Friday 28 December 2012

Holding This Book in My Hands

Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet, once said that a writer’s task in a world ruled by tyranny and abstractions, is to praise the real and the ordinary. The people in the room, the earth outside your door, the things you hold beloved in your hands. I’m remembering those words as I wrap this Dark Mountain anthology in its brown paper jacket and head out down the frosty lane towards the post office.

This is not how most reviews begin: on a cottage floor in East Anglia, with masking tape. Mostly they are written with the world held at arm’s length, by critics in glass towers. But this is not an ordinary book, and we do not live in ordinary times. This annual collection of essays, reviews, encounters, poems, stories and pictures is, even before you even open it, a beautifully crafted object: its cover the colour of damsons, sketched with a range of peaks on the isle of Skye that look like the interior workings of the human mind. Inside your eyes scan photographs of leaves and drawings of hares. The index presents the contents under intriguing titles: on road kill, on endings, on tools, on history, on creatures.
Already you are engaged on a physical and imaginative journey.

To take the pieces out and view them separately would reveal the individuals who wrote them, but reading them together gives a true sense of what the Dark Mountain Project is about: the collective intelligence of a people waking up and writing as if everything in life mattered. A work of naming then, and sometimes of farewell, charting the vanishing times we witness. And a response to the book’s core question: how do we begin to find our way home?

Central to the book is the essay by Paul Kingsnorth on Dark Ecology and the premise that life does not revolve around human civilisation, but around the planetary systems of which we are part. Kingsnorth co-founded the Dark Mountain Project with Dougald Hine in 2009 with the publication of a manifesto called Uncivilisation. Now in its fourth year, the Project is waymarked by an annual anthology and an arts and literature festival, held on the downs in Hampshire. This year it has expanded into a series of book launches in the UK (Liverpool. Edinburgh, Brighton and London), as well as literary workshops in the wilds of Dartmoor and the Scottish Highlands.

The book begins with the death of badgers and ends with the disappearance of house spirits in an unnamed valley. In between you can listen in to conversations held in London and New York and the forests of Chile and follow poets who track the wild dimensions like small shamans. Some voices are well known, some unknown; all of them worthy of invitation:
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver
His voice makes vinegar from wine

(Tom Hirons)

Attention to the physical and humble is everywhere: Paul Kingsnorth swings a scythe, Matt Szabo bends like a peasant, the Iraqi artist, Rashad Selim resurrects dead pianos, Dougald Hine and Sajay Samuel discuss the vernacular in culture (“home-made, home-brewed, home-spun”), Caspar Henderson investigates the barely imagined beings of the deep sea. Ian Hill holds a graphite pencil in his hands and follows the trajectory of the mineral through history, from the Cumbrian hillside to the European battlefield. Robert Alcock witnesses a neighbourhood under siege in Bilbao and hopes the kingfishers will return to the post-industrial port that has become his home. John Rember, professor of literature, surveys his class in snowy Idaho and knows, though they do not, that the glamorous ski slopes he once flew down without a care will no longer be their rightful inheritance.

What we have in common is a sense of time and a loss of illusion. Unusually, for a movement that recognises we live in times of unravelling, it creates a literature that feels extraordinarily secure. This is a consequence of facing reality and being rooted in place. Because, when you talk with people who recognise radical change is underfoot, it’s a radically different dialogue to the one where you think civilisation is going to continue, as you have been educated to believe it will and should. The conversation is not there to rush in to fix a broken world, but to discover what we hold in our hands: tools in our sheds, ancestral memory, kinship round a fire, language, imagination, the austere beauty of a rainwashed land. Where we sit, where we have sat, it seems, for centuries, remembering the past, recording the present and imagining another future.
Things will have consequences and in the heart of hearts of thinking people, I believe they know things are going wrong, although they may not be able to articulate it.
(Doug Tompkins)

This book does what people, constrained in an old system, sometimes cannot. It asks questions and invents new ways to approach an unspoken subject. It recognises that our base camp is the planet we live on, the wild places we treasure in the heart of ourselves, the neighbourhood of beings we live amongst. Creating a new narrative from this brings the possibility of redemption: the regeneration of a land and a people. That possibility has a powerful allure, the feeling you have when the bird returns to the river, and the soil regains life, and it has attracted many of us to connect with Dark Mountain’s network of writers, thinkers, activists and artists, and start up gatherings in our home places. Abstractions and ideals cannot do this, only a restorative relationship with the earth can bring us home.

The resilience of all living systems depends on their diversity and ability to communicate with the whole of themselves. You can see this at play in this book, the way the pieces work, like mycorrhizal fungi, in an underground communications network, On the woodland stage at Uncvilisation this year we stood, eight contributors who had never met, and as we read out our poems and prose they formed a composite story, without our even trying.

What connects us and makes us resilient in the face of collapse, are the things you cannot ordinarily measure or see.

Dark Mountain 3 gives a glimpse of them.

Dark Mountain 3, £12.99 is available to order from the Dark Mountain Project 

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Strategic Thinking or the Library at the End of the World

I knew, as soon as the Man in Seat 61 (c) got on at Colchester, that it was a Sign.

I have been away for a week, he told his fellow commuter, and no more was said between them. It's the influenza season, where public places are a maelstrom of invisible bugs and viruses, waiting to wreak their pesky havoc on the lumbering forms who haven't stepped up their immune systems with echinacea and oranges.

Three days later I found myself in bed unable to get back on the train to London, or even to go outside, and now, dear reader, still horizontal and faced with the awesome prospect of having to write about Strategic Thinking, I fear I am not up to the task. So please bear with me. I will write this introduction to the Building section  (on the Social Reporting Project series about The Transition Companion) as soon as I can.

