News from the Bottom

Written by Thembi Mutch. Posted in Culture, Human Interest, Opinion

Published on October 06, 2008 with 1 Comment

Thembi Mutch
Photo by Luke Thomas

By Thembi Mutch

October 6, 2008

This week, amidst the chaos and sturm and drang of the economic world, it has been hard to focus on what to write about. The temptation to involve myself in ‘palindromes’ (the endless chronicle of a girl whose highest accolade is shooting moose, for gawds sake) or the bailout bill, is not huge. No, I’d rather focus on the alternatives, on how we can live in ways that are not about reacting to the tedious and omniscient complexity of capitalism and its hyper-neurotic crises.

So, in a departure from my Marxist ramblings that you might have grown accustomed, I want to ponder the nature of words, beauty, money, and ‘doing the right thing.’ So, pull up a comfy chair, get your favorite tipple, and settle back into a bit of ruminating on why we do what we do. Then, together, let’s think about whether we know we’re doing it.

Do we make our own reality? How do we know if we know the truth? How much do words tell us about the nature of our reality? What’s more important, money or language? Big questions that have been occupying little me this week in between chasing out rogue stray cats and finding dead mice the cats deliver on the kitchen floor. This morning, in between trying to get my coffee and knocking things over, I spied the mutilated, headless carcasses of the mice the cats have offered as a love token. Not pretty really. But they were fubstian.

Fubstian. Fubstian. My, now THERE’S a beautiful word. It means little, demure, and somehow implies well-formed. Sadly, it has been ditched by the Collins English Dictionary to make way for more contemporary words like ‘credit crunch’, or ‘friendly fire.’ Even words, it seems, have their day. Then the words must be pensioned off to the ‘word zoo,’ where they grow corpulent and lazy, idling away as an endangered species, refusing to mate, abandoned by the modern world.

If we lose the words, do we lose the way of thinking? There’s a debate every first year college graduate has, at some time, to get involved with. If the words are our only way of chronicling a particular way of doing things, then once they go, do we forget how to do, or feel, the things they are describing?

When I was a teenager, I lived in a co-op in the North of England. It was cold. All the meals involved lentils and I wanted to ‘help’ the heroin addicts, teen brides and those unemployed surrounding me. Words of that moment included ‘right on,’ ‘together’ (used to describe someone’s state of mind – she was either ‘together’ or ‘freaked out’) and ‘brill’ – short for brilliant. These were the days when things were still unashamedly brilliant, despite Margaret Thatcher. When I think of that time it is intimately tied in with the language we used at the time, not the money I earned, or didn’t, more to the point.

William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was a proponent of several gorgeous maxims including ‘everything in Life should be Beautiful or Useful,’ plus he believed in real craft – the sort that involves learning how to use a lathe, not the pasting bits of macaroni or lentils on a piece of grey paper. He didn’t mention money, not at all. At this point, living in the co-op, getting paid nothing, a life revolving around lentils, it was easy to make a reality revolving around vague things like friendship, change and truth. Money had no use, or place really.

These days, me and the neighbors – Paul the Buddhist, Leslie the Management Consultant, Pat the retired Civil Servant, and Skye the Hairdresser – sit round the kitchen table trying to get to the bottom of these issues in between gossiping and wondering who is having affairs with whom. In our own small ways we are trying to circumvent the so called ‘reality’ of the economic crash. In our own, local ways, we are learning to talk, to trust each other, and to ignore, squash, or work round the lies and deceit that comprises modern life, just as I did then, as a teenager.

Ok, I know that sounds a bit extreme. But, for most of us, we spend a lot of time buying things: food, clothes, drinks in the bar. We buy time at the cinema; we buy time with friends (because we do things that cost money with them, or we talk on the phone, which costs money too). We talk about how much our houses are worth, or what we want to get paid.

If you don’t question it, money implicitly underpins a terrifying number of transactions. We rarely stop to question what this money is, what it represents, and why we are supposedly in a crisis because money is now failing us. Money is symbolic, that’s all. Something has no intrinsic worth, unless the buyer and the seller agree what it is. Money is the starting point for a transaction, or a relationship, or it should be, if we stop and think.

