Author Archives: leeinroyston

Now you have no excuse

I’ve followed Jen Gale’s wise words on being green since, what I’ve recently learnt, was her first public-speaking engagement – a TEDx talk in Bedford in July 2013 which she describes as ‘terrifying’. I was part of the group organising the TEDx event and as well as introducing me to Jen, it also sparked an ongoing interest in TEDx events around the East of England (including speaking at one of them which, I can confirm, is terrifying!)

As well as an interest in TEDx Talks and sustainable living, I also have a passion for real books (for details check out a blog post in the ‘My love affair with…’ series). This interest includes 15 years in book marketing and sales and explains my addiction to buying printed books, some of which end up in the Little Library outside our house. So, when I saw that Jen Gale had written The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide I couldn’t resist being consumer(ish) and I bought a copy.

Being a grumpy old pedant, I notice it’s not printed on recycled paper, but it’s ‘responsibly sourced’ and, since I refuse to read e-books, that has to be good enough. If you don’t know already, you’ll soon learn that trying to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to behaving sustainably it’s often not straight forward. Try looking at the relevant carbon footprints of plastic, paper and cotton bags.

What I like about the Sustainable(ish) Living Guide is that it doesn’t pretend there are easy answers, but it does address the common concerns that I suspect many of us share. To quote from the book’s introduction… ‘This is for you if you’re worried about the state of the planet, but you’re just not sure where to start or what to do… It’s for you if you feel a kind of low-level guilt about the things you do every day, knowing that there is a better way, but you’re up to your eyes in work and family and life stuff, and it doesn’t feel like there’s the time or energy to make big changes.’

But here’s the good news – all effort, however small, is worthwhile and Jen Gale’s guide provides an abundance of (jargon alert) quick-wins that won’t involve a radical change to the way you live nor having to find more hours in the day to make an impact.

And she doesn’t just cover day-to-day living. My love of books attracted me to one idea for an alternative advent calendar – involving books – and, similarly, Jen’s ideas for more ethical Valentine’s Day presents reminded me about the idea of giving family and friends ‘a blind date with a book’, bought from a charity shop and wrapped (in newspaper of course).

Charity shops cropped up again in a section about how many donations, however well-intentioned, end up in landfill because clothes are unwearable or toys and equipment are broken. This got me thinking… could volunteer repairers in Repair Cafes (also commended in the book) team up with local charity shops to fix donated items – increasing income to those charities and, of course, saving stuff from landfill. So, the book has already helped me make connections!

If this book does nothing else, I think it gives the reader hope, and ideas, and some answers. What is comes down to is that each one of us is personally more powerful than we might imagine. And it’s not all about costing more; many of the actions to save the planet can actually save us money. When we do have to spend, we have choices about where and how we do this. We have no local bookshop where I live, but by buying The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide online from Hive Books, I support a company that pays it’s taxes and gives a share of the purchase price to my nominated independent bookshop.

My make do and mend year – Jen Gale TEDx Talk  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCm7aBM7EeY

Buy the book https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Jen-Gale/The-Sustainableish-Living-Guide–Everything-You-Need-to-K/23879824

Visit the website https://www.asustainablelife.co.uk

Sharing, repairing, re-using in Royston*

There really is no planet B, so now is the time to join millions of others locally, nationally and internationally helping to tackle our climate emergency by cutting waste. The scale of the problem is mind-boggling; every week in the UK 11 million items of clothing go to landfill; that’s an annual total equal to the weight of New York’s Empire State Building. The average household owns £4,000 worth of clothing, 30% of which has not been worn in the past year. Estimates put the value of this unused clothing at around £30 billion. Time to get swishing!

Think global, act local

For many, a barrier to taking that first step to conserve resources and reduce waste is a sense of helplessness – not knowing where to start and, perhaps, feeling the problems are too immense for individuals to make a real difference. But there are ‘quick wins’ to be made (see link at the bottom of this piece) and you are not alone; a number of local initiatives are already demonstrating practical, creative (and fun!) ways to consume less and keep items out of landfill, not just in Royston but around the world.

Say yes to less – share

For nearly 15 years, and without spending a penny, the Royston Recycle online platform promoted and enabled the free exchange (freecycling) of unwanted items – from children’s toys and equipment, to household items, garden tools and musical instruments.  Between December 2004 and December 2019, over 7500 members in and around Royston posted 97,000 ‘offers’ and ‘wants’ keeping an estimated 45,000 items in use for longer.

Don’t despair – repair! 