You may be wondering why I have a photograph of Mark Bee, leader of Suffolk County Council (with various members of Sustainable Bungay peering quizzically at him) here and why I am including a trailer for the new documentary, Chasing Ice (see end of post). But it will make sense. I promise you, by Thursday at the latest.

Some people say the world is coming to an end on Friday. Well maybe not literally, but some tear in the fabric that brings about a collapse in our civilisation. However it plays out it is the end of a long, long cycle of time, mapped out by a people whose own high city culture tumbled into ruin in the forests of the Yucatan.

Sometimes I feel ancient, as though I have seen it all before, and sometimes I feel like a being from the future, starting again with an entirely new bluepint. Sometimes, when I listen to people talk, I think we have learned nothing, in spite of all the books and buildings and all our thinking. But that, as they say, is another story . . .

Part Two: Perseverance Furthers
Transition groups aim ultimately to catalyse the localisation of their local economy. They strive to move from running small community projects to thinking and acting much bigger. New skills and ways of thinking will lead Transition initiatives to become social enterprises, such as becoming developers, banks, energy companies and so on. (Intro to the Building Section of The Transition Companion)
 The main purpose of this Ingredient is to glean knowledge about a local region and what it would take to relocalise the supply systems - the food economy, for example, or energy or transport. It requires undertaking research and amass data that most initiatives would not know how to access, or why. One of the example Rob Hopkins uses to illustrate what is meant by Strategic Thinking is the Food Chapter for the Resilience Plan for Norwich.

Which is why here I am almost at the end of 2012, looking back at a cold day in January in the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet, four years ago where 17 of us - a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, the TN Oats, Beans and Bread group, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute (researching wheat that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change) and Andrew Whitley of The Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters - are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread. It’s a project aiming to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms. One of the components of the Plan that also includes a CSA and a market garden in a local school.
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.

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. 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 industrialised "Chorleywood process".

“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, said one of the bakers rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped, 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 it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

Tully Wakeman (the architect of that plan and then a director of East Anglian Food Link) asked me to write up that meeting and it was the first record I made within the initiative. It kickstarted the kind of reporting I have been doing in in Transition ever since. This tiny pic of me going to a neighbourhood bread baking workshop in Yoxford a month later - by a fellow participant on her phone - was the moment where I realised the potential for writing "citizen journalism", small on the ground stories that could grab people's attention about change.

What happened to the plan? you might ask. Well, Tully left Transition Norwich before the CSA (Norwich FarmShare) reaped its first harvest. A small and handsome electric mill did get bought, but the resilient loaf of Norwich did not get baked (well not commercially anyhow). Great British Beans however, which came out of the same staples project, are launching themselves on to the market in January. The bread we buy at Southwold Market is made with flour grown by the farmer at the original meeting. I look at the fields outside my door and recognise peas, oats, barley, potatoes, where once they meant nothing.

The Building section is about stepping up the enterprise. As a comms person this has meant moving from being a personal blogger in my local initiative, to running a national newspaper (Transition Free Press) as a social enterprise. That's a big undertaking that involves thinking about a crew, discussing pieces with people all around the UK and the world, advertising, social media, crowd-funding. It involves risk and 12 hour shifts. Sometimes I look back fondly at the days when I could just write about what was happening in my neighbourhood, stepping out into the frosty lane with my camera, learning how to bake bread. There was a beauty and a lightness to do with those days. But Building is a bigger move. You can't do Transition for real, and stay where you feel small and cosy.

In fact you can't do anything and stay small. If we had stayed small in Bungay there would be no library. The reason we are looking quizzically at Mr Bee, is because we know that in spite of all his words about Bungay Community Library celebrating its 20th Birthday, Suffolk Country Council were famous for zealously wanting to close libraries down. Only some people from the communities in North Suffolk got together and forced them back. What you don't know about this picture at the top is that Sylvia (just out of shot) and James Hargrave (who took the picture) and several others put hundreds of hours of unpaid work into keeping it open. And still do.

So I'm guessing you are wondering what on earth any of this has got to do with a documentary about glaciers. There is one word: perseverance. None of these enterprises work without a big desire or sense of destiny.

You can't photograph the movement of glaciers, without going to extreme places and suffering. You can't save a library, start a collective blog, or run a community bakery, without the kinds of people who are prepared to put themselves on the line against all odds. Norwich FarmShare would not have happened without Tully who pursued a funding application over two years. It wouldn't have worked either, if it had just stayed as a Plan and other Transitioners hadn’t stepped on board to manifest it. So no matter how brilliantly you understand the ingredient of Strategic Thinking, with its data and analysis, maps and bigger picture thinking. it's the people who will make the blueprints work, who translate them into physical reality.

We live in a culture where we think to have an idea is enough and that anyone can do it. If you can bake bread you can start a bakery, right? This section is where those ideas fall down hard. To relocalise a food supply doesn’t happen by growing vegetables in an allotment, you have to look at the staples and where they grow. Transition teaches us that to really succeed we have to know a lot, put in a lot of unpaid hours, and keep going, for reasons only we know. And most of all have the kind of people on board who know what they are doing. That's not strategy. That's something more like luck.

Thank your lucky stars when you find them. . . .

Post originally posted on Social Reporting Project
Images: Mark Bee and Sustainable Bungay by James Hargrave (the only geek in the village) Local bread in Breakfast with Friends by Mark Watson; Steve Winter of Dozen Bakery, Norwich by Jane Chittenden (Transition Norwich blog)

Saturday 8 December 2012

Coming down the dark mountain

Transition is not a stand-alone movement. In a recent interview for the Transition Free Press Shaun Chamberlin commented that one of its unsung capacities is to connect and cohere other progressive initiatives. This week is an exploration of how some of us do that

Most campaign groups have a single focus, but Transition has many (87 Ingredients and tools for starters) - food and economics, inner work and group dynamics. Instead of putting energy into confronting the business-as-usual mindset of the industrialised world, it puts it into building social and practical infrastructures for a future when that mindset begins to lose its grip on reality. Backed by a network of similar initiatives in cities and towns in the UK and elsewhere it can provide a secure base from which to proceed.

