Tuesday, 30 August 2016


Work. I’ve had to re-think what that means, in my simplicity journey.

Like most people, I’ve been brought up with the unexamined assumptions that work is something you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have to, undertaken because it turns a profit.

For some time (decades, I mean) I’ve had my nose to the trail of a life and work shaped by particular principles.

  1. An ethically responsible financial trail. The projects I do for money link me directly with those paying my fees. If what I do isn’t up to snuff, it stops there. If my books were no good, the publisher would have no compunction in turning down the next one. If my editing were rubbish everyone concerned would know at once. When people ask me to take funerals, it’s because someone recommended me. And the people who pay the money get the goods. It’s not like being an employee of a large organisation where accountability can be hard to trace and responsibility can be passed on. I earn money on a definitely what-you-see-is-what-you-get basis. Nothing hidden, remote or anonymous.  Same with the cottage I let out. I like it that my money is invested in someone’s home, that I am personally responsible for maintaining. No mysterious stocks and share holdings that I’m not quite sure where the money is invested. Direct, accountable, personal. That feels good to me.
  2. Arising authentically from my heart, my faith, my soul. I have never created anything that could be described as ‘product’, and any publishers using that term in my hearing have lost their working relationship with me. My writing is not formulaic ‘product’, cooked up to tempt the appetite of passers-by. Into the books and articles I’ve written I’ve poured all the truth I know – the best light I can shine held as high as I can lift it, for those whose hearts are also hungry for reality.
  3. Permaculture principles of zoning applied to relationship, with a system of priorities starting with personal integrity, moving out to embrace my intimate circle of family and friends, then those with whom professional commitments bring me into contact, then anyone else who by grace has showed up into my life. So, even in those seasons when I’ve had a very hectic schedule, the people close to me were my first priority, and that was non-negotiable. Still is.
  4. Meaningful occupation useful to other people, put to the service of enlarging the Kingdom of God on earth – enhancing compassion, justice, kindness, truth, integrity and the wellbeing of creation.

So, for me, ‘work’ as a concept may have something or nothing to do with money. My mother was unwaged most of her adult life; I never knew anyone who worked harder. She worked constructively, she fed and housed her family through her work – but money came into it very little. She kept hens and sheep (raised orphan lambs almost given away), grew fruit and vegetables, bought and sold the homes we lived in for steadily increasing amounts. She avoided debt, preferring frugality, seeing what ingenuity could do.

I like to work, because I like to be helpful and useful. I am at Christ’s service. But work can be anything from hanging out the laundry to preaching a sermon to preparing a tenancy agreement to writing a novel to cleaning the bathroom to cooking the supper to leading a quiet day to putting out the dustbins to conducting a funeral. Some is paid, some isn’t; doesn’t matter. Work is not that which earns money – one’s income may be entirely unconnected from one’s work. A person’s work is the contribution they were born to make; as the robin is born to sing and the river is born to make its way to the sea.

Work is natural, it is joyous, it is vocation as well as occupation. It’s what Frederick Buechner said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

 This is my daughter Hebe’s work:

This is my daughter Alice’s work:

Either of them could have earned more on the checkout at Asda – a useful and honourable occupation for sure, but not how they were called into this life to serve.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Can It Be True

There’s this song I really want you to know.

I feel as though I’ve been alive for simply ages, and certainly feel every minute of the age I am, but every now and then something catches me out that shows I’m not keeping up with time passing. This song, for instance. When I was fifteen and first a Christian, everyone was singing it – not least because the large numbers of teenagers learning to play folk guitar found it particularly easy to accompany. “What can you play?” “Well, I can manage Can It Be True?

And I loved it. I thought it was beautiful then, and I still do. It takes me by surprise that nobody else seems to know it any more. I can’t find it anywhere at all on the internet.

Something else I love about it – this has come with the passing of the years – is that it’s written by a Franciscan whose name is given only as Brother William. Those of you who know my St Alcuins series of novels will understand that I inevitably have a soft spot for any Brother William who loves the Lord Jesus.

The copyright of the song belongs to him, and the copyright of the arrangement in Youth Praise belongs to The Venturers. I don’t know who they are.

Youth Praise is long out of print, and the ways of copyright mystify me, so if anyone is reading this who owns the copyright and is cross to see what follows, please contact me and I will take it down. It’s not here for fame or money (as you will realise when you hear me sing it); it’s here because nobody knows or sings Can It Be True any more, and I think they should. The point of copyright is to stop people stealing and making money from other people’s work. The point of this post is to draw attention to the song – so please think of this as publicity not theft.

It’s No 36 in this book.

This is the song.

This is how it goes. I’ve just washed my hair and it looks like old string so I put it up in a kapp to save you that distress. My singing is not good and I’m not impressed by either the sight  or sound of myself, but I remember St Francis saying we must be content not to be good and not to be thought good, so here you are. Oh – and for reasons I cannot fathom, my Mac camera films and photographs like a mirror. I can flip the photos but (so far as I know) not the movies. So everything is back to front. We soldier on. Here goes, then.

