Monday, 22 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 3 Mary’s Materials

This is the third of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

 In the last post I explored some of the environmental and social problems caused by the production of Hugo’s jumper and focused on the manufacture of cotton, nylon and wool from large-scale farms. It was a rather gloomy, but necessary, post. This time though we are going to explore the materials that Mary used and few she could have – its much more positive and forward looking article…

Mary’s jumper is made from local undyed organic wool, it has travelled from a field in the village (via the sheerer who worked at the farm) and has been washed in nothing more than soap and water. 

I am aware that this sounds a little idealistic and pastoral. How convenient that Mary lives next to an organic farm that happens to keep sheep that produce wool suitable for spinning and knitting into a jumper. And yet, is it really so impossible to imagine, at least for those living in rural areas? At the moment in Britain most sheep are breed entirely for meat, with wool being a secondary low value product, but this wasn’t always the case and several traditional breeds were dual purpose, for meat and fleece and even possibly dairy too.

The British wool trade has improved since 2008 when farmers were setting fire to their fleeces, because the low prices meant it wasn’t worth handling and transporting them for sale. Prices for this year are four-fold what they were then, but the quality of the wool is deemed by buyers to be only suitable for carpet making and that’s where 75% of British wool ends up.

And yet what I am suggesting isn’t simply pie in the sky; of course there is a historical precedent, but actually today you can buy organic, British yarns made from the most beautiful British wool and you can even get them dyed with organic dyes into range of colours. Likewise we have access to a number of animal fibres, such alpaca and angora, all produced in natural and humane conditions here in the UK, and this will be true in many countries throughout the world; there are local, sustainable alternatives to mass-produced wool. But these things cannot exist in a vacuum; no one will raise a flock of the finest wool-producing sheep using natural farming methods, if everyone is getting their wool from cheap intensive operations abroad. 

That said, it is important to accept that it is possible to have very poor welfare conditions on a local farm as it is on one far away. However, by buying as local as possible you have a greater chance of being able to assess the welfare conditions of the animals you are buying the wool from, either through direct personal contact, media or animal welfare charity reports or by looking for certifications (e.g. organic). The other important point is that in most countries there are also democratic and political routes to improving and monitoring welfare and so you can have a say in the conditions which form farm practice and law, if you purchase from the country in which you reside and have voting rights.

A slight side track, but if Mary couldn’t afford natural, local wool or was unable to get it, she could have used recycled wool. Almost any jumper or other knitted item can be unpicked fairly easily and the wool rewound to provide a good knitting or weaving yarn. If you get a larger jumper size than you are, even with the inevitable waste, you should have enough for a new one.

Of course it isn’t only wool that we are able to produce in Britain, there are a range of fibre producing plants that grow in our conditions. Flax (linen) is perhaps the most obvious and again this is a traditional material that was grown, spun and woven across Britain, often on a very small scale, requiring none or very little of of the pesticides and excessive water that cotton does. This is entirely possible again and there are small organisations and companies that are providing training and access to the tools to help revitalise the production and use of linen.

Even more than flax, hemp is being rediscovered as a commercial crop. In the C16th it was considered so vital to the British economy that Henry VIII passed a law stating that farmers had to grow a quarter acre for every 60 acres of arable land they owned. In China they have never stopped growing it and have a 6000-year history of production. Part of the problem has been the confusion between the innocuous hemp plant and the related cannabis plant – a confusion that still exists in Britain today where you need a licence from the Government to grow it. 

Hemp has deep taproots that penetrate down into the subsoil, drawing up nutrients and moisture. That means it requires none of the intensive watering of cotton and, when it is harvested, the roots rot down, increasing the humus and nutrient levels in the topsoil. Because it grows so fast it out performs weeds and therefore requires little or no herbicide. The outer shell, which is removed during the process of fibre extraction, can be used to make logs for wood burners – the ash of which provides a valuable plant food for the garden.

 Again this isn’t some fanciful dream, you can buy today hemp yarn, material and products. Even if, at the moment, this isn’t grown in the UK (although often it is EU produced) this is a huge improvement over cotton, the production of which causes so many problems.

Finally there is one plant that grows like a weed (because it is) and yet can also be used to make fibre; nettles. A few years ago there was quite a bit of discussion about the possible use of nettle fibre and De Montfort University had worked on some government funded research, as well as producing some example pieces of clothing. Since then the hype seems to have quietened down a bit and the only real world product as far as I can tell is a 75% wool and 25% nettle fabric produced by Camira in England. Nettle has less fibre content than say hemp or linen, but it is a very fine fibre and could potentially make a good yarn. There is also the added benefit that it is able to provide multiple products from one harvest, such as sugar, animal bedding and leaves for human consumption and, as everyone who has ever had a garden or allotment knows, it grows quite well in this country, with no pesticide, herbicide or fertiliser required. There is a fair bit of historical use to draw on (even as recent as the second world war) and surely this plant deserves more research and experimentation.  

