Thinking

Day 15 – Gunthorpe to Newark

Miles: about 14

Weather: Glorious sunshine, again. The river goddess is still smiling on us.

We set off from Gunthorpe early (for us) about 8.45am. It’s a part of the river I’ve walked along many times, so it was nice, but kind of strange – so much of the time we’ve been walking in places we’ve never been before. It felt odd, in a way, to be walking along river bank I’ve walked along hundreds of times over the past ten years Mum and Dad have lived in Gunthorpe.

I was even more teachery than normal, pointing out sites of interest to Ross. I’m sure that was very interesting and educational for him… We tromped along pretty effectively, but still made surprisingly poor time to Fiskerton, getting there at about 11.30am. We’d pinned our tea hopes on the Bromley Arms, but they were cruelly dashed as we arrived to find the pub shut. By immense god fortune though, a stag party were outside, wanting to buy 30 pints of rubbish lager. They’d sent a scout to track down the landlord and get him to open early. It’s not often one’s happy to see a stag party…

They were all dressed as Robin Hood and his merry men (as you do), which looked a bit uncomfortable in the heat. They asked about the ukelele, and we explained our strange mission. We offered to tell them a story, but they seemed more interested in the rubbish lager…

The Bromleys Arms tea was excellent. He even gave us three teabags in one pot of tea, so the tea was actually strong enough.

For the last part of the walk, Ross had been rehearsing, playing his ukelele, as we walked along. The event was in Newark Castle Gardens. We felt properly troubadoury today. We made it just in time, after Mum and Dad picked us up in Averham and arrived at a sunny castle just before 2.

We got an audience of about ten people – all sitting on chairs on the grass, cos Mum and Dad decided we needed chairs. It went well I think. My lovely friend Bev Gibbs came along, which gave me an excuse to say, ‘Is there anyone here from Burton on Trent?’ when introducing the Burton beer story. We like a bit of audience participation.

It was interesting talking to Bev about it afterwards. She’s doing a PhD at Nottingham Uni on ‘Scientific Citizenship’. A lot of her research is about informal science engagement and things like science festivals. She said she was surprised at the way the show kind of connected people in a place to other places along the river, giving them a different sense of the river.

That had been part of my thinking with it, but something I’d almost forgotten about as we go along, focussed so much on the day-to-day and minute-to-minute practicalities as we are. But the way the river connects people and places, and the way we are physically travelling along that connection, was part of what makes it seem real and powerful to me, as an idea.

You’ll have to forgive the rushed nature of this post, but I’m horribly aware I’m days behind on the blog and want to catch up at least. Thinking properly and writing well will have to wait til after we’ve finished… I guess what’s really going around my head from the last couple of days is the way Bev, and her questions, has made me step back again and think about the big picture and what we’re trying to do with Tales from the River.

She asked why we’re walking it, rather than driving or cycling or whatever. I’ve got a sense of the answer, but I couldn’t quite formulate it. It’s to do with actually physically moving on your own two feet through the place and the landscape. We’re travelling in a way humans have used for thousands of years – our ancient ancestors could have done this journey. Neanderthals could have done this journey. They wouldn’t have had compeed, and OS maps, but still. Or maybe it’s just that walking from the source of a river to the sea sounds mythical, and some part of my brain likes to pretend I’m Gandalf.

I still can’t pin it down, I suppose. But there’s something about it that makes me happy we are doing it on a lot of different levels. And it was really lovely staying with Bev. Not just cos she’s a lovely friend and made us bacon sandwiches and plied us with wine and was a perfect hostess. But because she asks good questions. And I like that…

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Day 13 – Day off, sort of

We had a total day off Tales from the River-ing. No walking, no performing. So of course I was going to London to speak on a panel for #scicom21. Ross said to me, ‘You know, normal people would say, “I’m walking the River Trent then, I can’t do it.”‘ But of course, I agreed to do it ages before we’d set a date to do Tales from the River. Anyway, I wanted to go, and see old friends, etc.

However, when I had to get up at 6.45am on my ‘day off’, I didn’t feel so keen, it must be said. But it was a great day, with some interesting sessions. And it was lovely to see old coursemates and other science communication people I know. But I’m mainly going to take this as a chance to share some thoughts I’ve been having about rivers.

