Tuesday, 26 March 2013

We Can Work It Out

people baking at sunrise“So, do you teach people to cook?” asked the journalist from Delicious magazine.

“Not exactly." I said. “It’s more of an absorption thing, working as a crew and learning on the job.” She had come to interview Sustainable Bungay about Happy Mondays and the Community Kitchen for an article about community food projects alongside the Dunbar Bakery and Norwich FarmShare.

So I tried to explain how it is in Transition that a lot of the learning and teaching we do is not that formal. As we sat by Nick’s fire with tea and hot cross buns, we talked about skill-share and seed-swaps, plant walks and bee talks, Trade Schools and Green Drinks, it struck me that there was a time when I didn’t know about any of this knowledge-sharing, workshop-giving world either. I didn’t know what a facilitator was, or a go-round, or people who said it is not in my remit, or wave their hands in the air and bring lunch to share. There was a time when checking in had to do with the hotel, rather than a circle of strangers in some dusty church hall.

It struck me too that there were two types of class in Transition. One that took the shape of courses and trainings, where you paid money to sit in a room and an expert led you through your paces, often with power point presentations and organised exercises done in small groups. These structured professional events often had organisations behind them and came with workbooks and DVDs attached. The others were more amateur pop-up and hands-on affairs, which could happen anywhere, down at the local library, or at a Tent University in the middle of a city. Usually set up by individuals who were passionate about their subject, quirky, rough in style, but with some very useful hints and insights, that sometimes led to animated conversations afterwards.

The Workshop as method exists in both these configurations, and it is the subject of this week on the Social Reporting Project. We’ll be looking at how effective these sessions can be, how they are a core part of Transition culture and what kind of form they take in different initiatives. This is mine.

tin village workshop
At Tin Village everyone gives workshops.These are short slots, maybe an hour long. Sometimes they are talk-based head and heart sessions (on politics or ecological campaigning); sometimes skills-based hands sessions (on massage or straw bale building). You talk about your subject and you do some exercises. No one books, no one pays. Your participants move in an out at will. The band is playing outside and there is always somewhere else to go. Holding people’s attention is, as you find out, a key skill you have to learn fast.

When we were setting up the Social Reporting Project in 2011, Ed Mitchell and I gave some workshops on community blogging and reportage: one at the Sunrise Festival and another at the Transition Conference in Liverpool. Even though ostensibly you go to workshops to learn something, mostly you go to mix with other people, to experience a different social set-up, to hear a new narrative, to confirm your reality, and above all to enjoy yourself quasi-seriously.

We’re social and inquisitive creatures, so we like hanging out with people without being interrogated in a cocktail party, let’s-put-you-in-a-pigeon-hole way: where do you come from, what do you do, where do you live etc. We like doing stuff together: digging gardens, bottling jam, walking around woods, dancing together, without feeling entangled in other people’s fields, or obliged. We like that pop-up, play-at-stuff community networky thing. Now you see me, now you don’t.

However a lack of proper engagement can have its drawbacks when you are trying to share real and valuable skills: we are used to behaving like consumers and being entertained. You can't escape that fact at a festival where everyone has come for a good time. We’d hoped to inspire everyone at our Grassroots Media workshop to report on the events there and then. However I learned quickly that no-one wants to work at a festival and that the permaculture garden tours, pizza making and natural housekeeping products tend to do a brisker trade. So the following year in 2012 I wised up. I found that people like a bit of an entertaining talk and one or two practical exercises they can take away, or think about later. So in the spirt of skill share, here they are:

workshop picture

FIVE MINUTE INTERVIEW (Social Reporting workshop, Sunrise Festival/Liverpool conference 2011) Interviewing people forms the backbone of great journalism. This is a very useful speaking exercise because it allows you to voice out loud and treasure an enterprise you care about and also make it clear for others to grasp (essential reporting/teaching technique). You are being paid full attention to by the interviewer, which is a rare commodity in this world. The interviewer at the same time, has to listen and be interested in what you are saying. Also a rare commodity. Both these acts ground the enterprise in the collective memory of place and time.

