Saturday, 11 April 2015

ARCHIVE: altogether elsewhere

Here is a post I wrote in 2011 about the fall of Rome and poetry and libraries and the power of wild things that was prompted by the unexpected scent of sweet violets. Yesterday Mark and I made a violet vineger from the banks of flowers that have since appeared in the garden. A dog violet was the flower that sparked off our original plant practice in Oxford, and so each Spring we keep an eye out for violets, especially the white ones that grow in the nearby backlanes. Unlike the wild strawberries or celandines they really do shrink away. You have to get down on your hands and knees to really appreciate them. There's a poetic metaphor in there somewhere about humbleness and attention ....but I won't push it! 
One night last week I came through the gate and halted on the dark garden path.. There was something in the air. What was it? Something ineffable, strange, marvellous. I called out to Mark who was walking down the lane: Breathe in as you come into the garden!

The odour of sweet violets. The flowers catch you unawares, containing as they do a singular property (ionone) which means you cannot smell them directly - or you might, but if you lean down to capture the scent it disappears. Maybe this is why they have been honoured as the flowers of memory. Because memories come like violets in a night garden, when you least expect them. And when you seek to hold the moment you realise it has already gone.

I had just been to the World Book Night at Bungay Library as part of the Suffolk campaign to save our local libraries. The courtyard garden there was crammed with give-and-take books, there were petitions to sign and glasses of wine to drink and upstairs the local poet’s society was conducting an open mic session. I hadn’t thought about poetry for a long time. Once it had described and made sense of my whole world.

Suddenly amongst the creaky folk songs and polite lines about Spring a tall young man in a great coat stood up and recited an outrageous satire on the millionaire coalition government. It had a rollicking Hilaire Belloc gait. Polished and savage and loud, the recital was unashamed. A wild card amongst the well behaved community audience. I clapped wildly. It was Luke Wright, one of a group of young performance poets who came out of UEA known as Aisle 16, who had since gone on to run a club in London and appear on Radio 4.

Downstairs Margaret, a fellow Transitioner, had been accosted by a Tory matron.
"She was very upset," she said.

I laughed: He always shocks people, I told her. I had come across Luke Wright when I was working for the Poetry Trust. He and his fellow poets had sworn and swaggered and shaken the tea tent of the alternative fringe of the Aldeburgh Festival and some of the dowager patrons had walked out. That’s when I remembered The Fall of Rome, a political poem that suddenly breaks away in its last lines into another world. How it is when we are intensely focused on one thing and out of the blue something unforeseen enters our field and reminds us of the bigger picture. The poem is by W.H. Auden capable, like all good poets, of delivering a perfect shock. The poem is set in a city that is Rome but all cities and all empires since. It is 1947 when the poem was written and also now:

An unimportant clerk writes:
on a pink offical form

We conform and yet desire our liberty. We protect and barricade ourselves in and are always waiting for the stranger to appear, for the unexpected call, the invitation, that reminds us - you are needed now urgently! The shock that might shake us out of our sleepwalking.

We can be so immersed in the daily round of life we forget to look up and remember where we are. We can be so caught up by the wheels of history, in the intrigues of people, we forget what planet we are on, that time passes and we have a collective destiny to fulfil. We can be so caught up in the minutiae of Transition in meetings and emails and events, defending the latest theories of climate change and peak oil, we forget what we are really doing all this for. The deepest frame of all.

Why do I like the poem? Because it reminds me we live in a time of fall, what the ancients once called the kali yuga, the dog’s throw, when the dice is stacked against us. The time when we lose the game and have to begin again.

When we do we will have to remember how to order our lives: not as they have been run, according to the laws of Empire, but according to the rhythms and measure of Earth. The Hopi call this measuring principle wild turkey. Amongst the most impeccable and ritualistic of peoples, growing corn in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes, the Hopi keep a door open for the wild things to enter. Because they know that for life to work for human beings, everything we domesticate, from creatures to the growing of crops to the building of settlements, needs to be in balance with the wild and unexpected. The Earth is not tame in her nature. She has a wild and stormy heart.

Civilisation is a closed-system that attempts to control, possess and use all the resources of the Earth for its own benefit. But the Earth as a whole multi-celled entity (including ourselves and our imaginations) is an open system, as anyone who has studied chaos theory will recognise. All closed systems live within the fluidity and dynamics of the open system and are subject to its laws, not the other way round. We either respect those laws as symbionts, or we don’t and become parasites. Either way, the laws of earthly movement still hold. The storm breaks and how we have acted in the past plays out in the future. When things become limited, chaos enters the field. When the city becomes decadent the barbarians enter from the North. The poets start raising their voices. Some of us start listening.

Altogether elsewhere vastherds of reindeer move across
miles and miles of golden moss
silently and very fast.

 LIBRARY UPDATE 2015: Thanks to the country-wide campaign Bungay Library became a pioneeer community library and flourished, along with its permaculture garden; as did our much-loved local Southwold Library. This month on Monday 27th April I will be giving a talk at Southwold Library about working on Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered (Oberon Books) at 2pm. Entry free.

Sweet violets ready for pickling; violets by the road; Save Our Library poster in the window; violet vinegar. All Mark Watson

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Making Art as if the World Mattered

Today the long-awaited book about the arts and social change, Playing for Time, will be launched at the Free Word Centre in London. Published by Oberon Books, it is the lifework and inspiration of theatremaker and Transitioner, Lucy Neal. For the last two years I have been working with Lucy to help edit and shape this essential guide to moving ourselves and our communities into a downshifted, more friendly future. So on the day it arrives from the printers, here is some of what went into creating its 400+ pages.

"Did you just say Joseph Beuys?" I asked incredulous. We were in a Totnes teashop, in 2011, in a breakout moment, wolfing down beans and baked potatoes, after a hard morning defining Transition culture.

"I did," she laughed. "I was talking about social sculpture and how it fits into the book I'm planning to write."
"I love his work," I said. "Your book sounds really interesting."

It was our first meeting. Lucy and I were working with 20 or so other dedicated Transitioners, wrestling another composite book into shape, The Transition Companion. Meetings with local councils, food hubs, draughtbusting workshops were the focus of our attention. It was a long, long way from the city where the artist had once planted 7000 oaks and held a conversation with a dead hare, but his appearance in that old-worlde Devon teashop galvanised what would become an extraordinarily creative partnership. It was what Lucy would describe as an 'intervention', and I might call destiny. One of those rare moments when you cross the tracks.

Transition can also be an intervention, but with a rather more puritan effect on your life. You find yourself in a utilitarian zone, full of facts and figures: stats, economics, policy, climate science and all the kinds of 'boysy' subjects you never put your hand up for at school (at least I never did). If you are 'arty' in Transition you can find yourself strangely sidelined, doing useful things for the serious hard people, like designing posters or coordinating events, making the room look nice- you know like the ladies who do the flowers in church halls. Fluffy, with a low carbon twist.

You do need to know the dry stuff of course in order to understand how to transform a top down corporate-run world into a grassrooted sustainable one. You need to know about land grabs and zero waste, wake up about the fossil fuel industry and global finance. But what is not often realised is that a different world has to have a different arts and culture base. There need to be new scripts, new voices, a different look and feel in the way we reflect on our lives and everyone else's.Art can't just stay in the Empire's theatres and galleries, distracting those who can afford the entry fee with its kings and wizards and celebrities. It has to break out, go walkabout, run up into the hills, into the community gardens, into the river Thames, fall into everyone's hands. The story about another way of being human on Earth has to be told differently with an planet-friendly, (real) democratic power base.

