Making connections

A recent independent inquiry – Civil Society Futures – published its report in the middle of November, called “The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society,” which said that civil society must up its game, or risk complete irrelevance.

I usually abhor acronyms, but it came up with one – PACT – to describe the process of change it says needs to occur:

* Power: argues power needs to be shifted so that everyone is involved in decision-making;

* Accountability: organisation must be more accountable to communities they serve;

* Connection: civil society must build broader and deeper connection within and between communities;

* Trust: organisations need to put effort into building and earning trust and ensure they are behaving in line with their values.

Top (L-R): Yogesh, Sue, Charlotte; Middle (L-R): Wilf, Mel, Di; Bottom (L-R): Camilla, Luke, Paul. Members of the ‘Getting Around’ subject group, bringing a variety of experiences from across the community.

It’s for reasons very similar to this that I’ve joined other residents where I live since July to be part of the process of building the new neighbourhood plan for the town – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in the district of Hart, which is in the North-East corner of Hampshire.

I’m co-leading the subject group (members pictured above) which is looking at issues to do with ‘Getting Around‘ – that’s anything to do with being a pedestrian, with cycling, with using public and community transport, and of course, driving in its many and varied forms.

I’m on a bus… making connections.

We’ve just posted the latest update on our group’s work, entitled ‘Making connections‘ – click here for more – as well as all the previous posts here.

You can find the main website for our local neighbourhood plan here.

Neighbourhood planning will never be the answer to all the issues anyone has in their local area, but it can be a useful start – and what we’ve found as a group of residents is that, as an excuse for starting to have those conversations about issues, and engaging with the processes in the local community, some of those dynamics to do with power, accountability, connection and trust start to move.  And who knows – we might finally get that bus to Fleet we’ve waited so long for!

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Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

Psychogeography is killer!

Psychogeography has been emerging as a dimension in my life for a good few years – a way of navigating and making sense of my own personal space, and a paradigm worthy of use interrogating professional, social and cultural evidence and ideas in research. I make these claims (I’d previously even started to try to integrate it into the curriculum while I was still teaching public relations at university) yet, beyond actually walking, sensing, and reflecting, I had yet to invest much energy in reading around the subject. Luckily, Coverley’s paperback on the topic has come to my rescue, and is the ‘all points’ introductory text that many have rightly come to recommend. [“Psychogeography”, Merlin Coverley, (2018) Harpenden: Oldcastle Books]

The book takes a good wander around the terrain which the subject inhabits, highlighting the various strands which bring their own shades to this particularly vague of topics, and collecting useful contributions. from them all.

“Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti. the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” [Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, Times Literary Supplement, 07/10/05, 3-4, pg.3.]

Stumbled on, but strangely drawn to as if I was in the film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, this concrete lump is the remnant of an age when gravel was extracted from an area in Hampshire that is now part development, part nature reserve – true ‘borderlands’.

I’d always understood that psycogeography was about exploring how a place makes us feel and behave, so getting beyond simple physical, and human geographical subject labels.  It’s a lot more than that. The book asserts that psychogeography is neither a political creed (which has mainly been embraced by the Situationalists), nor a literary movement, an ecological fashion, nor a set of ‘New Age’ ideas, or avant-garde practices, but instead, it charts an ever-moving definition which draws on all for sources of inspiration.

One of the most literal definitions to which the book repeatedly returns is that ‘point where psychology and geography intersect‘, and the practice of walking, through which to experience it is central too, although more recent writers have expanded this to included other forms of transportation, such as train, bus, car and plane.

Perfect for an aimless walk, this disused runway on Yateley Common was originally an RAF base in WWII, and in the 1970s, played host to a Bob Dylan concert with a crowd of over 200,000 people.

