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City living 2: North eastern cities. Being tales of Sheffield and Edinburgh 18-22nd November 2010

 Before the Christmas holidays  I was lucky enough to be invited to two very different cities; Sheffield, city of steel, nestling amongst 7 hills and 5 river valleys, the Don, Loxley, Rivelin, Porter and the Sheaf, and Edinburgh, capital city of Scotland, perched on the side of the remains of an ancient volcano.

 Nestling Amongst 7 Hills and 5 Rivers

I come to Sheffield, and as the train passes through Derby, Chesterfield, and approaches Sheffield I reread my blog, relive those days when I walked between these places. It’s an odd sort of feeling; I walked for 3 months to get home after visiting Sheffield and have been transported back in just over 4 hours by train.

Forest gardens in primary school playing fields, crooked spire overlooking bustling market place, being met by new friends, having a picnic at the site of a new CSA, getting glimpses of a city regenerating itself finally after the lethargy imposing post war devastation, and now I am back, to speak at the Cathedral Lectures, an impressive array of inspirational speakers brought to the city by Sheffield Climate Action Group, to speak at the Plan 2050.

I am met at Sheffield station by the Rev. Michael Bayley, retired academic, & climate activist, and as we begin our walk to the cathedral, through the new Sheaf Square with its impressive monument to steel, a wall of shiny metal with water flowing over it; surreal waterfall, I hear the tales of Sheffield city and its recent history.

“Not made locally” comments Michael, admitting the incongruity of the work of art constructed from steel to represent the bedrock of the city’s wealth; made, he thinks, in Asia. The paradox of this situation is jarring; the ideal behind the impressive work of art is beautiful, the economics that made it happen very clearly a statement of a shift in values. From local work skills to cheapest. When did this subtle but pervasive shift occur?

On our left more traditional fountains play, but even these extravagant in their scope with streams of water flowing over the surfaces between the fountains; a veritable water playground.

Up through the city centre we walk; Michael pointing out the city’s treasures, from market town to green city, one of our largest, wealth built on iron ore, metal makers, and knife crafters. Sheffield, nestling amongst its seven hills, fed by the Don, the Loxley, Rivelin, Porter, and Sheaf, is a student city too and we see a large metal dome, now home to the student’s union, previously a centre for popular music and abandoned, looks as if it has been lifted complete out of the centre of some far off distant alien planet and yet somehow, at the same time, it works, and doesn’t manage to look out of place amongst its Georgian & Victorian neighbours.

For there is more to Sheffield than these new post modern space age designs; its roots are visible too in the backdrop of tall green hills stretching across the horizon, and in the sturdy Victorian council buildings, and the magnificent cathedral that is our destination.

 There is something very warm and magnetizing about the love of place exhibited by inhabitants of this ancient British city. They are proud of its achievements and perhaps justifiably so, there is a bold magnificence about its monumental buildings, regardless of their age.  

As we progress along wide city streets to gain the cathedral the buildings are tall, sturdy, solid, capable of withstanding earthquakes, and elegant in style. I have a sense of being a tourist in some far off distant foreign city, and I like it.

We eat in the Blue Moon, vegetarian cafe at the side of the cathedral. We meet members of the climate action group and of transition, who have formed a strong bond of friendship perhaps through the joint patronage of Jenny Patient, whom I am delighted to see again. Michael captures our rapt attention as he reminisces about his arrival in Sheffield some 40 years ago with his wife, and their handing over of £3000 to the estate agents in this very room; at the time feeling this was an enormous amount of money to be investing in one thing, the home they were buying. We take in the shock of how prices have risen beyond all sense and at the same time accept it as normal. Now the building is a very atmospheric wooden floored student type establishment serving excellent home cooked vegetarian and vegan food. Times change, functions change, and how easy it is to forget that in our clinging to the comfort of familiarity.

We enter the cathedral and find our room; it has a screen at one end and rows of chairs facing it. Along the back wall people are setting up stands to represent some of the cities’ various environmental groups. Our concern is the projector and if we can get it to work. Eventually our cathedral buddy shows up and gets everything working and checks the internet connection.

