Not built to last?

It’s finally happened. After a shuddering explosion that sounded as though someone had petrol-bombed the house, and with a similar accompanying burning smell, my washing machine has finally washed its last and gone out in a blaze of dripping-wet washing and a death-throe leap across the kitchen floor.

We’ve been through a lot, me and the washer. Most notably the two years after my son was born when in a fit of self flagellation I decided to go down the washable nappy route. But the last few months have seen it creaking and groaning in its old age, ready to join the great spin cycle in the sky.

It’s always the way isn’t it? I’d only been thinking last week that the washer had been standing in the corner of the kitchen (yes Kirsty Allsopp, please do throw your hands up in horror!) dutifully washing for 16 years and how that must be something of an achievement in today’s not-built-to-last culture, when my hubris obviously facilitated the washer’s end.

I quickly ordered another one made by the same company and it’s due for delivery tomorrow. So, today a chipper northern man rang me to discuss delivery and point out that I’d been rather remiss in not ordering some sort of cover for this new item. Had I not seen it at the checkout? I pointed out that as my last washer had given me 16 trouble-free years, apart from a couple of years ago when the brushes went and were replaced by a local repair man who also doubled up as a psychic, yes, a psychic, and no, he hadn’t predicted its failure. I told him I’d not be in need of any sort of insurance cover as I was confident in the longevity of washers in my service. To which he replied, ‘well, they don’t make them like they used to.’ The washer wasn’t old enough to drive or vote, how could it possibly have passed into the category of ‘they don’t make them like they used to’? Surely such a refrain is reserved for old oak tables, 1930s semis and televisions. And why don’t they make them like they used to? Because they want your washer to break apparently, according to the chipper chap on the phone. Well, not this washer, and not this house, come on then planned obsolescence I’m ready for you!

ANTIDOTE: Buy things that will last.

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Sisyphean sewing tasks

A couple of months ago I bought a pair of trousers, and something about them made me question several things, who had made them, and what was the true cost beyond what I had paid at the till?

As with so many things with our economic model, there really was no way of finding out, so to avoid any more attacks of a queasy conscience, I decided that henceforth I would make my own trousers. How hard could it be after all?

Turns out that it was more difficult than I imagined. Pre-washing the fabric to allow for shrinkage was a lesson I learned after I shrunk the first pair and the now-too-short hemmed bottoms ended up flapping round my shins. Fabric choice was another lesson to learn, as the first lot of fabric I bought was white with pastel butterflies on it. I thought it was pretty and boho, my four-year-old asked me why I was wearing a pair of pajamas, during the day.

But having made one pair of trousers, simply by tracing the ones that I’d bought and had sent me down this path, I went on to make several more, honing my ability as I went along. I then challenged myself to make a few tops, using the same technique: tracing existing clothing and learning on the job.

There are loads of plusses with this I’ve found. 1. I can finally get trousers long enough. 2. I can circumnavigate what I’m told to wear by the fashion police, as I now only sew clothes that suit me and fit me properly ignoring being told that red is the only colour to wear during the three summer months of 2017 or that floral blankets a la post-twins Beyonce are the only things to be seen dead in. 3. I know who made my clothes. Me.

I’ll also be less willing to surrender them to a charity bag and will be more careful about not getting them stained. I’m awful for just doing a bit of painting or DIY and not putting scruffs on to do it!

So far so virtuous right? Nope, there was me thinking that from now on I could quell my queasy conscience regarding clothing, as one of the four major ways we impact on the environment (the others being transport, housing and food).

A few weeks into my new-found epiphany for making my own clothes I was confronted with a photograph on the Guardian website of a tide of toxic slurry apparently from a foreign fabric dyeing plant. So, my making my own clothes could be seen as a good thing, but what do you do to close the loop about fabric sourcing?

During my research I came across Mark Boyle’s Moneyless Man blog where I discovered that to be truly revolutionary and green in terms of clothing I need to be growing my own hemp and nettles and weaving cloth from them instead of sourcing fabric from a nice lady in a nice fabric shop. I guess that rules out using a sewing machine too, as to be truly authentic and post-apocalyptic I really need to be using a needle hewn from a piece of bone.