But Transition can sometimes be stodgy and small town in its approach, and lack the radical and activist dynamic to challenge the status quo and the corporate grip on our neighbourhoods. At the Transition Conference three Transition groups discussed their response to threats in their communities by taking a strategic part in local campaigns (NO to Costa, anti-fracking in Wales and Plane Stupid). When I wrote a post in 2011 called lock on it was widely held that Transition should not take part in any activism. But when the local library in Bungay (Suffolk) was threatened with closure we did not hesitate to back the campaign to make sure it stayed open. How could we not: many of our meetings and events were held there and we built the community garden in its courtyard? It was, in many ways, our home.

Sometimes you have stand by the places you love.
Occupying the town square
In Transition Norwich we have stood alongside many like-minded initiatives, from the Campaign for Climate Change to FoodCycle to Zero Carbon Britain. We've taken part in protests from Anti-GM to Norfolk Against the Cuts and published posts by campaigners across the city on our blogs. When the Occupy movement took off last year we took part in the general assemblies held at Hay Hill, where Occupy Norwich was camped for four months.

One of the highlights was a three hour discussion about climate change. Even though this is a principle driver in Transition, most of us have never made time to actually sat down and talk about it. So much of our energy goes into building the infrastructure of an initiative and maintaining it there is rarely any time to discuss these subjects at depth. Sometimes you feel constrained by politeness, by its civic and psychological language. Occupy provided that edge and that conversation : you could go to the camp at any time of day or night and go straight to the deep and urgent stuff and be surprised by the kindness of strangers.

However, I might never have slept on that pavement or gone with my hand-made rocket stove to give a talk about breaking out of the industrial food sysem, had I not been in Transition. Searching for a new narrative makes you bold and able to talk with progressive groups and food initiatives wherever you go. Often people diss Transition for not being strong enough on the environment, for not going into the poorer districts of town, as if the movement has promised to solve the crisis of capitalism with a fairy wand. Mostly however, this is a symptom of a competitive monoculture. We are programmed to reject any new ideas, the way pesticides work on crops (all visiting aliens will be eradicated!) and to allow a new "partnership" narrative to emerge, you have to let your defensiveness slide.

We’re bridge makers that's our job. We join dots and don't get derailed if people tell us the trouble with Transiton is . . . or call us hippy or usual suspects. It’s our business to find the connections between the myriad groups and projects out there and pull us into the same conversation. To really forge the future we need to work as an interconnected system: that means many different groups working in different areas, connected by a communications network. The Project and the Press are part of that network. And so is the group I want to talk about:

"If Transition is the Village then Dark Mountain is the Shaman"
Dark Mountain Project is neither a political campaign, nor a community group. In some ways it is as hard to define as Transition. Stemming out of a manifesto written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine in 2009, it soon developed into a book, then a festival, then a movement. It is both a cultural response to a collapsing world, and a network of people who gather to make sense of that collapse.

I came to the Mountain last year as part of the Social Reporting Project and wrote a blog based on a conversation around the fire at the Uncivilisation Festival with several Transitioners:
There’s all the intensity of a Transition debate here but without the concerns of the Village, worrying about whether “the community” is going to come to your event, or understand you, or fund you. No battle with the Council, no struggle to get Other People to do stuff. No psychology or sitting around in a circle talking about your feelings. Everyone understands you.
The festival struck a chord deep within me that Transition, for all its complexity, does not reach. It speaks of rain and birds and ancestors and everything I am putting myself on the line for. Organised by writers and thinkers, unswervingly generous about each others' work, the Project forges creative relationships that are hard to find in Transition. When I was offered some press and publicity work this spring it was the first time in years anyone had given me work on the strength of my writing. I’m not an expert, I warned them. That’s OK none of us are, was the reply.

What the two networks have in common is providing a meeting place and platform for people who know that the story our parents told us about our world is not holding; that the socio-economic model we have taken for granted most of our lives is not only precarious, but is socially unjust and environmentally destructive. As a people, hemmed in by denial and illusion on all sides, that meeting place is crucial. As the manifesto states Dark Mountain does not seek solutions, it holds a space so that a different narrative can be created. Not another monoculture but an “uncivilised” culture that is diverse in its expression as an eco-system. To be part of that creative edge is what pulled me: to listen to the stories that people are telling around the fire, on the edge of the forest, in tune with each other, intellectually sharp as a scythe.

This week Dark Mountain Norwich is meeting up for our monthly discussion. We'll take food and our Transition friends from Bristol, Kristin and Sim. We'll sit down and discuss deep time and paradigm shifting around the table, and design an event we hope to hold next year. We are from many places: students from the UEA. from Austria, Denmark and Germany, Ava from Devon, who is researching Dark Mountain and Kev from Norfolk, who took the first video of Transition Norwich way back when the whole thing began in 2008.

The world comes in full circle, that's what you learn, when you connect the dots, when you come down the dark mountain. It's the circle that will make sense of everything, when the old world finds itself at the end of the line.

Captions: holding the biofuels banner with Transition Norwich at The Wave, Speakers Corner, 2009; Deepak Rughani of Biofuel Watch discussing financial systems at Norwich discuss the aftermath of Nicole Foss’s talk; The Tellling, performance inspired by Dark Moountain, Doncaster; Rise and Root frontispiece to Dark Mountain 3 by Rima Staines;

This post first appeared on the Social Reporting project as the introduction to the week on Associated Movements.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Playing for Time

Last month I embarked on a collaborative arts project called Playing for Time. It’s the vision of Lucy Neal of Transition Town Tooting and has been recently awarded an Arts Council grant. My role in the work is to help shape and distil a vast store of community arts practices into a book, and during the next year I will be writing regular posts on this blog to report on our experiences. 

