One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

You Could Stay In and Watch Eurovision or You Could Come Out Dancing

Ceilidh in aid of "Handcrafted" Durham Town Hall 26th May 2012 with the Scrumpy Badgers

http://handcraftedproject.com/

Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: http://www.floralfootsteps.com or her Etsy shop at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/FloralFootsteps
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

Nailing Fantasy to the Real World

A storyteller’s imagination draws down the silk of another world and nails it to certain real places and objects such that every experience, awake or asleep, real or imagined begins to resonate with the echo of one another and boil with significance. (Me)

During his time in Durham, C.S. Lewis is said to have been enormously inspired by the landscape, the Cathedral, the geography of the place and wove it into many of his writings. In fact “That Hideous Strength” is said to be set around Durham University where Lewis delivered a series of lectures in 1943.

Narnia Lantern in Durham

The Narnia Lamp in Durham

In fact, a bit of local apocrypha attributes one of the lamps by Prebends Bridge to be the very one that inspired the lantern standing at the entrance to Narnia. Today seemed like a good day to go and look at it. There are several street lanterns in the immediate area and many have been replaced with more modern ones but I fancy this old one is near enough.

As I wrote in an earlier post, “The Monstrous Awakening of Imagination“, the geography of the real world becomes resonant with the hinterland of dreams and fantasy if we just let our imagination loose.

For instance, I have been quite fixated on a pair of trees that stand in a field near my house. To my surprise, they cropped up in a story (excerpted below):

… Coming to a pair of oaks by the side of the road, the only shade for several miles of track, Malachi turned the horse aside and we dismounted to rest. I had another opportunity to study my companion, as he had very few words, and I hoped to find something more from his face. We sat opposite each other with our backs against each of the trunks. He had tilted his head back and let the shadows of the leaves play on his closed eyelids. I got little more than a sense that he was a man who was capable of being completely absorbed in whatever the present moment had to give – right now that was some shade and a natural wooden seat among the roots of an oak.

“What do you see?” he asked me dreamily, dropping the question like a key into the well of my thoughts.

“I see two trees.”

“Go on …”

Two Trees

Two Trees

I looked carefully at the two oaks. The one at my back was shorter and slightly stunted. One half of it had been torn away by a storm at some point, leaving what seemed like a mortal wound from which the tree had never quite recovered. The other was much healthier with a good spread of branches and an upright trunk, but not without it’s own wounds, too.

“I see two trees that have grown together in the same ground and yet they are unlike each other in the shape they have taken. The one has thrived better than the other. One is twisted, the other straight. One provides a good shade and the other is living half the life it could.”

“And what do you see?” he asked again, the simple question that unlocks the secrets of every present moment.

I see a choice of two ways that I could grow. Both trees have their wounds, nobody escapes that, but here is one that has become stunted and weak and failed to become what it could have been – a great shade for travellers and a home for the birds. After their own fashion both ways of growing have achieved something; but your tree over there has the better part. I was growing this way, but I think I have the choice to grow the other way.”

“And so you shall.” he said pleasantly, opening his eyes again …

Nocton Cow Factory Update

A Frisian Holstein cow in the Netherlands: Int...

Cows Belong In Fields

Yesterday at a London press conference, the companies behind the US-style cow factory farm propsed for Nocton in Lincolnshire announced that they are pressing on with their plans to build the facility in spite of widespread public concern for the environment and animal welfare. Nocton residents are wondering why London was chosen for the press conference and feel this shows a continuing lack of regard for local people who will be most affected by the plans.

Deborah Wilson of CAFFO (a local campaign group), said: “This proposal poses a grave threat to our environment, particularly the potential pollution of our ground water, with a fragile water aquifer directly under the proposed site … We are also concerned about the health and wellbeing of the residents of several nearby villages, with the potential for airborne particles affecting those with respiratory problems.”

According to The Independent this morning, supermarkets, Sainsburys, Tesco, Waitrose, and M&S have declared their intention not to support the project but to continue using their current suppliers. Morrisons was non commital – shame. A recent Ipsos MORI survey, commissioned by WSPA and based on responses from 2,019 people aged 15+ showed that 61% of the British public would not knowingly buy milk from intensive dairies.

Animal charities, WSPA, CIWF and cowsbelonginfields.org have vowed to continue fighting plans for the Nocton mega-dairy. Yesterday’s announcement included the promise that the size of the herd would be scaled back to 3,770 but it would still be the largest dairy in Britain and run on the US zero-grazing model. These cows would have extremely limited access to the outdoors, no access to pasture, and would be milked three times a day until useless – living out a fraction of their natural lifespan. Cows forced into these levels of productivity are at high risk of health problems such as lameness, mastitis, severe loss of weight and infertility and require intensive management to avoid very poor welfare.

Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is being called upon to open the debate about the future of dairy farming in britain to all concerned groups, and The Government needs to respond with an urgent review of their welfare code, given that such factory farms have never threatened these shores before. Many are calling this a “watershed moment” in British farming.