Anyone who saw this post the minute I first published it will have been in time to see that I initially posted the WRONG video – my out-take. Uh-oh. Anyway, I showed The Wrong Video to my family and it made them laugh a lot and they said I should put it in. So here it is. Excuse my 'French'.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

More thoughts on how we spend our money

Sometimes online I come across people initiating a ‘buy nothing new’ challenge. For a whole year, even. The intention is to counter our consumerism and slow down our rampant over-use of resources. So far so good. But it has serious drawbacks, and I don’t believe it’s the most constructive way to limit the forces of Mammon.

A more helpful strategy (or so it seems to me, anyway), is to simplify one’s life until it becomes spacious enough to properly consider all one’s purchases, and then go about choosing judiciously and in a considered manner what to buy, how often and how much. Remember: ~

For myself, the second-hand purchases I make are either for items otherwise beyond my budget (eg cashmere sweaters, quality cast iron cookware, linen curtains), or mass-produced items (t-shirts, underwear) that I wouldn’t care if they went out of production.

But in spending money it’s important to have a vision for society as a whole and a strategy for putting it in place. A good way of imagining this is a concept I’ve heard described as ‘the journey of a pound coin’ – that is, thinking through the track your money will roll along when you spend it.

So, for example, if I go to Great Park Farm to buy my cheese and milk, my bread and vegetables, I will be helping to support Sussex dairy farms, market gardens and bakers. Not only that, but the owners of the farm shop live locally, employ local people and source goods from local suppliers (eg bread, cakes). So the money I spend there will go towards supporting the livelihood of several local people, some in the shop and some working from home – perhaps including mothers who want work allowing them to stay home with their young children. The ethos of the shop is such that I feel confident the people who run it will also spend their money in local businesses – maybe an upholsterer, an accountant, a carpenter, a newsagent. That means the money I spent there will have gone to enrich and bless the community where I live.

If, on the other hand, I buy my cheese and milk, my bread and vegetables at a big chain supermarket, though a percentage of what  I spend will go toward employing managers and cashiers from the local community, a substantial proportion will leave our neighbourhood, some to finance goods imported from a distance, some to pay for that transport and storage, some to pay for managers and other employees from a completely different part of the country. Importantly, a significant proportion of what I spend will go to company directors and shareholders who are already rich and don’t need my support; and in order that they may be further enriched, suppliers will be kept on very short rations indeed.

So I need to think carefully about how I spend my money, because I am choosing to bless something and someone each time.

We don’t buy everything from small local businesses. For example, we buy organic meat, cat food, frozen fruit, Ecover cleaning agents, and various plant milks (almond, oat, coconut – all unsweetened) that are not stocked except in the big stores. So we make a weekly trip to the big chain store, and it makes me happy that we are influencing them to sell organic produce and earth-friendly products.

Several members of our household are makers – writing or working on a variety of crafts and arts. We absolutely rely on people buying what we offer I order to eat. If everyone chose to buy nothing new for a year, they could bring to an end a writing career, a small publishing house, a craftsman. Buying nothing new is not a thought-through strategy.

I do buy secondhand books. I think working as a second-hand bookseller is an honourable and friendly way to earn a living, so I am happy for my money to go to people who do that. I’m glad the books are passed on, read, enjoyed, not wasted. But when I’ve read them, if they are good I review them – that will help to boost the sales for all that writer’s work, both used and new copies. I also try to buy new when I can afford to. I generally get e-books (Kindle) when I can, so I can create a library without accumulating objects in my living space. I like my life to be as small and portable as possible. The same goes for music – I buy music, but on i-tunes so the only tangible object needed is my laptop.

I also like to buy services. In days gone buy, work was shared out among the community more freely. People certainly cooked at home, grew their own vegetables, cared for their own children; but they would pay for a tailor, a decorator, a mechanic, a window-cleaner, a gardener, much more readily.  In more recent times, people have sought to save money by doing everything themselves. Instead of eating out, buy microwaveable ready-meals. Instead of maintaining the garden, pave it or cover it with decking. Buy off-the-peg clothes. But paying for specialist services builds and enriches local communities, encourages the development of expertise, and allows the dignity of work to people who might otherwise need welfare benefits. Eating out, for example, is a happy, enjoyable experience. How much better than mass-produced ready-meals with their plastic packaging – for the Earth and for the local community. I’d much rather eat the delicious naan bread that Lakshmi has just that minute made in her tiny, well-planned restaurant kitchen, than buy vacuum-packed supermarket equivalents to heat up at home. The objection is often made that it costs more. So it does, but I find that if I live simply and own less stuff, it’s possible to keep overheads down by either sharing a home or living somewhere small and inexpensive, and so have some money left over.

Having clothes, furniture, plates and bowls, fire-irons, pictures on the wall, books, all made by people you know – this brings a special joy. It makes ordinary things precious. The ways of Mammon have robbed us of so much that is lovely, beautiful, delightful. It’s surely time to take our lives back, and living simply allows us to do that.