis near this so I can enjoy its fragrance. Finally I built a very little summer house with a pull-down table and two benches.
  3. We have several trees, one of which, a rowan has had a treehouse built around it, which leads me to point number 4…
  4. It offers somewhere for our son to play. We don’t have the space to buy off-the-shelf garden toys such as swings, climbing frames etc, so we have built a treehouse with a slide, and a couple of dens. We don’t have the room for him to play football, but as we live around the corner from a large playing field, I’m rather glad that he won’t spend all his summers round nextdoor’s asking for his ball back!
  5. It offers a place for wildlife. We have trees for birds, berry-bearing shrubs such as cotoneaster, rowan and pyracantha. The front garden is maintained with minimal intervention to leave it to wildlife.
  6. A garden is the first place that a child interacts with nature. It’s also in an increasingly urban world a place where adults can interact with an environment that allows them to engage with things that aren’t plastic and manufactured.
  7. Hanging washing out. I love the smell of washing when it’s dried in the open. We have a covered area at the side of the house that means I can dry washing all year round.
  8. In modern parlance gardens are now entertaining spaces or outdoor rooms. We have a lovely enclosed area filled with wooden benches and underneath a golden birch where we can sit and eat in the summer or sit outside round a chiminea at Christmas time.

In short, despite its size, our garden is a little piece of urban paradise and fulfils all the things that a garden should do.

“My little plot, my little Eden I call it. So small, but so well beloved.” EF Benson.

These shoes were made for walking…

It was my son’s birthday party at the weekend. While my friend and I were standing surveying the kids racing round in a fug of sticky sweat and plastic balls, the aforementioned friend asked: “Who’s the mum with the Gucci trainers on?” I wouldn’t know a pair of Gucci trainers if I fell over them, or rather fell over in them, so I was told what to look for, identified the mum in question and then went back to the kitchen. This conversation was followed just minutes later by my mum asking ‘Whose is the Kipling purse?” It turned out to belong to my friend, the one who had espied the Gucci trainers. By this stage I was beginning to feel as though I was being tested, and found wanting on my status-brand awareness.

I do have a certain brand ‘blindness’ with clothes, and the same ignorance when it comes to cars. I recognise people in cars only once I’ve seen the car colour and actually seen the person I know behind the wheel. I’ve always thought that uninterested approach to cars came from growing up in a family that didn’t have one. So, I was never ‘programmed’ from an early age to make status judgements about people based on the car they drive. And my descriptions of what they look like are similarly limited: for example my mum’s is ‘shiny and black’ (haven’t a clue about the make), ours is silver and has an F in the reg plate. If pressed I’d struggle to remember the rest of it. Oh, and there’s a scrape on the rearside bumper after the gatepost got in the way. But don’t tell hubs!

In many ways brands now augment the class system in Britain. What brands you wear, or drive, or decorate your house with, become a short-cut for demonstrating your membership, or not, of a particular ‘tribe’.

So, whether she knew it or not, the mum at the party was demonstrating with her trainers that she’s a member of the Gucci trainer tribe, and that will have various other subtle connotations such as about what sort of car we can, as a result, infer that she drives, or postcode that she lives in. My friend picked up on this signal, and judging from the way she mentioned the trainers, had assumed Gucci-trainer mum was one step up from her in the pecking order. This despite the fact my friend is studying for a PhD. So far, so irrational in terms of ‘judging’ someone’s worth.

Even when I was younger and more self-conscious about image I was never into clothing brands. First and foremost I have always chosen footwear on the basis of can I walk or cycle in it, and how comfortable is it? Appearances come after wearability. I’m always quite pleased that growing up carless has left these subtle impressions on me. After all if you don’t have a car, you have to walk or cycle, and so practical footwear is a must.

