Wednesday, 20 June 2012

24 Hours of Possibility

Here comes the sun! Welcome to our photoblog for the Festival of Transition and the 24 Hours of Possibility that began at dawn today. Here I am greeting the summer solstice sun as it rises from the sea at Southwold, Suffolk (4.36am). It's a glorious day out there, at the sun's zenith in the sky, at this moment of maximum light on earth. Have a wonderful time, whatever you decide to do (or not-do) today. I'm travelling Westwards across the land and looking forward to meeting up fellow Transitioners at the Transition Tin Viillage and the Sunrise Festival. Oh, and having a dance! Wishing everyone the midsummer best. Keep an eye out for the photos as they appear here during the next 23 hours.

Monday, 18 June 2012

What if the People had a change of heart?

Today we are running our Festival of Transition blog in tandem with the Social Reporters Project. We start out with an introduction to the week (and follow on from last week's post on Development).

I am in the Museum of East Anglian life at the Festival of Transition event, What if . . . the sea keeps rising? and I want to put my hand up and ask about the rivers. Why did the government withdraw its funds for the river defences of the Ore, the Deben, the Alde, the Blyth? But the question does not happen. The woman from the Environment Agency in London is staring into her computer and talking about plans and scenarios and how some moves are less controversial than others, as we all gaze at the aerial shot of the lovely sinuous and green waterlands of coastal Suffolk.

Maybe it's because I know the answer: because when the seas did rise up in a storm surge in 2007, and there was a massive flooding of the Blyth, the environment officer told us the land was not worth much anyway. Only marsh and watermeadows for a few cows. And that the small-scale local fishing was "not economic", so it made no odds that the harbour collapsed. The money for flood protection would be secured for the big inland towns and commercial sea ports, such as Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe.

That was the moment, just before I stumbled upon Transition, that my small world cracked upon and I found myself among the people, defending the place we all loved in our separate, and now connected ways. We spoke out in village halls and protested on the beaches, and then some of us picked up our spades and began to remake the river walls ourselves. Before the advent of diggers, all the river walls were mended each winter by a few men.

Tony Butler, the musuem's curator, showed us a ditch spade from among the extraordinary set of traditional tools on the 14th century barn in which our meeting is taking place. That's when you see the past and the future in your own hands. How everything hinges ultimately on our own efforts: Who will dig the land, who will shape the land, what is it worth, and in what spirit will this work be done? Up until the 1950s half the population in Suffolk worked on the land; now it's 0.5 percent. The country has become something we understand at arm's length, a Suffolk of industrial agriculture, fringed with nature tourism and leisure. And yet in our hearts, somewhere, we know there is a deeper relationship we have with our homeland, and if we were wise, we would be seeking it out.

Festival of Transition

The Festival of Transition has been running now since May in a series of events across the country: walks in London, talks at the Bristol Green Fair, at the Hay Festival and in Manchester. They have been organised by the Transition Network and new economics foundation, as well other organisations. On Wednesday this Festival culminates in a 24 hours of possibility in which everyone has been asked to imagine what life will be like in the future and live it for that one day. Everything from small individual acts - not using a car, making something by hand - to holding a street carnival. This week on the blog we're going to share some of those actions and reflections as Transitioners across the UK.

June 20 is a big day. It's the start of the Rio+20 summit in which the future of the earth will be discussed by world leaders; it is the summer solstice, the longest day, the day of maximum light, when the sun reaches its zenith in the sky; and it's also my birthday. So in the way days are markers for time, historically, planetary, personally, this midsummer brings a shift of attention. Everything enacted, felt and imagined that day will alter the course of events thereafter.

Traditionally midsummer is a door in time, in which other dimensions, possibilities you have never thought of, slip through our imaginations into this physical world. And maybe this is why I don't ask the government officer why they are abandoning the farmland and the bird reserves, and why instead I find myself looking at Laurence Edward's The Creek Men as they float down the River Alde on the way to Snape.

We think the government will turn the planet around. But they won't. It will be the people who will turn it around. The people who love the land, who know that there is more to life than economic necessity. They will not be the people you expect.

