Thursday, 9 May 2013

Is there life without car?

Having recently given up my car after more than 10 years of ownership, I've been mulling over why I already feel so different. Is it because I'm looking forward so spending hundreds of pounds less on transport than I did last year? Or because my carbon footprint is suddenly looking so dainty? Or maybe it's the knowledge I'll no longer have to manoeuvre the vacuum cleaner between the seat and the gear box, in an irritable effort to reach that last piece of mouldy sandwich.

Actually I think it's more complex than that – for while the benefits of going without a car are many, so are the disadvantages. For one thing, I will truly miss the act of driving. Although my little car would never have caught the notice of Top Gear enthusiasts, I enjoyed feeling at one with it as I scanned the road ahead of me, keenly cultivating my animal-like reflexes. My feet hovered over their pedals like eagles poised to attack, as I practiced making ultra-smooth gear changes for the comfort of my passengers. Indeed, I relished the ability to offer a lift to anyone in need, giving something back for all the hitch-hiking I'd done in younger days.

Aside from the visceral pleasure of speed, the car also offered a sense of self-sufficiency – a feeling that no matter what happened, I would be ready. On weekends away, I'd bring running shoes, hiking boots, wellies, "presentable shoes" – and all their related items of clothing. The sense of adventure was palpable as we'd set off – who knew where we'd end up? Swimwear, musical instruments, a bottle of wine, gifts for hosts, a picnic for the journey . . . there was room for everything.

Market days in the nearby town were a highlight of the week, when I'd stock up on anything that caught my eye, with no concern for weight or bulk. Sacks of potatoes, pumpkins, seasonal fruit – and why not bring home a little apple tree? I was the crafty hunter-gatherer, bringing back spoils for the tribe. And the road ran both ways: on my way in to town I could drop off all our empty tins and bottles at the recycling yard, making space for a fresh hoard.

But things have changed, and I've got to accept my new status. I'm no longer the carefree creature who "nips" into town or down to the beach. That bionic woman with an engine and wing mirrors, fearless rescuer of rain-soaked pedestrians, is no more. Suddenly I'm just a girl with a bike – and a growing stack of empty cat food tins that will soon need carrying down to the main road for recycling.

If last year is remembered for its camping weekends and spontaneous visits to outlying friends, this year may be the year of increased intimacy with the bus timetable – not to mention the weather. On dry days it will be pleasant to cycle the three miles to the market, but I'll have to limit my purchases to whatever fits in the bike bags – and then if I need to leave the bike while I run other errands, I'll just have to trust that no one will be tempted to pilfer my unsecured loot.

Yet despite the hassle of having to plan ahead, the loss of freedom to visit farm-dwelling friends, and all the other limits suddenly placed on my lifestyle, I feel a surprising sense of anticipation. Surely it's not just the financial savings, although the money will be a big help. A leaner body is another good reason, and I'm already revelling in the challenge of using my own strength and stamina to get where I need to go.  
Yet deeper than this is a growing conviction that we've got to start living on a smaller scale, start enjoying the friends and family who live nearby, and start thinking about how we get around – all of which go hand in hand with decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.

Most people already know that cars pollute. Many of us have already have made an effort to drive less and to share lifts. But so far there has been no coordination, no big vision for how we might make a transition from a culture where 29% of greenhouse gases come from transport, with 40% of this coming from private cars.

Rolling along in my fossil fuel-guzzler I sometimes felt like a relic from the past: still here but facing imminent extinction. It seems so silly, and even sad, to be sucking down the last bit of easily accessible oil just to fuel shopping trips and Sunday excursions. I can almost hear the disbelief in the voices of future school kids learning about the history of energy: "You mean they used up millions of years' worth of oil in 150 years? Why didn't they save some of it for us?"  The epithets passing through their minds would likely be unprintable when they realised that not only had we used up all the juice, but by burning it so quickly we'd left a legacy of floods, droughts and severe storms caused by the instability of a warming planet.

