Friday, 26 September 2008

Our bread and butter

A letter in the Sussex Express last week demanded why the group behind the ‘flaky Lewes Pound’ weren’t doing anything to stop local shops like Seymours closing down. The writer spectacularly missed the point: a local currency succeeds if we all spend it where we care. Local currency is a deeply radical means of storing and transferring power. Power that is almost tangible as I hand it to someone whose future I depend upon and vice versa. Where we spend our money is still (for now) an area of great freedom, though few of us (dumbed down as we are) know and act on this information.

This point was graphically illustrated during a rare and deeply unsettling late night visit to Tesco last week in search of lunch box material. Two things in particular upset me: 80% of apple varieties on sale were from New Zealand, none from this isle. Yet England is in the middle of a great apple harvest. I didn’t buy apples that night, partly because they didn’t have a fraction of the life of the picked-that-day apples being sold cheaply by the cheerful Polish guy in the Sunday market. For now, the cost of oil to store and ship them make NZ apples cheaper in terms of the checkout costs, but we are short sighted in patronising supermarkets whose economic model impels us to dismantle our remaining mature local food chains. Second, the checkouts have started to become automated, the slippery slope to less local employment. I still don’t understand the commonly held belief that chains increase local employment: Bill told me that he employs 60 people in his Lewes store alone. The complex cost of buying in supermarkets is hidden from us as we consumers con ourselves into thinking that the money in our pocket is the main thing.

People like me are often accused of coming from a privileged economic position. Not true! Shocking to say, I discovered, when completing our tax return, that our family lives close to the level of the government’s described relative poverty. On the other hand, it’s good to know we’re living proof that pretty much anyone can, if they want to, have a great, healthy local life without it costing the earth.

Friday, 19 September 2008

In for a pound...

The surreal juxtaposition of the sell-out success of the Lewes Pound against the backdrop of the collapse of our global economy was highlighted by Tuesday’s Argus poster screaming: Lewes £ Soars! next to piles of newspapers headlined ‘Nightmare on Wall Street’. The greed and folly of our international banks has come home to roost, unfortunately taking out the millions of small investors and pensioners.

This is one of the purposes of the Lewes Pound – to reconnect ourselves to each other, to create a resilient economy - economy being shops, farmers, people making things and people needing things; the word comes from roots meaning managing a household.

Until the cheap oil bonanza allowed us to ship work overseas to cheap labour, communities the world over used to provide their basic needs such as food and household goods close to home, only shipping in exotic ‘cherry on the cake’ items such as spices, silks and oranges. Now we’ve reversed that trend, and all our basic necessities, especially food, are provided and waste disposed of in far-away places where the immoral way most people and resources are treated is conveniently hidden from us. The posh things are produced and sold locally. Lewes is an example of this, with few of our independents of whom we are so proud actually selling basic necessities such as affordable local food or services like repairs.

If banks and corporations can just go belly up overnight and say to their customers, ‘Sorry, we didn’t see that coming,’ what’s to stop our supermarkets upon which we’ve allowed ourselves to become so dependent, go the same way? Or what when oil prices start rising again? Or overseas staple crops fail from climate chaos or drought? To rebuild resilience, the web of relationships that we have systematically dismantled, we have to change our priorities. And there’s a whole conversation here to be had about cost.

The Lewes Pound is in its early stages, but if it works (and that’s up to us all) it can be developed to something that really serves us all. The week after the Lewes Pound launch, the Archers have decided to look in to creating their own currency (see here for the transcript), so we must be on to something then.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Fortune favours...

A fortnight by the sea is enough to wash away all troubles. We set off to Newhaven Harbour on a blustery day, the youngest two children, Dirk and me, with backpacks containing what we needed to get by: tents, sleeping bags, clothes, plates and mugs. It was a risky venture; we’d always used a car to go on our camping holidays, and this one involved our 15-year-old daughter who likes her creature comforts.

But there’s something quite wonderful about walking (staggering in our case) out the front door into the unknown; a powerful sense of adventure accompanied us all the way. Mostly I felt like a cross between an 18 year old and a 3 year old, fully engaging with and savouring the new sights, sounds and smells as if for the first time.

We spent two days getting to the French southwest Atlantic coast, by ferry and train, to the best campsite in France, recommended by our friend Mark who cycled there recently. Ensconced on top of the biggest sand dune in Europe, surrounded by pine forests, we spent our time catching buses to remote surf beaches, being dropped on a sand bank for the day, foraging for oysters in the oyster beds, sleeping out under a tarp in thunderstorms and two whole days sunbathing on a chaise longues by a swimming pool with my daughter. Round the Basque coast of Spain to Bilbao, the language is from Mars and the food is even more earthy and ripe than that of France. Lewes seemed poncy after supper in a working men’s cantina, where the plates were loaded of cheap wholesome food, there was football on the telly and free bottles of beefy red wine on each table.

Arriving in Portsmouth by ferry from Bilbao, as we carelessly hauled on our backpacks for the 16th and last leg of the journey, I realised that the holiday was more than just a quest for the sun and the waves. We’d thrown ourselves in to the arms of fortune, and fortune had smiled on us.