I suppose an aspect which has always appealed to me is that where there is also a preoccupation with drawing on the past, and what it has to tell us through the lived topology of place. For some people, this goes as far as to include the occult, and the New Age too.  I have always been interested in how two very similar, but neighbouring places can have very different personalities, and how such effects can endure over time. A friend of mine more aptly call’s this a place’s ‘soul’. The book starts to introduce how this is indeed an aspect of psychogeography.

A walk when on holiday in the ‘picturesque’ East Sussex town of Rye does not mean heading for the usual destinations for me. You never know what you might find – the history (and hue) of this ‘Private Members Club’ looked interesting.

While I wanted to get straight onto the contemporary and existential aspects of the practice, I found the historical and literary chapters really helpful, not only in charting its development, but helping to unravel particular characteristics of the practice, and what they can achieve.  The book takes us through Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and a reimaging of the streets of London; William Blake and his visionary, transformative topography of London; Thomas de Quincey’s dream-like wanders, and metaphorical quests, such as for a ‘North West passage’; Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic trawls of gruesome, yet entrancing streets of Victorian times; Arthur  Machen’s art of wandering, particularly provoked by constantly looking for the unknown; and, Alfred Watkins and the near occult, hypothetical alignment of places or features with a wider geographic, spiritual or religious significance.

Turned a corner, and another part of Rye which made me feel, well, it spoke to me on a deeper level.

As well as in London, the book spends time in Paris, looking at the idea of the flaneur – and flags up one the huge issues, until recently, with the whole tradition – it’s near exclusion of a female perspective. While here, it touches on the debate over whether the idea is about being an observer, or a participant; spectator or agitator? Loner, or alone in a crowd? Can it be practiced sitting down, from a chair, as mental travel? Solitude is a concept which is something to which I will return. And when it moves on to examine the calls on it by the more avant-garde and the Surrealists, we touch on on the role space, and performance play in its discharge, and in doing so, I for one am invigorated by how it might wake us up to what our current political, economic and environment balance sheets are doing to our daily inter-actions with the places we inhabit, often in more of a sleep-walk, than anything than a real relationship of any kind with our surrounds.

Stationery for a long time in Rye!

Undirected ambling.?Dreamlike wandering? Detached observation? Committed and involved practice? Drifting purposefully? Purposeful gait? Pedestrianised stalking? Deep typology (as coined by Nick Papadimitrou)? Eavesdropping? The book provides so many ways of looking at the the practice.

“I’ve taken to long distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples humans from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for pleasure – that would be merely frivolous or even for exercise, which would be tedious.” [Will Self, ‘Psychogeography #1, A walk though time and space,’ The Independent, 03/10/03]

Self is one of a number of contemporary authors who have embraced psychogeography in their writing, both fiction, and non-fiction. Iain Sinclair has done much to re-examine the practice, for examine, using the idea of the fugueur (who is fleeing, escaping) to chart things, as well as the flaneur. He has also discussed the obsessive charting, documenting, and journaling/storying which can accompany all of this.  Some can practice it in a very progressive, reclaiming, power challenging fashion; others can interpret it as an extremely conservative, affirming, identity expressive form. There is a wide spectrum, as with everything.

It does what it says on the tin. I love walking somewhere new as often as I can, being provoked by something I shouldn’t have found.

This is the perfect introductory book. As most reviews have said, “it does what it says on the tin”, with plenty of accurate references underpinning it.

I am fascinated by psychogeography on a personal level.  It really speaks to me, and helps me unravel the relationship I have with my town, and county, knowing I have been able to chart stories for generations of my family back past the year 1000, and in my town to the early 1600s.  I’m fascinated about the levels of relationship with place, what makes a town different from its neighbour, and how landmarks and developments shape the soul of a place, and intrigued by just what goes on in ‘borderlands‘. Should we be worried by a privatisation and sanitisation of public space making any prospect of free movement by modern day flaneurs nigh on impossible?

Feeling #1, in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, in central Farnham.

Feeling #2, nearby in the grounds of Farnham Library in Surrey. A different feeling – more of a centrifugal force, as though the ground was twisting us. Not the calm that I thought the peaceful park would bring.