Months later when I started up Transition Free Press I got in touch with Lucy and asked her to write about her residency at Battersea Arts Centre, and the Four Levels of Narrative she had worked on there with the playwright, Sarah Woods. The levels were to be one of the structural beams of the book, she explained. Green Books however were selling up, so she no longer had an editor or a publisher.

'Do you know anyone who might help?' she asked..
'Yes,' I said, 'As a matter of fact I do!'

the show

You can do the show anywhere. Every artist knows that. That's what gives us our strength and resilience. We are not dependent on outer circumstances: we will dance, write, cook, sing, create come what may. In a good time, we get rewarded, we get prizes and appear on television and on people's lips. And in a bad time we get nothing, we get called names, or are forgotten. Still we work: we get up everyday and we hone our craft. We're not doing it just for ourselves, we doing it for the world. Because it matters. Because life matters. We are the ones who remember. Come what may.

Why the arts are crucial for the future is because they create a culture in which everyone matters. In the future everyman is king, said Beuys. Working on Playing for Time I realised that in Transition's university of hard knocks, it is not so much about creating an art department, but about framing and supporting what the artist does In Playing for Time, the first section of the book, Drivers of Change, showcases those tough big pictures most people don't want to look at, so the rest of the book can make sense. When you read the subsequent sections, The Projects and Recipes for Action, you realise the arts is the only medium that will lead everyone towards a future we might actually want to live in. Some of us have been holding out for it for centuries.

the blueprint

Tonight at Free Word, Lucy has conjured a great party, or maybe I should call it a happening. When Lucy unveiled her plans I gasped:
"Lucy!" I said, "This is mega."
"I know," she laughed, "It's a festival!"

25 years in the theatre business can make you blithe about complexity. Tonight there will be delicious food and speeches and games and music and performance and a giant cake. It's a generous and joyful celebration of almost four years' work. Some of the book's 64 contributors are standing up and doing their thing for five minutes EXACTLY (timed by master theatremaker, Fabio Santos). I am taking a long roll of lining paper and doing what is known as A Reveal.

Here is that roll of paper in the garden of Oberon Books, with Andrew (Senior Ed) and James (Designer) looking on. You can't see it very well in the pic, but this is the books' blueprint. I made it so our core contributors and editorial board could walk through its territory and see the map of its contents, without having to read everything that at that point lived in Dropbox and in a huge blue file. If you are pulling over 80 projects and practices into a whole, you have to have a structure that allows them to connect and yet be distinct (Oh, and a serious word count).

One of Joseph Beuys' most striking 'sculptures' was known as Honeypump in the Workplace. This was a space he created in the middle of an exhibition in Kassel, surrounded by pipes of flowing honey and warm fat. He then hosted a series of discussions about the future within its ambient technology. The warmth and movement of the honey and fat, he stated, made the space warm, inviting, friendly, social, intelligent, so a higher level of engagement could happen. The blueprint was like those pipes, a container for a new kind of exchange.

the crucible

All great works are conceived in small spaces. Playing for Time was initiated in Ted Hughes's old house at Lumb Bank and signed off from Lucy's study in Tooting, but its fiery crucible was a tiny caravan known as The Puck, which held its own midsummer dream at the bottom of my garden for a year and a half. Over the months Lucy would come down for a few days, and we would wrest the material in the mornings, working our way through the blueprint: discussing each of the book's core subjects in depth from reclaiming the commons to rites of passage. We looked through texts, photographs, worked on commissions, went off topic, swore a lot, and laughed more.

In the afternoons, I would edit, Lucy would write and in the evening we met for supper (one night around her tiny work table, another round our rather larger deal one). She served wine in coloured glasses and cosmopolitan dishes in bowls from Tooting and France; we served foraged salads and Mexican beans and damson and blackberries from the hedge. In the summer we swam in the sea before breakfast, in the winter we gathered by the fire. Lucy told stories about her travels for the LIFT festival, Mark sang songs, I reminded everyone about the deadline. We had a lot of fun.

You don't often get a chance to know people well when you are older. Social occasions or Skypes are not the same as shared daily life: tripping up over everyone's shoes in the corridor, swapping  recipes or lending each other a brolly when the rain pours. The community exchanges that can come through Transition can help you break some of that isolation, but nothing beats working on a creative project with people who are as dedicated and focused as yourself. Especially when you are paid for your skills.

Most of my life is spent working with people on line and there is rarely any time to meet each other - maybe once a year for an hour or two. Playing for Time however had lots of time in it: for real encounter and conversation. That's when I realised that real change can only happen in a warm and friendly physical space which has time in it.

A defined space and a limited time. Just like our ever-changing and interacting presences on Earth.

the practice

Core to Playing for Time is the concept of the Practice, You could say it was the thing that brought both Lucy and I together: artistic practice is something we share. When I was young I learned that practice is something you do frequently to master any art or skill. I learned it with ballet shoes on my feet and holding a cello bow in my hands, and then poring for hours over a host of notebooks. At some point you realise that having a practice is more than scales or barrework, or wrestling with sentences or god, it is a way of engaging with life, with the fabric and meaning of things: practice is what brings spirit and beauty into form.

Eventually I came to see Transition as a practice - a social or com- munity practice. Because we all need to practise thinking and working collaboratively if we are to shift out of our culture's individualistic mindset. Working on the book meant dovetailing some of those different approaches - both artistic and social - and cohering them into what Lucy has called 'transitional arts practice'.

The book contributors were already well versed in this kind of participatory work, but not necessarily professional writers. So one of my key tasks as the working editor was helping the artists shape their prose, making it zesty and informative for a reader (as opposed to a funding body). Writing from the work, rather than about the work, become our mantra. Some commissioned pieces needed a major rehaul, others just a tweak or a polish. Nearly all of them needed a cut. Playing for Time is a big book in its scope and in its content, so a stern hand was needed at the tiller:

'You have to kill your children,' I said to Lucy and laughed. She looked at me shocked.
"That's what the subs used to say on Fleet Street,' I told her. 'And you did, because on a deadline newspapers cut your copy from the bottom.'

We started this collaborative writing process in March 2013 at Arvon's Lumb Bank. 12 members of the PFT core crew were given the task of writing up their practice in a 1000 words and three of their projects in 500 words. By the time I was working on Playing for Time I already had years of practice working with people who were not writers by trade or inclination, but had a great story to tell (first in the Social Reporting Project and then Transition Free Press). Sometimes people had to be persuaded they had a story to tell, that just being the person who holds the space Beuys was talking about is an art and a story in itself.

What we both wanted to show was that the future is a composite narrative: many voices, many strands, many hands. There is no one official story that can be conveniently 'rolled out' across the globe. The future is collaborative and collective. It belongs to the grassroots people doing on the ground work, doing it in many different small groups and configurations, interacting and exchanging ideas and skills like any other eco-system on the planet. In Playing for Time 64 artists and thinkers show and tell their story and each of those stories are just a fraction of a much larger body of work, and each of those works often involved hundreds of people in communities all around the world, in bio-regions, cities, woods, mountains, with bees and wolves and trees, rivers, children, clay, bacteria, all things on Earth.

I have come to see that one of the crucial actions of transitional arts practice is to host and gather people in the spirit that Beuys once envisioned. I like to think the book will go out and ferment those kinds of cross-tracking moments across a teashop table, when you think you are there to finish one book, but in fact you are there to work on another one completely. I like to imagine that all its macro and micro attentions, its intelligence, beauty and integrity, will inspire people to look forward, take action, and be generous and inclusive in the way so many artists and writers have been with their knowledge and experience, not least Lucy herself.

