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Jane Riddiford & Rod Sugden:
we are living in a song

Jane is a beautiful woman, light of voice and soul and steely of will and intention. Rod, her partner in love and work, has the magical ability to help young people return to themselves. As educators and storytellers, they work with cycles of nature to enable people to see and experience a deeper sense of self. They encourage people to return to a time there was no time, 14 billion years ago. The cosmic beginning. They work together in Global Generation, the organisation Jane founded to explore our inner, outer and collective responsibilities to each other and the planet. Among many other things, Global Generation built the extraordinary Story Garden in Kings Cross, giving us a glimmer and a scent of a green urban utopia amidst a mass construction site.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend. Additional music by Rod Sugden.


Rod: When I think of the past that we have come from, I think of deep, deep time. I think of 14 billion years ago when there was absolutely nothing; nothing to see, smell, taste, hear, or touch. A time when there was no time. I think that that is really I, for me, that’s, that’s my history, that’s the history of the universe is that nothingness.  Apart from this incredible transformation and creativity. That is part of the nature of the universe. 

Jane: Do you think we should record this? It’s good. 

Rod: Yeah, I am.

Jane: Oh, is this being recorded? 

Rod: Yeah. 

My name is Rod Sugden and I’ve been working in the field of education for the last 20 years. And the last five years has been for the charity Global Generation, facilitating education sessions for children and young people. Children and young people get a deeper sense of themselves, others around them and the world in which we live. So at the heart of the work I feel is this spiritual dimension which I feel is very much lacking in today’s education system. 

Jane: I’m Jane Riddiford and the roots of the work I do today probably started more than 35 years ago. I’ve been involved in, again, children and young people’s education and urban agriculture and reforestation, but always in some way in unlikely places in the middle of the city, it’s all about perspective and vision and breaking down the barriers between people. It evolved over time. Our first projects were on top of an office building in King’s cross and then we got to work on the, what was then a construction site, but the King’s cross estate. I ended up doing an action research-based master’s and then a doctorate and that’s where, um, yeah, the whole notion of I, we and the planet came from which you could take as the inner, he outer and the collective and what emerges between people. And then out of that energy, the very practical things we can do to make a difference on the planet. Our current home base is the story garden, which is about two acres between the British Library and the Francis Crick Institute. 

Jane: I feel like I’m in this process of further unpacking my own history, which I’ve done quite a bit of. My family’s relationship to owning land as a fifth generation New Zealander, a farming family, and some of the kind of subtle messages that were in there around, um, ownership and class. Yeah, and I, I kind of feel like until we can get to go back to an earlier history where the even idea of owning public resources, it just didn’t… it’s like who owns the sky? Which I know people now are trying to, you know, they’re even owning the sky. We’re never going to find a proper redress with the, with the planet and with the people of the planet. There’s been something for me in terms of where do we come from, about finding and standing in, if you like, my deep time past. Which is before any kind of fragmentation and in some ground that feels inherently whole and connected. And then there’s the more recent past of the last 3-500 years, I guess, of grabbing and ownership and power and control and status. Yeah. Where do we come from? We come from all of that. It’s really important to be able to keep coming, find, having a place to come back to before anything ever happened and connection with the earth and beneath my feet and the stars above my head and the space between everything. And, and it’s heartening to see how that then resonates with different cultural stories of people all over the planet. 

I was thinking about when you and I got together, there was, I felt like there were two kinds of love at work. There, there was the, um, just the normal feelings of romantic attachment and connection and the fire that comes from that. And then I can remember early on of being together, looking at you and, and feeling like it was our connection was also a foundation of what we could do together and what we could bring to the world, a sense of coming together to create a solid foundation for something to grow. 

Rod: Yeah I think another way of thinking about love is when you see yourself in somebody else, when you see your deepest sense of who you are, that spark that you said, somebody else, you actually recognise that that spark is inside yourself as well. And there’s kind of like this sense of non-difference. So I can say like a natural condition, which is not like you’re trying to do something. It’s kind of like there, when the division falls away.

