Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Hell is empty and all the devils are here

Until now, I have written about my Israeli heritage precisely three times in my life. For atrocity-based reasons, I am going there again. 

Things I am trying to avoid:
  • Understandable yet simplistic hot takes on an objectively fucking terrible situation
  • Predictable "on reflection" lukewarm takes on the same
If you feel I am veering in either of those directions please accept my apologies and step away. What I'm aiming for is to communicate my specific perspective on what is happening in Israel / Palestine at the moment. If you don't know me, this is probably not for you. If you feel this might upset you, likewise. I don't really know whether I have anything differentiating to say, anything that adds any value, but many people have expressed an interest in understanding the situation better, and god knows there are some bad faith takes out there. So here's what I have. 

My facts
I have a lot of family in Israel, and I have been there four times. My paternal grandmother arrived in Palestine as the youngest child of a family fleeing Nazi Germany. She met a British soldier stationed there during WW2 as part of the Palestine Mandate, they married, and my dad was their first child. He was born there *during the war*. The Holocaust was *still happening*. I find it astonishing that people got on and made babies in those circumstances, but I find it astonishing that people get on and make babies in pretty much any circumstance, so we'll leave that one there. So he's Jewish, and born in a Palestinian city which became part of Israel when it came into being in 1948. My grandmother left Israel when her husband was stationed elsewhere but returned after he died in the 1970s; her siblings and most of their families did not leave, and are fully Israeli. Her father's whole extended family was murdered in the Lodz ghetto. Maybe I actually *can* see why they got on and made babies.  

I went to Israel twice as a child, and twice as a young adult (at 18 and 22). The childhood visits were magical -- I have strong memories of experiences that reached all of my senses. Everything was so different and yet this was part of my family, they just lived in a hot place with lizards and orange trees and open top jeeps, and they spoke a different language and ate different food and laughed at different things. There were some edgy moments -- we wanted to go to Bethlehem (this might have been my request, I had a list of must-see places from an early age) and the relative who accompanied us brought along a handgun, saying okay, let's go, ABC (Another Bloody Church). That journey would be fully impossible now, and it looks a whole lot different with ye olde hindsight. At 10, I didn't even understand why custody of the putative birthplace of the little baby Jesus was fought over by three different branches of Christianity, let alone why a Jew might feel unsafe bringing us to an Arab town. Why doesn't everyone just share the church? I said. Mwahaha. I was a serious kid, but I did not grow up in a conflict zone, and for this I will always be grateful. 

The first time I went to Israel by myself was to do the kibbutz thing on my year off. I'm going to say that my political acuity was sharper by then, and I had read more history, but I did still have a fairly romantic view of the kibbutz movement and Israel in general. And the kibbutz had a lot going for it -- there was a huge swimming pool, elder care and child care both seemed to be excellent, there was a giant party in the bomb shelter every Friday night, fantastic breakfast and dinner was available every day for everyone, sparkling water came out of a tap in the wall, and there was a sense of collective community endeavour that I had never experienced. 

The kibbutz I was allocated to was Yagur - one of the largest and oldest, and an important centre for the Haganah during the Palestine Mandate era. I didn't know this at the time, but I did know that it had a sense of itself that I didn't understand. And I knew that its residents, unlike the random (ish, we were vetted, but we were from many countries and not all Jewish) volunteers, hated the "Arab village" with a similar name that was a mile or two away. The Arab village was where we volunteers got our hard liquor, and also where the kibbutz sourced a chunk of the labour for its factories. I worked in one of those factories, which moulded plastic tubes, filled them with toiletries from vast vats. then sealed and packed them. The work was mind-numbing. Bearable for a month or so if you found ways to keep your mind occupied (they did let us listen to music under our ear defenders and if you've ever wondered why I love Between The Wars so much, well it was night shifts in the plastic tube factory). They didn't like us, the kibbutznik managers, but they didn't treat us badly. We were an interchangeable necessary evil, and some of us were girls. The Arab workers, they did treat badly. Maybe not at an Amazon warehouse level, but so that you really fucking noticed. And even then, I thought, I'm here for a few months. It's not going to help this woman I'm sitting next to if I get up in the face of the foreman for treating her like shit. I don't know if she'd even thank me. 

The kibbutzniks my age were mostly in the army: there were soldiers, and checkpoints, and guns everywhere. Several of the older ones were very kind to us, and generous with their stories: one of them would have people round for beers on a Friday night after the shabbat meal and before the bomb shelter party. He had a concentration camp tattoo on his forearm, the first one I ever saw in real life. He didn't talk about that, but he talked about how the kibbutz had changed over the years. I was at Yagur for the celebration of 40 years since the founding of the state of Israel, and also Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which no one told us about (maybe presuming that we knew) and I lost my shit when the air raid sirens went off. There was so much to absorb. It was also the place I took my first pregnancy test, which in 1988 was *not* as simple as peeing on a stick, got my first (and last) all over tan, and generally had some wild times. 

I also spent time with my family while I was there, including my grandmother. There was one hot afternoon when we were resting at her brother's house and she told me how she arrived in Palestine. It is a great regret of mine that I never wrote that story down, or recorded her talking, her English was fluent but heavily accented, and she had a very Yiddish turn of phrase. The cousins my own age were full Sabras -- they were friendly and welcoming, but there was a huge cultural gap that hadn't been there ten years earlier. The boys drove like absolute maniacs. One of the girls asked me when I was going to move to Israel. I said that I didn't plan to, and she asked me "why not? Israel is the only real country".

So I experienced a few things on that trip that moved some of my assumptions around, but I *was* only 18. It was my last visit that, to use a technical term, did my head in. 

I was a whole four years older for that, but in between I got a degree in social and political science. I learnt that a lot of people were pretty ill-informed about the whole Holocaust business -- even some SPS students (one of whom asked, casually, in her first term "was Hitler the first world war or the second world war?" Guys, this was Cambridge!), but I also learnt about my own ignorance. 

My understanding of the Israeli occupation first came into my world via feminism. As part of the Women's Executive Committee, I was *thoroughly* schooled by a Palestinian woman while we were preparing positions for NUS conference. If that sentence makes no sense, you did not do student politics. Which may be all to the good, it's kinda batshit, but it also helps you sharpen your thinking the fuck up. 

By the time I left, I knew about the Nakba, the First Intifada was underway, and we'd also been through the first Gulf War. My grandmother was still alive at the time, and it became very apparent why there were bomb shelters everywhere. One of my friends was experiencing equally high anxiety but from the other side of the war: he was Arab Muslim and his parents were in Kuwait. We were safe in our centuries old courtyards, but it all felt very close. 

My final (well, most recent) visit was in 1992, as part of a year's backpacking with my Significant Ex. We sandwiched about a month there in between two stints in Egypt -- one of the few countries in the region at the time that would accept people with Israeli stamps in their passports. We entered overland, on a bus from Cairo to Tel Aviv that was full of budget travellers like us. Only I nearly didn't make it across the border. The immigration form asked why we were visiting Israel and I said, truthfully, that I was visiting my family. The border guard started speaking to me in Hebrew. I don't speak Hebrew, I said. But you're Israeli! he said. I'm not though, I said, I'm British. 

They thought otherwise, or at least their computer records did. They told me I had an Israeli grandfather called Ze'ev, when I actually had a Lancastrian grandfather (long deceased) called Ben. It was all pretty stressful. They took my passport away for about an hour, and when they returned it, they had *written inside it*. In Hebrew. Which I couldn't read. What am I supposed to do with this? I asked. They told me to report to the Ministry of the Interior. 

I can't remember all the details, but basically their records had me as an Israeli citizen, and therefore eligible for military service. I had to visit government offices in two cities before I could get paperwork to leave the country (the opposite of the kind of paperwork most people are hoping for, amirite) -- and that took another several nail-biting hours on another land border, as lots of men with guns examined my letter and barked questions at me. So you know, we had a good time, the family were as hospitable as ever, we climbed Masada, we visited Jerusalem, we swam in the Sea of Galilee, we ate the best falafel in the world (Haifa bus station, may it never change). And I did get to leave, but I was pretty shaken with my encounter with the apparatus of state, as inconsequential as it was in the *waves arms in despair* scheme of things. 

I was so shaken that I've never been back, which meant I never saw my grandmother again before she died, but these things stay with you. 

My feelings
The staying with you, I would argue, is a large part of how the world got into this mess. I suppressed a lot of my feelings about all of this for a long time, because, frankly, I could. But the first time I "went there", I wrote something in the early 2000s for an internal newsletter at NGO X after I met a Palestinian colleague who was running a programme in the occupied West Bank. We got drunk together and danced to I Will Survive. He was amazing, and his partying had an edge that I really identified with. 

