Nowhere is it quite so evident how the stories that perpetuate power and money dynamics affect people in our society than within the environs of our cities.
After two weeks in rural Wales and Cumbria the difference in atmosphere, lifestyle and people’s stories as I traverse England’s more urban settlements is stark.
For the past week I have visited cities and their outskirts from Bristol to Gloucester, from Cambridge to places such as Lewes, Guildford and Godalming which, although market towns in their own right, satellite the metropolis of London. Even in the quiet temperate rainforest valley of the Derwent in Derbyshire in the idyllic Whatstandwell there were tales of urban living to be collected from a fellow guest.
I feel a sense of curiosity around just what it is about the coming of the industry that my host Marion McCartney rather delightfully describes a thing that started in these parts …and wouldn’t it be lovely if from these parts also came its demise, that has engendered a wealth of social challenges seemingly quite unlike those to be found in the countryside.
What struck me as I went from place to place, riding on trains, were the underlying undercurrents of people and place. When I began to consider what it was that led to the very different quality of experience in each place it wasn’t long before it became clear that it was connected to Money and how the presence of plenty or a lack had an impact on the sense of wellbeing that pervaded a settlement.
It soon became clear that this feeling was somehow intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the inhabitants and their sense of personal power and ability to act. Where absence of money was not marked there was a sense of deep peace in a place and amongst its people, and challenges soon became projects that were tackled enthusiastically, resulting in raised self-esteem and social bonding; in other words, the very things that Transition promotes.
Where Money was not in such abundance the absence of a sense of wellbeing was noteworthy. Blame, judgement, lack of trust, resentment, feelings of insecurity and disempowerment were palpable, not just in the manner in which people related to one another but in the way they interacted with their environment and their ability to make changes to it and to feel they had any power to have any effect.
I am aware as I write that none of this is in any way new information but I choose to write it as it seems almost as if we don’t really hear the truth of it; that we repeat parrot like that the socially and economically disadvantaged are least likely to effect change or feel they have the power to do so, but that we don’t associate doing anything about this with the need to have everyone on board if we are to make a healthy transition to the future we would like to see.
It is so often said that Transition in many places seems to be an educated, white, middle class occupation and many conversations have happened around how it is we might reach out and include others, and here is the challenge. In order to feel empowered enough to take even a small step towards change; whether it be to our personal circumstances, those of our immediate local environment or indeed to the wider community in which we live, a certain basic set of needs must be met. Many of the groups Transition sets up; food, transport, energy, health and wellbeing, housing and education, are addressing what are, basically, essential human needs, yet many in our society do not have these basic needs well met in this current era of so-called cheap oil. It is here that for me the Transition we all believe in, the power down future with Great Community Happiness as its tenet, replacing GNP, encounters not only its greatest challenge, but also its greatest asset; people power!
It seems to me that addressing the needs of those who have been disadvantaged in our current class system will not only go towards making a more socially just society, creating a widespread sense of wellbeing amongst people and place, but also, in their empowerment, lend many willing heads, hearts and hands to the giant project of transitioning to the kind of future that is resilient and essentially peaceful and harmonious.
Therefore I would like to depart from my usual positive story approach for a little while, to share with you some of the tales I have collected that suggest to me that the real work of Transition groups might well be in addressing the social and economic imbalance that we have for too long taken for granted, thanking our lucky stars that we are not in the unfortunate groups of people who have to struggle against huge odds simply to get their basic needs met.
What I have found in this stage of my latest Transition Tales gathering expedition is that the people and situations that have begged my attention are those that highlight just how blinkered we have allowed ourselves to become; a sorry state of affairs for future thinking beings as we consider ourselves to be, for as every good gardener and builder is aware, the quality of the seed planted, and the strength of the foundations lain, is fundamental to the outcomes we desire.
One of the things I have learnt of on this trip is the latest Government funding; the Green Deal Investment Fund. This scheme offers up to £6000 in grants towards insulation, heating and glazing. How wonderful, I can hear you declare, and upon a cursory glance it is indeed so, and for those who have £2000 in disposable income it is no doubt a great opportunity. For a great many, however, this scheme is completely out of reach and £2000 a lot of money; the kind they may well never have seen in their bank accounts.
It saddens me that the green incentives offered only serve to perpetuate the social inequalities in our society, when doing the right thing environmentally speaking reaps benefits on those with means whilst at the same time widening the gap between them and those who would actually benefit more from being able to have cheaper heating bills and more insulated homes. As things stand, doing the right thing environmentally speaking is a luxury very often only the middle classes and wealthy can afford.