Jane: that’s the amazing thing, isn’t it, there’s not the sense of having to do something. There’s a relaxation. 

Rod [to children]: And then right in the middle, in the belly of the whale was a beautiful woman who was dancing. Imagine inside the whale, there was this woman who was dancing. The lady thought this was very strange…

Jane: It was like a real privilege and a blessing that someone like me gets to work with such a diversity of young people, and hearing the freshness of their voice, given the right conditions. I feel real hope in the future and what they express and what they’re capable of. I often say to young people, we’re not doing this for you, we’re doing it because your voice is needed and it helps give them confidence because then they focus on a bigger frame in their kind of self identity. But actually it’s true. I mean, I mean it, I feel that children and young people have the potential to unlock the hearts and minds of adults and older people and get them out of the straight jacket just to be humans. You know and also if they see children, young people doing that, they think ‘well I should be able do that’. Of course we have experience to share and that’s not to deny that, but this kind of ‘oh we’re going to help you’. I think I like the idea – I heard recently this phrase – rather than thinking about deliverables, we should think about discoverables. So that together with this brain learning we’re going to discover something.

Rod [to children]: …and then he revealed the face of a man and he pulled back his wings and he revealed the arms of a man…

Jane: Yeah I’m just thinking about our Monday morning story walks that we’re doing with Jane who’s my local GP. And she really is quite an extraordinary human being. And has a deep commitment to doing doctoring differently, which is not about a medicalised approach to medicine, it’s about care and, um, love and friendship and fellowship. It was as if her love and friendship gave me confidence to listen to my own inner surveillance about what felt right and what was the right thing to do, because so often I think in that health situation, you can feel like you’re handing your body over to someone else, whether that’s a conventional or an alternative route. And you miss the fact that there’s something inside us that can guide us. So through that process, I also learned to love my body and the miracle of what you know, who we are and what we’re a part of.  And I feel like it’s an ongoing process of waking up to that. And I see her doing that with all of, you know, many of her other patients of all ages and circumstances. And she really feels that there’s something unique that can happen. And that doctor-patient relationship, which is so often just confined to a very narrow world of medicine, but to take that trusting, intimate connection out as a kind of community glue. And then through that, the different patients that she works with, we’ve developed relationships with each other. There’s this sense of a free space and no separation between everybody and it’s as if something rises between us all. And sometimes that’s very tangible, we’re sitting, we sometimes walk from Kentish Town through the green spaces and end up in our story garden in King’s Cross. And sometimes we are sitting in a circle in the middle of these oak trees that we have there, and we have a fire and we’re right in the middle of London, and then there’s a fire going, and the sun’s coming in and we’re just sharing in a free way. And there’s this feeling of collective love.  

Rod: I felt the importance of silence and stillness in different, in different settings as well. Not just on the story walks last week, for example, being with a group, being with the whole class, actually, there’s the whole class is sitting outside there on these benches. And we start off with a session of sitting still where I get my little gong, my little singing bowl and I hit that a few times and there are seven, eight year olds or maybe 10 or 11 year olds and we sit, 30 of them sitting still and silently. And that’s just a very powerful thing to do with, with young people. It seems to allow a space to open up where deeper values can be expressed and can be discovered just coming together first of all, in that silence and stillness. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a formula that, you know, should be dished out to all classes and all the schools and everything, but it’s something that I found and I know we’ve, we’ve found very powerful.  

Jane: It is lovely doing that with children. And, you know, when you can see they really get it and commit themselves to it, they look like little Buddhas. And, uh, it’s been helpful doing it with the gong. They find that easy and they seem, you know, they say, can we do it again?  

Rod: I think silence is stillness is actually part of our nature. It’s part of the nature of a human being, young or old. And when we sit still, we are connecting to part of, of our inherent nature, which I think we, most of us, for most of the time, tend to forget that.  