I don't have a copy of the thing I wrote, but I remember how hard it was to find words that worked, the ones I could find didn't seem to do the job. I know what I was trying to say, which was that the people who are attached to but not embedded in a situation, who have a stake in the game but not one their life depends on, and who can see the parallels and the equivalence while acknowledging the pain and the injustice, they are maybe the best placed to be the peacemakers. And blessed are the peacemakers, I was taught by the nuns who failed to make me into a good Catholic girl, for they shall be called the children of God. 

I am not sure that's enough of an incentive, frankly. Doesn't seem to be working, at any rate. 

The second time was on this here blog, back in 2008. I was very hedgy, but even so I was hesitant. And the third time was something I wrote at the request of one of my neighbours to celebrate the Jewish culture and heritage of the city that I live in. I did it, but I felt a bit weird about it, because I don't really feel Jewish. I was raised Catholic, my dad is a full strength atheist (as, these days, am I), and outside Israel I've never been part of any Jewish cultural stuff even. I've never been to a synagogue service. I've never even been to a bar/bat mitzvah. I like matzos, lox and bagels, chicken soup and dill pickles, but aside from that and a few Yiddish phrases and a house that has a (decorative) menorah and shofar, I'm not on the team. 

Israeli though, I do feel a bit Israeli. Which is why I'm here doing this. A bunch of other people are doing it too, many of them better than me (this is excellent, if you're done with the personal stories), but a lot of them without any of the perspective that skin in the game can bring. 

My thoughts

Okay, so if you're still with me, here are five things I believe.
  1. The arc of the moral universe is long, but (with apologies to MLK) I don't think it does always bend towards justice. I think we say that to make ourselves feel better.
  2. I don't think you can judge anyone by the behaviour of the government of the country they live in, even if they voted for one of the parties of government. We all know electoral systems are flawed. Some places don't even have them. 
  3. We are all, overwhelmingly, a product of our environment, including to the extent we learn critical thinking. 
  4. We're only just beginning to understand epigenetic trauma.
  5. The vast majority of violence, including by and against civilians, is perpetrated by men. 
Taking them from the top. 

1. A lot, a LOT, of hot air is spouted about Jewish people vs the state of Israel, including by Jewish people. You can be anti-Zionist and Jewish, people say. You can be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic. They're not the same! And it's true. They're not the same. But while Jews and Israel are conceptually and philosophically distinguishable *they are not separable*. Not since Israel has existed. 

Antisemitism is a real fucking thing. It manifests differently to other forms of racism, but that doesn't make it less real or less dangerous. It's been around forever, it has never gone away, and I don't think it ever will. I have never wanted to be defined by my Jewishness any more than I have wanted to be defined by my gender -- not because I want to disown them, but because they're just not that important to me. But tough shit, or, as my dad says, toughski shitski. The world will do that for you. 

European history is littered with pogroms. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, over hundreds of years, were massacred simply for being identifiably Jewish people living Jewish lives. This was pre the full-on genocide, and pogroms are not exclusively a Jewish experience (ask the gypsies, for example), but it was a form of structural -- at very least cultural -- oppression. And, like lynching in Jim Crow-era America, the people who were murdered did not have support, or access to justice, from any of the branches of government. They weren't valued enough to protect, or avenge.

This all sounds pompous as hell, but bear with me. Because after some centuries of collective absorption of this, maybe with what I would consider to be an over-investment in Talmudic teachings about non-violence, there was the Holocaust. 

I'd like to think that I don't have to describe the Holocaust to anyone reading this. But if you're not sure you know what happened, take yourself to the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I've been to the first and the third of these, as well as other atrocity-based museums. It's not a competition and I try hard not to be obsessed with the worst of humanity. But if you can't a) unconditionally accept that this was one of the worst genocidal acts in human history and b) there are consequences to that, you're reading the wrong blog post. 

And essentially, my view is Holocaust = Israel. If the world didn't want Israel, it should have prevented, or at best stopped the Holocaust. WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD HAPPEN? Israel's establishment in 1948 and a lot of what's happened since has been fuelled by European guilt, backed by American dollars and delivered by Never Again fully existential Jewish fury. 

I'm not trying to excuse the Nakba. I never have. And I don't want to live in Israel -- hell, I have the paperwork to prove it. But I support its right to exist, and I can see a future where I might be grateful for it. For now, whatever it does, Israel (in some form) is going nowhere. It didn't have to happen, but it did, and that's not just on the Jews. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour, but I can see why a lot of Jewish people couldn't -- my learning from those years is that anti-semitism lurks. It was suppressed rather than excised, or even neutralised. Give it an inch, and it'll take a mile. Black Americans know this about racism. Women know this about misogyny. I don't want it to be the case but yeesh. 

2. Populations are not their governments. In this country, if they were, the Iraq War wouldn't have happened (flipside, we might have brought back hanging, but give Braverman time). You've only to read, or ideally listen to, because he reads it very engagingly, Rory Stewart's Politics on the Edge to get a sense of how hard it is to influence policy or effect meaningful change even if you are a minister in the government of the day. Most MPs in the party in power are not ministers, most MPs (usually) do not belong to the party in power, most MPs were not elected by a majority of their electorate, or even the majority of the people who voted. And we count as a functioning parliamentary democracy. 

Israel is also a functioning parliamentary democracy, though it is on its thirty-seventh government in 75 years, as a result of there never having been a majority or even a stable minority government. This is down to the plethora and diversity of its political parties, and a very pure form of proportional representation. Coalition governments can have their strengths, but can also mean striking some pretty unsavoury deals (in this case, with right wing extremists) in order to function at all. And the people of Gaza have not had an election since 2006, which is when Hamas came to power. No one under 35 has ever had the chance to vote, and half the population is under 30. 

There are limited other ways to overturn governments that don't want to go, and pretty much all of them require violence, which is a high-risk choice in a militarised state. Non-violent protest is of course valid, but increasingly restricted and not always safe. So I get the don't mourn, organise message, but sometimes it's a privilege, and honestly, civil disobedience has its limits. Some places, it will get you (or your family) killed, and not everyone is ready to be a martyr. So I have limited time for the "why don't the people of Gaza overthrow Hamas" type arguments. As someone pointed out the other day, hundreds and thousands of demonstrators on the streets of London, Berlin, Washington etc can't even get their governments to get the Israeli government to *pause the bombing to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians*. People do have power, but not much of that kind. 

3. When I was a teenager, I had a Saturday job in a bread shop which briefly also operated a stall in a food market in the next town. It was not a good posting, trade was slow and the other stall holders were not that chatty. But I did once get talking to the guy on the stall next to me, who was probably in his 50s, and he told me that he'd never been further than Preston. Which was about 15 miles away. This blew my mind. I was not well travelled at that point, but I'd been to Spain, Ireland, Austria, Israel and various parts of the UK, and I knew I was only just getting started. 

Wittgenstein famously said that the limits of your language are the limits of your world. I think about that a lot. But the limits of your physical world are just as important. When you meet someone whose life has been steeped in ease and privilege, whose family and surroundings have provided opportunities and removed barriers, you can sometimes meet a person who's full of arrogance and prejudice, who genuinely thinks they are better than other people because they can't see the value of the hand they've been dealt, but you can also sometimes meet a person who has had access to so much love and acceptance that they are wholly generous and altruistic. They can see the best in the world because the world can see the best in them. Most of those people are a bit of both, but I think my weakness for posh men is rooted in the fact that the best of them really aren't misogynist, why on earth would they feel the need to be? And not being misogynist is the fastest way to get with me, so I don't really look much further. 

But when you meet someone whose life has been steeped in oppression, persecution and suffering, there's a different kettle of fish to try and process. I would say they can also be some of the best and the worst of humanity. At worst, in ways I find I can empathise with though not excuse, I can see the desire to annihilate the oppressor. I have had murderous thoughts. I would likely have been recruitable as a terrorist-slash-freedom-fighter, in the right circumstances. If you see no hope in your life, your future, the future of your people or your way of life, what is the best of the limited options available? There might come a point where, as Emilio Zapata said, you feel that it's better to die on your feet than live on your knees. And if you get to that point, why not go out with a bang? 

I stress that I am not justifying any of this. Any of it. 

Because on the other side of that equation are the people who have seen and experienced the unspoken, even the unspeakable, who have, in so many extraordinary, remarkable, humbling ways, held on to their empathy, their sense in a common humanity, or something even deeper. Some of the finest humans I have met in my half century on this earth are those who have been through experiences I can't imagine, who know I have never been subjected to those experiences personally, that I might even have been (or might yet still be) part of the system that perpetrated terror and anguish on their people, their traditions, their family, and can still see *my* humanity. And before they hate me, they look for ways to connect with me, That takes more than balls, that takes faith. Not religious faith, a different kind of faith. But it's the only kind of faith I have. 