There are times when trying to do the ‘right’ thing seems like a Sisyphean task – like gender-neutral parenting or trying to keep your kids away from Disney. You’re pushing uphill against a cultural and societal tide that threatens to swamp you coming from the other direction. But, it won’t stop me from trying. I still love my homemade trousers, even if they look like nightwear!

ANTIDOTE: Making my own clothes has stopped me drifting into clothes shops thinking I can buy my way to looking a certain way. It’s a trap. The dream in the shop rarely translates into reality at home.

A little red sun hat

Last night while my son lay sleeping on the bed next to me I was silently stitching a small patch over a hole in a sun hat. This hat had made an reappearance in my life some 30+ years after it first came into it, during a wet family holiday to Wales.

For some reason, known only to my former self it came to reside in a very small red suitcase with an assortment of other items that I had deemed collectible reminders of my childhood. There it stayed in the loft until discovered by my four-year-old, and so my little red sun hat came out once more into the daylight.

He needs a sunhat for nursery, so why not my old one? The edge was a bit frayed, which is why I was carefully sewing, with tiny neat little stitches a small piece of red fabric over it. When I’d finished I was rather pleased with the results. Until a little nagging voice started, ‘why not just buy him a new one like his friends will have? No-one else will have a patched-up old hat on that used to belong to their mum.’

But these are society’s issues to do with status and as such when analysed have no logic to them. I have a perfectly good sunhat that’s been neatly sewn with a patch. It will shield my son’s eyes from the sun and protect his head and ears from sunburn. All the rest is just nonsense. Making do and mending isn’t the done thing in our status-anxiety filled days, but it should be. I took a great deal of satisfaction from sewing the hat, he looks cute in it, it does its job, and every time I look at it I’m reminded of my first ever family holiday and of my now departed dad. On every level it beats going out and buying a new one. That’s not to mention the fact that this country throws away, that’s throws away, not recycles or donates, millions of items of clothing a year, all in the name of our high-turnover fashion industry where things are so cheap to buy that they have become disposable. Well, not in this house, not while I’ve got a needle and thread they won’t!

ANTIDOTE: Make do and mend. It’s old fashioned, but worth doing.

 

Living in homes, not houses

We all have them, those houses we remember from childhood, the ones we carry with us and remember the layout, the smell and the feel of.

For me three houses made an impact on me in adult life. The first was my aunt’s, a big, arts and crafts style house down a potholed lane that lead to open fields. There was a stream at the bottom of the very long garden, window seats in the bays, shelves of books, an open fire and a piano. These were all things we didn’t have at home and I loved them. But at the same time the grandness of this house instilled in me a discomfit of being in big, monied houses, I can never quite relax or shake the feeling of feeling like a chimney sweep, afraid to move or sit anywhere for fear of dirtying the furnishings.

The second house couldn’t be more different, a council house belonging to my 18-year-old self’s boyfriend’s family. The grass was often long, the wooden gate hung wonkily on its hinges, the lounge carpet was flattened and had seen better days, and there was always a slight aroma of dog. But, I was always made welcome, cooked a meal after working my shift at the local pub and I always remember feeling relaxed and very much part of the family in that house. The third house is rather a succession of different houses my family lived in as I was growing up, but they all shared the same name; the three-bed semi.

When the time came to buy my first house, I remember standing in the sunny kitchen of the house that I went on to buy and nearly 20 years later still live in, and feeling completely at home. The wooden floors reminded me of my aunt’s house, the edge-of-a-council-estate location meant that it was both affordable but also not gentrified, and lastly it was a 1950s three-bed semi. It also happened to be in a street I’d lived in for a couple of years pre-school. It was achingly familiar.

Years later, I’ve now got my own bookshelves, tatty out-of-tune piano, bay window seat and wood burner. All those things that stuck in my mind as a child I’ve now got in my own home. My window seat is the special place for me and my son to sit with our breakfast bowls perched on the windowsill while we look outside on the front garden. When he’s long grown up, in my mind’s eye I will always look over to that seat and see my curly-haired son up on his knees, prefixing every question with ‘mummy…’ while eating his bowl of cereal.

