Why don’t I get out into the countryside more often?

On Monday, it was my day off.  My older son (just back from university for Easter) and I set out on our bikes.  We went down to the sea-front, along the eastern arm of Shoreham Harbour and crossed at the lock gates.  At Shoreham, we turned up the old railway line, now a trackway, and cycled along the river bank to Bramber.  Then through Upper Beeding, Edburton, Fulking and Poynings, where we had lunch at Rushfields Garden Centre and stocked up on supplies at their farm shop. Then we toiled up Devil’s Dyke and then coasted down back into Hove, barely having to pedal.

It was a dull day but mostly dry.  These little Sussex villages are so pretty and the countryside is just super, breath-takingly beautiful.  We really enjoyed our ride.   One of the things I love about cycling is that if you want to stop and look at something, you can.  You don’t have to find a parking space.  The freedom is half the exhilaration.  Physical achievement and going fast down a long hill combines for the other half.

Most of Sussex is covered by licences to explore for oil and gas through fracking.  I know that the landscape is already post-industrial (it used to be covered by trees – hence “Weald” from the Saxon for wood – which were cut down for ship-building, construction, iron-smelting and cleared for agriculture).  However, I think that it would be a crime and a sin to turn this beautiful countryside into a gas field – not to mention the harm that would do to the environment at large by burning all that gas and by the extra road traffic on the little winding lanes.  It seems a bit simplistic, maybe even sentimental, but is the beauty of the earth the best reason to look after it?

Talking of sentimental, I took some pictures and put them into a film.  It’s a bit rough and ready, but I enjoyed putting it together and I hope you’ll enjoy watching and listening.  One day I might part with some money to upgrade this blog so that I can embed video.  For now, you’ll have to click this link.


Time to re-think energy

Yesterday’s referral of the U.K.’s six biggest energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority gives us a choice between a bad situation and a good situation.  The enquiry could take as long as two years. Already, investment in our energy supply is behind where it should be if we are (to use the over-worn phrase) to keep the lights on.  These six companies, who combine generation, distribution and both wholesale and retail sales, control 95% of the UK market. A two-year delay, during which these companies will be reluctant to invest in new generating plant, could be catastrophic. Investors may also be reluctant to keep investing in the Big Six companies.  That could damage the companies’ ability to build new plant even if they wished to.  We could find ourselves with a very precarious electricity supply very soon.

That bad scenario assumes that we all stick with an attitude that expects to switch a switch and the lights come on. The electricity is always available. We’re not really bothered about where it comes from (American coal? Turkmeni gas? Uranium? A dam at the head of a flooded valley? A wind farm in the countryside?) and we’re not really bothered about the cost of that generation – except the cost shown in pounds and pence on our bills.

There is an alternative. This is an opportunity to re-think how we use energy, how we generate it and how we distribute it. The probable reluctance of the Big Six to invest in new infrastructure for a couple of years opens up the picture to alternatives.  Why do we need big energy companies?  Why do we need big, remote generating plants that are a blight on the local environment and that lose a substantial amount of the power generated over long transmission lines and in step-down transformers?  Why can’t we start being more aware of the electricity and gas we need to use and be clever about using it efficiently and appropriately?

This is the time for smaller, independent energy companies to step into the breach and start breaking up the energy oligopoly.  They’re not going to build a massive power station, but they are well-placed to invest in smaller scale, more localized generation and distribution projects.

This is the time for communities to get together and put up solar panels, including thermal panels to heat water, put up wind turbines on houses, invest in heat pumps, and so forth. We can bring the whole expectation of energy supply down to the local level (where, of course, it began in the first place).  There are lots of community energy groups out there, already part way down this road, who can share their expertise and enthusiasm with others.

This is also the time for investors to pull out of the dodgy Big Six and invest in less risky small-scale schemes. This makes sense just from a financial point of view – e.g. Brighton Energy Co-op is currently giving a good rate of return.  But it also makes sense in the bigger, longer picture.  Whatever happens with this competition enquiry, the future of large-scale, fossil-fuel power generation is short, for all sorts of reasons.  This is the time to start thinking again – thinking small, local and sustainable.

Burn, baby, burn

The second biggest energy company in the UK, SSE, has announced a price freeze on domestic gas and electricity until 2016.  Good news for customers for the next two years, then.