And on a professional level, from an industry that has always been a bit of a ‘jackdaw’, I’m fascinated about what psychogeography can do to help create new practice, or understanding in public relations and communications. If we can unleash more of allowing people to think more about how a place makes them feel, rather than more literal measurements, untangling human and physical geography  so that the pedestrian is born again, maybe we will open up a new flank of possibilities? Or maybe I’m clutching at straws. Thankfully, I’ve retired, and I’m free to ponder these things on long walks, rather than having to pitch them as new strategies in boardrooms!

Resist!

Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!

 

The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

My desire to sniff out ‘the particular’ drew me towards reading “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” by Richard Mabey (2011) [London: Profile Books].  It had long been on my ‘books to read’ list after I had discovered one of his previous books, ‘Dreams of the Good Life’ about Flora Thompson – the author behind ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, who served briefly as village postmistress in my home town, Yateley.

As the jacket puts it succinctly, he ‘attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with the meticulousness of the scientist.  By Romanticism, he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers are inextricably part.  And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it.’  Wow!

Poetry and science are, in effect, comfortable bed-fellows in a book which is equally respectful to traditional country ways, as it is to the rules of the laboratory.

Six elegantly short chapters, illustrated by linocuts, take us through a tour of what the senses might inspire us with on a long walk in the countryside.  Early on, Mabey makes the point that while technological advances in devices like cameras on our phones are supposed to enhance our understanding of nature, they can often end up obscuring it by separating us from it in the moment so we don’t full experience it or reflect on it, or forget to see it within a larger frame, so we miss other relationships which it may be a part of, or a wider live experience in that moment which may have involved all of our senses (see #InstaHorror later).

I particularly identified with common experiences documented, like how he described his Dad (and himself) collecting anything that might ‘come in useful one day’ – just like my Grandad’s garage – and learning the lesson from when it did.

He returns to example of what now manifest themselves as what we might call #Instahorror making the point that we so often now seem to be looking for the perfect shot for our mantelpiece or social media account that it’s never actually from the perspective that you would see it in-situ in nature itself – and that many people are losing all sense of perspective for their own safety.

Not a Stinkhorn, but a Fly Agaric mushroom, which, you’ve guessed it, I’ve seen popping up all over my Instagram feed. Public Domain.

There are some perfect descriptions of ‘particular’ items on his journeys – like samphire  – and activities like foraging, and about how the quality of ‘gatheredness’ can make wild food actually taste different.

He dwells on taste, and in particular, smell, and their role in fixing our memory in place, moment, feeling, time – indeed, essence. And he goes on to document the quality of ‘petrichor’ (the smell after rain) which I’ve seen documented a fair deal elsewhere of late after a moist end to a particularly dry, hot summer.

Gorse on Yateley Common, Hampshire, alongside the disused runways of Blackbushe Airport.

I was particularly excited when he chose to write about a plant – gorse – very familiar to the common land heaths around the area I grew up in Hampshire, and I remembered a hearing Mabey present a short documentary about its characteristics on BBC Radio 4 in recent years too.  Closely associated with ‘courting’ because of the location of the plant on areas of heathland around London such as Richmond Common, and the fact they flower most of the year (hence the famous saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season“), its distinctive smell of coconut (which it as good as sprays intermittently, as a wonder of nature), and it’s “just right pricklyness” which made it perfect for gypsies over time to hang out washing on to dry (without having to worry about the thorns ripping the material).

The final chapter on maps was a dream for me – about our sixth sense (if we have such a thing) – that of ‘direction’, and dwelling on a sense of ‘place’.  As someone who loves revelling in old Ordnance Survey maps (but doesn’t quite know why), and thinks they inherited their grandfather lorry driver’s sense of direction (pre-Sat Nav), I loved reading this chapter. The whole book bears testimony to that same relationship I have with the area in Hampshire I live in, which my Mum also grew up in, and her Mum and Dad before her – and generations before them too. The soggy borderlands which Hampshire and Berkshire straddle along the Blackwater River; the flats of heath between Yateley and Elvetham, and the greener pastures towards Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham.

