Cooperation is the key to so much

By Martin Kirby

Well, that's done. A dangerous month, October; scary too. The gilded gods awoke from summer slumbers in capricious temper, moving their furniture and throwing bolts between sunbeams. Walnuts rained down from the shaken trees and I popped some in my back pocket on damp dog walks, forgetting about them until I sat down. Between torrents we took a nightfall stroll to the recently silent ravine and bone-dry swimming hole to hear the roar of the river and peer through the gloom at three delirious ducks. The summits of pink meringue storm clouds loomed once more from the east, the lightning flashed again and so we turned for home, hearing wild boar in the hazel shadows beside the puddled track. I did the rounds of the animals, and in the quagmire of the chicken-run a rock had appeared. I skidded to avoid it and it lumbered away; a juggernaut toad. Warmth and water – the first moisture since May – have transformed the parchment map of Iberia. Grass has grown several inches and the swelling olives weigh the boughs towards the sward a little more each day. I have been flitting between farm and mill, my head clogged with the challenges or looming olive harvest, wine making and the battening down of hatches, but more so with family revelations from the past. First, though, I promised last month to tell of our commitment to that vital creation, the “modern” cooperative and its inherent principle of pulling together and sharing, adopted in villages across these mountains a century ago where communities are now fighting to survive through the chaos of the pan-European recession. The village cooperative we belong to consists of about 40 families. Cooperative is a word - an ethos, a way of life - rising rapidly in the public conscience even in the hot-house capitalist nations like my native United Kingdom, now the dusty, dated throne room of Thatcherism. Thank goodness. Before this turns into an essay of angst about gross greed and excess, and the betrayal of core values not least the family, fundamental reasons for the current crisis both economic and social, I should look to the positive. Cooperatives and the growth of social enterprises are showing they can help bring the vital reform of economics, globalization, and social justice. As John Restakis states in his book Humanizing The Economy - Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, the co-operatives form the most powerful grassroots movement in the world. The cooperative is as vital here in the Priorat mountains, as anywhere in the world, historically so. Curious, too, how it now swells with importance in Britain where there are housing initiatives and an increasing number of social enterprise endeavours, while on the high street The Cooperative, now a burgeoning bank too, grows in significance, alongside the largest employee-owned company in the UK, the John Lewis Partnership. Maybe in this age of social re-evaluation the principals set out in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society will come to the fore a host of community ways, encapsulating as we have experienced here first hand a wonderful foundation for bringing people together. I fear, though, that this UN International Year of Cooperatives, the championing of a society-saving idea, may have been lost amid the crush of bleak news. Did you know, for example, that there are more than 800 million members of cooperatives worldwide, providing more than 100 million jobs (20 per cent more than multinational “big” business)? Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary-General, made the point. As the world witnesses growing public discontent as a result of the financial and economic crises, she made plain how the international community could learn from the cooperative movement, which balanced both economic viability and social responsibility, “offering a model for harnessing the energies and passions of all.” “As self-help organisations, cooperatives are inherently people-centred. They not only meet material needs, but also the human need to participate proactively in improving one’s life.” With the olive harvest just a few weeks away we are trying to tidy our lives. The great sunflower heads and crate-loads of nuts had been gathered and the wood store was half-filled before the deluge. In the farmhouse there has been a significant culinary development. Quico (Keeko) has finally left the building, replaced by Italian Guido. For many a moon we have aspired to a new cooker. Maggie produced feasts on 45-year-old Quico, but both he and we knew his time was up. Getting him to light required me to kneel and beg with my head in the oven, the door to which (when he decided to play ball) never closed properly so had to be propped with something heavy. Now we are able to check our appearance in the reflection from the spotless stainless steel of a Smeg semi-industrial range. Blimey. Notice I didn’t say Quico had gone completely. I was for a swift end, but compassionate Maggie thought he might be useful (the gas rings at least) for farm helpers residing in the old caravan, besides which he now stands. I am glad. So to my abiding thoughts of East Anglia. Beside me there is a box that we carried with us from Aldborough in Norfolk 12 years ago. Inside there is a small oil painting of a Suffolk glade with shepherds sitting on a log. I blew the dust off it to show two artists who were staying in our cottage and I have since been unearthing a little more of its story and, to my surprise, more of my family’s history. But the fundamental mystery remains – who painted it? It was gifted to my great-grandmother, Sarah Baker, in the 1880s when, as a young girl, she allowed an unknown artist to paint her portrait. She had been raised on a farm somewhere between Rushmere St Andrew and Woodbridge in Suffolk. Sarah probably took it to London when she married a Devon shoemaker called Huxtable who ran a little shop in Peckham. They had a son and two daughters, but at the beginning of the twentieth century both father and son died of consumption in the same year, so Sarah and her daughters returned to Suffolk. One of the daughters, Ellen, married a Tom Kirby in Woodbridge, where they settled and had a baby, my father. So what is the Norfolk connection? Sarah had remarried and had another daughter. The marriage was, to put it bluntly, a disaster, so much so that my grandfather Tom deemed it necessary to give up everything and whisk his wife and newborn son, his mother-in-law and her daughter away in secret to distant Holt in north Norfolk, to start again, renting a council house, 4 The Fairstead, for £1 10s a fortnight. There were further great ructions and estrangements that I will not bore you with, but in searching for any records about the painting I have unearthed from the bottom of one of the old leather cases of family records some faded postcards that have enabled me to chart the subsequent life of my great-grandmother Sarah and, possibly, the painting. Her daughter from the failed married, Winnie, later ran the restaurant on Wymondham railway station. She and Sarah lived nearby, then moved to Norwich, and during the second world war and until Sarah’s death were at 60 Heigham Street, a stone’s throw from the first house I bought. Countless times had I sat in a traffic queue waiting for the Dereham Road lights to change, staring at that terrace, and I never knew. How much more do I still not know? Keep well. Next month – One of Ella and Joe’s teachers is to speak at a meeting in England.


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