Category Archives: writing

May Diary 2016

Well, April was something of a disaster!  I had to cut my South West trip short as there were problems with my car – it turned out the alternator was slowly dying and communicating its distress to the steering and clutch through the wonders of modern car electronics.  At least I got my boots ordered first!

Peugot on Dartmoor
Peugot on Dartmoor

I did manage to explore the fabulous Scilly Isles, ancient haunt of pirates, for the day.  I dined on fish at the ‘Admiral Benbow’ on my return – yes, I know it’s not the real one from the book but it had to be done!  Penzance Youth Hostel was excellent, one of those with a lively sociable lounge and valuable parking space.

If you go to Cornwall in the summer, don’t take a car!  My landscape reading skills tell me that the narrow rocky peninsula is not kind to vehicles.  You can get a whole day’s travel on the buses for the price of an hour’s parking.  If there’s enough of you to fill a car, check parking on Google Streetview, look for reviews.  It’s more of an adventure to go on public transport!

Adventure was the theme at Falmouth Marine Museum.  Sailing out into the unfriendly Atlantic in a wooden ship, with no engines to steer you away from the jagged rocks lining this coast – no wonder so many pubs are furnished with the spoils of shipwreck!  There was a Viking exhibition featured too, a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of these fearsome reavers.

The deck of a seagoing Viking ship and an explanantion of the reverse osmosis method used for drinking water in Malta
The deck of a seagoing Viking ship and an explanation of the reverse osmosis method used for drinking water in Malta

I had to limp home and forego my visit to Tintagel and the nearby town of Boscastle.  The flooding there in 2004 inspired the ‘Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience’ which was an important influence on the Resilience Handbook.  Bringing resilience into play, I renavigated my course to the Bristol Survival School weekend camp to go by bus.

My goal was to learn to use a fire drill, as featured on ‘The Island’.  I achieved that, but also learned that anyone who’s good enough to get a fire going with this method in under ten minutes – and there were a few! – wears a flint and steel around their neck.  Fire drilling doesn’t seem to be the preferred method, and it is very difficult.

I continued my work on identifying burdock in its first year stage, which is when the large tasty roots form.  I’ve nearly nailed down the differences with the poisonous foxglove.  Please don’t go digging up wild plants though, except with the informed permission of the landowner.  Use your Resilience Garden space – even if it’s only patio pots – to cultivate your own forage plants.  You only need to get to know them, maybe try a few…

making fire drill

Above, the instructor is carving out a fire drill set from raw wood.  Below, an ember has been lit from the powdered wood created by the drilling process, and has been transferred to a piece of bark.  At this stage you use ’ember extenders’ to nurse it into a larger coal.  This is placed in a hank of dried grass and blown into flame, narrowly missing your eyebrows.

firedrill ember 20160423_200120

April Diary 2016

March seemed to be a busy month, though I couldn’t exactly say how.  I built a new tyre garden on a derelict car park, harvesting a windfall heap of spent mushroom compost donated to the Red Brick Gardening Club.  Once there’s a few dry days, I’ll paint labels for the plants and take pictures.

Gardening was the theme – the long wet winter has delayed planting as the soil here was too cold and wet.  Seeds tend to rot in those conditions.  A greenhouse would have been useful to me; my neighbour has one they don’t use much.  The issue would be access for watering.

I gathered bags of the compost to fill up my own raised bed, made a trip to the seaside for seaweed, and finally began the planting.  Leeks and broccoli are the staples; carrots grown in large pots with extra sand.  The broccoli is from saved seed, but I’m still having trouble getting viable leek seed.

carrot seedlings in sand with a background of mature broccoli leaves
carrot seedlings in sand with a background of mature broccoli leaves

I’m planting Valor seed potatoes in the ground, and Stemster in tyre stacks.  The peas, soaked for a few days and beginning to sprout, have been buried beside their climbing frames.  I’ll buy in tomato plants and squashes this year.  They need that head start to be ready by the end of summer.  There’s only so much green tomato chutney a household can eat!