24 hours of possibility

What am I going to do on J20? I will get up at dawn and see the sun rise in the East out of the sea at Southwold and, if it's not too windy and rough, I will jump into the waves and have my first swim of the year. I will sit in the garden and have breakfast amongst the rock roses and ceanothus thrumming with bees. Then I will travel with three students from Norwich across the country to the Sunrise Festival and watch the sun set in the West amongst the hills in Somerset. I'm on the crew for the Transition Tin Village and giving workshops on grassroots communications and medicine plants, so the day will start quietly and end in a great crescendo of dance and song and people.

But that's the outside event. What am I really doing on J20? In a recent post during our week on Development, I asked what if beauty were the driving force behind all our actions, rather than economics? What if the basis of our lives was not how the fittest survived, but the how the most lovely and loving thrived, the people and the flowers?

Looking for the bee and pyramid orchids on a roadside verge on the way home from a Bungay Community Bees farm visit, a man stopped and complained to us how the flowers were getting in the way of his vision of the road. There wasn't much there anyway, he said, and kicked the grass as if to prove the point. Richard, who knows every inch of this land, explained why this was a roadside nature reserve, while Lesley, Mark and I kept looking, eyes down. The defender of cars disappeared into his house. We found orchids everywhere.

"When they moved the green-winged orchids from the Tesco roundabout in Lowestoft they disappeared," Lesley said.

"They didn't like being moved," Richard said. "Nature has its own way."

"Maybe they didn't like Tescos, I said. And we all laughed.

The fact is life is surprising and comes up with extraordinary solutions, so long as you allow it to, so long as you don't get intimidated. If you focus on the things you love and know that nature has its own way, including your own. That's something that creators know, and all people who work with wild flowers. What if . . . the unexpected happens? That the drivers of cars don't always have the right of way, that the politicians don't always have the voice? That what you do on a summer's day alters the destiny of the planet?

Who would have imagined for one minute, for example, that the Southwold Journal one of the most traditional local papers, in one of the most conversative towns in Britain had Transition on its front page this week? People in the town have decided to resist the advance of the Costa Coffee chain in our high street and have been set back by the county council planners' recommendation. So the postmaster and chair of the local chamber of commerce, Guy Mitchell, told the reporter about the recent Totnes campaign, quoting Andrew Simms from nef (and chair of the What if . . . the Sea Keeps Rising) and Frances Northrop from TT Totnes: "Ultimately it’s the community that knows its own needs and that voice is getting louder".

So that's what I am going to do on Wednesday, I'm going to tune into the sun as it rises and listen out for that other voice as it comes through. I'm going to keep an eye out for the beautiful and the free. I'm going to hold out, for what I always hold out for, a change of heart amongst the people.

I'm going to hold open the door.

Images: Laurence Edwards The Creek Men; community toolkit from Festival of Transition; with Tristram and Reuben in the hollow oak at High Ash Farm; bee orchid on the verge outside Bungay; Mark in the Library reading the Southwold Journal.

From topic week on Festival of Transition

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Little Boxes on the Hillside

Last night we drove through the new ticky-tacky estates in Stowmarket on the way to What if . . .the sea keeps rising. This being England these 3000 houses are not coloured blue, green, red and yellow. They are a kind of uniform pinky brown and crushed up against each other, as if there is no room to breathe or stretch a limb. And in spite of the architectural differences of size and shape, they all look just the same. We groaned a collective groan and said we couldn't imagine living there, and this being England, were glad when we entered the historic streets of the old market town.

John suggested on Monday there might be positive sides to development, and if you are talking about building houses that have efficient heating systems and promoting cycle paths, you could force yourself to look on the bright side. But that would be to skip what you felt about them in the first place. No developments evince joy in people. No one celebrates when green fields are torn up, trees are felled, creatures are driven out of their homes, and the little boxes chew up the green hills and shut out the view. No one likes it when Lego land encroaches on the familiar neighbourhoods, brings traffic and supermarkets and alienation in its wake. Although people do go and live in these places, nevertheless.

