Friday, 3 July 2015

ARCHIVE: Fruits of our Labours

One of the great things about keeping a record is being able to look back and see where you were this time a year, or more, ago. This time last year I was working on Playing for Time with Lucy and we were cooking up elderflower and gooseberries; two years ago I was prepping for the last Uncivilisation Festival and immersed in blackcurrants and cherries. But whatever shape my working summer takes, July always heralds the sweetness of fruit and the salty excitment of swimming in the sea before breakfast.. 

Here is a short post I wrote in the early days of This Low Carbon Life when I was just discovering the delights of growing things (which right now include My First Cauliflower, a bevy of butter lettuce, Mark's summer meads, and, as the little sticks gleaned from community garden giveaways in 2013 have grown into mighty canes, raspberries on demand, mmmmm....)

Suffolk 5th July 2010

 A month ago I wrote a post about Malcolm and the Strawberries. They were in flower at the time and Malcolm reckoned, in spite of all adversity, this year would be the best crop ever.

It was. There were so many strawberries he and Eileen didn’t know what to do with them. There was an abundance of ripe scarlet berries. The sudden July heat ripened the whole crop in a week.

On Sunday morning Mark and I went over and picked pounds of fruit and had a strawberry feast: strawberry jelly, strawberry coulis, compotes (with rhubarb) and jam. Lots of jam. The whole house was steeped in the fragrance of roses.

It’s that time of year. Suddenly after all that waiting, after the patient sowing and repotting and watering the rewards start coming fast. And you have to start eating and cooking and preserving to keep up with them. Blackcurrants and gooseberres under the greengage tree, broadbeans and tomatoes among the pots. And a new wonder - cucumber!

I’ve never grown a cucumber before. I’d taken them for granted. But it’s a really exciting plant. A big vigourous climber with showy yellow flowers and tendrils, now joining the long trails of morning glories and passionflowers around the conservatory. Up to the solstice things grow in a steady, upward swing. You feel sort of in control of things. After midsummer they grow out, everywhere. There’s a seismic shift. You go outside and the lawn has turned into a savannah. The trees have doubled in size. The world is full of insects – bees, dragonfly, thunderbug, hoverfly, butterfly. Everything is thirsty. Suddenly you’re in demand.

Amongst all this wild exuberance and activity the big vegetable moments come and go: peas and sugarsnaps, French beans and young turnips, spinach and courguette. I have learned in my eat-in-season, love-it-while-you-can years to relish each one and eat as much as possible in those days, the way I put flowers in a jar beside my bed to absorb their fleeting beauty - mock orange, honeysuckle, peony and rose.

Because very soon the moment will be gone. It will be replaced by another. You want to be there for that moment, as if it were the only time you were experiencing it. With everything you have. That’s the way I’ve learned to love the earth. As if you will never see summer again. Holding the moment in your heart. and then releasing it, like a bird in your hands.

Right now in strawberry season, I can’t look at another strawberry. I am strawberried-out. But in my larder are a row of intense red shiny jars. One day when the snow falls, when the evenings grow dark, or it’s just been grey too many days in a row, I’ll come back to those jars and open one and the room will fill with the fragrance of summer, with the memory of how it is when the world is full of light and the days stretch endlessly in front of you, the air is filled with the scent of hay and the sound of skylarks, and the butterflies begin to appear, as if from nowhere.

Mark's Rose and strawberry mead in production, 2015; Mark and strawberry hoard at Swallow Organics; my first cucumber among the sage flowers; strawberry jam, 2010

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Bread of Heaven

Right now I am working with fellow editors on the next issue of Dark Mountain. It's a non-fiction and visual exploration of technology and tools, juxtaposing an increasingly machine-dominated world and a de-industrialised way of life that is hand-made, reskilled, in tempo with the planet. This is a piece originally written in 2009 for a book about East Anglian food crops, co-produced with Josiah Meldrum (now of Hodmedod's beans, peas and quinoa) called Roots, Shoots and Seeds. This chapter centres on wheat, the dominant crop of Western civilisation, and the makers and bakers of real bread.

There are seventeen of us in a room at the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet – a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, members of Transition Norwich, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute and Andrew Whitley of the Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters. We are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread, the project that aims to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms.

There is a plate being passed around and on it are not wafers but slices of real wholemeal bread, baked by a neighbourhood community store. Everyone is looking at each other as if we can’t quite believe we are all in the same room together, eating those slices and listening to these lectures about peak oil and agriculture, about the natural selection of wheat genotypes that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change. It’s hard somehow to get all those graphs and words about the future to relate to the rough brown food in our mouths.

Andrew Whitley, master baker, has worked with organic flour milled in a local water mill for many years. He is a neat and compact man with a keen intensity and a round face. Whereas the other speakers stood in front of us as they spoke, he remains seated within our circle and leans forward to reveal the secrets and horrors of the industrialised bread trade. Maybe it’s because he was once in the BBC Russian service that he emanates such a conspiratorial air (he is famous in bread circles for bringing a Russian sourdough culture into Britain 19 years ago that has since spawned thousands of loaves throughout the land). It was his rediscovery of the sour dough process that eventually led to the Real Bread Campaign which he launched last year (2008).

