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.

Monday 5 November 2012

Swimming for Adrienne

Last month my dear friend and fellow Transitioner Adrienne Campbell died. When she told me she was going into retreat to do battle with the cancer that had returned, I knew I wouldn’t see her again. So I went down to the sea and swam in the path of the sun and remembered everything we had said to each other. It was Lughnasa, around the time of her 52nd birthday. I lay in the waves and let them take my weight, feeling the currents underneath me, the wind on my face, the children laughing on the shore, the cry of the terns, the vastness of the elements, sea and sky. I’m swimming for you, I told her. Because she loved wild swimming. It was something we shared, along with a love of all wild things, bees, plants, ancestors, and of course, Transition.

I went swimming all August and all September. Mark and I would sit in the dunes and watch the sun come up. It was unusually calm most days, and always full of light. In her hometown, Adrienne came out of retreat and welcomed people into her bright room. She made a video about her dying and people from all round the world celebrated her in an extraordinary on-line testimony. By the autumn equinox the weather turned stormy and the sea became rough and very cold. I couldn’t stay in for very long. In her bed in Lewes Adrienne started to slip away. As All Souls approached, I went to the woods and sat by the pond. All around me the hornbeams dripped rainwater onto the surface, making circles that moved ever outward. Everything was silent and still. I was by myself, in the wood, and yet I was not alone.

All people come and go in your life, but some people remain deep in your heart. You remember them even when you are not close to them, in another country, far away. It’s as if they had always been there. Adrienne walked back into my life three years ago. I had recently joined Sustainable Bungay and I was in Beccles Library and watching the trailer for the documentary, In Transition:

“Oh my god, it’s Adrienne!” I cried out loud and rushed over to tell Mark. “I’m going to email her now!” We had not seen each other for twenty five years. When we were in our 20s we had been part of a group called The Women’s Dinner Party. It was formed by four of us – writers, editors all – who wanted to meet up as intelligent female beings, rather than ninnies and have meaningful conversations. We used to meet up in each other’s houses, hosting meals for about 8 or 10 and share our world-views. We had one rule: no talking about boyfriends or holidays. We worked in different fields and networks, so it was a great way to exchange knowledge. Adrienne (Katy then) was writing science stories for The Economist, I was writing style stories for Vogue and Marxism Today. She was quieter than Cat and Emma, and surprised me utterly one summer evening by giving an off-the-cuff perfect low-down on quantum mechanics. Afterwards we went outside and stood in the sun and she told me how she came originally from America. “Oh”, I said, and suddenly saw, underneath her shyness and gazelle-like beauty, a powerful spirit yearning to go home.

Adrienne surprised us all the following year by disappearing and joining a Subud community in Australia. I visited her once when she returned to the city and was staying in the squatted hippy kingdom of Frestonia. Even though it was not far from where I lived in Notting Hill, we were worlds apart. She was married with babies, living a deliberate spiritual path. I was still on the fast track. I didn’t know then that I too would leave my city life of dinner parties, boyfriends and holidays. I didn’t know either that, like her, I would, not be coming back.

When I travelled to the Transition conference in 2010 in Devon, I emerged out of the station and jumped, because there waiting for a taxi, was a familiar-looking slim figure with curly hair. It was her eldest daughter Sophia. “Mum’s really looking forward to seeing you,” she said.
It was mutual. When we met we didn’t stop talking; we had so much to say. Somehow we knew that we wouldn’t have much time to say it in. It would be like that for the next three years. On the phone mostly, by email, and sometimes face-to-face, at Transition convergences and the London Bee Summit. Some people you don’t know for that long, and yet you can go very very deep with them. I don’t know anyone else now (apart from Mark) with whom I can go as deep as I could with Adrienne. There were no taboos, or politeness in the way of our communication. Everything was allowed.

Everyone knows a different person in one person - that’s how it is on this earth.  I wanted to write about the Adrienne I knew, briefly in time, but deeply in spirit,, because I wanted to pay respect and honour the person who could look difficulty in the eye. Because I haven’t met anyone else in Transition who could talk from this perspective. Most people shy away from the shadows and traumas when they emerge, when the skeletons come rattling out of the closet. Adrienne advanced towards them, sun in hand, courageously.  She always listened, sister lion that she always was.
You miss people because when they walk into a room, or you stand beside them, only they can make you feel a certain way. I will miss Adrienne because she had a singular quality that few people possess: she made you feel as though you mattered, that everything mattered, and that kind of depth and generosity makes for a whole different relationship with the world. We spoke at length about the difficulties we had experienced in Transition: she like me had been endlessly scapegoated in her life and also by people in her initiative. She was often cast as “the difficult person”, the one who brought stuff up, the one who brought the elephant into the room, or called the company to account. When I told her about our Bungay Community Bees apiaries, she quizzed me:

“Are you feeding them? she asked.
“Yes, a little for the winter,” I replied.
“That’s not good practice,” she said.