A book of delights which makes the point that scientific insight and technological enhancement only powerfully assist our senses when they are guided by our imagination, and crucially, transformed by a special gift we bring to this mix as human beings – that of language.  As such, on this last measure, this book certainly delivers.  This is one of those books that I am the most glad ever that a friend (in this case, Elisabeth-Madalena) has bought for me as a gift.  Not a single strand of disappointment – a huge ‘thank you’, both for this gift, and nature’s gifts too!

Radio Mabey: – listen to some of Richard Mabey’s ‘Mabey in the Wild‘ shows on BBC Radio 4 here.

Richard Mabey on NPR on ‘Weeds’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey on Radio NZ on ‘The Cabaret of Plants’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey at the Hay Festival, 1997 – listen here.

Audiobook of this title, originally broadcast on BBC Radio, and known as “The Scientist and the Romantic”click here.

River of Consciousness

An obituary in the New York Times said that neurological conditions, and his patients’ experiences of them, were for Oliver Sacks, occasions “for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.”

As someone with a rare neurological condition (Chiari Malformation, since you ask), I have long had a love affair with Sacks’ interest in the field, and his beautiful way of synthesising material from his professional interest in them, and other material collected along the path of a voraciously curious life lived.  His death in 2015 moved me to tears, and I miss him intensely, in the same way there is a hole in my life without the likes of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Oliver Postgate and Robin Williams.

This book (“The River of Consciousness”, by Oliver Sacks, 2017, London: Picador) gives us a chance to spend ‘extra time’ with him following his death – allowing Sacks to spend time dwelling on interests stretching across marine biology; botany; the history of science; quantum physics; philosophy; and of course, neurology. It manages to knit together a collection of what appear at first glance to be unrelated contributions with his trademark hand-holding, and storyteller’s aplomb, to a point where you feel you are at the brink of making a new discovery yourself, by reflecting on all of the areas he has opened up, step-by-step – whether that be issues to do with ‘speed’; or ‘near death experiences’; or ‘plagiarism’; or ‘creativity’; ‘memory’, ‘consciousness’ or the way in which certain discoveries are filed away and forgotten, only to be celebrated again, many years later. He makes it all feel so easy. As Gavin Francis described it in a Guardian review, the book is able to showcase Sacks’s “agility of enthusiasms”.

A book that could all too easily be seen as an after-thought, or a publisher’s exercise to collect together Sacks material that happened to be lying around after his death, and package it up as an excuse to make more money, I found this, like all Sacks’ earlier work, a delight to read, and illuminating.

As a complete coincidence, I had only just picked up the book at the same time as I had been introduced to the work of philosopher/scientist/theologian/mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and discovering too that he had written about neuro-anatomy (effectively discovering CSF – cerebrospinal fluid), and covered a similarly diverse terrain, making connections across it in much the same way, it further provoked my own reflective river of consciousness.  Where Sacks brought ferns, Mexico, sexuality, headaches and neurology to my table (all personal obsessions of sorts), Swedenborg is beginning to do the same with hovercraft, spinal fluid, the pituitary gland, charity, tremors, and the concept of an after-life and near-death experiences too – very similar territory at times to Sacks.  This posthumous set of writing has only served to fuel my love of Sacks, and his embrace of ‘the particular’ – a belief that the little, taken-for-granted human observations are just as important in helping to develop explanations for why things are as they are, as are the ‘big’ debates.

I will leave one final quote to Nicole Krauss, writing in the New York Times, who remarks on one of the most powerful insights I took away from one of the pieces in the book.

