In the morning whilst I answer endless e mails Rian and Louise make delicious healthy truffles and Rian makes sure Louise writes the recipe down for me to share with others. (Post a comment if you’d like the date, cocoa, grated apple and cardamom recipe). His gestures of how the action will replicate across the land from person to person are timeless and touching. From the mouths of babes, we have always said, so why do we allow the old and cynical to govern us?
I hear about the first event of Saltash’s fortnight of unleashing activities; walking or cycling into the old port over the Tamar bridge from Devon, over 100 people turned out, all wearing green. On the way to the Big Society public meeting in Plymouth I walk along Saltash’s Fore Street and see the planters, normally filled with flowers, each with their own herb or vegetable planted in the centre; sage, mint, beetroot, lettuce.
Louise tells me there are plans to be more adventurous next year; it certainly would be nice to see them planed solely with veg, I have always found town centre planters of flowers rather meaningless and dull.
I admire a shop window display, full of transition posters, hessian bags saying no to plastic, and an advert for a barter evening coming up, along with its local and fairly traded items of art, and I take a photo and the owners comes out to meet me, relief and joy in their voices as they describe how it is after some 20 years of trying to make a difference to finally see people making the shift. The shop is called “Ethical Living” and their strap line is
“Your purchase has made a difference”
I attend the Big Society meeting in the government house in Plymouth and leave with the first headache I have had in 6 months. It is sad to be a room with so many people operating only with their heads, no heart to be felt anywhere. It is, however, great to hear from the 35 different community groups represented (including my fellow TTT –er Jacqi Hodgson, author of Totnes’ EDP) that the message from us all is the same; that it is not sustainable to have volunteers working without funding, nor the obstacles put between the voluntary sector and funding in the form of endless amounts of beaurocracy resulting in volunteers not being able to do what it is they are volunteering for but rather filling in forms, constantly completing reports, and chasing new pots of money in order to prevent their projects from having to close mid way through. This, and the request to acknowledge what is working already and not to reinvent the wheel are the messages that are sent back to the government.
There is concern raised that the Big Society idea to train up 5000 community organisers who will then not be paid for the work they do will not be successful for those organisers will need to spend time finding money on which to survive themselves rather than working to promote the community work.
For all the assurances that our feedback will feed into the government’s policy making, it seems that the Big Society will go ahead anyway, and I wish that my constant faith in the ability of people to work for the good of all would sometime take a reality check when dealing with politicians; after all in South America they are a laughing stock, everyone there knows that most politicians act out of self interest and very few are capable of coming down off their high horses and realising that the solutions to society’s challenges lie with listening to the people who live in that society, and not just some of the people, but all of them, in order to get a full and complete picture. Big Society is simply waiting for the results of the government’s spending review, out on the 20th October, and then the project, already being piloted in Maidenhead, Liverpool, Windsor and one more settlement, will get underway in April 2012.
I hear the concern of many of the people present, that a quarter of the jobs in Devon and Cornwall are government posts and the knock on effect this will have, as well as concern for many of their own jobs in the voluntary sector being axed in the cuts to come. I am shocked by the shortsighted decision making that has gone on which has allowed the government to be employing people it didn’t have the funds for. It seems that not only has our entire society been encouraged to get into debt, from the hire purchase on TV sets to the large scale getting of mortgages, but our very governance has been run on the same principles. It is mind boggling to imagine that any intelligent person could have thought it at all sustainable to do anything based on debt. Surely land reform has always been the only solution to the challenges faced. What is this fear of upsetting big landowners all about?
On the train back to Saltash for the transition event I meet with Ben Brangwyn who will also speak. I hear a few of the tales of back home, of the TRESOC ( Totnes’ local energy group) public meeting, which does not seem to have been wholly satisfactory due to the overwhelming presence of one man, who didn’t appear to understand that other people have voices too, and of the new transition initiative support role which I express my interest in; it is where my interest lies, and I already have several engagements to go and speak at initiatives I did not get to visit on this journey, as well as a return call on Sheffield where I am to speak for Transition at a diocese called gathering at the cathedral for a thinking through of how Sheffield can engage with the future.