Most of the people I have met in my life are at neither of those extremes, of course, but your British people, your Global Northerners even, definitely swing towards privilege, overall. Especially your straight white men. 

My goal, as a young woman, was to be part of the solution. I wanted to fix the world, and (because I was applying logic) I felt that before I could fix it I needed to understand it, so I should see as much of it as possible. And I honestly tried. There are people in my life who've done a much better job of this than I have, intentionally, and I salute them. There are people in my life who've crossed borders to support their families, and there are people in my life who've been flung from pillar to post, from culture to culture, for much darker reasons. I salute them too. But while I recognise that you can never experience someone else's reality, I have learnt so much from some of the places and people I've been privileged enough to visit and meet, whether backpacking or when I was working for NGO X. Young women dying from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, ex-guerilla fighters in Central America, women trying to bring their children up in IDP camps, sex workers in South East Asia, farmers, activists, refugees, survivors of sexual abuse, addicts, orphans, breadwinners, people of deep faith and none. And you know what? Jo Cox was right. We do have far more in common than that which divides us, but not everyone can see that. 

Over the years, I have developed a lasting suspicion that not everyone wants to. Because if you can see the humanity in your enemy, you will start to feel empathy, and once you're feeling empathy, it's a lot harder to shoot them in the head or bomb the fuck out of their hospitals. 

4. Having said that. We're learning that the body keeps the score, and not just from the trauma that is directly perpetrated on us as individuals. We inherit, in ways we don't yet understand, the trauma of our forebears. I don't know much about it myself at all, but I'm reading. Here's an example of how it might be playing out for some Israeli Jews. 

I read something that absolutely chilled me a couple of days ago -- as part of a great Twitter thread (I recommend the whole thing): "...when I think of the children our grandchildren will bring into this world I can't abide the thought that our bloodlust today - our cowardice - will wake them up with nightmares fifty years from now. Their parents have not yet been conceived and we've already scarred them."

Think. On. That. I think she's mainly talking about what their daily realities might be -- endless cyclical conflict for reducing returns on a dying planet -- but babies born to malnourished mothers, to traumatised mothers, to mothers who never felt safe, to mothers who were raped -- those babies don't come out unaffected by that. We hear a lot in safe Western countries (where birth outcomes also skew hard against babies born to disadvantaged mothers) about the importance of a good birth experience -- right now there are women in Gaza having emergency C-sections without anaesthetic, knowing that has been priced in.

What you inherit doesn't excuse what you do, but it can help explain it. There are no level playing fields in this situation.

5. I'm reading thousands of words a day at the moment, seeking to find meaning in horror, to find a place that reflects my grief and rage but in a way that offers hope, even an opportunity to make a difference.

I am not sure that marching will do that for me -- I think branding them as "hate marches" is fucking outrageous, though regretfully not out of character for our Home Secretary -- but it *is* complicated, and slogans do not allow for that. I have been on many marches / demos / sit ins in my life (the last one was protesting the closure of a public library -- if you can't experience places directly you can read their stories) but I can't (yet) do the Free Palestine ones. I did one once, in 2008, because Israel was bombing the fuck out of Gaza -- not anything like in the way it is now, but I was finding it unbearable and I wanted to protest. I joined a group of people in the middle of Oxford -- it wasn't a march as we didn't go anywhere, we moved up and down the same street, holding candles, chanting and waving Palestinian flags. The chant changed to "In our thousands, in our millions, we are all Palestinians". And I had to leave. Because I am not Palestinian. If I'm anything in this unholy mess, I'm Israeli. I can't lie by chanting, any more than I can lie any other way. I can't shake shake shake it off. I might hate everything that's happening to the point that I howl at the moon, but I'm not Palestinian.

I feel a bit different about the river to the sea chant -- there's a reading of it that's problematic for me, but many other readings that are fine. My solidarity with the Palestinian people and cause is real, but I can't fit what I want to shout into a tidy chant (I mean, have you *seen* the length of this blog post? And this is the short version). So I don't. But I don't mind if you do, I can see why you do.

We have to acknowledge the complexity. We have to. This didn't start yesterday, and it won't end tomorrow. I wish it were otherwise, but it's not, and reducing it to a binary is kind of why I never say anything, and why I am anxious even about saying this.

But what I do feel, and I can say, is that this war, this seemingly endless conflict, is overwhelmingly being waged by men. I think the civilian population of Gaza are sacrificial in the game of Hamas, who are on record as wanting to annihilate Israel as a Jewish state, as much as they are sacrificial in the game of Israel, who murder them in their thousands because they're in the way. The Hamas power structure -- and do correct me if I'm wrong -- is entirely male and mostly living in the relative safety of Qatar. Similarly, while Israel has had women leaders and cabinet ministers and is much higher on the gender equality index than any of the countries it is in conflict with, it's run by a macho gerontocracy. It does conscript women (yay equality!) but the soldiers on the front line are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly young. As are (again, unless I've missed something) all of the Hamas operatives.

We know that children don't have a voice in this. Another quote I read this week was from George Bernard Shaw, who, when challenged on his support for the founding of Save The Children in 1919 (specifically their feeding of children from the defeated Austrian Empire), said "I have no enemies under six". But honestly, do you think that the people who birthed those children, who are still birthing children, whose lives are in many ways defined by that, want this conflict to endure? I'm not saying men want to bury their children -- god help me, the photos of dads with their dead kids are the *most* agonising for me, because those dads know that it was other kids' dads that killed their kids. That must be fucking unbearable.

But honestly, while I know women can be dreadful humans, really I do, take all of the men in the world out of the mix for like six months, there'd be a two state solution in draft here. Maybe even a one state solution, which would be more durable, though I reckon that would take more like 18 months. We won't do it, of course, but that's in my global manifesto. Look at a different kind of cost, and a different kind of benefit, can we not? Women's bodies keep the score of actually making new people.

So that's an analysis I'm not hearing much. And the other one is what this shit is doing to the environment. Why am I separating my recycling when whole cities are being pulverised with heavy munitions dropped from fighter jets? Make it make sense. And that's before we get to the deliberate destruction of infrastructure, and I include the deliberate destruction of security in that. People who feel safe can live better lives. More sustainable lives. Lives of justice and regeneration. Survival mode is unsustainable in so many ways.

So where do we go from here? 
It's taken me ages to write this because for several weeks I could barely see the point of getting out of bed, let alone saying anything about why. There are people holding rage and grief everywhere, and if you're one of the ones who doesn't see the complexity you are probably raging at me now. But my strategy for *decades* has been "don't go there". And I don't think I'm alone in feeling that, right now, that's just not fucking good enough. 

So one of *my* motivations is to say to anyone reading this, there is a messy middle. There's always a messy middle, and if you want to find solutions, lasting ones, you need to give the messy middle space to express and explore itself. The tipping points in a system, at least the ones where fewer people die, are to be found in the complexity, not at the extremes. Occupying, or inhabiting, ambiguity does not make you a weak person or a weak thinker. In my experience, quite the reverse. 

And another is... this isn't going to be solved by military force, or, actually, force of any kind. I live in an intentional community which was founded with high ideals. It had a little of the attraction of a kibbutz about it (my dad still calls it The Kibbutz, and M wrote a blog called Wrong Kibbutz, which aimed to be exploratory but which went down like a bucket of cold sick with some of its founders) but we fell foul of all of the purist shit that idealism brings. Welcome to rural Lancashire, when a request for tinned sardines can get you accused of wanting to eat human fingers. Extremism is real everywhere, y'all. That's the real enemy. 

The secret is pluralist idealism, I reckon. All oppressed people have high dreams. Look for the ways the whole planet can express its whole self. Do no harm but take no shit. Keep upscaling your thinking -- what's the impact beyond what you can see? What do you want? What do you need? What would you settle for? What would the people you love settle for? What do you want the people you hate to settle for? (is it dialogue?) 

In any situation like this, there's asymmetry, and it's on the side with more power to move first and further. The longer a view you take with this one, the harder it is, but right now the onus is on Israel to cease and desist, and *then* insist on negotiation. They say you can't negotiate with terrorists, but you can try. Look at Northern Ireland. 

I'm not a hippie. I have many non-negotiables. But this isn't going to get fixed without a sea change, And I think a lot of the affected people in this conflict would countenance that, way more than a month ago. As the saying goes "They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds". 

I have one final thought, which isn't original, but none of this is original. Look to art. I've often thought about Dostoevsky's line "Beauty will save the world". Here's something Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who knew more about pain and injustice than most of us ever will, said about this line in 1970 (source):

"One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world”. What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

In vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

In that case Dostoevsky’s remark, “Beauty will save the world”, was not a careless phrase but a prophecy? After all HE was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination.

 I offer three more things which have helped me this last month: 

Peace, bread, work and freedom, is the best we can achieve. Wearing badges is not enough, in days like these. 


