New beginnings – a personal account of organising a Transition Roadshow

I’ve been meaning to get back into the habit … no, not the habit: the discipline … of writing up my adventures on this blog.  We hosted the 4th National Transition Roadshow a few weeks ago, and if that doesn’t deserve an honest, down-to-earth write up, I don’t know what does.

The Roadshow was probably the main thing I could have been writing about over the past few months, on top of solar panels on Ashlyns School roof and the end of my tenure as leader of Transition Town Berkhamsted.  I could have filled pages writing about BP and Shell publicly calling for a price on carbon emission, the G7 committing to phase out all carbon emissions by the end of the century and the growing movement to divest funds away from the fossil fuel industry.

Roadshow mapBut it’s the Roadshow that’s getting the star treatment.  Transition Network is the charity that grew out of the first Transition Town, in Totnes, that takes an overview of all things Transition (communities getting on with the job of moving off fossil fuels, basically).  A little less than a year ago, I was sitting next to my life-dominating computer when I had one of those mild panic moments I get when your distracted brain raises a little hand and reminds you about a deadline you’d been determined to forget.  I had been in touch with the local Transition Towns about an opportunity to apply to host one of the three Roadshows they planned instead of the usual single annual conference.  Of course, while there had been general interest, no-one had put their head above the parapet.  Haddenham had, I only found out later.

Deadline an hour away and no time to cast about for thoughts, I got to work and cobbled together a last minute application.  At least I’d done it.

A week or two later, I was taking a break over a cup of tea.  I got a phone call from Amber of Transition Network to let me know they had chosen our application.  We were to host a national Roadshow.  Yeah.  Gulp.

We were chosen for two main reasons – we had an established network of local Transition groups, and we had plenty of experience of running reasonably large events.  Both certainly made the job easier.

We wasted (a) little time in getting a meeting organised with people from the local Transition Towns, and the debate started as to where we would host the Roadshow, what it would contain, when and so on.  We only got mired in the trap of endless circular ramblings that consensus decision making can bring for a couple of hours.  After a few conversational laps we settling on holding the Roadshow on 19 April in Berkhamsted, sandwiched between eco fairs in Milton Keynes and Tring.

We tried to keep the number of meetings down, so people didn’t need to give up too many chunks of their weekends travelling around Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.  A lot of cake got eaten and tea drunk.  Eventually, we settled into a pattern where we in Berkhamsted did a big chunk of the organising, with particular assistance from nearby Tring on publicity, and the other Transition Towns pitching in with volunteering on the day and running workshops.

Chatting in the eveningThe experience of running similar, if slightly smaller, events in the past helped keep me calm as the big day approached.  I could have panicked that ticket sales didn’t look great, but knew that people often book late or turn up on the day.  OK, I did panic just a tad.  We could have got into a stew about all of the little things that needed organising, but knew most of what needed to be done and just got on with it.  Certainly helped a lot on that score that the lovely and brilliant Emma Norrington ran around like a highly organised chicken with head fully intact and got things done.  It was a drain on time during lunches and evenings for us.

Given that, when the day came, I was expecting to feel a great relief at the end of the day, a kind of end of term moment.  The night before we had gone out for a meal with the founding fathers and leading lights of the Transition movement, and then I’d stayed up quite late with co-founder Ben Brangwyn printing programmes and maps.  So on the day, after the relief of seeing people starting to flood in a little after the official start time, I hit a bit of a wall of fatigue.

The most thought-provoking and action-inducing workshop for me was on something called REconomy, which means enabling and starting-up businesses and social ventures that are financially viable, don’t rely on volunteers, deliver real social benefit and reduce carbon emissions.  It also discussed how money leaks out of a local economy via national chains, so it was a little ironic after the workshop when I collapsed into Costa for a bite to eat and a refreshing drink.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur, as the workshops continued into the afternoon, and we made our way up the hill in Berkhamsted to the Centenary Theatre for the evening’s entertainment.  I was again hungry when we got there, but by the time I had walked to the town centre and back to get some cash, the food ran out.  I found out later that because of an over-order for the last event, we had adjusted requirements down.  Trouble was, so did the caterer.  And then they had to run off to hospital due to a family emergency, and we were stuck ordering Papa John’s pizzas.