I won't be able to write here about everything that made Playing for Time happen: there is not enough room for the times I traipsed over Tooting Common en route to Lucy's house past the Lido and the oak trees, or the early mornings I walked across to The Puck through sopping wet grass, notebooks in hand, or the glasses of Mark's herbal refresher we drank as the sun went down on another day in the crucible, except to say that all of it mattered.

Because all of it really does.

Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered is published by Oberon Books, £16.99. Images from the book include: Beuys' Acorn by Ackroyd & Harvey (Art and Climate Change); G8 Clown Army (John Jordan's intro to Activism);  Dursley Encounters shop (Ruth Ben-Tovim in Street); crocus from Honeyscribe (Amy Shelton in Home) Lucy introducing Playing for Time at the Free Word launch.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Flat Earth News

At the end of last month I went to the Real Media Gathering in Man- chester to meet up with fellow forgers of UK's grassroots media. Here are some reflections on the event, as Real Media's first campaign kicks off this week. Originally published by the innovative Independence blog, Bella Caledonia, this is the slightly longer version of the story.

‘It’s tragic,’ he said, staring at the teaser on the front page. The news was all over Euston Station. A huge screen by departures was proclaiming the end of the world as we know it:

Mr Spock is dead!

‘He was 83,’ I responded as we stood by the newspaper rack at WH Smiths.
‘I was shocked,’ he said. ‘I thought he was going to go on forever.' 
‘No one is immortal on this planet!’ I laughed, and went to board the 0800 to Manchester Piccadilly. I was heading towards a convergence of journalists responding to the call for a ‘Real Media’: to cover what is happening on rather more grounded territory - Britain in 2015 in the run up to The Election.

Real Media describes itself as a ‘series of events and actions to campaign against media distortion and for independent grassroots journalism’. It has been set up by RealFare, a project that aims to challenge myths about the welfare system and this gathering is its kick-off point.  In a similar way that UKUncut brought  corporate tax dodging to public awareness and the Occupy movement the corrupt banking system, Real Media wants to expose the hyperreal, hostile nature of the press that distorts rather than reports on the reality we live in.

Aside from this gathering there are two actions this month: a national Anti Daily Mail Week from 13-20th March with online blockades, subvertising, protest and parody, followed by Occupy Rupert Murdoch Week from 22nd-29th March, organised by Occupy The Media. The week will include art and action and is being brought right to Murdoch’s door: his News UK headquarters in London Bridge. A full website will be launched in April.

The gathering taking place at the Friends Meeting House is framed by an opening and closing plenary, with workshops, films and discussions throughout the day. Networking is at full tilt, as I arrive with a bundle of the final issue of Transition Free Press under my arm.

As the speakers open the discussion it becomes clear there are there are two big challenges ahead: one is to call ‘Big Media’ to account, to make the reading/watching public aware that their news is highly manipulated in favour of the five billionaires who own 80% of its production.

The second is to build an alternatively-structured, collaborative media that will include the voices of people who are blocked and left out of the debate. If UK news coverage is ‘shallow and corrosive’ as described by radical US journalist, Glenn Greenwald, our task is to deepen and broaden it, to make our media both people and planet-friendly.

It is a producer problem for sure - subjects such as climate change, social justice movements, the fate of the unemployed or asylum seekers, are commonly bypassed or misrepresented. But it is also a consumer problem. We are addicted to processed news. 

Like junk food, we know junk media is not good for us, yet find ourselves lured into the ghost trains and freak shows that beckon us at every newsstand or website sidebar. Flick me, click me, now! How can we kick the habit and instead feed our minds and hearts with empathic stories and intelligent debate? How can we see the Earth, not as a battleground, but as a common ground for human beings and millions of other species coexisting, all with limited lifespans?

seeding the future

The media, like all British instit- utions, thrives on humiliation. And the prime way to avoid humiliation is to humiliate someone else you consider lesser than you. What would a new media look like that doesn’t tap into the fury that lies beneath an institutionalised powerlessness? That recognises that the pecked chicken in the corner is not the problem, but that we all are cooped up in a  henhouse, and this is not how we are supposed to live?

What would a media look like that is not owned by oligarchs, where editors are no longer ‘content managers’ or  papers ‘products’ and a dead actor with alien ears the headline of the day?

In the hallway and networking rooms of the Friends Meeting House the signs of it are in the air and on the table: new cooperatively-run, people-owned  local papers such as Birmingham’s Slaney Street or The Bristol Cable. The strong intelligent editorial of The Occupied Times, that first went on sale outside St Paul’s in 2011, with its distinctive black and white style. International on-line and print magazines that operate without advertising, such as the New Internationalist. Publications that train people to become citizen journalists like Manchester Mule, or STIR magazine based in Dorset; crowdfunded journalism such as ex-Guardian political commentator, Nafeez Ahmed’s Patreon platform. Independent writers, editors, broadcasters, new wave techs and a few Fleet Street vets, like myself, all happy to share their knowledge and skills and experience.

Which brings a third challenge into play: finding ways to cohere our different outlets into a meaningful and stable network. In a media monoculture news is easy to co-ordinate. McMedia can be sold anywhere. It looks and tastes the same: the same press releases and think-tank reports, the same agency photographs, the same levels of antagonism in columns and headlines, just reworked into different house styles.

However a diverse, cross-cultural media doesn’t look or feel like this. It might be grainy instead of glossy, but its headlines don’t scream at you or twist your guts. In conventional media, the reader is irrelevant, except as a consumer, mostly of the advertising which keeps its papers, websites and channels financially afloat. In Real Media however the reader is a key part of the communications system: they are the story that is being written and, in many cases, they also fund the paper or platform they are reading or listening to.

The only free press, as OpenDemocracy states, is one paid for by its readers.

Paying the piper

No media outlet is cheap to run. In-depth investigative reporting is expensive not least for the legal fees it can incur. Most people are unaware of how much journalism costs to produce both in terms of effort and finance, and give it a poor level of value or trust.  

Conventional journalists however don’t have to think about where their salaries or readership come from. Unless they bump hard against the system, as the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne did recently regarding HBSC, reporters rarely consider the pernicious influence of advertising on editorial, or the dissonance that arises, for example, when companies like Unilever sponsor environmental pages in The Guardian.

In alternative media you have to think about these relationships: you become an entrepreneur as much as a reporter. You have to juggle the demands of sourcing ethical advertising, subscription schemes, crowdfunding and funding from progressive charities, such as Network for Social Change. None of these are secure outlets. Most ‘alternative journalism’ doesn’t pay either its contributors, or its editorial staff.

So the way forward for many publications, both on-line or in print is through donations: to build a dynamic economic relationship with their readers, which is how the new media platform, Common Space, launched through Common Wheal, has been able to fund its team of reporters. In England, we are highly aware that the Independence movement has radicalised a large section of society that had never had been involved in political discussion before. It has helped to redefine democracy as a people-led movement, rather than a battle for power and privilege in the corridors of Westminster. - and Common Space can be seen as a direct reflection of that engagement.

But how can a left-leaning press alliance get this kind of new thinking out to people who may lean in other directions? ‘We don’t want to be in an echo-chamber, talking to ourselves,’ Common Space’s editor Angela Haggerty stated.

Answering questions from the floor about dealing with disenfranchisement among fracking protesters, or within Muslim communities, she advised: ‘You have to confront the argument and be prepared to explore it properly.’ Most of all you have to listen and allow enough space and common ground for everyone to be included.

This is a very different position from conventional journalism which stands apart from the subject it is reporting on. It is a stance that demands far more than an ability to ask awkward questions and make the deadline. To stop sliding into the Us and Them rhetoric that typifies Big Media, we need to ask ourselves those kinds of tricky existential questions that have been arising in the backrooms of the Friends’ Meeting House on this rainy afternoon. 

