Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

History lessons

I went on a school trip yesterday, accompanying Ilse’s class on a visit to Fairfax House and a walking tour of the centre of York. It’s a Georgian town house, built by the Viscount Fairfax for his daughter Anne. Sumptuous and elegant, the upper floors of the house hold clues to the family’s Catholicism in dangerous times: scrolls of parchment in the plaster, ironwork roses in the balustrade, and, in the privacy of the four poster beds, crucifixes watching over the family as they slept.

Of all its treasures I love the textiles most of all. There are chintz hangings on the beds, and damask ‘papers’ on the walls. The conservators found fragments of Chinoiserie birds and plants adorning the walls of the lady’s bedroom, and had the company, which still exists, hand block the same design so that, standing in that space, you can see what she did, all those years ago.

The salon, with its crimson silks on walls and furniture, reminds me of Jane Eyre’s Red Room more than anything, even though it is a place for cards and socialising instead of sleep. On such a hot day the stuffiness seemed to concentrate itself in there, and although the keyboards and stucco were truly fascinating, I did wonder whether I, like Jane, might find it all a bit too much. It is a house built for winter warmth, with very little in the way of friendly draughts, and it was with some relief that we headed out into the fresh air of the pavements, in search of a patch of shade.

In a city like York, inhabited by Vikings and Romans, capital of England for one short season, home to the chocolate empires of the Quaker elite, you expect there to be history under your feet, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how much the area around the castle had changed since Georgian times. Who knew that Clifford’s Tower, the site of such anguish, once masqueraded as a folly in a wealthy gentleman’s garden? Or that the courts, so imposing, are a vestige of a fortress built by the Victorians to keep undesirables under lock and key? I certainly didn’t. I imagined that the ancient parts of town had always looked like that, just with the rest of the castle complex where the modern tea shops stand. I learned a huge amount, despite the heat, about the assumptions that I make.

We were all rather hot and sticky when we arrived home, pedalling in from our disparate starting points. Tea was a simple affair: bread and butter and gooseberry jam. No scones or anything I’d need to light the stove for. It was during this meal, on a rug in a shady patch of lawn, that I decided that supper would be of the same, cold, variety, so once the plates were cleared I took my basket to the shops for some cheese and ham and other simple things. Waiting my turn to be served, I had to wonder what this little building was before it became a grocers, and what the Georgians might have popped out for if they were too hot to cook. Oysters, perhaps, or pies. And I wondered what the choices might be in a hundred years time – foods not even dreamt of yet: the marmite and cocoa of future generations. History isn’t just in books, especially in a city like this. It’s under our feet, and in the empty spaces where buildings used to stand, and in the foods we eat.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.

Freewheeling

John has been trying to persuade me to buy a new bicycle for ages; last week he won the argument.

My final ride on my old cycle was to the station. The chain fell off, again, but once it was back on the pedals jammed. I used all my know-how: peering at it, telling it off and prodding it a bit. Then I decided to focus on catching my train. I ran up the hills, pushing, and jumped on to freewheel down the other side. I leapt into the nearest compartment just as the guard was blowing the whistle.

That evening I wheeled it all the long way home, confident that John or Ben would be able to work their magic on it and coax a little more life out of the old girl, but they took one look and shook their heads. It was time for a replacement.

This is the first new bicycle I have had since I was a child. It is exactly the cycle I wanted: with a big basket and dynamo lights, a ding dong bell and the Sturmey Archer gears that are so perfect for the low hills of York.

It’s hard to overestimate the difference that it has made to my life. It has set me free again. Just one week of being confined to tram timetables, or making lengthy trudges, has reminded me of how much freedom there is in a bike. Bicycles are relatively inexpensive, and cheap to maintain. Each journey can begin and end wherever you like and will, by default, lift your spirits. Best of all, though, is that feeling of whizzing downhill, which makes little ones squeal with glee and big brothers put their hands, nonchalantly, in their pockets.

If I could choose just one luxury for each of my children to own, it would be a bicycle. Forget box brownies and gramophones and wireless sets. Give them a bicycle and you give them their freedom and independence. Teach them to maintain it and you give them a not-to-be-sniffed-at source of pocket money, too. All four of our children cycle, just like John and I. Ilse, watching the others from the luggage rack behind me, was the keenest to graduate to her own set of wheels. We bought her a brand new machine of her very own, as there wasn’t a hand me down small enough, and she has pedalled at my side ever since.

So far I’ve cycled over to visit Mother and Father, and to meet the children after school in our favourite tea shop. I’ve dashed to the grocer’s to buy cheese for a supper cheese and onion pie. I’ve enjoyed a sunny afternoon coasting along country lanes. I’ve pedalled past mothers with perambulators and queues of old ladies at bus stops, and I’ve made up my mind. If I am lucky enough to grow old, old enough to be afraid of falling, I will buy a pair of tricycles, one for me and one for a toddling grandchild, and teach them how to ride it.

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