Working together

A key building in Findhorn needs repairing bringing about a sense of nostalgia for the early days of

It feels like old times. Gangs have been out all week, working on the roof of the Universal Hall, the splendid building at the heart of the ecovillage that plays such an important role in the cultural life of our community. After almost 30 years, it is beginning to show signs of wear and tear and the roof now has to come off to permit replacement of waterproofing membranes that keep the building dry.

The Hall figures large in the mythology surrounding the ‘heroic phase’ of Findhorn’s development. The image passed down is of great teams of volunteers out digging trenches, putting up buildings, turning fields into farms. This was the early 1970s, an era of great idealism with the model of the Israeli Kibbutz as a shining example of the power and beauty of communal solidarity.

Every so often, when we celebrate community anniversaries or the birthdays of those who were around during this period, the old photographs of the great work-gangs are wheeled out. As a more recent arrival – I have lived here for only around seven years – these photos tend to make me feel nostalgic.

And I remember back to a wonderful late summer’s day in a small intentional community I used to live in on the Dorset/Devon border, where a team of us rose before dawn and harvested an 11-acre hay field in one long day, pushing the last bale into place in the great barn in the late twilight just as the day’s first raindrops started to fall, before retreating to the local pub, to sit silent, exhausted and deeply happy with ourselves, with each other and with life.

Today, the greater individualism in society as a whole has also permeated the ecovillage movement. Most of us here have to make our own living. And while there are still some self-build projects, most houses are now built by professionals (even if often, those professionals are other community members that learned their trade on projects like the Universal Hall). The trenches for cables and pipes are now dug by paid teams wearing official hard-hats and uniforms – no apparent need for those in the heroic period, suggest the old faded photographs.

The Hall took ten years to build. A team of local skilled stonemasons was brought in to build the first wall. Then, partly due to financial considerations, partly because of the prevailing can-do spirit, they were released and community members who had worked alongside them took over. “There was generally always one person on the job who knew what he was doing”, one of the elders tells me, “but not always”. Still, go look at the walls and try to identify which is the one that was built by the professionals – I still cannot.

Work was completed on schedule in time to host the first World Wilderness Congress in 1983. Among the early speakers was Fritz Schumacher, of Small Is Beautiful fame. Now, the Hall is a venue for many important local festivals, including the Nairn Jazz Festival, the Aberdeen International Youth Dance Festival and for a host of dancers, singers and theatre troupes. It is perhaps the biggest draw that brings in people from outside the community.

So, it is fitting that it should be Hall that provides us with an opportunity to rediscover the joys of working together as volunteers in great teams. My prayer is that we re-acquire a taste for this way of working and that it gets woven back into the fabric of who we are as a community.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.