When people talk with fear about possible social unrest in the future as old systems break down I cannot help but wonder why it is that we turn to encouraging those with means to implement green measures when we could be targeting the far larger group of those in most need with grants ensuing a much greater coverage of well insulated homes, leaving those with available disposable income to spend it wisely.
Across the land I encountered the fallout of a society that works for the comfort of the few whilst at best ignoring the plight of those with limited means, at worst bad mouthing the habits and behaviour that grow out of the despair that accompanies low income and low self-esteem.
We have, as a nation, been encouraged to blame one another for the results of a system based upon inequality. When a young man is so bright and intelligent as to question the mediocre teaching of many state schools, when he is bullied for his natural talents and his sensitivities rough trod over, is it such a surprise he turns to drugs for solace and escape? When countless men are ridiculed out of their emotional life into one consisting only of logic and science whilst young it is small wonder they have no empathy for their fellow beings, when we live in a society that equates success with money and power it is inevitable our political systems are corrupt.
Yet all of these are but symptoms and to rile against the discomfort they cause is at best useless and at worst only likely to aggravate the condition more. We are in thrall to an outmoded way of thinking, prisoners in a story that no longer serves us, victims and perpetrators all, and no amount of rescuing will remove the underlying plot that maintains the structure; we simply swop over roles over and over, knowing intuitively that if we don’t keep some down we ourselves could find ourselves in that very position next. The origins of the scapegoat are in the bedrock of this story; so long as one of us is willing to take on the less desirable role in a group, the others do not have to suffer, do not have to play a less agreeable part, and the more disempowered they feel there the more likely they will continue in that role.
It is a no win situation; it is a society of hierarchy, a system where the many sustain the few. If Transition is to be successful in any meaningful way the dominant story of our times needs to change. It simply isn’t necessary to live within a structure that isn’t harmonious. To my mind the one most powerful story Transition could tell is that of equality amidst diversity, and the solutions to the challenge of making that change lie within the way we approach economic and social inequalities. If, for example, rather than taking a government grant for themselves, those with disposable income set up their own grant scheme to enable those with none to have the insulation, heating and glazing benefits first, ensuring those with less means to make a difference have more of their basic needs met and at the same time receive the accolades for having helped make a difference, the very ones who are often looked upon as problems, or pitied, will suddenly become friends, allies, companions along the way. If enough people made this decision and the results positive then the story would already start to change. A chain reaction might ensue; each time those with more being generous to those with less than them until a point is reached where not to support another in this way would be considered to be anti-social behaviour.
Crucially, the challenges faced by those in less fortunate circumstances would be seen in all their graphic detail and become Our problem, a challenge to tackle together, not one to be swept under the carpet, to the less desirable end of town, to the areas where poor conditions are given to those with least self-esteem and money to be able to address them.
The paradox is that though to preserve areas of social wellbeing at the expense of those without the tools to lift themselves out of challenging situations and environments feels a little like turning a blind eye to all we deep down inside know to need our attention, we are sensitive beings and it is to surround ourselves with like-minded souls that will most often give us the strength to make changes, little by little.
Personally as I confront the paradox of my own task within this transition age, picking out and collecting the threads of positive tales from within the vast tapestry of life in our times, I can only honour my inner voice and remember that at the end of the day it is my own inner journey that is the most important.
I can hear the tales of woe that I am told, I can share those tales where I think something might be transformed in the telling of them, and I can ensure that I don’t share them in such a way as to lay blame at anybody’s doorstep, but most of all I need to follow the trail of the coming of the New Age because in the lighting up of that path I can be inspired and, I hope, inspiring to others.
In and amidst the tales of woe and the compassion I felt for individuals whose lives have led them on a journey that has presented such immediate personal and social challenge that there isn’t a scrap of energy remaining at the end of each day to look out on to the earth as a whole, and to be able to offer something towards the bigger picture except that of the gift of sharing their personal story, I was as ever also regaled with the tales of the coming age.
In Bristol, juxtaposed against an older man’s concerns of a mayor’s motives, came the tale from a young man who had discovered through his experience at Embercombe that our society no longer provides rites of passage for our youth. He had been both delighted and transformed by an initiatory journey he had been led upon which culminated in having to find his way home from an unknown place without any money and how much he had learnt about seeking help from others and our interdependence as well as trusting his own instincts and intuition.