There is no point in pretending that swapping to locally produced, sustainable materials is going to be as easy as it should be, but it is possible – not just in the future – but in the here and now. Mary could indeed knit herself a jumper from organic wool, even if she chose not to spin it and instead bought in the yarn. Likewise, many of the alternatives, such as flax, hemp and nettle provide fantastic opportunities for experimentation and discovery, even in a home or small group environment – the results of which could genuinely be new and should be shared with others. So why not go on a course to learn how to grow and spin flax? You know that patch at the bottom of the allotment that you never get around to weeding, well why not try growing some there? Perhaps get some hemp fibre and have a go at spinning it on a drop spindle or do up a chair with the 25% nettle fabric? Or simply buy in some organic wool and crochet a hat. You may not be able to make enough to clothe the whole family, but the possibilities are enormous and the discovery is half the fun, and every success you do have could make a huge difference to someone you’ll never meet.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 2 Hugo’s Materials

This is the second of my posts looking in more depth at The Foolishness of Craft, a story that explores the impact of global production and suggests a more local, sustainable alternative. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Hugo’s Materials 

The materials that Hugo’s jumper is made of are a little more complex and the main material is cotton (60%)… 

It’s not for nothing that cotton has been called ‘The Worlds Dirtiest Crop’ and the shear scale of the environmental, health and social impacts are hard to take in. To start with, think of the number of items in your home that are made from it; bedding, towels, curtains, clothing, tea towels, dishcloths, furniture coverings, cotton wool - the list goes on and on. In fact cotton farming covers 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land. Of course that’s not an even distribution – I don’t see much of it growing here in Britain, despite the fact that Europe accounts for 20% of global cotton consumption – instead 75% of world production is grown in the developing world by 99% of all cotton farmers.

So why is it is so dirty? Conventional cotton growth uses a lot of pesticides, 16% of the worlds total release in fact, and these are some of the most hazardous pesticides ever produced. In India, where a third of all global cotton is grown, cotton accounts for 5% of land cultivated, but uses 54% of all pesticides used in the country.  As is mentioned in the story, Aldicarb is so strong that one drop absorbed into the skin can kill a person, despite this in 2003 almost 1 million kilos were applied to cotton grown in the US alone and it is used in 25 other countries throughout the world. The US have now moved to ban it by 2018, but in other countries, where such regulatory framework does not exist, its use will almost certainly continue.

Because of the conditions in the countries it is grown in and the low prices paid for the cotton, farmer workers lack the appropriate equipment and protection to apply pesticides. At least 1 million farm workers require hospitalisation each year with pesticide poisoning, according to WHO. And it’s not just the farmers directly who suffer, as the poisons pollute the land, water, food and air of the local communities. Children are often the first to be affected, as homes are built close to the fields and pesticide containers left lying around or reused. Of course in many countries children are directly involved in the cotton production and help harvest the cotton or even work in the fields whilst spraying is happening.

Cottonseed, more or less a by-product of the cotton industry, is fed to animals and used to make oil, both of which can then contain levels of pesticides, and tests by a university in Poland found them in the cotton clothing itself.

But it is not just pesticides that go into cotton production; it also takes up to 130g of fertiliser to grow 450g of cotton in the US, the production of which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The run off from nitrogen-based fertilisers in particular causes problems with watercourses and wells etc, as it dramatically increases the growth of algae and other water borne plants.

Which brings us neatly on to water usage. It takes around 2,720 litres of water to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt. That’s equivalent to what you or I might drink in 3 years. The Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former volume due cotton production, which is not surprising when you consider that Uzbek cotton farms alone consume over 20km3 of water every year. That is equivalent to the entire domestic usage of Britain (i.e. in homes) for nearly 6½ years. Access to clean water in Uzbekistan has actually fallen from 94% in 1990 to 82% in 2004 and of course a number of countries border the Aral Sea (I mention Kazakhstan in the story) and face similar problems.

Organic cotton is certainly better than conventional and obviously bans the use of pesticides and herbicides. Nonetheless the issues around water usage, monoculture (growing just one plant over a wide area), transportation and low wages remain. 