“This is an extraordinary insight, one that helped to establish our understanding of the self as flexible rather than static, and our sense of the past as an imaginative reconstruction, ever evolving, both of which make therapy possible. As a neurologist, Sacks deepened our understanding of the dynamic, creative abilities of the brain by uncovering, again and again, the unusual ways the impaired brain may deal with its handicaps, compensating in ingenious ways, or by creating plausible explanations for the nonsensical, thus preserving a form of coherence, however subjective. Taken together, his case studies illustrated how just as homeostasis, the maintenance of constant internal environment, is crucial to all organisms, so is a stable, cogent narrative of reality crucial to the mind and its construction of the self, such that even severely disordered brains will find ways of creating order.”

“The River of Consciousness” is now available in paperback.  I don’t know why I took so long to read the hardback that I had left by the side of my bed!

Counter-consultation crosses a boundary

The Boundary Commission‘s final proposals for the new boundaries for parliamentary constituencies have finally been laid before Parliament, as part of its review of seats.

Irrespective of whether I agreed with the decision to cut the number of seats, I do think the number of electors in each seat should be more equal – although I’m not sure it should be as arbitrarily applied as it has been in the process as we have seen – but my experience of the consultation process, and much of the outcome leads me to question the whole thing.

The proposals for the seat I live in (North East Hampshire) had been a bit of a joke, so I engaged with the consultation, offering some solutions to the issues involved.  For anyone who is interested, the town of Alton had been added to our constituency (even though it doesn’t sit anywhere near the other towns in the existing seat and is in another district/borough), but more importantly, Church Crookham (which sits in between my town of Yateley, and that of Alton) is split off from its ‘sister’ settlement of Fleet (they are basically inter-twined), and plonked in the separate constituency of Aldershot.

Looking out towards the Blackwater Valley from Yateley Common at Minley.

I know it is a difficult issue, balancing the numbers involved, and like the Commission, I found it impossible to resolve just by taking off a single ward here, and adding a ward there – but I did hit upon a solution, re-drawing the parliamentary constituencies across the county boundaries of Surrey and Hampshire, using the natural communities of the Blackwater Valley as their inspiration.  If you live in this patch, you know this is the reality when it comes to health provision, transport, education, employment, media and shopping for example.

Imagine my surprise when after the its consultation, the Boundary Commission concluded that it had not received any alternative counter proposals!!!

So, when it had a final consultation, I spent HOURS – nay, DAYS – doing the necessary work, constructing the new potential parliamentary constituencies using this approach, to demonstrate it IS possible to have an alternative proposal.

Imagine my despair, when yet again, the Boundary Commission conclude in their report, published today (10th September) that respondents “did not provide any alternative counter proposals” when I blatantly DID.

I made sure that I referred to their oversight in my submission to their final proposal, and so they could not say counter proposals had not been received, I put the detailed work in, working ward-by-ward, dealing with knock-on consequences in neighbouring constituencies.

I was expecting them to reject my proposals, of course.  What I wasn’t expecting them to do was completely ignore them for a second time.  It has totally undermined any residual faith I had in the system of public consultation in this country.  This was a genuine, and detailed attempt to engage with a public policy problem – and the process doesn’t even bother to acknowledge it.

For your perusal, I thought I would provide my proposals.

Blackwater Valley North means that the towns of Yateley (Hart, Hampshire) and Camberley (Surrey Heath, Surrey) are paired, which historically, makes much more sense.  The towns have strong public transport, shopping and employment links, and the surrounding towns of Blackwater, Hawley, Frimley and Bagshot make natural bed-fellows.  Frimley Park Hospital is a huge employer across more of this area arguably, than it is in the previous ‘Surrey Heath’ constituency, for example. It also deals with the anamoly of having Yateley, and a far flung town like Alton in the same seat.  It makes much more sense for Yateley and Camberley to be in the same seat, than Yateley and Fleet – despite being in the same district, there are zero public transport links, and very little shared shopping or employment.