It is half-way through his speech about the infamous Chorleywood baking process that I find myself suddenly looking at a universal truth. It’s one of those moments that opens like a door sometimes when you pay attention, notebook in hand. One minute the speaker is talking about their subject and the next they are talking about Life. Whitley was talking about time. Bread is all about time: time to mix, time to prove, time to bake. The key to real bread is in allowing enough kneading time so the gluten in the flour is activated, and enough proving time for the yeast to expand the dough to twice its size.

Gluten is a protein that when kneaded makes an elasticated web, “like a series of tiny balloons” that become filled with gas from the fermentation. Yeast is a tiny mushroom, arguably the most successful symbiont with man. It is born to ferment. It ferments our food and drink and transforms them - wine, asses milk, bread and beer. Wild yeasts appear naturally in sour dough starters (made from fermented water and flour) as well as lactic acid bacteria. Sour dough was how all bread was made until the manufacture of commercial yeast. The longer you leave these agents to do their work, the greater the nutritional quality of the bread.

Industrial baking, invented in Chorleywood in the 1960’s, has not got time to spend on the niceties of natural alchemy, on these subtle relationships between gluten and yeast and lactobacilli, and has invented deviant ways to by-pass them. Whitley is listing them: high-speed mixers, addition of hydrogenated fats and water, increased use of commercial yeast, bleach, preservatives, a cocktail of artificially-mixed enzymes, as well as countless additives and emulsifiers (the so-called flour improvers). All these deny bread its natural fermentation time. And it is this cheating of time, he argues, that leads to the malfunctions within the Western diet: all its disorders of stomach and guts, its huge ballooning of bodies.

Robbed of time industrialised bread brings disorder into the digestive system. Robbed of its rough coat of wheatgerm, the grain gives no nutrition. We keep eating but nothing satisfies our deep hunger. We pay 19p for something that should cost us £2.50. The staff of life has become an industrialised commodity without any connection with our physical beings or our intelligence. Our minds are no longer paying attention to what is on the plate but are elsewhere fixed on the cheap fast dreams of cities. On escapes and fantasies. Caught in a treadmill of hard labour, we are grabbing breakfast toast and lunchtime sandwiches, pizza, hotdog rolls, burger buns to go. We are so busy we don’t even know what we are eating.

To reverse this 50 year old habit would require a restructuring of our outside and inside lives. It’s where the grassroots movement of Transition and master bakers like Andrew Whitley meet. We meet in unlikely venues and discuss ways of bringing real food back into the hands of people and places: community baking in local hubs “where good transactions happen between people,” reskilling of home bakers and the creation of the Local Loaf (paralleling the National Loaf of the 1940’s) using local millers, bakers and shops and locally distinctive varieties of wheat.

The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require 30 tonnes of wheat and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves. Should the flour be stone-ground or roller-ground? Tin or round? Could Canadian wheat be used as a last straw (sic) in times of bad harvest, or grain kept back? Was the Norwich Loaf initially an everyday item or a speciality one-off?

East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it – from the heaviest of wholemeals to the airiest of croissants. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the Chorleywood method. The Norwich bakers’ main concern with using local flour was one of consistency (“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, one said rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped to much laughter) and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt like it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

You could tell the bakers. They had a physical presence in the room that was quite distinct from those whose business was in words and figures. They seemed familiar though I had never really considered bakers before, or even talked to one. They existed in my imagination as mythical figures with white hats and aprons. Suddenly I realised they were men who worked with their hands and worked at night. And this was why the meeting that day had begun at 2.15pm.

The Field


One of the lesser known facts about Charles Darwin is that when he bought Down House (where The Origin of Species was written) it was not for the house but for the chalk grassland that surrounded it. The species-rich habitat provided the man who was about to shake the paradigm of the Western world with the perfect opportunity to observe bio-diversity and see how its elements worked together. It was here he saw that everything in the natural world is connected and that the greater diversity that exists in a place the greater its abundance.

At the same time as the naturalist was looking at biological complexity in the field, chemists were singling out individual components in their laboratories and developing the first nitrate fertilisers that would lead to the appearance of a very different kind of grassland. And a plant that once grew wild around the Fertile Crescent began to be bred as the basis of the global diet: modern wheat.

Professor Martin Wolfe is a plant pathologist who has spent the last decade working at his organic research station outside Metfield developing what are known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat. The evolution of wheat is a complicated business and requires your absolute concentration. Where once we ate thousands of different plants, the human species mostly lives off half a dozen crops of which wheat is now the top one.

Outside the window of the Institute’s meeting room small green spikes are everywhere on trial: in a conventional agricultural field and in organic strips bordered by timber and fruit trees (a layout known as agroforestry). The Composite Cross Populations have a complex origin: three populations that come from 20 varieties and 200 intercrosses and a random male sterile genotype who acts like the joker in the pack. As a result the plants contain thousands of variations. It’s these variations that give the wheat the ability to produce consistent yield and quality of grain under a wide variety of conditions.

“Natural eco-systems are complex because they evolve that way for a damn good reason. The whole way of developing agriculture around the world depends on functional diversity. What evolutionary breeding showed was that if you dissemble the elements (in an eco-system) you find that yield increases with the positive interactions occurring. The more complex the connections, the better everything responds.”

We sit in the Institute meeting room, Mark, Josiah and I facing Martin. The biological history of cereal crops, he explains, goes in two directions: one that concentrated on a simple system using synthetic fertilisers to boost yields that led to the separation of agriculture and the natural world around 1850, and another known as evolutionary breeding that began in California in 1929 which introduced variation and worked within complexity.