The book will be written by a group of practitioners, several of whom are in Transition initiatives and so resonate with Norwich’s own past and present creative enterprises, including Abundance, Magdalen Street Celebration and of course This Low Carbon Life!

Here Lucy Neal, creator and producer of Playing for Time introduces the theme: 

Does art have a purpose? Can it change our sense of what is possible in the world? Artist and cultivator, Eva Bakkeslett thinks so. She works with yoghurt, yeast and fungi and is fascinated by micro-organisms. She tapes the sound of bread rising and tells stories of emigrating Finns who carried their culture to a new country by dipping their handkerchiefs in yoghurt to re-activate on arrival.

Evas house is full of jars, some with cultures over a 100 years old. She loves everything to do with fermentation and the remarkable resilience of micro-organisms. She makes a soft click-clocking noise in her mouth. Thats the sound of bread rising she says. 

Eva is on to something: her art explores the subtle and invisible wonders of life and re-energises people's engagement. An encounter with her work brings an awareness of the earth and environmental change to the fore.

This year I was a writer-artist in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and have been gathering up ideas about transitional arts practices like Evas for a book called Playing For Time. Its a handbook that will join the dots between the philosophies of art and the creative skills that are emerging in response to the planetary challenges we face.

The book considers the role the arts play in re-imagining a world in which life on earth and its cultures are sustained. These range from traditional arts projects to transition approaches to foodgrowing, visioning processes, eco builds, education, inner transition events, group facilitation or local development plans.

What stories are we living by? 
Much of transitional arts practice could be said to come down to narrative: the live storymaking of the experiences we are living through at this moment in our planetary history. Working with the playwright Sarah Woods from Transition Bro-ddyfi, Wales we found four different kinds of narrative emerged:

PERSONAL NARRATIVE:  How we experience who and how we are. Our inner life of spirit and emotions balanced with outward actions and how we connect to the world. 

COMMUNAL NARRATIVE: The shared narrative - co-created, collaborative and co-operative. The focus of Transition Towns and a natural one for the arts, building bridges, empathy and understanding, creating space where inspiration and change can be explored. 

GRAND NARRATIVE: A galvanising idea that in combination, globally our actions, plans, imaginings, projects and campaigns can create the shift to a more ecological age. Impossible to undertake alone, its the narrative of Occupy, We are the 99%, The Great Turning.

SUPER NARRATIVE:  A narrative of all time and all dimensions of life on earth. The shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene Age, means our planet may no longer provide a comfortable place for us to live. It is a narrative of home and wonder and of fear and loss.

Playing for Time is seeking to hear about activities that engage with these narratives and  help everyone imagine a different future. From foodgrowing, to walking, rites of passage, plays, craft, public art, community celebration, engaged optimism, direct activism, sharing food, land use, play, psychogeography and map making, reports about any of these events or projects that have fostered shifts of perspective would be very welcome.

Maybe its something like Transition Heathrows Kaleidoscope artist residency in June that mixed activism and permaculture, or Tootings Transition Shop with Encounters Arts in May, a place of exchange, that helps reclaim our high streets.

In the future we could see a return to more rooted, cyclical patterns in our art and culture. Our descendants may be dipping their handkerchiefs in yoghurt to preserve precious resilient cultures. What other tales of creative acts and art-making might there be? With your participation and input, Playing For Time hopes to draw these in! Thankyou!

Lucy Neal was the founder co-chair of Transition Town Tooting  and the co-founding Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (1981-2005).  Playing for Time is supported by Transition Network, the Battersea Arts Centre, Artsadmin, New Economcs Forum and CAT. Contact:

Article originally written for the preview edition of Transition Free Press

Tuesday 20 November 2012

A Tale of Two Cities . . . . and a new newspaper

Last Saturday in Norwich a demonstration gathered in Chapelfield Gardens and made its way cheerfully and noisily towards City Hall. This was We are Norwich, a coalition of trade unions, community and political groups, protesting against the English Defence League, who were marching for the first time in the city. As the two marches converged they were separated by barriers in front of the steps. On one side the gloomy fascist contingent in dark coats and a sound system blaring harsh anthems. On the other the colourful counter-demonstration with rainbow-coloured faces, banners and laughter. Outside the War Memorial the two groups, faced each other and jeered, like two stags with invisible antlers, unable to lock horns.

Only a couple of streets away there was, however, a different story.

"What we need is not confrontation, but to be able to work together," said someone at the Long Table in the aisle of St Lawrence's Church. This was The Common Room, a prototype day organised by Social Spaces and 00:/  in collaboration with the Churches Conservation Trust. It's a social enterprise that helps communities in different UK cities make and shape a shared space in which to meet, learn skills, barter knowledge, run on the principles of co-operation, connection and resourcefulness.

Great ideas, projects and enterprises seldom originate from a single person working in isolation. For stimulation, enthusiasm and collaboration, people need to work in an environment full of fellow entrepreneurs, ideas, learning, conversation. On Saturday you could share your ideas for what you might do if you were a member of The Common Room Co-operative, take part in a Trade School class by exchanging food, items or advice for new knowledge - from herbs for resilience to time skills to social media - host a conversation, or drop in to bake bread or build a web app.
In the common room I discovered aspects of people whom I already know that I hadn’t seen before. Although I’ve known Mark for about a year now, I’d never really heard him talk in-depth about his practice with plants. In discussions I was able to draw on knowledge shared with friends to benefit the wider dialogue. It was as if the place allowed us to apply ourselves in ways that we can’t always do in other public spaces (Jeppe Graugaard from Place Which Connects)
The EDP covered the first story, but the second went unreported. Clashes between people are news, people getting on and creating a friendly future are not. As a result the world we read about and perceive all about us is skewed by an often hostile political paradigm.