If future generations have good reason to condemn us, will they also concede that we tried to correct our mistakes? I think so, at least if they learn out about "Zero Carbon Britain," the energy scenario developed by one of Europe's longest-standing environmental centres. Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has been looking into the hazards of climate change and peak oil since the mid-1970's, and have been credited with bringing renewable energy technology into the mainstream.

These days CAT maintains a think tank of experts whose sole job is to gather information on the feasibility of avoiding catastrophic climate change. And the good news is that they think it is avoidable. With a programme of "powering down" (reducing demand) combined with "powering up" (making renewable technologies the norm), CAT says we stand a good chance of avoiding the really dangerous climate change – that is, if we can act now to prevent the earth's temperature rising by 2˚C or more.
Much of their vision relies on convincing government to make sustainability more of a priority: insulate homes, modernise land use, harness more of the UK's vast wind resources. But there's definitely room for us as individuals to help, too. Home heating is the largest single culprit of emissions, so it's vital that homes get better insulation and make use of appropriate renewable energies. But the next biggest emitter is transport – of course it's up to the government to improve rail infrastructure and town planning, but we have a role to play too. If we can cut back on air travel and driving, we'll make a big difference. That's something we can do now, while we look forward to cheaper and more efficient electric vehicles.

Of course, there are alternatives to having your own car: car share clubs have become quite common in recent years; members say it's liberating to have access to a car, yet share responsibility for maintenance, insurance and parking costs. My nearest car share group is in the town 3 miles away, so I suppose that system wouldn't be ideal for me. There are, however, neighbours who might consider sharing their car, if it meant I'd be chipping in for costs – it's definitely something to consider.

No doubt there will be times when I'll dream of owning a snazzy electric car (particularly when a downpour finds me on my bike). I'm certainly not promising never to drive again. But I'm eager to do my bit to cut carbon emissions now, and for as long as I can, by doing without a car. Who knows – I might even enjoy it!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

My Journey to Official Residence

In June I took the “Life in the UK” test, which is a prerequisite for applying for citizenship or indefinite leave to remain. The Home Office offers a book that contains all of the information used to formulate the test, so I had been studying for a few weeks before driving up to Llandrillo College in Conwy to take the test. There were six of us in the room, and we learned afterwards that four of us had passed. I treated myself to a cream cake in one of the many tea rooms in Rhos-on-Sea afterwards to celebrate, and began to think (in other words “worry”) about the next challenge: my application for “Indefinite Leave to Remain.”

Having lived and held a work permit in the UK for five years, I was eligible to apply for this long-term residence permit, which would remove conditions from my stay. It would allow me to work in any job, instead of only as part of the music duo “Ember,” as specified on my work permit. It would also free me from the need to apply for more visas or work permits, as long as I was never absent from the country for more than two years.

So I compiled my application, with evidence of my work, finances and continuous time spent in the country. I also asked for letters of support from my employer, and from some of the theatre and festival organisers who have booked Ember in the past. For good measure I rounded up a selection of reviews and publicity about our music from over the years, to show how very busy we have been. . . and finally I made sure I had the £1095 in my account to pay for the application!

The people in the Cardiff public enquiry office were very friendly, and after I handed in the application and paid the fee they advised that I go look around the town centre for a couple of hours, as it would be more pleasant than hanging around the small, crowded waiting room. So I took their advice and found the high street, with plenty of shoe shops to keep me occupied. And, in fact, I did find a couple of contenders for summer sandals, but decided it would be bad luck to buy myself shoes before I knew the outcome of the application.

After two hours, they still hadn’t rung my phone to ask me to return, but I couldn’t face any more shopping so I returned to the dreaded waiting room, and asked the security man to tell someone I’d returned. After a while a man came out and asked me a question about my application. It was a scary question, as it seemed to imply that my time in the UK may not have added up to five years. I answered the best I could. He went back behind the door. This happened three or four more times over the course of an hour or so. My heart was wildly fluctuating, and I could see the other applicants in the room looking by turns exhausted and fearful, but then remarkably poised when they were approached by an officer holding their papers.