That’s the limit of the good news in this announcement.  Because of the expectation that this will hit the firm’s profits, they have also announced cost savings – 500 job losses (not good news for them) and the withdrawal of much investment in biomass and offshore wind generation.

Presumably, SSE’s plan is to focus on burning fossil fuels.  That makes sense given the prevarication of successive UK governments over energy policy, which has discouraged investment and left the nation with little alternative. The present government is putting most of their energy into promoting fracking, with tax breaks for corporations, and financial incentives (I think we used to call them bribes) for local communities.

The only way in which fracking makes sense is if the alternative is burning coal.  It’s a very short-term solution.  A shale gas well will only be productive for a couple of years, if that.  We will need many thousands of them in our densely populated country in order to meet our needs. I’m not sure what we’re going to do about water supply and road safety and so on, but then joined-up thinking doesn’t seem to be our strong point.

What we need to do is to invest in technologies that help us to use much less energy. We need to invest in renewable generation.  We need to re-think how we generate, distribute and use electricity. (We need to move away from using gas altogether – there is no climate-friendly gas).

But while the government (and opposition parties) fail to think beyond their big idea of winning the next election, and corporations fail to think beyond the next AGM and dividend pay-out, and citizens fail to think beyond this month’s bills, we will remain addicted to ways of living that will kill us all.

There is a bigger, longer picture, that involves us all living and thriving.  But who has the courage to imagine it, let alone seek to make it reality?


Get thee behind me, shiny new bike

Here is Mrs Mabbsonsea’s shiny new bike.

Her bike


It was fair enough. Her old one, which had carried each of our 3 children and all sorts of baggage as well as Mrs M herself over its 18 years, had stopped co-operating.

Here, by way of contrast, is my bike:

My bike


It’s just over a year old and it’s proving to be a trusty, reasonably fast workhorse and I like it very much.  But it’s no longer very shiny and the problem with spending time in bike shops is that they are full of shiny new bikes.  I liked the look of a smart single-speed city bike with drop handlebars.  I like the idea of the simplicity of not having gears, and a fixie would take that simplicity even further.  On the other hand, it might be fun to have an off-road bike and get out into the countryside.  The temptation was all too much and I had to retreat to a cafe to read my book about the non-growth economics of ‘Enough’ over a coffee and chocolate croissant while Mrs M took a couple of bikes for test rides.

How many bikes is enough?  (There’s a similar question to be asked about guitars, in my opinion).  The reality is that I don’t need more than one bike.  It won’t thank me for being taken off-road, but it’s fine – it’s enough – for what I want to do, really.  But I am a sucker for shiny new.  It alarms me how strong is my urge to acquire stuff – and I’m someone who doesn’t spend much time in shops and doesn’t look at much advertising and doesn’t worry much about my image.  If I find it so tempting, it’s no wonder that, as a society, we are consuming our way into oblivion.

The concept of ‘Enough’ is a good one, but I suspect it needs quantifying at a much lower level than most of us would like if we are to achieve a world in which all people and nature can thrive together.

An hour with some soapy water and a rag might restore shiny-ness to my bike, after all.


In praise of cassette tape

This weekend marks 50 years of the humble cassette tape.

These days, we only have one cassette machine.  iTunes has changed my life, but it always feels, somehow, a little grey and flat.

In the olden days, I made a lot of cassette recordings.  To begin with, I used our battery-powered portable recorder, and placed the little mic on the loudspeaker in our dining room.  My dad hadn’t moved onto stereo, but anyway, the mono gramophone matched the mono cassette recorder.  The trouble was, the budgie’s cage hung above the loudspeaker, and as she couldn’t read the “Recording – Silence!” notice pinned to the door, she wasn’t silent.  One of those early tapes was The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, and even today when I listen to the CD/MP3, it doesn’t sound quite right without the budgie’s cheerful chirping.

My dad gave in to progress in the end, which meant that I could make good recordings of records, or songs from the radio.  I would record a new LP on the first playing, and then wear out the cassette rather than the vinyl.   Using C90 cassettes meant that I could fit two records onto one tape.   Always having had a broad taste in music, some of the combinations are a bit incongruous, e.g. Beethoven’s 7th on side A and Dark Side Of The Moon on side B.   Want to listen to Pink Floyd?  Fast forward, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Recording a tape was a technical challenge.   There was skill in getting the recording level just right, and skill in not missing the start of the record because of the leader tape.   There was also skill in working out the timing.  If the record was too long for one side of the tape, would I cut a track, or use a C60 and fill out the tape with something else, and if so, what?

