Tag Archives: freedom

Splintering: EU Referendum

splintering

 

When I was seventeen I felt that things were spiralling out of control. The world was big and I was young and insecure and there was too much suffering and too many problems. I’d always found schoolwork easy, but these problems were something else. I couldn’t even understand them, let alone solve them. In my panic and distress I searched for a solution. I found one in the pages of Cosmopolitan and Elle. The solution was to stop eating. For a while it worked. My strict (if random) policies concerning what could and couldn’t come in and out of my body (pickled beetroot yes, bananas no) stopped time in its tracks. Instead of growing up I went backwards, towards the golden age of childhood where things were black and white and I was small and infertile and my parents were benign dictators rather than ordinary humans with more than their fair share of difficulties. I didn’t have to go out. I didn’t have to meet new people. I didn’t have to grow up. So long as I could control my borders I could stay safe. The world couldn’t reject me if I rejected it first.

Anorexia nearly killed me. The ensuing decade of bulimia nearly broke me. In the end I (almost) recovered. Physically I’m strong and healthy. Psychologically I’m scarred. Ultimately it was pointless. I still had to grow up. I still had to be the shape I am. I still had to risk rejection and live among other people and face up to suffering and engage in politics and fail and fail again and be subject to the uncontrollable tides of time and fate and life.

I was searching for a way to understand the desire for Brexit when I remembered my experience of anorexia. I remembered the searing anxiety that was the result of a perceived loss of control. It was my identity that was slipping. My sense of who I thought I was and how I fitted into the world. I remembered how I was prepared to kill myself rather than surrender to things I didn’t understand. I remembered how afraid I was of myself and of other people and of change.

Cosmopolitan and Elle were in the right place at a dark time, playing to my deepest fears and insecurities, promising that if I followed their diets and wore their clothes and stuck to their rules about how to conduct my relationships then I would be happy. What I didn’t know then was that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle didn’t give a fig about my happiness. They cared about selling magazines and making money.

This EU debate is full of quackery and confusion. For every statistic there’s a counter-statistic. Both sides feature men and women known for telling lies. Rupert Murdoch is in charge of propaganda.

Confusion is fertile ground for manipulation. In the same way that the editors of Cosmopolitan and Elle knew I was lost and sad and insecure and hated the changes happening to my body, so the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson know perfectly well that we as a country are lost and sad and insecure and hate the changes happening to our communities. They know we want to kick something, and for reasons as transparent as they are despicable, they want that thing to be the EU. It’s like pointing at the sky while you’re picking someone’s pocket. Or stealing their children’s future.

We’re told to worry about democracy in the EU when our current government was elected on 24% of the eligible vote and are currently being investigated for electoral fraud by twenty police forces. We’ve got an unelected House of Lords flush with the likes of Sir Philip Green, who is currently refusing to be questioned by elected MPs about the gaping hole in the pension fund of BHS. We’ve got an unelected head of state that costs the taxpayer more by far than our gross contribution to the EU, even if it was as much as the leave campaign say it is, which it isn’t.

We’re told to worry about migrants claiming benefits when in fact there are more UK citizens claiming benefits in other European countries than there are people from other European countries claiming benefits in the UK.

We’re told we can ‘take back control’ when in fact that’s impossible. In practical terms it’s impossible – if we want free trade we’ll have to accept free movement. In metaphysical terms it’s impossible. There is no such thing as control. There’s no such thing as security. This is not that type of world. The best we can hope for is the relative security of peace and a healthy planet and knowing that we can call on our friends and neighbours if we need them, and that they can call on us.

I could go on, but the lies are so many and so varied that I could go on all day and I still wouldn’t have got to the bottom of them. And it’s pointless anyway, because we’re voting for a future that hasn’t happened yet. The Channel 4 sitcom ‘Power Monkeys’ articulates it perfectly: ‘People who don’t know what’s going to happen are asking people who don’t understand what’s happening a question to which no-one knows the answer.’

It’s tempting to shrug and walk away. But we can’t. Not if we care about our future. And I believe we owe it to all the people who have died fighting for the freedom to live to care about our future. We have to find an answer. Somehow, in spite of all the egos and the lies and the vague and waffly statements about sovereignty and democracy and taking back control we have to find an answer.

I used my imagination to recover from anorexia and its long and debilitating hangover. I used imagination to escape the horrors of the present and imagine a better future. I imagined the kind of person I wanted to be. I imagined the kind of world I wanted to live in. I made books of pictures and affirmations. I worked out what mattered. I challenged my fears. I failed. I tried again. I failed again. I kept trying. I’m not there yet. I’m nowhere near. But I know I’m going in the right direction and I know I’ll keep on walking.

That’s what this debate is about. It’s not about whether the EU is perfect. It’s about whether we’re going in the right direction and whether we’ll keep on walking.