I’ve been out with the Resilience Handbook a few times too. Earth Hour in Chard was splendid, if bitterly cold.  Chard has an interesting history; industrial rather than farming, unusual for Somerset.  The Magic Oxygen Literary Prizegiving day in Lyme Regis was excellent, like a miniature Literary Festival!  I gave a talk on food resilience, which went down well.

signing Resilience Handbooks a t Chard Earth Hour Day

 

In between outdoor work and excursions, I’ve been working on my new book ‘Recipes for Resilience’, plus designing some talks and workshops.  I’ll be talking at the Green Wedmore meeting tonight.  I haven’t been out on an adventure for awhile now, so I’m planning a trip to the furthest south west – the Scilly Isles – promoting the Handbook and looking out for resilient recipes!

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!

 

 

 

Calderdale floods – how to help

Campaign to help the independent bookshop flooded out in Hebdon Bridge….

hebden bbcpic 1

The comic shop took a hit too….

comic shop hebden

Here’s the donations site for the Community Foundation for Calderdale; monies raised to help with the clean up in general.  More news on the Calder Valley Flood Support facebook page.

Hebden Bridge features in the Resilience Handbook as a top example of a town with independent local businesses, and nearby Todmorden (also flooded) is the home of the inspirational Incredible Edible movement…they deserve your support!

Adventures on the Resilience Trail

There was so much going on at the Food Sovereignty Gathering, that there was little time for me to explore the Hebden Bridge area properly. I’d taken a chance mentioning it in the Resilience Handbook (p86) on reputation alone, and wasn’t disappointed.

The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge Mill
The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge

The movement itself turned out to be too concerned with international affairs to really connect with the firmly local criteria of resilience. I met some interesting people and had many productive discussions however.

In among the demanding schedule were visits to the key features I wanted to see: the Incredible Farm and the Aquagarden in Todmorden, of which more another time.

aquagarden at Todmorden and Incredible Farm

The Gathering was quite tiring and I needed Tuesday to unwind. Our hostel, being on the Pennine Way, had a great interest in rambling, with a collection of useful maps.

I explored the Hebdon Bridge Loop of the Pennine Way in the company of Helena Paul (author of ‘Hungry Corporations‘). It was an eerie, misty day but the trail was well marked and we wandered up and down the landscape, often on paved ways which must have taken a lot of work.

 

sylvia plath grave at heptonstall

We called at Sylvia Plath Hughes‘ grave in Heptonstall; a place of pilgrimage for her admirers, who are accustomed to leave pens as gifts. It turned out to be the poetess’ birthday, and we learned the history of the site from a fellow author there. Nibbling on Himalyan Balsam seeds, we followed the maze of paths, challenging bullocks for right of way, pausing by the washing pools to look for dippers, and back along the river with its decaying industrial remains.

 

 

 

Off the next day through the nightmare of Manchester outer ring road, a four lane dual highway crawling along in second gear amid a fume of exhausts. This country overcrowded? You bet. The Peak District looks like a rock in a crusher. Arrived with relief at the Anglesey Outdoors hostel with its early morning kayakers. Rather them than me in those waves!

I drove along the coast and visited Copper Mountain instead. The mining operation which reduced this hill to a pile of toxic rubble ceased 150 years ago. All that grows in the sparse acid soil is heather, the only sound of life the occasional apocalyptic crow. It takes two hours to walk around the edge of this tortured landscape, among the rocks drenched with warped and twisted bands of colour, the heaps of pink scree.

copper mountain anglesey

Somewhere in the world this process is destroying another place of former natural beauty. The Internet – an enthusiastic user of copper – comes with a price.

Onwards and decidedly upwards along the west coast of Wales to the Centre for Alternative Technology. I’d been offline since Hebden, so failed to organise a meeting, but the Resilience Handbook I left was well received. I bought a ticket – valid for a whole year! – and explored this iconic establishment for the first time.

It has developed and expanded over the years to a full scale educational facility with over a hundred staff. The fascinating exhibits, set in a lovely natural landscape, cover the whole spectrum of resources from energy provision to waste disposal. I certainly need a return visit to take it all in!

centre for alternative technology fruit trees and solar panels

I spent the night at the Corris Hostel just down the road, where the hostel manager organised a cook out in the forested garden. The visiting party of young singers fom Liverpool were entranced, even abandoning their smartphones to fry sausages and toast marshmallows!

The final stage of my travels took me via Swansea, to supply the nascent Resilience Project there with Handbooks, and so home to a welcome bath.