All that was left was then to listen to the figurehead of the movement, Rob Hopkins, relay stories of the frankly jealousy provoking amazing projects and achievements that other Transition Towns have managed, where people actually get paid for doing this work, and then to be entertained by the rambling humorous poetry of Matt Harvey.  Oh, and I sat on a panel to answer questions from the audience, a task of which I felt I made a complete Horlicks.

At the end of it all, I didn’t feel the expected elation.  No, I was deflated.  Although we did have a reasonably good turn-out of people from all over the area, from London to Ipswich, and certainly weren’t out of pocket, not many people from outside of the Transition group came from Berkhamsted.  I had been to council meetings, Rotary club, Chamber of Commerce networking events, but few new people came along to find out what we were all about.

That feeling of disappointment abated over time, as I started to receive thanks and congratulations from those who did come along.  Evidently, the day had been a success from their perspective.  And then a few more newbies turned up to our monthly social, which happened to be our AGM.  Then there was the inspiration and example of REconomy, which has given our group new direction.  We can set ourselves up in such a way that people can be employed to help take Transition forward, and by building on socially and environmentally responsible enterprise we can start to have a real impact.

Thank you to both Emmas, Philipa, Anna, Bridget, Christine, Barr, Michael, Vicky, all the Johns, Peter, Jeremy, Claire, Madela, Sarah, Samantha, Wendy, Leslie, Sue, a smattering of Pauls, Bruce, Denis, Rob, Michael (the other one), Amber, Ben, Hilarie, MK Christian Foundation, Karen, Richard, Greg and Lindsey for all your support, time, enthusiasm and general help in organising the Roadshow.  It would have been rubbish without you.

So much for putting the world on the back burner

Well, so much for not putting so much time into climate change antics.  No sooner had I published the last blog post about concentrating on the business, that I got a phone call from the Transition Network.  We are hosting one of the four UK Transition Roadshows.

It was only a week or two ago that there was a flurry of conversation on the email group of the Transition Beds, Bucks, Herts conglomerate.  Or whatever we’ll call ourselves – basically the group of a dozen or so Transition Towns based around these here parts.  Should we be Transition Three Rivers, maybe?  I don’t know.

Anyway, a few of us had noticed that there will not be a national Transition Network conference this year – instead there will be four Transition Roadshows across the UK.  The thinking is that given Transition is about permaculture and local being key, having a range of roadshows around the country rather than one central conference will give more people the chance to attend, make them more relevant and give local Transition Initiatives a boost of profile-raising pizazz.  The deadline for applications was in a day or two.

TN Roadshow
Kings Langley, Haddenham, Letchworth and Milton Keynes were all interested in a roadshow being hosted somewhere within our catchment, as were we in Berkhamsted.  With the deadline for expressing an interest looming, ducks were churning their legs unseen behind the scenes to decide who would like to put in an application, and weren’t showing great signs of getting in a row.  So Linsey in Haddenham and me in Berkhamsted decided to put in our applications anyway, with the promise of support from the other groups.

A couple of feverish hours later my application was off to Amber Ponton at the Transition Network, and out of my mind.  So the following week, when I got a phonecall on my mobile from Totnes while having breakfast with my wife and the little one, I couldn’t figure out who it was on the other end of the phone.  It had been a different sort of a morning because my laptop had packed up (I’m writing this from the replacement) and we’d just watched Small in the Reception assembly dancing to the samba in celebration of all things Brazil.  Apologies Amber for our slightly whacky conversation, as I danced along a narrow wall in celebration.

We will be hosted one of the four Roadshows.  Oh yes, we will.  Oh, no, that means organising something.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

The geek shall inherit the Earth

After the third Ashlyns Conversation on Wednesday night, I can’t help but wonder whether there was some mis-translation early on when the Bible was being compiled.  “The meek shall inherit the Earth” has been an eye-catching and thought provoking phrase for me.  I’m wondering whether the “m” was a mistake and it should have been a “g”.

I’ve read Mark Stevenson’s book, and while feeling out of place in a hip pub in London Mark he did take me through his go-to slide presentation.  While there were adaptations in the talk he gave last night to what I’d read and heard before, it was largely similar.  It didn’t stop me letting out involuntary gasps of astonishment as I sat in Berkhamsted Town Hall while he rattled through his bewildering torrent slides, taking the 70 attendees through already existing technologies such as Star-Wars-like thought controlled robotic hands with sensitive touch, to reversing the aging process using telomerase; from successful competitions to find businesses that can make money by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (without government incentives), to the meteoric rise of renewable energy and algae creating petrol from carbon dioxide and water.

