The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

Competitive, moi?

I’m not exactly what you could call a prolific blogger. I mean, I read quite a few people’s blogs, click some ‘likes’ and leave a comment here and there. I like messing around with my own blog, too, and try – and sometimes even succeed – to post a couple of times a week. But recently, things have got a bit more serious.

I set up my blog in October 2010 and then proceeded to do very little with it. I sort of liked the idea of having a blog, but things were fairly hectic and I just didn’t get around to writing anything. This was, unsurprisingly, reflected in a complete lack of readers, visits and page views – as you can probably see from the diagram below.

I started to make a bit more of an effort in August last year, when I decided to try a little harder to be a decent, well-rounded human being. (Read my very first post.) This is when people actually started to read my blog, which was all extremely exciting. And when I got my first ‘like’ (thanks http://princesayasmine.wordpress.com/, by the way), I was almost beside myself. My first comment, a couple of months later, provoked similar jubilations.

Wordpress Stats

You’ll notice, though, that I experienced a further bump in views (if going from 50 views a month to about 150 can really be called a ‘bump’ in the big scheme of things) in January this year. So what’s that all about? Well, it shames me to admit this, but this is when my wife started her blog, and I was darned if she was going to have a more popular blog than me. You know all that drivel you read about the male of the species being insecure, egotistical, shallow and pitifully competitive? Yup, it’s true.

So I tried hard to up my blogging game. I read more of other people’s blogs. I wrote more posts of my own. I wrote about what I was doing, thinking, reading, eating, growing and shouting at. I used tags properly so that people could find my blog. And it was great. I’m not saying that I have millions of readers or anything like that, because that’s clearly not true, but I have started to build up a little community of people like me across the world.

So at least a couple of evenings a week, Natalie and I come home from work, walk the dog, have tea and then settle down on the sofa for a couple of hours of blogging*. We catch up with the blogs we follow, we share things that have caught our eye and we write some posts of our own. Far from being a solitary pursuit, like so many people would seem to have us believe, blogging for my lovely wife and me has become a bit of a communal activity. And, thank goodness, I still have more views, ‘likes’ and subscribers than she does.

* This is not a euphemism. I really do mean blogging. Please don’t write in.

A bit disappointing (and how not to ask a question)

I had really been looking forward to Wednesday evening. It’s Bristol’s ‘Big Green Week’ this week and I’d got tickets to go to a lecture on regeneration with Tim Smit (founder of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project), designer Kevin McCloud (presenter of the ‘Grand Designs’ programme on TV) and Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Network). These are three people whose work I have followed with interest and who I have come to admire. So I was keen to hear what they had to say. Such was my enthusiasm that I had even convinced Natalie – who generally shies away from evening lectures like this – to come along with me.

I should have known that something was up when we took our seats and were immediately subjected (having already paid £8 each for our tickets) to an on-screen commercial for one of the event sponsors, a well-known ‘ethical’ bank. This struck me as a little weird, but I don’t go to many things like this so perhaps it’s normal. The chair of the session, who was the CEO of one of the other sponsors (a renewable energy company) then introduced herself and went off on a bit of a ramble about her own company. This blatant self-promotion seemed distinctly uncool.

When it came to the main speakers, however, I must admit that I have never been so disappointed in my life. Rob Hopkins was a reasonably entertaining speaker and gave some interesting examples of the projects that Transition Towns have undertaken. But I’m not convinced that the solution to the various problems that we face as a society is to get to know our neighbours better and to start a community bakery. It can’t hurt, for sure, but as far as I can see it’s more likely to merely make middle-class people with lots of free time feel that they’re doing something positive, when in fact they’re just appeasing their conscience about driving around town in a small tank.

Kevin McCloud was likewise a competent and enthusiastic speaker, but didn’t really seem to have a particularly strong narrative about what he wanted to say. He talked a bit about some of the projects he is involved in (such as the HAB housing project), and told some interesting anecdotes, but didn’t really give me any particular sense of how regeneration should be done and how we can go about it. He also rambled far too much and ran out of time, so that his lecture just petered out in slight confusion.

Tim Smit, to take things one step further, appeared to be proud that he had no idea at all about what he wanted to say. In fact, he seemed to think that just having him there on stage would be sufficient for us to sit enraptured and adore him. He told us how he had managed to insult various audiences (although in my view he didn’t so much insult the audience, as their intelligence) and moved from random fact to baseless assertion to blatant slur (are all NGO chief executives, for example, incompetent and vain?). What could have been an inspirational insight into someone often labelled as a ‘maverick genius’ was, instead, an incoherent ramble that left us none the wiser about anything whatsoever. Having gone into the lecture thinking that Tim Smit was the bees knees, I found myself liking him a little bit less every time he opened his mouth.

