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Lucy Neal:
playing for time

Lucy Neal is an artist, theatre maker, writer, celebrant and community activist. Steadfastly involved in the grassroots Transition movement in her beloved Tooting since 2008, in this encounter Lucy invites you to join her as she bikes through her community and marches through the streets of central London, exploring what it means to hold the grief, love, devastation, terror, beauty and infinite possibility of these times. Lucy’s recently republished book, Playing for Time: Making Art as If the World Mattered is a resource for artists, community activists and anyone wishing to reach beyond the facts and figures of science and technology to harness their creativity to make change in the world.

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

Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend


So this is my bike. It’s a pretty ancient Ridgeback. And I love it. I absolutely love it. I ride it pretty much every single day, and I’m gonna go on a bit of a journey around the neighbourhood, because I find that on my bike, it’s a kind of liminal space, I can kind of look around and I see things as they are, but I also have a freedom to imagine how they could be.

I can see the most beautiful Magnolia trees coming out into blossom in early April, and there’s just a road, it’s not too busy a road, just going past. So this is my… Oh, there goes Bob, my neighbour, just cycling past. Hello Bob. 

I’m Lucy Neal. I’m an artist and a writer and I have evolved a practice over my life of creating and making spaces, for stories essentially. Stories that are catalysts for change. 

So my first sort of 25 years of my life was creating LIFT, the London International Festival of Theatre, which was a festival of experimental theatre from around the world. I loved theatre and all its energy and dynamics. So when I finished with the theatre festival, I suppose I held onto the, the dynamics of that as a kind of root ball to then explore what I then considered to be the sort of real story of our times, which was that we were living on a planet that was overheating, and we had to all pay attention to a story about how humans would, um, find other ways to live. 

Initially setting up a Transition Town, which is a community initiative linked globally to others, which questions really, how do we change how we live, where we live? What is the role of our imaginations? What is the role of our creative capacities? In this re-imagining and reinventing of the world.

I came to see that my explorations would begin here, in my own home, and what lay literally out of my front door. I live in Tooting, south-west London and, um, finding a role for myself as a community activist.

And off we go. I’m just gonna do it for a minute or so and then we’ll see how that works. So I’m just, I’m just following the bus actually. 

The journey that we’re gonna start with, it takes us down a hill, quite steep hill, Church Lane. And the reason I remember it so much, literally with my whole body as a moment in my life, it was a moment that changed a lot of things for me. And the Greeks talk about time in two ways: Kronos, one God of time, is about time measured in, you know, units of days and months or hours. Whereas Kairos is another way of looking at time, as an intervention or something that cuts across your path. And in that moment of opportunity, everything can change. It is like a crossroads that comes across your own track. And in that single moment there’s a possibility of grabbing change and going with it. And this ride down Church Lane was such a moment for me. 

It’s Easter holidays, so there are quite a few children around now, cause they’re not at school. Somebody that’s running past, I’m coming up to a round, roundabout now. Um, yes. Okay. I have got a helmet on, and I’m off down Church Lane, which is hill-ish, and of course, when you go down the hill, you get speed, and then when you come home again, you have to work quite hard. 

I really didn’t see myself as an activist. I didn’t see myself as somebody who stepped out and stood up and spoke for things. But that day, I thought I’d take my courage in my hands and cycle down Church Lane into… onto the high street of Tooting, and that I’d go and speak to two very wise people who I’d had cause to have contact with in the past. One was Indrjit Patel, who runs the pharmacy on Tooting High Street, and the other was Nassim Abubeker, who runs a remarkable care agency support network for Asian and Muslim families in the Tooting area. 

I treasured their counsel. And the reason as I came down the hill, I had that intention to go literally and knock on their doors. I had no idea what was gonna come out of my mouth, but it was gonna be something like, were they concerned about climate change? Challenges to the way we live on earth, how we live in community, the connections between us.

And I came down this quite steep hill, which I’m doing right now, and you pick up speed and there’s a bit of a wind behind. And now I’ve got a bus on my tail. I’m just going over one of the humps, oops. One of the, um, bumps along the road. This is a mic on a bike. That’s the red G1 going past me. 

But the feeling I had that day was one of absolute terror and also absolute exhilaration and excitement, because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was doing it. And I just thought I was gonna put these conversations to the test, to then kind of look further, and see whether reaching out, putting a call out, setting up a Transition initiative was one way for me to find a path that would engage with people locally to ask the same question. You know, what does it feel like to live now at this time of climate and ecological emergency? So I came down this hill with a great sense of kind of, we, you know, in my heart, I felt my heart was bursting about what might happen next.

That’s a bump. I just went over a bump! And yeah, so at the bottom of the hill we get into Tooting High Street and Tooting town. 

And what happened next was very interesting. They listened very kindly to what I was saying in my attempt to articulate how I understood the challenges that we faced on Earth, and my questioning to myself about how communities could come together to find appropriate responses to all kinds of food security or energy use or housing or social justice questions.