So this post is not about the whys and wherefores about planning. It's about the stuff that's left out: the feelings of people and the people who are not afraid to voice them.

When I first joined in with a community action it was in Oxford in a group called Canal 21, part of Agenda 21, that was originally created at the first Rio Summit. A huge development was taking place in North Oxford and ripping up areas of wasteland, green fields and canalside and placing a lot of stress on the local neighbourhood. People were dispirited and it felt as if there was nothing anyone could do. The developers were in league with the City Council and so far any individual protest had been vilified or ignored. However, as the planning applications were drawn up, the group began talking with everyone who lived in the area, and holding meetings and communicating with other groups, from the allotment holders to the historical societies and started a campaign. We knew we couldn't stop the bulldozers coming in, but we knew we could make it very difficult for them, as well as fight for ecological moorings for the boating community along the canal. We could lessen the blow, make demands and generally bring the issue out into the open.

It was the era of the 1990s road protests and many of the people I knew at that time were veterans of Newbury. Most of them suffered from burn-out, a consequence of battling against a "growth-at-all costs" mindset, with its ingrained worship of property and belief that human developments - from industrial to domestic - are always more important than the earth they are founded upon.

This is an ancient belief in the supremacy of human civilisation and those who are in its driving seat. When you are looking at the kinds of new estates planned around Norwich, alongside the NDR, you are looking directly at that cultural bias. As Denise Carlo of the Norwich Transport Action Group wrote in The End of the Road recently:
Over the past decade, the twin crises of climate change and peak oil have deepened, but they have not altered the tarmac laying ambitions of Norfolk’s elite. . . Norfolk’s preoccupation with road building and hard infrastructure generally is emblematic of the unsustainable global system. Reliance on major infrastructure for transport, telecommunications, energy, water and waste as a means of stimulating and supporting economic activity, underpins the global carbon-generating economic growth and consumption model.
This belief system, coupled with the desire to manage and control and profit, creates a massive driving force. In this driving force, considerations such as rising evictions due to the economic crisis, the privatisation of public spaces, empty buildings and homelessness are not considered. Nor is the effect of activism that challenges these beliefs, such as the current Digger camp outside Windsor and the evicted Occupy camp on Hampstead Heath.

One thing I learned from negotiating with the developers: you are always in the way of their will.

In the 14th century barn at the Museum of East Anglian Life at question time, the audience veered into tangents and it was hard to look at climate change and its effect on the land squarely and collectively. The conversation travelled all over the place. Tidal power, Why doesn't Transition doesn' t talk to the people in Asda? fantasies and tirades and the possible beginning of a new initiative in Stowmarket. And I think it was looking at the final slide on the wall, of Laurence Edward's Creek Men at Orford quay, when I remembered Jeppe Graugaard and what he was saying at our last Dark Mountain meeting.

We were sitting in Ava's wild garden in NR2, full of columbines and yarrow, a blackbird was singing high in the Scot's pine and Jeppe was talking about beauty . . . how it's fundamental, and could be a guiding force in everything we do, And that's really what I wanted to say about Development, by which we mean this week, the proposed housing estates and the roads around Norwich. Some modern buildings are beautiful, and some are sustainable, and some are built with the planet in mind, with respect to resources, water, plants, people. But very very very few. Amongst the hubbub of voices talking about Transition and sea level rise, I felt I was looking for a connecting thread that would make sense of everything and provide a lead for this piece. And suddenly I heard a bird singing outside in the pine tree, and I remembered.

The fact is the earth is beautiful in its all forms and what we do to the earth is not. This is not because we are not capable of creating beauty or being beautiful ourselves, but because the forces that are driving us are ugly and destructive. The earth is round and fluid and diverse and we live in little boxes made of ticky-tacky and all look just the same. While we discuss plans and scenarios and tell ourselves we have to accept it one way or another, whether we like it or not, we're not looking at beauty or the forces that drive us, culturally and unconsciously. We're not looking at how ugliness and those kinds of defeating thought crush our hearts and restrict our imaginations and prevent our reconnection and alignment with the planet. We're not listening to our hearts and seeing there are other ways of looking and acting and being that might lead us to different conclusions. And that, ultimately, this is not our world to be playing with . . .