An offspring of the Royston freecycling initiative is Royston Repair Cafe – a series of free community repair events held every three months to keep items in use for longer. Owners of broken items have discovered ‘the joy of fix’ and, since February 2014, volunteer repairers have mended over 50% of the 640 items brought in for free assessment. Everything from clothes and books to bikes and electrical equipment have been given a new lease of life to the delight of their owners – saving their money and the planet.

Creative ways to re-use materials

When it comes to crafting someone else’s waste materials into one-off additions to homes and gardens, the new kid on the block (although the two guys behind it could hardly be described as ‘new kids’!) is Green & Grey. Using mainly pallet wood (but not averse to working with driftwood, wellington boots and bike parts) the pair are using their interest in ‘making stuff’ from reclaimed materials to promote the value of original hand-made items in our increasingly mass-produced consumer society.

An even newer kid on the ‘zero waste’ block is a Royston resident’s Anahata initiative promoting and selling planet-friendly plastic-free produced and packaged products. I can recommend the shaving soap.

From sharing, repairing and reusing, to recycling. Terracycle – an international recycling company – have teamed up with residents in and around Royston to support their efforts to recycle ‘difficult materials’ – including soft plastics, toothbrushes and crisp packets. A growing number of collections points around town help raise money for charities when you make the extra effort to protect our planet for generations to come

Contacts and further information

Sustainable living https://www.asustainablelife.co.uk (Including quick wins to sustainability https://www.asustainablelife.co.uk/12-quick-sustainable-wins)

Royston Repair Café www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

Green & Grey https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/about

Anahata www.facebook.com/Anahata.Planet

Terracycle  https://www.royston-crow.co.uk/news/new-recycling-options-for-royston-residents-1-6194192

Circular Cambridge http://circularcambridge.org

Swishing http://www.getswishing.com

*This blog post is adapted from one which first appeared on The Listing magazine website in September 2019  in the ‘Hidden Royston’ series  http://www.thelistingmagazine.co.uk/category/community-news/hiddenroyston

RIP – Re-use In Practice

On 14 December 2019, almost 15 years to the day since  starting it, we closed Royston Recycle – our local freecycling group*. The reason for this was quite simple – hosts Yahoo reduced their functionality, so our online group couldn’t, er…function. GDPR considerations notwithstanding, it was not feasible to ‘migrate’ (to coin a dreaded Universal Credit phrase) our members to a new site and, anyway, there are now alternative local free-exchange platforms to join.

The aim of freecycle/freegle** is simple – the free exchange of unwanted items to keep them out of landfill and in use for longer. That core objective directed our moderation of the site for the 15 years – set up with techy support from Dermot for many years; a role continued by Andy until this month’s close-down. But it did so much more than just reducing waste; locally it spawned a new initiative – Royston Repair Café – and it inspired personal friendships between people with a common cause.

Ultimately, the success of the site in meeting its aim has been down to the active and responsible  participation of its members. Co-founder Dermot was keen that the site should, as far as possible, be self-moderating, with few rules beyond ensuring items on offer and requests were ‘legal decent and honest’. We had to intervene once or twice over live animals (discouraged but not actually banned, and I learnt that re-homing frog spawn is discouraged by wildlife groups). The lack of rules was a problem for some. We knew that some members would get stuff free online and then sell it on via boot sales or selling sites. While people would complain about this apparent abuse of people’s goodwill, it wasn’t, in fact, against the rules. The big thing was that giving and taking had to be free of any exchange of money (‘the clue’s in the name’ we’d say ‘free-cycle’) but sometimes people would try to make a charge for delivery or ask for a donation to charity – both, however reasonable, against the rules.

Trust and mutual respect were an important part of the relationship between members of the group – we only rarely ‘advised’ particular people about the rules (this usually amounted to a verbal warning or putting them on moderation) when evidence had built up. More often than not the problem resolved itself; friendly reminders to the whole group were usually enough to get things back on track.

I always describe Royston Recycle as the most sustainable community initiative I’ve ever been part of. We spent no money on it, we never had a planning meeting, we attracted 7500 members through word-of-mouth. Since 2004 those members have posted 97,000 ‘offers’ and ‘wants’ keeping an estimated 45,000 items out of landfill.

In our increasingly materialistic and seemingly divided world, it’s been heartening to see people willing to give without expecting anything in return. I’ll never forget when, following a post from someone who’d been thrown out of their house, members piled in with offers of bedding, small pieces of furniture, and even a tabletop cooker.  I was always delighted when items, particularly for children – toys, clothes, pushchairs – circulated many times around the group, multiplying value for so many and saving the planet for the benefit of all.