One old friend I was talking to, Liam McGee, used to work for the Environment Agency. He told me that years ago, the EA did some research in Stoke-on-Trent. They stopped people in the street, in Stoke-on-Trent, and asked them what river flowed through the town. Over 50% didn’t know.

Now of course that sounds very funny – the clue’s in the name, people! – but having followed the Trent through Stoke, I can see why.

A sad and neglected looking Trent, with weeds growing round the sides and some rusty pipes and barbed wire going over it.

The Trent, in Stoke

The river is tiny there, and most of the time you can’t find it. It flows under roads, in between houses, it’s neglected and overgrown. We were wandering round carparks swearing at our OS map, going, ‘It must be round here somewhere!’

Ross trying to look at an OS map, by a busy road, and looking confused. Ross has a beard and dark curly hair and is wearing a rucksack.

The Trent isn’t a feature here, the way it is in Nottingham. So even though it’s what the town was named for, and even though in a roundabout sort of way it’s responsible for the town’s former prosperity*, it’s been forgotten.

Similarly (well, not very similarly, but bear with me), when I was doing the google map for the route page, I discovered you can’t get google maps to follow a river. If you put two placemarks in a place where there are roads, google map can draw a route between them, along the roads. But you can’t do the same thing with a river.

Essentially, the map doesn’t really know the river is there. Roads are more real to google maps than rivers are. It barely bothers to give the rivers names.

This seems crazy to me. Surely, rivers are exactly the kind of feature the earliest maps were invented to show you? Rivers are major (often impassible) features in the landscape. They’ve been there for thousands (tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands) of years. To our ancestors they really mattered. But to google maps they are less real than the roads humans have made in the last few years and decades.

It says something sad to me about the way we regard the natural world, and what we think is important. And about our alienation from it.

*A geographer told me that part of the reason Stoke made its fortune from pottery, is that it was lucky enough to have a seam of good quality clay, next to a seam of coal (to fire the kilns with). As the river cut through both it had exposed them, and this is most likely why people around Stoke realised their luck and started using both to make pots.

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Which river do you think we should do next?

Despite the blisters, the nettles and the variably attentive audiences we are totally loving this. You know how your day-to-day life sometimes seems to go by in a blur with nothing happening for weeks on end? Tales from the River seems to have lasted for months already, ‘cos so much happens every day.

So we want to do another one. Lots in fact. What river do you think we should do next?

Ross suggested the Yorkshire Derwent, cos that’s his childhood river. And it’s only about 90 miles long. We could do it in a week.

Angela Cassidy suggested the Norfolk Broads, and thinks the local Geography Dept and public engagement people would be well up for getting involved. Which would mean we could do some interesting stuff like get more ‘experts’ involved in telling their stories, and maybe hook up with existing community projects or consultations.

What river do you think we should do?

Categories: General, Thinking | 16 Comments

Day 5 – The long dark night of the soul (or, Rugeley to Kings Bromley)

You know sometimes, when you’ve got stuff to do the next day, and you wake up about 4am thinking, ‘Are we late?’ Then you realise it’s hours until you need to get up, but it’s really hard to get back to sleep because what you’ve got to do is all running round your head? We’ve been doing that a lot.

Last night, I woke up at 6am, when someone in the next room’s alarm went off, with the same ring tone I use. It wasn’t that loud or anything, but my brain was obviously on a hair trigger and worried about over-sleeping. I couldn’t get back to sleep.

I lay there in the dark, thinking about what’s happened over the last few days, and what’s ahead. It wasn’t pretty. Some of the things I was thinking about:-

We’ve put so much work into this – for the last two months we’ve been working flat out, often until 11 at night, or into the early hours some nights. And yet we still haven’t got places to stay in most places. Neither have we got a show that’s as perfect and polished as we planned. The admin took so much more time than we envisaged, there wasn’t as much time left for research and rehearsing as we’d have liked. Maybe this is normal – if you had a realistic idea of how much work was going to be involved in a new project, you’d never start it… But it makes me wonder what all those late nights were for.

We’ve had several shows now when almost no-one turned up. I was going over and over things trying to work out what I could have done differently, how I could have explained things better. Some people get it straight away – I’ve had a great response from other public engagement people – but maybe it was completely naive and stupid to think that people not steeped in a certain set of ideas about public engagement, and people who don’t know me and get where I’m coming from, were going to see the potential in the idea without a lot more work on my part.

