Thursday, 26 April 2007

The power of Lewes

I was talking to Colin Brent, economic historian, this morning and he told me that in Victorian times almost all Lewes businesses were owned by people who lived in Lewes or near Lewes.

Local people owned the gasworks and the waterworks. Local people owned the farms and the shops. Local people owned the barges that went up the river and the breweries. Local people owned the three newspapers and the print-works. Local people owned the foundries, including a big one called Phoenix. Local people owned the banks, including Lewes New Bank, on the site of Barclays Bank, and which joined with other banks to create the first Barclays Bank, a direct line from local to global. The only business that Lewes people did not own was the London to Brighton South Coast Railway, but local people initiated and were shareholders in the Lewes to Uckfield line.

In the age of capitalism, we Lewesians have given away our power; leaving ourselves vulnerable to the hunger of corporate and supermarket agendas and out of town developers. However, the tide might be turning. The picketers at Lewes Arms pulled off a great coup last week; another group is forming a community land trust to investigate community ownership of the land of Lewes, and Lewes Community Partnership is seeking funding to buy the Pinwell Road site for an array of local businesses. With troubles ahead, we might just be waking up to the need to rebuild our resilience and abundance. Colin Brent will be talking at Pelham House alongside Bill Collison and Topsy Jewell at the next Transition Town meeting, ‘Feeding Lewes - Past, present and Future’ Wed 2nd May, Pelham House 8pm, £3

Thursday, 19 April 2007

The hundredth monkey

I’ve never written about the title of this column before. It’s based on a story about monkeys on a Pacific island who started to wash their fruit in the river before eating it. Once a critical mass of monkeys (say 100) had cottoned on to this improvement in their standard of living, monkeys on neighbouring islands started to do the same, even though they were not communicating in any obvious way.

This story - the Hundredth Monkey - is one of the great Urban Myths, made up by a sixties philosopher, Lyall Watson, to illustrate a phenomenon called morphic resonance, a term coined by the scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake himself carried out experiments to prove morphic resonance, which explains why, for example, dogs know when their owners are about to return, and why the more rats complete a maze, the easier it becomes for succeeding and different rats to complete the maze, and so on. Humans also communicate through morphic resonance, or as Karl Jung called it, the collective unconscious. Viva Lewes might call it the zeitgeist. Malcomlm Gladwell writes about it as the Tipping Point. I see myself as one of the first hundred monkeys (or rats) creating new pathways, new stories, to help us live more humanly and within our collective means. Our society desperately needs a new story - or maybe we should revisit some of the great fairy tales and native traditions. Transition Town Lewes is a process of designing a story, or pathway - together - towards a more viable reality. I hope at least 100 monkeys will be at the Official Unleashing of Transition Town Lewes next Tuesday.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Flipping the switch

My brother-in-law Mark emailed me from South Africa last week to tell me about an event to celebrate Earth Day on Saturday. The idea was that people around the world switch off their mains electricity between 7.30 and 8.30 local time. So at the appointed hour we flipped the switch and settled into a peaceful spell of pottering by twilight and candlelight, having baths and chatting.I suspect that a few people saving an hour of electricity didn’t even offset the massive surge caused by people watching the first Dr Who in the new series that hour (including us - I fudged - we put off our start by half an hour to accommodate that habit).

But what going off-grid, briefly, made me realise is that this is what I want, deep down. The feeling was what you get when you walk through an old wood, along the river at sunrise, make love particularly beautifully, happen to coincide with the dawn chorus or spend an hour over supper with your family just chatting. Times like that you feel, this is real; this is what I value.

And every step I take, away from dependence on electricity, cars, supermarkets and all the supposed luxuries of the modern world, feels sane and safe, a step in the right direction. Maybe there a better life just around the corner and it’s only when we do something random and un-habitual that we realise it in a gleeful peak moment. So I say bring it on, flip the switch!