Thursday, 31 May 2012

We have Bees!

Here at Norwich Community Bees, we'd been on high alert for a couple of weeks as we were waiting and hoping that we might get a swarm. After a few false starts (warm morning followed by wind and cloud in the afternoon) I finally got the call on Friday afternoon! Beekeeper-extraordinaire Colin had found a swarm for us!

One rapid round of mails, calls and texts later, and Tom stepped forward to meet Colin at Norwich Farmshare to install the bees in the hive.

Despite a slight technical hitch that meant there was only one suit available, Tom got some great shots of the bees heading into their new home!

The next afternoon, Dan, Bee, Suzanne and I headed over to the site to see how they were settling in and add some additional frames. It was the first time I'd suited up and got up close and personal with a hive, and I was quite nervous, but as soon as we opened the hive, you could just hear that the bees were getting on fine, and they were really calm while we checked them out and added the frames.

It was a fantastic experience, and I can't wait to go back and see how they're getting on. As Dan said, watching them flying in and out of the hive and listening to the buzzing is so peaceful, you could quite imagine bringing a deckchair and a nice bottle of wine and making an afternoon of it!

If you're interested in knowing more about Norwich Community Bees, visit our website or drop us a line at We'd love to hear from you!

Pics: Colin transferring the bees from skep to hive. Watching the bees marching into their new home. Jon (l) and Dan (r) adding frames to the hive.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Visiting Erik - The Low Carbon Cookbook

This month our Low Carbon Cookbook meeting was held for the first time at Erik’s house in Hethersett. Erik had often spoken about his permaculture garden and experimenting with different methods of growing plants and herbs for food, but even I wasn’t prepared for the sheer quantity and variety of seedlings, pots, cuttings and dried seedheads I encountered - and that was just inside. Exuberant is not the word for it!

If I hadn't been feeling under the weather I think Erik would have had trouble getting me to leave that night or at least stopping me from asking him a million questions.

Erik showed us around his garden full of raspberry bushes, leeks, sage, salad burnet, fennel, endives, rocket, walnut trees and even an alexanders plant I’d given him awhile back. He grows a total of 74 different fruit and vegetable plants, bushes and trees - and that’s not counting the wild plants and herbs including a lovely patch of lady’s smock glowing in the evening light.

Dinner this time was Erik’s hearty pumpkin and sage soup to start, followed by Charlotte's spicy cauliflower bhaji and rice and a mixed green salad straight from our various gardens and allotments.

We then played a game where each of us asked the person on our right hand side to tell us the months a particular fruit or vegetable was in season. We didn’t fare too badly but the work of the Low Carbon Cookbook is not complete yet!

It was time for dessert. In one early Cookbook session we designed a game called Six Ingredients, where we imagined we were only allowed six foodstuffs each from outside the UK. I recalled that Erik had chosen chocolate as one of his, so I had brought along some of the huge chocolate cake Gemma from Sustainable Bungay had made for my birthday the previous week. It was totally delicious and so rich I think it could keep even the most redoubtable chocolate lover going for at least six years!

So the ultra local fennel tea was a perfect digestif, served from a pot with matching cups which Erik had made and fired himself.

At some point the subject turned to low carbon (and cost) DIY. I mentioned the hot tap in our kitchen which won't turn off properly. Nick asked me to describe the tap and then gave me precise instructions as to how to turn off the water supply and change the relevant washer. I was very excited and returned home full of zest for trying out my new plumbing skills! But I couldn't remove the top part of the tap. Nick? Anyone? Help. Please.

Just before we left Erik showed us his axe for splitting wood. This is another skill I'm ready to learn having felled a dead elm this year for firewood. But if Erik teaches me I think I'll definitely be standing beside him.

Pics (all MW unless otherwise ascribed): Erik's sage cuttings in various media; dried amaranth seedheads; Erik's permaculture garden; mixed green low carbon salad; my big fat birthday chocolate cake (Josiah Meldrum); Sophie pours the fennel tea; does anyone know how to remove this tap top?; Erik taking a swing

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Home Sweet Home

Housing is one of the topics that was discussed early on in the initiative, along with energy and co-housing. We live in a culture that is dominated by buildings and the ownership of property and when Nicole Foss (aka Stoneleigh) gave a talk about the financial crisis last year there was a palpable unease in the hall, as many of us began to imagine how it might affect the future of people's homes in Britain and elsewhere. As austerity cuts begin to displace people from their houses and neighbourhoods, Transition social reporter, Ann Owen looks at what this might mean for all of us.