I was reminded of all this by conversation I had earlier in the week when I was chatting to someone who was explaining that they’d recently moved house. Listening to her, her reasons for buying her house were completely emotional and were articulated so well that I longed to ask her more, but feared being intrusive. She talked of the terrace she’d bought and how it had reminded her of her grandmother’s house. And her grandmother’s house, when she was a child, had always been somewhere she’d been well fed, loved, felt warm, safe and secure and always made welcome. Her adult house purchase had been made out of nostalgia, out of bringing back those simple feelings that the best homes have. That’s the thing about houses, they are so much more than bricks and mortar, and at a time when our dominant value system puts worth on a house’s market price rather than its position at the centre of our lives then I think we overlook the importance a home has to our souls. Estate agent speak talks of proximity to good schools, room sizes and neighbourhoods yet rarely articulates the feel of homes. From the minute I walked in mine all those years ago I’ve been in love with how safe it makes me feel, how it’s weathered me through many storms, and last year, when a friend commented on how full of love my house is, she simply couldn’t have said anything better.

ANTIDOTE: Value your home for what it’s worth to you and your family, not what it’s worth to the market or as a status symbol.

The first world problems of kids’ birthday parties

I know I sound churlish, but I really do have a difficult relationship with children’s parties. Yesterday we went to the daughter of one of our close friends’ sixth birthday party. It was a disco with an entertainer in a village hall.

We walked inside from a beautiful sunny day and were met by lots of small people running around a darkened room while seriously loud, almost club-like loud music was playing. Not kids’ music or tunes, but club music, with videos. A five-year-old girl walked in wearing scarlet lipstick. I sympathised with our son, who, when faced with his unfavourite things; darkness combined with noise, turned around and tried to go back out.

Eventually we coaxed him into the melee and we retreated to help out with the food in the kitchen, where endless packages of crisps, biscuits, cakes and popcorn were opened, and decanted into bowls. The bin got more and more full; I kept trying to distract myself my saying that my son was enjoying all the mayhem, as was the birthday girl. Surely my unease was just me being a misery, after all what’s a few plastic containers, cups and plates being chucked out if it made a few children happy? But on a sunny Saturday in June this will have been replicated up and down the country. All those plastic containers, so brief in their use, casually discarded and forgotten about, just destined for landfill. Towards the end our son made a bid for the door, for grass, freedom and sunshine. I, meanwhile, helped with the tidying up; taking a big plastic sack of rubbish out to the bin, thinking of how carefully I try to sort things out at home for the compost bin, the fire, the recycle. How I try to be a better gatekeeper.

There must be a way of jumping off the kids’ birthday party merry-go-round with its attendant pressure to invite the entire class and to be bigger and better. Surely they are symptomatic of our out-of-sync way of living? We in the 21st century create and live in ‘a volcano of waste’ and it’s morally as well as materially unacceptable for us to just carry on as if this standard of lifestyle can continue ad infinitum.

So, what do we do this year when it comes to our son’s fifth birthday? Do we not do it at all and opt out of the whole thing? Or do we do a greener version with homemade food at our home? I mentioned to my friend that I dread the gifts at birthdays and Christmas and that I really hate the current trend for piling up your kids’ presents on these occasions in front of the fireplace and Facebooking about how much they’ve got. I suggested that I could put on the invites not to bring presents, but she looked at me like I’d just said I was going to vote for Lord Buckethead.

After the party we drove home past the woods near where we live and decided to opt for a family walk. It was such a palate cleanser, greenery, sunlight and mud. I may have imagined this but our son seemed to relish the freedom and natural feel of being in the woods running around looking for logs and bridges to cross. I certainly did, I could feel my shoulders drop as I soaked up the bird song and crunchy leaves underfoot. I feel much more at home in the woods than in noise and endless plastic containers (not that the woods are free of plastic litter, but that’s a subject for another day), but maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m the one who’s out of tune? But then I think to myself, as I try to swim against the tide, what if I’m the one who’s right and they’re wrong? Such existentialism doesn’t sort the to-birthday-party or to not-birthday-party dilemma though or our love of the disposable. First world problems.

#PlasticFreeJuly