Thursday, 24 February 2011

the real 'big society'

One of the great things about Lewes is that the Big Society has already arrived in another guise; perhaps it has never gone away. Wherever you slice the cake, you see layers of people doing things for other people for nothing. Take public transport, for example. The uber site for this in Lewes is Travel Log Lewes, an up to date website full of ideas and advice of how to travel around without a car, and which also offers a free monthly newsletter. According to Chris Smith, the (unpaid) editor, there are no less than four different walking groups around Lewes, some, including  Lewes Footpaths Group, offering free walks.

On the cycling front, Cycle Lewes has a great website, full of local information and routes and has created a wonderful hard-copy cycling map, with help from District Council funds, available free at the Tourist Information Centre. They also campaign for more cycle routes, including the Lewes-Newhaven route and completion of the route from Ringmer.

Bus-wise, our hands seem to be tied by the bus companies and East Sussex county Council who seem not to realise what a lifeline buses are to the vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t realise, though, we do have a community bus, according to Travel Log Lewes, whose existence is owed to Ruth O’Keeffe and other dedicated local councillors (who by the way are also unpaid).

Trains, obviously, are operated by commercial outfits, but I didn’t realise that, according to Travel Log Lewes, you can get Daysave tickets from the Tourist Information Office that allows you to travel anywhere on Southern Trains for £10 for one and £20 for four if you avoid the rush hours.

In terms of car clubs, Lewes has two informal, volunteer-run car clubs, one, the Silver Bean Car Club is an informal car club I helped start and which reduces the money and hassle that comes with owning a car. If you want to start your own group you can read about how we did it here. And the District Council has also started a car club, run by CommonWheels CIC, with European money, open to everyone in Lewes.

Most Lewes schools now have volunteer-run walking buses that take children to and from school on foot. The District Council’s Think Air campaign still continues to try to relieve the congestion and resulting illegal levels of NO2 emissions on School Hill and Fisher Street.  And Lewes Living Streets is, I believe, still campaigning for a 20mph speed limit throughout Lewes.

Everything I’ve listed above is run by Lewes people for Lewes people, all for free. In a world where the corporations suck money out of the land and out of communities, and try to seduce us so loudly, it’s easy to forget this huge layer of community expertise and goodwill, our local immune system, underlying our wellbeing and ready to spring in to action when necessary. Let’s remember that this huge, often invisible, source of people power is where our resilience lies.

Friday, 18 February 2011

don't bank on it

My cousin Comar has decided to reinvent himself. This week he receives his last paycheck when he packs in his City recruitment job and starts up a local food business, initially selling from a stall at the top of Ladbroke Grove in London. He has a big, permaculture ethics-based vision and I have no doubt he will end up creating his dream of a network of small local food enterprises.

I was telling him on Google Chat about feelings of outrage against the corporate tax dodgers and the banks (Barclays announced a 30% increase in annual profits to £6 billion this week). He pointed out that the government would not be willing or able to curtail their greed. And that no alternative to capitalism exists for us to segue over to. After batting back and forth the issues he pointed out that the best way forward is to no longer depend on any of these systems. Our job is to create effective alternatives.

Looking back, that seems to have been my life’s mission, to cut loose from The Man and help others to. I get a bit fed up with people who think that change has to come from the top. Change will only come from us, and there’s plenty we can do right now. We can change our bank to an ethical bank like the Cooperative. If we have spare money we can put it in an ethical bank like Triodos. We can change our energy supplier to Good Energy, so that all the electricity we use is from the sun and wind. Those are big, easy wins that also make us collectively more resilient.

The point is, together, we’ve got to get off the global money system as it is. Tony Greenham from the new economics foundation told a group of us in Better Banking group of Transition Town Lewes that the problem with banks is that they have unregulated permission to make money out of debt, which essentially transfers money from the poor to the rich (this great 3-minute cartoon says it all). Plus, banks are reluctant to loan to small businesses because there’s too much risk for relatively low rewards. A local money system, which the TTL group is investigating, would mean that money is lent to known people in known markets, by people who want to support other local people; this is what bank managers used to be for.