But how and when could I have done any more work on this? We’ve got no funding. I wanted to do something that wasn’t about the money, that just gave us the chance to completely experiment. But we couldn’t have afforded any more time – three months is a pretty long time to not be earning any money as it is.

People don’t seem to have really taken on board what we were trying to do. For example, at Staffs Wildlife HQ, we had a lovely time, but no-one who worked there came to the event. They obviously just saw it as a bit of entertainment for visitors. But it’s supposed to partly be a chance for people whose work is connected to the river to sit down and share stories and get ideas from each other, and from other people. It’s supposed to breed new ideas and creativity and help connect people to each other. It can’t do that if people don’t come. But why should they come? It’s my baby, my vision. Have I just been completely self-absorbed to think that people would love the idea as much as we do and get behind it?

I guess I’m unrealistic about what it’s like working for big organisations and how much leeway people have. Yesterday I got an email from a woman at Severn Trent. She wants to put something on their website about us, could I send her a copy of the press release? She couldn’t just get it off the website herself because their IT network blocks ‘blogs, etc’. It just had never occurred to me that in 2012 corporate IT networks block blogs, even for people in comms. How on earth does anyone do their jobs? How do they know what people are saying about them?

I guess this means that a lot of the people we’re hoping to reach with this can’t even access the website. They certainly won’t be logging on every morning to check our progress. Furthermore, if they aren’t even trusted to have access to half the internet, they definitely aren’t going to be trusted to get some experimental public engagers, armed with walking boots and a ukelele, in to do an event, and budget to put them in a B+B. And people working in that kind of environment aren’t going to volunteer their own spare room, just to further corporate aims.

When we first started organising this, to be honest, I thought some people would read about it and love the idea of modern day troubadours straight away. I thought there’d be enough schools/community centres/pubs, etc who had one crazy person working there who thought, ‘This sounds fun, let’s get these people to do one of their events here, they can stay at my house!’ But there haven’t been. We’ve had to work so hard just to get events set up. And even then, venues haven’t offered us somewhere to stay for the night, or even a cup of tea in most places.

We’ve had some great people that we’ve found through couch surfer, or personal friends, and they’ve got it, and offered a place to stay, and even dinner and breakfast and been lovely. But there aren’t any people on couchsurfer in little villages, only in the big towns. We’ve got a host in Burton-on-Trent, but in between there and Nottingham? Nothing. We’ve been having to stay in hotels and B+Bs, which is costing a fortune and is a total pain in the arse to try to organise from a canal towpath on your phone. I’m starting to think, if I’m using up all my savings on this, I could have spent them on a nice holiday instead, that didn’t involve half so much work.

In Downstream, a lovely book about the Trent, Tom Fort describes the Trent as England’s forgotten river. And yet it’s the UK’s largest. It stopped Bonnie Prince Charlie in his tracks when he was invading from the North. For 36 years it stopped the Romans in their tracks when invading from the South. It was an artery of the industrial revolution, carrying the coal, powering the mills, carrying away the effluent. It drains 2.5 million acres of the midlands – the biggest catchment area of any British river. And yet there are few books about it, fewer songs. Half the settlements along it’s banks hardly seem to know it’s there. We were hoping to do our small bit to change that. But maybe part of our problem is we’re fighting that neglect. On top of my seemingly myriad failings at organising this.

We’re also totally knackered by the end of each day. Not only are we doing all this walking, but we’re stressing about documenting the trip, about having enough charge on our phones, about making it to the next event on time. We fall into bed, far too tired to do any extra PR, or finesse the website, or do any of the admin we need to do. People (trying to be helpful) keep merrily suggesting extra things we could do, but we don’t have enough time for any of it. Everything is just down to us, and we’re trying to walk a river and put on shows everyday, never mind organising the bloody thing at the same time. We definitely don’t have time to even sit by the river and enjoy the experience. We’ve not even had time or energy for sex!

Sorry if that’s TMI, but today I’m really thinking, what is this all for? We’re killing ourselves to get to shows on time, that no-one wants to come to. To provide engagement that people aren’t engaging with. Why aren’t we just having a holiday instead, like normal people? We hardly even get to see the bloody river, we’ve been walking down the canal most of the time, because so far the river’s been too small, and too overgrown and too going-through-private-land to walk along.