My frustration with the event was compounded by the question and answer session at the end. The chair called on several people in the audience, each of whom decided that rather than asking a question to the panellists, they’d much prefer to just introduce themselves, promote whichever tedious company they happen to work for, and give their thoughts on something unrelated to the topic of the lecture. This seems to be a Bristol thing, because I’ve seen it happen at several events around here, but never anywhere else. In the end, with the session having already overrun by ten minutes, we cut our losses and left.

So not an outstanding success. In fact, a major disappointment. To feel so let down by three people that I had admired greatly is absolutely gutting. I sometimes wonder why we find it so difficult as a society to address the problems that we face, but if this is how the people to whom we look to for answers behave, then I think I may have my answer. I went into the lecture looking for inspiration, but came out feeling nothing but despair. Now, I may not be Martin Luther King, but if I was trying to make a difference and was given half an hour with three hundred people who already kind of agreed with me, I would hope that I could do better than this. Much better.

Why I’ll probably never live in a little country cottage

I used to dream about living in a little cottage in the country, miles from the nearest neighbour, with a dog resting on the front wall and chickens scratching around in the back yard. Or perhaps an old coastguard cottage on a cliff top somewhere, nothing in sight but the sea and the sky. But the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t going to happen.

For one thing, I’m no longer sure that I want to live in the middle of nowhere. Having lived for the last four years on the edge of a small market town in Somerset, I’ve kind of gotten used to having neighbours and to being able to walk to the shops. And while it’s not exactly what you’d call a particularly urban area (there are open fields just a five minute walk away), it’s nice to have things like the farmers market, doctor’s surgery and vet within easy reach.

For another thing, I need to earn money and I’m not sure how I’d go about that if I lived cut off from the rest of civilisation. Even though I can do much of my writing and research at the kitchen table (as long as I have a phone and internet access), I do need to get out occasionally. And for my consultancy work, I really need to be near to my clients. If I were to live somewhere in the wilds, I’d definitely need to (a) write a lot more and a lot more quickly or (b) come up with a very different approach to paying the mortgage.

I also like having access to the things that you can only really get in a large town or city. We’re just a twenty minute drive or a short bus ride away from the city of Bristol, with its university, bookshops, clothes stores, coffee shops, theatres, evening lectures and other cultural events. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them quite yet. Having a mainline railway station, two motorways and an airport all within about fifteen minutes is also a definite plus, and not something that many country villages can boast.

I’ve always loved the countryside and the coast and they have a very strong influence on my life. And I’m really not much of a city dweller. But we’re fairly sociable creatures and living on the edge of our little town seems to suit us quite well. In fact, it strikes me that a city ‘hub’ surrounded by a series small towns could be a fairly sustainable way of living for most people. So while an isolated cottage in a picturesque valley or on some rugged coastline somewhere may have its appeal, it’s perhaps not for me. Or, at least, not yet.

Twelve little plants went to market

I made my first foray into the nursery trade last Friday, when I packed up a dozen of my home grown plants and headed down to my local Country Market. And I even made my first sale – one of my shuttlecock ferns was snapped up within minutes. Sadly, nothing else happened for the remaining hour and a quarter, but even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had to start small.

In case you’re not familiar with Country Markets, and I suspect that you are not, let me tell you a little more. They were founded by the Women’s Institute as a way of helping people to offload their surplus home produce and to make a little money in the process. There are markets in most towns and villages, selling a range of food, crafts and plants. Everything you will find there is locally produced, assessed against stringent quality standards (and I know, because I have, in fact, read the manual) and home-cooked, home-made or home-grown.

The plant stall

The plant stall, with my own contribution in the foreground.

I would be surprised that the markets are not more popular, but the one I went to is held for just over an hour on a Friday morning, in a church hall just outside the town centre, with very little in the way of fanfare or advertising. So, to be honest, I’m quite surprised that anybody manages to find it at all.

Anyway, I picked out the most aesthetically pleasing of my current crop of young plants (four each of shuttlecock fern, moroccan mint, hebe pinguifolia and garden mint) and took them along. My first thought was that I was clearly not in the market’s core demographic. For one thing, I was (and still am, for that matter) a bloke. And for another thing, I’m (quite a lot) under 65. But the market controller introduced me to the other producers and everyone made me feel welcome right from the start.

Jane and Heather

Jane (left) and Heather, my fellow plant-sellers.

There were two other people there with plants to sell, Jane and Heather, both of whom have been involved with the market for some time and were, consequently, able to guide me through the various requirements in terms of labelling, filling in my record sheet (to make sure I get paid) and presenting my plants to best effect. Apparently, trekking a load of mud into the hall and then leaving your plants to dribble water all over the stall while you wander off in search of a cup of tea is not how things are done.

Because the market is a cooperative, everyone works together to set everything up (the real reason people were so happy to see me, I suspect, given the number of tables and chairs that needed lugging around), engage with customers, sell things and tidy up afterwards. There are communal tills for the different sections (food, craft and plants), which explains the need for detailed records of who has brought what and how much they are left with at the end, with producers receiving their takings (less a 10% commission) once a month.