(to be continued in The Festival of Transtion week on Monday)

The Windsor Diggers poster; Occupy Homes action in Washington DC: tar sands refineries, Canada; The Creek Men by Laurence Edwards, awaiting their voyage to Snape.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Brief Encounter

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star

(William Stafford: A Ritual to Read to Each Other)

"You play the cello, don't you?" boomed the editor. "Yes," I said. "Well, I played in the orchestra at school" "Oh, good," she said. "Then you can interview Segovia tomorrow".

I had a feeling I was addressed as Du Cann in the corridor that day, but maybe that's not what she actually said. Whatever, being commanded to interview the legendary guitarist on the basis of having strings-in-common was utterly petrifying. I had never done an interview in my life before. I was 22, cocky, but not that cocky.

"What shall I do?" I asked my fellow cub reporter, Rachel, who was busy writing captions about raspberry chiffon. "Buy a tape recorder," she advised.

I'm not sure that would happen now. In those days you got a job at places like Vogue with no experience and were thrown into the deep end. If you couldn't swim with style, you didn't pass the ordeal. I didn't interview Segovia in the end, but I did interview Simon Callow, just before he played in Amadeus at the National Theatre, in equally nerve-wracking circumstances. I don't know who was more shaky, him or me, as we sat in Snowdon's studio while the maestro photographer fumbled about with the camera. He took three hours to take one shot.

I learned my first lesson about interviewing that day. Which is this: while it may look as though nothing is going on and you are not in control, in fact you are clocking everything. Control is not what it's about. You are waiting for the shot or the quote, the aha moment that will turn the ship around. Sometimes you have to wait a long time to get that quote, usually after about thirty minutes fumbling around in the dark.

This week on the project is all about interviewing people. It was set up as a week by Adrienne Campbell, who couldn't do the assignment because she had to go into hospital (now thankfully out and in recovery). Her original - typically adventurous - idea was to interview someone difficult, even in opposition to Transition, and take them on in a dialogue, stand in their shoes and find out how they tick. I'm taking up the helm and introducing the week, but I haven't interviewed anyone specifically (my fellow reporters will be doing that from tomorrow). What I wanted to do was explore why we originally discussed the idea and what this standard media technique does, and how it could apply to Transition.

A writer always sells someone out, the great observer Joan Didion once wrote. That was the second lesson I learned, when I got to type up my first interview in the features dept. The heady feeling of having material and being able to fashion a story you want to tell around it. In magazine journalism the story is everything, and the writer of the interview is as key as the subject. This also held true, at that time, for television. The interview can be an investigation, a confrontation, or a dialogue in which both people can come to different conclusions about themselves and life at the end of an hour. It's a useful tool because most people enjoy the attention and will invaribly spill the beans at some point. The interviewer looks like a mouse, but is in fact a weasel, mesmerising its prey.

So I spent a decade thereafter with a tape recorder in my pocket, interviewing artists, writers, singers, fashion designers, furniture designers, chefs, craftsmen. I wasn't interested in catching people out, or unearthing scandal, but I did want to know how people made things happen. I was endlessly fascinated by form and creativity. I hung around backstage, on film sets, in studios, in bars and swanky restaurants (not great for interviews - all that clinking of glasses). I thought nothing of getting on a plane to interview people about their house in Tuscany or their latest book in Albany.

Sometimes I got the quote easily, and sometimes I had to sweat a lot for it to happen. I was nervous, even when I'd become good at it, because it's a nerve wracking business. You have to think on your feet. Some people prepare a lot beforehand, but I waded in with one or two questions up my sleeve and improvised. It's a risky style but you can push the edge that way. People let their guard down and come up with surprises. Sitting in front of the filmmaker Wim Wenders and the designer, Yojhi Yamamoto in Paris, a great silence ensued that I thought would never end. I was about to break it, when the Japanese master of the understatement turned to me and said:

Black is the colour of hysteria.


Once you've got the quote, you have the story.