Eventually there was only one other person sitting in the waiting room with me. She and I took turns standing up and walking over to look out the window at the typically grey and uninspiring street scene below. I happened to be sitting when my officer, whose name I never learned, walked out and handed me my folder. “You’re all done. You’ll get your passport in the post with the sticker in it within five days.” He was very matter of fact. I was so relieved and grateful, I shook his hand vigorously and thanked him, which seemed to amuse him somewhat. Then I caught the bus back to the station, in time for the 5:43 train back to Machynlleth. As I walked to my platform, I recognized a woman I’d seen in the waiting room. She was just settling into a seat in the cafe, and pouring herself a glass of white wine. I had already bought myself a celebratory can of Guinness, which I opened as soon as the train began to move.

When I arrived home several hours later, there were big yellow letters in the window spelling out “HOORAY,” and the unmistakable sound of the gramophone playing some lovely smaltzy 1940’s jazz. Paul appeared from the conservatory with a bottle of wine in his hand, poured me a glass and then grabbed me for a waltz until the music stopped. The cat was there too. We were all very happy.

Since then I have felt much more grounded. It’s made a difference to my state of mind, knowing that I can stay here as long as I want. Once or twice I have felt worried for a moment, about nothing in particular, and then had to remind myself: I don’t have to worry about that any more! It had been weighing on my mind for a long time, as I feared they might find some reason to turn me down. I’m very grateful to have been accepted as a permanent resident, and might even consider applying for citizenship, when I’m eligible in another year.

Paul and me after our traditional "river walk" on Solstice

the river (alright, so it's more of a stream)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Arts in Transition Conference, 2 December 2009

Tomorrow is day one of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.  Like others around the world I am crossing my fingers that the conference will result in a treaty appropriate to the danger level we are facing.

Of course we all know that crossing our fingers won’t do much, and that’s why we can be grateful for organisations like Centre for Alternative Technology, located here in mid-Wales.  The Centre was founded in the the mid-seventies as a reaction to the fuel shortages of the time, and these days the staff continue to track climate change science, while working to spread the word about how policy and individual behaviour may need to shift in the coming years.

To this end, the creative minds at C.A.T. are always finding new ways to engage the local community, a recent success being the “Arts in Transition” conference, held December 2nd in a wing of the new education building.  In my capacity as a songwriter, I was pleased to be among the local artists invited to hear a series of short presentations by C.A.T. staff, with plenty of time in the schedule to discuss the issues with the specialists, and with the artists in attendance.

BBC-commissioned radio playwright Sarah Woods facilitated the meetings, beginning with an acknowledgment of the difficulty artists face in forging a path between “finger-wagging and the hippie viewpoint,” when trying to portray relevant modern issues.

Long-term staff member Tanya Hawkes pointed out that in Wales sustainability is an integral part of politics, more than in the rest of the UK.  There is also the encouraging fact that other countries such as Norway, Iceland and Costa Rica have been making ambitious pacts amongst themselves, thereby getting a head start on the global treaty process.  So all is not doom and gloom!

Although I was only able to attend the morning session, I was stimulated the event, and by the presence of so many motivated local artists.  As far as I could tell it was quite theatrical bunch, but there were also a number of visual artists, many of whose work I had previously enjoyed. 

Some of my favorites:

Pippa Taylor, wood sculptor

Meri Wells, ceramic sculptor

Caitlin Shepherd, illustrator and textile designer

 Local film-maker Pete Telford covered the conference, and has posted an article on his Culture Colony website with photos and details of the presentations.

 Thanks to C.A.T. for an inspiring few hours; I have great hopes for the ability of artists to draw climate change into our collective conscience.  Now lets cross our fingers for Copenhagen. . .

Friday, 25 September 2009

Dysgwraig dw i! I'm a (Welsh) learner!