Sunday, September 03, 2023

Keep your inner home fire burning

There was a guy that used to live here. He really really didn't like us. Before we even moved in he had rung M up on a Sunday morning and shouted down the phone at him, and stood over me while I was sitting on the floor in a meeting yelling you will follow the decision of the group!!! (Which isn't exactly what consensus decision making is supposed to be about, amirite, but you know what they say, scratch a hippie, find a fascist). 

He did quite a lot of shouting at me, all told, certainly more than average. And also at other people. READ YOUR LEASE!! he would bellow, if someone suggested that seeing how it was summer maybe a barbecue might be nice? (I did read my lease. It basically says that lots of things are ok if we say they're ok but not if we don't say they're ok, so it was a valid question). 

He's gone now, but his residue remains. I have a couple of his greatest hits emails that I go back to sometimes when I think "did that really happen?" At this point I am more curious than anything else at what it was about us that he found so enraging -- he once called me "silver-tongued", which ha, I fucking wish. Has the patriarchy crumbled?? Not last time I looked. 

Anyway, my absolute favourite phrase of his, which he deployed fairly frequently and fairly forcefully in the early years, was THIS IS WHAT YOU SIGNED UP FOR

Yeah, I guess so, and I'm still standing. And as testament to that, I have created this piece of art. It is rag-rugged from all of the garments of ours that have worn out since we moved here 11 years ago. I started it just before lockdown, I finished it today, and I love it deeply. You can see that I got better at it as I went along, but that's all part of its joy. 


Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Jiggery pokery: introducing the series

We're far enough out from the depths of the pandemic that Facebook memories have started popping up. It's all kinds of weird. One of the things that's coming up for me is how, in the depths of a terrifying time, there was -- for some of us, not all of us, I know -- a new kind of space, an opportunity to assess and reflect and maybe, as we used to say before we had the soul drained out of us by the latest round of Entitled Toryism, build back better. 

Some things have changed forever for the worse: so many lives lost or long-term affected, so much damage to the NHS, so much sacrifice unrecognised or unappreciated. A few things for the better (from where I'm sitting anyway): hybrid and remote working releases opens up whole vistas of flexibility, I sense a new acceptance of personal/family life alongside working life, you can get Roti King by post. 

But in many arenas, while there was a once in a lifecycle opportunity to reconfigure, to divest of what is not serving us and invest in what is or might be, it was wasted. We went from "we're tired, it's hard, we haven't got energy to address this" straight to "we want it back like it used to be, only a bit shitter, because everything's a bit shitter now" without passing Go or collecting $200. 

This is very much how it feels for me here in Ecoville. Before the world went mad, we had our entrenched problems as a community. In decreasing importance (to me, I am not speaking for anyone else) these were*: 
  • conflict avoidance and its effect on community wellbeing
  • communal meals and their primacy in our agreements
  • rules around what can be stored and/or cooked in communal spaces, including outside (actually, with cooking, anywhere outside)
  • whose behaviour is challenged and whose is tolerated and why
  • spending money on non-essential things that some people want a lot but other people don't want at all 
  • who can and can't have a car or priority access to a car
  • the role of pets in people's lives
There was a part of me - because I am a deep thinker and, while not overly optimistic about humanity in general still of the view that people don't generally want to make the lives of others worse when they know those people and are part of some kind of shared endeavour so are directly faced with the consequences of their actions and choices (in a way that say people buying clothes from Primark or scoring cocaine on a weekend or flying to the Maldives or ordering fois gras arguably are not) that thought we could, you know, do some work on this.

(Yes I know that sentence was too long, but that's how convoluted it gets around here).

Anyway, as my Significant Ex used to say to me when I'd been especially idealistic and/or naive, which has never been that infrequent in Jo World, it's amazing how wrong one person can be. 

We, as in M and I, will have been here for ELEVEN YEARS come August. ELEVEN. We were early birds, because the house we got was one of the first ones to get finished, so there's a general sense that 2023 is the 10 year marker. Good number, 10. Healthy time to do a lil evaluation, maybe? 

Honestly, I'd love to get into that collective soup. I think it would do us so much good - both us right now and us as an entity that has a past and will endure into the future. And there are so many ways we could do it! But we won't. We're too stuck. There's all kinds of hostility, toxicity, unchallenged legacy power dynamics and ensuing enmity... there's almost an argument to be made that we've fucked it, but actually, loads of us are still here, and while moving house is a shag, people still do it all the time, so there must be a reason for that? 

I like to understand my own reasons, at least. I bear examination. So I'm going to take those sticky issues and dig in. If you love my Ecoville reflections, you're in the right place. If you don't, I invite you to switch off your television set phone and go out and do something less boring instead, WHY DON'T YOU?

If you're sticking around, welcome! 

We started out with some pretty fixed ideas, which were turned into some pretty rigid policies before we even really got started. This was, in my view, a massive mistake. But. For me, these are sunk social and emotional costs. They shouldn't influence our forward direction. We should label them and let them go. 

We don't though. To beeeee continued. 


*I didn't mention parenting, because I'm not a parent, but by the end of lockdown I'd certainly added 'use of the only decent sized flat bit of lawn on the whole site, a chunk of which happens to be directly outside my house'. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Love is dog. Dog is love.

Otto was my mum's last project. Well, not quite -- when she was very ill and mostly off her head on morphine she decided it would be an excellent idea to get a new bathroom installed (she also planted a monkey puzzle tree in the front garden because that's a totally normal thing to do when you're about to die). 

So when she went into the hospice the house was full of workmen. I can't leave this fucking dog in the house with these fucking plumbers, my dad said. They keep leaving the gate open and he's so stupid he'll run out into the road and get himself killed. 

So we took him with us. Look, I said, you go in first and I'll stay here with him, then we can swap. Hospices being the amazing places they are, my dad came straight back out and said 'they said bring him in'. 

Otto knew exactly who we were going to see, and exactly where she was. He was beyond excited to see her and he barked the place down. She was happy to see him too but he was a lot to deal with, so after a few minutes I took him out into the garden, which had a smoking corner. There's something almost sacred about a hospice smoking corner. I've rarely craved cigarettes since I knocked smoking on the head at 3.25 am on 1 January 2003 (approx) but I wanted one sooooo badly just then. Otto would have understood. 

I let him off the lead and he ran straight into someone else's room. He really was pretty stupid. And I was gripped with angst -- someone is dying in there and now I have to retrieve a fucking hyperactive dachshund from their bedside. But you know what, everyone in there loved him. He made a shitty day a little better. 

Otto didn't come from a shelter, but he did get rescued from a bad start in life. He was bred for show, and lived with a load of other fancy dachshunds. Sadly -- or not -- he was deemed defective, as the back of his head was a bit pointy: by the time my parents shelled out £££ for him he was a year old, called Spiky, and still had his balls (he'd already impregnated another fancy dachshund, in fact, but no one knew that at the time). 

No creature has ever been less spiky than the puppy they renamed Otto. He was the gentlest soul, if a little randy. I first met him a couple of weeks after he joined the family and I took him for a walk to Green Drive in Lytham, one of my favourite places. He was polite, but honestly, he really didn't know what he was supposed to do. I don't think he'd been for many walks. 

He also had, it transpired, canine IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease), which led to a lifetime of restricted diets and expensive veterinary care. We never knew whether he was born that way or contracted an infection in his bleak showdog early puppyhood, but either way it hadn't been treated, and eating was something that caused him pain. Getting to the bottom of this was my mum's gift to him: she did not give up until she (and the vets) had created a regime that kept him well. It involved multiple meds, including steroids, and a lot of white fish, white meat and hypoallergenic dry food. My vegetarian mother bought a mincer for that dog's turkey diet. 

Their relationship was a delight. He knew she was the one who knew. When she got ill, one of the first things that happened was she had a chest drain fitted. Otto managed to dislodge it one day when he propelled himself off her to bark at the postman. Her response was to wedge a copy of the TV listings magazine into her pants when she lay down on the sofa so he wouldn't do it again. 

My relationship with him was also a delight. We first bonded in the year after he arrived, when my parents and sister went on holiday for a week and I travelled from Oxford to the parental home to look after him. It was just the two of us, we didn't know each other that well, but we went for walks and picnics and I learnt that he liked to sit on the bath mat when I was in the bath and lick my (lower - he was v short) legs when I got out. This was also the week I learnt that he could still get an erection despite being neutered, and that he would, how shall we say, pleasure himself on my lower leg unless he was physically prevented from doing so. I spent time that week considering the ethics of allowing vs discouraging this. 

By the time my mum died in 2013, he was five and the happiest boy imaginable, even though he knew something was up. We took him to her funeral. I carried him in, and he sat on my lap apart from when I was speaking. At the end, everyone clapped and he barked his little head off. He had a very big bark for such a small body. I always admired that about him. He spent much of the next nine years (aside from lockdowns and Covid near-death experiences) sitting on my dad's lap in Caffe Nero. They were a local fixture. Everyone (with a heart) loved Otto. It was basically impossible not to. 