Sure thing, you might say, but what has any of this old stuff got to do with Transition? Because the interview is a great tool and a key tool if we want to become our own media. People flourish with proper attention. Anyone's story is interesting, if you can find a way to open them up, ask questions, go back in time, listen, allow. In ordinary life we don't do this. We go to meetings. We see people every day in a superficial way, we don't pay each other notice, in terms of ourselves as beings-in-Transition, in terms of sharing a storehouse of knowledge, or skills. We're too busy to give that kind of time, and maybe not generous enough to find out what our fellow transitioners actually think or feel. That meeting with a tape recorder can give an objective frame, in which everyone can go deep and far, carve out an hour when the demands of ordinary life can be put on hold. When the best of ourselves can come out.

In Transition of course we don't want to sell anyone down river, especially since we are all in the same canoe. So the interview has to change its form in many ways. When I interviewed Rob Hopkins on his whistlestop visit to Norwich last November, squeezed between breakfast and a vist to Grapes Hill Community Garden, it was more of a conversation around the role of communication and social enterprise. We are not adversaries, sitting opposite each other, we are in the same business, sitting side by side, so the interview is more of way to reflect and connect, rather than a relevation.

Interviewing Shaun Chamberlin last month for the Transition Free Press over Skype, we had a great discussion and covered a lot of intellectual ground, which was the main point of the interview. But you can't be intimate through a machine. Had we wanted to talk at a more emotional level, it would have been tough going. You need the presence of people in the room. You need those awkward silences, the sense that someone is listening.

Since the creation of the Internet many interviews no longer happen in situ, but in the format of an (emailed) question and answer session. These don't require any skill (or daring) from the journalist, apart from formulating the questions. There is no encounter and no shaping of a story. As a result the material is far more limited and you tend to get stock answers. Some of this is due to a decline in journalism, the effect of a market culture on a creative form. Some of it due to the subsequent lack of expenses that don't allow writers to visit or spend months of their time around people, as Didion or Tom Wolfe or other "new" journalists once did in the 70s and 80s, in order to research a story.

When the Social Reporting Project was set up last year, I wanted to pass on some of the skills I learned in those glossy magazine Fleet Street years, when journalism was not just about press releases and getting stories "off the wire". Ed and I ran two workshops, one at the Sunrise Festival and another at the Transition Conference. In one exercise we asked everyone to split into pairs and interview one another for five minutes about a Transition project, then feedback to the group. These events are a whirl of constant conversation: most of them disappear afterwards. But I can still remember talking about our (Sustainable) Bungay Beehive Day and hearing about the Brixton Remakery starting up, how Rebecca from Transition Crouch End organised a community processon along an underground river to celebrate Guy Fawkes and Halloween. Something sticks when you make this structure in space and time.

So although none of us are working for the mainstream press, we work alongside each other all the time. We can all of us take time and ask questions, talk to each other as if we matter. Not in terms of "I want something from you" (the manager), or "You have a problem I am going to sort out" (the therapist), but as social reporters who are in search of a new narrative. Because if I don't know you and you don't know me a certain pattern will prevail in the world - one that none of us in our hearts want to see through to its logical end. We need to speak outloud and listen in our Transition communications as beings of the future, who possess certain experiences and skills that can change that pattern. We can't do this on our own.

Take the mic. Don't miss that star.

Interview with John Galliano, The Independent, 1990; poster for the docudrama, Frost/Nixon; interviewing Ed at the Transition Conference (Mike Grenville); with Rob Hopkins at Norwich station

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

When the experiment fails

This is part of a series we are running on the Social Reporting Project, looking at the 74 Transition Ingredients and Tools.

I was going to write about Communicating with the Media, a nifty tool in the second section of The Transition Companion. I planned a practical exploration to the business of writing press releases and cultivating a positive relationship with local newspapers and radio. But then whilst Becoming the Media - creating the preview issue of the Transition Free Press - I stumbled upon a subject which was closer to home, nearer the bone. More urgent, I reckoned, than raising awareness of our local projects in the mainstream press.