As the new kid on the block, my role was restricted to helping to set up the stall, engaging in a little light banter with customers, answering questions about the plants (though promoting one’s own plants is discouraged – you have to treat all producers equally), drinking tea and generally getting in the way. I may at some stage be allowed to operate the cash box, but baby steps. Though I was allowed on one occasion to double-check a total. (It’s all mental arithmetic here.)

And with my one solitary plant sold, I have made a grand total of £2. Less commission, which brings it down to £1.80. Clearly, this is unlikely to become a major earner any time soon. But it will hopefully be a useful way to get rid of some of my surplus plants (which I just can’t stop growing) and to introduce people around here to something other than petunias. It was also, to my surprise, excellent fun. I may even be slightly addicted. I’ll definitely be there again this week.

My literary dilemma

Ever since I learned to read as a child, I’ve been a great fan of the written word. I grew up with Swallows and Amazons, the Hardy boys and the Famous Five. I had hundreds of books and borrowed even more from the local library. Even now as an adult, I usually have at least two or three on the go. And my house is, basically, a big bookshelf with a door and a roof.

When it comes to reading, I’ll admit readily to being a bit of a traditionalist. I love the feel of a book in my hands and like being able to lug one or two around in my briefcase or in my bag when I go on holiday. I sometimes buy books in the bookshops in town, but generally hear about something interesting from friends, in the paper or online and end up buying it online.

Recently, though, I’ve bought myself an Amazon Kindle (well, I bought it as a birthday present for my wife, but I’m not sure she’s actually got her mitts on it yet) and have downloaded a few books that I hadn’t quite got around to reading. I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete Kindle convert, but it is a handy way of keeping a few books at my fingertips and I can see myself using it more and more.

Then I read Tim Waterstone’s article in the Guardian explaining how, in his view, Amazon is destroying the UK book industry and annihilating local and independent bookshops across the country. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Can I be a fan of books and continue to buy them online?

The conundrum is this. I love small, independent bookshops with well curated stock and knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff. And I would like dearly to be able to spend a lazy hour or two on a Sunday afternoon browsing a few titles and checking out the latest from my favourite authors while savouring a freshly brewed coffee and stroking the owner’s cat. But unfortunately, I don’t live in a Lucy Dillon novel and I don’t happen to have a branch of Daunt Books just around the corner.

We do have a small, independent bookshop in our town, but it’s cramped, dreary and only stocks local footpath maps and things about the second world war. And every time I go in to give it another try, the lady who runs it either ignores me or stares at me like I’m about to steal the carpets and curtains. I would love to do my bit to keep it in business, but to be honest it isn’t worth it. Some places just have to die, and my local bookshop is one of them.

If bookshops are going to compete with the likes of Amazon, then they need to do what Amazon cannot. They need to be friendly places that bring people and books together. They need to really know and understand their customers in a way that an algorithm is unable to achieve. They need to generate a warmth and passion that you can’t get from a website or an app.

I take great pleasure from reading and I’m happy to pay for the books that I buy. And if I know that the books have been chosen, ordered and presented with enthusiasm and care, then I’m happy to forego the discounts that Amazon can offer me or the convenience that I can get from my Kindle. But I need to know that the person selling them to me cares as much about the books – and my enjoyment of them – as I do.

Eight ideas for a fun life

When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.

So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.

If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.

1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.

2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.

3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.

4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?

5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.

6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?

7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…

8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?

The two body problem

There’s a thing in physics called the ‘two body problem’. It’s about predicting the behaviour of two particles (or stars or billiard balls or anything else) when they interact only with each other under the influence of external forces. And, in physics at least, this particular problem can be solved exactly.

In real life, however, things are not so simple. Like many couples, my wife Natalie and I both work – she’s a university academic and I’m a business consultant and writer. And because Natalie’s work is on a fixed-term contract basis, every once in a while her contract comes to an end and she needs to find a new job. Now is one of those times.

Green 'for sale' sign

There's more to relocation than just a job change (Image: Diana Parkhouse)

In the past, my work has been quite flexible, so we’ve been able to move around the country quite easily to wherever her new job happens to be. Which has been fine. But now at least part of my work is specific to where we live now. We’ve both made friends and generally put down some tentative roots. And we’ve bought a house and spent ages getting it and the garden just how we want it. In short, neither of us really wants to up sticks and move somewhere else.

I’m sure it’s not just Natalie and I who are grappling with this dilemma. Any couple must face the same problem of what to do when one half needs to move somewhere else. Do you stay where you are and see if something else comes up? Do you go and hope your other half can find a job too? Or does one person go and the other stay?

And how are we supposed to balance this need for flexibility, so beloved of government and employers alike, with a desire to form links with our neighbours and our communities? How are we supposed to set down roots when we’re always on the move? I know a few people around here who have never lived more than a few miles from where they were born. And while I mock them shamelessly, I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.

So what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that the household where both adults work is now pretty much the norm. And I know that none of us has a job for life any more. The two body problem, it would appear, is here to stay.