There were people who tried, but they were defeated. In December 2015 my dad and sister and various significant others went to Tenerife for Christmas. Would I consider having him for the week, my dad asked several months earlier. Of course I would. This was when he was still mobile enough to manage stairs, though he used to descend them in a zig zag, like a little boat tacking into the wind, on account of his tiny legs. It was always a joy to have him visit. Small children would queue up to stroke him in the street, and occasionally visit him at our house by appointment. He didn't really enjoy this, but he was a very patient boy. I used to ignore the Pet Policy that decreed he should be on a lead at all times, as he liked to scamper up and down the street with me, and he was never going to bite anyone or shit inappropriately. He had a very tidy routine (he did occasionally wee himself when he got over-excited, but who among us etc). 

But he definitely was not allowed in the Common House (per said policy) and, unlike Mimi the cat, who roams like the wild thing he is, I would totally have been culpable -- and shamed -- had I ignored this edict. Equally though, I wasn't going to leave him home alone on Christmas Day -- turkey was one of the few things he could eat. So I set out a message asking if anyone was interested in a Christmas dinner that involved a) turkey and b) a small dog. My thought was that if we got a few people, we'd have them round ours, and if we got more than say six we'd use the Mill, which has no dead bird or live dog restrictions (although does not have much by way of a kitchen). 

And 28 people wanted to come. So I made that happen, and it was a kind of magic. This tiny little blonde (cream, if you're from the Kennel Club) creature catalysed something that would never otherwise have happened. We had three courses, and a playlist, and it went on for hours, and it was hilarious. Otto himself enjoyed his turkey and carrots. 

It wasn't seamless, he did get a bit barky with all of the people (remember that dachshunds are like a foot tall, and this one mainly spent time with max two other people). At one point someone said 'I didn't know there was going to be a dog here today, I'm not sure how I feel about that' and I said 'if there hadn't been going to be a dog here today, there wouldn't be anything here?' 

On balance, I maintain that Otto's life sparked a disproportionate amount of joy. He taught me that if a creature's basic needs are met (and it can be a challenge to meet them) they -- we -- can give so much more to the world than we take out. 

We lost him this morning. He was fully deaf, mostly blind, fairly arthritic and covered in lumps, some of them malignant and frankly quite stinky. He defied the odds even to make it to adulthood, but he was happy till the very last. I saw him a week ago and he had a little bark when he smelt me and a valiant go on my leg. I am verklempt, but my world is so much better for the love he brought into it, both ways round. Rest in power, little guy. You were immense x


Saturday, July 30, 2022

Pivoting to Asda (and beyond)

I'm starting this post at a bus stop in Summertown, Oxford. NGO X was HQ'd here many years ago, and when I started working there, fulfilling two ambitions simultaneously (1. working for NGO X and 2. getting a job that had been advertised in print in the Guardian), my world tilted on its axis a little. 

It was after the genocide in Rwanda but before the Asian tsunami. Before (just before) 9/11. Phones were still bricks, there were hardly any blogs. And I used to get my lunch almost every day from a Lebanese deli called LB's. Sometimes falafel. Sometimes a vegetarian lunch box. But my absolute favourite was a wrap with ijja ("little clouds"- a kind of fluffy omelette made with cauliflower and parsley), shredded cabbage and tahini sauce. I loved it so much. 

Today, for my lunch, I sat outside LB's and had a coffee and an ijja wrap. It tasted just as I remembered and I loved it just as much. As Chrissie Hynde once said, some things change, some stay the same. 


After I wrote that opener, in a notebook, in pencil, I bought four Punjabi samosas from a young woman at a stall (Summertown has a street market on Sundays these days) and got on the bus. I was heading to Kennington for an Easter gathering with M's offspring and their families. Before I got there, at the next bus stop in fact, I ate one of the samosas. After I got there, I ate one of the others. Man alive, I love samosas. *That* love affair started in Cambridge, at a bakery called Nadia's on Trinity St, where I bought my lunch most days. It was either a warm, fat vegetable samosa, or a poppy seed roll with houmous and salad, to which I would add most of a packet of prawn cocktail crisps. Both excellent nourishment for my deep thoughts about the human condition

I've been buying samosas for over 30 years now. Ijja wraps, over 20. I hope I will be buying them both for decades to come, given that I'm unlikely to develop the skills to make either. But it's literally only in the last couple of months that I've started noticing how much they cost. And these are not fancy food items. You're paying for some basic vegetarian ingredients, the fuel to cook them, someone's time, and a bit on top. But suddenly, it's "how much? for a samosa?". 

I am not claiming poverty, not remotely. I am still, for now, someone who puts tins *into* the food bank collection box (sardines, usually, obvs). We live on a part time income (mine) plus a very part time income supplemented by the state pension (M), which isn't a huge amount, but still more than a lot of people, and we have secure housing and an extremely energy efficient house (one of my neighbours recently said to me, in a reversal of the trope, something along the lines of "if you hate it so much here, why don't you go and live somewhere else?" to which I said well, I don't hate my *house*, and that's where I actually *live*). Until recently, there was a bit of money left in our joint account at the end of the average month, which I salted away to pay for holidays. I did a weekly Abel & Cole order, the occasional Ocado, Co-op top ups and still managed to support various charities as well as buy foodbank tins, keep up a respectable (if low-end) wine habit, and feed a voracious half-wild cat. I honestly thought I'd cracked it. 

So this -- the cost of living crisis, as we seem to be calling it -- is a proper shock to the system. A perfect storm. All of the things hitting at once, so hard and so fast that even those of us with multiple buffers are reeling. 

You could, at this juncture, point out that I live in an intentional community, and don't we explicitly share resources? Doesn't that save money as well as increase the sustainability of your lifestyle? Well, yeah, in theory, kinda, potentially, in a way. But only if you are willing (or even able) to accept certain constraints. "Cutting edge" was one of the phrases that attracted me to Ecoville over 11 years ago. Oooh, I like the sound of that, I thought, because I am always thinking. And lots of things *did* feel pretty 'out there' initially. The ideas were good, their implementations not quite there maybe, but we evolve, right? We continuously improve. We iterate. We adapt. 

But actually, my experience has been more that we stick with things that were close to cutting edge in 2011. And now we live in 2022. It's not the same world, but we largely act like it is. There are mutterings, there are conversations, there are tentative forays, but (in my view) we are stuck on two fronts. Firstly, all systems have inertia. It's harder to change things than to do the same thing, until there is a tipping point, and many of the Ecoville incumbents are pretty comfortable, and not for tipping.

Secondly, there are some things that are held sacred, inviolable, although we are not supposed to be a cult and indeed they are not written down anywhere. You might not even know about them till you innocently ask a question some time in year 3. These are qualities of the system that are somewhat mystical, which I do not understand and which no one has ever been able to explain to me. Despite being almost the first full time resident of this community based in the county of my birth, I remain a stranger in a strange land. 

What this means for me in practice is that I can't really do my food shopping in our little store, because a) a lot of it is not stuff I want to eat/use, b) I have been firmly informed that this will not be changing, and c) the combination of these things means I experience extreme dissonance, almost physically, when I think about it for too long. So, in short, I mostly don't. And mostly don't buy stuff there. (I make exceptions -- eg local eggs and salad leaves -- because with those things, the equation in my head works). 

I've had enough feedback to know how annoying this logic is for a lot of people. And of course, if I had no choice, I would be grateful for the convenient food supplies. But I resent having my options constrained in ways that do not make sense to me. 

By way of comparison, one of my colleagues, M, was furloughed during the first lockdown in early 2020, and spent his days volunteering for an organisation distributing government food parcels to households who had to shield because they contained people who were clinically extremely vulnerable, and in time, to households that just could not access or afford food. He did this for weeks -- sat in the back of a black cab with bags of food and delivered them to homes in one of the most deprived boroughs of London. Often, he was the only person they'd seen for days. There was one household he visited which had children in it, and it was the same little boy who opened the door. One day he looked in the bag and said 'can we have white bread next time?'. Thing is, the government knows best, and the government says only brown bread can go in emergency food parcels. Those of us who can go out, we get to choose our bread. 

So broadly, overwhelmingly, I shop elsewhere. And because of my fact-spongy sort of brain, I hold a lot of information which helps me decide where and how to do that. I'm nowhere near at Jack Monroe's level on this, but then my motivations are different. She's a national treasure, I'm just a stubborn foodie geek. 