I often quote a memorable experience from my own use of the Royston Recycle group. One Sunday morning my daughter asked if I’d buy her a clarinet on e-Bay. ‘No’ I said, ‘but I’ll post a request on freecycle’. The post went up at midday and by 6pm that same Sunday, my daughter had gratefully collected a clarinet from a local member and had an offer of a free lesson!

Although my other half always reminds me we need to get rid of stuff not acquire it, I have rarely been disappointed when posting requests for ‘odd items’ to do with my re-purposing/ upcycling projects – mirrors, brush heads, and clock mechanisms being just three examples.

Talking of odd requests’, one stands out above all others. The woman posting the ‘want’ later reflected that she might have asked the moderation team before she posted the request. And we agreed – it did generate a lot of complaints. Whether she fancied herself as a second Damian Hirst, I don’t know, but her request for a dead horse didn’t go down well. I think it was for an art project, and we never found out whether she got one!

So farewell Royston Recycle – you have served us and the planet well. Long live re-use!

*Royston Recycle would have been called Royston Freecycle but for an error at the registration stage. This mistake proved to be fortuitous when, some years later, the founder of Freecycle in the USA tried to ‘stake a claim’ in each local group. We refused his demands and simply had to remove any freecycle branding without needing to change our name.

**Freegle is the UK version of freecycle – started in response to the attempted north American takeover.

Also reducing waste in Royston area…

Royston Repair Cafe http://www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe

Royston Free and For Sale Facebook Group  – https://www.facebook.com/groups/roystonfreeorforsale  [The local moderators of this group points out they allows things to be both given away for free and sold. Items given away may be later resold]

Royston Freegle group – https://www.ilovefreegle.org/explore/Royston-Freegle [The moderation team for this group are based in Stevenage. This group is only for rehoming items without any money changing hands]

Trash Nothing – Not so much a group but an easy way of interacting with a number of different freecycling/recycling groups https://trashnothing.com

Royston revealed

This time last year I was planning 12 monthly articles under the theme of ‘Hidden Royston’ for the Listing – our local lifestyle-and-community magazine. We agreed that 250 words and a photo would appear in print (delivered to 17,000 homes in and around Royston) and 1,000 words with photos would be published online.

I’d lived in Royston for 25 years but I felt I knew little about the past and present of our wonderful market town. So I wasn’t setting myself up as any sort of local expert – my first task was to talk to others who were. I wanted to uncover interesting (and probably trivial) facts that might get a ‘well, I never knew that!’ response from readers and leave me and others better informed.

Naively I imagined I could plan out a month-by-month writing schedule neatly fitting topics into three sub-themes – underground, after dark, and behind closed doors. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that; on one or two occasions pieces unravelled as copy deadlines loomed, ideas that I thought were rock solid didn’t develop, and some stories I’d love to have followed didn’t happen for reasons beyond my control. The series is now complete – 11 blog posts (and a Christmas quiz) are online for all to read (see links below) so I thought this was a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the past year that might help others thinking of doing something similar.

Older and wiser – lessons learnt: So-called facts can be closer to speculation and need triangulation to establish some sort of truth. My research skills are limited and conversations with different local information sources often told divergent stories about the town. One line I pursued early on was that there was a tunnel from a High Street shop to the local church. A couple of local traders confirmed it; one even said they knew someone who’d been down the tunnel. An ‘authority’ later scotched the theory and said it was untrue with no evidence to back up the assertion. Information about another underground tunnel from a local hotel – Banyers House – to the same church proved to be more accurate and I was shown what was said to be the blocked end of it.

Another lesson learnt was that other people’s timetables aren’t your own. I spent literally months pursuing an ‘after dark’ piece, being reassured it would happen, only to give up after being passed from one contact to another. My last piece in the series – an after-dark-behind-closed-doors piece about the biggest local employer Johnson Matthey  took a long time to set up, because of security and other considerations, but the visit went head smoothly in the end.

A tip for anyone researching and writing a series – have an article ‘in your back pocket’ just in case a planned piece falls through at the last minute. I wrote one about reducing waste in Royston and was pleased to have it ready-written to meet a tight deadline.

Early on I discovered an easy way to add interest to a piece is to conduct a ‘straw poll’ to gather the views of local people. This applied to two pieces; one when finding out which High Street traders had cellars and how they used them. The other piece was on CCTV cameras in public places. I had expected it to be a controversial subject but after talking to a random selection of local shoppers I found that few of them were bothered about being filmed!