The title of the second chapter is Deepening, and contains some of the harder aspects of Transition. The start up phase of initiatives is often exuberant and exciting. People are attracted to the buzz, full of hope and expectation. They stand up in rooms and declare what we (you) could do. Deepening is when you first hit the wall. Ideas and fancies about downshifting turn out not to be the reality of downshifting. Those big words fade in the light of day. You realise that you have to get on with the people in the room and do the work. Power struggles happen in deepening. Things don't go according to plan. People leave and let you down. You let people down. It's awkward because you don't know anyone in your fledgling initiative that well. The groups start to falter. What do you do?

Celebrating Failure is perhaps the least understood ingredient in the book. Because we live in a culture of success. No matter how we talk about losing being part of the game, it's still losing. Victors take all, stand on the podium crowned with laurels, king of the castle, biggest banker on the block. No one wants to be in the beaten team, on the bottom of the pecking order. But to be in Transition means we have to understand this win-or-lose mindset as an old order we need to transform.

Interviewing Shaun Chamberlin for the paper, he talked about the new book, The Future We Deserve, in which 100 authors write 500 words on their take of the title:

What was interesting in it was dissensus. The recognition that Nature doesn't decide by consensus on the ideal life form before it creates it. It just creates and creates and some things work and some things don’t work and I think Transition follows that “dissensus” approach - we don’t try and have a universal plan for everything. If someone wants to do something they go and do it. As Rob wrote about the punk ethic (here's three chords, now start a band): Here’s three ingredients, go and start a Transition initiative. That is that creative energy that underlies dissensus. Let some of the projects that we undertake thrive and let some of them die and don’t feel that everything we do has to succeed.

In a creative frame, you try everything. You start with the idea of communicating some key tips about the meda but then a more pressing subject comes up. So you change direction. From the creative perspective everything is material. There is no loss or failure. You carve your piece out of the mud, the clay falls to the ground, you sweep it up and use it again another time. Nothing is wasted. Everything is compost and you need that compost - those past events, meetings, open spaces, clashes, those wasted leaves, those dead heads. You need that stuff to rot down in order grow nourishing and beautiful flowers for the future.

In Deepening all the expectations of how life should be come up for examination, and it is wise to know Transition is not what you think it should be at all. But of course you don't read the manual. Your ego hits the wall, you are challenged in all directions. Most people at this stage, rather than let go of their defence systems, or their lifestyle, leave and blame Transition for not living up to their shiny idea of it. That's not the failure of Transition, it's the challenge of our society. We don't live with the messy paint box of dissensus, we live in the pure and airy ideals of the mind, and the vicious battleground of the will. I do it my way. Publish that email and be damned.

If we had heart we would realise that everything we do in Transition is to create a future that is not apocalypse, and in many ways we are blind to what this might look like. We are feeling our way ahead and "failures" are merely telling us that some paths are the ones we don't need to go down. Try again. Move your attention somewhere else.

Valuing experience

OK, so this is the theory. What about the practice? In 2009 I helped organise the second Transition East gathering in Diss and before the event interviewed 29 initiatives on the phone. I collated all the information and posted it on a regional blog. I asked everyone the same questions. How were they doing, how many people were in the initiative, what kind of town, village were they in etc? Everyone cheerfully answered the questions. Do you have any difficulties? I then asked them. There would be a hesitation and then suddenly a huge outpouring would happen. Ten minutes would turn into an hour. Up until this point no one had mentioned dificulties. We weren't sure how to handle them. But the fact is the difficulties were not "wrong". They are our experience of change, how we know what to focus on, and what not.

Today many of those initiatives do not exist. The initiative I have been in (Norwich) is a shadow of its former self. The 14 groups that began so exuberantly after our Unleashing in 2008 no longer exist. The core group disappeared. The Heart and Soul group faded away. In April the monthly bulletin was not sent out, as it had been for the last three years on the first of every month. No one noticed. Or if they did, they did not say anything.

What does this tell us? Some territories are not fertile ground for Transition. Something holds groups together and if it's missing the group will disband. At some point you realise that you need to put your time and energy into projects that feed back, and not just because you can do them or that you are expected to. You need to go with the spirit of the times, be amongst people who understand that the project matters. That communication matters. That Transition is not a hobby, a once-a-month feel good community thing, it's for real.

