Storyteller Steph Bradley on ‘Tales of our Times’, red flipflops and “stuff”
By rob hopkins 9th December 2013
What’s it like to set off, shod only in a pair of flip-flops, with only as much “stuff” as you can fit in a rucksack, to spend months walking the land in search of Tales of Transition? In 2010, through wind and rain, sun and sleet, Steph Bradley journeyed forth, and she has now gathered the experience into a new book called ‘Tales of our Times’ (support her crowdfunding appeal here). A book given physical form by artists, bookbinders, printers, and even felters. We caught up with Steph to find out more:
So Steph, you set off around England, visiting Transition groups, to gather and tell stories. Can you tell us how this walk came about?
Well, whilst I was working with Transition Network from 2008 -2010, I became very inspired by the stories pouring in on a daily basis from people all over the country, having fun, doing Transition. I’d been down to visit my parents for a weekend and quite literally had a dream in the middle of the night that mapped out the whole journey for me. The dream was very precise; to hear the stories for myself by walking from initiative to initiative, visiting a wide range of settlement types, and talking to different groups of people at different stages of Transition.
Once I’d collected the stories they were to be written up in such a way as to inspire people of all walks of life all across the world.
What was the over-riding impression you came back with?
That what people love, more than anything else, once their basic needs have been met, is to be of service to something greater than themselves. I discovered they are happiest when given opportunities to be generous, spread abundance evenly, and to work towards creating meaningful changes in situations and environments to which they have developed a connection. They feel most empowered and thrilled to do this when they have a sense of having, or being able to access, the skills and resources (both inner and outer) to be able to act effectively.
What were the main challenges you had to overcome during the journey?
It was a journey of few challenges, to be honest. There is something timeless and simple about walking with hedgerows as your companion each day. It is a very powerful experience and the challenges of everyday life fade into insignificance very quickly. I can remember a few occasions when I had to work hard at remaining in the moment with my walk though; mud, when a foot deep, is definitely a challenge for flip flopped feet (it only happened once; I soon learnt to avoid heavily trampled paths), and cows, inquisitive souls that they are, frightened the life out of me, on occasion.
They may be gentle in nature, but in physique they can be plain insensitive and clumsy, and they are bigger than us! Poor transport planning was probably the most challenging aspect of the walk. Leaving Leicester city centre on foot is not an experience I would care to repeat. I think the final thing that did have an impact on me was lack of contact with like-minded people in the stretches I walked where I had not identified a Transition, or similar group, to present their views of the area.
What did you take with you?
I carried one small green rucksack with a change of clothes; waterproof trousers, a netbook for writing up my blogs, a tin of Lush nettle all purpose soap, (it’s amazing for showers, hair, and clothes washing). I also wore a bumbag with my second hand blackberry, a pen, hankerchief, purse, & notepaper inside. I was lent a wind shirt, (an incredible 100g light windproof top that fits into a bag the size of a fist), and a pair of walking sticks, given a whistle, and bought one pair of knee length rainbow coloured socks along the way, because they reminded me of someone. I wore everything else, layering up skirts and tops when it was chilly and keeping the extras in my rucksack when it was hot. I walked in a pair of flip flops, and had a spare pair in case of emergency, along with a pack of sorboskin blister plasters.
Our theme on the website this month is ‘stuff’. How did living for months with just what you could carry on your back affect your relationship with “stuff”?
It’s funny, I was just talking about this the other day. I found walking with everything I needed to be a very freeing experience. It made me really hone down what I could comfortably carry. It was very satisfying learning how little I needed and I loved not having the pressure of buying “stuff”. It was liberating to walk around town centres observing rather than being drawn by the consumer magnet.
It changed my way of approaching shops for good. I now go out with very clear ideas of exactly what I am looking for and I search for that; nothing else distacts me. If there is something unusual and worth my while, I can identify it, rather than being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “stuff” on offer.
One of my favourite games if I am in a town centre nowadays is to count how many kinds of chain stores I no longer have any need for and would not miss if they simply disappeared overnight.
You’ve just published your reflections on the journey, ‘Tales of our Times’. How was the process of creating the book, and what are your hopes for it now?
Publishing “Tales of Our Times” has been a journey in itself. From the decision to self-publish to ensure the use of local artisans, and retain control over presentation, design, content, and materials, to actually having 200 books to sell, took 6 months. I learnt so much; I wrote about the process of printing a book in my blog “A visit to the Bookmakers”. The real learning, though, came in the first hand experience of understanding the true, and often hidden, cost involved in creating anything; the creatives’ (writer, illustrator, cover designer) and the artisans’ (printers, stitchers and binders) time coming in as an-also-ran as the cost of materials and any associated costs pushed the cost of producing the book up into the sorts of figures that immediately put its purchase out of reach for many.