This week's editor, Caroline, has asked us to look at those things that we feel would be hard to do without. In my mind I ran through the obvious list of bananas, chocolate, ice cream, washing
machine, laptop etc, but ultimately, the absence of any of those would not make me terribly unhappy. I'd have to make a few changes, like get the teenagers to do their own laundry, but on the whole, it wouldn't have that much of an impact on my life.

When I look at those things that we now take for granted which might end up beyond our reach as a consequence of peak oil, climate change and financial crises, I can only think of one situation, the prospect of which truly frightens me and that one is homelessness.

rough sleeper

About two years ago I was facilitating a Training for Transition course in London at the Hub in Islington. It was a wintermorning, freezing cold, a thin layer of snow on the ground as I came out of the Angel tube station. I turned the corner and there, huddled against the wall, just below
some kind of vents that blew slightly warmish air were three people laying on some cardboard in sleepingbags. I'm not an urbanite and therefore not used to the desperate sight of the homeless in winter and what I saw shocked me profoundly. I remember thinking that no way could I just walk by and do nothing. I ran to the Hub, up four flights of stairs, found three large paper cups (the sort that posh coffee comes in) in the recycling, washed them and made some strong, milky tea with lots of sugar. As the first participants to the course started arriving, I apologised and put one in charge of letting the others in, raced back down and got the hot tea to the rough sleepers. One of them was now awake and he couldn't have been more than 17 or 18 years of age. He wrapped his hands gratefully around the paper cup and I hope my gesture made them feel like somebody cared. That Transition course ran deep and intense.

My home is my place of refuge, where I take shelter from the world. It's where my family comes together around the dinner table and we tell each other about our day. It's where we curl up on the settee with the kids and the cats and watch a movie. It's where we've celebrated many birthdays and Christmases, shared sadness over people that passed away and rejoiced at births. On the walls are the pictures of those that are dear to us and through the windows we look out over the productive garden that has taken a lot of hard work to establish. There is the fire pit around which we had many merry gatherings and out front is the slope the kids slide down when we have snow. We've had so many good times here, so many memories that make this place our home.


As this economic downturn worsens and the government cuts deeper into the welfare budget, there is more than a fair chance that in the years to come, we may not be able to remain in the small bungalow our family has called home for the last six years. I have to admit that our situation is not a resilient one as we are heavily dependent on housing benefit to cover the rent. It's not an ideal situation, but then being the proud owner of a mortgage doesn't give you that much more in the way of security in the current economic climate. Jobs are no longer secure or for life, but the mortgage needs its monthly fix, regardless the state of your bank account. I think
it's probably the main reason why the talk by Stoneleigh at the Transition Conference two years ago made such an impact. Her advice was to get rid of debt, now, which is easier said than done with a mortgage and it's 20 to 25 years repayment term.

Poster: I was only seven but I'll never forget repossession

With more than 80% of benefit cuts still to come and unemployment rising, we can expect a sharp rise in both repossessions and homelessness. Thanks to the cap on housing benefits in
cities like London, thousands of families will be forced to move away from their communities, schools, family and friends to rental properties in cheaper areas, if they can find them. Without a home it is extremely hard to hold down a job or have consistency in schooling for your children. You're out in the cold, on your own, as you no longer have a community to belong or turn to, as the latter is very much bound to place.

In Mid West Wales there is a shortage of affordable rental homes. When children come to the age where they move out and get their own home, it is often the case that they cannot stay in the same place where they grew up, but have to move away in order to find a a home they can afford. This means that it becomes difficult for grandparents to help with childcare and equally problematic to care for frail and elderly parents. It took us nearly two years before we found the house we now live in, even though we were desperate to move out of the damp, mouldy appartment we were living in. There simply weren't any rental properties that were close enough to my daughter's school and my son's nursery. Council housing is hugely oversubscribed and it takes many years of waiting on a list before you can move in. As a result of this shortage, private rents have gone up by half in the last 10 years, making renting almost more expensive than paying a mortgage.

In the USA ordinary people have started to take action against foreclosures and the evictions that follow. But here in the UK, I haven't heard or seen anything along those lines. I'd be interested to know if any transition initiatives have started to make provision or plans for when the housing chicken comes home to roost. In all my transition activist time, I have never come across an initiative that had a Housing Group. Which doesn't mean that there aren't any, but if there are, they are very few. Maybe most people in the UK feel that “things surely won't get that bad here” or maybe homelessness is such a scary topic that we'd rather not dwell on it. I would love to find out about any transition projects that look at affordable housing. Housing co-ops are an obvious route and I wonder if any arose as a result of the actions of a transition initiative?

I'll await your answers while I treasure my home, feeling grateful for the roof over my head, at least for now.

This post was originally posted on the Social Reporting Project

Monday, 28 May 2012

Everything must change - Transition Themes Week#14

Welcome to our last Transition Themes Week #14. We've been running this blog daily for two and a half years now. We created it originally to reflect back to ourselves and the world what a low carbon life looks and feels like, to show the kind of people we were and explore Transition ideas, particularly the experiences we were then having in the Transition Circles.

The Transition Themes Weeks were begun to report on the work of TN's projects - energy, economics, food, bees, Low Carbon Cookbook, Magdalen Street Celebration. They were there to keep us all in touch and functioned like a network in a resilient eco-system, working to connect and feedback to the whole initiative and different affiliated groups in Norwich. They began on Mondays with an introduction to the week and a post about Transition communications, both in the city and within the Network.

Today some of the groups featured in these weeks have fallen away, people have come and gone from the blog. And though there is still a committed core of us, life is pulling us in other directions. Some people are too busy to write, others have stronger commitments, and this puts a strain on other bloggers to keep up the momentum. Weeks are becoming harder to fill, to get a full house of contributors. So after June 20, summer solstice and The Festival of Transition (and my birthday!) we will become a more occasional blog. We're each taking a day and posting when we can. Hope you will still continue to join us!

Some reflections on the editing business and Transition

So everything changes. That's something you learn for sure in Transition. You also learn to reflect and see how you might have done things differently - not had you known then, but if you were to start again now. Now I think I would think twice about creating editorial roles, and what this entails in grassroots communications. Communications have a low priority within Transition. It is something that is done by someone, and is useful insofar as it works as a marketing or recruiting tool. Even though in Anthony Sampson's analysis of power in Britain the media holds the second greatest ability to influence events (way beyond government), creating our own media and forging a new culture is not considered important.

So now I would get clear on how communications, specifically editorial, are regarded within the rest of the enterprise. Secondly, I would hesitate to take an editor's role, even though this has been crucial in setting up both our Norwich blogs (and also the Social Reporting Project and Transition Free Press).

In traditional journalism, nothing happens without the editor. They are the deciders, the ones who say yes, maybe, and no way Jose. Everyone has their role around this decision-making process. I've worked with some great editors. Some I got on with, and some I didn't. There's usually something you don't like about the editor. That's because a good editor cares about the edition, and not you. It's not personal, it's just how it goes. Everyone understands that. The editor's word is final.

In Transition no one understands that, because you are not working professionally, you are working out of conviction, or because it suits you. You are loyal to the main storyline only as far as it works for you personally. Most people join a Transition project, as a hobby or an adjunct to their normal lives. So as an editor you can't really operate very well. No one is getting paid, so you have to be nice to people or you get a blank page.

At first people in the initiative didn't want an editorial crew at all. We started the blog along trad lines with ex-professionals - with an editor (me), managing ed (Jon), sub-editor (Mark) and designer (Andy) - which proved really useful for setting things up. Then the bloggers who came on board wanted to be a "community" and have "ownership" and tell the people doing the editorial work what to do. Censorship came up, and control. Egos clashed. Tempers flew. It felt like the most wonderful thing I had ever done and possibly the most horrible. That was a rocky moment. The Sturm und Drang moment all creative enterprises undergo. Eventually the dust settled and everyone found their rhythm.

The blog got published through thick and thin. We didn't miss a beat. I kept going because everything, I saw, was grist for the mill. There were endless opportunities for getting over oneself on a daily basis and exploring new territories. Sometimes we liked each others posts and sometimes we didn't. We learned a new tolerance, I think. I did certainly. I realised this was an alchemical space, where things got aired and changed, and we learned how to work in diversity. How we allowed each other to speak after millennia of silence.