Good news from the Common Room

So this is a story about The Story that is Not Being Told. Since joining the OneWorldColumn in 2009 many of the stories I have been reporting on have stemmed from the Transition movement which I have been active in for the past five years, both with local initiatives, Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay, and as part of a national network. This spring several of us decided to launch a national quarterly newspaper to gather these stories in one place and distribute them throughout the UK.

When I joined OWC it was a weekly column on the EDP. It became a blog in 2011, when the column was cancelled after six years. Although on line communications and social networking form a strong messaging system, the physical printed page still commands greater attention. Print goes places that computers do not go and has the great advantage of putting a complex narrative in one place, directly into your hands, which one-page-at-a-time virtual media cannot replace.

Mainstream papers, severely hit by the recession and loss of advertising revenue, are shrinking their staff and increasingly publishing stories from “the wire” and press releases, rather than real-time investigation. Stories are judged not by their merit, but by on-line readership figures. As a result the mainstream press often sinks to the lowest common denominator and defaults to the governmental, or corporate, line. The smaller and more progressive stories disappear altogether. Celebrities and violence prevail and “reality” becomes defined within these very constricted parameters. Increasingly too many people now consider communications to be something they can get for free. So though this is probably the most challenging time to be launching a new national newspaper, it will not lack for stories, nor will it lack for a readership keen to hear the good news from places the mainstream media does not go.

Stories about the people, for the people, by the people

My first column on OWC was about Leaving the Pleasuredome and preparing for a low-carbon future, shifting away from the dominant narrative, to what Charles Eisenstein calls " a new story of Self and a new story of The People."

The Transition Free Press is based on this premise. After publishing our preview issue in the summer, the need for new media now seems more relevant than ever. As peak oil pushes unconventional oil and gas extraction to new extremes, as climate change brings storms and food crises in its wake, as the economic recession brings many countries to their knees, so our desire increases for alternative solutions and a kinder, more generous culture that can look the future in the eye.

Our small, resilient paper will champion communities and projects that often get missed by mainstream media. We’ll be holding up a beacon in the potentially dark and difficult times ahead. Where the breaking story is of confusion and greed, we aim to bring coherence and  the gift economy into play, where there is fantasy we will bring grassroots reality, where there is loss we will show the opportunity for well being and knowledge share. And most of all where there is silence, we aim to bring words and listen to the voices of people who do not normally get heard. 

We’re planning to run four issues during 2013, starting on Feb 1 2012. Our 24-page issue will follow the blueprint of our preview issue and contain a colourful mix of news, reviews and features, dedicated pages to energy, the land, people, economy, food, well-being,  the arts, cartoons and a unique Transition agony column.

In these four pilot editions in 2013 we hope to bring together in one place the stories that help us navigate the times of downshift, stories about people by the people who are coming together in their neighbourhoods and initiatives, starting up food projects, alternative energy schemes, and thinking within a broader, deeper and more meaningful frame. To show, as Mark Boyle said recently: “Different ways of being human”  other than the self-obsessed consumer model we see promoted everywhere else.

How you can help launch a paper

This week sees the launch of our first Transition crowd-funding appeal with BuzzBnk , an on-line crowd-funding platform that brings social enterprises “looking for start-up or growth capital together with like-minded people keen to participate in a new way of funding social change”. So now in this 90-day campaign we hope to raise the funds to enable us to send out the good news throughout the UK (as well as on-line everywhere else). You can buy an annual subscription for £15 or give a higher contribution (£50-£750) and receive gifts, from an ecologically-sound T-shirt to a whole Transition library.

Can you help by buying a subscription, giving a donation, or joining our distribution network?  Could you spread the word, through blogs or social media or word of mouth? Funding a newspaper is a big challenge, but we are determined that the word will get out there, on city streets, neighbourhoods and social spaces everywhere.

Thank you in advance for your generosity. Charlotte Du Cann (editor)

Our 2013 pilot editions will include local stories and projects, including the Magdalen Street Celebration and Norwich FarmShare. The first issue will be published on 1 February 2013. Follow us on Twitter transfreepress and Facebook.You can buy an individual subscription, or make a contribution to the enterprise on our crowd-funding page here

Images: We Are Norwich sets out (Bill Smith, EDP); The Common Room, St Lawrence's Church - Long Table and Herbs for Resilience workshop (Jeppe Graugaard); potato day at Norwich FarmShare, copyright Tony Buckingham; High Street group proceess, Transition Conference, London 2012 (Mike Grenville)

Saturday 17 November 2012

Mr Moyse and the Green Tomatoes

Years ago when I first came to the lane, I joined a neighbourhood action group to protest the development of a tourist railway. It was going to cut through the network of lanes that run along the marsh in the back country of the parish. I offered what I could do as a newcomer. I wrote flyers and press releases and stood up in the village hall, speaking on behalf of the badgers and the blackthorn and the people who love to come down these "commons" on foot, or bicycle, or pony trap. After that (very successful) campaign, I felt I had finally put down roots. Everyone waved cheerily as I walked by their houses. And none more so than David Moyse (75) ex-engineer, steeple- and record keeper, who has lived on the corner of the lane all his life and his family for generations before him.

When I joined Transition the following year, I began to write again, after many years silence, and one of the very first stories I wrote was about the little roadside stall I found with neat bunches of leeks for sale and the man who grew them in his wedge-shaped garden.

It was the beginning of the Low Carbon Cookbook. 