Who are you reporting to, and for whom?

Whose side are you on?

Everybody knows the boat is leaking

Everybody knows , as Leonard Cohen once reminded us, but few of us speak with one another as if we all know. Everyone knows the system is rotten but carries on reading papers that say that the shiny world they showcase is going to last forever. One of the reasons for the Big Media clampdown on dissent, explains Ahmed, is because of the systemic crisis we are facing – political, financial, environmental, social – is signalling that the system itself is dying.  

‘Fundamentally our planet is owned and controlled by a tiny elite of people who are exploiting the commons for their own benefit.’

If everybody knows that fracking contaminates water tables, that Amazon doesn’t pay its taxes, that ‘divide and rule’ is the tactic employed by all bully-boy Empires, a key move we need to make as citizens and communicators is to speak to each other from that knowledge, and frame our media likewise.

One thing lies in our favour: what drives every journalist, no matter who  they work for, is neither money, nor corporate control; it is the story. And if that story is no longer illusion or propaganda, but  embedded in the real lives of people, reporters will have no choice but to go out there and find it.

Everybody knows the captain lied.

That story is us. Time to start writing it. 

Find out more details at the Real Media website. Occupy the Media website can be found here, with details of events and the Charter For a Free Democratic Press.

Photos from Real Media Gathering by Fields of Light Photography;  issues of Slaney Street; poster for The Bristol Cable's first annual meeting

Monday, 23 February 2015

EARTHLINES - Putting down roots

As the new edition of EarthLines is posted all over the country, here is my Life in Transition column for their winter issue, on history keepers, relocalisation and anchoring yourself in the neighbour- hood.

I am lost amongst the heather, at sea in an ocean of dusty fragrant purple. Walking down the coast towards Westleton, I’ve taken a cut across Dunwich Heath.  I do this walk almost every year as summer tilts into autumn, but somehow I always lose my way. I’ve arrived at one of the silver sanded tracks that wend across this luminous landscape, fringed with birch and lime woods.  Do I go left or right? The left will take me back to the visitor centre, which peeks above the Scot’s pine like a cliff top beacon, and the right will take me towards a place I cannot see. 

I’m not going to get it right this year either. I will plunge myself into a repeat cycle: following the path that goes alongside the reed beds, getting frustrated, losing time, asking visitors who know the heath even less than I do, and finally,  taking a risk, I will double back on myself and come across a tall old man with a scythe cutting bracken, who points out the way. 

It turns out I was on the right path all along, just going in the wrong direction.

Last week my neighbour David Moyse was buried in the local churchyard. His grandparents once lived in my house, a brick cottage tied to the local farm. His grandfather was in charge of the horses that ploughed all the surrounding fields, his father was the village blacksmith. In the church, listening to his childhood friend Ruth talk about his working life as an engineer, it sounds like a litany of enterprises that were once intrinsic to every country neighbourhood: the dairy, the laundry, the school.

For a decade we talked with David over his gate. About the weather, about flowers, about making wine from rosehips in a bucket. I had found his leeks one winter dusk on a stall made from an old pram and something in me felt exultant as if I had suddenly found harbour after a storm. Later we stood together in defence of the lane against a tourist development, and the action broke a barrier that sometimes exists between ‘incomers’ and local people with deep ties to the land.

The following autumn David gave me a bag of his home-growngreen tomatoes, and I made chutney for both our larders. It was the first direct exchange I made in my new neighbourhood, and the encounter formed the basis of most of the Transition pieces I then wrote about making ourselves at home. David gave us wood when he chopped his trees, he lent us his mower when ours broke down. But most of all he was always there at the top of the lane, like a guardian of the place, the church steeple keeper and key holder, the history man of the village. We always waved at each other, as we cycled by. Here we are, here we are!

For years I yearned to return to the countryside I had once encountered when I was young. For a long time I thought this was a nostalgia for a summer seaside childhood – an escape to a rural idyll from a cynical city world. When I came to live in Suffolk I realised it wasn’t a personal longing: the sparkling sea, the rustling marsh, the big sky, the oak that spread its arms wide, the scent of marram on a hot July day were all part of my becoming a real human being. Which is to say a human being who is at home on the Earth. This wasn’t just about having a relationship with the land. It was also about recognising the people who were already anchored in the territory.

David was like the country people I knew when I was a child, who were fierce and yet kindly, who grew cabbages and dahlias in their gardens, who knew the names of the birds and kept their tools in good order. And although we were from a different generation and different backgrounds, we loved the same place.

When he died, it was as if a great ship had been unmoored, and you could no longer hear its mast stays rattling in the wind. That’s when I realised at some point you have to become the kind of people you want to see in the neighbourhood. And perhaps the greatest gift I have gleaned from Transition is a narrative, a frame of how to become an anchor in a place. A chance to start again.

Relocalisation has been a task. Because there is a big restlessness in the world. I am one of millions of disconnected people yearning to belong, who at the same time, are pulled and pushed by a culture that demands that everyone moves all the time.

What happens when you stop? What happens when you don’t leave? What happens if you go to the place where your heart leads you to go, and are prepared to forego the conveniences and glamour of an urban, consumer-driven life?

There are stats you come across when you run a newspaper about grassroots activism that make the environmental and social challenges we face very clear. One of them is that 86% of energy in the UK comes from fossil fuels. The other is that the UK also has the richest and poorest neighbourhoods in Europe. We are more unequal and less prepared for a low-carbon future than most other countries.

When I first came to the lane I interviewed a man called John Minahane who had given up his city life to live in the country. He was the warden of a reserve, rich in salt and freshwater plants.

You can make a living here, if you are not proud,” he told me. And though this may be true of many places, you have to have strong reasons for taking a deliberately downward step, and something you love to sustain you. For John, this was a grand vision for a handful of scratch meadows on the curve of the road to Southwold. He wanted to create a habitat for bitterns. And in the last decade of his life he did:  he helped transform those fields into reed marshes, that now house otters and water voles, as well as the shy booming birds he loved.

Looking at the stats it’s clear a lot of us need to take a downward step if we truly wish to live in a sustainable world. What stops us are the pleasures of being a visitor, granted by the use of fossil fuels: holidays, cheap fancy food, the individualistic lives we can control at the flick of a switch. In harder times, our pride will not help us. But nature will, if we can access it in our ordinary lives.

For the last six years I’ve been involved in a collective practice that you can do (almost) for free anywhere: growing  veg, saving seeds, living with the seasons, making plant medicine, walking, wild swimming, foraging, chopping firewood. Learning to see the working of the universe in the small beauty of everyday things.

These are not, I’ve learned, add-on skills: these are skills that signify and embody a different way of being on the planet. In the opening essay of the latest edition of Dark Mountain, The Focal and the Flask, Tom Smith discusses the difference between the technology-based world and a human-framed ‘focal’  one – where cultures are built around the collective focus of a fire. Focal things ‘involve real reconnection with people, species and landscapes… entail greater involvement, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity.”

To reverse the destiny of our restless machine-driven world we need to take up practices that go in another direction entirely. We need to learn another way of relating to and framing our lives, the practices another generation knew.

I am sitting beside the last sunflowers, winnowing tiny brown seeds on a tray. They are the seeds of asparagus kale: a monumental and handsome brassica that soars six foot into the air from green-grey leaves. You can eat its tender shoots in Spring like asparagus – or let it flower in golden sprays beloved by bees. It’s a heritage variety you can’t buy from a catalogue, but is one day handed to you by a fellow grower. There are thousands of seeds in these husky pods. Some of them are finding their way into envelopes to be dispersed this winter.

