Sunday, 26 November 2017

Week 60: (20th to 26th November 2017) or 'A Storm... and a Teacup'

This week, as the topic of the weather unlatched the gates to another conversation, a colleague insisted that we needed a different latitude. I felt like saying "wait around for another million years and that may well happen". The UK is, of course, merely a speck of dust on a piece of a crustal jigsaw. Whoever, or whatever, is shuffling the pieces around is doing it incomprehensibly slowly. But on the move, we are. We have bathed under the equatorial beams of sunlight in the past and no doubt we will again in the future, although perhaps not in our future.

What can we do to improve our collective future? That puzzle, more or less, must underpin the mission of all living things. The pursuit of betterment has been a quest undertaken by plants and animals alike since their genesis. Charles Darwin referred to it as the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Mankind, though a latecomer in the grand kingdom of life, has followed suit. However, perhaps - and I am no expert here - perhaps we as human beings are the only species which actively sit down and discuss how to sustain. As far as I am aware, we're the only species to train a batch of our race to become nurses and doctors, so that we are able to prolong an individual's life as long as possible. We establish targets in order to regulate our use of the Earth's resources. We set up alliances, working groups and organizations that ponder over these matters everyday. Although, as Darwin suggests, we have descended from a web of heritage, a genetic web stretching from the bat to the banana, surely we are alone in our efforts to continue our struggle for life?

The Lancaster Environment Centre recently joined in this effort. Earlier this year, a group of academic and professional staff and students assembled together in a small board room, around a plate of cake. It seems that the presence or absence of cake can do more to influence the attendance of a meeting than any other entity. It must have incentivised me as I, too, was there. Around the table, the Lancaster Environment Centre Sustainability Group was born. It stemmed from an embryonic idea of Dr Jess Davies, who leads the group and together, we are working to put sustainability into action, engaging with the departmental community and the university as a whole, and to act as a platform for debate on sustainability issues. This week saw the group's inaugural event How to be Sustainable, at which this platform was officially unveiled.

A number of speakers mused on what they considered to be the most sustainable way of living. Some were more practical and directly related to those within the Environment Centre. "If it's wrong to wreck the planet, it's wrong to financially benefit from wrecking the planet," Dr Emily Heath suggested, focussing on unsustainable pensions and offering advice on those which are more ethical.  Others spotlighted the wider debates of sustainability, beyond the UK. Julia Loginova took us to Russia to explore the environmental and social impacts of oil extraction whilst Dr Kirsti Ashworth summarised her research into sustainable US cannabis production.

One of the final speakers was Ann Brookes, who presented some postcards from a 'No Impact' week experience. In essence, this evolved from a year long experiment by Colin Beavan, and his family, to lead a zero net-impact life in New York city. The 'No Impact' week was subsequently designed to provide an appetizer of what this experience would be like for seven days. As Ann explained, "the week is designed to address much more than just environment sustainability; it's about increasing personal happiness and social wellbeing".

I recalled a similar passage, written by Herbert Ernest Bates in 1949, in which he remembers upon "a life where everyone...had to clothe himself, feed himself, amuse himself and as often as not doctor himself from the cradle to the grave [...] Are we really witnessing, not symbolically but actually, the destruction of an era, and being drawn back, with corresponding force, to a life that is closer to earth, the element which sustains us? It is a thought that fits in well with a certain observation, expressed elsewhere, that rather than study the habits of the savage in the jungle we should study ourselves, in this jungle of our own."

Some days later, I pulled my copy of Bates' The Country Heart down from the shelf because I remembered a conversation, documented somewhere amongst the pages, between Bates and another formidable writer, E. M. Forster. It was a discussion about the ease, or at times lack of, with which change can be executed in society. Indeed, the 'No Impact Week' is an individual's effort. "Sustainability," as Ann Brooks reminded us "isn't achievable alone - we need to work together!" But there are moments when one can feel that even the best collective efforts from a community, such as the LEC Sustainability Group, are not large enough to render any meaningful and impressionable change. I eventually happened upon the passage:

"How many people care if the country tomorrow is different from the country today...It is true that some people, perhaps an increasing number of people, care very much. But do the right people care?" 

I hope they do, for all of our sakes.


There is something quite ethereal, almost unbelievable, about a cloud. From the ground, a storm cloud is an impenetrable ceiling of lead that defies even the most radiant light to singe through. And then you notice a small aircraft climbing up the walls of this sky, accelerating towards this very ceiling and you wonder how this piddling needle will ever pierce through. But it does, and you are left concluding that any cloud, however dark, is purely a phantom roaming the skies, drifting in some other dimension.

Night falls and the light, that had seemed to be entrapped by the clouds, is extinguished. And you go to bed.

The next morning, the sky is free from drifting coal but you are ankle deep in cold, turbid water. There is no ground anymore, apart from some solid base lingering twelve inches below. You gaze out the window to find sofas floating down the street. Wheelie bins have set off from your front gardens like cruise ships. Cars become submarines. Chair legs become anchors. The boundaries to yesterday's rivers have been erased almost as easily as an artist could manage. It is when your whole life paddles through the realities of a flood, that you can turn back towards a sky of clouds and wonder how you ever underestimated them.

Pockets of Lancashire were subjected to record rainfall this week; 1.7 inches in 24 hours. All told, twenty-seven residents had to be evacuated from their homes in Galgate and seventy from the north of the county. 120 premises were flooded, including a couple of lecture halls at Lancaster University.


I was off to the theatre. For £4.90, you can sit in the stalls all day and spectate upon the most fascinating of performances; the very best representation of contemporary urban life. The acts are unscripted, unannounced and unrehearsed but select any performance (and there are many within a day) and you're guaranteed a pageant worth all 490 pennies. I chose the 12:35pm showing. Oh, and the theatre's name? The 'Number 4'. 