Let me take you back to when I lived in Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world. When I was looking for a place to live I didn’t look in the newspaper at the ‘To Let’ section. Neither did I contact a real estate agent or check the web. None of these facilities exist in Ethiopia. Instead, I, like everyone else, asked around until a (self-appointed) broker agreed to find properties for me via the oral grapevine and help me negotiate a price. Paul, my Buddhist neighbor, spent time living in Scotland in a commune in a very very poor community. We compared notes on how in both places people sold ‘information’ or the ability to find it, to outsiders. So, in Ethiopia, the broker, Nassa, who I actually ended up living with, got me to pay him every time he negotiated a deal for me that I could never, ever, have achieved as a rich Westerner.

There are some who find faults with this set up. I don’t. It wasn’t just about the financial savings that Nassa was getting me, or the kudos he gained from having a ‘faranji’ (foreign) friend. It was about the fact I was recognizing his local knowledge, his skills, and the fact that he is very poor. We built up a relationship of trust, equality (we both understood the terms of the arrangement)… in the end we ended up sharing a home, meals, endless conversations with him and his wife for a year….. crucially, we talked to each other, explained our situations and were honest. I was, admittedly, lucky and have good ‘people sense’ – this relationship should, and could have, gone horribly wrong, especially because the foundations were initially around financial transactions.

Paul (who earns nothing as a special needs teacher), Leslie (who earns enormous amounts advising managers) and I, ended up discussing what money means: how it becomes representative of the importance of an issue. So the fact that Paul is poorly paid for helping children with learning difficulties and Leslie is vastly overpaid for helping corporate managers exploit people, is a very telling indictment of British society. Both men have very similar skills sets but they apply them in different ways. For Leslie, his money buys him freedom, yet when pushed he is at a loss to explain why. He’s very honest that it hasn’t helped him find the man of his life (he’s gay) or to relate to people. If anything, it’s made him more suspicious and detached because he wonders if people just want his cash. Paul, meanwhile, feels liberated by the possibility of not being weighed down by money, a mortgage, or debts. Who is doing the ‘right thing?’ Who has more control over their life?

Paul readily concedes that, like me, he spent a period of his life living in squats and co-operative houses, smoking dope and being a political idealist. We both agree that this time gave us a window to dream and taught us how to live rather ascetically and experience hardship and discipline, rather like being in the army really. But as well as this, an absence of money taught us how to talk in terms of trust, co-operation and connection. I know, I sound like a hippy. But if we don’t find alternatives to the twittering narrative of financial capitalism, if we believe the guff that this is a ‘crisis’ (it isn’t), we are doomed to forever react to the nonsense fed to us.

Oh dear, this has become another rambling Marxist rant. A rant that seems to dart from North England to Sussex to Ethiopia. Inevitable really. Next week I will tackle ‘thinking.’

Paul and I, we are very comfortable without material goods, without much money, preferring instead to talk, to think about space, hope, a decent skyline and nature (except when nature is lying mutilated on the kitchen floor as a dead mouse).

Thembi Mutch

BIO Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist focusing on human rights issues. After graduating from the London School of Economics with a BSc in Political Science and Anthropology, Thembi launched Shocking Pink, an alternative anarcho-feminist 'zine in the late 80s. In addition to her radio and television reportage, Thembi has been widely published, including in the London Observer, British Journalism Review, the Financial Times, the New Scientist and with the BBC. She is currently writing a thriller about international foreign aid and is working on her PhD thesis on the subject of women's political marginalization in Tanzania and Zanzibar. Thembi is a lazy gardener who likes growing her own food, and currently lives in Hastings, England.

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  1. A little question from Richard: “Do you know what “aibohphobia” is?”….. (Clue, think palindromes)…because i am clever bastard I do know what it is… thank you Richard, you are clearly ‘Never odd or even’.