You can’t take a downswing without the planet’s help, and how you get that help is not done by pushing buttons or paying money. It is done the slow way, the hard way, with encounter, with patience, with loss, with solitude, with exchange. By walking in the opposite direction of restlessness. By knowing a place deeply and intimately, and not wanting to be anywhere else.

You can’t become a belonger on holiday or at a festival, on a retreat or at a workshop. You do it by immersing yourself in a neighbourhood over time, and not moving. And when the romance and nostalgia have blown away like chaff from these seeds, the territory will reveal itself for what it truly is. These moments appear like the flash of dragonfly wings, like a shooting star at dawn, and you need to be alert to recognise them:

You mean Minsmere Woods?” the old man said, as he paused with his great scythe. “Well, if you follow the track over this rise you will find a kissing gate. Go through the gate, and you will be there.”

Dunwich Heath, 2014; bunch of asporagus kale and kale buds from the veg patch; Hen Reed Beds; one of the archive photographs from David Moyse's book about Reydon, The Village Where I Went to School, published by Southwold Press and available from Wells of Southwold or Boyden Stores, Reydon, £7; EarthLines Spring Issue 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Farewell My Lovely

Yesterday I closed the paper. It was a tough decision and threw many un- answered questions into the air: about the limits of agency within grassroots and progressive culture, about how media is valued, about 'sustainable' livlihoods, about those who forge and record the 'beautiful solutions' in a time of collapse. We received some wonderful and heartening responses from people who have been involved in the project since it first began in 2011 - from fellow activists/writers/distributors and Transitioners. For me those relationships, as well as the integrity and coherence of the paper, made it a worthwhile project to devote many many long hours to. Here is my last post on our website:

Dear Readers and Supporters of Transition Free Press,

I am sorry to inform you that our innovative grassroots newspaper will not be published this year. We were hoping to relaunch this Spring with a bright new expanded edition but have been unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for our core costs.

For the past three years we have produced seven issues, all of which have documented the actions, skills and intelligence of Transition and affiliated progressive movements. Our purpose was to reflect the cultural shift many of us are involved in and to act as a communications tool for Initiatives and groups. Thanks to over 150 contributors, over 100 distributors, 50 advertisers and a collective editorial team, over 70,000 papers have appeared all over the UK - in shops, in cafes, universities and libraries, waiting rooms and market stalls. At public events and in private moments.

We have never been at a loss for material. 

TFP_Advert_STIR_Final Running newspapers is hard work and it was always our intention that TFP should be a co-operative social enterprise that paid people for their skills and dedication. Backing from a crowdfunding campaign and grants from Network for Social Change and Transition Network has given us time to build up a social infrastructure, with the aim of eventually becoming a self-sustaining enterprise.

However to become a sustainable business involves a paradox. Even though our editorial might challenge a 'growth-at-all costs' culture, we ourselves needed to grow massively to keep going. We needed to sell tens of thousands more papers, charge much more for them, dedicate more of our pages to advertising and find hundreds more subscribers. And fast.

Image1507 At the end of last year we did (finally and happily) succeed in finding funds for two of our proposed 2015 issues. but not for the whole year. To fulfil our obligations to become 'financially sustainable' meant we would have needed to make at least £20,000 pa profit to pay our core costs, and if we wanted to pay ourselves the minimum wage, over £30,000.

This was beyond our capabilities. We have always covered our production costs, but have never made the kinds of sums that make business sense. So even though the big picture public debates, from the May elections to COP15 in December, probably need the presence of a free press more than ever before, TFP will not be there to discuss them. Nor will we be there to record and celebrate the small events, actions, gatherings, projects, productions and conversations that make up the grassroots culture of a world-in-flux.

As the paper's editor and co-founder, I had hoped we could make a livelihood from our professional work within Transition. However, I now realise that for that to be the case independent journalism needs to be held in far greater esteem than it does at present. It has to matter there is a free press, that what we write matters, that our voices be heard. Because until our words are given space and attention the new story of community and collaboration everyone is waiting for will not be told.

I hope that new alliances, such as Real Media (see Amy Hall's post here) will demonstrate why the future needs a people-friendly, Earth-friendly media and that TFP's contributions and insights will have helped make that happen.

Meanwhile, dear readers, thank you for supporting us during these years. Thank you especially to our contributors, our subscribers (whom we will be refunding) and also our loyal distributors who, sometimes against the odds, have kept selling the paper to their communities. Thank you to my fellow writers, editors, designers and managers at TFP. Thank you all for your generosity, creativity and for giving it a go.

With best wishes, Charlotte Du Cann

484997_460945680613821_965150950_a Images: Charlotte Du Cann (Editor) reading TFP3; Trucie Mitchell (Designer) reading TFP2; our first reader on the train, reading the preview issue: Mark Watson (Distribution Manager) reading TFP4

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Krunchy Kitchen

2014 was a raw year.  It began with dandelion flower beer in Spring. A gentle fizz of golden heads. In June I 'uncooked' a meal with the Happy Mondays Community Kitchen crew. We rubbed kale, filled Vietnamese lettuce 'tacos', blended almond cream, talked alchemy, wellbeing and social fermentation. The long table buzzed. Everyone wanted to do the raw thing. At our autumn Transition Free Press meeting, we had a major honey high on a summertime mead Alexis made from redcurrants and roses. Mark gave his first raw food demos at Simon's shop: sunflower seed cheese, cauliflower tabbouleh and courgetti with home-grown pesto. Then he started fermenting for real: kimchi, kraut, kvass and all manner of krunchy transformative things in jars. I'll let him tell his lively story here. Here's my rather more sober take for Future Perfect, a new storytelling project going global this year. Feel the fizz! 

Fermenting Change 

We must reclaim our food. Food is much more than simply nourishment. It embodies a complex web of relationships. It is a huge part of the context in which we exist. Reclaiming our food means actively involving ourselves in this web.” (from ‘A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto’ - Sandor Ellix Katz)

The ancient culinary craft of fermentation is bubbling back up. Revived in workshops, discussed in on-line forums, taught in community kitchens and shared in mead circles, fermentation has become one of the many ‘reskilling’ projects taking place in grassroots cultures from Europe to the US in response to economic and environmental drivers. 
Extracting nutrition via the bacteria and yeasts that live on the surfaces of food sources has traditionally enabled people all over the world  to make use of seasonal abundance for leaner times. And crucially in times of climate change without the use of fossil fuels. 

“To ferment your food,” declares food journalist, Michael Pollan, “ Is to lodge an eloquent protest – of the senses – against the homogenisation of flavours and food experiences. It’s a way of engaging with the world... a declaration of independence.” 

Because this revival is not just learning how to prep and preserve cabbage: it’s also a way for people to get their hands (literally) on another social narrative and activate a different relationship with life. It runs counter to an industrialised and passive consumer lifestyle “now rolling like a great undifferentiated lawn across the globe”. Fermentation requires time and intuition and participation in a transformative process where no two sauerkrauts will turn out the same. And it can bring people together in practical and surprising ways. 

In England members of Transition Plymouth, part of the worldwide Transition movement, meet regularly over their kitchen tables to chop vegetables: “Dried, tinned, bottled, cooked, irradiated, pasteurised, supermarket fare is predominantly dead food- deliberately made in order to ‘protect’ our health and enhance shelf life,” explains Colin Trier, one of the group's activists. “Our fermentation workshops have served many purposes: to reintroduce us to making our own live foods; bringing us together as a community exchanging recipes and skills; seeking out and sharing local sources of supply; and developing resilience through home preservation of much more than jam."  