We hurt all over, our boots smell disgusting and I’ve got a weeping sore on my right heel that’s soaked right through the plaster, so I couldn’t even take it off if I wanted to. I’m sure I don’t remember being so tired on previous long-distance walks. Maybe I’m just not as fit as I used to be. Or maybe it’s that I’m 41 now, and your body can’t do anymore what it did at 35. So, on top of everything else, I’m getting OLD!

We keep missing buses because we’re confused by the information at country bus stops. The stupid co-op in stupid Barton under Needwood doesn’t sell my preferred type of rizla, Ross is being amazing and putting up with everything with no word of complaint, and all I’m doing is self-indulgently WHINGING. All I can think at the moment is, what were we thinking?

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What is the point of public engagement?

I’ve spent many years working in public engagement with science. (For readers who are normal people, this is pretty much a high-falutin’ way of saying ‘getting scientists talking to other people’). People who work in public engagement are often thinky-talky kind of people, so there’s been a lot of conversations over the years about what public engagement is, and why we do it.

When people talk about WHY we do public engagement, they often talk about democracy and accountability, and I think that’s hugely important. They talk about some sorts of public engagement improving the science, because scientists are exposed to other stakeholders and ‘experts’. I think that’s important too.

But there’s something else I think is important, that we don’t talk about so much. I think public engagement is a chance for ideas to have sex.

I went travelling in China a few years ago. A guide at a museum in Xi’an, the ancient capital, pointed out the tri-colour glaze pottery from the Tang era (618-907 CE).

Tang dynasty tri-colour glazed plate with incised fishes swimming in underwater foliage

Photo credit VK Cheong

Before then Chinese potters only knew how to make two colours. Decorating pots with three colours was ground-breaking. Seeing these pots for the first time must have been a bit like seeing your first technicolour film.

The guide explained how tri-colour glaze came about. A wave of Persian emigrees in the 7th Century brought the secret of how to make a blue glaze. The Xi’an potters added that to the colours they could already make, and incorporated into it their art. Thus creating the golden age of Chinese pottery. In fact the Tang dynasty (influenced perhaps by the wave of immigrants from another advanced civilization) is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese culture.

New ideas don’t come from nowhere. They come from sticking together bits of old ideas in new and interesting ways.

The worst thing you can do for creativity and innovation is hang out with people just like yourself, who know the same things you do. Unfortunately, for various reasons, a lot of the time that’s what people do.

To my mind, a big part of the value of public engagement is in this mixing up of the ideas gene pool. You don’t only get that from scientists talking to ‘the public’ (whoever that is) of course. They can be talking to scientists in other fields, or other kinds of experts. Get chemists talking to chefs and who knows what can come out of it?

It can be doctors talking to historians. It can be policy-makers talking to grannies. It can be magicians talking to traffic planners as far as I’m concerned. In fact, maybe the more random the pairing the better. The key thing, for creativity, is getting people talking to people they wouldn’t normally talk to.

But let’s get real. It’s not quite as simple as just shoving the disparate together. You can’t just plunk a load of graffiti artists in a room with a bunch of actuaries and think they’ll get on like a house on fire. People need to find some sort of common ground. And they need to approach it open to the idea they could learn something interesting from each other.

So how do you make that happen? Well, to be truthful, I don’t know. But Tales from the River is an experiment in that direction. I think stories are a great way for people to connect on a human level. Everyone has a story. Everyone can relate to them. Humans are story-making animals.

We’re going to tell people stories, get them thinking in that playful, imaginative, mythic space. Then get them telling each other their stories – from folk tales, to personal reminiscences. Then we’re going to see what happens.

At the very least, we’ll entertain people for a couple of hours. And that in itself is not to be sniffed at.

And maybe some people will go away and have ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t mean for curing cancer or ending war (although that would be nice). Maybe it’ll just help them understand why their sister is pissed off with them. Or give them an idea of a book to read, that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Or a different place to go on holiday.

But new ideas are good, they jog you out of your rut, help you see things differently, help you solve problems. There must be a million ways of getting people talking and their ideas shagging, that I don’t know about. If you know about good ones, then I’d love to hear them…

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