I loved making compilation tapes.  This was where working out timing really became a challenge, especially if the record sleeve didn’t give timings for the tracks.  Making a compilation tape could easily be an evening or two’s happy labour to get it just right.  Each track had to be tested for correct sound level, and care taken not to record the sound of the needle going down onto the vinyl.   Getting the order right was important too, as changing it, once recorded, could mean re-recording most of the tape.  iTunes is just too easy.

Compilation tapes made good gifts for friends.  They could be for special occasions, or just for sharing music.   Compilations I remember include one for a friend going through woman-related troubles; for a friend moving to a northern town (The Goodies – Black Pudding Bertha featured, I think); and of course for Mrs Mabbsonsea when she was still Miss Briggs-nowhere-near-the-sea.

With a cassette, it was even harder to skip around or just play a particular track than with an LP.  The easy option, really, was to listen to the tape in its own sequence.  OK – this could be irritating, but it meant I used to listen to an album as the artist meant it to be – and some tracks need time to grow on you.  These days I’m too impatient, just pressing Skip and never listening to some tracks more than once, if that.  Cassettes meant a certain slow approach to music, I guess.

Well, I don’t suppose I’ll go back to cassettes very often.  But it’s nice to be nostalgic.  So in that nostalgic mood, I’ll finish by sharing with you the playlist of one of my favourite compilation tapes.  I made it in 1984, when, early on in my first full-time job, I bought a fairly good quality cassette deck with Dolby C and B(!)  It’s called “Classic Nostalgia”…

Side A: The Beatles – Something / Boston – More Than A Feeling / Eric Clapton – Wonderful Tonight / Joe Walsh – Life’s Been Good To Me So Far / The Beatles – Till There Was You / Lt. Pigeon – Mouldy Old Dough / Marmalade – Reflections Of My Life / Wings – With A Little Luck / Pink Floyd – Time / Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street.    Side B: Barclay James Harvest – Someone There You Know / Mike Oldfield – Five Miles Out / The Rutles – I Must Be In Love / Eric Clapton – Let It Grow / Dire Straits – Private Investigations / 10CC – I’m Not In Love / The Band – To Kingdom Come / Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water / The Carpenters – Yesterday Once More.

Indeed – Yesterday once more.  Happy days!


Sacred Economics

I came across this film of Charles Eisenstein talking about economics based on gifts rather than earnings – economics not predicated on growth.   I thought it was very interesting …

Sacred Economics

I’m currently reading Bill McKibben’s book ‘Eaarth’.  Thus far in (just finished chapter 2), he is also challenging the notion of endless growth.  He suggests that we have grown the economy (and our civilisation) about as much as nature will permit and we are about to crash off a cliff, or the bubble is about to burst, or any other metaphor of catastrophe you care to employ.  I am very interested in how we can re-order our lives around community, earth-care (and people-care), in a deeper connection to the world of which we are part: living “lightly, carefully, gracefully” (to quote the title of chapter 4).



Today is World Listening Day.   Sponsored by the World Listening Project and celebrating the birthday (80 today) of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, one of the day’s purposes is “to celebrate the practice of listening as it relates to the world around us, environmental awareness, and acoustic ecology” (from www.worldlisteningproject.org).  Schafer is one of the founders of the Acoustic Ecology movement.

I like the idea of Acoustic Ecology.  We live in a noisy world and seem to blithely accept all sorts of intrusive noise.  Two bugbears of Mrs Mabbsonsea and I are electric hand dryers and leaf blowers.  What’s wrong with a human-powered broom?  What’s wrong with drying your hands on your trouser legs?   The most environmentally-friendly ways of doing things are often also the quietest – with not even the rustle of a paper towel.   Many people seem unable to cope without constant noise, with their personal stereos (or – much worse – playing music on their phone in public places) and the canned music playing everywhere.  Brighton Pier is a good (bad?) example of this.  It could be a great place to go and sit in a free deckchair and look back over the sea to the town and the hills, enjoying a few moments of peace listening to the sea and the gulls.  But all along the length of the pier are little loudspeakers playing someone else’s choice of tinny music and the whole experience is made irritating.