His story veers from wild barley in Israel to the development of maize in Africa and traces a familiar shape: the taking of heritage seeds out of farmer’s hands and putting them into the fists of seed merchants, the manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides and finally the corporations who patent rights for certain genes and focus on their monoculture (as well as produce the agrochemicals that support the varieties that contain them).

“Oh, I’ve got a story about Monsanto,” says Mark breezily who was taking notes. I shoot him a fast look. We haven’t got time for asides, even good ones. We have another meeting to go to. Martin is an ex-professor and has that smooth ease of delivery honed from years of lecturing to Cambridge students for exactly one hour. Although there is something bristly and creaturelike about his manner I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a creature I know, a tusky fellow, one not to be crossed.

Wolfe has no time for simplificaton and bristles academically about evolution being side-stepped by global corporations. The memory of how to thrive in different conditions – light and shade, temperatures, with plant pathogens and insects - persists in the genetic structure of naturally evolved seed. It has an inbuilt multifunctionality. But in the millions and millions of hectares of monocultural wheat these shared memories are not available.

“What happens if the weather is different from the weather it experienced during its ten years of selection? Modern wheat is bred to react maximally to input from pesticides and herbicides. But in the future the environment will be much more variable. How do we deal with that?”

Amongst the Composite Cross Populations there are answers to these questions, as well as an ability to function without agrochemicals based on fossil fuels. Because of their diversity and ability to complement and compensate for one other “there are huge amounts of variable phenomena emerging.”

As Wolfe points out: “There are lots of things breeders can’t see which are being affected by the environment.” Scientific plant breeding depends on things that can be easily measured such as height and leaf shape and so on. But the strength of living systems depends on things that cannot be seen in this way. “Inevitably the natural world is a much better selector than the trained human breeder. We have to be humble in these things.”

For 150 years however, sanctioned by the “Darwinian” assertion that nature is red in tooth and claw and inherently competitive, we have gone in the opposite direction. From Darwin we have taken the image of animals fighting for survival and justified all our aggressive acts against nature and each other. We consider evolution in terms of exotic birds far away in South America and conveniently forget his ecological analysis of the native grasslands of England that tell quite a different story. The plant world shows that nature is essentially co-operative and the success of eco-systems depends on a complex weave of relationships, as well as a long genetic memory. The simple system science behind modern agriculture, most explicitly expressed in “the crude plant technology” of GM, is one of control and domination. But this control has now, according to Wolfe, reached its ultimate, and is about to face the music in the form of climate change and peak oil.

“The question we are posing (or that is being posed for us) is how has evolution coped with a huge variety of conditions? It’s coped by lots of variation, lots of diversity, lots of different answers to potential problems.“

Maybe it’s the word population but every time Martin starts talking about the CCP that door begins to swing open again: he’s not just talking about wheat diversity, he’s talking about human diversity! We are, after all, what we eat. In a Westernised industrial world where human populations are forced to become increasingly monocultural and dependent for their survival on artificial conditions, our own evolutionary moves are now being called into play. What is happening to wheat is happening to ourselves. What would it mean for us to become composite cross?

The Bakery


We are on our way to talk with a baker in Stanton, where Josiah went to school. If Wolfe represents the biological thought at the beginning of the supply chain, the bakers represent the working craft at the end. It’s mid March, after a long and relentless winter, and there is not one cherry plum tree in blossom. The land still wears last season’s coat and the hedgerows are twiggy except for sudden bursts of golden-tasselled hazel. A low grey sky hems us in as we hurtle down the small roads that wind along the border country between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s already bleaker here. The clay fields are giant-sized and empty, punctuated by the occasional spinney or solitary oak. Apart from the rooks, we are the only thing moving amongst the swathes of blunted green barley and darker rosettes of rape.

On the wooden shelves at the back of the Hillcrest Farm Shop in Stanton we find a quote from Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label on Radio 4: “Only a small number (of Britain’s independent bakers) genuinely bake from scratch, many depend instead on factory ‘premixes’. Today there are only 3,500 individual craft bakers in the UK, compared to about 35,000 in France . . .” In between crusty white and crunchy granary loaves, a round face is beaming at me from the kitchen.

The smile belongs to Mick the Baker who has been baking from scratch for 37 years. “You can talk to me as I’m working,” he says. It’s probably the only time we can talk to Mick as he is definitely a man on the go. As he works ten pans of dough into hundreds of hot cross buns, he gives us a run down on his working schedule, baking, singing with a band at the weekends and driving long-distance trucks. Most of his days start at 4.30am, Saturday begins at 1.30am. Do you ever get time to sleep? I ask. “I don’t get a lot,” he says, “I used to survive on three hours. The only way is to keep going and not sit down. The trouble is I’m fifty now. The mind says you can but the body says maybe not.”

We’ve come to talk with Mick because he has just started baking with locally grown and milled flour. He bakes “the old-fashioned way” entirely by hand (except for the mixing), uses natural ingredients and is one of only nine traditional British bakers left in the Waveney Valley. “I’ve always done it natural. Slow mix, slow dough. Throw it in and hope for the best. I’ve got it right for the bread, I’m not sure for the rest of the life!”