I took my seat in this touring theatre and as it steadily withdrew from the pavement, the first act began. People you assumed were fellow spectators suddenly burst into role, and at each stop along the journey, a few would exit, and a few would take their place on the stage. Sitting backstage behind a screen is the director of this traveling play. His name is 62815 on my ticket, but he is known to the cast as 'Driver'. "Thanks, Driver," they say, as they step off the stage. Driver's job is to ensure each scene runs to time and often, when this isn't achieved, the cast are quick to inform him. If only they realized that, quite apart from running the show, he is also in charge of managing the audience. 

"Can you girls keep it down," the director cried out, staring at the reflection of three very loud, teenage members of the audience, in his rear view mirror. They had boarded a few scenes after me, and were not paying attention to the events happening before them. 

Let's meet the cast in Scene 8 or 9. There's Peggy, who wears a plum-red anorak and crowns it all with a mop of silver, which makes it seem that she's accidentally left her hair out in the garden overnight and it's caught the frost. Peggy needs work on speaking impromptu, as she sits in silence for most of her scenes. Doris, who sits opposite, has mastered the skill. Little, bar the sudden jaunt at an unexpected traffic light, can stop Doris from speaking and it appears she finds delight in issuing her soliloquy to thin air if a fellow cast member has wandered off-stage. And so, as I sat there, I began to listen to her Life and Times before a flood of characters came aboard at the bus station to drown out poor Doris. 

"I'm off for ma big shup...Asda," Margaret exclaimed. Margaret wears a sheepskin that speaks for itself; that is informing us, the audience, that many generations of lambs have been reared since the one responsible for Margaret's costume. 
"Oooh, off for a big shup at Asda, are you?" Sue is Margaret's friend, and has a habit of rephrasing each of her statements into a question. Their on-stage presence is priceless. 
"Yeah, the big Asda, you can get all the big bargains in there, you can."
"All the big bargains?"
"I got this the other day," Margaret says, withdrawing the face of Daniel O'Donnell from her handbag. "It's Danuel O'Dunnell, got it nine ninety-nine, all his greatest hits."
"You got it nine ninety-nine?" Sue checks to confirm. 
"Off for washing powder today...Bold. I'm off for Bold today."
"Is Bold the one you get?"
"Yeah, I do ma washing this aft-noon..." 

The plot thickens. Next on stage is a young boy, who enters clutching a miniature helicopter. His grandmother ushers him unsuccessfully into a seat at the front, oblivious it seems to the fact that the stage manager inside her grandson's mind informs him that the most exciting seat is further towards the back. "Can you make it work, nanny?" he asks, handing over the aircraft to Nanny. "I can try..." and suddenly she has changed character. She is no longer Nanny but an aeronautical engineer. 


The director keeps his appointment with the final kerb. The show has run to time and the first act is complete. The cast exit out the stage door for the interval. I made a quick dash through the rain to one of those last remaining plinths of quintessential Englishness: a tea-shop.

Taste, alone, does not mark the success of the tea-shop. There is a music to be enjoyed here. If ever (God forbid it) I lost my sight, I would take myself to a tea-shop for reassurance that I had not wandered unguided across a bridge to some distant country. I would open the door - manually, of course, and listen out for a charming bell to sound a high-pitched A above me. I would sit and relish the dainty voice that is the chatter between crockery as they are delicately stacked together by waitresses. I would listen to the sound of a teaspoon as it is gently tapped thrice against the cup and then one satisfyingly final ring as it is placed back down on the saucer. I would take note of the staccato chink chink chink as a bill is percussed into a cash register and the chorus of jangling coins as the cash tray springs open.

"It should have voided... I just don't understand it". Sheila is more adept (probably) with a cake slice than her cash register. "It's giving me...£16.94... I don't want £16.94." 
"I wouldn't mind £16.94," I said to another customer, as I took my seat behind a large red chess-board of gingham tablecloth. Suddenly, a long receipt, akin to an Egyptian scroll of erroneous numbers, was fed into Sheila's hands. I began to gaze around at the paraphernalia that adorns the artex. A pizza cutting board was hanging just above my tea and scone. Dotted around were some very old photographs too, most of which demonstrating what used to occupy this space about a hundred years ago. The similarities are reassuring. Modernity, or at least that frenetic hurly burly which whizzes around most cities, clearly doesn't care for Chamomile tea. The closest one gets to the 'current' here are those found in one of Tracy's homemade scones. 

Tracy is the chef. She remained out of sight until she swung a two-way door ajar and chaperoned three bowls of broth to the table next to me. The broths were welcomed with the "ahhhhhhs" that Tracy is accustomed to hear from those who have mustered enough miserable weather for one day. 
"It's the day for soup, apparently," she says. 
"Oh, aye. Aye!" one of the men replied, taking in a big breath of broth.

A handwritten message is sellotaped to Tracy's leather-bound menus. It reads: "Due to rising costs, we have had to raise some of our prices. Our appologies for this, but we look forward to your continued loyal custom". (She obviously doesn't pay for the use of her P's). Despite this message, Tracy can be in no doubt about the continuation of loyal custom. Sheila's warming welcome - when she's not arguing with the cash register - cultivates this loyalty. Here, in this northern tea-shop, every customer is a 'luv' and they can expect Sheila to be nonchalant with the bill. "Oh, let's call it £1.80," she will say, knowing deep down that doing so will bring them back to pay £1.80 next week. 


As I bid farewell and opened the door, the quaint bell sounded again; a chime that rings all the way from a bygone age. I crossed the road and stood in the queue for the next 'show-on-the-road', the Number Four, back to the university. Soon, the four-wheeled theatre arrived. The door burst open and we boarded to take our seats. The second half was about to begin...

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