This prompted an older lady to talk of the importance of initiation at all stages of life and of how she had ridden her bicycle across India from west to east for Action Aid and of how it had transformed her and of how she had learnt other tales too from the Indians she met, and the lesson that it really only does take one person passionate about a dream to change a whole village by living their dream which encourages others to do the same. One action such as villagers coming together to choose the siting of a new well, or the planting of a different lentil crop that is better suited to the environment can have enormous far reaching effects.
In Gloucester I was delighted to re encounter both my hosts from my pilgrimage in 2010 in Gloucester as well as nearby Newent. Tales old and tales new invigorated the tales. Folk in Newent, as well as continuing to ride their bicycles everywhere, have started up a Transition Supper club where the food group no longer meet in each other’s houses but each month go to a different pub, restaurant or local eatery and request a special menu in advance so that they are served local seasonal and organic fare, meaning the owners and managers both have to source the food locally and discover a new kind of clientele in some cases and what different kinds of dishes they will need to serve if they are to keep their custom.
They also took a group from southern Holland to visit Totnes to inspire them and now report that this town’s group is very active and vibrant and would appreciate a visiting storyteller! They have something to say too about the Nightmare Road from the “Tales of Our Times” that is so difficult to walk along; they are going to create a cycle path along the canal avoiding the road altogether and joining up with other Sustrans routes.
Transition, they were heard to say, is like mychorrihisal fungi; once established it just keeps popping up mushroom like in all the most unexpected places and even when it disappears from place it reappears elsewhere.
From Gloucester I bring the tale that this once proud cathedral city is home to the first ever library in the land. The warden of the Friend’s Meeting House where our storytelling took place took me on my very own guided tour of the Blackfriars’ area, now owned by English Heritage and sadly barely open to the public, to see this ancient building. We talk as we walk about disempowerment and how the everyday folk of this city have lost their connection to their roots and I wonder what it was that happened here to make that happen.
The tales collected here however are touching; there is the huge roll of knitting for peace that has been knitted into blanket size squares and stitched together and which will stretch for miles when joined up with the patches made by knitters the land over as a plea for world peace before being sent, squares unstitched to places across the world where the blankets will be appreciated.
An ex city councillor tells the sad tale of the oak tree she and fellow residents fought hard to save from developers and failed. After a long battle the tree was felled and she had the three large pieces saved and carved and made into benches and tables and a sculpture to mark its memory and now there is a tradition to always make carvings from any trees felled.
From an employee of a large energy company comes the inspiring tale of the firm’s allotments which were established on the site in the sixties. Every lunchtime she goes out to hers and plants or weeds and returns back indoors refreshed and replenished; such a wonderful idea worth replicating and a reminder of the marvellous things that have always existed in some places.
From Tor comes the tale she has heard about but cannot say from where only that it must be shared for it is a good one worth replicating; that people volunteer to help the elderly , paying it forward so that they too will be cared for as they get old reinstating the old ways where all the elderly were always taken care of by people who cared.
Sara, my host for the night takes me to see her herb garden. It is getting too much for just one person and she is eager for volunteers to help support this beautiful patch that grows lavender, lemon balm, tarragon, sage and thyme in profusion. If you are local to the area and would like to spend a few hours a week working in this little patch of paradise or want to go along and wwwoof there is a lovely treehouse dwelling on offer in exchange for work contact Sara.
From Sara the tale of paradox returns and how to marry the two sides we all too often have within; how to recreate the sense of community she loved so much in Spain here in her little corner of England where her family roots are. Perhaps, we muse, to take volunteers to live with her and work on the herb garden might begin to make this dream come true and I look forward one day to returning to Gloucester by means of the new cycle path to be to visit the new community of herb producers to be.
I catch the bus and am enamoured by the sheer friendliness of the female driver. It lights up my journey so that I arrive beaming at the train station, seconds to spare, and say cheerfully to the guard that I can’t walk any faster with my heavy pack and receive a glare fit to kill in return. My heart sinks as the impact of his response finds its way through. As I sit on the train I reflect on the impact our choice of response has on our fellow beings and the choice we have each and every day to treat others with love, kindness and compassion and make a difference to the world we live in.
Next stop for me is Cambridge and the difference quite marked. Here a deep sense of peace pervades the air and though it be a city is has the sound of silence often found within ancient woodlands and churches. Here the vibrant Transition group are full of the many things they are involved with from their big 5th birthday party where they had a skillfest, children’s activities, a popup café and cinema and dancing in the evening. Their very exciting news is that Labour, who have just been elected locally, have, as part of their manifesto, declared that one of their intentions is to work with Transition. Needless to say the group are thrilled; they haven’t approached any political parties.
