Playing for Time - finally

By Lucy Neal, Mar 24 2015 05:06PM

OK, I made it to the other side. I have written a book. It's taken me nearly 4 years and has involved over 60 contributors all told. I have yet to see said book, it is being dispatched tomorrow from printers in Chippenham and should, we pray for time, be with us in time for the Launch the day after tomorrow. I have started to look back at my notes and found this one written in an email to my sister Tabitha in Dec 2012: 'I dwell on my dread of unachieving this task. It all seems overwhelming. Pushes through my head in the middle of the night. Striking image from the night before last: I was wearing a large crinoline skirt wading through water like a fishing net trawling for patterns of practice; it was falling off the skirt like seaweed..'

Here is a blog posted the other day on the Free Word site where the book will be launched with my dear friend and LIFT colleague, Rose Fenton, now director there:

Writer Lucy Neal anticipates this week's launch, at Free Word Centre, of her new book, Playing for Time, which identifies collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges.

Don’t let anyone tell you that art can’t change the world because it can and it always has. Artist activist, John Jordan

March 26th sees the launch at Free Word of Playing for Time - Making Art As If The World Mattered, a book I’ve been involved in creating and writing for nearly four years, exploring how artists change the world. Published by Oberon Books and inspired by the ‘engaged optimism’ of the grassroots Transition movement, the book identifies collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges.

Playing for Time joins the dots between the large ‘macro’ stories of climate change, energy depletion and economic collapse and the individual stories of artists and community activists reclaiming ways of living creatively within the limits of a finite planet. In a practical handbook with recipes for action to take up and try, 60 storytellers, activists, makers, craftivists, land journeyers and writers, rethink the future to create a new story to live by. As one of the book’s endorsers, writer Stella Duffy, says, it’s a book filled ‘with wings: wings that are ancient practices, that are community arts, modernity, wings of global learning for local concerns....a book to help us grow.’

The four year journey has taken me, imaginatively and emotionally, from melting ice caps, to the loss of the honey bee; industrialised food systems; polluted oceans; the dying of species and the slow, inexorable rise of global temperatures. Writing collaboratively, I’ve worked with inspiring, dazzlingly creative, committed individuals: contributors, who’ve entrusted their stories to the work as a whole. These include, energy expert Paul Allen from the Centre for Alternative Technology; writer Paul Kingsnorth; post-growth economics campaigner Beth Stratford; Transition Co-founder Rob Hopkins; Brixton Remakery’s Hannah Lewis; Scotland’s Dougie Strang; Graeae theatre director Jenny Sealey; Free Word’s Weather Stations writer, Xiaolu Guo; participatory arts practitioner Ruth Ben-Tovim; playwright and activist Sarah Woods; Platform’s Farzana Khan and many more. All have placed their trust in the whole, which as I write this, I have yet to see.

In physical terms, I’ve travelled from a writer’s attic garratt at London’s Battersea Arts Centre; a residency with 15 artists at Arvon’s Lumb Bank in Yorkshire; celebratory gatherings in Wales, Latvia and Liverpool to a caravan in Suffolk, camped out in the garden for 18 months of my chief collaborator and editor, Charlotte Du Cann. Mostly though I was in my small room at home, at a desk, day after day after day, taking breaks to walk around Tooting Bec common to get fresh air and motivation from trees and open sky to attempt the next stage of the voyage, tossing and turning at sea.

Writing can feel a bit like drowning sometimes. You set out from the shore, with no idea when you might return to land. A small raft built from your hopes is buoyed with no more than your wits and day to day doggedness to keep going; months, years pass. You think and feel so deeply you think your head and heart will burst. You collapse eventually like Sandra Bullock in the film Gravity on dry land, clutching a precious manuscript.

The time between finishing the writing of a book and actually holding it in your hands is then fraught in unexpected ways. In production, working to a deadline with designer, James Illman, there are photo credits to double check; high resolution images to source; close work on proofing, footnotes and indexing that make you pass out with detail fatigue, whilst Oberon editor, Andrew Walby assures you ‘we’ll get there’.

So, I anticipate March 26th with an intense mix of excitement and anxiety. 468 pages of lovingly-crafted text, beautifully rich with photographic imagery and illustration, are now rolling under a large printing press somewhere in the West Country. In front of me for so long, the book has now disappeared from view, round the dark side of the moon. Stunned and quiet, I await its arrival. When it re-appears as an actual object, there’ll be no going back. (Alain de Boton tweeted the other day that writing a book is a bit like telling a joke and having to wait two years to find out if it is funny...). How will readers respond? will it make sense? have I honoured people’s trust in me?

The Launch gathers the book’s contributors together for the first time, with other guests, completing the first cycle of the book’s journey. A second cycle begins as a ‘transitional arts practice’ comes into view, making visible the role the arts and culture play in conjuring a liveable world; re-imagining a more viable future on the planet, shifting society’s rules and values away from consumerism and commodity towards community and collaboration. This has been the wind blowing my raft for the last few years: we can all ‘make art as if the world mattered’.

When the facts and figures of climate change cannot catalyse the shifts needed in our world, the arts can open us to different ways of seeing and feeling, creating emergent space to re-think the future and change the world - collectively. With poetry and metaphor they can explore the language of the heart, the pain of what we’re losing and the deep yearning in us for the restoration and celebration of life.

Image: Jess Allen in Drop In The Ocean, Photo by Paul Richardson

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