Blackwater Valley Central seat re-unites Fleet with Church Crookham  in Hart, Hampshire (separated by the current boundary proposals), and puts them with conurbation of Farnborough (Rushmoor, Hampshire), which makes for a more natural fit, as part of an overall set of seats based around the wider ‘Blackwater Valley’ conurbation; which has been used in public policy making circles, following the course of the River Blackwater – and more recently, the Blackwater Valley Route (the A331).

Blackwater Valley South brings together the towns of Aldershot (Rushmoor, Hampshire) and Farnham (Waverley, Surrey), which arguably is the closest fit in all of these proposals.  It is bizarre in the extreme that the villages and towns of Weybourne, Badshot Lea, Ash and Tongham have all previously been in different constituencies.  A solution based on the Blackwater Valley would help solve this, and bring two great towns together into one seat.

East Hampshire in my updated proposals now includes all of the Alton seats, and Holybourne & Froyle, which in the Boundary Commissions proposals, had been switched to North East Hampshire.  This makes no sense at all, since they are part of the district of East Hampshire, and look more naturally towards Petersfield for representation – and are not a natural community with places like Yateley.

Guildford in my proposals has merely been tidied up to reflect the need to meet the constituency size rules.  This includes switching Pirbright and Normandy from the previous Woking seat (this makes total sense since they are in Guildford borough) together with Bisley (in Surrey Heath) and Brookwood (in Woking), which together form a natural set of shared communities, and could fit well in the Guildford constituency.  I have also included Mayford & Sutton Green ward (in Woking), and this fits well too in the northern fringes of Guildford.

Surrey/Hampshire Borders is effectively the South West Surrey seat of old, but I have taken out Farnham. In its place, I have included a number of wards which had previously been in the south of the Guildford constituency (centred on Cranleigh), but which are all actually in Waverley borough, so arguably make a better fit for this constituency.  As well as this, I have added three wards from East Hampshire.  It needed to do this for the size, but in fact, Bramshott & Liphook, Headley and Grayshott, arguably fit more naturally with the conurbations of Haslemere and Hinhead than they do with Bordon and Alton.

Woking is merely the same seat as before, updated to reflect my other changes. It now includes three wards from Surrey Heath (Chobham, Lightwater and West End) all of which fit more naturally with Woking than they do, say, Camberley.  Two wards have been taken out to Guildford (Normandy and Pirbirhgt) which are actually in Guildford borough anyway, and one ward is taken out (Mayford & Sutton Green) to help meet the numbers, but arguably is as much on the fringes of northern Guildford as it is southern Woking.

So, there you have it. I just wanted to show that when the Boundary Commission published their proposals today, and they said that there was an “absence of any such satisfactory overall counter proposal” for my area, they were wrong.  I’m not pretending I had all the answers – I am sure there are holes here – but I genuinely felt I had the beginning of an answer to some of the issues, yet no reference was made to this at all in two rounds of consultation. I was born and raised in this area, and feel I have a good understanding of the Commission’s challenge – but feel totally ignored.

I know they received the material, because it all sits, receipt acknowledged on their website.  It’s just no reference is made to it in its supposedly detailed reports.

   

If I was feeling a little more cynical, I might feel it had something to do with the fact that my solution would effectively remove the seats of cabinet ministers Michael Gove, and Jeremy Hunt.  And we couldn’t possibly have that, could we?

The whole process waiting for the final Boundary Commission proposals has been a real let-down, and an anti-climax.  For me, the process has not worked.  It has not produced a solution which works, even though one could exist.  In the new seat of North East Hampshire, I can’t get to the neighbouring town of Fleet just four miles away on public transport – and including Alton over twenty miles away is just absurd, even though Church Crookham, just over four miles in the same direction is not included.