A fermenting revivalist

Some of this revival is due to the bold maverick moves of Sandor Ellix Katz, a self-taught fermenter based in rural Tennessee, whose on-line demonstrations and guide books have grabbed the imaginations of cooks and homesteaders everywhere. In his latest book, the encyclopaedic Art of Fermentation, he documents fermentation practices around the world, capturing the voices of modern and indigenous voices as he goes, discussing everything from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.
Before refrigeration came into our houses and global supply chains most of our winter stores were salted, pickled and dried. Many of those strong compelling flavours found in European delicatessens come via fermentation: coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives. Likewise the mainstays of Oriental cuisine – soy, miso and tempeh - and the whole of the world’s drinks cabinet, from African palm wine to English cider.

If you were wary of venturing into this unknown territory alone, you could not hope for a more enthralling guide than Sandor: “My advice is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.” There is no recorded case, he assures us, of poisoning from fermented vegetables.

Because fermentation is not just another culinary fashion. In the same way baking bread or growing vegetables helps decouple us from the industrial food system, remembering these skills puts the art of production back into our own hands and brings back the meaning and joy of eating into everyday life.

Who could not be excited by the prospect of making herbal elixirs from raw honey and wild fruit, or discovering how to make South Indian dosa pancakes, or turning a garden glut of beans and beets into a colourful row of shiny bottles? The act of fermenting not only makes us aware of the living microbial world that underpins all life, but connect us to thousands of years of human hands-on knowledge and ingenuity. 

Sharing the heritage

 Fermentation is above all a creative process. Eva Bakkeslett, artist and ‘gentle activist’ from north Norway teaches ‘Living Culture’ workshops that inspire people to reconnect with the traditional skills of making kefir, yoghurt and sourdough bread:
I explore fermentation in my art practice because it reveals how a living cultural process works and shows the key ingredients we need to cultivate sustainable cultures for the future: time, conditions (warmth), nurturing and sharing, good quality materials and a touch of magic. It makes us aware that living on Earth entails a seamless sharing between species and makes it hard to define the self as an isolated entity. (from How to Be a Cultural Activist for Playing for Time)
 Eva works with heirloom microbial communities from all over the world: a yoghurt culture originating from Eastern Europe and cultivated for over 100 years in a small Jewish cafĂ© in New York to an old Russian sourdough from England’s real bread campaigner, Andrew Whitley, to a kefir from the Caucasus, originally made in leather bags hung by the entrance of a house, so everyone passing would give it a knock to keep it going.

Her workshops are not just about food: they are places for social fermentation, where conversations and new perspectives can emerge and the generous, self-organising nature of sharing cultures, skills, knowledge and stories can thrive.   

A healthy practice  

Fermenting as a preservation technique has evolved, like our digestion, over thousands of years. Today one of its main attractions is a way to maintain and restore good health, often impaired by a fast, factory-processed diet. Full of enzymes and beneficial flora (some appearing in different times during the process) ferments help heal the gut wall, and see off harmful invaders. The intestine, as Katz reminds us, is the largest part of the immune system in the body. 

“Fermented foods tick all the boxes,” says London Transitioner and health writer, Gill Jacobs. “They are traditional foods, underpinned by the wisdom that comes from being passed down over time. They also run counter to our modern fixation with ‘germs’ and foods that are sterilised to help shelf life but not our bodies.” 

Where to start with ferments? Gill suggests one of the easiest is beetroot kvass,  an excellent blood tonic and liver cleanser. All you need is a large jar into which you pour 2 litres of filtered water. Add 3 medium sized organic beetroots, peeled and chopped, together with 1 tablespoon of sea salt, and a ¼ cup of whey (or you can omit the whey and double the salt). Leave out for two to three days. Transfer the strained liquid to the fridge. Start each day with a 4 oz glass.

Reclaiming these cultures is beneficial both for people and the planet as refrigeration, the modern fossil-fuelled source of preservation, intensifies. In China, where fermentation has its ancestral roots, industrial refrigeration is transforming a diverse vernacular food culture into the supermarket and distributor hub model that dominates global markets. 

This is not good news for climate change. Cooling is already responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of greenhouse-gas pollution. If current trends in refrigerant use continue, experts predict that hydro fluorocarbons will be responsible for almost half of all global emissions by 2050.
Time to get out the pickle jar! 

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green

Images: dandelion flowers ready for beer making (Mark Watson); klass on kimchi making with Sandor Ellix Katz (Wild Fermentation); Eva Bakkeslett's workshop on making viili in Finland; Mark's red cabbage and pear kimchi and fermented pumpkin; Now rub your kale! Norman's stall, Southwold (MW)

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Seven Coats

Happy New Year everyone! In this first doorway month I will be looking back at some of the work and events that took place down our lane and elsewhere in 2014. Today, as the Dark Mountain editorial team are shaping the upcoming Spring Journal, I am posting my story from our Autumn Issue 6. Why am I wearing a brown anorak in this pic? Find out below....
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below
I am taking off my red coat. In its pockets are seeds, rosehips, bus tickets, notes from meeetings. The coat has mud on its woollen sleeves where I have dug festival ditches and community gardens, stains where I have poured tea in church halls and slept in protest tents, where I have chopped wood in my garden, a badge on each lapel that says ‘we are the 99%’ and another that declares freedom for Palestine. We can turn the ship around, I have been writing these last six years, we can do it ourselves. We can repair, resolve, remember, restore, re-imagine the world we see before us falling apart.

I stand in the corridor, with the six coats upon their pegs, lined up like so many books on a library shelf: my life laid out in sequence. I wanted to write how it is when you leave the coat on a hook, pulled by a line that was written five thousand years ago.

I wanted to tell you about the first yellow coat, as I walked beside my mother down Queensway, London, how it determines all the others. It’s made of primrose Harris Tweed, signalling that I come from a certain class of beings who live this city. This is my first moment of consciousness. I am me! I declare and in this moment break away from her.

My mother walks onward past the sawdust floors of butchers and the cool leafy interiors of grocers. It is the end of the 50s. I am a small light in a darkened city. This feeling I realise does not come from my mother, or my father who is working in the law courts of the city, defending small murderers and thieves. I know, even though I do not yet have the words, that this existential moment is stronger, more alluring, more meaningful than anything I am surrounded by.

To be free, to awaken, to be your true self, to know the secrets of life you have to let go first of your mother’s hand. To live is to know how to die. But when you have died, you also need to know how to be reborn. And to recognise that moment when it comes.

When Innana tricked her father Enki of the Me that conferred on her the powers of her office the greatest she held was the gift of discernment.

FASHION My adult coat was not always red, or second hand. Once it was tangerine and new and caught the eye of my friend Alexander in Rome.

“Why have you got the hook outside of your coat?” he asked.
“It’s a fashion detail,” I said. “It means the coat is by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It’s his signature."

Alexander laughs. We are on the Spanish steps and my friend the seminarian, quizzes me with all the force of his Jesuit education, I don’t tell him this is the most expensive coat I will ever buy, or why that deep orange embroidered frockcoat was the only colour and shape to be wearing that season. Or that why in spite of all my learning that I am writing about men who design beautiful things.

“Who is he?” he said.

The question you have no answer for, that holds you to account, is what shifts everything.

CLOAK Once the coat was a grey cloak with a scarlet lining with my name stitched is its collar: blue to signify my house, Ridley named after the Christian saint. Inside its deep inner pocket there is a battered copy of Ulysses. a book I will silently devour, while the rest of the chapel will pray to a god who was spent three days in ‘Hell’ before rising to the sky realms. The institution has taught me to sing psalms, recite Shakespearean metre, pronounce French verse, and in moments of disobedience, read Joycean prose without a full stop.