Enter Asda, as Metallica didn't quite say. I'd only previously Asda'd with my late aunt, when I was little and went to stay with her. She had two boys who were even littler than me. I loved going to Asda with her to do the Big Shop. One of her boys would be in the trolley and the other wandering around getting lost and I would be holding the 1980s Sinclair calculator and adding everything up. It was basically sums, to me, and I loved sums. We didn't do a Big Shop in my family, because my mum went out shopping every day on her bike (occasionally I went out in her place if it was the school holidays and she'd been on a night shift), and my dad went out in the car with me on Saturdays. I know the same sums were happening, but not in such an obvious way. I definitely knew that you never, ever bought anything that wasn't on the list (my dad: it just says salami, do you reckon we can get away with Hungarian?). We didn't go to Asda, or any kind of superstore, because there wasn't one locally, but (because I knew basically nothing) I envied the people who did. 

When I started going out with my Significant Ex, his mum asked us to "go to Sainsbury's" because there was "nothing in". This was categorically not true, there was a whole walk in pantry full of stuff that I quite rapidly took on the job of organising, because that's the kind of job I like. But we went, of course. There was no list. What are we getting? I said. What do you want to get? he replied. This was literally my first experience of shopping like this -- I would say I hadn't been very "on it" as a student, but I only ever bought the same things: bread, eggs, Cup a Soup, cheese, mayonnaise, tuna, Encona, sweetcorn, pasta, tinned tomatoes, Batchelor's Savoury Rice, Super Noodles, gherkins. You can do a lot with that stuff, believe, but this was like walking through the doors of perception. Wholegrain mustard!! Anchovy paste!! Fresh basil!! Parmesan in a lump!! Artichoke hearts!! Avocados!! Lemon juice from a lemon!! 

And very fast, sooo fast, I got used to that. I have a sense of frugality for many things: if I can't afford it, I don't buy it. If I really want it, I save up for it. I have had an overdraft, but I have never had a credit card. But a) I acknowledge the psychological as well as generational privilege this represents, and b) I've never really, in my adult life, had to apply that to my food shop. In my 20s, it was Tesco on foot / Sainsbury by car plus local shops on Cowley Road (for the samosas, the kosher pickles, the instant ramen and the Polish bread), my 30s much the same plus Abel & Cole veg boxes and the occasional Ocado delivery. My 40s were entirely different, as I tried, but ultimately largely failed, to reinvent myself as a locavore. I came close, but we fucked it, lads. 

So here I am in my early 50s, feeling the financial pinch with the rest of the medians. What's a highly numerate girl with catholic tastes but strong views to do? 

If you're in this position too, here are my top tips: 
  • Absolutely follow Jack Monroe: her advice is impeccable and her recipes are inspiring. My favourite book of hers is Tin Can Cook: this is absolutely my style of cooking but taken up several notches. I hope one day to interest her in my Tuna Noodle Pickled Vegetable signature dish. 
  • If you a) eat meat, b) have a reasonable size freezer c) live in the British rurals and d) can pull a bit of cash together, buy a whole lamb, or (as we did) half a lamb. You get a LOT of meat for your money, and you know exactly where it's come from. 
  • Make a list, and take it to Asda. In person, at least the first time, because there are things you will see in the store that you would not notice online. For me, here are some of those things: 
    • Fresh squeezed not from concentrate juice -- unbeatable £ for this, like half the price of the nearest NFC alternative and those vitamins guys!! 
    • Their quick frozen scratch cooking veg: chopped and ready to use for an amazing price (my favourite is what they call soup base I think but I would call mirepoix - carrot, celery, onion) -- get it on, bang a gong, get it on. 
    • Relatedly, dried soup pulses mix -- get your soup base melting away in EVOO, add your stock and your mixed pulses, little splash of red wine, little squirt of tomato puree, you're living a pretty good life. 
    • Re: the EVOO: watch for offers, watch like a hawk. Likewise the wine. 
    • Invest in stuff like capers, olives, anchovies, which are all cheaper in Asda than many other places. 
  • Things you might want to source elsewhere, especially if you have local Asian / Turkish / Polish / Kosher shops
    • Cheese -- especially white salad cheese which is so useful (I can find ways to eat it for breakfast, dinner and tea), halloumi etc 
    • Pickles and fermented stuff generally: big jars for small money. 
    • Mangos, drumsticks, okra, melons -- never are they good in the supermarkets
    • Rice, noodles, herbs, spices -- only a fool buys coriander from a supermarket if there's a local Asian grocery. 
  • My final Asda-adjacent tip is: PLAN. If I write out the meals we might eat for the next week, even if we don't eat them, exactly, we will source stuff more efficiently and cost-effectively than if I send myself out for something at the last minute. Relatedly, assess your INVENTORY -- what's sitting around waiting for use? Is there a cupboard you have not delved into the back of recently? (There probably is -- I obsessively over-stock certain things, especially those which are haram here in Ecoville, which is not necessarily the best use of my limited storage).
  • No, not my final! Make a trip of it! Have a lunch in the cafe, buy some stuff from B&Q or whatever. However you can make it ok, do that. 
I reckon a big old reining in can be done. Enough of us have belt-tightening space, and the government just deposed our spaffer in chief, who felt it was ok, right here right now, for someone else to spend six figures on a very temporary play space for one, max two, of his many offspring. We could regroup, somewhat collectively, having de-spaffed. We could seek a little common cause, some of us, maybe. Find a way to think about a future that would work for (I both love and hate to say it) the many, not just the few. We're already seeing mould, misery, malnutrition and DIY dentistry in this actual country which is supposed still to be actually wealthy. Is this... fine? Are we going to let people freeze to death? We already let people drown in the Channel and burn to death trying to keep warm in tents, so maybe we'll find that's tolerable too. 

It might be a policy decision to keep most of us scrambling to find the means to keep warm (or, hey, cool) *and* put food on the table, if we have a table. I really think it might be. And one of the things I find hardest about it is that it's working, in the sense that it takes a lot of time and energy, that we might otherwise use to think about alternative ways to use the same resources. 

For example. If I ran the country and had an 80 seat majority (big if, I do understand), I would proceed along something like the following lines. 
  • Baseline it. How good, on the whole, would you say your life is, British person? Big old survey. Hopes, dreams, mental health, all of it. Representative selection, with some more in-depth focus groups maybe. Get some indicators together. BIG COHORT. 
  • Everyone who owns more than one house, or indeed any property that isn't occupied for at least nine months of the year and could be a permanent residence, has to choose one. The other/s get Compulsorily Purchased by my government. At market rate, but non-negotiable. 
  • We use those properties to house everyone currently in temporary accommodation - refugees and asylum seekers, care leavers, families in B&Bs. The family size homes go to families, the bigger and smaller ones go to single people or groups from similar backgrounds. 
  • There is a quid pro quo here: in order to access this (now social) housing we ask them to sign up for three years to participate in a Grand Plan. This involves all adults doing some mix of the following: 
    • Training (provided) as an eco-refitter of existing housing stock. Practising on the housing they are currently occupying then moving on to a government programme to reach all homes
    • Training as a care worker, specialising in personal care for people coming out of hospital
    • Agricultural labour 
    • For those with caring responsibilities, setting up kitchens in community centres / church halls and either working in the creche or cooking evening meals for the local community to come and eat or take away. Childcare and food hygiene training will be available too. 
  • Some benefits that I could imagine accruing from this:
    • Sort out the housing crisis 
    • Repopulate holiday home desert communities with economically productive families
    • Make a dent in the energy crisis 
    • Fill gaps in the labour market with a guaranteed supply of skilled workers
    • Sort out the social care crisis and the hospital bed blocking crisis
    • Address the nutritional gap for people who can't afford or don't have the facilities to cook decent food at home, and redirect surpluses and gluts in a direction where they can be used. 
  • Everyone gets paid the living wage, and everyone pays rent out of that. After the three years, people can decide to sign on for longer or move on (if they are refugees / asylum seekers, they get indefinite leave to remain as a thank you for their contribution). 
  • After the first three years we re-run the baseline - do we feel like we're a better country? Are we happier? Do we like ourselves and our lives a little better? 
  • I'm going to take a punt on yes, and run again on that ticket. Going to expand the scheme. Anyone who wants a three year go at socialism is welcome. 
This isn't the only option, of course. And it's not perfect (I just thought of it all on my own, with my own set of privileges and prejudices and resentments. I personally like the clarity of a deal: if you do X then you get Y, but YMMV). My bigger point is that we should all be thinking bigger. It's the thinking smaller, the pulling the ladder up, the building the walls, than pains me the most. These are not the times for that.  


Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Never give in to the fuckery

Content note: abortion. Not mine. But still. 

Second content note: I'm not outing anyone in this post. I've changed pretty much any detail that could possibly identify anyone except me, my Significant Ex, and guy X. Should guy X happen upon it (deeply, *deeply* unlikely), well, it's never too late to say sorry. 

The world: Hey, how you doing?

