Thursday, 23 February 2017

Little cities

In the last two days, I have heard three people quite separately advising that a good way to live is to stay humble, work with your hands, and be kind (or not steal things). Working with your hands implies some kind of mercantile society - because no-one can make enough things personally to fully live. If you were good at making fishing nets, you would quite likely not have had time to learn how to make usable pots, or strong shoes. A small tribe of people might have all the necessary skills among its members for them to have access to all the things they'd need, but after a time, that tribe would itself need things beyond its immediate scope of making - maybe iron, or timber, or new animals.  So, since we gave up being nomads after the last Ice Age, we've had to live in or near to groups big enough to make all the basic necessities, or to trade in them. Agriculture means markets. It is very interesting to me to see how farmsteads and villages are scattered in particular kinds of landscape. Richer lands allow more people to live closer together, but poorer lands (such as mountainsides) mean each group needs more space to create tradable wealth, so dwellings are less numerous overall.
Market towns have various things in common - accessibility, some sort of security, water, civic provision such as law courts and justice, a tax system, a weights-and-measures authority, religious buildings, and so on. There also have open space or sometimes a covered building in which to conduct the trade, and if the trade is in beasts then there will have been an abbatoire or shambles. Fish and poultry often have separate and maybe smaller markets.
Our own town of Faversham had or had these, in different districts, over the centuries, and so does Thame and Settle and Bishops Castle and so on. Kilkenny has the same thing.
All these town share another feature which is that they work completely perfectly for people on foot. You can easily walk from place to place - the river, the castle, the old law court, the market, the several ancient churches, and so on.  Modern traffic has to thread its way through, but the traffic is out of place, too big, too close, too smelly. We have been slowly familiarising ourselves with Kilkenny over the last few years as this is where our son lives with his wife and baby son. The similarities and differences between this town and others we know in England keep presenting themselves.  We feel at home here, but keep seeing how it's not the same.
It clearly has medieval origins, and may have been almost indistinguishable in the 14th century from its counterparts in England, but as time passed, the impacts of history have led to divergence. Ireland is understandably very very Irish, so there are masses of green things on sale - wigs, Viking helmets, clothing of all kinds, beards, garden gnomes, scarves..... This is in the run-up to St Patricks's Day in a few days time.
It also remained mostly Catholic, and we see far far more visible signs of religion as we walk around - bible study shops, shops and posters inviting you to buy your children's confirmation clothes. They have the Angelus on television twice a day.   There are far far more small businesses in old retail shops, run since forever by families... So the names adorn all the shops - Egan, O'Reilly, Kelly, Lewis, Byrne, and so on.   It's a noticeably friendly place, so the Vietnamese nail bar which opened just before Christmas came here because the owners, on a day trip from Dublin were so struck by the pleasant attitude of the residents asked all their staff it they'd like to relocate, so they did, the whole lot of them.  There are masses and masses and masses of pubs, though some are empty, but a new brewery has opened up to visitors.
And there is a thriving pride in local produce, so we find a highly confident and vigorous restaurant and arts culture, with delicatessens, cafes, health food shops, craft shops, galleries, award-winning cuisines, and probably hundreds of local producers supplying the basic fare - eggs, meat, fish, bakery, soaps, oils, biscuits, art, specialist items of all kinds, honey, cosmetics, weaving, music, interior items, it's all absolutely alive and well. As the old employment-based, industrial and banking economies have faded away, the place has reverted to its ancient origins.... trading in local goods.
It may be that the churches do not have such a hold on the people now, as we see yoga, reiki, shiatsu, hippy stuff, Buddhism, etc all advertised, and there are lots of Indian and other foreign population groups who may not be Catholic. One of a pair of stone gates bears a carved tablet explaining how the English managed their scorching rage of the locals under Cromwell by dragging local lords and commoners into some sort of parliamentary government - as it says 'wars which were waged to maintain the religious and political liberties of the Irish people......'   Oh no. Atrocties.
But todays' Irish people are mostly completely polite about what the English did to them, for so long. Given the current political upheaval, its' not beyond the realm of possibility that the English might apply to become a province of Ireland, allowing St Patrick to hold hands with St George....  Ireland has its citiies, of course, but as in England, its' the old market towns which preserve a more authentic sense of the culture and nations, in my opinion. Kilkenny, like Faversham, holds a lot of experience and wisdom in its higgledey-piggledy streets and merchant houses. People on foot have to see each other's faces, can sample each others' cooking, watch each other's children.

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