 "Near me at the corner of the lane, Mr Moyse puts out his excellent tomatoes at the end of the season on a roadside stall in the manner of Suffolk cottagers, with a tin or jar for coins.They come in three sizes, but all of them are intense. Last year as we walked by we would say how much we were enjoying the tomatoes over the hedge. Just as October was coming to an end I found Mr Moyse walking towards me in a most determined manner:

"I’ve got to have a word with you," he said.

I had been talking about green tomatoes, how they are so delicious fried and make such good chutney. And now I found myself with several kilos of green fruit and a challenge on my hands. We had got talking when I went round to collect them and I had found out that Mr Moyse’s grandmother once lived in my house. She was the best cook in the lane he said.

So this is a small sustainable tale about honouring the elders and finding your roots wherever you are. Start talking over the hedge and you will make contact with another generation who knew how to live in synch with the land. Talking to the greengrocer in the market town I found he used to deliver milk by horse and cart as a boy (still works two horses), that the man who owns the local organic store originally comes from a dairy farm in Galicia where they still milk their 70 cows by hand. After the evening milking he says the family sit round together in the barn and talk until midnight. The key to human sustainability is communication; and not being afraid to open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. That way you find out that making chutney is dead easy (just don’t burn the pan).

Because I had of course never made chutney in my life. I liked the idea of making chutney which is not the same thing at all. I searched for a recipe from the library, picked a few windfalls from the apple tree and brought out the biggest pan I had. (Well actually it’s the only decent pan I have). Several hours of chopping, stirring and bubbling later the house was redolent with vinegar and mace and raisins and I had ten shiny dark-gold jars in the larder.The largest one I reserved. Six weeks maturing time later, I burst into the Moyses' bungalow and wished them a Happy New Year! I wasn’t ever quite sure whether they liked it, or were just being polite when they accepted the jar quietly with a smile.

This year on All Souls Day Mr Moise called out down the road after me. 
"Would you like some more of those tomatoes?" he said.
"You liked it the chutney then?" I asked.
"It were beautiful," he laughed. "Come round tomorrow."

So now we have a deal. Last year I found out about the history of the lane (his grandfather was head horseman of the neighbouring farm, his father the blacksmith), this year I learned about making wine from the fruits of the hedgerows and the local gardens, from rosehips, grapes, whitecurrants, blackberries, and now I’m having a rethink about all those windfalls I see lying around. Couldn’t we get an apple press and starting making our own juice?

It’s is not an official Transition initiative this lane I live in, but it is a transition lane in spirit, with all the right ingredients for resilience: market garden and barley fields, horses and rabbits, allotments and ancient coppice, wild cherry hedges and oak trees. There’s a good diversity of people too – dwellers of grand houses and humble cottages, newcomers and natives who have been here for generations. The lane brings everything and everyone together. Sometimes we meet and get talking about what the sloes and the mushrooms are doing this season. The plants are always a bridge. That’s when you get to feel you are living in the same place, in the same land, on the same planet. It’s the most extraordinary thing about transition. It makes you feel you belong in a time when you never thought it was possible."

So now, years later, Mr Moyse is definitely David. Now I know he doesn't like being called Mr., and is happy for Mark and I to swing by, talk over the gate, and ask for things if we need them. He has lent us his old lawnmower (which we eventually bought), and we have been enjoying his cucumbers and beans and delicious ripe tomatoes for several summers long.

 Now I always make my own jam and chutneys from local fruit - yellow cherry plums, damsons, apples, blackberries, and of course green tomatoes. This year I've used large unripe marmandes donated by Mr Pinder aka Malcolm, and several tiny Columbiana cherries we grew arounnd the tent in company with their fellow Solanacea cousins, Hopi Tobacco. I've had to move quickly because Mark is Very Partial to fried green tomatoes for breakfast. Those gorgeous slow-growing marmandes are a big treat too to have amongst a good pan of roast vegetables (right now sweet potatoes, last of the peppers, parsnip and pumpkin). I used a recipe from Elizabeth David's Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, a very old Penguin I found in a junk store. I added a chilli and used mace and cloves (as there was no allspice in the cupboard), apple cider vinegar and less sugar and salt.

Green Tomato Chutney
2lb green tomatoes, skinned and chopped
2lb cooking apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 lb onions, sliced
1 1/2 lb brown sugar
1lb raisins or sultanas
2 tsp each of ground ginger, all spice and black pepper
2 cloves garliic
2 tbsp salt
1 1/2 pints of white wine or Orleans or white wine vinegar

Put all the ingredients in a pan, except the vinegar. Moisten them with some of it and cook gently for appromiximately an hour. Keep adding the vinegar as it bubbles down. When it reaches a jam like consistency it's ready. Allow to cool for a while then then pour into warmed jars. Keep for six weeks at least before using.

ED says it is "a long-keeping chutney"  . . .  just not in our house! 

Images: green tomato chutney (CDC) photographs from David Moyse's book The Village Where I Went to School, published by Southwold Press and available from Wells of Southwold or Boyden Stores, Reydon, £7; tent garden wtih Lesley from Sustainable Bungay, 2012 (Mark Watson).

Wednesday 7 November 2012

deconstructing the beast

Ye Gods! declared Sally at Green Drinks as we conducted a go round on our September topic, So what is Transition?

She was describing what it was like as a newcomer to join the local council and how amazing it was to be sitting here at the Green Dragon, unconstrained by the death-like vice of parish protocol. We all laughed. All of us have been there. In fact the first Transiton meeting I ever went to was in the Town Council chambers. Mark leapt to the chair and banged the hammer on the polished table. Bungay will be Sustainable! he cried. The portraits on the wall stared down at us disapprovingly, as indeed their living counterparts would in the years to come. Our fellow Transitioners, busy designing a food conference at the local Emmanuel Church, smiled and welcomed us. That's how it is sometimes in Transition.