And as I left, Indrjit said to me, you know, you’ve made me think about how when I left my house this morning, I looked out of my kitchen window and I saw a very small plant, it was a weed growing out of the brick wall outside our kitchen window. And I said to myself, little weed, you need so little to survive and live. A little bit of light and a little bit of water. And I found that story from him, very touching in terms of what it was that our conversation had opened up about resilience, about strength, about possibility, about survival. 

And then when I’d spoken to Nasim, she said, everything you say accords with my Islamic faith. And she told me about her mother in Malawi who does not let one rice, one grain of rice go to waste, and does not let it go down the drain at all. But she collects them all and doesn’t waste anything. And she described the herbs and the lavender that she had growing on her balcony outside. And again, I felt something settle in me about how relatively easy it is to just to open up conversations about who we are, how we are as humans, how we connect, how we care. How we show our care of each other and our care of the earth. So with those two conversations on board, I felt I had a little bit more courage, and we then proceeded with some others that I knew in Tooting. And that then began, four years or so, of an absolute rollercoaster in my life, engaging locally as a grassroots community activist to set up spaces in which we could hold shared space publicly for looking at the challenges, and for coming up, creatively, with some answers. And for a while I delved very deeply into reading about carbon and oil and CO2 and, you know, how land is used and all kinds of things that I had not until that point, you know, really immersed myself in. What was a local economy? and what would be the projects that we could get going? 

We found a disused shop, which is just opposite here. It now actually sells egg-free cakes, called the Cake Box. We had an open door which invited people in for a number of different little activities, but it asked questions like, what do you want future generations to thank you for? Or, what’s your memory map of Tooting? Or, what does it feel like to live now? You know, are there things that concern you about the future? And slowly, day by day, these activities were so… they aroused people’s curiosity, and it was as though the community were having a remote dialogue with themselves as these maps and stories of Tooting grew up.

It was very, very beautiful, very touching. I felt we’d got under the skin of the community here, which is very, very diverse, intercultural, intergenerational. Everybody came into the shop, some people came back on repeat trips. I felt I learned something very simple about us as a human species, which is that just beneath the surface, our yearnings, our fears, our loves, our hopes, our aspirations, they’re all just sitting there just really near the surface and it takes so little to create a space in which they can be held, brought forward, brought together to imagine things differently. And this yearning for a world in which there is love, care, connection – it’s there, it’s there. And there was a spirit on both those occasions, which inspired me utterly to continue at the work of building community spaces in which catalysts, stories of change could be held and shaped and designed by, by many.

I suppose, as a practice, the thing I’ve always been very sort of glued to, I would say almost all my life, is to understand a line between what is possible and what is not possible. And actually it’s not a line. It’s just this endlessly fluid field of possibilities that are worth kind of dancing with and playing with. And that’s sort of one of the reasons I love getting on my bike and cycling around here, is that cycling around becomes, it’s almost like being present in the moment, in a liminal space, of seeing what is, what could be, and because you’re sort of moving and you’re looking and you are curious in what’s around you, I have found it a sort of exceptionally nurturing place to be busy with my imagination about what it could be.

What if that gate weren’t closed? What if that area had some trees planted? What if that area had a community garden? And on one occasion I came to these gates where I am now, set in a brick wall at the edge of Streatham Cemetery. This gate here was shut. This was, again, it was about 10 or more years ago, and around about the same time in 2008, realising that Streatham Cemetery was this absolute haven of quietness and peace, very close to the high road, a friend Lucinda and I set up the Friends of Streatham Cemetery to ask how the cemetery could be cherished. Some of, there’d been quite a bit of vandalism of some of the graves, and what I learned from this particular gate, which we then move to have opened, is that when you’re looking at possibility, you often have to get up really, really, really close to find out the difference between something that’s not possible and something that is possible. 

Because what we learned about this gate that was closed, which I’ve just walked through actually, which is now completely open, it gets, uh, open and closed morning and night. But what we learned about this gate was, the reason it was closed was because a car about 20 years ago had drove into the masonry and that actually the gate was propping up the wall. And so just raising a little bit of money from Groundworks, we got the wall repaired and the gate was opened and it has utterly changed the walking routes around Tooting, because you can now come off the high road down Broadwater into the cemetery, and through up towards Springfield Hospital and out without the traffic and a much, much more pleasant pedestrian walking experience.

But sometimes I feel a lot of exploring possibilities. It’s not only about physically opening the gate but actually also opening people’s, the gates in people’s minds – that think that because something is as it is, that it always has been like that and it always has, has to stay like that.

[conversation with Finbar Martin]

Bumping into Finbar Martin, who is a fellow swimmer. 

I think the present moment is important. If you allow in to your heart and your mind, everything that is going really badly. And whether it’s the rising temperature of the planet and the melting ice, and the heating oceans and the acidification and the methane gas and the famines and the uninhabitable areas of the planet for all species, including humans, then you can bring yourself to a standstill. You can literally freeze and be consumed with fear. It is a very frightening moment that we’re in. 