In deciding how to cast my vote I tried to ignore the hysterical screaming about the economy and immigration. The lurching (on both sides) from greed to xenophobia and back again. I remembered how I got over the fear and hysteria of anorexia and I re-imagined the kind of future I wanted for myself. And I imagined the kind future I wanted for my sisters’ children. I went back to basics and tried to think about what actually matters. To me. And then I held it up against each side and easily found my answer.

The EU was set up after centuries of deadly violence as a way of keeping the peace. Far-right groups and Putin are in favour of Brexit. Northern Ireland is worried about it. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to start fighting. I want peace to be part of my future.

The EU gives me the right to live, love, work, buy a house, get free healthcare and retire in any of twenty eight member states. I don’t want my choices to be limited. I want freedom of movement to be part of my future.

The EU protects wild birds, especially the ones at risk of extinction: ‘Member States must designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the survival of threatened species and all migratory birds. Hunting periods are limited and hunting is forbidden when birds are at their most vulnerable. Activities that directly threaten birds, such as their deliberate killing, capture or trade, or the destruction of their nests, are banned. Member States must outlaw all forms of non-selective and large scale killing of birds.’

You might hope the UK government would honour these protections if we left the EU, but there’s every reason to doubt it: ‘The Birds and Habitats Directive would go’ declared George Eustice (environment minister and MP for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle) describing this and other conservation tools as ‘spirit-crushing.’

I don’t agree that conservation directives are spirit-crushing. I want birds to be part of my future.

The EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ scheme protects Dartmoor, Snowdonia and the Lake District. Environmentalists are afraid of a developmental free-for-all in the event of a Brexit. In Welsh, Snowdonia is Eryri, which means Land of the Eagles. I want the Land of the Eagles to be part of my future.

The EU stands up for worker’s rights, so that no matter who is in power we are protected. In 1982, for example, the EU sued the British government for failing to comply with the Equal Pay Act. I want worker’s rights to be part of my future.

The EU invented fishing quotas.

Fishing quotas are a good example of the public being misled about the way the EU actually works. We’re led to believe that fishing quotas are handed down from Brussles by unelected bureaucrats with a much greater sense of loyalty to countries like France and Spain than the UK. In fact fishing quotas are decided by a council of ministers, including our own (elected) fisheries minister. Far from being snubbed, the UK usually gets the second-highest fishing quota of all the member states. It’s the UK government who’s responsible for distributing the quota. Greenpeace are currently using EU law to sue the UK government for failing to allocate fair fishing quotas to small-scale, low-impact vessels. It’s worth remembering that fishing quotas were brought in to tackle the problems caused by decades of overfishing. In terms of recovering fish stocks, they seem to be working. Like birds, fish don’t have passports. A co-ordinated response is required. Without a common policy it’s a race to the bottom to see who can catch all the fish before the fish run out. I want fish to be part of my future.

The EU has forced us to clean up our oceans and our beaches. When I was a child and swimming at the wrong tide I’d get caught in a slick of raw sewage. I don’t want raw sewage to be part of my future.

The Common Agricultural Policy includes money towards rural development and stewardship schemes. Farmers are paid to help protect the environment. Under EU law, England is free to cut subsidies to big farmers and give more subsidies to smaller farmers and environmental schemes. It hasn’t bothered. In the words of James Meek this suggests that: ‘Brexit would return the country to pre-EEC days of duty-free imports and subsidised farmers, but with many fewer small farms, and fewer obstacles to the expansion of large-scale, mechanised, chemical farming.’

These are the things I care about. And for these reasons (and many others) I’m voting to remain.

The EU gets it wrong. It’s clunky and bureaucratic and annoying. It’s weird and distant and happens in Brussels, of all places, where nobody’s ever been. It’s a work in progress. And a project in crisis. Flooded with refugees and reeling from the 2008 meltdown, which was caused by the banks – many of them based in the City of London – and paid for by the people. But the EU is us. It was formed at least partly in our image. We were part of its conception and we continue to shape its future. The problems we face today, from terrorism to climate change to fish to birds to TTIP, are best faced together. This is not the time to double down and go smaller. Trust me, it doesn’t work.

We need to be the change we want to see, stand up and be counted, take our seat at the table and grow. 

Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the principles members of the European Union have to abide by:

‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’

Britain is one of twenty eight member states who have all agreed to abide by these principles. I’m proud of that. I want these values to be my future.

 

 

Surfing Vs Shopping

Surfing

I hate shopping.

Shopping, and by extension the entire human project of reducing this miraculous home of ours into a giant department store and then looting it, is an exercise in enslavement. Surfing, on the other hand, or anything else that involves surrender to the laws of the non-human – hiking, gardening, mountaineering – is an exercise in freedom.