By using hostels and public transport, a single traveller can take an adventure break very cheaply. Families could pool transport and stay off season in a holiday camp. So it might rain? Adapt. Learn resilience.  Everybody needs adventures.

A Call to Action!

Today most people in Britain live in cities, in an environment constructed by other people, surrounded by things made by people.

It’s easy to become detached from the underlying reality, to feel that complaining about something on social media is radical problem solving behaviour. That if things aren’t going your way, somewhere there is another human being who is responsible for this, who needs to be goaded into doing something about it.

There is. It’s you.

The modern world is so vast and complex that it defies understanding and control. The authority figures you set up and love to hate have no more idea how to cope than you do. Often their core skill is in clawing their way to the pole position in a group.

You put them there.

By abdicating your continuing responsibility to participate in this understanding and control, you keep them there. Struggling to satisfy the needs of millions, while fending off predatory interests from outside. Nobody can succeed in this role.

Their only hope is to simplify everything. Let food be produced by huge farming industries, processed by a single firm, distributed through a vast network owned by one person. Then all the people they need to talk to can meet in one room. There is the comforting illusion of being in control of the situation.

If you’re happy to be painted grey, to fit in a box, to be collateral damage in someone else’s movie, then that’s fine. That’s where it’s all going; just keep calm and carry on.

Or start paying attention.

You can deplore the effect of supermarkets on the local economy – did you vigourously oppose their planning applications? – but are you still using them? Convenience is a word with a lot to answer for. Go exploring for alternatives. Make food an adventure!

When a chain store closes, is your community poised to replace it with a locally owned co-operative? Would people spend their money there to keep it going, to keep wealth in the area? If not, why the hell not?

It’s difficult and complicated to work this out. Food is only one of the factors you need to consider when reclaiming your responsibility. I wrote the Resilience Handbook to show you how to make a really good beginning to this process. It’s packed with information which you can research in more depth – almost every paragraph unfolds into a whole article, a speech, a coherent argument. The key feature though is the call to action, gaining the practical knowledge you need to develop by doing things.

You don’t get fit by talking about exercise.

 

A Note to the Readers who’d like more References

There aren’t many references, footnotes and the like in the Resilience Handbook. I wanted it to be small and light enough to fit in your grab bag for a start. Write your emergency numbers and useful notes in the back, and you’ve got a resource worth carrying!

A few days ago, I watched a film called ‘Pandora’s Promise’ a shameless piece of propaganda for the nuclear power industry. I’ve tried to create an workable emergency plan for civilians caught up in a nuclear plant disaster, so I don’t think the benefits even begin to justify the risk assessment. Besides, the advances in renewables technology and research into the use of thorium make the old style paradigms look so last century.

The film was an exercise in how carefully selected interviews can be mixed with colourful factoids and film clips to present an argument. ‘Scientists talked to me till I changed my mind’. Which scientists? What did they say? Where are the peer reviewed papers to back their opinions up? Were you tied to a chair until you agreed with them? Where are the references?

The Resilience Handbook was mainly written by talking to people. People in the bus queue, on the train, in pubs and cafes. Farmers and vegans, pacifists and soldiers, plumbers, teachers, politicians, cheese-makers. Children, parents, grandparents. And of course, our hundreds of splendid event volunteers who gave us feedback on the original booklet.

merry event volunteers

Over the years, certain books have stood out for me as being especially helpful to understanding the wider concepts of resilience. These are listed in the Handbook. When you read these, see which publications they recommend. Follow the knowledge.

It’s the same, only much faster, researching on the Internet. One website leads to another, and before you know it you’ve written an article on breadmaking! I must have visited fifty sites or more for that one. It’s impossible to refer to them all. Some were rather dodgy – dancing adverts, suspiciously long time to load and the like – so I came out of them. Some only had one key piece of information, or repeated stuff from another site.

So it’s difficult to include internet references in a book. Also, they tend to be ephemeral, sliding off into the Dark Net without warning. I thought I’d be on safe ground mentioning Transport Direct, an excellent website run by the government, which let you map a course from here to there using any available means of transport. However, funding was cut and it vanished – fortunately before the final print edit of the Resilience Handbook.

For those of you who like to ask questions – try a search engine – I’m retrieving and putting up the links I found most useful here. It’s taking a while, as quite a few have gone, so I have to trawl through the web for a suitable equivalent. If you let me know when one of these breaks, it’d be helpful.