…30% of the jumper is Nylon… 

It is much harder to obtain concrete independent information on the impact of Nylon production than it is cotton, a point noted by Kate Fletcher in her book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles. Obviously the fact that it is a petro-chemical based material, that is non-biodegradable and that cannot be easily recycled means that it has quite a bit going against it from the outset. The process of manufacture is energy intensive when compared with other materials and also produces high levels of Nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas far more damaging than CO2. Although it is going back a bit, a single Nylon plant here in the UK in the 1990s was thought to have the global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire carbon dioxide emissions. 

Finally, like Mary’s, the jumper is also made of wool (10%)… 

The conditions at the giant ‘wool factories’ in Australia can be quite horrendous and no doubt many people who conscientiously buy free-range eggs and chickens would think again about high street jumpers if they knew the conditions under which the wool was produced. Until recently (June 2012) some sheep were kept in individual pens, 24hrs a day, 7 days a week for up to 5 years. No operator now produces wool under this system, but it is still not illegal and nonetheless many sheep raised for fine wool are housed in groups, indoors at all times and kept hungry, as sheep with a lower body condition produce better wool.

Because of the low welfare conditions and breeding priorities, some sheep are prone to fly strike, this leads farmers to perform an operation around the time of sheering called ‘Mulesing’. Essentially this is removing parts of the sheep’s skin and happens without pain relief. At the very least the industry should be working to get some form of anaesthetic approved, that can used during the procedure. The Australian government had promised to phase out Mulesing by 2010, but under pressure from the industry this pledge was abandoned.

When the wool is ready to be shorn, the speed at which this is done, on a piece payment basis, means that welfare can become second to getting the most sheep through in a day.

At the end of what is considered to be the most productive period for wool, the animals are sold for meat. Clearly Australia doesn’t have sufficient demand for such a large number of animals and so many are sold abroad. It is really hard to find any independent, referenced information on the conditions under which this transportation takes place, most of the commentary comes from vegan websites and it would be nice to find a more independent source. But nonetheless, it is hard to image the live international transportation of animals, in both lorries and ships, happening in very hot countries without welfare issues occurring. One source suggested a death rate of 28%. If anyone does know of serious research or investigative pieces on this, please do get in touch.

The wool is then washed at a high-volume processing plant, using a range of processes to remove effluent, pesticide residues, fat and other waster material. A typical wool-scouring plant can produce as much effluent as a town of 50,000 people and contaminated sludge from global wool production exceeds 930,000 tons annually. Some wool is then treated using a chlorine process to make it smoother and even machine washable. However, this process is so toxic that it is banned in the US, the waste products being deadly at levels below 1 part in a trillion. Nonetheless this processing does take place around the world, on products then imported into the countries that have banned it on their own soil. 

All these materials were then transported from around the world to Bangladesh for spinning together and dying… 

I don’t want to cover transportation too much here, as I would like to do a separate blog exploring localism. For now let us just recognise that these disparate materials need to come together from around the world and be transported to Bangladesh for spinning and dying.

A review of the local press in Bangladesh gives a confusing picture; certainly the government seems to be taking some action on contamination of water by dying effluent, but still one gets the impression that, just as in the rest of the world, mere environmental concerns should never come in the way of economic development.  The Daily Star is buoyant on the possibilities for Bangladesh in its textile industries, but grimly notes at the end of the paragraph that these same factories are ‘are hugely blamed for surface water pollution’. Of course it’s not fair to pick on Bangladesh, The World Bank estimates that 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from the treatment and dying of textiles. Sadly much effort seems to be directed towards removing the colour from the waste water, but not necessarily the actual toxins or heavy metals, making it harder to tell when the water has been treated. Again the dying and processing of fabrics takes quantities of water, particularly soft knitwear like Hugo’s jumper.


 Of course I have chosen here the worse case scenario, although the actual materials and their quantities came from a jumper I picked almost at random from a high end high street retailer. I have not been to Australia, Uzbekistan or Bangladesh in researching this article. I have not witnessed first hand the issues I have written about and I am only presenting the research I have done, bringing it together in one place. Some of the research I would suggest is from very reliable sources, Compassion in World Farming for example, whilst others come from a much more ideological stand point, such as the vegan information on the shipping of livestock.

I am sure that in some places in Australia wool is produced on a large scale commercial basis on farms that that many people would find acceptable. Likewise it is highly probable that some cotton, particularly US and Australian Cotton, is no where near as socially and environmentally damaging as plantations in developing countries. The problem is that often we just don’t know the conditions that a piece of clothing was produced under; it’s hidden behind a façade of glitzy marketing and almost impossible to untangle.