Mick is “an old East End boy” who began his apprenticeship at 15 and came to East Anglia in 1991 to run the Swan Bakery in the neighbouring village of Garboldisham. He chose baking because he was waiting until he was 21 to follow his dream of being a long-distance lorry driver.

“I’m more into quality than money. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by music.”

Mick is a motivated man. As he whirls his two hands around 360 buns he talks non-stop about bread, about bread making machines, about his old-style baking equipment and the necessity of hot ovens, the time John Peel almost came to interview him but then he died, how sweeping up is the most important part of the job, how he likes to barter, swapping bread for customer’s eggs, surprising children with a box of cakes when they hand him a picture, how he holds the peace between the scrapping artistes in his band (“I’m in the middle of it,” he laughs) and sings almost everything – jazz, blues, funk, soul - just not country (even though he is a trucker), how he hasn’t got time to teach, has never read a book in his life and the reason he likes baking is because it’s creative: he creates everything from start to finish.

“I use Canadian flour which isn’t very patriotic but it makes the best bread. The organic English one comes up quite small and heavy but that suits some customers. I don’t mess around with fancy stuff. Mine’s the proper old English bread. People like a bit of crust.”

Like most hands-on craftsmen he learned everything by watching people. “If anyone asks me anything technical, I can’t tell them. I know what happens if you leave yeast out but I couldn’t tell you why. I know when the salt is left out because the dough moves quicker. In the summer it’s a nightmare in here because the bread keeps moving and you can’t stop.”

We stand in the tiny back kitchen, peering at Mick busily not stopping with the currant-spotted dough, occasionally swerving out of the way as he whisks a tray into the fridge or freezer. I want to ask him when do you have time for life? And then as I listen to him, hands spinning, talking about gigs and whacking everything in the bowl, knocking it on the table, whacking it back in the prover, I realise this is Life, this whirl of activity, creating, producing, bartering, sweeping up. On the wall there is a photograph of Mick singing with a hat on (“I always wear a hat”), a smiley T- shirt and rainbow trousers. He’s carrying a giant sunflower in one hand.

Mick tells us a story about working through the night. At the Swan Bakery he had a chill-out room and at night people used to drop by: policemen came for a quick kip, firemen on call, young boys without anything much to do. One night a couple came on their way from the Glastonbury Festival lured by the lights of the chill-out room. “They said they could not believe it.” You could imagine it then, stoned out of your head in the small hours, finding a light burning on a dark road, and a man working in the kitchen mixing yeast, flour, water and salt, cooking up the kind of bread you might like to eat. What did they see when the door swung open?

“It’s time to decompress,” said Josiah as we reeled out of the shop. We chewed our buns as we walked about the garden centre. Everything after the intensity of the kitchen didn’t seem quite real: the stiff and clipped box trees, the flashy petunias in their pots, silently waiting under a grey and cold sky. “What’s the story?” he asked, as we climbed back into the small car. We had come out on an adventure the three of us for the day. I don’t know what we had expected from either the scientist or the baker. We all felt rather dazed.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. I was thinking about what I had first seen, as I glimpsed Mick’s round face between the shelves of bread. It was like the sun was smiling at me.

When I came to the story I realised that we live in a culture that keeps everything separate and that when you start to assemble the components back together again, it requires a way of thinking about life and engaging in it that is not just a matter of graphs and statistics. The bakers and millers and shopkeepers once appeared in our imaginations as part of life. These people operated in the fabric of our daily lives: they lived in songs and in fairy tales, as characters in children’s picture books and playing cards. They were apparent and lived in the brightness of day.

The processes of industry and science and agriculture are hidden. They recognise no people, only machines and numbers. They operate secretly in the dark and rely on our not joining up the dots and connecting the facts. Even when investigated by determined journalists like Lawrence, knowing facts about the global food industry does not actually shift our ways of thinking about them.

What shifts our awareness are the door-opening moments, when those connections start cross-referencing and self-organising inside you - those revelations about time, about Life. Suddenly you get the whole picture. You know that when the time is out of whack, everything else goes out of whack. How when you side-step evolution there is a price to pay. And that’s the moment you start asking yourself who exactly is paying.

At this point, I don’t know which way the story is going. It’s still fermenting: the faces of the three men appear before me and need time to reassemble themselves into a coherent shape. What I do know is that when you look at wheat, you find yourself looking at civilisation. The ability to domesticate wild grasses and feed thousands of people happened at the same time in different continents – rice in Asia, millet in Africa, maize in the Americas. Wheat, with barley and rye, was the main cereal crop of the Middle East and clearly marks the shift from the nomadic and hunter-gatherer world, to the city-ruled agricultural world of conquered and indentured populations. When you look at wheat you look at bread, and when you look at bread you’re looking at people. You’re looking at a certain kind of people eating for a certain kind of reason.

It’s not sacred anymore in the way we understand sacred - our daily bread - but it serves the same function. Modern factory bread is cheap and in a world that prizes convenience and availability and money most of all, the cheapness of bread means it is highly prized. For one section of the population of course. For cheap food is and always has been, since the city-states established themselves 5000 years ago, the fuel of the workforce. Though civilisations prize themselves on their architecture and technology and their high-flown ideals, all of them depend on a huge and expendable underclass. The daily bread that was apportioned to the city slaves in Rome is as vital to them as the ready-sliced bought by the urban poor of the global metropolis. And the contempt the modern ruling classes have towards the masses who eat junk bread is in proportion to their great and ancient fear that they will one day rise up and demand not wholemeal loaves, nor even croissants, but equity.