Method: Everyone turns to the person next to them in the circle, so the group is in pairs. You take turns in the role of the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer asks the question: can you tell me about your most successful project? The interviewer asks further questions if necessary, but most of all listens and pays full attention to what is being said. When the time is up (five minutes), you swap places. Finally you go round the circle and everyone feeds back what they have heard about their partner’s project. At Liverpool we extended this exercise to on-the-spot video interviews, which formed part of the media hub reporting.

transition camp banner

SPEED PAPER (Grassroots Media/Transition Free Press workshop, Sunrise Festival 2012) This was a workshop I gave with Venus, activist and poet from Occupy London, about citizen journalism and reporting from direct experience. People who come to comms workshops are often already involved in writing or campaigning in some way, so tend to be articulate about their skills. What we don’t always know is how to pool resources and work co-operatively together to produce something that is exciting and coherent. Speed paper is working quickly with a group to establish key areas of experience, knowledge or passion. And then practicing how to pull stories together and think like an editor. As this is a creative exercise, it has a lot of chaotic elements in it. That’s part of the fun.

Method: go round the circle and ask: if you were on a newspaper what kind of editor or reporter would you be and what key story do you feel should go in our next edition? Give everyone three or four minutes to talk about this. On a large sheet of paper draw out a rough flat plan (squares that signify the pages of a paper) for as many pages as there are subjects. Get everyone to decide which category they are in: news, opinions or features and group together. If people choose the same subject, they can work on the same story, or choose different ones. Start mapping the paper and deciding what stories go where. Open this out as far as you feel there is time and energy, encouraging discussion about stories, ethics, commissioning other people, ideas for photographs etc.

One person, preferably the facilitator, should act as ‘editor-in-chief’ here and write the stories down. They should also be in charge of The Deadline (that’s the time in which this exercise takes place). Allow 5-10 minutes at the end for people to feed back on their experiences and to ask questions.

IDEAL HOME EXHBITION (Gathering Together day, East Bergholt 2013). This was a workshop I gave as part of a day focussing on co-operative living and intentional communities in East Anglia. Essentially it was about starting up a group, and thinking about ways to establish working and collaborating together in harmony. I have shared houses and am now involved in setting up a coop with Transition Free Press, but have no formal experience in this area. However I have worked collaboratively all my life in the media and on creative projects, so I applied those principles to house-coops and they seemed to work just fine. People really got into those lists! The key thing in workshops is to grab people’s imagination and engagement. Even though you might not learn something academically, you have learned it in a hands-on, people-friendly way and that counts in ways we can’t always see. A lot of the discussion during the day was couched in airy, abstract terms – possibility, compassion, empathy etc – so the purpose behind this exercise was to ground people’s contributions and get a sense of what we held in common.

workshop picture
Method: Imagine all the people in the group are about to share a house together. Ask for four ‘editors’ in the house to head up four main categories. These of course could be fluid but the ones I chose that day were: People Skills (those we have and lack); Practical Skills (those we have and those we lack); Stuff and Resources (those we bring with us and leave behind); Dealing with Social Pressures (that work for and against co-operation).

Give the editors four sheets of large paper and a bunch of pens. Ask everyone else to visit each of their departments and help them build a list of what we have between us in the house and what we need/ need to let go of. As the facilitator go round and discuss the contents of the lists with everyone. Afterwards (about 30 minutes) ask the editors to feedback what they have on their list and share to the group.

I made up all these exercises in response to the events and places and people present, usually just as I arrived. That’s my nature. I don’t do prep. I sometimes think about a blog days before I write it and then when I put my hands on the keyboard, it’s a completely different piece than the one I imagined. Talks and workshops are like that too. I like work on my feet and have a bit of an edge to the proceedings. Creativity needs uncertainty and throwing everything into play; its best structures come out of chaos. It doesn’t do well with control. These exercises are all based on real experience because, for me, experience is the gold we share with and receive from others. I don’t want to sit round sharing feel-good feelings, or shout out words like hope and surprise into a room. I want to learn how to bottle tomatoes for real, chop wood, dig a trench, listen to a story and run a newspaper. On that Gathering together day a group of 22 people shared over 35 practical skills between them. That’s why I prefer the second workshop approach. When the storm hits, we don't want to be milling around a room and playing games. We want to be all hands on deck and to know the ropes.