We start by watching the inspirational “Power of Community”, (http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php ) and yet again I am moved by Roberto Perez’s almost childlike infectious enthusiasm. His cheerful and inspiring slots just get better with each viewing; even his honest description of how very heartedly sick of the unyielding poor suspension government bought Chinese bicycles they all became, only serve to make the situation and the solutions they found all the more real and attainable.

Then the floor is mine and I start by drawing parallels between Cuba’s experience and the aims of Transition

-          Work together collaboratively

-          Create community resilience and well being

-           Enthusiasm in facing challenge

My slot is the last in this year’s series of Lectures on the Plan 2050; The Economy; Servant or Tyrant (http://beyondgrowth.co.uk/2010/09/26/the-plan-2050-lectures-sheffield ) and I am to follow NEF’s Saamah Abdallah talking about the move to “A No Growth Society”, and  Tariq El Diwany & Bishop Peter Selby giving different faith perspectives on a Truly Human Economy. There has been a progression from outlining the broader major issues of climate change and peak oil in last year’s lectures, to the more specific solution based talks this year. Transition is the final slot, offering the on the ground solutions to the task we all face. My brief; to inspire the people of Sheffield to get involved in doing something tangible to help bring about the changes we need to see.

I have arrived with two very different talks; the first, to match my unusually smart attire, a formal talk prefaced by a lovely 4 min clip of Rob talking about transition (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDf9Ef9pOec), made by the Ted talks to introduce his talk for them last year, and the second, a tale, of course. By the time I am standing up before the rows of people with all eyes expectantly on me, I still haven’t decided which talk to give. My head suggests the talk, though my heart knows better, but I am here to give a lecture so I introduce myself and by way of introducing Rob turn to the laptop to bring up the clip I have carefully cued. Nothing. A blank white screen stares out blindly at the audience. The internet has gone down. One can always trust technology to be absolutely unreliable, this is a fact I have known throughout my professional career, yet still, the wonders of it when it obliges compel and encourage its use.

I can’t help thinking in this case though that it was colluding, collaborating perhaps, with my heartfelt knowing that what was needed here was the courage to step myself and these people out of the box.

I am on my own.

For a few short seconds I balance the presentation and the storytelling style of speaking; I look out over the sea of faces, as they sit in their rows, unknown, to me, and to one another, and something in me relaxes, feels for those isolated pods of humanity and I say

“Turn to your neighbour and introduce yourselves, share one thing about yourself”

And the floodgates are open, the 2 minutes I give turn to 3 or 4 as I observe the melting of barriers, the sense of community, the relief, the innate longing to connect burgeoning out into the space. I watch with delight as the rows blur their edges and become simply people, engaging with one another. A smile stretches across my face and I raise my arms in the air to call for the focus to return to the front again. These people deserve a tale.

I tell the tales of my walk with as much enthusiasm as ever; it feels as though this story is not mine at all, but simply a story waiting, no demanding, to be told. It lives, vibrantly, slightly different in every telling and as Daniel Doring, Professor of Human Geography at Sheffield University, chair for the evening gives me a ten minute then 5 minute hand signal the tale finds its natural ending and I marvel at how it is flexible, knows its way, be it a ten minute, 40 minute, or hour long telling. A tale for every occasion; I feel as though I have been given the most versatile of tools, a living entity that can be flexible and work with me within the environment we found ourselves in.

 I spun my yarn, the tale of the walk around England, for this audience in Sheffield, and out of its mixed threads of story came just the tales that were right for this audience, this time, and tales of the cities I had walked to, Lancaster, London, Cambridge, came eagerly out for sharing. Best of all the telling of Transition Sheffield Heather’s courageous leap into the unknown and engaging with the Muslim women in her neighbourhood, and the unexpected twist as they were unable to help her in her Zero Carbon Cabaret due to a death on their street where everyone stopped to prepare for the funeral, but did invite her to participate in their next event; a sponsored walk up Ben Nevis to raise funds for a school to educate the young girls back home in their country, and the recognition that no transition can happen without an acknowledgement of each and every person’s wisdom to know exactly what is needed next, to ensure the world we create is balanced, and equal.