Optimist's Tour of the Future

After the talk I gave a lift to Jean to get her home and save her knees, and worked into the evening to prepare for a client meeting today.  A short night’s sleep later and I’m on a train to Derby, thinking.  What I heard last night changes everything for me.  And at the same time it changes nothing.

It changes everything in that I have to admit that I’m much more optimistic about the potential for us defeating climate change.  Technologies are on the way, and they will come sooner or later whether governments get on board or not.  It changes nothing in that the steps I need to take now are to orient myself in moral philosophy, and help to build and inclusive, collaborative and fair community, starting within myself and working out to my family, friends, neighbours, street and town.

I now have renewed insight and belief that the work of the Transition movement is all the more fundamentally important and pressing.  Climate change will knock us to the floor unless we reduce our individual, local, national and global carbon footprint – we need to give ourselves another decade or two to allow these technologies to come through and help repair our battered planet.  Our humanity, our understanding of our place in the universe and our moral outlook need to keep pace with the onset of the world-shifting technologies.  That can only happen if we get to know the Blaneys next door and the Yarkers across the road, talk about the important things in life and yes, dare I say it, love one another.

The world just around the corner (ooh, I like that phrase) isn’t going to wait for our lumbering political systems and unresponsive behemoths of corporations.  Either through Mother Nature showing her hand or through Fred building a self-replicating 3D nano-printer in his bedroom, government and big business are going to get caught napping.  So we need to be there to help smooth the transition and ride the wave of change rather than get swept aside.

The new insights Mark gave change everything in that the destination I now imagine looks very different from the one I had in mind, with just as much nature and collaboration, but a few more gizmos and a lot more algae.

It changes nothing in that we are still at a crossroads in the history of the human race.  Will we race unthinking into that future, use a shiny new monofilament graphite saw too cut off the branch upon which we are sitting.  Or will we allow our humanity to transcend our animal instincts for competition, to move with self-aware assuredness into a collaborative and equitable paradise.

I’ll probably aim for the paradise option, hope that most of us go the same way, and build a bolt-hole in case those that go for the fast lane try to wipe me out.

A massive thank you to Bex in particular, plus Emma, Phillipa and Ivan for organising the talk, and to Mark for delivering such a profound message to us all.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

A year of Transition

Last year we did quite a bit actually, with the Transition Town here in currently wet and windy Berkhamsted.  The bits I will remember fondly aren’t necessarily those that would grab the headlines.  OK, the headlines I am talking about are in the local rag the Berkhamsted & Tring Gazette.

It won’t be the steering groups and updating strategies that will stick in the mind, even though they have given us the foundations and direction to transition the town as a whole rather than just our own back gardens.  It won’t be the Fresh Local Accessible local food initiative, with the extensive survey of the opportunities, opinion and barriers to local food, mainly because I’ve not personally been involved in that.  I’ll remember singing along while we broke our backs digging up and reclaiming rough ground at the allotment to plant a community orchard with the other allotment holders.  My little bubs running with an excited shout through the runner bean bamboo wigwam thing, and it not collapsing, will stick in the mind.

The work with Safer Routes to Schools, making a difference to plans for traffic so kids can walk around more freely, is great, but I haven’t been involved in that either so it’ll slip the mind.  I will remember finally getting into the habit of cycling everywhere, zipping past Trevor or Kate shouting “hello!” while not being able to wave as I held on for dear life.  It’s great to have got over that initial wobbly stage.

I probably won’t even remember the B-Hive town consultation and all the invention, creativity and scribbling of the townspeople as they designed their ideal town centre.  I’ll not forget how I felt, mouth-agape, as Anna Perry silenced the bustling Civic Centre hall with her breath-taking a cappella rendition of ..?  No wait, I seem to have forgotten that.  I remember the tears in people’s eyes though.  Beat endless meetings with councillors.

I’ll probably forget all of the meetings to organise not one, not two but three big talks – the Positive Money talk with Fran Boait and the first two Ashlyns Lectures, with Ian Roberts and Polly Higgins.  I won’t forget chatting with Ian and finding out we went to the same primary school and that our retired parents are working together on the leisure centre in Beaumaris, or eating Parul’s wonderful vegan curry before being awed by Polly Higgins warmth, wisdom and knowledge.

