It’s been a while.
Two blog posts ago, and a lifetime ago, I moved to the country.
I said: “I used to write blogs about politics and cultural theory and digital society when I lived in the city. Now, I’m afraid this blog is going to turn into a combination of country lifestyle tips and folksy new age ramblings. Sorry about that.”
What I didn’t realise is that I would give up blogging altogether.
The truth is that moving to Dartmoor has had a profound effect on me. I had no idea this was going to happen, believe me.
But it has.
You see, the thing is: Journalism, or at least the semi-humourous blogging I (used to) do, requires a certain amount of… sarcasm, insightful put-downs, critical snarkiness and general negativity to make it work.
It also requires you to have your finger on the pulse, if only by reading Reddit or Facebook.
And I no longer have it in me.
I am too full of the joys of nature, too far-removed from everyday concerns. My husband and I have built our own little anarchist utopia and the only politics I’m interested in now is permaculture. Revolution disguised as gardening, maaaan.
There’s no point in me uploading lifestyle or gardening tips, as I’m a complete novice myself. So, really, that’s it. As for those New Age ramblings, I now work for Blinkist, a German startup that specialises in summarising self-help books, so writing about self-helpy stuff in my spare time sounds too much like work.
In an odd turn of events, though…
I have started writing psychedelic magical realist poems on romantic themes like death, paganism and nature. They go down well at the local poetry night. I even got invited to read some at a local festival.
Publishing poetry online is a bit of a mine-field. So, if you are interested in seeing any of it, send us a mail at kerrysmallman at hotmail dot com for the time-being.
In the interests of keeping the blog alive, I’ll post photos from time to time of my travels in Devon and Cornwall.
Thanks for reading,
Although a small town in terms of population, and renowned for its pretty colleges, Oxford is a surprisingly gritty, urban town once you get under its skin. We were living right on the Cowley Road, with its kebab houses, music venues, sex shops and student pub crawls, so it felt pretty much identical to, say Ladbroke Grove or Brick Lane at street level.
I loved the cosmopolitain edginess of East Oxford and am sorry to say I even liked it when it went all hipster and gentrified. I was, after all, a city girl. Cities were fundamentally places where people could be themselves. They were exciting, vibrant and culturally rich spaces where people from all around the world could come together and enjoy the pure excitement of living.
Having grown up in a rural environment and indeed having fled this said environment aged 18, I never thought I’d return to the countryside. I remember as a teenager longing for escape from small towns and small town people with their tiny horizons and inconsequential lives. My urban travels included living and working in Edinburgh, London, Calais, Berlin and Oxford.
But then, on a whim, my husband and I decided to move to the countryside. There was not really any grand plan. At all. We just kind of got bored of the Cowley Road and wanted to maybe get a bigger house and maybe have kids someday and maybe Bristol was cooler than London these days, anyway, so why not look at Somerset?
Six months later and here we are: Deepest Mid Devon. In a beautiful old house with an enormous garden. We’re on the edge of a little village with one shop, one pub and two buses a day to Exeter. But I can’t say we have regretted it for one second.
It’s like a weird mental cleansing to be here. Literally everything and everyone I care(d) about is gone. It’s like a dream, but in reverse. It’s like waking up and seeing reality as it for the first time. Being here has peeled away the layers of mental sediment which have accrued over time. Old cultures, beliefs, education, habits, prejudices, expectations, hopes, fears, certainties, familiarities and routines are gone. There is only the vast, untamed wilderness of Dartmoor, the activities of foxes, squirrels, herons and pheasants (all passing through my back garden) and the everyday, basic needs of keeping warm and gathering food.
I watched a film about Permaculture the other day. In it, a man said that you can never feel depressed in nature. Nature is eternally optimistic. Mushrooms send out billions of spores, flowers and trees pollinate, creepers creep, trees stretch and salmon leap. They have limitless hope.
He said that you can never feel depressed in nature because you have reached rock bottom. The earth – mother nature – is the ground, the solid foundation, there can be no let downs or disappointments here. The only way is up. And the only way to live is to simply be.
I used to write blogs about politics and cultural theory and digital society when I lived in the city. Now, I’m afraid this blog is going to turn into a combination of country lifestyle tips and folksy new age ramblings. Sorry about that.