However, for the most part I think the evidence is really the process itself and for me I don’t need further evidence of abuse within the process. To give an example; nylon cannot be sustainable because it’s a plastic made from a finite resource, oil, that cannot easily be recycled. And although it’s important to raise the awareness of incidents of pollution arising from accidents or deliberate toxin release, I don’t need them to know that Nylon is not a good thing. Likewise with transport; you could have the most natural and organic wool farm in Australia, with fabulous welfare conditions, but whilst it’s there and the consumer is in Britain, that’s not a sustainable way of producing clothing. It’s the process itself that is unsustainable, besides any social or environmental abuse within it.

Of course much also rests on what our own view of what is acceptable. I am a vegetarian and so the idea of animals being slaughtered after a long journey is something that concerns me, but a meat eater may say that this is a sensible use of the animal after its useful wool producing life and that to simply kill it on site and not eat it would be a waste.

The other striking point is just how much danger and pollution the west outsources to developing nations. Can you imagine the uproar if the sort of industrial pollution took place in our rivers that dying yarn for our jumpers causes in Bangladesh? Likewise we ask countries to use products and processes that we ban in our own countries, because we deem the effects are too dangerous for our own people.

Just thinking about these issues makes us more sensitive to them and I know from my own experience that quite often once the genie is out of the bottle, once we understand the impact of clothing manufacturing for example, you cannot put it back and it becomes very hard to knowingly support companies that are causing so many global problems.

This has turned into a much longer post than I had anticipated (well done if you are still reading!) and I am aware it’s rather negative. The second half of this, which I have decided to post as a separate blog post perhaps after the weekend, is much more positive and explores Mary’s approach and all the exciting materials we can, and should be, exploring for a more sustainable future.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

King Matthias in Gömör by János Garay (1812-53)

Doing a little research on William Morris' A King's Lesson, which I posted last week, I came across this interesting article by Éva Péteri discussing the historical sources used by Morris. I won't repeat everything she wrote, please do go and read the article if you are interested, but she demonstrates that there are enough similarities between Morris' story and a poem by Hungarian János Garay entitled King Matthias in Gömör to suggest he had access to it, despite the fact that it wasn't translated into English at the time he wrote A King's Lesson and that Morris spoke only a little German - a language it had been published in. The tale is apparently a well known one in Hungary and this poem is simply the most popular mid-nineteenth century rendition of it. Despite this it is still very hard to find in English and so I thought I would publish it here.

 King Matthias in Gömör 

Every one loved King Matthias, when his charger he rode
To victory in all our battles and our enemies bestrode:
In peace his strength made him the velvet couch despise,
He came and went, for his people's good, listening to our cries,

Through Transdanubia, through all our mighty land,
Through the counties of Tisza he waved his judge's wand,
And none who fell before his knees and cried their grief
Went from his court with less than justice and relief.

And last he came to Gömör and held a royal feast,
As is the Magyar custom, from ancient times at least.
Ten thousand toasts were drunk both serious and gay,
The golden wine of Tokay flowed as night was turned to day.

"God damn the bloody Turk, bring Germans to defeat,
May Christ our Saviour lay all Czechs beneath our Champion's feet!"
The warrior toasts were drunk. At last the country's wealth
Was coupled with the cries, "Our good King Matthias' health!"

Alas, when at the end the nobles could drink no more
And when, in silly drunkenness, they fell upon the floor,
One toast they had forgot, "To those who press the wine,
The toiling peasant daylong bending o'er the vine."

"Gentlemen," King Matthias smiled, liking the idea of a joke,
"The workers have toiled all day beneath a heavy yoke
That we might royally feast. 'Tis time we gave them rest.
They shall sit down in our places and drink of the very best."

The king rose from the table, like the sun in midday sky,
"Up, follow me," he cried, "or I'll know the reason why."
The besotted nobles staggered up to fall in with his command,
"Come," he roared laughing, "we go to conquer the land!"

The sun stood still in wonder, wide-eyed the peasants stare
As their mighty king, their Champion, combed out his golden hair,
And wonder more than wonder, no longer the sword and shield
His conquering arm began the humble spade to wield.

But their wonder changed to laughter, when the courtiers they saw,
Full of soft living, the spade making their hands raw.
And while the weak nobles sweated, with anguish filled,
Their Champion, Matthias, more than an acre had tilled.

Oh, the cries that rose from the little men, the sky was rent,
"Release us, O Majesty, from this hard punishment.
None of us fear the sword but, alas, O King, we're afraid
Of this mighty instrument we cannot wield — the peasant's spade."

In the end Kind Matthias relented. Using his spade,
Which he drew from the shining furrow his work had made,
As a royal sceptre, his words and his mien severe,
"Listen, O you fat courtlings, listen to me and hear

This lesson: You now have learned half dead with toil,
That your soft living is founded on this clumpish soil,
That they, who till it and make it yield its crop,
Work till their muscles scream and until they drop.

So, back in your banqueting halls, by riches beset,
Remember my words. When you toast you will not forget
To lift your glasses to lift your hearts and minds
To the vine-dressers, cowherds, the shepherds, and hinds."

In Gömör, thus did King Matthias enhance his noble joke,
Laying upon his people the lightest of heavy yokes,
And so increased their love for him, no sweat was too severe,
That even today they love him, and his mighty name revere. 

By János Garay (1812-53) and translated by James Turner

Source: Makkai, Á (Ed.) (1996) In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary, University of Illnois Press

Sunday, 14 July 2013

A King's Lesson by William Morris

It is told of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary--the Alfred the Great of his time and people--that he once heard (once ONLY?) that some (only SOME, my lad?) of his peasants were over- worked and under-fed. So he sent for his Council, and bade come thereto also some of the mayors of the good towns, and some of the lords of land and their bailiffs, and asked them of the truth thereof; and in diverse ways they all told one and the same tale, how the peasant carles were stout and well able to work and had enough and to spare of meat and drink, seeing that they were but churls; and how if they worked not at the least as hard as they did, it would be ill for them and ill for their lords; for that the more the churl hath the more he asketh; and that when he knoweth wealth, he knoweth the lack of it also, as it fared with our first parents in the Garden of God. The King sat and said but little while they spake, but he misdoubted them that they were liars. So the Council brake up with nothing done; but the King took the matter to heart, being, as kings go, a just man, besides being more valiant than they mostly were, even in the old feudal time. So within two or three days, says the tale, he called together such lords and councillors as he deemed fittest, and bade busk them for a ride; and when they were ready he and they set out, over rough and smooth, decked out in all the glory of attire which was the wont of those days. Thus they rode till they came to some village or thorpe of the peasant folk, and through it to the vineyards where men were working on the sunny southern slopes that went up from the river: my tale does not say whether that were Theiss, or Donau, or what river. Well, I judge it was late spring or early summer, and the vines but just beginning to show their grapes; for the vintage is late in those lands, and some of the grapes are not gathered till the first frosts have touched them, whereby the wine made from them is the stronger and sweeter. Anyhow there were the peasants, men and women, boys and young maidens, toiling and swinking; some hoeing between the vine-rows, some bearing baskets of dung up the steep slopes, some in one way, some in another, labouring for the fruit they should never eat, and the wine they should never drink. Thereto turned the King and got off his horse and began to climb up the stony ridges of the vineyard, and his lords in like manner followed him, wondering in their hearts what was toward; but to the one who was following next after him he turned about and said with a smile, "Yea, lords, this is a new game we are playing to- day, and a new knowledge will come from it." And the lord smiled, but somewhat sourly. 

As for the peasants, great was their fear of those gay and golden lords. I judge that they did not know the King, since it was little likely that any one of them had seen his face; and they knew of him but as the Great Father, the mighty warrior who kept the Turk from harrying their thorpe. Though, forsooth, little matter was it to any man there whether Turk or Magyar was their over-lord, since to one master or another they had to pay the due tale of labouring days in the year, and hard was the livelihood that they earned for themselves on the days when they worked for themselves and their wives and children.

Well, belike they knew not the King; but amidst those rich lords they saw and knew their own lord, and of him they were sore afraid. But nought it availed them to flee away from those strong men and strong horses--they who had been toiling from before the rising of the sun, and now it wanted little more than an hour of noon: besides, with the King and lords was a guard of crossbowmen, who were left the other side of the vineyard wall,--keen-eyed Italians of the mountains, straight shooters of the bolt. So the poor folk fled not; nay they made as if all this were none of their business, and went on with their work. For indeed each man said to himself, "If I be the one that is not slain, to-morrow I shall lack bread if I do not work my hardest to-day; and maybe I shall be headman if some of these be slain and I live."

Now comes the King amongst them and says: "Good fellows, which of you is the headman?"

Spake a man, sturdy and sunburnt, well on in years and grizzled: "I am the headman, lord."

"Give me thy hoe, then," says the King; "for now shall I order this matter myself, since these lords desire a new game, and are fain to work under me at vine-dressing. But do thou stand by me and set me right if I order them wrong: but the rest of you go play!"

The carle knew not what to think, and let the King stand with his hand stretched out, while he looked askance at his own lord and baron, who wagged his head at him grimly as one who says, "Do it, dog!"

