Oral histories have been something that has fascinated the Transition movement since the outset. The idea that the future can learn things from the past, and that a past with less oil wasn’t just the relentlessly miserable, dour, monochrome experience it can sometimes be portrayed as being, has been one that groups have explored in different ways. It was a delight therefore to be invited to an event last night hosted by Transition Town Kensal to Kilburn which was a celebration of a great oral histories project they had recently completed, ‘Old Stories for New Times: inspiration for sustainable living‘.
The exhibition presented stories and memories from older people in the Kilburn, Queens Park, Willesden and Kensal areas of the period from the 1940s to the 1960s. It captured their memories of making and sharing food, community life, transport and neighbourliness. Introducing the exhibition, they wrote:
"Our hope is that the younger generation and the community at large can learn from earlier lifestyles about practical skills, sharing and connecting with others, and the importance of keeping things local".
The exhibition, in the local library, also included artefacts from the Brent Museum and Archives, such as a mangle and a copper, the washing machine of the time (give your washing machine a hug next time you see it).
What came through clearly in the stories was an unromanticised look at the past, but one that captured what was joyful and life-affirming from those times. The area suffered from poverty and overcrowding, and suffered from bomb damage during the war. We may imagine that immigrant communities who keep themselves to themselves is just a modern phenomenon, but one of the boards told the story of a Jewish man recalling a childhood spent mostly within his own community.
There were tales of make-do-and-mend; of the amazing levels of food produced locally at the time; of the West Indian immigrant who had to travel as far as Wapping to buy West Indian food; children spending whole days playing outside in the streets; one woman who used to make all her childrens’ clothes, including their school uniforms; families not having a car because "it wasn’t necessary"; of a vibrant high street economy. You could also listen to audio clips from some of the interviews. Beautifully done and delightfully presented.
The evening brought people together from the local community, some of those interviewed and people from Transitions Kensal to Kilburn, Ealing, Willsden and others. Viv from Willsden spoke about their projects, including their fruit harvesting project, and then Michael spoke about what had been happening in their group, who also do a very successful fruit tree harvesting project. Their approach is captured on a display board in the exhibition:
"We are a voluntary group with 1,000 local members that promotes sustainability and community, with practical projects open to all and support given to anyone with a project idea to make it happen".
I then talked about the oral history work that I have been involved in in Totnes, which lead to the ‘Stories of our recent past’ section of the Totnes & District Energy Descent Action Plan, and the film "What the past can teach us about the future". I talked about how an awareness of the past informs some of the projects underway, such as the Totnes Pound and the New Lion Brewery (with roots in the town’s historic Lion Brewery). Then the two women who had driven the ‘Old Stories for New Times’ project forward talked about it and what they felt they had got from it, and how the community had responded to it.
People then got into groups to discuss ideas they might have for projects that could be started which were inspired by the area’s past, which generated a lot of great ideas and possible future projects. The evening wrapped up with drinks and conversation, including NW6, a wine produced in the area by members of Transition Kensal to Kilburn, their ‘2014 Reserve’, the output of their fantastic Unthinkable Drinkable project. Hopefully we will feature this project in more depth here.
I’ve seen some great Transition-related oral history projects in the past, such as one I saw in Bristol a couple of years ago, but this one was one of the best: beautifully presented, and really capturing, in an unsentimental but deeply touching way, the lives of the generations before us, and how different their relationships were to food, transport, housing, their local economies and, perhaps most importantly, to each other.
En route to the talk, I visited, thanks to Michael Stuart, the now famous food garden on Kilburn Underground station. Its four raised bed planters, and espaliered apple tree, were captured and celebrated in the film ‘In Transition 2.0’, shown all over the world. Although now mostly dormant, it struck me that it was a garden that was creating, in its own way, a story that would be celebrated in the future, with its roots in the past so beautifully captured in the exhibition, one that, like all good stories, changes peoples’ sense of what’s possible.
I’d like to thank everyone at Transition K2K for a fascinating evening and for inviting me to be a part of it.