Some of this stuff is bitter stuff to swallow. And we don't like bitter, we like the sweet and sugary things in life, the triumphs and the happy moment. But bitter, as all medicine people will tell you, is the taste of the heart. It's what tells you what is good and not good for the system, how you grow up and take responsibility for your actions. How experience teaches us to shift out of being the haughty me-against-Them people who want to rule the universe and become fellows with all beings on the planet.

The loss of these groups told us that power struggles are not for the future, nor is old-fashioned spirituality, hierarchy of any kind, hostility or control. It taught us that you can't really co-opt the future. It doesn't belong to big business or to the institution, and it will slip out of the Empire's clutches at every turn. In Norwich we learned that our Transition Circles brought a key aspect into the fabric of Transition - personal carbon reduction. We have one circle left still meeting, but the legacy of all that great experiment lives on. It's in the comments pages of the Transiition Free Press, it's in the interview with Shaun Chamberlin. It's just taking another form, working with a new mix of people. No blame. No loss. No failure. Just celebration.

P.S. There is only one real tip I would add to the media tool in the book and it's this: journalists are people and finding the story is what we really care about.

Photos: Untitled piece by Maria Elvorith for the cover of The Future We Deserve; Banner for February edition of Transition Norwich news bulletin; Transition East Gathering 2009 at Diss; with Alexis Rowell, News Editor of Transition Free Press (photo: Sarah Nicholl)

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Place Making and Neighbourhood - Being Here

A piece originally written on Place Making for the Social Reporting Project,  May Day 2011

Right now at Geldeston Locks Rita is sitting down with the crew to eat breakfast after a hard hour’s dancing in the rain and wind. We’ve just come in soaked from walking across the barley fields, waiting under the oak and hawthorn for the sun to rise (invisibly). Outside the birds are singing (wildly). The black poplar leaves are unfurling (like tongues of fire). The heavenly scent of alexander flowers and bluebells is in the air. We’re all still up at daybreak, in spite of everything, still here.

Most people are asleep in their houses. Maybe they don’t remember it’s May Day, or know why children on the greens of England are dancing round a birch tree. Still the Spring pushes the leaves out of dry wood, pours forth her beauty in the woods and hedgerows, out there, down the lane, in the neighbourhood. And true to this moment, to the revolutionary nature of the day, I’m breaking form. We are commanded, as social reporters, to be writing about our local initiatives, but I feel something collective has not yet been explored in Transition. It feels urgent, planetary, larger than all our projects and yet underpins them all. Bear with me.
The myth of community
It was Susie Hargus who first mentioned it. We were driving down the freeway in St. Paul Minnesota and she said: This road really split the community. And I looked at her, nonplussed. She was an artist and a dreamer and the crowd of unknown people who lived in her district hadn’t, up to that point, figured in anywhere in our conversations.

After that I kept hearing the word. In Bisbee, Arizona, in Oxford, England and then everywhere I went in Transition. People with a dreamy look in their eye, uttering the special mantra that transcended everything. Community! Pretty soon I worked it out. “Community” didn’t mean people in the district, it meant a group of people like yourself, who loved you for who you were, who made you feel good. Imaginary friends and neighbours, ideal playmates in a rocky time.
Maybe this is why the word Community alienated me. How can you be part of someone’s else’s idea? Or maybe it was because I had spent my bohemian youth with a band of fellow journalists, connected to a whole city (London), that I never yearned to belong to a set of people. It wasn’t until I returned to England after travelling that the word started to mean anything, as I found myself isolated from the human inhabitants in the lane where I now lived. An incomer, a renter and of no significance to the local rural, suburban and strangely, feudal society.

Writers, by their nature, are wary of traditional community, the status quo who judge and condemn any one who thinks out of the box, who pushes, like the Spring, for new life and liberty. What we love is neighbourhood and the pattern language of place. We love street trees and corner shops, we love the sun reflecting gold on the windows of the towerblock, the scent of rain on pavements, the local restaurant with its chairs outside, our conversations with market stall holders, the numbers of buses. This C2 bus I am catching now with Sarah Nicholl, that runs from Victoria Station to Parliament Hill Fields.