I have learned from these texts that the true power in writing lies not in clever argument, but in listening: but only from the last do I learn its greatest trick of all, which is to break the rules.

FUR When I was twenty, I broke the rules of all my class and education and went to Belfast to be with my first love and he gave me a coat made of soft grey rabbit skins. He had worn it when he was in a rock band. We stood on the Ards pennisula and watched a hundred swans land on the black sea. It was the middle of the 1970s, and all my encounters were ventures in uncharted territory. From my lovers I discovered how it is live in the industrial north, in South Bronx, to be a Jew, to be ashamed of
poverty, to be a policeman, to be sent to the madhouse, to prison, to fight with god - subjects never mentioned in my father’s house.

“How come you are hero in everything you write?” asked the man I did not sleep with.

I did not know. I was experiencing life by proxy.

BROWN When I go on the road to experience life for real, I will wear a honey brown car coat that once had a belt when it swung in the Dover Street shop alongside cedar drawers of soft silky shirts from Tibet. My sister gave it to me one freezing winter’s night in New York and afterwards we went out like furry twins to catch a cab and to eat Moroccan and drink large glasses of pinot grigio.

The alpaca coat will serve as a blanket in the cold mountain nights in the Andes and Sierra Madre. I don’t fly anymore, or eat in restaurants. When I think of New York now I remember the tramp on Broadway who told you: you have something golden in there in your brain, y’all take care of it, you understan’?

BLACK “I like to see you smiling there,” said my father as he lay dying. and the summer storm raged outside the hospital window. In my hand I was holding a raven feather, now buttonholed in a small black frockcoat I found in a thrift store on our last road trip to Utah.

I wanted to tell you, how it was when we arrived in Zion Canyon that spring, how it was when my father’s spirit roared into the night, the stories held within the fabric of each of these coats, but each time I go there I run out of words and a small quiff of terror runs through my veins.

I am standing in this corridor, facing the coats and realise they are no longer my store of material: not these childhood nostalgias, these bildungsroman, these young rebellious love stories, these glossy magazine articles, these poems about birds and ancestors, treatises on plant medicine, not even the latest narratives about collaboration and downshift.

What next now that everything is written, now there are no hooks left?

The Line

In the introduction to her retelling of the Innana cycle Diana Wolkstein writes of her first encounter with the Sumerian scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer. Kramer had been working with the 5000 year old inscriptions for 50 years, a cycle of myths and hymns she will describe as “tender, erotic, shocking, and compassionate - the world’s first love story that was recorded and written down.”

From the Great Above she set her mind to the Great Below.

“What exactly does mind mean?” she asked.
“Ear,” Kramer said.
“Yes, the word for ear and wisdom in Sumerian are the same, but mind is what is meant.”
“But - could I say ‘ear’?”
“Well you could.”
“Is it opened her ear or set her ear?”
“Set. Set her ear, like a donkey that sets its ear to a particular sound.”

As Kramer spoke, Wolkstein recalls, a shiver ran through her.

”When taken literally, the text itself announces the story’s direction. From the Great Above the goddess opened (set) her ear, her receptor for wisdom, to the Great Below.”’

‘The Descent of Innana’ is the fourth and final myth in the quartet, and the four together are understood to be the cycle of a complete human being – specifically a female being. This final part records how the Queen of Heaven and Earth goes into the Underworld, where she is killed by its Queen, her sister Erishkeigel, and then is restored to life.

Innana has to go through seven gates before she gets to her dark sister’s throne room. At each gate she has to give up one of her Me, the attributes of civilisation, from her crown to her breechcloth - all seven seats of her physical and material power. She enters the kur, the Underworld, to know the secrets of rebirth housed there, which are not the physical attributes of the middle earth but belong entirely in another dimension.

You shiver, because you know you can’t follow the words of her myth in your mind. You follow her track the way dancers hand down their choreography through time: by imitation.


The Myth and the Story

The myth is not the story. The story is extrinsic. I walk out, fight dragons, lose myself in the forest. I return, get married, live in a castle, inherit the kingdom. I do this, then I do this, then I do this, then I hang up my coat on the back of the door and tell you a story. You listen to my tale, gripped by adventure. It fits into the ordinary world we know. Our lives are built around these stories with their happy or sad endings. We are rewarded or punished, the good triumph, the bad die, or do a far, far better thing and suffer both fates.

But the myth is not this. It demands we open our ears to another wavelength. It is a complex, non-linear, and runs alongside the story of our middle earth lives, with its clawed feet in the underworld and its beaky head in the sky realms. It doesn’t fit what we see around us. It lives in caves and out in the desert wind, and sometimes looms up in the city darkness and tells us to take care of something inside us that we cannot see with our everyday eyes.

When the story loses its sense, the myth emerges like the bones beneath the soil. It promises something that makes sense beyond the endings we predict, yet leaves us puzzled by its inscriptions on stone and clay, with its bird heads, its masks and painted bodies. With the goddess who rides on the back of a lion, who is conquered and then transformed.

The myth is intrinsic. It works from the inside out, looping back on itself and lives in all time. In myths, like our dreams, there are savage things that don’t make sense. You cut off heads of people who seem to be giving you direction, or asking for help. You eat the things you should not, and open the box you should not. You are married to your father and your brother and your son. You are a strange heroine. Discernment is your greatest gift. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge pulls you where angels fear to go.

Angels don’t lose their clothes, and in the Underworld you lose everything. The clothes are least of it.

I am standing naked, before the hook and my sister’s wrath. The myth will kill me and put my body on the hook for three days, which is the statutory amount of time a soul stays in the Underworld before it returns to the sky realm. My ascent will involve complicated deals with sky fathers and loyal servants, betrayals and praise, and someone I love who will take my place. Nobody goes into the underworld and returns. Except you who breaks the rules.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect. The ways of Heaven are perfect.I am imperfect and incomplete. Like all earth creatures I bring change by undergoing change. As a people we can change the law, but only through our own journey which demands we give everything away that up to that point has conferred power upon us.

Civilisation tell us we should be stay still, be perfect and never change. It gives us coloured coats to wear and says by these outer forms you shall be known. But this is not the life that illuminates our being. You go into the Underworld to find that out the hard way. It takes off the layers one by one, peels them, all your worldly colours, until you stand stripped in the strange twilight of the underworld, infused by its lamps of asphodel.

Mostly you go to meet your sister, whom you have been told, is furious with you. Somewhere buried in this myth from Sumer is a key about the future. And for weeks now I have been waiting for it to appear. The first known piece of writing was written by a woman in 3200BC in praise of this being – who was not a mother goddess, but embodied the morning and evening star, and her myth of descent is the first of the ‘mysteries’ to emerge from the city cultures we call civilisation.

It is hard to imagine a world shaped by such a descent, because we live in a world framed by monotheistic gods, who sacrifice their sons to war and Empire, and sentence their daughters to servitude. You have to go beyond millennia of saints and masters and sages into the strife-torn deserts of modern Iraq to find where Innana first held sway, before she became by association, the whore of Babylon, her alchemical moves reduced to a strip tease of coloured veils, performed for a bored tourist in Istanbul.

Embedded in her myth is a way to go beyond civilisation’s impasse. Because the life ordered by the Underworld is not the life ordered by Empire: it has another structure and practice entirely. As modern people we like to hold the myth philosophically, culturally, psychologically at arm’s length. What we fear is to walk in its tracks, lose control over our lives. We do not like to question our existence at every turn. So we toy with the mythos in our minds, at the end of our typing fingers.