Sometimes I think that my intolerance to wheat, to gluten and yeast, is a symptom of my own revolt against the prevailing order. I used to think it was an expression of the imbalance between settled agriculture and the wild places of this earth – a shout of solidarity for all those medicine flowers and prairie grasses, sometimes as tall as a man, mown down and replaced by the millions and millions of hectares of identical corn. Our minds may acquiesce to industrialisation, to the maltreatment of nature, but our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies do not. They close down, blow up and start minor revolutions. But now I realise the body doesn’t just revolt in sympathy with the earth, but also with its own kind.

There are millions of people who are allergic to wheat. Some so allergic (the so-called coeliacs) they cannot consume one tiny speck of flour. It’s a phenomen that came with the industrialisation of cereals, particularly in the last 20 years. There is no medical cure for what happens to the intolerant body. Gluten is seen as a foreign invader by the immune system and it attacks the delicate lining of the intestine that normally takes in the goodness of food. As a result the micronutrients - the essential minerals and vitamins - are not absorbed by the blood. Without these vital ingredients we grow weak and tired and depressed, rashes appear on our knees and ulcers in our mouths. We sweat, feel poisoned and our bowels collapse. White bread, the symbol of oppression of the dominant Western world in many cultures, is often blamed as a cause of malnutrition amongst the poor and indigenous. But gluten intolerance is widespread amongst everyone in a wheat-consuming world. Between 1 in one hundred or 1 in 600 of people in the UK, depending which report you read. Allergies don’t just happen to the masses.

It’s difficult to look at food allergies like this. We want there to be scientific solutions, fixes and formulas. We want to be separate and blameless and live our lives in discrete units, as if our physical reactions bear no relation to the way we treat the earth or the culture we uphold. We want to cheat time and cheat each other and think we can get away with things forever.

But we can’t.

The Bowl


It’s a bowl my sister gave me years ago and has, for as long as I can remember, sat quietly in the corner or in front of fireplaces in houses I have lived in. It sat on the long table in my London flat for years. When I went travelling it was one of the only things I kept during a decade of perpetual moving and shifting. I just liked it for its great and useful form - a large deep pottery bowl, terracotta on the outside, creamy yellow on the inside with a hand-drawn ox-blood-coloured rim. I cooked up a lot of dishes in that London flat with its long table, and in all the places where I went travelling. Except bread. Bread was not my style: it felt way too domestic and slow.

But last Sunday I made my first loaf in the pottery bowl, and found out what it was really called: a panchion. My fellow first-time breadmaker took a snap of me holding it at my hip to send to her mother. “She used to use one,” she said.

It wasn’t a grand production, just a regular soda bread made with local spelt and rye. We were a small group of people in a neighbourhood restaurant, taking part in a bread making club that meets the last Sunday of every month. What was surprising was that when my hands went deep into the sides of the panchion, they knew what to do without any instruction. Push, pull, knead.

It was not like making pastry or anything else I’ve mixed in a bowl because the soda had activated the dough. You could feel the stuff living in your hands. Recorded somewhere deep in the bone-memory of those hands, in that bowl, in the spelt and rye, was the knowledge of people working with the staff of life for thousands of years. Knead, push, pull.

After kneading we waited. We had some tea and talked to each other. Then we put the round shapes into the oven. When we pulled our tins out forty minutes later, my two loaves were perfect. How did that happen? They were cracked in a cross shape - the distinguishing mark of soda bread - dusted with flour, chunky, sweet smelling. When I got home I went round and gave the spare loaf to my neighbour and the other I put in the centre of the table. I looked at that bread for a long time. And then I cut a thick slice and ate it the way I remember we used to in Ireland, with butter and hot tea. I did not get sick.


It’s something about craftsmen, about creators, that I’ve noticed. It’s not money that motivates them, or a machine that makes demands on their time. It’s something else. Wolfe remembers the strains of wild barley he saw once either side of a rock in a Middle Eastern field: short on the shadowy side of the rock and tall on the sunny side: beautiful! he declares and his face lights up (finally I recognise the creature, it’s a wild boar). Now I’m looking at those tough spikes of green outside his window in a different way, imagining how they can in a matter of months turn into pale golden fields of edible wheat on stalks of differing heights.

Mick is telling us he makes real English bread, that people like a bit of crust. Now I’m looking at his shiny loaves stacked on the shelf. How come I never noticed that English bread was crusty before, that it is square? I ate bread for years. I’ve gazed out across arable fields for years. How come I never examined those hairy ears of wheat closely, the stiffness of their forms? I could have missed everything, skimming on the top of what I saw or thought, and never delving deep into the place where time lives, where the cross currents of our lives make sense of everything, where what happens behind the scenes before dawn is everything that happens after sunrise.

What did these three men have in common that made me look at life with another eye? I realised it was a relationship with the material: the desire to shape the stuff of life with your own hands. If you talk to a man about his passion for making hats or chairs, or turning a bowl from a piece of old railway track or a cherry tree that has blown over, or to a man who knows how to turn the earth so that beans or roses will spring from it, or how to make a necklace of out of seaglass that reflects light all about your throat you will find a man with a deep satisfaction inside him. I’ve spent some of my life talking to such men, without knowing why there is a strong curent that flows between us. And now I see it’s because we have something in common: their eye is on matter in the same way my eye is on the blank page. The possibility is that what manifests could go one way or another and your interaction in the matter is everything. It’s the kind of relationship you never tire of.