The finished book has been described as a real treasure and a modern classic. To quote NEF’s Perry Walker:
“The book is a delight, a work of art, and a pleasure to hold and to browse.”
My ambition for the book is to see a copy in every Transition Initiative, to inspire new ideas, to re-awaken those feeling bogged down in challenging situations, and to remind every Transitionista everywhere that they are a Hero of Our Times; a living part of our history, which is why I have chosen to retain what is essentially an oral rendition of the tales as the style of the book.
What is the role of storytelling for Transition do you think? What does it bring that other approaches can’t?
Without doubt, for me, Transition is all about storytelling. Not only are we creating new stories for a paradigm shift, but also remembering the old stories, passed down to help us to retain connection with our roots.
Oral storytelling has always been the most effective way of ensuring certain essential truths are passed down through the ages. What I discovered as I walked and shared stories from one initiative to another was that people were not only enchanted by the folktale rendering of the stories, they were remembering them in a way that is often not possible when presented with a set of facts and figures, graphs and charts. For many, often those with more dominant right brain activity, the stories were able to teach things a powerpoint presentation or a report could not.
For me, one of the reasons for Transition’s worldwide appeal is the positive ‘it’s- fun- and- everyone-can-be-a–hero’ message. Capturing this element of Transition is something that storytelling can do as effortlessly as people are discovering it is to make Transition projects begin to happen when they are passionate about them.
From seeing Transition in so many different places, what’s your sense of why it matters, what it brings, what people get from it?
Without doubt, Transition empowers people. It’s a creature of its time. As old structures show their cracks, and fear and apprehension about the future rear their heads, the idea that anyone can make the changes we all want to see, sets us free from the bondage of the hierarchical system we have lived as part of for so long. It’s a collaborative process being created as we go along. It challenges out moded ways, questions deeply held beliefs, and offers opportunities for everyone to shape the future, together. It aims to ensure no one’s voices are left unheard, and that we take with us into the future everybody’s skills and resources in such a way that all feel they can serve their community in a meaningful way.
People are enlivened by the process of working together towards needs meeting goals that are personally satisfying, as well as life enhancing for their communities, for the global community, and potentially paradigm shifting.
What’s next for you?
Well, I have 180 beautiful limited edition hardback books left to sell, and I am writing my next book. It will be a paperback version of the tales. I am in discussion with the publishing cooperative Vala in Bristol, and am also going to be crowdfunding its production. I feel strongly that my walking project will not be complete until the paperback book is widely available.
So why go for the limited edition when there is a paperback version coming out?
The hard back book which is already available from my website and from Arcturus bookshop in Totnes, has been written in honour of all those Transitioners who were active in and before 2010; a lasting testament to their work, something to share with their grandchildren. Every person who I came into contact with on that walk is mentioned, many with a story character name, and with all the people and groups listed in the comprehensive thanks pages, and handy information boxes that pop up here and there throughout the folktale telling pages, it also serves as a valuable resource for those new to, and/or researching Transition. To this end one copy has already gone winging its way across the ocean to inspire the good folk of Transition Vermont, and another is in the hands of a PhD researcher from the University of London.
The paperback, though it will take the “Tales of Our Times” as its structural backbone, will be altogether a different book. Its aim is to fulfil the last directive of my dream; to spread the tale of Transition across all walks of life and in all directions, reaching people who might otherwise never consider picking up a book which they might perceive as having a green agenda. It will be much shorter, have a tighter novel like storyline, be multifacted in the layers of meaning that can be understood, and designed to be picked up and enjoyed as simply a good read; an antidote to what Sarah Bird of Vala Publishing describes as ‘that perennial problem of only preaching to the converted.’
Lastly, how can Transitioners support this project?
[Here is the video from Steph’s recent book launch event in Rattery Village Hall]
All proceeds from sales of the hardback book, once the costs I incurred during publication have been met, will go towards funding the writing process of the new book. I am passionate about making this dream come true, and am believing in the possibility of receiving the support I need to make it happen. For anyone who feels they are in a position of being able to offer some of this support, I have set up various payment choices on my website ranging from sponsoring me a one off or regular amount, buying their copy of the limited editon collection of all the tales, to investing in a £2 raffle ticket for a draw to be held at my next storytelling event in Totnes on the 18th December.
Also for those who would like to hear me perform my tales in their area, I am planning a storytelling tour for early next summer. I will raffle a book at each venue. I can be contacted on email@example.com.