I told my tale, and watched in delight as men in suits gradually melted and their eyes lit up with the magic of story. At the end we had questions and answers and I noticed that my fear of talking transition in this context had vanished with the realisation that I didn’t have to deliver in any expected way, the way a facts and figures type of speaker might have responded, all I had to do was to be me, and respond from my experience. The question that has stayed with me, warmed my heart, and shown me that we must always speak to all people’s wisdom, and make no judgements on whatever the language or tone used, is the woman from Doncaster who said she had come out of curiosity, her friends said she was mad to come and see what Transition was up to, but she wanted to know.

She was frustrated, this woman from Doncaster, how could we wake people up, shake them from their apathy, make the government do something hard line, and pass a law or three forcing the unemployed to grow food and work for their money. Yet through the anger the woman had heart, she cared, she cared deeply, and the response from the room was of overwhelming support for her underlying ideals; the transitioners present could hear that though she was presenting her solution in the manner to which we have been made accustomed, to wait for “them” to do something to make “them” be good, her basic idea was a good one; she had recognised a need, and a group of people with time to make it happen.

At the end of the session a small group of people had gathered around her to tell her of the fledgling initiative starting not so very far away from where she lived, and later, in the group gathered around me to ask more questions, or to further discussions, we talked of this courageous lady who had by this time left, who had stepped out of her class, out of her comfort zone, to come and be curious, to follow her heart’s truth. The two or three who had stood up in the questions and answers to ask how we in transition engage the working classes were there, excitedly bubbling about the woman and promising to get stories to me of how the fledgling Bentley group, in Doncaster, were doing in their endeavours.

How glad I was that I had chosen the language I had, the universal language; the language of story. We never know who is going to be sitting in our audience, and I am sure many of us have had the experience of feeling alienated by a language we didn’t fully comprehend. In the act of telling story all barriers are crossed; when I was walking Dartmoor in the company of storyteller Georgiana Keeble, I was told the delightful tale of how a storytelling event took place where tales were told in many languages, the words didn’t matter, the meaning and the magic came through just the same.

Danny Dorling, lecturer and author, came to me at the end to say how thrilled he had been with the tale, how glad he was that he had come, and that he had recorded the session and could he post it on the university website. (You can listen to it here http://sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/presentations, and whilst you are there take a look around the themes being looked at by Sasi group). My heart settled, not only had its counsel been heeded, albeit with a little help from technology not doing as it had been asked, but it had been right.

When I spoke with my host Michael Bayley he said he had hoped when he had asked me to speak that I would tell my tales, the tales that had so inspired Transition Sheffield when I walked through and visited their brand new community farm in the making.

Back at Jenny’s we spend a pleasant half hour shelling the runner beans she’s been drying for next year’s seed. Some of the pods have gone mouldy and we acknowledge that we still have things to learn about growing things that our grandmothers would have no doubt taken for granted. The beans we extract from the well dried pods are beautiful, pink and brown mottled and I fancy they would make good beans for cooking from their dried state if there were enough of them. When I leave Jenny gives me a green paper goody bag labelled and containing painted lady runner beans from Sheffield. Sheffield beans for a Totnes garden. Another gift had exchanged hands, in the name of transition.

 At the train station we stop to watch a party of multi coloured school children on an outing rushing over to the steel wall of water in delight dipping fingers in the shiny water, finding it icy, and squealing with pleasure. My heart opens and I feel the unique sense of joy that comes from witnessing children being quintessentially children and delighting in natural forces, even if this one is a human made construct of a natural force.

Under the Shelter of Arthurs’ Seat

On the train bound for Edinburgh I gazed out at the stretch of England I have not walked; wide open windswept coastal Northumberland, and marvelled at the length and breadth of our diverse country, and felt in my bones I real curiosity, a love for the land on which I have been born, and a yearning to know and understand each and every corner, somehow the sense that to know the land is to know the people.

In Edinburgh my breath was taken away by my first view of the city centre for some ten years. I had forgotten its beauty, its sheer unadulterated connection to its roots. When I read on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh ) that it has been voted the most desirable city to live in the UK I am not surprised.