Freedom is not easy, and it does not make sense. Not like shopping, where you get anti-aging potions in exchange for the flutter of a contactless credit card. Or like war, where goodies kill baddies and then there is peace.

Freedom is awkward and time-consuming and looks a bit sad and deranged, especially when set against the slick marketing of shopping and war.

If you counted up all the hours I have spent trying to catch waves and set them against all the waves I have actually managed to catch and then subtracted all the ones I fell off or messed up you would probably advise me to see a psychiatrist. Especially if I admitted that my addiction to surfing is probably the reason I have never had a nine-to-five, saved for a pension, lived apart from the ocean for longer than six months or travelled anywhere cultural, as opposed to coastal. Don’t even mention children.

In many ways the only difference between an addiction to smack and my addiction to surfing is the fact that it keeps me in rude physical health. If you don’t count the torn ligaments and burned retinas and chillblains and the bones slowly extending over my ear drums to protect them from the piercing winds and the black eyes and the broken nose and the stubbed and bleeding toes.

Under normal circumstances my effort/achievement ratio would be wildly disappointing. But these are not normal circumstances, different rules apply.

Unless I have managed to get myself to the tropics (see burned retinas) surfing is cold, frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. There is nobody watching and nothing to see, nothing to achieve and nothing to win. I am not good enough to go anywhere near a competition and even if I was I wouldn’t go anywhere near one.

I am not interested in supporting the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry that instagram-filters all the life and colour out of the ocean and then tries to sell it back to me as a flashy retro board and an overpriced pair of flip-flops. I can buy the tokens and then spend the rest of my month/year/life working to pay for them whilst watching youtube videos of other people getting barrelled. Or I can put my wallet away and step outside:

Witness the crack of dawn

And through it the effortless sea

And the muffled cry of the killing birds –

This is the way to be free.

Each and every single wave I manage to catch, for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, is a fist in the face of the profit principle and the growth imperative and the oil wars and this idiotic age of consumption that manifests as spiteful billboards and food banks and translatlantic trade agreements and the grief of mass extinction.

‘Our religious and cultural heritage’ writes Barbara Kingsolver, ‘is to deny, for all we’re worth, that we’re in any way connected with the rest of life on earth. We don’t come from it, we’re not part of it; we own it and were put down here to run the place.’

Which is why if I had one wish this Christmas it would be that when everyone was done shopping they could spend a bit of time in no-man’s land – behind the low-tide mark, above the snowline, beneath the soil – to feel the blessed relief of knowing we do not own it and we were not put here to run the place and we are connected with the rest of Life on Earth. Life on Earth is frustrating, sometimes frightening, occasionally miraculous, going nowhere. It is not for sale and it does not make sense. The gift (and the exercise) is in accepting.

As Gary Snyder pointed out:

‘To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.’

See you in there.

Panamania – Gnarly Goggles

This footage was shot by Becky after a day surfing on the Isla Burica, a desert island in the far north of Panama. It comes with a song from the Ribbons EP about the upside of heartbreak, and it comes with a story about fear.

Stumbling through the jungle looking for a place to sleep, we find a chicken hanging upside down off a makeshift clothesline, squawking. The chicken seems to belong to a couple of grass-roofed huts. I’m guessing it’s dinner. A couple of horses are tethered nearby. The whole thing is like something out of Tribe – apart from the surfboards.

The surfboards, which are newer than ours, belong to a pair of sexy, dark-skinned brothers. They tell us about the mythical wave we’ve come to surf – a fast right that breaks over rocks on the far side of an uninhabited island that sits half a mile offshore, guarding the unmanned coastal border between Panama and Costa Rica. Meeting the brothers is a stroke of luck. We expected to have to paddle across the channel, but they offer us a ride in their inflatable canoe. We arrange to meet them at dawn.

It’s dawn. I feel sick. This might be because all I’ve consumed is very strong black coffee, brewed like porridge over a driftwood fire. Or it might be exhaustion due to the massively effortful journey to get here. A two-day hike from the Caribbean to the Pacific involving several boats, four increasingly decrepit collectivos, one night in the Pension Balboa (named after the local beer) overlooking an all-night bar specializing in ear-splitting Reggaeton (I spent most of the sleepless hours watching staggering drunks try to mount their long-suffering horses), another collectivo (zero suspension), a very painful two-hour walk in the midday heat through the jungle with boards, backpacks and enough food to last a week, the chance encounter with the brothers, a sleepless night in a hammock wondering if those very strange lights out at sea are drug boats (apparently we are camping in a clearing recently vacated by police looking to catch human mules heading north on foot), and the twenty minute trip across the channel in the squashy inflatable, our four surfboards floating behind us, chained together by their leashes.