I have no idea what went on in the minds of the advertising creatives who, in 1973, decided that the best way to market tea was to invent a group of quasi-gnomes from Keithley. And why have Tetley kept doggedly re-booting these whippet-bothering bores over a forty year timespan? “The Tetley Tea Folks are back”… “Collect all seven tea folks” … “That’s better, that’s Tetley” … Superhero Teafolks … Medieval Teafolks …
Let’s compare the competitors:
The PG Tips monkey is awesome.
The Churchill dog is funny and reminiscent of a popular historical figure who won a war.
That Russian meerkat is cute and has an even cuter baby meerkat. Nailed it.
As for the sexy Cadbury’s Caramel bunny…
So, now the tea folk are back (again) with a completely superfluous superhero rebooting:
What with tea being one of the biggest growth areas in the food and drink industry at the moment, Tetley are keen to cash in. But the growth in tea is all about diversification and choice. Which might be what is so jarring about the Tea Folk.
The food and beverage industry encourages us to decide between decaf monkey-picked single-plantation white tea and detoxing vanilla-scented chai, while the Tetley Tea Folk come from a world where the only choice is “mug or cup, love?”.
Is it because I am so bourgeoise that I cannot abide the Tea Folk? Perhaps their real-ness and Northern-ness throws my own inauthenticity into relief. Do I subconsciously long for the girl I used to be: Northern, authentic, working class?
Do these dwarf-like harbingers of sentimentality remind me that I have betrayed my Yorkshire roots for the glamour of the cosmopolitain elite?
As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room (making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’). Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Whitney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city. These two seemingly disparate facts (homelessness and traffic) are, of course, intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe.
The lack of housing cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. Wages and job security in publishing and academia are enjoying a race to the bottom while property prices are continuing to out-perform the rest of the UK. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Simply put, Oxford is the country’s most expensive place to live, in proportion to wages.
The situation for Oxford’s less-well-off is, of course, even worse. The maximum housing benefit is £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. The Government’s so-called bedroom tax does not get a look-in here.
As we move further down the social scale, beyond town and gown towards down-and-out, the picture is even gloomier. The number of new arrivals at homeless shelters is growing by the day, yet the council has cut the hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what me might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. Most of the new arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.
Housing crisis affects all walks of society: The homeless panhandler, the debt-laden student, the impecunious young professional, the struggling single mum, the miserable commuter. But how can we really, honestly, help them? How about we think about supply and demand? Or, as Oxford Labour party say, let’s build more houses. If you look at a map, much of Oxford’s geographical centre is green. The colleges own plenty of marsh land, pastures and playing fields which could be used to house Oxford’s poor, or so the narrative goes. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.
The council is in constant wranglings with itself over various building projects. It recently tried to build housing association homes for over 3,000 people in a new complex near the Kassam stadium, but it was wisely blocked by the Green party. I say wisely, not because I especially care about the no doubt very beautiful sparrows, earwigs and dormice in the proposed location, but because – I’m sorry to say – it is a fallacy that building houses reduces housing demand. Just as building motorways increases traffic, building more housing attracts more people.
Expanding a city attracts more people. There are already twenty thousand or so miserable commuters who’d love to move back to the city, let alone all the service industry staff – by which, of course, I mean immigrants – who would flock to a growing Oxford if it were to expand. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca outwith the academy mean it will always have top people setting up great start-ups. The Universities themselves are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the word “Oxford” on their degree. Building new developments would merely serve to line the pockets of construction companies and landlords, which I can’t help but think is the real motivation behind the purported ‘public good’ of building more homes.
As is so often the case with macroscopic, top-down thinking, seemingly attractive technological solutions ultimately mask a deeper structural problem. Houses have become properties – commodities to be bought and sold. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London are even more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. It made it through the last 1,000 years in good shape. As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.
In saner countries than Britain, these problems have been solved by introducing rent caps or clamping down on buy-to-let. But there are no guarantees. Rent caps in Berlin held back astronomical rent rises, but the city is becoming less affordable to locals by the day. There really are no simple solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can. We may not be able to make the Government put the needs of its citizens before that of the banks, but each of us can be conscious of the housing needs of those around us and ensure that we act with compassion towards the homeless this Christmas.