To be in life requires your utter engagement. Industrialisation switches us off. It’s only interested in people working like machines To put yourself in the centre of things is the position in which time starts making sense, whether you are a biologist, a baker, a writer or a musician. You are working with the substance of life. In those spaces created by the synthesis of gluten and yeast and bacteria, nourishment is forged from the seeds of the wheat grass. In the spaces created within the matter, the craftsmen glimpse a possibility of eternity. It’s a mysterious process that even deeply practical bakers like Whitley acknowledge. It’s being fully engaged in this daily alchemy that gives us the real rewards of life, that mere possession of things, or endless hours of leisure never can.

The industrial machine produces from life what can be bought and sold, demanding endless energy and life-force. It makes slaves of people and gives us money and entertainment and cheap goods in return. But you never get to engage with the fabric of life that way - with plants or bread or words - or find any kind of satisfaction. The craftsman is using his hands to making life beautiful, useful, delicious: he is putting his attention and his skill into those loaves and those loaves are coming up good. No one gets sick afterwards.

To find satisfaction you have to have an encounter with the real world and absorb its great subtleties. It’s difficult to make the deep connections about food without meeting the people that grow the plants or bake the bread, or doing those things yourself. You have to stand in the intensity of the kitchen and in the emptiness of the land. And then you have to go home and let those ingredients shift and move and expand together. Real bread takes time. Real stories take time. How many stories can you make with 26 letters? How many songs can you sing with 12 notes? How many solutions can you come up with with 17 people in a room? How many things can you make out of flour and water that are not the monocultural white sliced loaf?

The loaves of the old world are stored inside me: cottage white, granary brown, bap, bagel, pitta, naan, focaccia, ciabatta, pumpernickel, brioche. A man with a black face is gulping water from a bucket like a horse, his warm bread stacked on a rough shelf set in the side of a Greek mountain. I am standing by the door, a dish of Easter kid at my hip, about to put the dish inside his oven stoked with thornbushes. An old man takes my hand in a French patisserie in Queensway and puts a sweet roll in it. His name is Monsieur Pechon. He is eighty years old and blind. I am four years old and wearing a coat the colour of the sun. Each morning he waits by the door for us, les petits, to come and hold his bread baking hands. It’s a long time ago. It’s a long long way away from where we are now.

I am wondering as I write this story about wheat, whether we will make it back in time.

Images: Organic loaves baked at the squatted farmhouse co-operative, Can Piella, in Spain (Philip Evans); Brockwell Baker Vincent Talleu, gathers Blue Cone Rivet heritage wheat at Perry Court Farm, Kent; baker from the community owned Handmade Bakery, Slaithwaite, Yorkshire; Ann-Marie Culhane and Corn Mask 1; CDC with the panchion and soda bread, Yoxford, Suffolk; Mark's first sourdough loaf made with local spelt and wheat, 2009, Suffolk.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Heart is Another Country

I have been writing a column called 'Life in Transition' for the magazine EarthLines since 2012. During these years, as one season has shifted into another, I have looked at the challenges that face an industrialised people in search of a wilder, kinder, more authentic way of being on the planet. This is my last column You can see all posts under the EarthLines label).

“Can we speak with you for a moment?” asked the girl with blond hair sitting at the table outside the Betsey Trotwood. It’s midwinter and we have just been at a Dark Mountain launch at the literature house Free Word in Clerkenwell. “We loved the way you started your talk about being a know-it-all journalist in London when you were 35. We’re 35!”

I looked at them, two young city women, smart, sassy, with sharp tailoring and a curiousity that would never be satisfied by the whirling world of Farringdon Road. I realised I was talking to myself 25 years ago. “You have to go!” I laughed. “You won’t regret it.”

25 years ago I had interviewed a Native American activist called Dennis Banks. He was running to Russia with a band of young warriors to deliver a message of peace. I had persuaded the news desk it was a good story.

“Why are you running?” I asked him.
“I run to remind the world the eagle is still the eagle and the owl is still the owl.” he told me.
"Does the world want to know?” I asked.
He looked at me, French designer jacket, Japanese tape recorder, London attitude.

"It doesn’t matter who gets the message.” he replied. “What matters is that the message is delivered." "Well," I said. "Thousands of people will read this tomorrow."

But the fact was they didn’t. Because the story was never published (the photographer didn’t get a good picture). But I got the message anyway. Six months later I was on the road to Mexico.

At some point all our empires end. The ones that hold dominion inside us, the corporate machine that strides the Earth, the parts we play to keep it going. The encounter seemed a small thing at the time. But it wasn’t. It changed my whole world. 

off-grid

There is a small hexagonal space in the Natural History museum in Oxford in the rocks and minerals department. When you step inside it is totally dark, except for the glow emanating from several crystalline chunks in a psychedelic host of colours. And there is a switch. When you flick it something extraordinary happens: a totally different set of colours lights up. The minerals emit fluoresecent light according to the wave lengths of UV light they are exposed to. The switch changes the frequency.