I am scared before I even see the wave. This is partly because of its mystery – it’s not on Magic Seaweed or in the Stormrider – and partly because of the hyped-up way the brothers are talking about it. They’re saying it’s a big day, although the channel itself is sheltered from swell, which is why we have to go to the island. I am convinced I won’t be able to handle it. Sure enough, when we finally get close enough I see exactly what I was expecting to see – a hideously hollow wave, full of rocks, and closing out on the bigger sets, which are too big for me. The brothers are amped. They slip and slide over the rocks, wait for a gap between sets long enough to allow them to jump in and paddle maniacally out of the danger zone.

‘Nice little right’ says Becky.

Becky’s brain is wired up differently to mine. This is why surfing with her is so much fun. It’s also why it’s frequently so terrifying.

Panic-stricken, I search for a place to paddle out that does not involve rocks and danger zones.  I don’t see any. This island is made of rocks. Nothing but rocks. And dense coconut forest, and crabs. Not friendly hermit crabs dressed in bottle tops, either, but weird black jumping crabs that hurl themselves through the air like batman, clearing distances upwards of two feet in a nanosecond. I don’t like these crabs. They’re inhuman. I don’t like this island. I don’t like this trip. Life is shit. I want to go home. I want to go home and sit in my shed and watch TV and be safe. But I can’t. It’s too late. I’ve come too far.

I look around for Becky. I’m going to suggest we walk a bit, look for a nicer wave, sack it off. But she’s already gone, slipping and sliding over the rocks like the brothers, falling, dropping her board, picking herself up. One of the brothers manages a very steep take-off and gets a  long ride back to the rocks. He waves at Becky, who is already paddling out. I am still standing rooted to the spot, feeling sick.

These days my life seems to be full of moments like this. Moments where I find myself in a situation so far out of my comfort zone it’s almost funny. Posting things I’ve written, standing up in front of people and singing songs I’ve made, reading from my book in public, dealing with the rejection and failure that comes with being alive and not hiding in my shed watching TV.

Often I’m a pussy. I duck out of waves, miss opportunities, don’t make phone calls. But sometimes I’m not a pussy, and that’s how I’ve finally learned something big and slightly embarrassing.

It’s not life. It’s ME. I’m wearing GNARLY GOGGLES.

I did paddle out that day, and I didn’t die. In fact, as soon as I started focusing on the task in hand rather than the monsters in my mind, I started enjoying myself.

‘Nice little right’ I shouted over to Becky.

I will be singing at the Shine On festival in Totnes on Sunday. A nice little festival. I plan to leave the gnarly goggles at home and enjoy myself. Watch this space.

Free Women have more Fun

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Last week, after spending the weekend getting paid to play records all night in a packed tent with three of my best friends, I borrowed a phrase from Naomi Wolf’s classic The Beauty Myth (‘Free women have more fun’) and stuck it up as my facecrack cover picture. I felt blessed. I enjoy a level of freedom previously unknown to man, and I have a lot of fun.

But as the week went by I got to thinking about what I actually meant by identifying myself with this quote. I got to thinking about freedom.

Freedom is one of those complicated concepts, like fun, that means different things to different people. I happen to be single and childless, but that doesn’t mean married people and parents can’t be free and have fun. I happen to be a woman, but that doesn’t mean men can’t be free and have fun. In fact, the whole quote reads ‘Free women have more fun. Worse, so do free men.’

Why worse?

In The Beauty Myth (published in 1991) Naomi Wolf uses the context of feminism and the diet industry to argue that free people having fun are a danger to society.

Twenty three years later, here’s why I think free people having fun are a danger to society:

1. We spend our money on things we want, rather than on things we’re told to want

2. We’re not afraid of loss and change

3. We know when we have enough and when we have enough we stop working

4. We believe cosmetics are a con

5. We wear lipstick for fun

6. We do not think that all women should look like teenage girls

7. We do not waste our short lives in a desperate attempt to look like teenage girls

8. Sometimes we play loud music and dance like we’re having sex

9. We understand and accept that we will grow old and die

10. We are excellent foragers

Freedom depends on accepting things as they are and enjoying ourselves as we are. Which is never going to sit well with consumer capitalism, which depends on creating dissatisfaction and then selling things that promise to make it better.

In my twenties, desperate to fit in, I was a good little mad person – bulimic, anorexic, depressed, addicted, anxious, overworked, too thin, too fat, bored shitless, broke and desperate. Ripe for manipulation.

Then I fell apart, which was lucky, because I got to put myself back together again on my own terms.

And now I am (relatively) free. Which is not easy, because I have to think for myself ALL THE BLOODY TIME.

But it does mean that I have a lot more fun.

I will be singing songs about love and freedom in the Acorn, Penzance this Saturday (17th May) in support of Rodney Branigan and Tim Snider. I reckon it will be quite fun.