I can genuinely understand why the eyes of thousands of people ‘roll’ when a public body announces it is putting a policy or proposal out to consultation – and I’m not sure I will be as keen to engage in future.  When a public body says no counter proposal has been suggested during a consultation process, when as you can see from what I have outlined, I did propose one, a boundary has been crossed (just as in the cross-county ‘Blackwater Valley’ based solution I offered in North East Hampshire).  I’m left feeling a little bit more dis-engaged.

How human creativity remakes the world

One of the questions I was most often asked as a lecturer was, “Can you recommend a good book about creativity?”  I usually struggled, and more often than not, felt that the idea was a contradiction anyway.  Then, last year, I heard a feature on a mid-morning show on BBC Radio 4 about this book during 2017, and it stopped me in my tracks.

“The Runaway Species” clearly and elegantly creates a way of explaining how creativity flourishes, and how we can apply to our own lives, as individuals and organisations (such as schools, and companies) to foster creativity and innovation.

The crux of the book is deciphering three key processes be which we transform existing ideas, and find or encourage creativity or innovation with them.  These are:-

Bending: modifying or twisting the original out of shape to create something new;

Breaking: the whole is taken apart, or smashed to pieces, to re-fashion it, or to find something new.

Blending: two or more sources are merged, to create something new.

Although I have had to retire due to Chiari, I still take part in my CIPR CPD, and as the deadline loomed large recently, it was clear that this book had to come ‘off’ the pile of books I had recently bought which are waiting to be read, because it had much to pass on.  I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the great things about the book  is that it uses many practical example from the worlds of art and science to demonstrate its formula, rather than leaving than leaving it as an abstract, impenetrable theory – and there are lots of pictures for a weighty book such as this!  My only disappointment is that I no longer have a course/curriculum into which to integrate this book as a lecturer.  I am genuinely impressed, and would have had a lot of excitement with students applying it.  It may have something to do with the book being written by Brandt (a composer) and Eagleman (a neuroscientist), with them both drawing on their respective passions for inspiration.

Forget the ‘eureka’ moments – we are talking more about ‘evolving sessions’.  This books demonstrates how our brains have been working, more like ‘jackdaws’, constantly fashioning a new nest, from the things they have collected.  It explains why human behaviour has these needs (such as the tension between predictability and surprise), and what we do to express them best – and how that can be harnessed to best effect.  And it looks at the issue of why some ideas take off – and others stay firmly in the sand-pit.

Bending; Breaking and Blending give us a kind of cognitive software –  an on-going way in which our brains are approaching the world, and coming up with new ideas, answers to problems, and creative flourish.  The more opportunity we give ourselves to do engage in this behaviour, the better.

Thoroughly recommend – much food for reflection: Brand, A. and Eagleman, D. (2017) “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World”, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books.

Questioning what makes a good life

Drabble, M. (2016) “The Dark Flood Rises“, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books

It’s not often I’m compelled to buy a book directly from what the blurb has to to say for itself on the sleeve, but with this book by Margaret Drabble, I was sold when I originally bought the book back in 2017.  It spoke to me, and despite it being fiction, it seemed to speak to the stage of life I find myself in, and the mood I found myself in while I was looking to spend money in the bookshop at the time last year.

The offending paragraphs inside the cover of The Dark Flood Rises read as follows:

“Fran may be old but she’s not going without a fight. So she dyes her hair, enjoys every glass of red wine, drives around the country for her job with a housing charity and lives in an insalubrious tower block that her loved ones disapprove of. And as each of them – her pampered ex Claude, old friend Jo, flamboyant son Christopher and earnest daughter Poppet – seeks happiness in their own way, what will the last reckoning be? Will they be waving or drowning when the end comes?

“By turns joyous and profound, darkly sardonic and moving, The Dark Flood Rises questions what makes a good life, and a good death. This triumphant, bravura novel takes in love, death, sun-drenched islands, poetry, Maria Callas, tidal waves, surprise endings – and new beginnings.”