We have supper with Louise and walk to the community centre under Brunel’s 1859 rail bridge where several people are already waiting. We have an anxious moment when the combination lock will not open and stand around socialising in our picturesque surroundings on the banks of the Tamar, in the old port area, still vibrant and full of boats.
The gate is eventually gained and we go in and sit to tell tales and some 30 people are there including 2 from the brand new Transition Millbrook group and 2 from Transition Plymouth. New people who have never been before sign up to be informed of future Transition Saltash (SEA) activities.
I leave the Transition Liskeard gift, the wooden zebra, and tell the tale of the messages it holds; of the workers’ cooperative that a group of trainers there have formed, where they have consensus decision making and equal pay. I talk too of the symbology of the zebra – every individual in a group counts and is needed for their own unique gifts, and all opinions, whether black or white, count; they are simply seeing things from a different perspective, and it feels like a lovely message to share.
Louise has presented me with a gift of pink fir apples grown in the nearby Lyhner valley, to take on with me and we tell the gathered folk about them; they are not apples at all, but potatoes and Louise promises to keep some back to plant in next year’s Fore Street planters so that everyone will know what the early introduced variety (1850) are.
I hear about how the veg and herb planters came about from Ruth and how they asked the council if they could, and they said they didn’t think it was a good idea, so they ignored that meeting, and asked if they could go to the council meeting and they said yes, and they asked again about the planters and this time they said yes, so then they went to ask the gardener, and the nursery, and they all said it was a terrible idea, but they went ahead and bought the seeds anyway, and planted them, and they grew, and they had parsley, sage, carrots, beetroot, lettuce, mint, and cabbage all in and amongst the usual flowers.
Now everyone loves the idea and the gardener is all keen to know what they are going to plant next year, and it has become the talking point of the town, and they had a competition to guess what the things growing were and no one got more than half right so next year they hope folk will do better. The whole project looks great, has the support of everybody, and is such a simple idea, well worth replicating.
The mayoress was given a fresh bunch of herbs in a bouquet at the start of the festival, and one lot of harvesting has happened already. People in the town have been told to pick any herbs they want.
We hear too the tale of the music in the streets inspired by the people’s love of visits to Totnes, so they decided to take the ideas seen there and make their town more like Totnes and so they got funding and they pay musicians every two weeks or so to play on Fore Street and they put out chairs for people and they sing and dance and an elderly gentleman even said he had jived and everyone was bubbling over with the enthusiasm of the fun they had had.
There was more coming too; at the late night shopping event coming up on the 17th where they hope to encourage local trade by staying open later to encourage workers on a Friday night to shop local. A few days ago a Free Boot happened, where things were taken along to the car park just by the old church where in times gone by trading must have always happened, to exchange for free. These two events are part of the two weeks of Transition Saltash festival .
We learn too of how SEA (Saltash Environmental Action), now an official transition town, began, inspired by Rebecca Hosking’s Modbury first town to become plastic bag free, when they started their own free Saltash of plastic bag project here, and the rest; starting with film showing and discussions grew from there some 2 years ago.
Later Ruth talks about the arts focus the group consider important to help spread the word and the artist who produced the festival postcard, and then there was the tale of the flags that Ruth and Godfrey had gone to loads of trouble to source flag poles for only to discover then when those who had made the beautiful flags tried to hang them outside the participating shops they wouldn’t stay flying but wrapped themselves into tight green bundles on sticks. At the storytelling they have met Leigh, an artist with flag hanging skills who explains how horizontal sticks at the top and bottom of a flag that will be flown are needed as support and offers to come along and help on the finale event, the community picnic by the river, to mount the flags around the riverside location so that they can be properly admired. It is so beautifully in the spirit of transition that someone with just the right skills comes along after a challenge has been met, and delights everyone with yet an another example of how not only can we not get there alone, only if we work together, but that everyone person has a skill to offer and all are needed and valued.