Me: Fine! Actually, not fine? Actually, more like commando crawling through an assault course made up of austerity, Brexit, Trump, Johnson, climate emergency, Covid, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Roe? With a few extras that don't make global headlines because geopolitics, and a few extras that are local and personal. But thanks for asking. How *you* doing?

Did I mention that my inner voice is a screaming woman?

In a big conversation I had with my beloved recently I realised that he thought she was screaming in anger (I've only recently realised we don't all have a screaming woman inner voice - this would have been useful intel before now but I do at least now know).

No, I said, she's screaming into the void.

All the time? he said. No, I said. Just sometimes, but quite often at the moment. Would it help you to know when it's happening?

Um, I guess, he said. Worth a try. (This is excellent boyfriend behaviour, by the way. Exemplary, even. Big ups to my beloved.)

So, I was sitting at the table, writing to do lists, after weeding the broad beans at the allotment. We're talking about dinner plans but I'm a bit distracted.

Oh! I said. She's screaming. Shall I tell you why?

The attack on abortion rights in the US is genuinely terrifying. I am not in the US and I am almost certainly done with the egg and sperm business but still, it makes my blood run cold. It's medieval logic in the 21st century. Not so different from the actually certifiably evil Taliban, if you look at it straight on. Women - no, let me clarify, people with the ability to get pregnant, however we define ourselves - are fully realised humans or we're not, is the binary, and I know which side I'm on.

And I always have. In the 80s, in Blackpool, there was a never ending flow of boys and men trying to have sex with me. With any or all of us, I wasn't that special. Never. Ending. Mostly I didn't, sometimes I did, quite often there was some kind of tussle involved, almost like a dance.

In a way, I think they were gentler times, it wasn't a porn-saturated environment and no one really knew what they were doing. We shared tips on how to avoid what I'd now call PIV sex, but at the time was just called sex. How to deflect and distract and deal with the situation a different way. A lot of us were pretty good at it by the time we left Blackpool. 

And ngl, those skills came in handy when I got to university (I was stumped when someone *didn't* want to have sex with me, but that's another story).The main reason I didn't want to have sex with men who wanted to have sex with me, at that time, quite honestly (I have evolved since), was because I didn't want to get pregnant. I worked extremely hard at not getting pregnant. By this point I'd already borrowed money from my parents to lend to a friend who needed an abortion, and I knew of several other people who'd been in the same position.

Anyway, my first term at university, there was a night, there was a guy, let's call him X. He was pretty flirty, I was playing along. He came back to my room, got a bit pushy, I dealt with the situation. It was fine. He went to sleep, I sat smoking out the window for a bit, then woke him up and told him to go back to his room. (I could almost literally see his room from my room, I wasn't asking him to get a cab or anything). He said he wanted to stay, and I said I didn't want him there when the cleaner arrived. He asked me if I was embarrassed. I said not really, I just had a good relationship with the cleaner. (NB she later tried to set me up with her son, but that's also another story).

He left, and we never really spoke again, though when he was drunk he occasionally told me that he admired my breasts. I started seeing someone, who some months later was fundraising for a charity thing he was doing. He asked guy X to sponsor him. I will, he said, but only if you admit it. Admit what? said the man who went on to become my Significant Ex, (these were the glorious early days, but even at his worst he was never remotely as jaded and shitty as guy X was at 20).

Admit you're going out with Joella, he said. Well, said my Significant Ex, sure, I admit it. I laughed when I heard that story, but I was also very glad I hadn't had sex with him. Because I don't think he'd have been any kinder about me if I had. 

But that's not why my inner voice was screaming. She was screaming because maybe five years later, in another city, I was visiting someone I knew who was taking care of a friend of hers who'd just had an abortion.

It had been a fairly short relationship. He hadn't been particularly kind. He gave her money (he had money, I don't imagine it was a stretch) when he found out she was pregnant, but otherwise didn't want anything to do with it. She was one of those gilded posh girls who I at one level envied because they knew how to ski and how to eat fish with bones in and didn't bite their nails and were oh so thin, but at another level I knew they envied me because I was sturdy and stroppy and seemed to manage to have boyfriends who liked me (it took me a while, but I'd more or less got there by 20). 

I did not hate myself, I looked after myself in not all ways but several important ones, and I knew how lucky I was. By this stage I'd supported quite a few more people through abortions, financially, emotionally, practically. I knew some of the right things to say. We had a bit of a chat and long story short it turned out it was guy X who got her pregnant. 

And *I'm* the one you need to admit to going out with?

That's why she was screaming, I said to M.


Monday, March 28, 2022

She's got a new smell

Such times. Such times

My body is going through it at the moment. I was on the mini pill for about ten years, which knocked my periods on the head, thank the lord, for they were agonising, messy and disruptive, and made me sad and crazy. But with not having them, I always wondered how I'd know when I was menopausing. Well. Turns out you just know. Everything slides around in your head all of the time, and you could power a small village if they could only bottle your heat and your fury. Also, the sweating. Ye gods. Could water a small village too (or at least their marsh samphire crop, that could cope with the salt, right?). 

I should be eating cooling foods and drinking green tea. I should be wearing natural fibres and going for calming walks in nature. I know. I should not be downing Rioja and listening to true crime podcasts and generally stomping around. I haven't been entirely neglectful on the self care front, I have linen pyjamas and a lavender pillow spray and I swim in a cool pool where the water hits my red hot armpits and I think YES. I have started getting my top lip waxed. I have bought this book. I read *everything* that appears in a private Facebook group I was invited to a couple of year ago which is called Hot Ladies (Oxbridge level menopause discourse, I love it). 

Having read the book and absorbed the experiences of the Hot Ladies, I made an appointment with my GP for the discussion of my options. After the discussion of my options, about eight months ago I switcherooed from Cerazette, saviour of my 40s, to something called Premique, which I hope will do the same for my 50s. It's a lot better. A LOT better. But still fairly early days. Watch this space (or, you know, don't). 

But I think, without getting too woo about it, that whatever is happening to my body, there's also some soul processing happening. It's not like I've had the worst pandemic, millions have had it way worse. I'm double jabbed and boosted, I can still smell, at some point last September I could nearly do crow pose. None of my immediate loved ones have carked it. But however you look at it, there's no way round the fact that It Has Been A Right Two Years.  

So... #blessed. And yet, somehow, not? Maybe as a consequence of my over-thinking (see blog posts passim) I am really shit at gratitude journals and the like. I tried it for a week and I annoyed the hell out of myself. I need space for dwelling in the bleakness. I don't drink tea, and I don't eat cake. Do not invite me to an appreciative enquiry. There are no live love laugh cushions or cursively fonted self-help books in my house, no sirree bob, though I do have a well-thumbed 30 year old copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. Self awareness is the way to survive the white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy, kids. 

I don't feel, like, great about this. How nice (a word I also do not like, even if it's the biscuit, because I do not like biscuits) it would be to luxuriate in my cosseted existence, while virtue signalling, dispensing generosity on my own terms, and really not paying attention to much beyond that. It's the MO of many people in high income countries, and many high income people in low income countries. But any amount of not-even-over-thinking about the world, in fact the merest glance at Greta's Twitter, will create plenty of space for dwelling in the bleakness, you know? And while I love a negroni and a dancefloor at least as much as the next person, I harbour a deep suspicion of the people who are all about the sunshine. (Except maybe the sunshine causing literally unsurvivable wet bulb temps of 35+ in Pakistan amirite?) 

But you can't live in a ditch unless you intend to die in one, so a girl needs strategies. And scent has always been one of mine. As a teenager, I experimented. There was an Impulse Day and Night double set of body sprays that I leant on for a while. In the sweaty bread shop where I spent my Saturdays for £1.35 an hour I would dip into the kiosk that housed the phone and our coats and bags to refresh myself with Day, and once I was outta there I'd shower and become Night. I once bought a can of Femfresh because I thought, well, I'm fem and I want to be fresh. I was spraying it under my arms till my mum saw it and explained what it was really for and why it was terrible. Just Seventeen had a lot to answer for. I wasn't even 17. (I have never deo'd my foof, for the record, but if you have well, no judgement here).

Then the Body Shop arrived in Blackpool. My first purchase was a perfume called Aquarius - every woman needs a signature fragrance, I was learning from J17, and how could it not be a perfect match for my 16 yo proud Aquarian self? Short answer: because it honked. It honked so much one of my friends' mums asked her to ask me not to wear it again if I came round. I did not comply with the request (it was my signature fragrance!!), but at one level I knew she was right. 