It won’t be the emails and phone calls organising the first two gatherings of the Transition Towns of Beds, Bucks and Herts that will stick in the mind.  It might be the shared meal with Berkhamsted Transition Towners at Danny and Jo’s understated mansion.

I do like to eat.

I may remember the start of an energy co-operative in Berkhamsted, with the cricket club and potentially one or two of the local schools being lined up by Seb, Tracy, Peter, Tom and John.

The point of this?  I’d like to see Transition Town Berkhamsted grow, not just food, but in numbers and the time we want to put into it, so we can really make the practical steps to live the life we expect to see after the town has transitioned into the future of local energy and food, with less reliance on cars, lorries, planes and fossil fuel and more biking.  Oh, yes, I’d obviously forgotten the Bikefest (but not my 7-year-old Tall cycling out of the Canal Fields car-park without me, onto the main roads and making it up the Bridgewater Road hill without gears during the guided ride – Go Tall).

So my aim for the coming year will be to make the work that we do be include socialising, eating, family, friendship and be attractive for us all to want to spend more time doing it rather than seeing it as a drag .  We can then bring in more members and a lot more will be achieved.

Come to the AGM tonight (Thursday 15 May) at HERE Berkhamsted from 8pm and we can plot a fun year ahead.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

Update on all things Bell

Here goes, for an update on everything climaty (climatey?) going on in my life.

Let’s start from the inside as ever, in true permaculture style.  I have been working on my self-control and freewill.  I’m able to avoid too many biscuits, although the tin does go down too quickly, and haven’t allowed myself to fall into the trap of too much coffee or alcohol. Mrs Bell was away last week during half-term, and a bottle of wine stayed unopened on the sideboard.  Well done me.

I’m going to use nicknames for the kids from now on in the blog, so they will be Tall, Small and Bubs.  Bubs has just got over a bout of chicken pox, which we’re expecting to pass over to Small in the next few days.  I’ve been walking around London with a very muddy jacket after a kick-about with the kids and a few new friends from nearby Tring – I was in goal but only using my head.

I’ve been excessively busy with my business, but still have managed to find the odd day here and there to keep the climate related projects on the move.  The allotment is pleading for my attention, though, with the compost heap sprouting weeds and nothing being sown so far this year.

In Berkhamsted, organisation for the B-Hive public meeting continues apace.  We have sent out invitations to all of those organisations, groups and businesses we have identified as stakeholders in the town, as well as those on the mailing list.  The public meeting will give us a chance to let the people of the town know what happened as a result of the town consultation we organised last year, and for them to influence what happens next.  Interestingly, a survey run by one of the town councillors (and founder of Transition Town Berkhamsted) on the subject of a proposed multi-story car-park (please, no) showed than no matter what our opinion on car parking we all seem to want a more holistic plan for the town – something like 97% of us.

The opportunities seem to be opening up for a community energy scheme in the town as well, with Seb Beloe starting up a team looking into prospects building on the successes down the road in King’s Langley.  Couple that with some possible interest from a local secondary school and we may be looking at lift-off.

Which will tie in well with the upcoming Transition Beds, Bucks, Herts conference on 23 March.  We’ll be meeting up to talk about how to scale up the movement, while avoiding burn-out and taking time to celebrate.

Further out still, the Power Shift UK conference is getting close to having a date and venue in April.  If you get emails from 350.org, you may have seen something about it.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Me, my family and out from there

Where am I?  This post is an update on all the various projects I am trying to keep afloat.  I have a little too much on.

Some deep thinking over the Christmas period, while North Wales was battered with 100 mph gusts, has lead me to conclude that I need to prioritise from the inside out.

What does that mean?  It means I first need to make sure I am taking care of my inner self, then my health, then family, friends, home.  After that I can start to look at my local area, town and then further afield to the rest of the UK and abroad.  Unless I take that approach, anything I do that reaches too far from myself will be built on shaky and uncertain foundations.

So, what I should be doing is training myself to be in the moment, with a grounded understanding of where I am pointing.  Then making sure I get enough sleep, a decent diet and exercise.  I’ll give myself a 5 out of 10 for that – too many late nights, not enough exercise and ending up ahead of myself all too often.

Family life is fun and fulfilling at the moment.  Rowan and I are in a very good place, and the children are a laugh a minute, while still growing fast in all regards.  Little James is enjoying standing, not yet walking.  I’d like to spend more time with them.  8 out of 10 for family.