For a while, maybe a year, things went really well. We had a full quota of bloggers and invited guest contributors on board. We had a new readership and were cross-posted in several places. We met each quarter to decide the rota and took turns to lead weeks. Then the initiative around which our blog is based started to lose momentum. Some of the projects faded. Some people shifted camp to Norwich FarmShare. Some of us started to be two-timers on the Social Reporting Project. I started to feel I was carrying the load and filling up gaps.

So here we are in May 2012 at a moment of shift . . . The editorial crew is a beautiful structure but it only works when a certain number of people are writing stuff together for real. In a grassroots blog where people are in it for the feeling it gives them, or as promotion, the editor becomes simply a useful coordinator who can be depended on to hold the fort, carry the rap, pick up the ball etc. You end up being a kind of nanny, or secretary. You feel that you are putting yourself on the line, doing all the hard Transition work, while other people stay within their comfort zones, in their conventional lives.

So I think to run a good community blog I would get clear on who exactly is doing the change, who is loyal to the cause, and make sure the load is fairly shared. I'd rotate the editor role, right from the start. If you don't have an editor at all there is an emptiness to everything. A bit like a ship without a captain, or a kitchen without a cook. There's no one at the helm, no presence there. No fire. No food. No home station.

I'm not sure how it would work. Or if it would work. Maybe that's the place we are right now in Transition. The kitchen only works with a cook, and the cook is tired of being treated as a servant. She is wondering what she is doing amongst the pots and pans, and telling everyone: serve yourself. The cook is not just me, she is all the real-time Transitioners who feel this way, she is everyone on the planet serving the Empire, those who dine upstairs at our expense. She is the earth too and all creatures and plants who sail with her. Taking off her apron, kicking off her shoes.

Transition training; with fellow Transition comms people taking part in a Project Sharing Engine day, London, 2011; Transition bloggers in Chapelfield Gardens: Ann Owen's market garden, visiting the social reporters

Saturday, 26 May 2012

There are so many people here!

This is the third and final post about the town of Freiburg in Germany and will be about public spaces.

The most thriving public space on the Saturday when I was looking around was that outside the cathedral.  There was a absolutely bustling market that had set up overnight and was full of local produce - vegetables (including plenty of white asparagus), cheeses, meats, fish, as well as souvenirs and gifts.  The rest of the time, this square is a very open plain around the cathedral (the one pity I think about Norwich market is that when it is closed, it feels very closed).

But then open spaces are not just for markets! This picture is of Augustinerplatz, a square in what I suppose would be the museum quarter of Freiburg. It's where young people hang out to socialise.  There are public toilets nearby, and plenty of bars around.  It doesn't look terribly busy at the moment, but in the evenings, even on a fairly ordinary weeknight, you literally cannot see the floor for people, all sitting and chatting, and drinking.  It creates a wonderful party atmosphere (there was always at least one guitarist strumming away too!).  It makes me feel that those who outlawed drinking in public places in the UK, and who want to keep young people off "street corners" are fools.  We need more of it, I say!

One thing that continental Europeans are really good at is outdoor dining.  OK, they have better weather than us, so it comes more naturally to them, but the thing which I noticed about their streets is that it is not isolated restaurants with their outdoor dining area, it is entire streets, which are constantly bustling with activity, people young and old.  Shops are side attractions for the real reason to come into town, which is to eat and drink and socialise!

All photos by the author in Freiburg, Germany.  Feel free to use under creative commons share-alike licence.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Bikes, trams and feet

I introduced you yesterday to the town of Freiburg, in Germany. Today I'd like to show you how their residents get around.

I have to be honest, I can't get hugely excited by trams. OK, they're an efficient public transport system and are quiet and don't spew emissions directly into the street, but, in the end, they're just a glorified bus. The thing which is important, though, is that people use it! These trams were full every time I saw them, which means that it is a social norm to use public transport there. I get rather upset when I find myself the only person on a double-decker bus in Norwich. "Why doesn't everyone use this bus?", I wonder.

But I mostly bike places, anyway, which is better.

If you can't see this image very well, the entire other side of this road is full bike racks... and yes, that it is the same person to the left, centre and right of this image (it was stitched together from three photos!).

There are very few streets that you could walk down in Freiburg without seeing a bike. They line the streets, there are people riding everywhere on them. It is just a normal part of life. There are good bike paths too. What I think is the test for whether a city is good for biking in is if, without planning beforehand, you can get from one randomly chosen location to another without having to use major trunk roads or get off your bike to walk along footpaths. Unfortunately, Norwich isn't at that point yet, but has made some great improvements over the past few years.

The entire centre of the town is pedestrianised. Not a car in sight. Bicycles, of course, and trams, yes, but no cars. OK, buses are allowed down some of the town centre streets too, but they do so quite discreetly. And I think cars can enter the town centre for access at certain times of day, but there was certainly never any real traffic.

The town centre feels like a pedestrian's world, and any vehicle is an invader. In most British cities, the opposite tends to be true. We are very lucky in Norwich to have quite an expansive pedestrian area, but I still feel it could be bigger. There's no real reason why Exchange Street couldn't be pedestrianised (with exceptions for access at certain times of day, of course), and this would also have the effect of cutting down traffic along St. Giles'.

However, as I said, we are already doing pretty well in the town centre from this point of view. Perhaps we should consider where more out-of-town areas that could be pedestrianised. I can't think of any out-of-centre community shopping precincts that are designed around the pedestrian in Greater Norwich, can you? Leave your answer in comments below! :)

Tomorrow I'll talk about public open spaces in Freiburg and Norwich.

All photos by the author in Freiburg (first three images) and Norwich (last).

Thursday, 24 May 2012

How to make a city green... and purple, and yellow, and blue

I have recently been in Germany, in the town of Freiburg.  I'm pleased to say that Freiburg does have a Transition Initiative. I didn't get a chance to meet them, but, as far as I'm concerned, I didn't need to, because the town itself spoke to me of the concern that the residents have for the environment, and for the people who live there, using the resources they have to make the place ever more sustainable.

Over the next few days, I will be showing you a few photos that I took there, of each aspect of the sustainability in their lifestyles that I think we should admire and replicate.  The first, literally greening their town.

Who wants to guess what the building ahead is? "Surely it's a hill, not a building," one person replies. "Well, its obviously housing," pipes up another. Well, here, I'll put you out of your misery... it's a multi-story car park.  Yes, it has steps running up it, yes it has housing on top, yes there are planters up it and climbers all the way up the walls (see next photo), but it is a car park, trust me.  This is the pedestrian entrance, obviously.  The cars enter the other side, off the main road which is sheltered from the pedestrian area by... the car park! This next photo is from halfway up those steps.

Literally just round the corner, we see this:

Wisteria trained up the walls of the buildings and over the street adds purple to our green, adding not just nature, but a beautiful canopy for the street, which, unlike trails of fairy lighting, offsets rather than burns carbon. We should have more Wisteria in Norwich, in my opinion. There's some that grows up my parent's house and occasionally we have to cut back before it starts trying to climb into the roof, but I don't think I've seen any in Norwich itself!

Finally, let's just pop down the road to a major shopping street, where we come to a rooftop garden above a shop.

Who'd have thunk it? And even if you don't consciously look at it, just the presence of it brightens your day and makes you feel more connected with nature.

Tomorrow, we're going to observe Freiburg's transport. :)

All photos by the author.  Feel free to use under creative commons share-alike.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Story of Whitney Avenue Urban Farm

One of the highlights of this year's documentary, In Transition 2.0, was Whitney Avenue Urban Farm, created by Chris Condello, alongside Transition Pittsburgh, USA. In this blog, written last autumn, he bids farewell to this extraordinary neighbourhood project and guerrilla garden.

Sadly Whitney Avenue Urban Farm will be moving at the end of this season. For a while I was freaking out but I hope that as this door closes a new one will open. The farm is situated on two vacant lots and one of them is going to be purchased at some point and turned into a side yard. I personally can not afford to purchase the land and since I do not own the home next to the lots the Allegheny County vacant land program is absolutely no help to me. But the space will be going to good use and will make several small girls very happy. For the time being I plan on moving all of my perrenials, blueberry bushes, grape vines, raspberry bushes, bricks and all of my arbors to the other lot but this will by no means be permanent. This brings me to the subject of this blog... The downside of guerrilla gardening. At least I had a heads up and will be able to recover all of my permanent plants but I would assume this will not always be the case.

I built almost all of my beds out of stacked bricks in anticipation that I may have to move them some day. I have two grape arbors that will need moved as well but I did not use concrete on any of the posts so they will just pop right out of the ground. I am hoping that I will be able to dig up as much of my amended soil as possible and move it as well. When I am done I plan on re-seeding the grass and leaving it a little nicer than when I started gardening. My natural reaction is always to fight but in this case I just have to sit back and ride it out.

I want to stress that I still believe that guerrilla gardening is a good thing but I will be sure to be more carefull in the future. At least I was able to bring joy to the little dead end street I currently live on. My neighbors ate high quality home grown vegetables for the past two seasons and I got to teach a group of kids how to garden and someday be able to feed their own families. We have had parties centered around the garden and this October we plan on having a halloween party/pig roast for the neighborhood as one last gathering before I move everything.

I was recently accepted to the Penn State Master Gardeners Program and am hoping that it will open some new doors for me. I have also been offerred ten vacant lots on a hilltop in homewood that could become the new farm/neighborhood I have been looking for.We have really done some great things in this neighborhood in the past year and a half and I am positive that it could be re-created in any neighborhood my girlfriend and I move to. I wish I could say that I was definately planning on staying in Wilkinsburg but I don't really know.

I have had a dream that started before we even moved into our apartment on Whitney Avenue. The dream was as simple as being able to have a place to teach the neighborhood kids how to grow their own vegetables. We accomplished this and I have learned from mistakes made, I am not positive whether we will end up moving but I will go wherever I will be appreciated. I have had a lot of people tell me that it doesn't matter how much work I put into the garden if I can't buy the land. I wish they would realize that even if I wanted to buy the land since I don't own the property directly next to the garden Neighbor has first choice to purchase and legally there is nothing I can do.

In closing be careful where you guerrilla garden because at any time it can be taken away from you! And be careful how much time, work and money you put into it because when you are about to lose it you will be the only person that that will matter to. Make sure everything that you build can be moved if needed and mentally prepare for the fact that one day someone will want to do something with your garden due to the fact that all of the hard work you have done has inspired someone to purchase what was otherwise a crappy vacant lot.. Just try and look at the positive aspects of the situation and keep your head up. It is not the end of the world even though it feels like it, hopefully your initial reaction will be better than mine was.

Peace - Chris Condello

Monday, 21 May 2012

Announcing the Festival of Transition - 20 June 2012

The nationwide ‘Festival of Transition’, coordinated by nef (the new economics foundation) and the Transition Network, has begun, running until 20th June, the first day of the 20th UN Earth Summit in Rio.

Instead of flying to Brazil, the Festival gives people the opportunity to do something positive about climate change and the economic crisis in their own

The Festival is a unique mixture of walks, talks and a DIY day of action on 20th June. It combines a series of organised events at festivals, museums and institutions around the country with an open invitation to schools, workplaces and community groups to stage their own ‘real-life experiments’ in living differently on 20th June.

The ‘What if?’ events include:
  • 19th/20th May (this weekend!) at the Bristol Festival of Ideas: ‘What if… we left the oil in the ground?’ with author James Marriot and ‘What if… we could create money as well as the banks?’ with nef and the newly launched Bristol Pound
  • 30th May at the Hay Festival: ‘What if… we turned back the climate clock?’ with poet Lemn Sissay and Greenpeace chief executive John Sauven and ‘What if… cities produced our food?’ in association with the Soil Association
  • 6th June at the Royal College of Art: ‘What if… creatives redesigned economics?’ with nef and Occupy Design
  • 13th June at the Museum of East Anglian Life: ‘What if.. the sea keeps rising?’
  • 14th June at Manchester Museum: ‘What if… Manchester was as sustainable as Havana?’

The ‘Transition Walks’ include:

  • 22nd May: ‘In the shadow of the City: A walk through the history of the Corporation’, with author Nick Robins
  • 23rd May: ‘On London’s Oil Road: A journey to the heart of the energy economy’, in association with Platform London

Community groups and Transition initiatives have already started pledging to stage 24-hour experiments in living differently on 20th June via the Festival website. So do fill in your details here.