Then the carle lets the hoe come into the King's hand; and the King falls to, and orders his lords for vine-dressing, to each his due share of the work: and whiles the carle said yea and whiles nay to his ordering. And then ye should have seen velvet cloaks cast off, and mantles of fine Flemish scarlet go to the dusty earth; as the lords and knights busked them to the work.

So they buckled to; and to most of them it seemed good game to play at vine-dressing. But one there was who, when his scarlet cloak was off, stood up in a doublet of glorious Persian web of gold and silk, such as men make not now, worth a hundred florins the Bremen ell. Unto him the King with no smile on his face gave the job of toing and froing up and down the hill with the biggest and the frailest dung-basket that there was; and thereat the silken lord screwed up a grin, that was sport to see, and all the lords laughed; and as he turned away he said, yet so that none heard him, "Do I serve this son's son of a whore that he should bid me carry dung?" For you must know that the King's father, John Hunyad, one of the great warriors of the world, the Hammer of the Turks, was not gotten in wedlock, though he were a king's son.

Well, they sped the work bravely for a while, and loud was the laughter as the hoes smote the earth and the flint stones tinkled and the cloud of dust rose up; the brocaded dung-bearer went up and down, cursing and swearing by the White God and the Black; and one would say to another, "See ye how gentle blood outgoes churls' blood, even when the gentle does the churl's work: these lazy loons smote but one stroke to our three." But the King, who worked no worse than any, laughed not at all; and meanwhile the poor folk stood by, not daring to speak a word one to the other; for they were still sore afraid, not now of being slain on the spot, but this rather was in their hearts: "These great and strong lords and knights have come to see what work a man may do without dying: if we are to have yet more days added to our year's tale of lords' labour, then are we lost without remedy." And their hearts sank within them.

So sped the work; and the sun rose yet higher in the heavens, and it was noon and more. And now there was no more laughter among those toiling lords, and the strokes of the hoe and mattock came far slower, while the dung-bearer sat down at the bottom of the hill and looked out on the river; but the King yet worked on doggedly, so for shame the other lords yet kept at it. Till at last the next man to the King let his hoe drop with a clatter, and swore a great oath. Now he was a strong black-bearded man in the prime of life, a valiant captain of that famous Black Band that had so often rent the Turkish array; and the King loved him for his sturdy valour; so he says to him, "Is aught wrong, Captain?"

"Nay, lord," says he, "ask the headman carle yonder what ails us."

"Headman," says the King, "what ails these strong knights? Have I ordered them wrongly?"

"Nay, but shirking ails them, lord," says he, "for they are weary; and no wonder, for they have been playing hard, and are of gentle blood."

"Is that so, lord," says the King, "that ye are weary already?"

Then the rest hung their heads and said nought, all save that captain of war; and he said, being a bold man and no liar: "King, I see what thou wouldst be at; thou hast brought us here to preach us a sermon from that Plato of thine; and to say sooth, so that I may swink no more, and go eat my dinner, now preach thy worst! Nay, if thou wilt be priest I will be thy deacon. Wilt thou that I ask this labouring carle a thing or two?"

"Yea," said the King. And there came, as it were, a cloud of thought over his face.

Then the captain straddled his legs and looked big, and said to the carle: "Good fellow, how long have we been working here?"

"Two hours or thereabout, judging by the sun above us," says he.

"And how much of thy work have we done in that while?" says the captain, and winks his eye at him withal.

"Lord," says the carle, grinning a little despite himself, "be not wroth with my word. In the first half-hour ye did five-and- forty minutes' work of ours, and in the next half-hour scant a thirty minutes' work, and the third half-hour a fifteen minutes' work, and in the fourth half-hour two minutes' work." The grin now had faded from his face, but a gleam came into his eyes as he said
 "And now, as I suppose, your day's work is done, and ye will go to your dinner, and eat the sweet and drink the strong; and we shall eat a little rye-bread, and then be working here till after the sun has set and the moon has begun to cast shadows. Now for you, I wot not how ye shall sleep nor where, nor what white body ye shall hold in your arms while the night flits and the stars shine; but for us, while the stars yet shine, shall we be at it again, and bethink ye for what! I know not what game and play ye shall be devising for to-morrow as ye ride back home; but for us when we come back here to-morrow, it shall be as if there had been no yesterday and nothing done therein, and that work of that to-day shall be nought to us also, for we shall win no respite from our toil thereby, and the morrow of to-morrow will all be to begin again once more, and so on and on till no to-morrow abideth us. Therefore, if ye are thinking to lay some new tax or tale upon us, think twice of it, for we may not bear it. And all this I say with the less fear, because I perceive this man here beside me, in the black velvet jerkin and the gold chain on his neck, is the King; nor do I think he will slay me for my word since he hath so many a Turk before him and his mighty sword!"