But not always.

This week was suggested by two excellent posts this year: the first by Jo Homan Leaders, Figureheads, Talking Heads and the other by Steph Bradley, Are we who we think we are? - A Personal Journey Through Rank written after a Network "away day" on a subject, which is as vast and hard to contain as the ocean. That equality makes for a happier people is something we know from experience and from documents like The Spirit Level, and yet we live in one of the most socially stagnant societies on Earth.

We like to think, as Transitioners, we are classless, but we are not: we might not identify with our backgrounds, and get on famously as a result, but the outside world in which all our meetings take place is held entirely in the heraldic grip of the ancien regime. It presses us to conform on all sides, from the council chambers to the local pub, to the church hall to the community centre. It comes through people as they impose the dominant authority of their education, their profession, their religion on our small endeavours. Sometimes I swear I can feel it like a cage entrapping me, separating me forcibly from my companions, making our conversations peter out or go nowhere, as we flare up antagonistically for no reason. Afterwards I often feel cold and out of joint.

"Is that just me?" I have sometimes asked Mark. "No," he says. "I felt it too".

how beastly the bourgeois is!

I'll start with Mark, the one who holds the hammer. Compadre and fellow Transitioner we have been having this converation for 20 years. He is working class, I am upper middle class: that's the way you could pigeon-hole us according to our backgrounds. He says no-one ever mentioned class in his house, I tell him people never mentioned anything else in mine. We were acutely aware of everyone's status, depending on your father's work, the part of London you lived in and the schools you attended.

Until I was 19 when I found myself living in the slums of Birmingham I had never encountered any class except my own. I was bred not to. Even though my parents were perfectly friendly to the au pairs and dailies and workmen who streamed through the house, to all the commoners they worked amongst as criminal barrister and hospital volunteer, PLU was who mattered in life.
The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obsessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else. (Confessions of a Class Traitor, OneWorldColumn, 2011)

Here is a snapshot: Kent 1958 A child looking out of the door of a cottage. My father is taking the picture. He is about to rise to the top of his profession. Unlike him, his four children will be provided with private education and all the material benefits of an haute bourgeios upbringing. To one of them he will recite the stories of the French Revolution and teach to love nature. Although he will always vote Tory, drink claret and play the game, his heart is on the side of les citoyens. His daughter will grow up and betray her class. She will leave the city, and one day return to live in this cottage and eat the humble vegetables he once grew. Sometimes someone gives you a key to a door they cannot open. Sometimes it is your destiny to go through that door.

Here is another snapshot Suffolk 2009. A woman reading to children in the garden of a large house. You can't go over it, you have to go through it, the children chorus (they know the book by heart). She is teaching the children on a three-month work experience (unpaid) as a penance for being unemployed.

Tonight she will stand up in front of 50 people and exhort them to confront the challenges of climate change and peak oil and everyone will cheer. It's the beginning of Transition Norwich 2.0. You have to go through it. Afterwards someone will stand up, as they always do, and say that "the trouble with Transition is it is middle class" and then declare how they will take the news to the underprivileged part of the city. They won't of course, nor will they join Transition. It's one of those interventions that makes the energy go down in the room and keeps the status quo in place.

How does it do this?

- By upholding patronage and "good works" that offset the guilt of the bourgeiosie
- by sidelining the fact that it's the middle classes who will have to do most of the downshifting to reduce carbon emissions
- by paralysing those people engaged in Transition and engendering self-hatred already institutionalised by all our upbringings.

Afterwards I will go back to work and tell my employer at the eco-centre about the launch of our new incentive. "We've been doing Transition in the church for 20 years," he says dismissively.

"You haven't been part of an initiative," I will reply. And he will be outraged. Because I am in the down-there place on a lower rung and shouldn't speak to a superior like that. But I am speaking like that because I've got nothing to lose. Because I wil spend the next hour writing down exactly why the middle class slur is a trap, even in the most enlightened, diverse, open, inclusive Transiton groups. Somehow we have to get out of it.

The law of the chicken house

We are constructed socially to fit into tiers. No matter what class we are born into, there are always people above us and people below us. And every transaction we make or thought we have is tempered by our conditioning: to keep ourselves on that rung, or climb the ladder, and for that we have to push others down. Them, Her, that district, those people. Not PLU. We are told we do not belong to the earth or the people, which is our true heritage as human beings, but to the production line.

Disenfranchised from life, the chicken house makes us touchy, arrogant, undermining, opinionated, offended and inflexible. Non-receptive to new ideas and other people's experience and skills.

There are two positions you take: let's call them officer and men, rank and file, line-managers and workers, us and Them. Let's call them leaders and followers, professional and amateur. We are coded to give or take orders, command or obey. Our parents teach us this stuff by example, our teachers by rule. By the time we are grown we know our place: our every gesture, word, where we go on holiday, what food we eat. Every time someone comes through the door we know subliminally where they are in the pecking order. I once earned my living by documenting the shifting nature of society in all its 80s subsets - yuppie, foodie, Sloane Ranger . . . Pasta is OUT, Polenta is IN. You wouldn't be seen DEAD in Gucci this season. Oh, yes, it's mean and its stupid and it loves no one. Especially not your ego.

The class system with its elite few and its despised poor is a machine that drives civilisation, and if we are serious about being egalitarian we cannot go forward unelss we deconstruct that machine. The reason the high-carbon Western lifestyles are so hard to change is because we are terrified of losing our position and suffering the fate of the failed and the fallen, which is to carry the collective shadow and be pecked to bits. If you want to experience this firsthand, go to your local job centre and sign on. Then try and talk about it in polite society. Then you'll know why the elite want to hold on to their power and privilege, and everyone else wants the lights to stay on.