This could all seem rather trivial – just the rantings of a grumpy middle-aged man.  But I think there are important issues around Acoustic Ecology.  One is that silence is good.  It is good for our souls to learn to be comfortable with silence, with nothing-ness.  I suspect that part of our need for constant manufactured sound is that it stops us from having to come face-to-face with our inner selves in silence.  Nothing-ness is scary.  Would I still exist if I had no speech, no possessions, no task to do?  Just me in the silence.  Just me and God in the silence is even more scary, perhaps.  But if we never discover who we are in the silence, who are we?

So connecting with our true, inner self is one important aspect of acoustic ecology.  Another is connecting with the world around us.  I think that this is not simply about getting rid of noise, but about becoming aware of our soundscape.  Stopping to listen increases awareness and thus connectedness.  The wind in the trees, a squirrel walking along the fence top, birdsong, grass seed cracking in the sun, a bus braking to turn the corner, someone using a cold chisel, a child drumming in a shed, a dog barking – it’s all part of my world.  Somewhere out there is the roar of fire in the stars and that’s part of my world too, although my hearing’s not all that good – too much rock music, perhaps.   Becoming more aware of our soundscape may help us appreciate parts of our world that we hadn’t been aware of before.  It may also help us be more deliberate about the noise we no longer wish to tolerate and so shape a kinder, more harmonious world.

I sat out in the garden with my early morning coffee and listened.  It was a very pleasant experience.  I think that, seeing as it’s World Listening Day, it’s my duty as a world citizen to do the same again.


Space oddity

I love Chris Hadfield’s version of Space Oddity!

Of course, when I stop to think about it, I strongly disapprove of space exploration, especially the money spent on it, and I think that we should keep our feet firmly on the ground and figure out how to live peaceably on this planet before we even think about going to another.  But – hey – a guitar in zero gravity!  The commander of the International Space Station singing “Major Tom to Ground Control”!  Video footage of the earth hurtling beneath him from day through night to day again!  I had to wipe away a little tear and agree with one of the YouTube comments – it makes you proud to be from Earth.

My head will bring my heart into line one of these days.  Perhaps.

The sound of drums

The garden is an oasis of peace and quiet.  As I walk down it, often I can feel the stress falling away. When I had my little breakdown three years ago, the garden was a great source of healing.  My habit most mornings is to sit down at the end of the garden with a coffee and then pray.  If it’s rainy I sit in the shed, which is down at that far end.

The wild end of the garden
The wild end of the garden

Sitting in the garden early this morning with my coffee, across the birdsong and the peaceful rustle of the leaves in the breeze came the sound of drumming.   Our neighbour behind us put up a shed last year at the end of their garden.  It’s a luxury shed, with a slate roof and velux windows, so I’d hoped it was an office of some sort.  Now it seems like someone in the family has taken up drumming and has been sent out to practise in the shed.

I know how much enjoyment you can get from playing music.  I know that there is nothing like being in a band.  I know that the band practice is usually at the drummer’s house (or garden shed).  I have played with some drummers who needed to practise more.  I know that drums have to be hit, not tapped, and that electronic kits are rubbish.  So I have every sympathy with the drummer in the garden, and also with the rest of their family not wanting to have to put up with drums in the house.  I feel very mean about feeling angry about drum practice wrecking my peaceful garden (coming on top of another neighbour who plays country and western hymns at high volume).

It’s a challenge to me.  This morning, I felt like living in a cabin in the woods, miles from anyone, had never been more attractive.  But that’s not a way to build a viable future for the world.  We all need to learn to get along together so that we can all (including, of course, animals and plants) flourish.   There is a time for drumming, but there is also a time for silent out-doors coffee drinking.  The big flaw, I think, is that I have never talked to those neighbours in six years of living here.  I don’t even know their surname.  That’s modern suburban living for you.  I talk about community but really, I would rather live in isolation from others and their noise.  Perhaps negotiating creative co-existence at the end of the garden is an opportunity to reach out beyond my bubble and build a bit of what I say I believe in.  On the other hand, drummers are a bit scary – there’s something of the animal in them.  It’s often easier to stay with broken-ness than to grow, as I was preaching last Sunday (John 5.1-15)