At the beginning of Transition Norwich everyone wanted to give a workshop. You couldn’t go to a Heart and Soul meeting without someone announcing they had come to help us with a session (special prices for you Transitioners of course). Eco-psychology workshops, non-violent communication teach-ins, Joanna Macy sessions with wannabe shamans. To be honest it got on my nerves. Couldn’t we just get down to the business of doing Transition and finding out who we were first? We did run some sessions ourselves: on clowning, for example, and authentic movement, where the group offered their own skills and practice. These were mostly about sharing stuff with each other, and we were happy to pay small sums to cover expenses.

workshop picture
Meanwhile the grander and more expensive workshops from outside the city got whole weekends to themselves and a lot of fanfare. Dragon Dreaming! Be the Change! Roll up, roll up. What happened at these sessions? Was anyone outrageously successful? Did anyone change afterwards? None of us found out, as unlike our humbler experiments, the workshops were never reported on in our community blogs. What I did notice was the distinction held between theory and practice. Attending a Transition Training, for example, was considered more important than the experiential knowledge of an initiative. A weekend course carried more weight than two years of challenges, meetings and setting up projects. Looking back almost five years later however, you notice it’s the humbler, practical stuff that has lasted and kept the people together.

We live in a world where mental abstraction is held to be more important that what happens on the ground. But real stuff and experience is what truly matters, what we need to learn right now, and there are a host of people out there with real skills who are happy to share them. We need in Transition to invite each other in and make each other welcome, whatever our ‘mastery’ is. Comms and media workshops were never really about writing My Perfect Blog. They were about paying attention and listening, reporting what was happening in the real world, making our experience valuable and beautiiful, collaborating with each other when all the world is pulling us apart, so we no longer stay stuck in our silos and control towers, silent, tractable and afraid.

workshop picture

The grassroots media teachings were all about letting our voices be heard, so a different future could happen from the one commonly broadcast in the mainstream media. The workshops were part of the blueprint for future publications. So a bunch of people could manifest the Social Reporting Project, and Transition Free Press. Gotta manifest stuff for real on this earth, gotta get creating if you want to make a future worth living in. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Images: Pizzamaking workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; no-dig garden workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; workshop on financial instability with Naresh Giangrande and Peter Lipman, Liverpool conference, 2011; talk about medicine plants at Transition Camp, 2011; Transition Free Press open space, Battersea conference, 2012; quick prep before a Plants for Life workshop, Bungay Library, 2012; Transition Talk Training at Colchester, 2010.

First published on the Social Reporting project 25th March 2013

Friday, 22 March 2013

the darkness around us is deep

flowerI am walking towards the statue of Peter Pan. It is a cold grey winter's day in a winter that seems to go on forever. I have followed this path since I was six weeks old, when my parents brought me here to see the bronze statue of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the animals playing at his feet and the waterbirds on the Serpentine.

I don’t live in London anymore and it must have been years now since I walked past these stone fountains at Lancaster Gate. My parents ashes are scattered among the horse chestnut trees at the water’s edge and I have come to touch base in a hard winter, when it seems my world has come to a grinding halt. Your parents can give you good reasons for being here, so long as you don’t get waylaid by happy family stories and too much psychology. My father was a lawyer but he dreamed of being a travelling writer, my mother was a secretary and a wife, but dreamed of being an artist and living in a community. I have lived out their dreams.

Charlotte in Daffodils
As a consequence I have also gone contrary to the bourgeois creed in which I was raised, betraying my Kensington Gardens upbringing, my class, education and everything about this city that was once my home. Sometimes you could think I had betrayed my parents too. But at a certain depth - the kind of depth that makes sense of everything, even a hard winter, when you lose the capacity to write and have three bouts of flu back to back - you  know that following the party line is not what you are doing on the planet at this point in time. Walking away from the party and putting down roots in the real earth is what you are doing, living like a creator, even though it condemns you to skirt like a fox on the edges of everything.

I can write this because when I walked down to the statue that day I saw a heron waiting on the dead poplar tree and I heard a mistle thrush singing in the undergrowth. The fishing bird that was my father and the singing bird that was my mother. It was one of those moments where the mystery of life touches you and shakes you to your core. And as I walked across the park I saw there were birds everywhere: parakeets in amongst the London planes, a bevy of swans down by the round pond being fed by children, a crow hopping warily at my feet. And underneath the sweet chestnut trees there were ghosts of wild flowers and long meadow grass that would never have been “allowed” when I was young. This was bird London, wild London. Something coming through the cracks you do not expect.