The banking system, which was designed to serve us, has completely betrayed us. But we can all choose better futures.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

I protest

Of course I was embarrassed that a photo of me being arrested last week appeared on the front page of the Sussex Express. Not only was it unflattering, but the headline, ‘OAPs arrested in Boots picnic demo’ was equally humiliating (I am 50). However, once my ego got over the shock I realised that the whole fiasco, including the illegal arrest, was effective because it had got loads of people talking about the issues. Several schoolchildren who remembered me from Lewes New School were very concerned and gave their parents the chance to unpick the story.

I’ve been occasionally protesting over the years since I was a teenager, and I tend to do it when the feeling of outrage rises up and needs expression. It’s an intuitive thing. Revolution seems to be in the air, yet the underlying causes of the problems – a capitalist system designed to reward the wealthy – economic growth based on increasing use of finite resources and polluting fossil fuels – peak oil imminent – are so endemic, it’s hard to know where things will go.

The sane place for me to turn, when my heart literally hurts, is always towards nature. I’ve been escaping off to the allotment this week whenever I’ve had enough of the computer. Finishing preparations for the spring which is tangibly starting to happen. Harvesting green salads daily from my polytunnel, which feels at times like a little chapel. This week, inspired by my friend Tali, who has a stall at the Friday market, I’ve been picking the first tender shoots of chives, sorrel and parsley and chopping them up fine with goose grass from the hedgerows and mixing with lemon juice, salt and a little olive oil, for a spring zing on our supper.

I’ve been sowing the first seeds into a small propagator I bought over the winter, a little mantra: cucumber, tomato, celeriac, celery, chillies, aubergines, dreaming of sunshine and abundance. I wonder if we’re dreaming our way out of the dark times.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

I protest

Most of us would agree that it is morally wrong for a company to avoid paying taxes in the country in which it is trading. Especially at a time when ordinary citizens are being asked to embrace austerity. And that is why I found myself, with my husband and a few other friends and allies, holding a peaceful protest on a picnic rug in front of Boots in Lewes this Sunday.

As I have written before, if injustices are not being addressed by our leaders, we need to use the power of protest to challenge those injustices. Over time, many changes have been brought about by such protests – such as the votes for women by the Suffragette movement or the end of slavery by the Abolitionists. At the time, the campaigns were denounced as marginal or wrong-headed. But at some point, the issue that was being campaigned about was overturned as a new reality came into play.

There are now some very dark injustices being revealed in our world, and I am particularly exercised by the barefaced bonus culture of baled-out banks and the tax-avoiding greed of corporations and some very wealthy individuals. Boots recently moved its headquarters to Switzerland from where it now pays £14 million in taxes annually compared with £100 million in 2007.

So we settled in on our picnic rugs and I poured a nice cup of green tea from my Baltica teapot and Susan supplied us all with biscuits. We read out Tom Paine quotes. Inevitably, the police arrived, two van loads full. We were politely asked to move, and given a five-minute deadline. I moved just 30 seconds before the time was up and was grabbed by three coppers who demanded I give my name and address. I refused, believing this was my right. They told me that they would arrest me if I didn’t give my details. I refused. They tried to handcuff me; I resisted. They twisted my arm behind my back and marched me, bent over – very undignified – to the police van where I was handcuffed and arrested. My shoulder and my pride were hurt. I was told I would be ‘de-arrested’ if I gave my details. After a while I did, to a police video camera, and was released. Presumably I will now be joining the rising numbers of people logged on a protesters database.  My information is this kind of intimidation is illegal and I will be taking legal advice.

Meanwhile, four of the protesters who refused to unblock the entrance were arrested and taken to Worthing police station and released by midnight, a full 12 hours after the protest.

It seemed appropriate to be celebrating Thomas Paine’s birthday (on 29 January) on the doorstep of Boots because he had some pretty sharp things to say about wealth and tax back in the late 1700s:
‘Separate an individual from society and give him an island or continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property, cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected to the end in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes, on every principle of justice,  gratitude, and of civilisation, part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

‘This is putting the matter on a general principle, and perhaps it is best to do so; for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little from the labour that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.’