The Peculiar People

May you live in interesting times

Essex, my home county. To many the word Essex is a byline for tacky; footballers wives, x factor contestants, white van men and girls with spray tans. What few people know is that Essex has long been a county where radicals dreamt of creating a new utopia, where, hidden away among the creeks and saltmarshes and on isolated islands, traditional ways of living were challenged.

The Peculiar People exhibition, on until the 2nd July at the Focal Point Gallery in Southend on Sea, brings together a collection of art, literature, correspondence and film footage that documents the various communities that sprung up along the Essex coast.

From the plotlands of Dunton, where Eastenders tried to create a home in the country away from the city smogs, to religious groups like the Peculiar People and Othona where people created communities based on sustainability, acceptance and humility to the Hadleigh Farm Colony where William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army dreamt that the ‘submerged tenth’ of the urban population in danger of drug and alcohol abuse or falling into prostitution could return to a more natural way of life, tending the land and receiving free education.

The exhibition was both inspiring and relevant in a world where so many people seem disillusioned with the dominant ideology of our time to make money and buy more stuff. Communities like Othona where people could escape the rat run and regain some sense of what is real and important by living simply and working the land seem like a jolly good idea.

There seems that there was a time in this country when people  still felt that an alternative was possible. Maybe the 100 years before Margaret Thatcher came and squashed out hope and ideology. Now, as we are told that the pursuit of profit is the only God worth serving, we seem stuck on a conveyor belt leading to the destruction of the planet and a loss of our own humanity.

But increasingly it seems that I meet people who just can’t follow this line. Who are falling, or jumping off the conveyor belt and saying ‘there has got to be some alternative to this.’ Maybe in the radical living experiments carried out in Essex we can find some hope that there is an alternative, that just by saying ‘no’ and living differently we can regain some sense of self and some sense of the divine.

As the poster says, we living in interesting times.

http://www.focalpoint.org.uk/exhibitions/current/63/

Things the German’s do better – Part Two

 

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Garden Houses on the edge of Hamburg.

So what’s the point of travel if it isn’t to find out how other people in the world are doing things and bring those ideas back home? It was good enough for Sir Walter Raleigh, it’s good enough for me.

Germany is a greener country than Britain. Not just because it’s bigger and has more space but because it doesn’t appear to see green issues as the preserves of cranks and people with dreadlocks. Better transport, better options for living in the city just make more sense in the 21st Century. Embracing environmental concerns and doing something to improve things IS progress where as our own government is stuck in the past, telling us time and again that environmental concerns stand in the way of progress.

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Cyclists have right of way on Hamburg Streets

Last week on my trip to Hamburg I saw a transport system that appears to work. The train links with the underground which links with the buses. The buses were not just populated by pensioners, children and those too poor to own a car, as appears to be the case in Britain, but people of all ages and backgrounds.

True my friend, Wolfgang is a master of the public transport system of Hamburg, seemingly keeping a completely updated timetable in his head, but things just seemed to work more efficiently there. The trains were double decker and, my God, they ran at weekends as efficiently as in the week. Who would have thought that was possible? The buses were regular and even had a free book swap shelf on board. I could not imagine this happening in Britain. Something so sensible and altruistic. In Britain someone would be trying to make money from such a scheme.

In contrast today, I find my local train once again not running due to engineering works which seem to never be completed and only appear to serve the interests of commuters into London not people wanting to move around their local towns without a car. I cannot buy a ticket online for the next train only one for a train which leaves two hours after I wish to travel and the replacement bus service is not stopping at all locations.

Also last week I saw many attractive forms of city living in Hamburg. City centre apartments which come with an option to own a beautiful Gartenhaus. A wooden chalet down by the river with enough room to grow your own vegetables. These apartments did not appear to be the preserve of the wealthy but were, I believe, within the means of ordinary people.

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It was as if in Germany it was just accepted that being locked in an urban environment was not good for ones soul and their was a human need to get out into the sunshine and stick your fingers into the soil. Further into the city I saw beautiful houseboats along the canals. Who would not want to live on the river or have somewhere natural to escape to on a summers evening in London.

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Hamburg houseboat. .

 

But here in Britain we are sold the line that living in London is just too expensive for ordinary people and the only solution is for these people to move out of London into new housing estates built in the countryside and commute ever further into work, loosing a big chunk of their day stuck in overcrowded and inefficient trains.

It feels at times as if the government have thrown their hands in the air and resigned to the fact that they have no control over the London property market, as if they no longer have control of the capital. They probably don’t. The capital is ruled by business and foreign investors but the solution can’t be to bleed the life out of our cities and transport people elsewhere.

Instead of supporting building on our green spaces the government should be investing in inner city housing solutions, new ways of living, better public transport. I am clearly not a politician or an economist, I am just someone who senses that things are wrong.  It seemed to me that the Germans are ahead of the game once again.

 

 

The Man In The Woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

As a child I was always fascinated by the ‘Man that lives in the woods.’ Wherever you lived there always seemed to be one. Know matter how big or small or urban the wood there was always a local legend of a guy (never it seems a girl) who was living there. The camp of the ‘Man in the woods’ was always a source of fascination something to be hunted down and dared to approach. The ‘Man in the woods’ always had an element of danger of the unknown an otherworldly aura to be pitied but also somehow envied.

My childhood books were full of this character in various guises. Enid Blyton’s ‘The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.’ featured Tammylan who befriended wild animals and lived off root soup. Clearly a man ahead of his time he believed in direct action for animal rights abuses and almost ‘shook the head off,’ a local ruffian who injured a bird. BB’s ‘Brendan Chase.’ not only had Smokoe Joe who lived in a woodburners hut but also three boys who ran away from school to set up camp amongst the trees for the summer. These boys would have been men after my own heart if they didn’t pass their time killing badgers and raiding honey buzzard nests. Lucky for them they did not run into Tammylan or their holidays may have been cut short!

Our local ‘Man in the Woods’  stood outside the bakers, dressed in an assortment of clothes given to him by passing shoppers, hoping someone would by him a pasty. Someone always did. He was crazy and unkempt but harmless and something of a local celebrity, our own personal Elm Park hermit who was looked after, in rather a ramshackle way, by the local community. He was rumoured to have a camp in the woods close to my house. I searched for it but rather half heartedly, fearing perhaps that the reality would not live up to my Enid Blyton fuelled fantasy.

Now I am not the hunt once again for stories of the man in the woods as I begin to research people who choose to live in unconventional homes for my book ‘Estuary Life.’

People who live outside of the rules understandably tend to keep a low profile but I hope this year to find them, track down the yurt dwellers, hut dwellers, shack dwellers, boat dwellers, hermits and outsiders and find out what bought them here. In doing so I hope to understand my own, enduring fascination with this way of life and learn if there is still a place in the 21st century for those who chose to step outside of the rules and take to the woods