Rowan and I are trying to sort the house out, with a major, if slow, de-cluttering exercise underway.  An aversion to waste has lead us to hoard leads, toys, magazines, off-cuts, you name it.  So we are trying to be ruthless in clearing it all out.

In Berkhamsted, there is the B-Hive project as well as the Transition Town.  The B-Hive is the community initiative to give a voice to the people of the town to have their say about how it develops, and is now becoming the vehicle to help deliver those needs.  After a town consultation and a 96-page report, we’re now lobbying local government and building up the capacity of the team.

On 22 January, Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB) are hosting the second Ashlyns Lecture, with the incredible Polly Higgins coming to the local secondary school.  Polly is one of the top 10 most visionary people in the world according to the Ecologist, and I am looking forward to her visit.  We’ve been out at the market raising awareness and selling tickets.  Book your place now!

Next steps for TTB are to identify a big project or two to rally the troops around.  My preference would be either community energy or Transition Streets.  I’ll give myself a 7 out of 10 for the local town.

Beyond that, I’m organising two conferences.  The first is for the dozen or so Transition Towns in the area, so we can share our stories and ideas.  The second is the UK Power Shift, part of the Global Power Shift, which links strategically in with the UK climate movement.  The aim of the latter is to link the climate change activity in the UK with each other and to the rest of the world, so we can all feel part of a major movement towards a more responsible future.  I’ll give myself a 7 from 10 for UK and abroad, but this could slip if we don’t get more support.

Oh, and there is the ongoing idea of creating an online platform to allow people to challenge the misleading climate change articles that appear all-too-often in the press.

In general, I’m wanting to build up the number of people involved in the projects in the local town, UK and abroad.  I don’t want to see any of the initiatives collapse, and so I’m trying to make sure there are enough people behind each before I can start to take a back seat and concentrate on one or two priorities.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

It’s not just me

It’s not just me.  There are people and groups active all over the country creating a more caring society.  A week ago Sunday, I organised for people from 11 different Transition Towns in my area meet to work out how we can help each other.  I kept getting thanks for setting it up, although it was so simple to put into place I felt a little bit of a charlatan.

The story starts late last year, when four mature students from Ashridge Business School did a project to help a local organisation get more organised and strategic.  We were very grateful that they chose Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB) as their subject.

After spending time interviewing members of TTB and talking with other Transition Towns, they put together a presentation to let us know their findings.  They told it to us straight, about how far from being well organised we were.  We needed to be clearer about our vision and strategy, have a decent communications strategy and get serious about funding.  While on the one hand this was not easy listening, on the other it gave me confidence that we were heading in the right direction.

One particular recommendation they were keen on was to form closer ties with the Transition Network and with other local Transition Towns.  Together, we could potentially pool resources and get an office or hire someone.
Transition Town BBH - gathering in motion
So when Andrew Davies and Lena Sunblad offered to facilitate a meeting on any subject we pleased, the natural choice was to get the local Transition Towns together.  I felt slightly guilty about the enthusiastic thanks I got at the end of the day as it had been so easy.  The facilitator was already in place, the resplendent Box Moor Trust venue fell into my hands thanks to Marion Baker organising another workshop on local food (“Best Food Forward”) and the attendees almost invited themselves.  That only left getting the marker pens and colourful post-it notes.

Abbots in Transition, Change4Chalfont, Haddenham in Transition, Hemel in Transition, Low Carbon Chilterns, Transition in Kings, Transition St Albans, Transition Town Letchworth, Tring in Transition and Winslow Transition have all achieved a huge amount in the past few years, from apple presses to solar farms, orchards to thermal imaging cameras, guerrilla gardening to recycling for fetes.
Transition Town BBH - Ideas
The baking skill that went into those delicious cakes that everyone brought was something to savour.

We will hold another gathering in a few months’ time, and in the meantime will share with each other where we have templates for starting community energy projects and event recycling as well as physical gizmos like a bike with a smoothie blender attached.

I will be following up with Mike Thomas at Transition Network about how they can help with this process, such as using their website to share resources or assistance with setting up a regional conference next time.

It is uplifting to realise the number of people who are actively creating the inevitable new normal, where happiness, fulfillment, kindness and love are more important than the endless chase for more stuff and more money.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke