Monday 25 June 2012

Bread and Circuses

As the Festival season gets into full swing, this is a post about events. How they shape Transition, how they work (or don't), what questions they bring up about our culture. Most of our initiatives are built around events, as we raise awareness in our communities, involve people and keep connected with one another - stalls, seedy saturdays, produce swaps, open spaces, world cafes, film nights, community parades, discussions in cafes, talks in church halls, unleashings. The Network is structured around "away days" in which the team meet and discuss key topics. We converge at the annual Transition conference in a three-day marathon of meetings and networking.
Do we ever kick back and ask ourselves if these are worthwhile? Do we assess their success or significance? Or are we, as the event's organisers, just rushing around making bookings, sorting chairs and flip charts, putting up posters, too busy in a busy-busy world to stop and consider the wheel as it turns. Gotta get it done, get it sorted and on to the next!
I used to work as an event manager, mostly for a local theatre and poetry festival. It sounds sort of grand, organising artists and musicians, welcoming crowds of people, being in charge of the lights, but as Bryony, my fellow EM once said, it's mostly checking whether there's enough toilet paper in the men's. However it does mean you see behind the scenes of the cultural music-hall that shapes most of our lives. You get to see how people come and go, the buzz of gatherings, that empty feeling after the show is over, how the song and dance never quite deliver you to the paradise they promise. You see backstage and front of house - the exhausted young dancer, the bitter old singers, the critical, heartless audience, how far people will go to find a bit of glamour, how much this all costs in terms of money and human energy. The whole ras lila of it all. You get to observe it and ask yourself: is this what life is really about?
"What I remember most is the repetition, the kind of repeat cycles Sebald writes about in his melancholic work, The Rings of Saturn: the actors repeating the same lines, the musicians playing the same phrases, and how it felt as if I were in charge of some kind of machine that only cared that this show was repeated over and over again. And how our ancient folk wisdom warns us about not listening to the fairy music and getting lost for centuries. The Event
But not all events are escapes and entertainments, some of them bring people together in surprising ways, provide information, inspiration and connections you would never come across if you stayed at home. In events you can come together in different and dynamic configurations, take part in activities that make you a participant and co-creator of a new culture, rather than a mere spectator of pageants that boast the power and priviledge of the ancien regime. My own life took a radical change of direction thanks to two events I decided to go to at the last minute: a talk in Santa Barbara called Aboriginal Dreamtime, which started a ten-year investigation into earth dreaming; a series of Peak Oil films organised by Sustainable Bungay, that led to these last four years in Transition.
So I am ambivalent about them, both as an organiser and as a punter. Gatherings are essential, but they do not always work in the way we would like them to. Sometimes they work only because we value them afterwards in hindsight. So perhaps this week as we give time to reflect on our experiences we will find some answers as we look at different Transition happenings. Here to kick off are short responses to two I feel have been pivotal:
Launch of Transition Norwich 2.0
2009. The room is packed. It's a sweltering June evening. I am standing in front of 50 people, rapping about Transition and we are all rapt in the retelling of a children's story:
Uh-oh climate change. You can't go over, it you can't go under it, you've gotta go through it!
The mood is high. I am the second in line of four speakers. Tully opened the evening with some hard data about feeback loops to galvanise a big plan he has to help the city to radically reduce its carbon emissions. This is my call to arms. Afterwards we're going to do some mapping and visioning exercises and then feed back to the room. People are well fired up and standing up and saying what needs to be done.
Inspired, as we all were at the beginning of Transition, at the beginning of the initiative, on a performance high, this feels like a great evening. But it's a false buzz in many ways. You can ignite a fire, but if there's no fuel, the fire will die out. The fuel in Transition comes from our own lives, as we commit them to the flames, take up another way of being on the planet. We don't always want to do that. We want to be playing with the ideas at the top, as Jo pointed out so directly on Saturday. We want to be in charge and feel good. We don't want to be bean counters. We love the wedding but we are not so sure about the marriage when it hits the rocks, as of course it will.
You can't go over it, you can't go under it . . .
At the second meeting there will be 15 of us. Ten of us will commit to reducing our carbon emissions to 4 tonnes in the following year. The big plan will not play out in reality. This is however a pivotal event in Transition Norwich, as it introduces personal carbon reduction into the mix of theme groups and projects. In many ways it will define the initiative. It will create four Transition Circles, This Low Carbon Life and the Low Carbon Cookbook. I will learn not to trust the buzz. I will learn to respect the fire.
Transition Network -Peak Money Day
2012. The rain is pouring down in Hoxton Square. The great London planes shake their new leaves and people stand drenched in doorways. It is an unseasonable and strange Spring. Inside the room, fifty of us are sitting listening to Phoebe Bright from Ireland telling us how the financial crisis is driving the country into despair: we have lost the run of ourselves, she says.
We are at a Peak Money day organised by Eva Schonveld and Transition Network – discussing alternative currencies, REconomy projects, timebanking, credit unions, a mix of initiatives to reclaim the economic commons, away from the private banking sector that controls 97% of our finances.
I am keeping an eye on the door to let people in. Most of whom I don't know and some I do. Some I've had email conversations with like Mark Boyle and Filipa Pimentel about the Transition Free Press. The day is structured around several presentations and after lunch we will split up into groups and hold several world cafe sessions, and finally a plenary. It's a full on agenda and afterwards we will cross the square to talk in the Red Lion and I will catch the train home with Gary and Josiah.
The day has been written up already both by Rob Hopkins and Shaun Chamberlin, so this is not another report. It's a famous pause for reflection about how these kinds of events stick. The fact is, like most people in Britian, even though I have been using money all my life, I have no idea how the financial system works. Now I am getting some understanding. First through the attention of the Occupy movement on the fianancial institutions, now by this attention on Transition economy. By listening to Tony Greenham from nef, talking with Ciaran Mundy about the Bristol pound, listening to Filipa talk about what is going on in Portugal, the picture is coming into focus. I am not an economics thinker, I am a bean-counting writer, who used to be a fashion editor and event manager. Glamour and illusion and distraction I know all about.
We have to break the spell of money, I said.
By putting our focus together in the room, by gazing on what appears to be all-powerful and invisible, is how we dispel the trance that has the whole world in its grip.
You don't see the result straight away. You're not sure the event was a success, or that you enjoyed yourself; the world cafes felt unsatisfactory somehow. But none of these things are important. The fact is events like these kick-start unexpected moves, act like strange attractors in non-linear systems, and bring about change. Most of all, you know now you are not alone in thinking that the show is not what it seems. Because there were fifty of you in that room in the heart of London, in the Baptist Church of Norwich, and in a thousand locations in Britain, in the world, each day, each night. Valuing bread, forgoing the circus.
Poster for Magdalen Street Celebration 2012; Sustainble Bungay Green Drinks poster

First published 6 June 2012 on Transition Network Social Reporting project

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