They were also excited to tell about a recent Repair Café event where many things were taken and fixed and Anna McIvor, my host, learnt from an elderly lady along with three others how to remove and replace a zip from a leather jacket with minutes to spare for the occupant to run and catch his train and Crop Share a CSA run in conjunction with Waterland Organics. New community gardens are springing up everywhere including a new one in Romsey.
I go with Anna to learn to make bunting at a skill share organised by their sister organisation Zero Carbon with whom they often share events, talking it in turn to support one another. Here I learn, with 4 young girls, how to use a sewing machine, whilst others make raspberry jam from the fruit picked at the community allotments and some repair broken machines and others make seed disposal units (known to most as seed bombs, tightly packed balls of earth and seeds)
I spend another day hosted by artist Rhea Quien and meet her 100 year old father and hear many tales about a life well lived in many lands of the world as well as what a blessing it is to have him live with her and how she has received so much support from the local community and learnt how to welcome it. I learn of synesthesia (one of the many abilities we are all born with but soon lose) and of the new exciting Dance of Light project and its soon to be released inspiring website where international tales of positivity are being collected, including the one from Cambridge itself where a community garden has been established especially for the homeless to learn to grow food and to be able to pick and eat it.
To add to these tales come those from the storytelling event in Whatstandwell where a diverse group of non transitioners shared their inspirational tales from the Time Bank scheme in Dumfries; the first Scottish tale I have shared, to the wonderful memorial fund set up for my teller’s father who loved young people and gardening and nature so each year a competition is held between local primary schools and one year they had to design the perfect community garden and the winners got money to make it happen and how this year it was to design an eco- village and a tiny Scottish village school (with just 2 students, for in Scotland a school cannot be closed if there are children who need it) who won it for the 2 girls were just so enthusiastic in describing the model they had made.
There was too the American newly moved to the area who sought to bring together his two passions of activism and yoga and now runs retreats for activists where they can unwind and learn to relax, and then the pleasure of meeting Chrissy who was the very one who planted the sweet chestnut in the forest garden in Derby that those of you who have heard me tell tales of my long walk around transition towns will know so inspired me with their dream of having a forest garden in every school in Derby.
Marion’s collecting of future dreams around the festivals of the land and all the other places where she finds young people, and her adopting of nieces and nephews as she goes offering much needed support to young people are inspirational Transition Tales, as is the one of Belper Goes Green, the local environmental festival and the nearby eco cabin community not so very far from Leicester’s Bradgate park which is off grid, and then there is the tale of the man, a storyteller of local traditional tales, with a large garden who hated gardening so he got a young man to help him who didn’t have any qualifications and yet as he got to know him he discovered he was a great inventor and that he had an idea for how to aerate polytunnels so they produce more and how he arranged to have him get on the right courses to help him learn the skills to become an entrepreneur so he could make his polytunnel design available.
In Lewes I return to Zu Studios where staunch Transitioner Adrienne Campbell had first taken me and we were inspired by the quirky success artists had had with transforming an old disused factory on the industrial estate into a place for artists to work and in which to hold community events. It is lovely to see the place again and to see it looking even more vibrant. There is to be an allnight Midsummer party and I am told I can have a slot to storytell at 3am… Sadly I am not an all night sort of person and am fast asleep long before that time. I do get to meet Tony the oral storyteller though, who takes me to the town’s public outdoor pool which is fed by a fresh water spring, maybe the oldest public pool still open to the public. As we leave families are arriving with picnics for a party.
In Guildford, where one hopeful man had hoped to encourage some more community engagement, the storytelling publicity drew no people, but copies of the Transition Free Press were left at the coffee house to give out to customers and the young man left in charge was interested to hear that Transition is more than simply the concept he thought it was and suggests I come back another time, perhaps during the day when there is a captive audience.
My host receives his copy of Tales of Our Times, and in return presents me with a special edition copy of “The Alchemist” signed and dedicated to me by its author, Paulo Coelho;
“Follow your dreams.”
As we explore nearby Godalming the next morning the paradox of our times is evident once more; in an old street full of historic buildings a suited man who could have only been a politician strides slowly, speaking into the camera that precedes him, slow deliberate tones, without a trace of the authentic man to be heard. In the High Street a tailor sits at the upstairs window of his Tailor’s Shop, sewing on his machine as he watches the world go by just as his ancestors must have done from this very window.
It seems that wherever we are, the two sides of the coin will always be present; it is where we place our attention in each moment which makes all the difference. We can choose to celebrate that which is good at the same time as offering support where we can see it making a difference.