The Resilience Handbook – out now!

Finally the Resilience Wheel is rolling!!

I’m waiting  for my first order to arrive so I can send copies out to all you good people who have been following its progress – too excited to write, so I’ll let publishers Magic Oxygen explain more.  You can read some of the book with their ‘lookinthebook’ gizmo, and order from them to maximise the benefit to local economies.

Why is that important?  The book explains it all!

Normal blogging will be resumed in due course 🙂

 

The Methane Saga

The Methane Saga

or

The Production of Methane Gas Described in the British Style of Finnish Epic Poetry

I was listening to a recording of the Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem, while crocheting. These tales were created to be spoken or sung, and I was struck by the way they harmonised with repetitive creative tasks.  One is busy but relaxed; it can be dull without listening to something entertaining.  Hence the popularity of knitting circles.

Imagine an extended family in a snow bound yurt dwelling.  After months together, interesting subjects for conversation may be limited.  How to amuse oneself while making socks or whittling knife handles?

“Tell us a story, Grandparent” comes the call.  Arthritic hands are no longer nimble enough to join in the tasks, but a fireside place is welcome.  And so it begins….

Tales created to be spoken communicate in different ways to those designed for the written word.  If you weren’t paying attention, you can’t turn the page back.  Listening to the Kalevala, I found that momentary focus on my work meant I lost a few lines, but not the gist of the plot.  Even if I had missed some crucial words, important concepts are repeated several times, key events padded out with description.

The ‘Hiawatha’ rhythm in which English translations of these poems are recited seems to bear little relation to the singing of the original.  There’s a sample of this on Wikipedia.  My musings on the ancient origins of epic poems may be mere fiction.

However, author Lewis Dartnell has speculated at length in ‘The Knowledge – How to Rebuild our World from Scratch’ on how we can preserve important scientific discoveries in the event of global catastrophe.  This style of telling seems well adapted to embed this information.  It falls into memory as if it were designed to, and the redundancy guards against attrition.

In the post-apocalyptic landscape, you can bet people will have to knit socks, possibly in a yurtish sort of dwelling. So I wrote the ‘ The Production of Methane Gas Described in the British Style of Finnish Epic Poetry ‘. It’s very long, a good sock’s worth to a fast knitter, so it’s on its own page. I’ll be checking the technical details with the biochar people, but as the epic points out ‘ And with care prevent explosion’!

The Resilience Handbook will be out soon!!

You can place advance orders here

Diary May 2015

This month was something of a landmark as I finally parted with the Leyland Pilot post office van which served me as a mobile HQ during my event organiser days. I gave it to a young crew member, who will have ample opportunity to learn welding on it.

The nucleus of crafters formed during the Free Craft Workshops project are determined to continue some form of meeting. Instead of competing for custom, crafters should unite to reclaim the market for basic household goods. Supporting local businesses needs to become a much larger factor in consumer choices.

Remember, the more local materials are in place, the more resilient an area is.

Following a Resilience Plan isn’t all knitting and gardening. It sends you on adventures too. This month, I went on a day sail on a tall ship as my challenge for Water. The Handbook explains these things in more detail.

The Lord Nelson is part of the Jubilee Sailing Trust, who offer adventure holidays for the disabled. I was very impressed with the adaptations – even a wheelchair lift! – and the excellent crew. Not many people could cross the Atlantic in a three masted sailing ship, yet display such patience and consideration for novices.

I chickened out of climbing the rigging, even though the little old lady volunteer helper assured me it wasn’t as hard as it looked. Steering was more my thing, and I successfully navigated the 400 ton vessel around a lobster pot on the way back in to harbour.

Back to work, with a trip to Hay-on-Wye, where the Book Festival was in full swing. I haven’t been there since the first one back in the late Eighties; it has changed a bit since then!  Accommodation was scarce in Hay itself but a regular shuttle bus ran from Hereford, where I stayed at the excellent Somerville House.

It was fascinating to be among hundreds of people all carrying books, reading while they drank coffee or waited in the queue to hear their favourite author give a talk. I had my eye on getting a signed copy of a Neil Gaiman or David Mitchell book, but the shelves were stripped of these by Friday morning!

I did pick up a copy of the ‘Civil Defense Manual’ from 1950, of which more later.

And so home again, back to the office and the to-do list.