Then said the captain: "Shall I smite the man, O King? or hath he preached thy sermon for thee?"
"Smite not, for he hath preached it," said the King. "Hearken to the carle's sermon, lords and councillors of mine! Yet when another hath spoken our thought, other thoughts are born therefrom, and now have I another sermon to preach; but I will refrain me as now. Let us down and to our dinner."

So they went, the King and his gentles, and sat down by the river under the rustle of the poplars, and they ate and drank and were merry. And the King bade bear up the broken meats to the vine- dressers, and a good draught of the archer's wine, and to the headman he gave a broad gold piece, and to each man three silver pennies. But when the poor folk had all that under their hands, it was to them as though the kingdom of heaven had come down to earth.

In the cool of the evening home rode the King and his lords. The King was distraught and silent; but at last the captain, who rode beside him, said to him: "Preach me now thine after-sermon, O King!"
"I think thou knowest it already," said the King, "else hadst thou not spoken in such wise to the carle; but tell me what is thy craft and the craft of all these, whereby ye live, as the potter by making pots, and so forth?"

Said the captain: "As the potter lives by making pots, so we live by robbing the poor."
Again said the King: "And my trade?"

Said he, "Thy trade is to be a king of such thieves, yet no worser than the rest."
The King laughed.

"Bear that in mind," said he, "and then shall I tell thee my thought while yonder carle spake. `Carle,' I thought, `were I thou or such as thou, then would I take in my hand a sword or a spear, or were it only a hedge-stake, and bid others do the like, and forth would we go; and since we would be so many, and with nought to lose save a miserable life, we would do battle and prevail, and make an end of the craft of kings and of lords and of usurers, and there should be but one craft in the world, to wit, to work merrily for ourselves and to live merrily thereby.'"

Said the captain: "This then is thy sermon. Who will heed it if thou preach it?"

Said the King: "They who will take the mad king and put him in a king's madhouse, therefore do I forbear to preach it. Yet it SHALL be preached."

"And not heeded," said the captain, "save by those who head and hang the setters forth of new things that are good for the world. Our trade is safe for many an many a generation."

And therewith they came to the King's palace, and they ate and drank and slept and the world went on its ways.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Foolishness of Craft Explored: Part 1 Needs

 I have been really touched by the response to my last blog post, which was a fictional account of two people’s approach to obtaining a new jumper. It contrasted the impact on the environment, communities and individuals of buying one from a high street chain and making one from local, sustainable materials. If you haven’t read it yet, then it might be best to click here and do so, before reading on. 

Because of this interest I thought I would write a series of blog posts exploring some of the themes that came out of the short story and go deeper into the issues, motives and also solutions that it touched on. I would love this to be a conversation and I do not pretend to have all the answers or even to fully understand all of the questions, but I hope that these offerings will be a springboard for your own reflections. 


…imagine it is September here in England; the short nights and slight chill let us know that winter is on its way. Two people decide that they are going to need a new jumper to see them through the winter and keep them warm. 

We all have needs. Your needs maybe different to mine and mine in turn will be different to an older lady or a very young boy, but nonetheless there exists a set of physical and emotional requirements that each living person has. Some of these are what we might call base needs; shelter, food, air and water, the fulfillment of which is essential to life itself, others are what makes that life worth living and include love, intimacy, community, creativity, achievement and a sense of self worth.

In the story Hugo and Mary both need a jumper to fulfill a very basic need, that of warmth. Without sufficient layers in the colder months of the year we would get cold, which leads to discomfort, illness and, in extreme cases, even death. And so we can say that both Hugo and Mary have a very legitimate need.

To fulfill this need almost any jumper would do, so long as it provided some insulation, that would be enough. However, this creates a great problem for clothing retailers; if every jumper essentially does the same job in keeping you warm, why should someone buy your jumper and not the shop next doors? Even if we include an element of design into the mix, there are only so many takes on a classic woolen jumper and if we were to go and buy a man’s navy blue jumper from every clothing shop on the high street and line them all up, I dare say they would look pretty similar (or for a more modern way of doing this, try putting 'Navy Blue Jumper' into Google image search).

A further problem for a consumer economy is that actually our needs are pretty simple and fairly basic, requiring only a limited number of purchases. Yes, we need clothes. But how many? What would a basic wardrobe, which could comfortably see you through the seasons in your country, look like? You need shelter, but again what could you actually live in? How small a house would it be practical and comfortable to inhabit on a day-to-day basis? Finally food. What would it cost if we ate using fresh local fruit and vegetables, supplemented with small amounts of meat. Whether or not you wish to live like this is not the point, instead we could live in such a simple way and of course a great percentage of the world’s population does, without any choice.