A natural beekeeper for 20 years, a queen bee who knew how to co-ordinate the flight path and command the loyalty of all the workers and drones in her colony, she knew when something was out of alignment.

“Honey should only be used as a medicine,” she stated. “It’s a gift, not a commodity,”

So I stopped using honey carelessly to sweeten my food. She was fierce and I loved her for that. Because I knew that fierceness came from an ancestral being that I recognised – sentinel to the planet, as the red rocks of America. A being I had glimpsed many years ago.  She told me I should get a livelihood from my Transition work. I told her she was a great writer and invited her to join the Social Reporting Project. I am fierce too. That’s why we got on, We felt the same about a lot of things. About activism, about local food, about medicine, about marking the equninoxes and solstices, about duty and love and swimming upstream against the flow, getting  back to the point where we can all start again. 

Last October we had a long discussion about the earth. It was in Lewes, just after Transition Camp, where we had shared a yurt and given talks about bees and plants. “To really see what is going on you have to shift your perception,” I told her, “and communicate with the planet directly.”  “I am too much of a scientist,” she told me, and said she could not bear to think about the future that the data made so stark and inevitable.

We went down to her allotment to pick salad leaves for supper. We sat by the hive in the small forest garden she had made. I put my hand against the glass pane and felt the warmth of the bees and the scent of the fragrant wax. We sat in silence as the twilight came to the gardens and the moon rose in the sky. It felt as if we had always sat there in that vibration of everything mattering, of having its place in time, that we recognise inwardly as the heart, but rarely voice out loud.

And then, without saying anything, we got up and moved away. I saw her one more time after that, at our Social Reporting Project editorial meeting to discuss the upcoming year in the greenhouse at Finsbury Park. It was on one of the most beautiful frosty mornings I have ever seen.  She would write later about going on a locavore diet, overfishing, community solar power, growing oats, permaculture, making salt from sea water boiled on charcoal (which she had made herself), buying nothing for a year, not shopping in supermarkets (as the lead comment for the Transition Free Press), sharing a neighbourhood car, and all the projects she was justly proud of in her individual life and in her home town. She was an instigator and pioneer in all things resilient, and I’m certain many fellow Transitioners will sing her praises for all the great work she did on our behalf at the celebration ceremony in Lewes this Sunday.

But I wanted to write this personal blog today because our paths crossed in an extraordinary and significant way. She was someone who walked through people’s lives and shook them up. She could do this because she had undergone radical change herself. Sometimes this was up the wrong way, but this didn’t mean the shaking wasn’t right. Shaking is what we need to wake each other up out of our collective sleep. To get us to turn around and head upriver. That’s something we both knew was necessary in Transition, but was a continual challenge to experience and to go through with heart, especially within groups.  Denial and projection are the worst of its side-effects, and it meant a lot that we could speak of these things together, when no one else would. 

We parted mythically and suddenly on the underground at King’s Cross that day. The inspectors hauled me off the train at for an incorrect ticket. I waved goodbye, as she stood by the door in her long, reskilled coat with its wild mane collar. Then she and Mark and Caroline disappeared down the tunnel, en route to Occupy St Pauls.

“I hope she will be all right,” said Caroline,
“She’ll be fine,” laughed Adrienne.

Which, of course, I was.  

Adrienne Campbell was a founder member of Transition Town Lewes and a founder reporter on the Social Reporting Project. She also wrote a weekly blog, 100 Monkeys.

Details about Adrienne's Celebration on Sunday 11 November here 
Images: swimming in September (Mark Watson); writing with Adrienne at Transition Conference, 2010' making skeps for bees; swimming with Adrienne up  the River Dart, 2010; Adrienne and TT Lewes launch Lewes Pound (Mike Grenville); Adrienne with beautyberry, Finsbury Park, 2012 (MW)