Jane: yeah, well, it feels like, I mean, and certainly, you know, facilitating it, I have my eyes open and I’m looking at them and if it feels like they’ve come home to something, come home to a part of themselves. And I love the way, you know, unsolicited and at the end of the session, not at the end of the whole workshop session, when they’d been listening to a story and running around and lighting fires and finding insects and doing all kinds of things. And when we come in that big circle at the end and ask them what they liked, often one or two of the children will say, I liked it when we were really still, it was calm and it was peaceful. And they, um, yeah, they do say, it’s not a burden. They seem to love it.  

Rod: yes, yeah. I think that one of the powerful things about silence and stillness is that we can develop, well not develop, but we can glimpse a deeper sense of who we are. We can discover ourselves in a new way that is not wrapped up in our usual kind of identity, it’s from this deeper sense of who we are, that we can actually come together with others in a more illumined and lighter way, where more is possible. You still, there’s still going to be so much more to learn, discover and that’s going to unfold.  

Jane: the power of, um, letting go and emptiness and, but that’s a delicate thing because it can’t be held onto like some kind of idea. And in some ways it’s better not to name it too strongly because you kill it or you fill it up with another bunch of ideas, but practices that, and that’s where, you know, nature, connection and practices of emptiness and silence and stillness can be very important just to shift gear and to drop into that no thing place. Yeah I think that’s really important to find ways and whatever ways to do that regularly. Otherwise I know for myself, I kind of lose the sensitivity to that. And I’m just back in the world of things and doing, not the space between the things. 

Rod: Yeah. I feel like it’s getting  the balance right as well between being and becoming, between being still and action. But the thing is, I feel I need to bring that much more into the world, so to speak, into the world of being and action. So for me, it’s not so much the emphasis, I think, on coming back to this being, but more on, hey, how can I bring this into manifestation? So I think it’s more about not hesitating. It’s about following that spark within me, that wants to create something new. I know, what I was going to say is, maybe we need to find this balance, certainly for myself, I need to find this balance between being and becoming, between stillness and action.  

Rod: well, I went through this period of, for about two months of just constant pain and the pain wouldn’t go away, it would be through the night as well. I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the night with this pain going on, not being able to go back to sleep. And the only thing that I could do, which could take my mind off the pain was to play the piano. And so I’d get out bed and go and put my headphones on with the electric piano and I’d play. And when I played, I felt this creativity coming out of me and my awareness went away from the pain. It forced me to be in the moment and to do something creative in order to keep me on track really.

Jane: well I like using the word crisis in a positive sense. So crisis, the other meaning of is about change. So we’re undoubtedly in a crisis. There’s lots of horrendous things happening. Really horrendous systems are unraveling. It’s not out there in the future. So climate change is real: the fires, the loss of species, the loss of resources, the ruining of our soils, the violence between people, the craziness about politics and our politicians. But then within that, this, there is a mission for things that seemed really too out there to speak about, uh, becoming more acceptable, this whole call for we’ve got to grow back greener, we’ve got to grow back as a more integrated society, suddenly environment and well-being and our own sanity uh, people are making the connections. You know, not so long ago people used to look at me as if I was crazy talking about those kinds of connections and that level, I feel quite hopeful and as you know, I’ve, you know, we’ve got to know our neighbours and neighbourhood in a way that for the last 15 years of living here, I haven’t.

Jane: and then we’ve got the constellation that we connect into periodically that’s come through the school of storytelling and fellow story tellers, and our Tuesday ‘stories for a better world’ events. Um, and those are things that we dip and, you know, I think both of us, fortunately, there’s quite a lot of stuff that Rod and I like doing together and storytelling is one of them. And we dip in and out of that.

Rod:  well, for me, stories, we’ve been exploring stories in terms of them being mediums in which they convey messages, morals for how to live our lives in more illumined ways. I think these stories from all different cultures from around the world, they have deep meanings and values embedded in them, which are very appealing and attractive to not only children and young people, but also to adults. And I think stories can be great ways to enable people of whatever age to enter into a dimension of perspective that is much bigger than the one that they’re presently in. And it can do that in a way that’s not religious or dogmatic, it’s, it can be done in a way which is very freeing and very natural. People take from the story in their own way. You know, you tell one story to a group of 30 people, and each one of those people within that group will listen to the story in a different way and draw something different. And I think that’s one of the magic components, the magic aspects of story that would speak for myself, that I’ve been, that I’ve discovered in the storytelling.  