Afterwards I went to join Lucy at the South Bank for a meeting about the book we are working on called Playing for Time. We stood on Waterloo Bridge and Lucy told me how once she organised a huge pyrotechnic show on the river; how many officials behind those grey stern facades she had to negotiate with to allow this fiery theatre to take place. And then she took me to supper at a little Lebanese restaurant in Covent Garden before I caught my train home. Mezes and a glass of rose wine. I haven’t eaten a meal on white tablecloth for a long, long time. It was a big treat. It was a good day.
I am not sure about the word wellbeing. I know about treasuring the good days. I understand destiny, living true to your solar core, aligned with the earth that gives you life. I understand honouring your mother and father, and the hard work of creators, what it takes to bring the fire through and hold it in the dark times. I understand walking out this equinox morning to greet the sun down the frosty lane with Mark. I understand about having a warrior attitude and a medicine attention, about finding your material, undertaking the hard inner work, turning the bad karma of empire and the dross of materialism into some kind gold for the future. But well being as a measure of life?

On the beach
Being at leisure, feeling comfortable, feeling OK about ourselves, like those well-serviced magazine women who do yoga, eat superfoods and find solace in novels? This feels like another kind of consumerism, a convenient barricading out of the hard facts, the reality that nothing we do in this industrialised culture is kind or good. Everything we touch or put in our mouths requires some other being’s suffering: from people, from forests, mountains, animals, fish, children, birds. How can you have wellbeing at the expense of others, without going into denial?

I have experienced a state of happiness, a lightness and ease with the world, which comes sometimes out of the blue, like a butterfly: floating like a starfish in the sea, lying under the goat willow on a spring day and hearing the return of the bees, countless mornings in the desert when I  lived there, a morning in Venezuela when we woke up and found ourselves in a tropical seatown with the whole day in front of us, a long long road in Arizona edged with sunflowers, a long long beach in California, with sealions in the surf and sanderlings running in and out.

So many mornings full of space and light and beauty when I was on the road, when I had money in my pocket and knew nothing about peak oil.
How do you have wellbeing in Transition when the moments of white tablecloths are few and the road is no longer open, and 2013 looks unaccountably harder and colder and poorer than 2012? When it has been grey for months on a damp, crowded island, and you have been in bed for weeks? How can you live well in times of unravelling, your own unravelling and the dear earth’s on which all  happiness depends?
Will you be there?
flowerHere is a moment I had in Transition: One of the most successful meetings in Transition Norwich in fact in the early days when we were setting up the Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group. It was the one and only meeting we had on wellbeing.

Among the ten people who came that evening five were working or had worked for the NHS, one was a chemist and two of us knew about medicine plants. Each of us had brought an object to introduce our medicine stories: Mark brought a horse-chestnut tincture, Richard brought a quote from The Glass Bead Game and a small volume on homoeopathy. Alex brought a daisy. He had been at a seminar in the Schumacher Institute when the deep ecologist Arne Naess, then in his eighties, had surprised everyone as he leapt through the window with a daisy in his hands. It was the medicine of vigour, Alex said.

What made this meeting vigorous and deep was the reality we brought with us. Suddenly our discussions, which had been abstract workshop encounters, full of spiritual possibility and solace, had allowed our gritty experience of the world into the room. When some of us exchanged opinions about the modern medical system, Angie, who had been a nurse on intensive care for 19 years, said quietly:

“I hope when I need to be turned some of you will be there to turn me.”

And there was a silence in the small room. As we realised what it would mean for us to take our own health, our lives, into our own hands.
Equinox SunWe don’t live in a never-never land. We live in a place where we are all going to die. And because all living things die on Earth, change is possible. We have physical limits and the reality of time, and against those limits and time, all our greatness and nobility is tested. As modern people we are no longer initiated into the mysteries of life, where this kind of limit has meaning, and so to get to a realisation of our true path, we need to tap into those moments that come out of nowhere. I understand this as making space to honour the ancestors – the ones who went before – our lineage and making time to greet the sun on an equinox day, to light a fire around which we can gather and listen to each other’s stories. The work of the artist and the writer is to remind the people of those moments, so we do not follow the wrong god home and miss our star. So we set our sails in the right direction. The measure we have is not our personal wellbeing, it is an alignment we hold inside us that can help put a crooked thing straight.

We are the ones who carry the fire, even when it looks as if it has gone out. We know how to bury the dead, we know where the medicine plants grow, we know the meaning of dreams, we know how to speak to the officials, so a fiery show can happen on the River Thames, we recognise the bird when it sings, the warrior when he stands by the land. We honour the people who suffer themselves to undergo change, who give their gifts and do not give up. We are in all places, in all rooms. We are Transition. We live in the towns and cities and down the lane. We are here. We are not going anywhere. Because there is nowhere else to go. This is what we remember. This the moment that matters. Right now, right here.

Photos: the memory of sweet violets; on the tumulus with daffodils; with Beth on the beach; guerilla garden hellebore; equinox sun.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Wellbeing and the Community - a local perspective

Plants for Life Weeds Walk April 2012What makes up community well-being in a time of financial constraints and climate uncertainty? This was the question twenty five people turned up to explore at Sustainable Bungay's first Green Drinks of the new year at the Green Dragon in January. The evening also marked the start of our new Arts, Culture and Well-being sub-group.

Well-being has been the subject of several recent studies, such as the New Economics Forum's 'Five Ways to Well-being', as well as the focus for many Transition initiatives. We live in a culture based around a market economy, and money and material status (or the lack of it), have become the driving force of most people's lives.

But what real good has this done ourselves or the planet? Apart from living in a badly degraded environment, we are as a collective suffering from ill health, depression, loss of identity and lack of connection to nature and other people. And it doesn't seem to be getting any better.

For many people (including myself) this winter has felt particularly long, dark and cold, with uncharacteristic feelings of gloom and lowness. When I've spoken to people about it, many have said "Oh, it's not just me then." Then there are those colds and fevers which seem to take weeks to clear up. Something is clearly not okay.

What would it mean if our lives, instead of being determined by GDP, were based on our mutual well-being and happiness – not just our personal well-being, but within the communities and neighbourhoods we all share? What would it mean if instead of striving for our own comfort and security, we valued sharing our resources and knowledge? How would our attitudes to each other change, and what kind of changes in the environment would that bring?

Hot Beds & leafy Greens posterMuch of the work Sustainable Bungay has been doing over the last five years has this co-operative learning at its base - from creating the Community Garden at the Library to hosting Happy Monday meals at the Community Centre, to organising bicycle rides, sewing circles, Give and Take Days, Bungay Community Bees and the Pig Club. Several of us attended the recent East Anglian Living Together day about co-ops and intentional communities in East Bergholt, where we found we had over 30 practical skills between us - just in one workshop! As well as sharing these skills, we've learned that working together brings a certain kind of happiness you just can't pay for.

For example, you can go and forage for blackberries on the common on your own, but going out together, sharing a picnic and then taking some to the Abundance table or for a Happy Mondays pudding for others to enjoy, makes for a more open and shared experience. This simple activity has all those five ways in it: connection, action, learning, taking notice and giving. Most of all it involves the place we live in and includes the wild spaces we are surrounded by.

At our Green Drinks we have focused on the many ways we can reconnect, from learning about medicine plants to the restoration of the River Waveney. In January the ideas were flowing, as people paired up and asked each other what community well-being meant to them and what creative or practical skills they had they would like to pass on to others.

kORU FITNESS SESSION POSTERA common thread emerged: well-being meant belonging to a place and not feeling on your own. So plans for a wide range of communal activities were mapped out, from walking and exploring the local countryside, river swimming and canoeing, to sharing skills such as food growing, cooking and meditation. Creative workshops were designed, including storytelling, theatre work and body percussion. What also became clear was that well-being is a major factor underlying and motivating Sustainable Bungay's activities.

Giving ourselves more time and space to connect with people and the neighbourhood was something people thought was vital and in April we'll begin creating a well-being map of Bungay with a walk around town paying particular attention to what the various public spaces in town feel like to be in.

Sustainable Bungay is a busy group. We have always been primarily events-focused and that seems set to continue. But a closer look shows that these events  also often provide the space for people to come together for discussions that might not happen ordinarily.

For our seventh Give and Take Day last Saturday (16th March), Charlotte set up and facilitated a conversation on the Gift Economy – sharing what we have with others in times of austerity. Over twenty people joined in.  Nick spoke about some of the ideas in Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics and Jeppe and Vanessa talked about their involvement in setting up the Common Room in Norwich. This project makes unused or underused public spaces (in this case an old church) available as a 'living room for the community', where people can swap and share skills, knowledge and company with no money exchange involved.

Gift Economy discussion at Give and Take DayWhat was striking about this discussion on a cold, dark, Saturday midday in March in Bungay's (slightly dilapidated) Community Centre, surrounded by the Give and Take tables of household goods, clothes and books, and accompanied by a bowl of Josiah's homemade fava bean and winter root veg soup and Christine's freshly baked bread, was that when time was called after 50 minutes, no one was in any hurry to leave. People were still discussing everything from how to receive a gift and should that leave you feeling obliged to give something back in some way, to how to begin to value ourselves and other people, places, skills and the living planet in a way that is not market-driven or utilitarian.

Usually when we think of well-being, it's in terms of personal comfort, and often has medical associations. But what if well-being were really not just a personal matter? What if it also depends on our getting out of our personal enclosures and insistence on everything belonging to some private personal sphere? And into that 'living room for the community' where a conversation can happen about sharing what we have, and we can start to forge different relationships with each other, the places we live in and the planet that gives us life.

"I've never experienced such a discussion before," said one visitor. "I could have stayed much longer."

Images: Plants for Life 2012 weed walk, Bungay; Hot Beds and Leafy Greens poster, March 2013; Koru body percussion poster, March 2013; Gift Economy conversation at SB's 7th Give and Take Day, March 2013

First published on on the Social Reporting project 18th March 2013.

Friday, 15 March 2013

ARCHIVE: All Hail Great Spring!

I wrote this post two years ago at Spring Equinox at our local hotel (we were off-line in those days). Spring was late that year and may still well be in 2013. However when Mark and I made our annual pilgrimage to Dunwich Woods to sit among the snowdrops and the lilies were as lovely and vibrant as ever. Even though the day was cold and grey, as it had been all February, the new season was still round the corner. Woodpeckers are drumming out the trees, jackdaws eyeing up chimneys, Whatever the weather, the wild flowers are still emerging in their glory. 

Gotta remind ourselves of why we are here I said . . . .

It seemed like it would never come. For months the land was hard and sere and all my attention seemed to be focussed on getting from place to place, from day to day. Even Malcolm shook his head about the lateness of it, when we went to collect our vegetables. "There’s just no sun," he said. "Nothing is growing." Then today we got up at sunrise and walked down the lane and realised winter had released us. Spring was finally here. The air was soft and vibrant. The earth felt near, as if every branch had come alive, buds ready to burst. We sat beneath an oak and breathed in the morning – blackbird singing high in the boughs, hazels dripping with golden catkins. Tapping of woodpeckers, mew of a buzzard above our heads.

After five months of watching the temperature gauge hover around freezing, it had suddenly risen six degrees. Six degrees makes a difference when you are living without central heating. Nine degrees means your bones stop aching, you no longer are terminally attached to your hot bottle, living in a cocoon of cardigans, kindling, soup and hot tea. You are no longer focussed inward, you are looking out towards the horizon, the room is full of unexpected light and air. Coming back from Norwich last week after a hard day’s work the sun burst through the clouds that had enclosed us in a grey helmet it seemed for weeks. The alders shone purple along the riverbanks and in the centre of each ploughed field there crouched a familiar form:

"I wonder why are there so many hares", I said to Mark.
"It’s March", he replied sanguinely.

Late Spring, cold spring. Is this climate change or just English weather?

One thing I know, we normally greet the snowdrops in Dunwich Wood at the beginning of February and this year it was the middle of March. We sat as we always do on a fallen trunk and listened to the soft inrolling sea against the cliffs and the birdsong amongst the yew trees, immersed in the quietude of white flowers.