Many of the higher needs we have; love, intimacy, community, creativity, a feeling of self worth, need not cost anything at all and can be achieved without any (or a least a minimal) consumer consumption.

And so capitalism is left with a real problem; here is a system that is built on the consumption of goods and yet the people do not actually need all that much to live, and that which we do need could almost be obtained from anywhere, with one shop often being no better than another. The response from companies is multi-faceted and we’ll explore more of them through the blog posts, but for our purposes here, looking at needs, we can focus on three: 

1)    Their first approach is to expand, through marketing and increasing cultural perception, what constitutes our basic, essential needs. Let’s take the example of food; clearly this is an essential need, but is it essential to be able to freeze food at home so that we can eat it out of season or eat frozen ready meals? Most people would consider a freezer an essential item in the home – I certainly don’t know of one without one, including my own. And yet this is a very modern, western, perception. How long have we had freezers in homes? 60 years? Our Grandparents lived without one and how many households throughout the world still do? And yet I even feel uncomfortable writing this, as though it is some sort of heresy.  But it’s true – freezers are not a need, they may fulfill many pleasant wants (ice-cream, easy meals etc.), but by perceiving them as a need we distort the reality and this can stop us from engaging with the impacts they cause in their manufacture and use, simply because we believe life to be impossible without them.

2)    The second deliberate distortion is using much higher needs to sell us basic needs, so that we confuse the two and cannot see that there is another way of meeting the base need. We touched on this before, with the navy blue jumper. If all navy blue jumpers are pretty much of a muchness, how can a shop get you to buy their jumper? The answer is by appealing to your sense of self or at least who you would wish to be. Fill a shop, magazine, advert with images of beautiful people, all having impossible levels of fun in gorgeous locations; then get them to look down the camera and ask, are you one of us? Finally offer the chance to join this exclusive club for the price of a jumper, the logo on the breast pocket proudly proclaiming your membership – yes, you can think as you walk home, I am one of you. The need for a jumper (for warmth) is almost forgotten; much greater is the need to be accepted, to belong, to feel your own self worth.

None of this is to say that we don’t have a genuine need to feel accepted or to belong to a community or a sense of our own worth; these are vital. But using consumption to meet them is like eating sweets when you are hungry, it’s a lovely burst of sugar that makes you feel as right as rain for about 5 minutes, before you suddenly realize you are hungry again. 

3)    Finally they create needs that we didn’t even know we had. The example of this that makes me laugh the most are those home-wares catalogues. Who knew that we needed a separate machine to make popcorn, waffles, rice, poached eggs, steam veg, open tins (or wine bottles), chop herbs etc. In the story Hugo gently mocks his customers for their phone, so that they realise just how much they need to upgrade and get all the latest features.

All this is an attempt to cloud our perception of what our needs really are, to muddy the waters so that we judge not on the reality, but on a perceived perception of what our needs are. Hugh and Mary need a jumper to keep warm. They should feel comfortable in it and it should look nice on them. By being able to pare it back to this, both of them can make decisions based on this reality, rather than marketing hype or social norm.

I don’t want to touch here on the nature of work, as I want to leave that for another post, but it is interesting to note that Mary, in making her jumper, is actually meeting her own needs for creativity and self-esteem, through it’s creation. It is not that she is only meeting her needs through the ownership of the jumper, but in the actual process of making it. This is a very different to approach to Hugo, for whom only the acquisition and ownership is meeting his needs.  The sad fact is that in this manufactured confusion of needs, many of our genuine needs actually get forgotten or remain unmet; the need for creativity, for a feeling of being able to look after oneself, accomplishment, of being able to live without negatively impacting on others.

It’s not going to be possible to make everything that modern capitalism makes available to us in affluent countries, to do so would take many more lives than we have. We have to accept that a homemade life is going to be one where we do have less and we need to find a sense of contentment with that. We need to start with a careful consideration of what our real needs are, away from the marking hype of the high street, glossy magazines and TV adverts. If all this sounds a little stark, back to the dark ages living, then I apologise because it needn’t be – actually there are great riches to be had from meeting our simple needs in an original and creative way.

The whole story about Hugo and Mary is really about two different ways of meeting a genuine need. A small snap shot of two people making decisions. Because ultimately much of our lives are taken up with meeting our needs and morality is the choices we take in doing so. Much depends on the consideration we are able to give to others in the process, but also the patience and courage to break from the accepted norm.