In the Free Word theatre I am showcasing 30 images from the two recent Dark Mountain volumes. What is this man in a suit doing on a raft on a Swedish lake? I am asking the audience. Why is this woman’s face covered in a mask made from heritage wheat? 

The images are modern but they are also archaic, rough, made from riverwood, roadkill and storm debris. They show us glaciers in Pataonia and broken glass in Walthamstow, the rain on a cherry tree in a gale on the Ligurian coast and a red door leading to a curious house in the Hampshire woods. They are paying attention in places where we do not, stopping the world so we can see inside its workings, so we can see what lies outside the city walls.

Art is like a strange attractor, I said, that breaks a limit cycle and brings chaos into play. When it comes to climate change we can talk about sustainability and resilience and finding A New Narrative. We discuss environmental and social justice – but still we are at the same table moving pieces on a chessboard in a losing game. The new story turns out to be just the old story only with different vocab. Sometimes though the barbarians come to the city and appear on the edge of our civilised lives with a message.

Sometimes that barbarian is you.

Divestment


To see the Earth in new colours we have to divest ourselves of the world that is set to ruin it. When the Transition movement was launched its blueprint for energy descent created over a thousand initiatives worldwide and provided an intervention for communities stuck in the rigidity of the status quo. It gave people a chance to meet within an ecological frame for the future. However its essentially pragmatic nature meant those changes were only discussed in terms of our behaviours and attitude. What was not addressed was the inner divestment of an old world, or how we could create the kind of culture that could be stronger and more beautiful than the one built and maintained by fossil fuels.

In 1990 my life changed direction when I met a Native American activist. What I learned from Dennis Banks in that small encounter was that unless I had a land to belong to I would not have a message worth delivering. To find that territory I had to become a different kind of person, operating on another wavelength. When I later chanced upon a lecture about aboriginal dreamtime, I found that the mystery of life on Earth can be found in our ordinary dreams. When I met a road protester called Heather in Oxford, I discovered that the medicine of plants can be found in the weeds that grow outside your door, that there is living consciousness in every tree and flower.

In 2008 I found myself in a theatre with a small band of 30 people watching a film about peak oil. And afterwards, contrary to my expectation, I joined in the lively debate about life at the end of Empire. We will build the lifeboat together, we declared. It was the day I joined Transition. In Transition I got smart about the industrial-military complex and realised that the future was not just about me: it had to be about us. Breaking our individual silos was perhaps the most radical move any of us could make.

Each of these encounters blew the dimensions of my small world open. Each time I met someone who sparked something alight in me. But how do we flick the switch in the dark room as a collective? How do we change the frequency so that the low hostile hum of Empire is turned off and different parts of ourselves are lighted up?

How do we open to these encounters in a shrinking world? How can we move the conversation away from the game on the table to feel the currents of the underworld below our feet, to hear the spirit birds above our heads, when we are boxed in by language, by class, by prejudice, by untempered inner forces, when only the lucky and the rich hold the microphone and most of us feel dumbstruck? 


jumping the fire 

This year we jumped over the fire to welcome the new year in. Lucy sent us a bottle of vodka, three small glasses and some instructions. I built a firepit where Lucy’s caravan had once stood. The caravan has been a crucible for a book Lucy and I have been working on for the last two years. It’s called Playing for Time - Making Art as if The World Mattered. 

The book details the work of 58 artists who convene under the umbrella of ‘transitional arts practice’. This is not the art you might find in galleries or theatres, but art that takes place in bandstands, libraries, beaches, burial grounds, mountain tops and community gardens. Collective and collaborative projects that help us break out and change lanes; that can, for example, bring a whole valley of people together in Cornwall, or track the nectar and pollen-bearing plants in a neighbourhood in London, that can curate a museum of waters from across the globe, or a rhythm to be played by people across continents, like Chinese whispers.

What does living ‘as if the world mattered’ mean? It is hard to read about the ocean and its million mile gyres of rubbish and not turn away. It is hard to read about the corporate gulag system in America, where people are paid $1 a day for their labour and not hate. It is hard to refuse the plastic bag, to not give any part of yourself to the industrial-military complex, to remember in each small move that empathy and kindness matter.

It was hard to stay here at first and not run away, and yet this is what our hearts told us when we listened: Make yourself at home. It was hard to eat seasonally, to turn off the heating. Live in time. Yet now I don’t want to leave, I don’t care if I have to wait another six months to taste tomatoes or strawberries. I don’t want winter to be summer anymore. Today the chard and radicchio shine all colours in the frost. I walk down the lane with a dead elm balanced on my shoulder. Ice cracks under my feet and moonlight bounces off the distant sea like a golden mirror.

What makes divestment bearable is the attention the artist and writer show with their practice and their celebration. How these things forge depth in a shallow time, how they wrest meaning and value in a culture governed by the dollar and the drone. They open the door to the worlds that shift under and beyond the table. They create spaces for other things to happen. For the switch to go on inside. For the people to still be the people.

We sat for a long time around the fire, elm and hawthorn twigs snapping in the dark. The fireworks of the town seemed to be happening in another dimension. We heard a deer bark, geese honk from the marsh. The stars turned overhead. When you jump at midnight, Lucy said, you shout: I give you my yellow paleness, and then back again: I take your fiery red. Then you drink a glass of vodka. When you are jumping, the people stamp their feet and cheer, and you can think of your brethren in Kabul doing the same.