Andrew Simms from the new economics foundation said:

“This summer thousands of people will fly to Brazil to wait and watch as politicians struggle to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, hoping for action to meet the scale of the climate crisis. International political action is vital, but we’ve moved beyond leaving it all to big, global conferences. People are impatient and want to take action themselves. The Festival of Transition is an opportunity to question, taste, and experiment with living better within life-preserving environmental limits.

We believe that once people take a first step, they’ll want to keep on walking.”

Full details of the Festival events can be found at

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Music Week #6 - The Art of True Intimacy

Today on the blog, singer-songwriter James Frost contemplates a form of song that brings and binds souls together.

There is a tribe in East Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth.

In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even from the day of conception, as in other village cultures. For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is thought in the mother’s mind.

Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them.

After the child is conceived, she sings to the baby in the womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labour and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song.

After the birth all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations. The song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.

James Frost

Friday, 18 May 2012

Let's Come Together In Sweet Harmony

Note: All links in this post direct to music videos on YouTube, so feel free to click through and listen while you read!

Everybody's Free (To Feel Good), and what makes me feel good is great harmony, particularly vocal harmony.

One of the amazing things about vocal harmony, in my opinion, is that it is impossible to do it on your own. It's a community activity.  It requires cooperation.  It requires not just singing together, but listening to each other and blending (beautiful blending demonstrated here by The Beatles). You have to tune in to those who you are singing with, and this inevitably makes you feel more connected with those people.

It's no wonder that whenever there is a desire to galvanise a community, communal singing often comes into it, whether it is football chants, national anthems or church hymns. Gareth Malone's TV series "The Choir" has gone some way to demonstrate the power that choirs have to bring communities together, and to share part of themselves (their voice) in the aid of creating something bigger than themselves.

So if you want a revolution, perhaps music is a good place to start!

Image: Me singing with my barbershop group, Head Row, in Leeds.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

It's all right

"How come all your songs are about water?" the anthropologist asked the Hopi elder, as he sang to his corn on the mesa. "Because water is rare and precious in our land," he replied. "How come all your songs are about love?"
This is a post about a song. It's a song I've been singing all my life. You could say all our lives are a song. Or a harmony, or a rhythm. Sometimes the song is a lullaby, a threnody, a torch song, a protest song, or a requiem. It's something we sing on our own, or accompanied by other people, a capella, andante, allegro, con moto, ma non troppo. Sometimes the song we sing goes at a different pace, or is in a different key than the sounds amplified by the machines that surround us, which makes it hard to hold the note, to keep the beat on our own. Sometimes we long for people we can sing it with, and sometimes if we are lucky and the band is playing, we find them.

Little darling it's been a long and lonely winter . . .

I heard the song when I was eight years old, and sang it loudly as I went up the ski lift on the snowy meadow in the Austrian Alps. Behind me was Hermann, our instructor, whom I loved completely with the heart of a child. It was a glorious day. I was away from school, away from home, with my friends and the mountains sparkling all around me. I was in a new country and I felt free for the first time in my young life, as if I had stepped out of a black and white photograph and into a moving rainbow-coloured universe.

I didn't know the words (for the song had not yet been written down) but I knew the feeling. And you could say in those fifty-something years since, I have been faithful to that moment. I learned to sing this song in the heartless institutions of the world, in the corridors of power, in sad suburban houses and crummy hotels. I have sung it the bookshops of London and Bristol and Edinburgh, in an American gaol and in a Kent garden on May Day, in an orphanage chapel in Mexico, on the underground station in Santiago de Chile - in two,three and four part harmony (with a little help from my friends). When I first joined Transition I sang this song at the Heart and Soul group in Norwich, I sang it at Mark's 50th birthday last week - with Mark.