I talk to Janice Lyons and Di Stewart of Transition Plymouth and am heartened to know they are still working hard to get Transition to happen and Janice talks with enthusiasm of how much fun she had on her birthday 2 year ago when her son brought her to Totnes to play the Quest, the interactive community game Transition Tales developed, and asks if I’d come to Plymouth to play it with them and we talk about an early December date.
Di and I talk about the need to honour what Plymouth has gone through, blitzed in the war, and the uncomfortable new architecture so out of keeping with the remains of the old town. I hear of how sad they feel in Plymouth that people in Totnes don’t like their city and won’t come and I realise in that moment how much Plymouth is our neighbour and how much they would like to be recognised and loved, and Di tells me about how not only was the central church ruin that sits now in the centre of a traffic roundabout still surrounded by rubble from the war when she was small, but also how at that time there was still an old street remaining leading off from it, which was demolished to make way for a shopping centre, which in turn was demolished to make way for the new ugly shopping mall which looks as if it mimics the buildings falling down in the blitz.
I begin to wonder if the architect that designed that mall was actually picking up on the feelings around the devastation of the war and not able to go deeper to find the roots of the city below that, and I recall the day when my own perceptions of Plymouth shifted from feeling uncomfortable there to experiencing real sadness and pain for the city when I came to the war memorial and felt the reality of what the second world war did to this city and how now I always seek out the few old buildings that still stand look at them and feel their presence, and the grief for the buildings and lives that were lost, a whole set of tradition and heritage wiped out within a few short years, and know that I now feel love for this city and want to shun it no more but honour its suffering and be part of the process of bringing its heart back to life.
How often it is a town suffers through the poor vision of an architect, I wonder how often the voice of the people is really heard and how often it is the architect wanting to impose their ideas on a town they do not deeply understand and love. In our times I believe there is a challenge to be met not to accept the art of others to represent feelings about things, but to allow our own art to develop, and all of our feelings be expressed.
Di asks about Transition Southampton and I am struck by this, for during my storytelling I had found myself thinking about Plymouth as I was describing Southampton and how similar the two cities are and promise to put Di in contact with the Southampton group so they can support one another and share ideas and experiences.
The sense of neighbourliness I feel for Saltash and Plymouth suddenly wells up quite strongly in me and I become aware of the kinship between settlements that are close by one another and look forward to enjoying the ongoing support and cooperation between these places as the years go by. I recall others in transition towns I have visited in Cornwall all devoting sometime to working in Plymouth and supporting the city and I find it interesting that this care comes from Cornwall though it is in Devon and begin to get quite a strong sense of the need to look outwards to our neighbours as well as inwards to our own towns, and though the Tamar forms a very obvious geographical border somehow rivers create kinship between their settlements too.
Louise and I walk home accompanied part of the way by Ruth and Godfrey and I hear a bit about the other members of the group that couldn’t be there tonight, including the mayor who is also the chairman of Transition Saltash, only 29 years old, dynamic and full of enthusiasm, though stepping down from chairing to be a simple member of the group in December and they are concerned about who will feel they can step up to this role and I suggest they rotate the role around them and they like the idea of different people bringing their different skills and strengths to it.
And so in the morning I will be taking my leave of this ancient port and vibrant community to walk onwards, back to my home county; Devon, though if the partnerships Big Society are advocating come about Saltash could end up in a LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) as part of Devon. Saltash has had to defer to various administrative centres over recent years as governments’ change their minds over and over about where administrative borders lie; from Truro, to St Austell, to Bodmin. How would it be if we were to stop thinking in terms of time and money as resources, and start remembering that they are artificial constructs, and take notice of real geographical features as useful ways of defining our areas of governance?
But as I prepare to leave, it is the people of Saltash I am thinking of; I wish them luck with the rest of their festivities that began on the 10th and go on till the 26th and if you live close by its well worth paying them a visit; there are things happening every day; the programme, which can be found on their website here www.sea.pl12.org.uk , includes a stitch up make and mend event tomorrow evening in the pub, and a recycled fashion show in the evening of the 23rd with eco comedian and author Tracy Smith as compere. And if you want to see those green bundles unfurl go along to the picnic by the river on the 26th…