We love those names of places, our memories of journeys and meetings. Our bodies remember their curves and gradients, as we cycle towards the library, the office, the theatre, our feet remember street corners, canal paths, parks and bridges. My feet remember the way from Oxford Circus to Lexington Street, even though I haven’t walked through these back alleys for twenty years. I don’t have that network of media friends in London anymore, but I do have Transition. It’s a network too, of course, just one that is working for a different world. We’re on our way, Sarah and I, on this Spring night walking to Mildred’s to meet some of our Transition companions on the eve of a Peak Money conversation.

I haven’t been in Soho in a long long time, but in spite of all the changes I have gone though in that time, the changes the world has gone through, I look around the room and see it’s the same. These buildings have been here for centuries, hosting loud and boisterous conversations between people, the small rooms are rocking with words and laughter, the clattering of plates and chinking of glasses. It’s London. Fast, furious, communicating like mad with itself. I don’t live here anymore, and yet here I am. In my element. Home.
Making Myself (Our Self) at Home
What has this to do with Transition? Belonging is the core of everything. We have to be home first before we go anywhere near the future. Otherwise we will always be operating from the past as "non-belongers" -working from outside in, when we need to be working from inside out.

What I learned travelling is that belonging doesn’t depend on those alliances with friends or colleagues you once knew (or perhaps still know). It doesn’t depend on having a community you can call your own, or being tapped into the conventional circles made by institutions, by church, school, or family. Belonging is belonging to humanity, to the earth, knowing that how you act and move and give every day matters.

Belonging is loving the world wherever you are. It’s loving the city neighbourhood, it’s loving this country lane. It’s loving the plane trees of Hoxton Square, the damson trees in Philip and Irene’s garden, the rain as it slides down the window. It’s knowing that being in a place doesn’t depend on the people who live in the district, or what they think of you or you them. Belonging is something impersonal, and because it’s impersonal it’s more intimate, more generous than any idea of community. It’s feeling at home on a corner in Mexico City where I sit drinking my morning coffee, to the long road across America, edged with sunflowers, it’s belonging to the mountains and the desert, to the Thames, to the Ganges, to the California coastline, to this grey North Sea, with all its watery territories, all the tracks we make, the people and the animals and the birds, the indigenous blueprint of places, the vernacular of everywhere.
Breaking out
We can talk carbon emissions and climate change, we can talk community and Transition, we can think in numbers and statistics, tell our horror stories and hopeful visions, but nothing will change outwardly, the way we all wish it would (which is to say for real), unless we come from this kind of affection for the places we live in. Unless we break out of our “left brain” understanding of geography, class and history and start tapping into our “right hemisphere” collective lineage, connect with the people who have been speaking, singing, creating this pattern language for millennia. Everyone who keeps this sense of rootedness and fluidity alive in us all. Until we start belonging to the trees and the wind and feel our feet on the ground, at home with perfect strangers in all places, we are going nowhere. All our conversations – peak oil, peak money, peak everything – will be stuck within an old paradigm. Stuck in me and my idea of the world, separate from you.

We have to know the physical world as our home territory, we have to see each other as we really are: native, indigenous to this earth. We have to know we are the bio-diversity we talk about. We are the heritage seeds of the future. That each of us holds a planetary form, shaped like the sun we cannot always see. A true form that is also a colour, a sound, a frequency we sense when we feel light, relaxed, in synch with everything and everyone in the neighbourhood. When we do Transition from that place, it’s happening. It’s happening in London, in East Anglia, in Pittsburgh, in Japan, wherever we are. That’s the moment when we know what we are doing on the planet, in each other’s company, when we wake up. The reason we keep dancing in the rain.

Merry May morning everyone!

Mark leading a Plants for Life, Walking with Weeds, Bungay; Green Lane, Suffolk; Sustainble Bungay Give and Take crew, London; Children dancing at Geldeston Locks, May 2011
From week on Place Making and Neighbourhood