But, before I come across as being all ascetic and holier than thou, my upbringing, involved a mum who liked to move house and decorate, a lot, and who always lived in a succession of nice three-bed semis. Well my mum had a sister, who lived in a very big, detached Arts and Crafts house, with an enormous garden, and a dishwasher (the dishwasher is important, it was the thing my mum most coveted). As a result, my mum was always quite subtly neurotic about what houses say about your status. My dad, however, grew up in what could politely be called quite slummy rented accommodation, near the docks. His parents never owned a house. I’ve become something of a mix of the two in terms of housing. I know that making judgements about what people are like based on what postcode they live in is ridiculous (dad), but I do love big, old houses, with nice gardens (mum) and can’t help thinking that their inhabitants must be ‘better than me’ (mum again). Yet, I live next to two sprawling council estates, round the corner from where my  dad’s parents rented their flat, and am proud of living where I do (dad) but the little voice in my head says that I will be found wanting for not living in the sort of house that ‘says’ things about my status in the world.

So, it would seem that few of us is immune to the siren call of status, and it does appear to be something that’s bred into us at a young age and once we’re programmed to think a certain way it’s very difficult to change. I want my son to grow up to make assessments of people based on what they’re like as people, but in today’s status-driven world, it’s not always easy.

Five antidotes to status issues:

  1. Look objectively at the item in questions, for example, the Gucci trainers. Do you genuinely think that just by wearing them it makes you a better person? Base your perceptions on greater depth, not shallow judgements.
  2. Try not to judge others. If  you judge others, then they may judge you in return. What actually matters about the people you want to make friendships with? If they are nice, caring, generous, funny, warm people, does it really matter that they don’t wear the ‘right’ tribal attire?
  3. Someone may have a big car, a big life or a big house, but you aren’t privvy to the amount of debt they may have got themselves into to create that image. Personal debt levels in the UK are at record highs again. It’s a bubble, burst it.
  4. Remember that it’s big businesses and advertisers that sell status baubles. Do you really want to be told what you should and shouldn’t value about your life and your friends by people who just want to make money regardless of the cost to society?
  5. Status is a bit of a first world issue. There are millions of people, who through no fault of their own, don’t have access to clean water, medicine or decent housing. Does it really matter that much to own a pair of trainers when you look at it in that context. Just be grateful if you have a home, food and people who love you.

#gucci #parenting #status #statusanxiety #modernlife

Who made this?

“Mummy,” who made this? Says my four-year-old as he regards the wicker fire-basket that sits by the hearth with the bemused and fascinated awe that comes with children that age.

I was slightly unsure what to reply to this, as I so often am with some of his questions. I am vaguely aware, after watching some recent hipster crafting programme on tv that wicker isn’t able to be made by machine, only by hand. So I had to reply that indeed someone had woven the fire-basket but that I hadn’t the first clue who it was. This feeling of having a hand-made item in our home made by person or persons unknown made me feel a bit uncomfortable. This surely must be the epitome of globalised commerce, that items can be made anywhere in the world then just become anonymous items that wash up without any story or real provenance in our western homes.

My son quickly moved on to his Lego, unaware of my discombobulation. But for a few days afterwards the thought wouldn’t go away. Why do we have items in our home that we don’t know the story of? The fire-basket has a lid that I made last year from some old floorboards we had taken up; I loved their patina and the fact they had supported feet for 60 years. They had a story I valued but I wasn’t applying the same logic to other things in our house.

Now, obviously  it wouldn’t be very green or responsible to go through every item in the house and get rid of anything that doesn’t have a back story, but as part of the general declutter that’s been going on for the last few months I have decided to apply a degree of discernment to what’s in our house.  There are also, I’ve discovered, ways to add a touch of humanity to manufactured items. I started with the kitchen table and chairs. They’re nearly a decade old and after four years of my son sitting and mostly throwing his meals around and wiping his sticky hands on the seat pads they are looking past their best. So I set to sanding the veneered surface down and painting the woodwork a gorgeous soft grey. I can now see paintmarks; which are reassuring evidence of my handiwork. I repurposed some old fabric, ‘Is this my old Play-Doh mummy?’ as well as getting hold of some new I then recovered the old seatpads. Just a few hours, but it has made all the difference. I’ve prolonged the life of the table and chairs. In a few years if we fancy a change of colour then I can just repaint and recover, again. I’ve prolonged the life of the furniture and also added some ‘humanity’ to it. Two for the price of one. Antidode: Ensure that the things in your home have stories. They’ll mean more to you and you’ll guard against inviting things through the door that don’t.