Most interesting discoveries: Some of my research didn’t result in a published piece, but intriguing conversations with knowledgeable locals gave me great pleasure. I met a local former furniture upholsterer who knew my father’s family firm – Arthur H Lee and Sons wove fabrics for domestic and commercial use – that closed back in 1970. I had a long conversation with a former neighbour who is an authority on the Royston Cave. We agreed that the cave was famous enough not to merit further coverage, but that same source shared a story about forged bank notes being printed in a local hotel cellar that was later confirmed by hotel staff.

Surprises: I wanted to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the local police station (it’s been closed to the public since 2013) and to investigate the use of use of CCTV cameras in public places. I expected to be told the information was confidential. While one or two answers to interview questions were ‘not for publication’, I’m pleased to report I was welcomed with straight answers to my questions.

For me, one of the most intriguing pieces focused on the origins of different road names around Royston . Much of the work had already been done by local historians – thank you F John Smith in particular – so the piece could be drafted in the comfort of our local library.

Ones that got away: I had a theme going around in my head along the lines of… lines. Something about Royston being on the Meridian Line, being the centre of important transport routes (the town is at the crossroads of two ancient trading routes) and talk about ley lines in the town centre. But sometimes you start a piece in your head and find it simply doesn’t work out on paper.

Another topic that never materialised was ‘dogs after dark’. A friend who is both a dog owner and an insomniac talked about the community of dog-walkers who meet at all times of day and night on the Heath with dogs in tow. When dark, they recognise each other by the coloured LED lights on the dog collars! My plan had been to join dogs and owners in the dark – sniff them out if you like – but I decided such an approach might be misinterpreted.

In conclusion, I’m very grateful to all the people who gave me their time to suggest stories and advise me on places and people to look for further information. I have always sought to get approval for pre-publication drafts and feedback suggest that subjects have been happy with what I’ve written. I’ve also been particularly pleased when my writing stimulates positive exchanges on local social media platforms – not least from the Facebook fan club of my interviewee at Royston Fire Station! Finally, special thanks to David Waters – photographer for some of the articles – his pictures considerably upped the quality of those pieces.

Read the Hidden Royston series of articles here https://www.thelistingmagazine.co.uk/category/community-news/hiddenroyston 

Gifting for our time

Today [Saturday 7 December] is Small Business Saturday. Since this always falls at the weekend, the most active way to show your support on the day is to go shopping and make sure you use independents wherever you can. I was out and about in our town centre and bought some bolts from our brilliant hardware store (I’m making a pallet wood bike ramp with a young lad), a jar of local honey from a market stall will make a great Christmas gift, and we enjoyed a pint in a High Street pub ( it was thirsty work!)

But thoughtful buying and gifting is not just for one day or just at Christmas time. As consumers we can make giving and spending decisions that are more or less ethical and environmental – we have the choice. Just as I chose to buy nothing on Black Friday and refuse to use Amazon (do you know about Hive – they support local bookshops). It’s also why I have a little library outside my house – I love books but also want to promote concepts of sharing and second-hand consumption.

Research by the Charities Aid Foundation around Christmas 2018 found that 44% of adults would rather have fewer gifts and see money diverted to a good cause. Last Christmas, a Mintel report also found that 29% of gift buyers bought presents with a lower environmental impact, and 65% said retailers should make more of an effort to promote gifts that generate less waste.

On which subject – environmental consumption, I recently discovered the wonderful graphic above via the Just Little Changes website. It’s self-explanatory, so what are you waiting for?! Let’s make giving meaningful and redefine the value of a gift.

And while you’re at it, why not wrap your presents in newspaper? A sheet with colour photos and interesting headlines is a great discussion starter and makes a serious point about saving money and the planet that might just last beyond Boxing Day.

Sources and useful information:

https://www.npr.org/2019/12/04/784702588/the-best-thing-you-can-do-is-not-buy-more-stuff-says-secondhand-expert

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth 

https://justlittlechanges.com

http://www.buynothingday.co.uk

https://www.hive.co.uk

https://smallbusinesssaturdayuk.com

 

This is a smart blog post

I was thinking about the word ‘smart’ the other day – as I drank from a bottle with ‘smartwater’ written all over it. The trendy label claimed the container was a plant bottle (meaning it was ‘up to 30% made from plants’) and the water was ‘vapour distilled with added electrolytes’ whatever that means.

In fact, I was drinking tap water – nothing particularly smart about that except it’s a fraction of the price, but the bottle’s a good size (850 mls) and fairly robust so I’m hanging on to it – no single-use plastic (however smart it is) for me if I can help it.