I stamp my feet on the earth and laugh, as Mark leaps over the fire. From the oak trees down the lane the owls call out:

We give you our fiery red. 
 
Playing for Time – Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal is published by Oberon Books. I will be speaking with fellow editor Steve Wheeler about the Dark Mountain Project at 2 Degrees Festival on 3 June. Do come! The latest collection of Dark Mountain writing and art is available here. 

Images: Calling out with Ansuman Biswas/Red Earth by Charlotte McPherson in Playing for Time; Anima by Daniel Mack (Dark Mountain 6); crocus from Honeyscribe by Amy Shelton (in PFT); storytelling by Tom Hirons at the last Uncivilisation Festival, 2013.

Friday, 1 May 2015

now you see me

dark mountain visual
It was a month of appearances. Dark Mountain 7 came out (above is its sinewy linocut cover by Stanley Donwood) and was posted around the world. Playing for Time - Making Art as if the World Mattered was launched at Free Word in Clerkenwell and I walked everyone through its colourful blueprint. I went to Southwold Library and talked about being an editor, and I went to a castle in East Sussex and talked about water and memory for Waterweek 2, invited by the artists, Clare Whistler and Charlotte Still. They had read my book 52 Flowers. Here is a short piece I wrote about that talk - an exploration of how our lives are directed in ways we cannot explain with our rational minds but make sense to our common creaturehood and deep inner core. 

Crossing the River

Sometimes you need an intervention to crack open your world and bring about change. On a hot day in July 2007 the artist and activist Amy Sharrocks invites a posse of swimmers to navigate their way across the ponds and pools of London. In 2000 I meet a community artist carrying a baby called Willow, who invites me to join a campaign to save the canal life of Oxford. Two years later I find myself in the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s garden, standing by the mighty cabbage of the shingle, seakale, and know I have to put down my roots by the sea.

Who are we as a body of water? This was the question that began a short 20 minute voyage into the transformative powers of water: how it can affect our imaginations and our sense of being alive in physical form. The people in the room closed their eyes, took a deep breath and plunged into their memories. Connect with a wild watery place, I asked everyone, an ocean, pond or stream where once you felt at home. Then turn to your neighbour and introduce yourself and that body of water.

Water connects us, makes us fluid and free; breaks open the shut down, individualistic silos we are trapped in. Most of all it reminds us that we are human swimming creatures: crossing a busy East End street on a hot July day.

There are three bodies of water in the talk. They describe a life journey that happens outside CVs and official biography. The first is a London river, a deep hidden river that runs under my old neighbourhood, the Westbourne, that later becomes the Fleet, on whose grimy banks I work as a journalist. These are practical rivers, but they are also underworld rivers, the Lethe and the Styx that I have encountered in TS Eliot’s Wasteland. I am a modern city child but already I know the myth of the well maidens and the Fisher King. Already I am aware, though I have no experience, that the land has been poisoned by men who have not honoured the springs, and it is now exacting a price.

A crowd flowed over Westminster Bridge.
I had not thought Death had undone so many.

The second is a river that runs through London but begins in Oxfordshire, the Thames, a river that comes in my mid-life and teaches me everything about medicine plants and how to defend the life that springs up along the waterways: the willows, water rats and boaters who live on its banks, the hemp agrimony flowers that can bring decrystallisation and inspiration to minds and bodies made creaky and rigid by civilisation.
 
Activism tells us how water is privatised, owned by corporations, poisoned by agribusiness, used to extract gas, as a dumping ground for plastic and the industrialised world. Art shows us that water holds a deeper, more intrinsic value. It shows us why and how we might restore the land by regenerating ourselves. These interventions of art and action surprise us, so that we start to see water no longer as a commodity, but as part of planetary life, and we of it.

The last place was the shoreline I spent a lifetime trying to reach. After 10 years on the road, living in mountains and deserts and dusty towns, I make myself at home on the east coast, anchored in a stormy time by the tap root of  one of the world’s greatest plant detoxifiers. It is here that I see how we can belong again to the Earth, so long as we love the place we are in:
Out to sea there is a sandbar I am told by a diver for treasure. There are seals there. The sandbars appear and disappear. When summer comes you can swim out to them and feel the cross-currents move around your feet. You can feel how everything moves and is fluid, not as it seems. In your imagination you trace sea henges, songlines. The great waves of the full moon race to the shore. like waves of undulating light.You are standing beside all oceans, in Africa, in all time. The white flowers of the seakale dazzle, the larks ascend above you, an exultation of larks. The sea goes in and out, like our breath. We are in the kingdom of the crambe, a selkie people, an island people, a people returned, starting again. Nothing is as you imagine it is.

England, our England.
 
Next appearance! Will be with fellow Dark Mountain editor Steve Wheeler on Wednesday 3 June for the 2 Degrees Festival at Toynbee Studios. We're taking part in a series of talks as part of a week-long workshop called Breakdown Break Down, curated by the artist and activist Brett Bloom.

Images: cover for Dark Mountain 7 by Stanley Donwood; SWIM. by Amy Sharrocks, photo by Ruth Conyer, London, July 2007; hemp agrimony by the Thames, July 2002 (CDC); entering the sea, Southwold, July 2014

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:
I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
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 photos.by 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.