A city that can acknowledge its roots has strong identity, is attractive, and can engage with all who come. I spend quite some time trying to satisfy my strong sense that there must have been water in the flat gardens below the castle rock and discover eventually that it was once Loch Nor, later a bog, all reclaimed land. How is it that we have spent our childhood history lessons learning of the endeavours of particular men, and not the things that would connect us with a sense of place and how it changes so as to better equip us with our own sense of personal power to make things happen in the world.

I love Edinburgh and remember its ancient streets well, and set out to walk to the venue; I am to give a workshop at the Diverse Routes to Belonging Conference organised by Transition Support Scotland and Transition Network. I get lost. Dusk arrives and it is quite scary; I am now in unfamiliar streets and Edinburgh’s past feels alive and well down its dark alleys. I dip into the warm brightly lit building of the local paper to ask for help and a friendly Scot’s girl directs me back on track.

Finally I arrive at the John McIntyre conference centre; it is part of the university campus. I get lost again trying to locate the residential houses and our Transition reception. For a moment I consider the new students arriving here for the first time, and how overwhelming it might all feel. I bump in to Cat, our diversity coordinator and with her Andrew Shipley and his lovely guide dog Rosie. Together we find our way and are greeted by a familiar face, Simone, one of our amazing conference organisers. It feels good to have found the familiar within this unfamiliar place.

My memories of the conference are good ones. Nice people, nice venue, good food, good entertainment, and great networking. I don’t attend many of the sessions, there doesn’t feel any need, though I am pleased by the Transition University group’s update, and their mature responses to all they meet, the magic is in the alchemy of the meetings over breaks and the beautifully long lunchtimes. I meet old friends and new; Luci Ramsome, one of the Transition Scotland coordinators, warm and friendly as ever, Teen Ross, Highlands transition trainer, May East, transition trainer and bearer of the great news of the first transition slum in Brazil, Hamid van Koten, transition trainer too, and, we are to discover, one of the best 5 Rhythms teachers ever, as he guides a group of us across the dance floor in an optional slot on the second evening. If you never danced 5 Rhythms, if you never danced because you believed you can’t, and anyway everybody would look at you and laugh; 5 Rhythms is for you; the safest dance space anywhere on earth, where everyone can find their own rhythm.

It is lovely to meet up with the various members of Moving Sounds again and to discover that one of them has a sojourn in Brazil in common with me and we chat away in Portuguese. Dani from Transition France is there too, eagerly telling me how her plans for a transition centre for learning transition skills in the French countryside are progressing.

New friends are made; Beth Cross, who attends my story telling session on the last morning and spends lunchtime telling me her amazing story of being a small town Texan girl, about to go to college and do all the conventional things, and then being swept along on the momentum of a peace pilgrimage walking through her town. She joined in and never looked back, ending up in Edinburgh finally one day after many adventures. She tells me tales, and teaches me a song about the open road they sang on route back then on that pilgrimage. We spend a wonderful hour sitting on the carpeted floor in the crowded lounge area regaling one another with the tales of our lives and I wonder how it is that so many of us have been brought up on a diet of fiction when so much real life excitement is there for the sharing if we only would talk to others. What happened to sense of community in our culture; how did we lose it?

I meet John Mollison too, founder of Out of the Blue in Leith (http://www.outoftheblue.org.uk ) and Anne Ruth of Penicuick (http://makingspacepenicuik.blogspot.com ) and get excited about their work and they about mine. I am invited to come back to Edinburgh to tell tales for their groups. At my storytelling I finally get to meet Alexi s Rowell (author of the recently published fabulously popular “Communities, Councils, and a Low Carbon Future”) who is an avid participant in my workshop, sharing with me the great tale of the draught busters workshops http://transitiontowns.org/Brixton/Reskilling , workshops which teach people to insulate their homes cheaply and effectively, and invites me to come and tell tales in Belsize Park.  He introduces me to Sarah Nicholls, new transition trustee, and originator of draught busters. I have a sense of great kinship with these new transition friends, and leave the conference energised.

Energised not just from the people and the conversations had but from the hospitality the Scots just do so well. From the carefully well thought out menus, with delicious vegetarian versions of the haggis available with the tatties and neeps (potatoes and swede), and vegan options at every course, to the welcome celidh that got everyone who stayed up and dancing together, in spite of the English barriers to social intimacy that the caller had to break down first.