Jane: yeah, I think that’s great that actually, you bring up storytelling and I would say that is one of the practices that will take us into the future. I think, you know, community practices like eating together and cooking together, uh, and walking together. I think, you know, people for millennia have told stories together and they have this wonderful ability of grounding big ideas and enabling us to take the leap from what might otherwise, for a rational mind seemed totally impossible and irrational but told in a story you’re kind of carried on the story and you can dare to dream the possible. And it hits you at a very deep core. And I think the other thing that story does is it changes the atmosphere in a group. And that can be a real bonding thing.  

Jane: I think patience has been really, really important in my work and many of the things that I’m doing have taken years to germinate and happen. There’s been a feeling of something, but it hasn’t come to fruition for a long time. And I often think of metaphors of ecology and the forest, that somehow the way a first grows has been a guide and charted my course. And I’d think about seeds, native seeds that lie dormant in the ground for sometimes 30 or even a hundred or more years before the conditions are right that they can grow again. Now that was certainly the case with the hillsides that were stripped of native trees and the interests of farming. And then over several generations, it took for them to be reforested again. But what they found is some of the native seeds actually germinated. But it’s combined with almost like the opposite of it, which is precociousness and this kind of feeling of like, right, got to catch the moment and almost jump quickly before I have time to think. And it always feels like a double action of catching the winds of the universes there at my back, but then being prepared to be persistent and hold the vision, hold it lightly, not give it up and, but not be rigid about it. So there is this kind of holding of things, but holding them lightly and then just creating slowly, slowly creating the conditions. And then when the time is right, things starting to blossom and obviously not everything does, but enough has to give me confidence in that.  

Rod: when I think of the past that we have come from, I think of deep, deep time. I think of 14 billion years ago when there was absolutely nothing. Nothing to see, smell, taste, hear, or touch, a time when there was no time for me, that’s, that’s my history. That’s the history of the universe is that nothingness. And it’s out of that nothingness where all of this, what was the universe and the earth arose from, and that we went through all these different stages or the universe went through all these different stages of development – stars and galaxy formation, then a deep silence again, where nothing seemed to be going on, but then some stars and very special stars that were like this cosmic cauldrons up in the sky, making all these new elements like potassium and our brain and iron that is in our blood and calcium is in our bones. These stars exploded, went supernova and they shot out all the stardust, across a region of our galaxy and then clumped together to form our solar system. And then earth was formed out of all this stardust together with the rest of our solar system, and then life emerging, the waters. And then some of these creatures sea creatures come on to land. And then the land creatures developed and morphed, and then finally human beings arrived on the scene. So I feel that our past is this very, very deep 14 billion year journey. And it’s when I remember all of this, or when I have this in my consciousness, in my perspective that I feel that I can contribute the best in the world around me.

Jane: it makes me think of like Galileo looking up at the stars, charting away into different kinds of a future.

Rod: I was teaching in a little independent school, near the Barbican in London, teaching this story about the universe and the cosmos and the unfolding story from the time of nothingness and the Big Bang. And then at the end of it, one of the boys said to me, does that mean we’re all staranese? And I said, what’d you mean staranese? And he said well, if you’re from China, you’re Chinese, and if you’re from Japan, you’re Japanese. And because we’re all from the stars, that must mean we’re all star-anese. And I said, yes, that’s right, yes, we’re all staranese. And, and he said, does that mean that then another boy said, does that mean we’re all connected? And I said, exactly, that’s why we’re all connected. And I think it’s that sense of love that we experience when we, when I recognise, hey, we’re actually, we’re all staranese and, uh, we’re not actually different, we’re not actually other than, I think then there’s this sense of, of love.