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Archive for January, 2014

Dark Corners of the Mousehole

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Mousehole by moonlight

My previous post (Lessons from a Mousehole) on where I live in Cornwall was very well-received by many people, especially those interested in sustainable communities. The question arose inevitably however, ‘Can it really be that good?’ The short answer is yes, communities can be healthy, and sustainable, even in this day and age. The longer answer has to acknowledge that nothing is perfect and that, yes, there are problems. So this post is an exploration of those dark corners, bearing in mind that there is nothing exceptional about these corners, that in fact they can exist – and often do – in any community. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, ‘every front has a back’.

A fellow researcher was told by a fisherman recently that Newlyn (two miles from Mousehole) was a ‘drinking village with a fishing problem’. I suspect it would be an exaggeration to say the same about Mousehole; but there is an aspect of it that which is similar, manifesting in one of the main problems I have experienced here:  noise. Like many of my neighbours, I get woken in the early hours of the morning by drunks conversing – and, occasionally, fighting – right outside my window. The very streets I accoladed in the previous post for their narr0w, twisting nature, so abhorrent to cars and friendly to pedestrians, reveal their flip side: that they force people to be closer together even when not desired, such as at two o’clock in the morning. Furthermore, some of the old houses like mine have been divided into flats, their floors and walls too thin to separate fully the lives of the various occupants. Last year I had a genial neighbour who would fall asleep in front of his television quite regularly, and the sound was so present in my bedroom I would have to crash out in the sitting room to get away from the noise.

I didn’t mind doing this so much as the sitting room has a superb view over the sea, and every time I woke up to the sound and sight of the ocean, I could pretend I was on holiday. This refuge however is no longer available to me, because of another dark corner: microwaves. In an appropriately darkly humorous way I find it ironic that so much fuss is made about phone masts, yet people have invited the devil into their homes through their use of cordless phones. The bases for these operate in much the same way as a mobile phone mast, and transmit microwaves in our homes 24/7. When I have clients who can’t sleep I often advise them to simply switch off the wi-fi at night and replace their cordless phones with corded ones, and they usually have no problems after that. It’s common consent that signals from wi-fi, cordless phones, mobiles etc. are harmless but this is ill-founded; there is plenty of academic, let alone anecdotal, evidence about the harmful effects. If you’re interested, the Powerwatch website is a good place to start. In my case, I found I was experiencing arrhythmia, something entirely new to me, which would dissipate when I left the room, and vanish entirely when I left the house. I checked the room using my array of gadgets and found there was a source of microwaves I hadn’t been aware of before, coming from right beneath the sitting room, and it was quite powerful. This is a difficult problem to resolve as one can’t just ask neighbours to replace their phones, particularly when they’re not an officially acknowledged health risk. (In a similar way, I am as disturbed now by all the mobile phone use in train compartments, as I once was by the smoking. It seems we’re determined to do damage to our bodies one way or another.)  The way forward may be putting matting down on the floor with carbon paint, but it’s pricey and needs to be done right. So currently I am living Howard Hughes-like (but without the money) solely in my bedroom, and (unlike HH) spending as much time as possible away from the house.

Which leads to another dark corner: magnetic fields. Again Powerwatch is a good source for background material on this. In their book ‘Killing Fields in the Home’ they document how old infrastructures can lead to stray and net currents in our streets, resulting in unusually high magnetic fields. To give an idea of the scale of the problem, when I work on a person’s house I would advise them to take measures if the fields in their bedrooms are 50 nanotesla (nT) or more. It never comes to that, as rarely are they even as high

An electricity substation lurking furtively on a Mousehole corner

An electricity substation lurking furtively on a Mousehole corner

as 5 nT. In a place like Mousehole, with the currents straying between electric sub-stations via old pipes etc., the fields vary between 100-500 nT, usually at the higher end of the scale, in the daytime. Unlike with electric fields, there is no shielding realistically possible against magnetic fields. The health risks of these fields are varied, and of course not widely acknowledged, and I was uncertain if they were manifesting here – thinking maybe our healthy lifestyles by the sea were counteracting adverse effects – until someone mentioned the prevalence of dementia in the village. Statistically, I don’t know if it’s any higher here than anywhere else but the remark did inspire me to find out if there is a link, and there are plenty. You can get a glimpse of some of the research available at: Magnetic fields . Here the levels drop down a little late at night, so we do have that respite. Mind you, I have been losing my keys a lot recently…

Now where was I. Ahh yes, dark corners. Well, noise and electromagnetic pollution are of course challenges faced anywhere there are people today, and so is the next subject I would like to look at. Putnam in ‘Bowling Alone’ (see previous post) as one of the strongest advocates of community cohesion, has one chapter titled ‘The Dark Side of Social Capital’, but even he understates I think just how much pressure can come from any group of people to conform. He does talk about exclusive social capital, where the cohesion can be high but is strongly conditional: examples would include churches or clubs with specific interests. Here, certainly there are churches, and there are also pubs where the conditions are certainly that you can afford the price of alcohol these days, but also that you drink. In contrast, I waxed lyrical in the previous post about how inclusive social capital manifests in the very streets of Mousehole, where we all keep running into each other and usually have time for a chat, but there is a catch. One person here described it as something like random dark pulses that run through the community. In India they recognise this aspect of societies and refer to it actually as a ‘dark wind’ that manifests destructively, like an emergence from the deep collective unconscious. Here it may be only experienced as the dark pulses referred to, glimpses of what people call the ‘straw dogs syndrome’ after the infamous Sam Peckinpah film, shot (funny how they use the verb ‘to shoot’ for camerawork) just up the road in St Buryan. The term ‘straw dogs’ is a reference from the Tao Te Ching about ‘form without substance’, redolent also of T.S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw’.  Eliot was vociferous about the emptiness of modern man, decrying a lack of value in a world rampant with materialism. Thus, the dark side of social capital is any unconscious gathering of people, as in gangs – whether overtly violent or confined to gossip, they marginalise the individual, make them a target – and this dark side is in all of us. As Philip Zimbardo constantly emphasised in his ground-breaking ‘The Lucifer Effect’, it is not a question of ‘How can they commit evil?’ but more ‘How can I commit evil?’ The heart of darkness is in all of us.

Low tide at Mousehole

Low tide at Mousehole

And thus I come to what I guess is the main point of this meandering text: that all these problems – from electromagnetic pollution to the dark side of group dynamics – are not particularly to do with Mousehole at all, but are pandemic. Tolstoy famously said, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’  I’ve always been puzzled by that line, as in my experience it’s the other way around with people in general, and have been struck by how when a group’s individuality really shines it is incomparable with any other. So yes, Mousehole is by no means perfect, but is facing the same problems you are too, and its individuality, its uniqueness, remains strong.

(As a postscript, just before reviewing this post prior to publishing, I have now returned from a two week break to find that the magnetic fields are now sometimes exceeding 1000 nT since the cables have been repaired by the electricity company, and the drunks still wake me up in the wee hours. I may – ironically, given my championing of Mousehole as a resilient community – be forced to move out yet.)

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