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. 


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.


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:
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.

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