It’s one of those moments you take in with your whole body – eyes, hands, feet, ears. The scent of rain and salt and sweet nectar, the hairiness of bark, the stillness and high vibration of the flowers. Spokesman for the wild places, Edward Abbey once wrote to all the environmentalists who had been inspired by his radical texts (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) to take action on behalf of the earth. Take time, he said, to go up in to the mountains and remind yourself why you are putting yourself on the line.

It’s good advice because with all the talking about feeding the world and energy reduction, about social change and behaviour change, all those hundreds of emails and newspaper headlines taking up your attention, you can forget why you are in Transition in the first place and what it means to be alive on the earth. In winter, summer or spring.

Sometimes I dream of a world where we can walk nobly, without shame, on this planet. It’s a future I hold in my heart, ready, like a leaf, to unfurl:

Happily with abundant plants may I walk.
Happily on a road of pollen may I walk
Being as it used to be long ago may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beauitful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty is it finished.
In beauty it is finished.

Words from a traditional Dine (Navajo) Chant; Snowdrops and Mark in Dunwich Wood, purple crocus outside my door

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Toads talk Transport - No 3

The annual toad migration got off to a slow start this week and then the weather promptly went back to winter. However, whilst out with the local Toadwatch patrol, helping toads cross the road to their ancestral breeding pond, I was fortunate enough to find in my bucket the old female toad that I have helped during each of the previous two years. She is now 22 and she had started to  tell me about how tasty the slugs and woodlice had been during the wet summer when a car stopped next to us. “I like to sauté frogs in white wine” said the driver. I suppose he thought it was funny to wind me up but I refrained from throwing one of the squashed bodies from the road through his window and politely explained that I was saving toads from extinction, not helping frogs who are much quicker at jumping across roads anyway. “I eat toads as well” came the reply. “More fool you then – we are poisonous” came the yell from my bucket. That shut him up and off he screeched.

My passenger, who can be blunt even by toad standards, asked what the Parish Council had done since we last met in order to reduce the number of apes driving around in cars and squashing toads. “I’ve been to lots of meetings and written lots of emails” I replied. A muffled croak told me that she was not impressed. “But when is there going to be some action?” she asked. I explained that the councils have recently passed plans to build over 1200 houses and lots of new offices and that when most of them have been built then they hope to build a cycle path so people can bike to work. There was an explosion from the bucket – “DUCKS’ BEAKS!!” she croaked angrily (toads hate ducks because they pollute the water and eat their spawn). “Surely they should build the cycle path BEFORE the people move into the houses!?”. Which is pretty much what our MP said to me yesterday – though he did not use the same expletive. He has promised to lend his weight to the argument.

So I’m doing my best to make council planners see sense but it would help if more people put some pressure on their councillors as current cycle paths in the Hethersett area are only lightly used (for a variety of reasons) and at the moment there is scepticism about how many people are really prepared to get on their bikes.

When/if it warms up, please keep an eye out for toads on the roads - there is more info about how you can help toads at

Monday, 4 March 2013

Occupy Norwich: One Year On

Now, over a year since it was vacated by Occupy, Norwich’s Hay Hill feels a little bit like the park after the funfair. On any normal day an empty half-acre or so of pigeon-pecked paving slabs and overflowing litter bins, Hay Hill’s four-month-long encampment by Occupy  demonstrated the potential public spaces have to be transformed from bland arenas of consumption into multipurpose, community-led forums of free expression, debate and dissent. In a world in which human traffic is so closely monitored, orchestrated and controlled, spontaneously occupying space en masse (purposeful smart-mobbing) is a highly creative act: an effort to overcome and reconfigure patrolled space that is on a par with the leaps and bounds of urban freerunning.

One of the many beautiful things about a movement like Occupy is that – to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s most famous phrase – the medium is the message. Occupy’s manifesto is visual. It was enough to simply stop and look on the camp, at the delicateness of its structure, the fragility of its materials, the thinness of its walls.

We’ve all spent a night in a tent, slept out under the stars; we’ve all felt that sense of exposure, of openness, a heightened sensitivity to the world around us: sounds, light, smells. Point is, the ad hoc simplicity of Occupy Norwich’s camp – its exposure to the elements, to people, to the world outside – was the fabric of its argument. Think of Thoreau, his self-built cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, or the hidey holes children make in copses from whatever they can find, and you’ll get a good grasp of Occupy’s imaginative innocence.