Moving Sounds made their unique and powerful contribution; giving the kids a great transition time, making monsters, and creating transition stories, one of which is performed for us on the last day. For me the highlight though is their evening performance of the roadshow they take around secondary schools; their depictions of the 4 scenarios , all but the last cunningly sold by the shady looking Future Salesman, are stunningly graphic with acting on stage to a backdrop of video scenes all set to very dramatic music. The way they take us through the natural stages focus- orientated people go through of first wanting, and so seeing, business as usual, then resorting to techno fix solutions, then acting out their despair in their imagining of a mad max future, and then finally acceptance, and are able to vision a power down future, is skilful and powerful. It is what I have seen in working with kids over and over, time and time again. If there are worries and fears still lurking they have to play them out by progressing through the 4 scenarios, though if they are not particularly concerned with concepts and action, and are able to be more present in the moment, they play out fairy tales with morals of some of the deepest universal core human values of fairness and generosity, and the ethics and pleasure of working together.

For me the image that will stay with me from the conference is one from one of the few sessions I attend, Emily Watts & Sophy Bank’s session on roots and inclusion. It is a great session, prefaced by us introducing ourselves to our fellow small table group members by giving our ancestry, which goes down really well.  As Sophy stands up at the front a small pink clad toddler crawls up to the front, soon joined by Rosie the guide dog who has already made her gregarious personality known by joining in the dancing at the celidh on the first night. After a couple of minutes a man comes to the front to relieve Sophy of the responsibility of trying to facilitate the session as well as entertain toddler and dog, and the four of them, by now all operating at floor level , make a delightful tableau of how a transition world might look, inclusive, tolerant, fun loving.

The session as a whole would have benefitted from being allocated more time in which to explore Emily’s fabulous story enactment activity. On my table we hear a tale of a Chinese woman who started attending a day centre with her young granddaughter and from feeling excluded from having no common language has a breakthrough when she and the centre worker (who told us this tale) discovered that “twinkle twinkle little star“ is the same in both languages! We act out what happens next in our little group, I play the Chinese immigrant, and we all love how the story takes on a life of its own and the characters make more and more connections as the Chinese woman cooks a meal for the centre worker and we all see how it is to be involved in that process of assimilation from the different perceptions and perspectives of the players. It is an incredibly valuable exercise and one that should be repeated and replicated over and over.

I stay the last night with Nenya from Estonia, just south of Finland, and her English lecturer partner and have a lovely time watching comedy shows with them. It is not something I often give myself the luxury of and I deeply appreciate the unexpectedness of the opportunity. .They feed me the most exquisite pasta and sauce, and apple crumble they have carefully and lovingly prepared between them, picking and chopping the fresh basil, peeling and cutting the locally scrumped apples, She preparing the crumble in a bowl on her lap as we talk the evening away and he chopping veg for his speciality sauce. Over dinner the couple tell me of the free local food opportunities they have found in the city, how they value its green spaces, including the as yet unused waste patches, Andrew is a botanist and they know each and every plant that grows in the vicinity and where and when to find it. Their one sadness is in having been unable as yet to discover a common language with their neighbours who buy frozen supermarket pizzas.

For me this is the key to a successful, fully inclusive transition; being able to recognise opportunities for common language. From that point the innate wisdom we all carry can be unleashed into a place of safety, and we all benefit.

As I sit on the train returning backwards to Totnes from Edinburgh I reflect on what can only be described as a nourishing time at the John McIntyre Conference Centre on the campus of Edinburgh University.

I am vaguely surprised at the incongruity of my usage of the word “nourishing” in the context of having attended a conference, but it is the best word. From the feeling of saudades (Brazilian Portuguese for feeling the absence of a place or person, a yearning that is somehow stronger than simply missing them, but holds within it too the sentiments of nostalgia and pride) I take my starting point for unravelling this feeling of having been nourished; something about having being fed on all levels; the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, and on the deeply subtle inner level too. If we can achieve this type of gathering, meeting place, at each and every transition convergence then we are well on the way to transition in our times.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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