Erishkeigel, we say, is our shadow, and become small professors in the arts of deities and griffins. This means that, we say, with our breasts puffed up like chickens. It’s about numbers, and cycles of planting and growing, the seven planets, seven colours of the rainbow, seven chakras. Innana is a fragment from the matriarchal era. She is Venus who appears as the morning star, disappears under the earth, and reappears in the evening.

But information is not the myth. Myths are enacted, dramaturgical, protean, existential. You allow the myth to be played out through your being, suffer its effects consciously. The meaning and the expansion it brings happens inside of you, wordlessly. When you stand by the hook, you are scriptless. Libraries disappear, all your smart lingo of Eng Lit and fashion and philosophy. You are in the place without words. The words take you here and then abandon you.

Writers are born with the kind of memory that calls them to go through the gates of the kur. They remember, not just for themselves, but on behalf of the people: we have to undergo change, or we are not people and the Earth is not the Earth. When we make our moves the edifices tumble down, the institutions crack, illusions dissolve like mist.

It comes to me in this moment is that I have run out of the storyline. I don’t know the ending to my own story, or that of anyone around me. And maybe this life isn’t a story anymore. Maybe it’s something else. The future stands before me like an empty quarter, like the desert road, edged with sunflowers, like the twilight in the garden after the rain. I take a deep breath. I am here, I say and step forward.

The hook holds what you most fear, which in my case is meaninglessness. The void hits you like a mallet and you tremble. You break apart like a seed pod. Collapse happens inwardly and suddenly.

At the moment Innana is killed by her sister, Erishkeigel begins her labour. When her servant, Ninshubar goes to heaven to ask Innana’s fathers for help. the first two refuse. Then the third, Enki the god of wisdom, creates two beings made from the clay under his fingernails who slip into the Underworld unnoticed and assist Erishkeigel give birth by sympathising with her pain and glorifying her greatness.

Oh, oh, oh my inside, oh, oh, my outside!

Innana goes into the Underworld because she knows her sister has something more powerful than any of her Me. That’s what pulls her, that’s what pulls us, thousands of years later, caught by the first line. We are hooked on that moment.

Some of us have been so hooked on that moment we forgot what we went down there to find in the first place.

Leaving the City Inside

The story of civilisation tells us we will be rewarded if we toe the line: but though some may receive a moment of glory, or own a fine house or dine on meals that slip extravagantly past our lips, none of this will give us kinship with the beasts, or our fellows, or return us whence we came. None will tell us what we need to undergo to become real people – which is to say people who value life on Earth.

The myth tells you if you give everything to life, the Earth will give you everything your heart desires: which if we are writers, means knowledge is given to us – a lineage that stretches back through time, to this moment when our words were first inscribed in clay. That is why we go to the Underworld and face the hook, even at the risk of losing those words that have kept us safe all these years. All those poems and articles, adjectives, and smart lines. All those narratives.

The writer is the one who remembers the myth and keeps telling it to the people. Nothing happens for the better unless we let go and change our forms.

The ways of the Underworld are perfect Innana. Do not question them.

What is hard for our duality-driven minds to comprehend is that Innana and Erishkeigel are the same being, that to turn the ship around we have to follow her mythic track. Rebirth takes place in the Underworld, and in order to reclaim, remember, re-imagine, we have enter its domain.

And we absolutely don’t want to go down there. We want to stay in our cosy colour supplement lives and cling to our ideas of happy families and romantic love, our knowledge of buildings and history, our Shakespearean quotations. We long to keep our shirts perfectly ironed in cedar drawers, to repeat the epithets that fall from the lips of holy men in robes.

Who am I without these coats of class and institution?
Who am I without my work?
Who am I without my new found community?

When Innana returns to the Great Above the person who has not mourned her departure is made to take her place. Her consort, the shepherd Dumuzi, who is also Tammuz and Adonis and Dionysus, and all dying and resurrecting ivy-wreathed gods of the ancient world, and further down the line, the sacrificed man on a cross who does not remember her name. Whose books tell us we don’t have to go there, because he did it all for us.

The rebirth we seek does not happen without our descent. The world becomes flatter, uglier and unkinder, determined by the unconscious mass, the untempered leader, the foolish woman, the words that do not set their ear to the Great Below. Venus, the embodiment of love, beauty and a fair fight, steps into the arena to bring new life. She doesn’t do that by chanting a new mantra or changing her shopping habits, she does that by grabbing you by the throat and pulling you towards everything you have so far refused to see or hear. She takes you towards the unspoken, the missing information in every transaction, each time you have jumped the consequence and refused to hear the beast or child cry out, your sister trapped in a factory a thousand leagues away.

The unconscious snarls back, rages and rants, complains, resents our every intrusion. It is not polite, or reasonable, or forgiving. You have to withstand its every humiliation: inside yourself and outside amongst the people you love and fear.We think to know the facts is enough, that good behaviour is enough, that to write of our wounds and sorrows is enough. But it is not enough.

To let go of earthly power is a real thing. To be conscious within the realms of unconsciousness, is a real thing. To face your raging sister, to move out of the cycle of history, to liberate yourself from your line, to have empathy for the man, for the child, for the tree, for the fish and the barbarian, these are a real things. Not to give up, even when you have given up and the world has turned its back on you.

To die before you die is the core tenet of all the mystery cycles that emerged in the early city states before the father gods took command. It has been a task undertaken by writers in the civilisations that followed - content that we labour conveniently in the Underworld as volunteers and substitutes to carry their shadow and suffer on their behalf.

But Innana’s myth does not end there.


It is the moment I hang up the red coat. The moment I expect the hook and find none.

I am on the beach on a warm blue July morning. There is one day a year like this, and today it is here. The sea shimmers and stretches out before us at low tide, and the breeze carries the dusty scent of marram and sea holly. In the sea the currents move around the sandbar, this way and that, and tumble me into the foam. Every time I put my feet down the sand moves too and small fish who lived buried in the seabed. Everything is moving. I am laughing, tossed by the waves. This is how it is on the tip of the future, as you look at the sun on the horizon, as you look at the empty page and don’t know what to write anymore.

I wanted to tell you what that is like when you have done your time in the Underworld, the moment that delivers you into a vast unmapped space, and frees you from the past that has been howling and pawing your coat it seems for centuries. I wanted to say how it was all worth it, though I am left naked on a beach, bookless, featherless, empty-pocketed. Because at this moment I want to be nowhere else but here with the future unwritten before me. Because the golden feeling I had in the core of my self when I was two years old is still with me at 58, and keeping loyal to that awakeness is what I steer by more than anything I see falling apart around me, and I know I am not alone in that. And mostly because I remember what my sister told me before I left the city:

“You have been the anchor, you have kept this house together, you have absolved our father’s guilt, buried our mother with honour, held our hand, listened to us, grieved with us, written our story - now it is my turn.”

I put my feet on the firm wet sand, on the shoreline, on this beautiful day. We are here, I say.

Images: brown anorak, birch, tumulus, winter solstice 2014 (Mark Watson); embroidered coat from Soft Armour by Monique Besten (Dark Mountain 6); honey-coloured coat, Real de Catorce, Mexico 1999 (MW); seal depicting Inanna, Iraq; Feeding the Fire From Below by Kate Walters (DM6) Poppy Capsule by Deanne Belinoff; Urban Weed Apothecary by Sophie Mason; Anima by Daniel Mack (DM6) entering the sea, high summer 2014; Inanna - Queen of Heaven and Earth by Diana Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer (Harper & Row). Dark Mountain Issue 6 is available via the DM website.