So I adjusted my perspective and lo! (and approx 50% of my lady cohort will be right here with me, the other 50% being Dewberry girls) there was White Musk. This glorious (I loved it till just very very recently for reasons I shall not disclose but let's just say it is still some people's signature scent), era-defining perfume carried me through my late teens and all of my 20s. I sprayed the cologne on the clothing of the boy I wanted to go out with (he went out with me). I wore the oil on my pulse points every day. I used it in the bath and the shower and it was part of me. Ten years later, a friend I hadn't seen since uni walked into the pub with her husband and said 'I told him, she'll be sitting there wearing fingerless gloves, rolling a cigarette, drinking a pint and smelling of White Musk.' 

I love to be a constant in a changing world (as another uni friend beautifully badged me a few years after this), but I have to say that I did eventually outgrow that scent. I will always love it, and you can sprinkle it on my grave, but I needed to move on. 

I didn't find a new scent in my 30s. While having a ridiculous weakness for mainstream male cologne (honestly, if I'm ever in the market and you fancy me and have access to original Kouros, you're halfway there), the same does not apply to the lady scent. There was ol' unisex CKOne and its ilk, but nah. They remind me of ladette culture, and I did not belong there. The closest I got was a huge retro trip, back to eau de cologne from Boots in giant bottles and 4711 - a classic from the 70s that an old lady (I say old, but I was eight) I spent a lot of time with used to drench everything in. Love an eau de cologne. 

My early 40s took me to Boswells in Oxford, where I discovered Roger & Gallet. This was something of a breakthrough. Gingembre and Cedrat are both warm and lovely, and I wore them for a few years, together with a sandalwood-heavy fragrance whose name I can't remember. I went rather abruptly off them (like many things) when we moved north, my mum died, and everything changed. *Her* signature fragrance was Caleche, and I still have her last bottle of it. I bought it for her in Duty Free on one of my long haul trips for NGO X. I wear it on high days and holidays, and it's lovely, but it's her lovely, not mine. 

And then M bought me a bottle of Jo Malone's Wood Sage & Sea Salt cologne. This was a brave thing to do, or rather, a risky thing -- this stuff isn't cheap. But it was perfect. I absolutely fell in love with it and wore it every day till it ran out, then bought some more. I thought I was there, I thought I had my new signature fragrance. I was very pleased. 

But then came 2018, the year of cancer (M's), redundancy (mine), confusion and anxiety, and everything changed again. I couldn't wear Wood Sage & Sea Salt, it just didn't cut it anymore. I put it away in my washbag, and moved on to something darker and stronger: Black Cedarwood & Juniper. I never really loved it, but it fitted my mood. Towards the end of that bottle, I got an interview for the job I have now -- I travelled to London for both interviews, and for the second one I had to stay over the night before, so I had my washbag. Thus it was I rediscovered Wood Sage & Sea Salt, which I renamed The Smell of A Simpler Time. I was ready to have it back in my life. 

Things were never going to stay simple, though, were they. That job has brought me a lot of joy: deep thinkers who care deeply about the world *and* who deeply love to go to the pub, what is not to enjoy? I haven't had so much brain-stretching fun since the early days of NGO X, back when the world was only partly on fire, and we still thought we could fix it. As I said goodbye to NGO X and the many fine people who were still, at that point, sticking it out (some fine people still are, I should add, but I was not the only casualty of the Thing That Happened), I dropped into the Oxford branch of Jo Malone with my friend S, two large glasses of white deep, and chose the scent for the next part of my life. 

That was Jasmine Sambac and Marigold. I chose it because jasmine is one of my favourite smells. It is the smell of hot, humid nights in faraway places, at the point where the sand meets the sea and everything is the same temperature. The food is spicy, the liquor is hard and slightly weird, the music is Santana. Your feet are bare and the main smell, apart from the jasmine, is mosquito coils. You'll have to go back to your life pretty soon, but for now you're free, and now the sun's gone down, you are unfurling like a fern in the warm mist. It's the Smell of Possibility. 

Jasmine also has a high sillage, and I was feeling like I needed a bit of that about me. I wore Jasmine Sambac and Marigold for most of 2019, and it brought me many hugs. I hope it will always be in my repertoire: it is truly the scent of a woman trying to work out what her game is and how near to the top of it she wants to be.  

So we could have left it there, with the gorgeous Smell of Possibility tempered by the clean Smell of A Simpler Time, but 2020 wasn't going to let us get away with that, was it? Hell, as they say, no. So, please welcome to the group the Perfumes of the Pandemic. 

Grapefruit Cologne
My wonderful friends C and S bought me not one but two Jo Malone scents for my 50th birthday, the celebration of which just squeaked under the lockdown limbo pole. One was Sea Sage and Wood Salt -- did they know?? Or am I that easy to buy scent for?? Either way, yay, I still have a bottle for my washbag and I wear it every day I am not in Ecoville. The other was Grapefruit -- I would never have chosen this but it turns out I love it. It is sharp and clever and understated, only two of which qualities I can lay any claim to, but all of which I admire. I wore it through Lockdown One, and it ended up in my swimming bag when the gym reopened, which is where its last vestiges remain. It is now the Smell of Self Care. When it finally runs out, I fully intend to replace it. 

Red Roses
At the same celebration, I admired the scent of my friend K multiple times (good sillage) and it was another Jo Malone -- honestly, it's like she knows what she's doing -- this time one of the biggies, Red Roses. Again, I would never have, but it smelt amazing on her, so when my friend E said she had a Jo Malone voucher that she wasn't going to use and did I want anything, that is what I chose. And I cannot lie, it is a perfume with power. I am not sure we met the best of each other, me and Red Roses, because that is what I wore through the end of 2020 and into the lockdown of early 2021. Which was an intense time for me. I had an intense perfume to match, and I drew on its strength, but ultimately it will be remembered (by me, anyway) as the Smell of Righteous Yet Unwise Fury. 

Why unwise, Jo, you ask. Surely not you? Well. I swore at one of my neighbours on a Zoom call that was being recorded. The recording now has a life of its own, and I hear that several people just watch that part of it over and over. (I have not watched it, because I was there. I felt like a dog that had been poked with a stick for like months who finally snapped. I remember the sweet, sweet catharsis, swiftly followed by oh fuck I used a swear word, and we don't like swear words). 

How bad was it? I called one of my neighbours a bitch. She was (in my view, and if you want to lawyer up, I have evidence) being a bitch, and I was tired of letting it slide. But it was a dumb move on my part, as we care A LOT MORE, it turns out, about people calling people a bitch than about people actually behaving like a bitch. (Full disclosure: I think I said "stop being such a fucking bitch about this", which a) isn't actually calling her a bitch, but that's what people heard, and b) also included the f word, which I am not sure the audio picked up, as I said it half under my breath, but M's wince every time it comes up makes me think I probably did F it as well as B it). 

I blame the Red Roses. They made me all heady. To be fair, I should also blame my hormones, as this was when I was running at my hottest, but if you're running hot, Red Roses will make you hotter. It's like the drum beat of every injustice you've ever experienced. Mmmm, Red Roses. But I don't think I'll go there again till I'm out the other side of my 50s. 

Moving swiftly on, the same lovely E, possibly advised by my beloved, got me a Discovery Set from Rook Perfumes for my birthday last year. I don't really have a Rook Perfumes level budget so this was a perfect gift. I spent the spring (when I wasn't Red Rosing it in red mist) trying all six scents out, one a night on repeat, and thinking hard about which one, if any, might be for me. In the end, it was Forest or Undergrowth, and I waited for a decent discount code and decided to make my choice at the moment of purchase. 

I went Forest, and I have not regretted it. (I don't think I'd have regretted Undergrowth either, but Forest is more assertive). Forest was my mid-year smell last year. It saw me through getting hauled in for questioning by the community governance team, AC-12 style (I also wore an excellent jacket) for ... I still don't know what, really. Upsetting people with a greater set of privileges than me, who therefore get to present as 'nice', is my best reading, but I know even that interpretation would likely be seen as 'upsetting'. Who's upset by whose upset, we might ask. But we don't. 

I grew up on a street called Forest Drive, and I see Forest as the Smell of Remembering Who You Are. 

English Oak and Hazelnut

So. What are you wearing now, Jo, I hear you ask. (Maybe not you, but my imaginary friends, who love reading this stuff). Aha, I answer, I am very glad you asked. Because I do, as we limp towards the end of the beginning of this phase of humanity's decline, have a new smell. And it's another Jo Malone - this time English Oak and Hazelnut. 

This is what they say about it: "The crunch of green hazelnut with the spice of elemi. The earthy woodiness of vetiver, cooled by emerald moss carpets on a warming base of roasted oak."

Perfumier nonsense, of course. One of my neighbours caught its sillage the other day and said 'goodness, you smell amazing, what on earth is that?' 

Well, I said, it's English Oak and Hazelnut, but I call it the Smell of Getting The Fuck On With It. 

When summer comes to Ecoville, I will lie on the lawn, inhale the scent of the daisies and let it play through me. We keep going, they say, we keep growing.