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.

 

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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.

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

Nigel Slater and me

It’s been a fuzzmumpy sort of a day. So, I’ve been out for a ride on my bike and come back to water my garden. It’s not fun to be someone interested in politics in the UK at the minute. It’s a roller coaster.

But, our garden restores me and reminds me to be grateful. We have friends, who live in a gardenless flat, who love sitting in our garden just being surrounded by leaves and growing things. And I think to myself afterwards, how lucky we are to have a bit of garden. Our bit of garden being 70sq m at the back, 24sqm at the side and 64sq m at the front. I’ve put the measurements in just so you know exactly what I class as a ‘bit’

You see I remember a few years ago avidly reading Nigel Slater’s Tender books. I loved them and the way he talked about what he grew in his tiny garden, which he was at pains to remind readers, really was tiny. I felt part of a tiny garden partnership, me and Nigel and what we could achieve with our tiny gardens. Yah boo sucks to all you people with acres of space, me and Nigel were tending our tiny plots and growing stuff. The tiny garden people were going to conquer the gardening world!

I do this you see, with gardens. I did the same with Alys Fowler and her Edible Garden TV series, I spent half the time I watched that programme desperately trying to work out how big her self-confessed small garden really was.

Anyway, back to Nigel. I decided I’d investigate how big his garden was. Maybe it was so small as to be miraculous? It took a lot of reading of online articles he’d written about his garden, (I admit that after the event, this does sound a bit, well, stalky, but I found it eventually, the size of his garden. That was when I realised with crushing humility that Nigel’s version of tiny and mine weren’t the same. The sense of betrayal was huge. His garden and growing space was around three times what mine was. I finished reading the books, but the joy had gone out of them. They sat for years afterwards gathering dust until their traitorous reminder of how let down I’d felt encouraged me to donate them to charity.

It’s been a salutory lesson in phrases such as ‘small’ and ‘tiny’ when people talk about their gardens. They are relative terms. But whatever the size of my garden, I’ve come to terms with it now, well, nearly, I still cast an envious glimpse as bigger gardens, but I love our garden. It’s smallness means that ‘we’re so intimate with it’ as a friend of mine, with acres of space, commented. But most of all, I’m grateful that at the end of a wearisome day I’ve got its green and leafy embrace to make me feel better.

The problem with opening your eyes…

Awareness is a funny thing isn’t it? When I used to teach graphic design a few years ago I used to impress upon my students the dreadful thing that is the Comic Sans typeface. Students would give a sharp intake of breath, for hadn’t I just impugned the reputation of their favourite typeface? The one they’d grown up using, and loved. Once I’d pointed out all the things that were wrong with Comic Sans, then they could never look at it in quite the same way again.

It’s the same, I’ve found, with litter. Once I started doing regular litter picks in my street and round the block, then I see litter everywhere. I can walk down the same streets with friends and they don’t notice the odd can stuffed into a hedge, or crisp packet floating down the road. They just don’t see it. But, once I started noticing litter then I just can’t switch off from noticing it.

And, I’m finding that’s the same with politics, and the environment. Today I stumbled across Naomi Klein, whose writing on climate change, while welcome, is rather terrifying. We seem to be stumbling towards a future where the planet will start to bite back in terms of extreme weather events and instability, as well as running rather low on precious resources, and when I start to actually take in the enormity of this prospect it makes me want to run for the cover of my duvet.

So, what do we do when our awareness has been raised about something? It’s like seeing Stephen Fry naked, once you’ve seen some things, you can’t un-see them, and you can’t stop being aware once you know about something.

Yet the problem with ‘green’ concerns I’ve noticed, and it was something Paul Kingsnorth picked up in his recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, is that they are couched in terms of keeping things the way they are but putting the word ‘eco’ in front of them. So, don’t stop flying, just call it ‘eco tourism’, pick the ‘green’ delivery slot when you supermarket shop online, buy fairtrade, eat organic and wash at 30 degrees, so much so status quo. The problem is that none of those things encourages actual behaviour change, they just prompt guilt followed by the ability to assuage that guilt by making a ‘green’ purchase or ‘thinking about the environment’ before acting. I suspect that the reason most people follow that path, myself included, is that because to fully take on board what the scientists are saying would mean a complete sea-change in Western living, and so despite being aware, it’s just easier to try to pretend we haven’t seen what’s coming. I tried googling ‘ways to save the planet’ and it just came up with trite ‘top 10’ lists of things. Nothing that’s really difficult to do.

So, I went on a Reduce Your Footprint quiz on the Earth Day website. I score well on cycling everywhere, not ever flying and not being a conspicuous consumer. I score badly on eating meat and dairy weekly, using gas to heat my house, as well as my commute to work, which although I rarely use a car round town, does stack up my annual mileage.

It looks as though I need to eat less meat. Fine by me, but not by my husband who acts as though his throat has been cut if he has a meal without a meat product in it. I need to use less gas to heat the house, not a huge problem as we do have a wood burner and lots of jumpers, so that’s doable. But the last one, how do I cut down my mileage? Car share, work from home or find another job locally. And here is where I come up against the issue that most of us come up against, to really commit to making a difference it may have to hurt, we may have to put our money where our mouth is and take some tough decisions, which is why the ‘greenwash’ products do so well, because they are so much easier than actually changing habits or lifestyles.

But I think it’s about time that I tried to try, as thinking I’m all holy and green while driving a gas-guzzler to work won’t ‘greenwash’ any more!