At 38Degrees, campaigners are pressing on to grow their 20,000 strong petition against the plans, citing the sucess of public opinion so far in getting them moderately altered. “If 20,000 of us managed to force the factory farm backers to change their plan, imagine what 50,000 of us could do! We could force the businesses to abandon the plans altogether, and make sure councils block mega-dairies like this from ever being built.” The petition can be found at http://www.38degrees.org.uk/stop-cow-factory-farms.

The future of farming in Britain could be an idyll of Community Supported Agriculture on a local scale, humane and organic, if we want it. The advent of factory dairies in this country is a big step in the wrong direction and not the only option, but if we sit back, the money and the spin will do it’s work and we could be waking up to what can only be described as a miserable scenario for both people and animals.

Please follow the links to get involved in the campaigns and contact your local MP and supermarket with your concerns.

Sources:
WSPA and 38Degrees.

Links:
EFSA’s report on dairy farming (July 2009)

Blogging Friends: Spreading The Love

See that column on the bottom right? That’s my Blogroll. I wrote this as a static page but was so blown away as I pondered the qualities of my various blogging friends that I thought I’d make it a post, too. These are all people I know offline and I would like to introduce them to you in no particular order:

Nick Howes: Developing leaders and organisations to their full potential.

Nick is the associate Director at LMI UK (Leadership Management), a training and development company that has been going since 1966 – that’s a long time for this kind of company. Nick is based in Coventry. His blog shares gems of wisdom in leadership and training, motivation, planning, and goal setting in a nice informal style.

Liz Coughlan: Geriatric Gapper

I first met Liz when I was about 5 in Zimbabwe. Since then she has travelled and taught all over the world in England, the USA, Zimbabwe, Spain, Argentina, South Africa, Thailand, El Salvador, Malaysia, Italy and Turkey. Currently based in Turkey and retired from teaching, Liz blogs her travel experiences and the colourful life of Istanbul. She also writes at Helium.

Daniel Sladen: true//edible

Daniel was my room mate for the first term at University, he is one of the most intelligent people I know, and a gifted philosopher. He is a tax expert and city banker in London but he is on a mission to share fine recipes and discover an authentic experience of “church” in the 21st Century; both of which he does very well on his blog.

Ben Jiggins: These Thoughts of Mine

Ben is an elf from Middle Earth thinly diguised as a science teacher. He has a thoroughly considered opinion on just about everything so his thoughts are worth a read. Ben blogs about books, films, music and fragments of contemporary culture as well as random uncategorizable stuff.

Gabriel Smy: The Tongues Of Men

Content Guru by day and Novelist by night, Gabriel is a man with a vorpal pen. If pens were swords his would be Saldin’s Scimitar. His chameleonic ability with poetry, web copy, and fiction is an inspiration to me. Gabriel is based in Cambridge and blogs about his coming novel, “The Tongues of Men” and all things writing.

Marika Rose: Theologies

Marika … I can’t really tie it down in a single phrase. She’s an academic theologian with not the slightest hint of bluestocking. Her blog does what it says on the tin, “Theologies”. Marika makes the wierd and wonderful ideas of bygone and current thinkers accessible and relevant to laymen like me.

James: James’ Blog

James IS a giant peach. By that I mean a soul with an engulfing sweetness it would take years to explore. James is based in the cultural melting pot of Bradford and blogs very honestly about his faith. He dares to say out loud the stuff that most of us won’t admit to thinking.

Becky Hunter: visual artist, itinerant art historian, freelance writer

Another of my greatest inspirations, Becky is insanely prolific and seems to cram into a single day what I can only hope to achieve in a week. Where does she find the time and energy to flit between York and Philadelphia, interviewing artists about their work, delivering talks, drawing and creating original artwork, and writing for magazines? She is amazing.

Emily Phillips: Emily Tamara’s Blog

After working like a trojan for several months, fighting off dastardly infections and saving all she can, Emily is at last starting at Nexus Music College in Coventry. Read about her experiences and adventures in faith … or even better, sponsor her!

Sally Heasley: Sally Heasley Illustration

Sally’s artwork has an illustrator’s simplicity of line and lightness of touch. It makes me think of icecream and parasols and has an atmosphere of unihibited joyousness. Her blog showcases her recent work and current projects and she sells lovely screenprints and cards at her www.sallyheasley.co.uk.

Heather Lawson: Home Grown Heather

Heather and her husband, Mark, are urban gardeners taking small steps towards sustainability and The Good Life in Durham, UK. Every time I see them, there is a new idea on the horizon of their ever-widening visions and plans. Heather blogs about the simple pleasures of their little plot and other exciting projects.

Stuart Porter: Eat More Raw

Meet the man who eats 30 bananas a day! Since breaking free from a host of physical ailments – back pain, IBS and fatigue – by changing his diet, Stuart has become an advocate of the raw vegan lifestyle. He proves that you really can thrive on raw fruit and vegetables. He has a YouTube channel and is always pushing the limit of what can be achieved on his diet. He also sleeps without a pillow and runs barefoot – a true man.