Autumn is with us, and like all good children, I’m back in class.  Have just begun my second of year of intensive Welsh language, taught by the inspiring Sue Evans, of Penegoes.   I must admit I was originally skeptical about learning from a non-native speaker, but within an hour of class, it was clear she could explain the ins and outs of Cymraeg as well as any native speaker -- perhaps even better, with the experience of having learned it herself.  Sue is a natural comedienne, and laughter is a big part of the class; I find this eases the frustration when those stubborn, aging synapses refuse to fire.

Faint o bobl sy‘na yn y dosbarth?    How many people are in the class?

Mae ‘na bymtheg person yn y dosbarth.    There are 15 people in the class.

 Yes, it’s rather large, for a language class.  But how can you exclude someone who comes along with a sincere wish to learn?  I can see it’s not easy.  Oh well, wish as luck as we delve into this beautiful and mysterious ancient Celtic language.  And as we summon up courage to use it in the shops and cafes of Machynlleth!  

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Otley Folk Festival 2009

Otley!  A playground for folkies one weekend each September, and Em and I were pleased to be part of the program, after a couple of years away.  Aside from the obvious thrill of playing on stage at festivals, we really value the chance to sit down and hear some of the other bands.  We definitely lucked out this time, as the organizers had booked a range of great talents --  many of them women, I'm pleased to say.
Some observations on what I saw and heard:

Mawkin Causley.  Of course I'd heard the name many times in recent years, and had been mildly titillated by the soft-core porn they handed out as promo material at Cambridge Folk Fest last year.   I had also heard Jim Causley sing with Devil's Interval, but was curious to see what "folk's boy band" would get up to.  And on this sunny Saturday afternoon, the boys didn't disappoint.  

Variety was the name of the game, with different combinations of the five musicians on and off stage, playing a mixture of driving tunes and sweet ballads.  Causley's voice surprised me again with its depth and maturity --and it was so English to my ear -- very refreshing, as I've just come back from the States.  They played a quite funky version of "The Cutty Wren," a melody I'd previously known as belonging to the incredibly driving revolution song "Ned Ludd" by activist group Seize the Day.   

Causley also insisted on singing a song about "summer girls," an elaborate description of a particularly lovely lady amongst many.  One can't help feeling it's a bit out of context, as he seems more inspired by men in chains, but he shrugged off any confusion at the end of the song by explaining it was about Dylan Thomas' life.  Perhaps it was the sailor aspect that had originally appealed to him.

The highlight came near the end of the set: an original tune that started out with just fiddle and button accordion.  It began with a pronounced French flavor, and as it progressed the grace and courtliness of the tune put me in mind of Baroque chamber music.  After a heavenly minute or so of this unusual, elegant stuff, the bass player and guitarist stepped back on stage and join in.  At first just a few gentle chords. . . and they were off . . . with another great jig.   Enjoyed it very much; will try to catch them in the evening next time, as I'd bet they'd be more warmed up.  And as they claim to be a boy band, could we hope for a few more dance moves?

Anna Shannon.  She's a statuesque woman with big, shiny 80's-era hair.  But close  your eyes, and she's a voice from war-time Britain: a somewhat  desperate hawker of black-market goods:  brandy, and a little salt for your meal.  "Sweet Home," the next song in the set, offered more room for the softness of her voice to emerge.  Throughout the set I was struck by the overall fluidity, and her ability to move from the tough nasal tones of Marianne Faithful,  to a more tempered, honey-like quality.  Always perfectly intoned, and with a steady, subdued guitar as her base, Shannon is an inspiring performer.  Exploring the consequences of infidelity in "Velvet Green" with a sinister intensity similar to Lal Waterson's "Midnight Feast,"  Shannon drew the set to a very satisfying close.  I must say it's encouraging to see a woman old enough to have grown children playing a main stage festival slot; I'm just surprised I never got to hear this award-winning songwriter before now.