Tag Archives: catrina davies

Stay Young

primroses web

I’ve been having a mid-life crisis for about six years. Ever since I turned thirty and realised that the trail of loose ends and missed opportunities and messed-up relationships and recreational brain-damaging was irrevocable. I wasn’t in the foothills of life, getting acclimatised, finding my feet, which is what I’d thought. This was life. And I’d blown it.

There was a craze among some of my friends for getting married and having children. It was genuinely shocking. They had careers and mortgages. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to be when I grew up.

I worked on a building site for six months and bought a second-hand Citroen Berlingo. I put a bed in it and a cooker and headed for the Outer Hebrides. My brakes failed crossing the Cairngorms. I survived. I carried on.

My baby sister had a baby.

I flew to Panama and slept on the beach with the crabs because I couldn’t afford a hostel, let alone a hotel. I came back and moved Earth with a spade to pay off my credit card. I realised I’d been doing my temporary gardening job for ten years. Ten years.

Friends got ill. Friends died. Friends younger than me died.

I got older every day. Every day life got more mysterious. If there was a plot I’d lost it. My primary school God wasn’t making any sense.

Anne of Green Gables, Jilly Cooper and all films starring Julia Roberts, road maps for my subconscious expectations, morphed into Zen koans. Icelandic productions with names like Of Horses and Men, where people slit ponies open and sleep in their stomachs, became strangely comforting.

I’d been merrily climbing the hill of existence, waiting for my happy ending, waiting to peak, and now, suddenly, I was over the hill. And the view from the top was not triumphant. It was terrifying. I’d been sustained by the illusion that one day the mysterious mess of life would tidy itself up into a neat story like, well, Anne of Green Gables, and I’d go on as somebody else, somebody who got a house and a career and maybe, probably, got married and had kids. Whose normal, secure life was enriched by the bewildering chaos of her early years.

But it was all a lie. There is nothing but chaos. I am flickering on the edge of it like a tethered helium balloon and nothing can stop my string breaking. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in ten years, maybe in thirty, maybe in sixty. But it will break. And then who knows what will happen.

Nobody, that’s who. Nobody. Not even my old headmaster. Not even Jilly Cooper. Not even God.

‘You are young, you are on your way up, when you cannot imagine how you will save yourself from death by boredom until dinner….But momentum propels you over the crest. Imperceptibly, you start down. When do the days start to blur and then, breaking your heart, the seasons?….The blur of cards makes one long sound like a bomb’s whine, the whine of many bombs, and you know your course is fatal’ wrote Annie Dillard, about being thirty five.

I was thirty five when I read her. Thirty five and skint and single and living in a shed less than a mile from my primary school. The sheer unfathomable pointlessness of it all was truly breathtaking.

So breathtaking I had to surrender.

Surrender feels good. I feel ten years younger than I did ten years ago.

I feel like I’ve been sweeping a sandy beach, sweeping it for years and years, trying to tidy it up, and just recently it has become clear that the tide is coming in, and the tide is going to move the sand anyway, in whichever way the moon says, and it has nothing to do with me, and all I have to do is put the broom down and lie on the sand and soak it all in. And love, and laugh, and sing. And take pictures of primroses breaking through the darkness on the first day of spring.

And the beach is not tidy, and it does not have a beginning, or a middle, or an end. What it has is music. Imperfect, shining, inexplicable music.

Anyway I’m dying, like a burning star, and so are you. Which is why I’m swallowing my ego and sharing this rugged home recording of a song I sang at one of those perfect, destabilising weddings. It’s by Gallagher and Lyle, a pair of skirt-wearing Scots in their mid-sixties.

It’s called Stay Young.

Why I Live in a Shed

why i live in a shed

The north wind is behind me

And I’ve planted out my sweet peas

The money tree is thriving

But the best things here are free

When people ask, I tell them I am writing a book about housing called Why I Live in a Shed. What I am actually doing is running, singing, surfing, drinking, cursing, worrying and waking up in the dead of night to make marks in the dark with a pencil.

I have spent the winter housed. And now it is spring and the time has come to say goodbye to my latest insulated, centrally-heated, multi-roomed holiday (bathroom, washing machine, fridge, hot water) and wander back through time and space to the shed, via an off-grid wooden gazebo, some meditation (not medication) and a quick trip to Portugal.

But first I am going to offload some thoughts, facts and statistics that represent the thin end of a wedge the size of Wales. Think of it as backstory.

I thought I lived in a shed because there weren’t enough houses to go around. Politicians across the spectrum all seem to agree that what we need is housebuilding on a scale not seen since the second world war. Turns out this is propaganda (also known as Total Bollocks). The reality is that there are 65 million bedrooms in Britain for just 55 million people. And while it is true that 1.8 million households are waiting for social housing, it is also true that 737 000 residential properties that could house 2 million people are brick and mortar bank accounts, kept deliberately empty so they can be bought and sold to turn a profit.

The Prime Minister pleads with a journalist ‘Please don’t make me look like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got’ and The Sultan of Brunei applies for a 10% discount on his council tax because his London house is not his first (or second, or third) home.

[Pitchforks]

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to create yet more inequality. ‘The purpose of much of the world’s construction is construction, its primary function is to provide contracts for the companies that build and perks for the officials who commission’ writes George Monbiot.

We do not need to build more houses, unless it is to speed up the elimination of the human race. ‘Concrete production is among the main sources of carbon pollution worldwide’ observes Danny Dorling.

I live in a shed because government policies designed to inflate house prices and make the economy look stronger than it actually is (in private life this is called cooking the books) mean it is effectively impossible for anyone under the age of 40 to buy a house.

I live in a shed because I would rather live in an uninsulated tin can on the side of the road several hundred miles from anywhere with no toilet or hot water than bite my nails for the privilege of renting a boxroom in a house full of semi-strangers, from which I am obliged to erase all evidence of my existence every time the letting agent lets himself in with his own key to perform one of his ‘regular and invasive’ inspections.

Call me old-fashioned but I’m a 36 year old introvert who craves order and stability and has already lived at 17 different addresses, not including 2 years in a van and 3 years at university.

Renting, in my experience, is miserable, unaffordable (in the year to 2013 median rents in London rose by 9% while wages rose by 2%), insecure and unregulated. In spite of the fact that private landlords are subsidized by taxpayers – that’s you and me – to the tune of £17 billion (housing benefit) 1 in 3 private rental accommodations don’t meet the government’s (pitifully low) standards.

I live in a shed because I am by nature a writer and musician and living in a shed is the only way I have a hope of realizing my dreams and projects. I have wasted more time and tears than I care to count trying to squeeze myself into a square hole. I do not think that only individuals with trust funds should have the chance to be artists. I do not think this would be good for people or for art.

Mainly I live in a shed because Thatcher sold us the narrative of consumerism to pit against the narratives of class and communism, which did not serve her. (Just like she sold the council houses, often in job lots to cronies who went on to become millionaire private landlords.)

It is true that our homes represent our selves in material form. But the important, creative link between home and selfhood has been hijacked and monetized by consumerist ideology. Our  nests reduced to disposable nest-eggs. Instead of telling the world something about who we are, in myriad intriguing ways, our houses try to tell the world how much we are worth. The bigger the house, the more worthwhile the person. But this is a childish waste of life. Logically speaking, we can never be worth more or less than anybody else, no matter how big our houses are, no matter if we call ourselves the Sultan of Brunei or the prat from Chipping Norton.

I live in a shed because I hate consumerism with a visceral, seething, spitting hatred. It threatens the ground beneath my feet, the stars in my eyes, the salt on my tongue, the futures of my sisters’ children and everything else that I love with all my heart.

This housing crisis is a symbolic manifestation – a cancerous symptom – of consumerist ideology. Housing is not just an economic problem. It is an existential problem.

‘The effect of focusing on the house as consumer commodity has an effect on the social structure as a whole’ writes Jessie Hohmann. ‘Housing is important in the formation and protection of identity, community and place in the world.’

Housing is central to an ideological debate that needs to rage and rage, because when we lose our place in the world we lose everything. We forget that we belong here, to this green and gold and lovely planet, and behave like angry squatters, shitting on our own doorstep.

But we do belong, literally, with every cell in our bodies, as Leonardo Da Vinci neatly observed nearly 600 years ago – ‘Man is called by the ancients a world in miniature and certainly this name is well applied, for just as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, so is the body of the earth’.

Which is something I have experienced first-hand, through living in a shed. So listen up, because I’m going to sing you a whole new song.

For a more lyrical shedlife extract please visit Dark Mountain.net

Moments

scots-pines

Thanks to an award from the Society of Authors worth six months of gardening, I am donating most of my present moments to writing about the shed and other shed-related issues; ecological obliteration, the housing crisis, stars.

I’ve been animal sitting among snow-covered mountains on a remote hillock topped with a few dozen tall and bendy Scots pines. The pines shield me from the worst of the weather and harbor owls and kites. There’s a windmill and a hammock and horses to ride.

I was sitting by the stove, feeling the ache of time passing and cuddling the kitten, when this poem arrived:

 

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 11.35.17

 

Next up on my monkish writing trail is another house, and after that a wooden gazebo in the woods, but on both sides of the house and the gazebo is a stint at the meditation centre.

A few people have mentioned recently that they think meditation is self-indulgent. I have wondered if they were right. But last night I watched the startlingly good BBC film Bitter Lake and I knew they were wrong. As Schumacher wrote, way back before most of the things in the film had even happened:

‘Where can one find the strength to go on working against such obviously appalling odds? What’s more: where can one find the strength to overcome the violence of greed, hate and lust within oneself?’

Some other people have said that they think meditation is boring. I get that. I have also been conditioned by Twitter to have the attention span of a goldfish. All the more reason to meditate. Sit down. Shut up. Stop buying stuff. Reverse the awfulness of Bitter Lake.

Plus, I increasingly consider boredom a failure of my own mind. As Geoff Dyer puts it:

‘Often when you’re bored, it’s that friction between you and time.’

The older I get, the more I want to learn to live in time. The more we run away from time the more time runs away from us, but moments fully embraced seem to stretch time. As Nadine Stair wrote in another poem, when she was 85:

Oh, I have had my moments
  And if I had it to do over again, I'd have more of them.
        In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. 
	   Just moments,one after another.
      Instead of living so many years ahead each day.

Poems, like kittens, only appear when we’re sitting quietly doing nothing. Violence, on the other hand, requires blind and furious action.

Art of Place

Dominic ClareI am in Wales, staying in a town full of writers and environmentalists. Specifically, I am staying with Jay Griffiths, looking after her cats while she is talking about Time at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and then talking about Frida Kahlo in Stornoway. The world turns in mysterious ways. Years ago I used to download music from the Smithsonian Institute’s vast library of sounds. Guadeloupe accordions, Dirty Jazz from Down South, Cubanismo from the Congo. Record labels have caught on and started making compilations from the archives, but you can still go there and get lost at your leisure with nobody trying to make you buy anything. I read Jay’s book Wild when I was on Lewis in 2012 and have been recommending it to everyone I meet ever since. Then I met Jay, earlier this year, and somehow that turned into a winter of empty Welsh houses to write my next book in, and make some home recordings of some new songs to tide me over until the next record. So here I am in Wales in this town full of writers and environmentalists. One of them is George Marshall, who has just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It, which attempts to examine the psychology of climate change denial and why nothing is changing, even though we all know (don’t we?) that it’s only a matter of time before the Titanic sinks and we all go down with it. So sane people are grieving for the trees and the skylarks and the vanishing places they love, and everyone else is watching TV….. or surfing. Last weekend there was swell. I drove to a funny little town called Borth, and surfed some funny little waves, and then I drove up the windswept coast and before I knew it I was in Snowdonia, parked up in a little valley near where I was born. I rambled around in the wet mountains for a couple of days and on my last day I went to visit a sculptor called Dominic Clare. Clare once trained with David Nash, who is responsible for my all-time favourite artwork. If you ever get the chance to see the film, seize it. I took some photos in Dominic Clare’s garden and wrote some stuff about his wood-carvings, which you can find here. It’s the first of a new column I am doing for Toast Travels called Art of Place.

Bookshelf #2 Paul Kingsnorth

wake 1

I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month (or six months…) I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. This month it is the turn of Paul Kingsnorth, whose first novel, The Wake, is easily the best book I have read this year.

when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag

and the stag saes thu will nefer be free

then when will angland be free

angland will nefer be free

then what can be done

naht can be done

then how moste i lif

thu moste be triewe that is all there is

be triewe

be triewe

At university we had to do a paper on ‘Englishness’. I found it very difficult. While I could talk about Wales or Cornwall with a semblance of pride and love and dignity, I was lost for words when it came to England. The England I knew was a place of clone towns and creeping suburbs. The England I read about was responsible for slavery and colonialism and class. I could not identify with England. Was this because there was so little of England left?

When physical landscapes are desecrated, our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively, is weakened

for man tacs on the ways of the place he is in

The hostile takeover of England’s cultural landscape is familiar territory for Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Real England; The Battle against the Bland (2008) is essential reading for anyone who weeps at the sight of a vast new supermarket on the outskirts of their hometown.

In his latest book, which was crowd-funded on Unbound and then longlisted for the Booker prize, Paul Kingsnorth goes back to the roots of his obsession, confronting the original hostile takeover of England’s physical landscapes. In 1066 a marauding army arrived on our shores, raping and murdering and burning villages, turning locals into slaves and forcing people to pay for access to their own land, a norm that has persisted ever since

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

Hung carefully on the little-known facts of a doomed guerilla uprising that took root in the years following the Norman Conquest, The Wake is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland in a ‘shadow tongue’ loosely based on Old English. The language takes a bit of getting used to, but the purpose of it is clear – this is Buccmaster’s story, and his meanings are framed in his language, as all meanings must be. To impose our own tongue on Buccmaster would be to saddle him with our own meanings, and therefore miss his triewthe.

What emerges, however, and all the stronger for it, is that Buccmaster’s triewthe is very much our truth. His deeply emotional responses and psychological complexity are as modern as they come, and the strangeness of the language only serves to emphasise that this is as much a book about what it means to be human as it is about specific historical events. The past illuminates the present. The connection between landscape and identity, the desire for autonomy, the need for privacy, the aftermath of war and the nature of freedom are themes that dominate Buccmaster’s reality and our headlines. As all good art should, The Wake forced me to look at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens, encouraging a re-assessment of my assumptions.

Buccmaster is no hero. A deeply flawed and unreliable narrator, he says ‘fucc’ and ‘cunt’ a lot, beats his wife, talks to trees, considers himself a ‘ceosen’ one, looks down on his inferiors and frequently runs away from battles, yet his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent egoistic insecurity reverberate down the centuries. He makes total sense. His complete identification with the land he belongs to, his overwhelming sense of ownership and place, his hatred of being controlled, his love of freedom, all rang true. His story felt like my story. For both of us (I suspect for all of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to the outdoors as children) the land that brings us up becomes a kind of parent-substitute, and the loss of it is akin to the loss of our parents. Not something you recover from easily, if ever.

Buccmaster’s trust in the ‘auld gods’ of the trees and the fens brings him shame and ridicule in the context of recently-imported Christianity. As readers we are invited to examine what we know deep down to be true, and notice the ways in which our own truth conflicts with what we are told to be true by those who are occupying not just our physical landscapes but also our cultural landscapes.

With the loss of our land it becomes hard to hear ourselves think. Our sense of self is weakened, we become vulnerable to occupation

in the tuns all is so great and blaec and there is so micel sound that no man can be free or triewe

All very handy for market fundamentalism, England’s current despotic ‘cyng’.

As the title suggests, The Wake does not have a happy ending. And yet I felt uplifted and hopeful when I reached the end. Like a postcard from a long-lost love, the only one who ever understood me, arriving just in time, just before I jumped. For

a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years

and England is still weeping.

But still, and it is good to be reminded,

thu moste be triewe.

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry. The Wake is his first novel. He is a founder member of dark-mountain.net – a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.

The Droving Project

cat drove 1While I was in Scotland this August I took part in a cattle drove. Brain-child of Katch Holmes, who runs the infamous Knockengorroch World Ceilidh, the drove was essentially an art project, designed to raise questions about the relationship between rural and urban culture. Toast Travels were kind enough to publish my writing about it, which will also feature in an exhibition of Alice Myers‘ photography, which opens on 9 October 2014 at the Doon Valley Museum in Dalmellington. It’s worth checking out The Droving Project website.