Morbid I know, but it seemed to have many resonating themes for me with my, what can often feel stalling, middle age life.  As I approach the age of 48 years old, I recently had to retire early due to a neurological condition which can play many wonderful tricks on my body and mind.  Not only that, two years ago, I downsized from my fast-paced life in London, to return to the house I grew up in in a much slower part of Hampshire, and seem to hang out with many more people aged over 70 than I do with people of my own age, so many of the issues the book says it was going to address are live for me, and the people I see regularly.

That’s what I thought it was – the highs, lows and frustrations of growing old, and the challenges of modern life.  There was some of that, but in fact, it was much darker than that.  Bigger themes lying beneath the surface of what adds up to a ‘good life’ and how to see it out at the end – something facing us all as we apparently live longer, but better lives?  And not just us, but our families and friends too.  A lot of dying.

Because of my own situation, it did give much pause for reflection at times, and made me think a lot about people I know, places I pass on the bus, or charities I have considered partnering with on projects in the past.  In the work I have been doing on community podcasting at Sound Vault, for example, we have been thinking about doing projects on the role music can play in making memories, and have seen the difference simple conversations about music can have in people’s lives.

At times, I found the book a little too incredible – too many coincidental character links for example – only for a coincidental link to ‘pop-out’ at the very same moment I was reading about it, to match with a detail in my own life, so perhaps I was too quick to judge.  Too many of the characters in the book seemed to know each other by some twist of fate, but maybe that happens in particular professional sectors, even if they are separated by hundreds of miles at a particular stage in their life.

The book is powerful in that it creates a dark ‘oil’ which feels like it envelopes the reader.  It doesn’t judge, or prescribe.  It is not depressive (I finally got round to reading it during January 2018, when I am at my most optimistic, most proactive, most organised), but can help us all reflect a little more clearly, yet thoughtfully about the door marked ‘Exit’.  I don’t like to alarm anyone, but it’s approaching.  For many of my nearest and dearest, and others in my networks, it has already come.  And the public policy issues associated with it are growing.

 

 

Previous Reading (6):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Sixth up:-

“The Faraway Nearby”, Solnit, R. (2014) London: Granta Books

farawaynearby

A beautifully written book which manages to succeed in helping to make faraway locations seem nearby, and to take the nearby/everyday or commonplace to different or faraway contexts, helping to bring fresh perspective on them in the process.

Solnit’s book is an elegant piece of memoir, almost of therapy.  It takes what at times can appear to be a random stream of deep reflections, and weaves them amongst strands which take us deep into the territory of the craft of storytelling.  Rather than just trying to unpick what makes a ‘good’ story, it uses these insights to heighten the experiences it introduces us to, making those feelings personal, and intense, and provoking us to reflect on our own story.  It is difficult to not start looking for and making connections in your own life, just as she has in hers.

The book is as good an example of psychogeography as you will find on the shelves, without ever trying to formalise such a definition for itself, or explore the concept – but place is important.

Marina Warner, writing a review for The Guardian (June 2013) said;

“Dominating Solnit’s rich repertoire are two main thoughts: that imagination activated through reading and art, can help overcome the feeling of being a stranger in the world, lost among strangers, and second, that characters and places can build another home, and provide alternative stories to the dismal and constrictive plots of our own lives!”

“We are all the heroes of our own stories,” she writes, “and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you and to see your power, to make your life, to make others or break them, to tell stories, rather than be told by them.”

I’ll end, by sharing the beginning of Solnit’s book, so you can decide for yourself if it’s a journey you want to pick up, and begin for yourself.  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s an engrossing book – at times, I was so effected by it, I forgot I was reading a book.  And their is a delightful device running throughout the book of a pile of slowly rotting apricots from a tree in her mother’s garden, how she has to deal with them, what they mean to her, and what their legacy becomes.  Beautiful, for a reader who has become obsessed with the sourdough revolution, and other baking for neighbours.

“What’s your story?  It’s all in the telling.  Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

“Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.  What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the persons you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed.”

This book helps you find it, and feel it.