It wasn’t until sometime later I saw on the label – in very small print – the name ‘Coca Cola’. So this looks like some smart branding on their part (to appeal to people like me?)

I wondered what had happened to the ‘SmartWater’ of yesteryear – a theft deterrent liquid that was painted onto equipment that was then only visible under ultraviolet light. The idea was that you could paint your postcode onto your bike frame (for example). If your bike was stolen and recovered by someone with an ultraviolet light, it could be returned to its owner. I wonder whether it’s still in use….

Perhaps I should have mentioned that I was not being particularly smart while drinking the water; I was driving along a smart motorway (no – I wasn’t in a Smart car) on my way to Worcester. For those who don’t know – a smart motorway (formerly managed motorway) is… a section of motorway in Great Britain that uses active traffic management (ATM) techniques to increase capacity by use of variable speed limits and hard shoulder running at busy times. So now you know, and at least I wasn’t using my smart phone while drinking water and driving…

Which brings me to ‘smart working’. It was the subject of a blog post 18 months ago examining the logic behind ‘agile working’ ‘flexible working’ and all variations in between. I was suggesting that the concept is dressing up the idea of ‘getting more for less from employees’ to make it look new, dynamic and… well… smart.

So, what have I concluded about the use of the word ‘smart’? I may be an old cynic (I’m certainly an old pedant) but I see it in the same light as the word ‘exciting’ – it’s made to make something look or sound sexier and more interesting and desirable than it is; as if we ourselves become smarter by using the product – drink, phone, crime deterrent, motorway, or way of working.

Talking of a final ‘smart’ – Billy Smart – now he really was bright. Born one of 23 children he worked on fairgrounds until, with his brothers, he created what was the world’s largest travelling circus under canvas in the 1960s. Later, after a failed attempt to buy Blackpool Tower, he came up with the safari park idea and Windsor Safari Park went on to attract 2.5 million visitors a year.

On so-called smart working… https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/is-agile-working-the-answer

Shoulder to shoulder

A decade ago, I worked with the founder of a social enterprise that transformed the lives of young people who had been failed by the education system. They did amazing things but had a problem with their young learners – in the mornings they couldn’t get them to turn up on time, sometimes it was not at all! They solved this problem by buying a minibus and picking them up each morning at great expense in terms of time and transport. The tutors would take it in turns to drive around the houses of the trainees and, if necessary, they would almost literally lift them out of bed and dump them in the minibus.

Very quickly they discovered the unexpected benefits of providing this door-to-door transport service – that the conversations that took place in the back of the minibus while travelling to and from home to work gave them far greater insights into the real lives of these young people than any number of face-to-face conversations between tutors and students. The learners found it far easier to ‘open up’ about themselves when out of the classroom; liberated from the confines of the learner-teacher relationship. And another benefit – the young people got to know each other better, made friends, and supported each other.

I was reminded of this the other day when sharing an observation from the Australian Men’s Sheds Association (an observation that regular readers of this blog may already know) – men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a generalisation of course, but I think it’s generally true. We men are far more likely to open up and talk about the important things in life when working together on a joint project (and, I suggest, when walking side-by-side) than when sitting opposite each other, even in a social situation.

This is how the former head of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association puts it… Put 12 men aged over 55 in a room and say ‘please talk to each other about your lives, relationships and health.’ Six will leave the room immediately, and many of the remainder will sit around the walls. But is you throw in a broken lawnmower and say ‘hey guys, fix that’, within two hours you’ll have achieved your objective, plus they’ll know each other’s skills and aspirations and, of course, you’ve got a lawnmower that works!

Although pointless banter is an important element in any Men’s Shed, I think it’s also the purposeful activity that helps the conversation flow – whether that be making things to sell, getting involved in community projects, or developing personal projects in the company of others.

In my current mentoring work with long-term unemployed people, I am rediscovering the truth of the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ theory. In those one-to-one relationships I’m aware of the unequal relationship between the ‘adviser/expert’ and the ‘learner with issues’ (not having a job may be just one of a number) and it can create an unhealthy dependency. But recently I’ve been giving car lifts to some of these people – to attend meetings with the council about housing issues, to see charities about volunteering, and to counselling sessions. It means we’re sitting side-by-side in a car and, once again, I’m having conversations that I suspect would never have happened if we were always office-based, meeting on opposite sides of a table.

For more about the magic of Men’s Sheds go to www.menssheds.org.uk