For some of us this deconstruction is a life-task. We have crossed the tracks, slept with the wrong people, gone to the wrong university, gone travelling, gone native, and god, worst of all held on to our true vocation. No one in the middle class really moves downwards, wrote the columnist, David Aronovitch, in the Times, because they have so many connections. There is always someone who can help them out. Except writers, he added.

In London, as a fashion journalist, it was easy to be fluid: you could be bohemian in a world where style and beauty and talent mattered more than class or money, where the son of a Spanish steamstress could rise to be the designer at the house of Dior and the most important friend you had was the doorman at the Cafe de Paris. But out of the city, without connections, living in the feudal English countryside, where everyone is judged by the property and the car they do or do not own, that's a different story.

That's my story. I'm not a worshipper of gods, devas, divas, gurus, teachers, leaders, queens, stars, champions or heroes. I know there is intelligence and love in all beings and that our postion in the chicken house is entirely a matter of upbringing and education. There are no "good families". No class is conditioned to be kind. I have been outside in the fresh air and know life can be otherwise with our feet on this earth and among our companions. I realise giving people a break is what we need to do and what needs to come our way. Transition is one of our great breaks, if only we could recognise the fact.

Why? Because it has an ability to bring all kinds of people together in a new configuration. It has an ability to pull together a culture that has an entirely different axis and value base. But for this work we have, as community activists, to engage in a work of inner engineering. We have to deconstruct the beast that is our class system and not default into our learned positions. We have to open and not close down. The passive have to take charge, the initiators and creators have to let go. The managers have to work on the shop floor and the labourers have to run the farm. We have to do this without rancour, or bitterness, blame or self-pity, we have to go against all our conditioning and head out of the chicken house. And we have to do this together, because evolution is not a self-only task.

 non hierchical groups

So our challenge is a personal one and also a social one. We have to look at our legacies, and then we have to put what kind of world we desire into practice. And keep practising. To end this post, I'd like to look at the inner structuring of Transition groups I have been part of. As Mark wrote on Monday the Sustainable Bungay core group operates like the heart within the body. It is open to anyone, and all the minutes published on our website. But not all the projects have this fluid inclusive shape. They take several forms, revolving around 1-5 people:

1) Core partnership, with 1-2 fluctuating helpers and 20+ members (Bungay Community Bees)
2) Planning group, with 10 fluctuating volunteers (Happy Mondays)
3) Single organiser, with as many volunteers as possible (Give and Take Day), or none needed (Plants for Life, Sewing Sundays)
4) Temporary organising group, with single co-ordinator, occasional volunteers (Library Courtyard garden, SB newsletter)

All closed and non-transparent groups, no matter how generous and skilled they are, run the risk of rank problems and control. Closed groups often have an entropic effect on the whole and invite (mostly unconscious) power play. Once people learn to play chief, they rarely want to play indian. In fact they would rather not deal wth the tribe at all. Transition Norwich, for example, had a self-elected oligarchy of a core group, who didn't publish their minutes and retained control of the outer affairs of the initiative. As the group didn't communicate with the people who made up the initiative and deal with the problems that inevitably arose in the storming period of Transition, it eventually imploded. Norwich, though there are successful projects still going, now suffers from having no central governance, or community cohesion.

The configuration I know most about is Number 4. The community blogs I've helped create and edit have all been founded on the principle of having a creative director aka editor and an editorial team (usually designer/producer and sub-editor), all of whom work on a peer-to-peer basis. After the set-up period this team has usually dispersed, leaving the founder/editor to become a lesser being, known as The Co-ordinator. Unlike real-life media, the editor role is not well understood or respected in Transition (in fact "comms" generally is not). It is seen as a power position, instead of a creative function much like a conductor of an orchestra, or a director in a play. As a result, the old chicken house rules come into play as soon as any "demotion" takes place. No feathers in your tail anymore? Serious pecking for you!

Nevertheless, built into the design of this blog when it was created, was that it would become a co-operative, "owned" and managed by the people writing for it. So after the 2011 pilot, which was edited in a more-or-less traditional way (though no-one's copy was ever changed), we all became fully-fledged captains of the ship and took turns to man the bridge.

This worked brilliantly above deck. But below deck was a different scene. Editing is not just about copy. It's about being there for people, advising them, negotiating with the organisation in which the publication sits (here the Network), and dealing with production. The devolved role of Co-ordinator - which as anyone famously  "holding the project" in Transition knows - puts you in that unlovely position somewhere between nanny, secretary and Aunt Sally. People in a Number 4 set-up can come and go as they please whilst not bearing any responsibility for the ship or its tedious admin. However I was determined to pass on my skills and not carry the can. My challenge lay in the fact I was the only one who knew about the tech. I was still the one on the end of the phone, standing by, in case anyone didn't show up for their watch.

When Ed Mitchell, the project's original producer, returned after his sabbatical, an exit door opened. He organised the blog so all the reporters could do all the small tasks that had fallen on me for the last year, yay! Liberte, egalite, fraternite.

So dear reader, you are now reading a real community blog, steered this week by Mark. I am now just a reporter like everyone else, taking my editor skills over to the Transition Free Press where they are needed. We are now a fully-functioning non-hierarchical Transition group. We had some struggles and exchanged a LOT of emails in the changeover, but we are still writing - thanks to a very determined crew and a small trick I learned long ago called Keeping Up the Tempo aka Having a Rota and a Deadline. Some rigours and structures are worth retaining for a beautiful and creative life.

Hierarchy is just not one of them.

Images: Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell; poster for Occupy Norwich; cottage at Finglesham; initial meeting of Transition Norwich 2.0; cover of Vogue's Modern Style; recording a general assembly (in red), Occupy Norwich;  Mark and Kate at Lowestoft anti-cuts rally, 2011: Social Reporters at Transition Conference, 2012.