Tim Mayo: Cool Christian Culture

Tim works for a homelessness charity and in his spare time he surfs and ponders Christian Culture from the perspective of a visual and new media artist. I love this humble man and his relentless quest to be a better person and live alive. His blog highlights some great charities, beautiful artwork, music and films and tries to see where “cool” and “christian” meet. He plays a mean guitar, too.

Dr. J: Heart Soul Mind and Strength

A man of bass, beats and strong convictions, I have had the privilege of playing in bands with Jason during his years at Durham University. Jason is a DJ and musician, never seen without cans on his head. His blog is a mix of photography, videos and other creative projects. He’s another of those people who crams every day full. Where does he get the energy? Loves God, nuff said.

Sian Aynsley: Literal Librarian

Another Durham graduate from the old university days. Sian held the record as a longtime housemate to my wife until I overtook her a couple of years ago. She has gone on to become one of the new breed of librarians; by that I mean unstuffy, savvy, information management ninjas. Currently working as an NHS librarian and blogging in that niche, Sian always has creative projects going on the side where she lets the artist out.

Robyn Trainer: Floral Footsteps

Robyn Works for the Ethical Superstore and is forging a second career as a photographer, illustrator, and florist. I don’t know anyone who can put so much life into a few penstrokes and a blotch of colour. She blogs about the projects she is working on and the lovely people in her world.

Matt Finn: Confessions of an Undercover Theologian

Matt is the living proof that there is so much more to Geography than colouring in. His blog has been going for years. Matt is doing a PHD and the “undercover theologian” bit is about revealing the theological dimension in absolutely everything he does, geographical and otherwise. His posts are always thought provoking and very current from, “How Emphasis can Quickly Become Reductionism” to, “Keep Anachronisms Relevant”.

Pete Phillips: postmodernbible

Pete is Secretary of the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order Committee and Director of Research for Centre for Biblical Literacy at St John’s College, Durham. He’s also a Dad and an avid tweeter and social media networker. He’s massively involved in advocating for the Bible in a digital age, dashing round the country with a bag full of i-gadgets and writes about all this stuff on his blog. In spite of having such a full mind, you always feel that he is 100% with you when he’s with you – I covet that quality.

Chris Juby: Christian spirituality, web design, reading, music and life

Chris is the arts and media man at my church and runs his own web design show. He shot to fame in August 2010 with his herculean project to tweet the whole bible at biblesummary. He’s one of my most valued brotherly confidants and encouragers. He blogs his worship sets and the books he is reading. Sorted Geezer!

How Local Communities Can Dial Down Dependence on Burning Carbon

(c) 2010, Seymour Jacklin.

Every single individual can make changes in their household, work and family life that will help to reduce their “carbon footprint.” The idea of a carbon footprint is an extension of the term “ecological footprint”, which was an indication of how much land was required to sustain a given human population.

Fossil Fuel

Reducing Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Your carbon footprint is how much Carbon Dioxide is released into the the atmosphere by you and the activities that sustain you. Carbon dioxide is one of the “greenhouse gasses” contributing to global warming. A large proportion of your carbon footprint is caused by the burning of coal and oil to generate the electricity you use or to run the vehicle you drive. As well as reducing our contribution to global warming, decreasing our dependence on carbon fuels will benefit our planet in other ways, undercutting the dependence of the world economy on oil and promoting the development of less polluting alternatives.

Although changes can be made on a household, by household basis, whole communities can band together to tackle carbon dependence to far greater effect. In the United Kingdom, concerned individuals can respond to the challenge by comitting to participate in a national network of  “Transition Towns” and developing a collective plan and vision to de-escalate carbon dependence.

Here are some of the ways that you can go about making a difference:

  • Form a group and begin networking with others with a common interest. This will enable an inventory of skills to be made and it is surprising what creativity and expertise will become available from people who grow food locally, to those with political influence, from artistic and design abilities to trades and educational experience – all of which can be harnessed as part of the collective strategy.
  • Community groups can raise awareness by setting up information points at local events and inviting people to talks by local and national activists, showing films and distributing literature through existing networks.
  • Create forums for discussion and collective problem solving, to look at the specific issues in your area. For instance, is there a dependence on importing goods by road for local consumption when many of these could be locally produced? Could commuters viably set up a car sharing scheme?
  • Run courses using expertise that you have to educate people in skills that they can apply such as growing food, building sustainably, hand-crafting, foraging, woodland management and waste management. These can be run using expertise within the group or arranging for others to come in from outside to deliver teaching and training.
  • Form relationships with local government representatives to enable your concerns to be taken to broader political platforms or influence local planning. Engage in letter writing and advocacy to people in positions of influence or perusuade them to participate in your group.

The net benefit of this collective endeavour goes far beyond merely transitoning your community to a more sustainable future, it brings people together and creates friendships and the opportunity to learn new skills. It can open your eyes to the potential in the people around you and the beauty of the place where you live and work. You may get to revive an old hobby or pass on your knowledge to other people. It may even save you money as you find ways to use less electricity and fuel. You will get to be part of a growing movement that will inhibit the destruction of the planet and the enhance the quaility of life in the society in which you live.

Checkout:

The Durham Transition Network Initative

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