It seems like years since it's been here

Music is many things. And like everyone else in this culture I could trace my passage through life and all its tempestuous relationships through certain songs and symphonies. I spent my youth carrying a cello around, playing in scratch orchestras, singing in school choirs, queuing for hours for cheap seats at the Royal Opera House and the Festival Hall. I listened to Radio Caroline as it rocked in the North Sea outside my school dormitory window. I danced to the beat in the Meat Market in New York, in the Cafe de Paris in London, at a hundred parties in warehouses and mansions and slums. I danced to Aurelia's drum and Mark's chant on the rooftops in Oaxaca and made Julianne smile. You broke my heart open, she said, like Spring. I interviewed the country singer, Garth Brookes in snowy South Bend, Indiana, and he told me: the struggle is everything.

the ice is slowly melting

Maybe it was the 24 hour non-stop salsa bus ride to the Ecuadorian coast in 1990 that did it. But at some point, the music stopped. Mozart is driving me crazy, I said to my musician friends. All those bloody notes! They looked at me horrified. But it was true. Mozart was giving me a stomach ache. I felt as if I was stuck in a claustrophobic room and couldn't get out. Pretty soon I couldn't bear Beethoven either, or those gloomy Romantic composers or swoopy sopranos. I felt stuck in History, in a record that was going round and round.

And then it happened with Joan Baez. It's not that I was a big Joan Baez fan, but I was listening, wrapped up in a song she wrote about Dylan called Diamonds and Rust and I realised my feet were not on the ground. The song was taking me somewhere vague and nostalgic, somewhere out of time and out of place, and then abandoning me. I wanted to stay in that song, in that sad and poignant feeling, but it wasn't real. It was a path that led nowhere (which, in many ways, is what the song itself is about). I felt as though I'd been tricked. And pretty soon after that I realised that's where most music takes you, out of yourself, off-planet, never quite delivering you to the place you hope it will. And then leaving you in silence, longing for more.

the smiles returning to their faces

So what has any of this personal stuff got to do with Transition? There is a really positive side to music; it can lift you up, make you get up and shimmy (I still really love to dance), it can break the ice, make you smile. But there is a treacherous side to it too, and culturally at this point we would be wise to realise what those dangers might be. In spite of the brilliant, right-on lyrics that Jon has been writing about in the last three days, music is also mass distraction, an escape from reality (most assuredly from the hard facts of peak oil and climate change) and has been highly manipulated by the advertising and entertainment industries. It can make us believe we have freedom in our grasp and are connected to the whole world, when in fact we are as trapped as caged birds, stuck in our interior worlds, listening to i-pods. Lost in a trance, in the world of fairie.

Sometimes I listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations in the conservatory (I read once that plants like baroque). And if I had to keep one piece of classical music it would be this one. It's played by the recluse and keyboard genius, Glenn Gould. All thirty variations are played according to the same tempo. That rigour makes it one of the most exciting, on the edge, exploratory pieces of music ever written.

One of the key ingredients in The Transition Companion is Momentum. If you don't keep up the tempo, the project, the group, the initiative you are in won't hold. There will be nothing to depend on, no centre, no falconer for the falcon to return to (as Yeats would term it). The whooshy, feel good moments and ideas you might get at the start of Transition won't bear the reality of day. The Empire will demand back your allegiance and all your time.

Music is a tough business, as anyone who knows about the lives of performers (classical, jazz, rock, folk) will tell you. Audiences demand sacrifice and perfection, and many musicians are crushed, like butterflies on the wheel. Transition is tough too. It requires us to keep to the tempo of our hearts when the frenetic pace of the world goes too fast for them, it requires us to hold a harmony, when there is dissonance all around us. It requires us to change frequency and tune into the earth and not go off key. To succeed in our task will take practice, courage, rigour and most of all love. Love for the planet and for human liberation, for which we sing our song, even in silence. For the feeling of being free in the mountains on a blue day, free and light as a bird.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes!

Photos: dancing with Aurelia and Mark, The Earth Medicine Show, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1993: Joan Baez, 1975; Glenn Gould, 1955; summer solstice sun rising over Southwold, 2011

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Music Week #3 - "Imagine there's no heaven..."

I wanted to talk about music that envisioned a better world, music that made you feel that, despite everything, it was possible.  I looked through all my records, making lists, making notes, but when I found Imagine, I realised that there was no better way of expressing everything in one song.  So, even though it has become some sort of shorthand to describe the life and attitudes of a very complex man, it's a song that resonates with so many people, for its simple encapsulation of so much.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one
Sometimes, it's not enough to think your way through something; the world is too full of distractions, and you have to turn inwards, feel your way to the answer.  There are many great pieces of meditation music out there - this is my favourite.

Tomorrow, I'll hand over to Charlotte, but I'll be back on Sunday to share with you my favourite environmental song of all time... If you have a favourite, why not leave a comment and let us know?