Hay Hill itself is a kind of pulmonary valve in the beating heart of Norwich, pumping shoppers like moneyed haemoglobin into the city centre’s economic muscles: Chapelfield, Castle Mall, St. Stephens Street, Gentlemans Walk. Occupy Norwich couldn’t have chosen a better place to set up camp. The presence of a replica shanty town and all that those makeshift settlements connote (poverty, filth, squalor, insanitariness) in the middle of one of the UK’s top ten shopping cities was bound to turn a few stomachs. The exposed reality of a shabby two-man tent set up before the ethereal edifice of a major retailer causes a kind of vertigo in the brain, a thought-provoking doublethink that neatly slices to the heart of the problem of wealth disparity across the globe.

The camp has been dismantled for a year now, true: but Occupy is a movement. There’s power in impermanence, and part of Occupy’s strength is its mobility, its manoeuvrability. It can be assembled in a matter of minutes, taken apart in a matter of seconds. Even when it has been broken down into its constituent parts (tent poles, folded tarp), it has the potential to come back to together again at any moment, suddenly and unexpectedly, in any city, in any location, anywhere in the world.

Occupy Norwich elicited various responses locally, and it seemed everybody saw something different. My response coalesced around a childhood memory.

When I was six or seven years old, I went through a common rite of passage: I got lost in a department store. Bored by shopping, I had wandered off into the labyrinth of fabrics. Unable to see above the clothes rails, all I could make out were a dozen or so disembodied heads bobbing like buoys on a sea of mass-produced clothing. Heads with odd facial expressions: disinterested, sleepy, almost robotic.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand reaching out for me. Figuring it was my mother’s, I instinctively reached for it. The fingers, when I clutched them, were rigid, cold to the touch. I noticed a slit where the hand was screwed to the wrist, the jaundiced hue and dead-smooth texture of the skin. I craned my neck, peered open-mouthed into a mannequin’s life-like fake eyes: two solid moulds of coloured plastic gazing fixedly at a spot a few inches to my right. Looking at me, but not.

Pausing for a moment to look on the oasis-like quietude of Occupy’s camp (less than a hundred yards from the same store's entrance), the memory came to me like some kind of private parable. In the midst of all that shopping shtick, where, in spite of dense crowds, attention is focused on goods and brand-names rather than on other human beings, camp-life felt intimate, human, benign. Exchange was of ideas and opinions, not money and goods. In a continual state of flux, the camp was adapting to its environment, changing shape, becoming something different every moment. Human interaction was genuine and spontaneous, not guided by the forced pleasantries and calculated fakery of barter and exchange.

Call me romantic, but Occupy Norwich seemed to me the most human and innocent of gestures, as simple and profound as a human hand being held out to you. On its own, a slack flap of tarp wasn’t going to solve the world’s problems, but Occupy had at least got me thinking about my immediate environment in a new way. Occupy Norwich drew my attention to something that had been nagging me for a long time but which I had never been made fully conscious.

In spite of the way our ideologically blockaded cultural space encourages us to put ourselves and our own desires first, hindering us from seeing the wider picture, the possibility for us to cultivate mutually supportive, cooperative and socially beneficial relationships with other human beings is always closer than it appears.
Michael Durrant was born in Norwich. After spending time living and working as a bookseller in Wellington, New Zealand, he returned to Norwich and is now a student of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A Living Room for the Community

Last Saturday's Common Room open day at St. Laurence's Church, St. Benedicts Street, was even more well-attended than the first one last November.

For a taste of the day itself, check out this video by Kevin Hunn (the man who brought you the original Transition Norwich Unleashing video in October 2008):
There were more Trade School classes and some great free talks and demonstrations (including creative action for trees, grassroots media and how to make a dry toilet!).

So you could teach or learn or just have cup of tea and meet people. There even arose a spontaneous pop-up "esquina de los hispanoparlantes" (Spanish-speaking corner) - great fun and very good for brushing up this writer's rusty language skills! The whole atmosphere was a wonderful antidote to the cold, grey February day that seemed to have been going on since December.

If you'd like to find out how this "living room for the community" in the centre of the city started up and is continuing to take shape it (AND how you can be part of it), take a look at the website.