But in that same present moment, you might be watching the blossom of a chestnut tree, or the light on an oak tree leaf just coming into spring greenness. And I think that how I personally just keep myself steady in paying attention to both, you know, you can’t just turn your, you can’t turn a blind eye to what’s happening to the earth and all life on it. But you must hold on to possibility. And there is so much possibility for doing what we need to do, and we know need to do. 

And I, I honestly really believe that joy itself is a hugely radical experience, because the natural world to me appears to be joyful. There is, in the natural world, there is an enthusiasm for life. And so for us to be constantly connecting back to that enthusiasm for life, I feel that is the place to be. To be constantly reminded and in connection, and to feel that we are a part of that. So if I do not feel joyful, if I do not feel really enthusiastic for life, then I feel I’ve turned inwards and begun to be consumed by these very natural feelings of fearfulness.

So it sounds so paradoxical to say it, but the grief and the despair are absolutely, you know, they’re just the same coin, if you like, they’re the same side, but we have to keep our attention on how life cycles work, you know, which is of endless resetting and regeneration, and this sort of ever unfolding abundance of possibility.

I’ve come to Tooting Bec Lido, and it’s about three minutes from my front door on my bike, which is a great blessing because I come and swim here around the year, um, as often as I can. That’s a wood pigeon over my head. And it’s a kind of key place for me, because I love swimming, and just for a few moments, there’s that sense of certainty for me in a, in a whole sea of daily uncertainty about what’s happening today in our lives, and where the future might take us.

So what it feels like is, demanding of us to keep this sort of full attention span, you know, and maybe we can evolve to do that better and better and better. Um, I hope so.

[protest chants] 

Here I am in Parliament Square. And everywhere I look, there’s a planetary health hub, there’s ask a scientist, there’s court support. There are music stages, there are people walking around in the spring sunshine. There’s a welcome sign, there are banners fluttering with roses, the XR symbol with hearts… and it’s just very lovely. People are wandering around, couples holding hands, people with drums, policemen in relaxed postures, just standing guarding the Parliament Square green, which has been fenced off, which is kind of timely, really, for having literally thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people gathering over several days.

As a theatre maker, I have always been fascinated by how things happen, in a moment, live, when a story is being told, or many, many stories come together and are being told kind of simultaneously. And the four days that happened in April this year – The Big One – unite to survive, in town, there was absolutely no way I wasn’t gonna be there and be part of it, because simply to be on the streets, to stand in Parliament Square, under Big Ben, seeing the flags, seeing, hearing the drumming, hearing talks from different stages coming, was to experience at a physiological level, a sense of openness, a sense of great heartedness, of what is it that has brought these people to the streets at this time. And of course the story of that is one of a terrible sense of grief and loss about something that is so huge, you know, about life being sustained on the planet, that you can’t, you cannot really tell it as one story. But it is our heart’s capacity to respond emotionally to what is needed at those moments. You know, literally with our bodies being there and present and saying, we are here and we rebel for life.

There’s just a sense of ease and a sense of openness and a sense of focus and a sense that things are possible with so many things in collapse all around us. It’s just this shared sense of coming together. Very little reported in the media, but I’m here now and it’s happening and it’s all around. I’m at the very back end of a march, so I’m gonna try and collect up with the march, which is going around to Jubilee Gardens and it’s gonna come back to Parliament Square. So I’m gonna try and find that if I can, probably best following the samba band.

I think that what fascinates me in this is the whole question about what is activism. I see a spectrum of activism, so whether I am here in Tooting investigating how we might open a gate, or whether I’ve joined a march in town, or whether actually, you know, in 2019 I was on the garden bridge, I did get arrested, I did get put in a police van. I did spend overnight in a police cell, and I have to say when the door closed on me in a police cell, mad as it was, there was a kind of sense making for me at that moment that, yeah, the situation is this serious. It really is this bad. It was an affirmation to me of actually what is required in order to kind of wake up to what’s needed. I see that as continuing and people place themselves in different situations on that spectrum, you know? And for some, it’s a very gentle activism because it’s building community, it’s being at home, it’s being involved in creating those kind of bridges where they live. And for others, it’s walking slowly to halt the traffic and draw attention to the fact that we cannot have an expansion of new fossil fuel.

On a July day in 2010, we had about a thousand people with huge, great costumes and it was called the Trash Catchers Carnival. So everything we made had been recycled or made from materials that we gathered up over a year. We had got going to some workshops which would ask the question about how the local community imagined a future time, you know, when we had reduced our energy consumption and lowered carbon emissions. And what, what was the world that we conjured with them? And that was a huge carnival. 

We had about 400 children from local primary schools, and they’d all made fabulous giant octopuses and elephants and fish. And they said they wanted to make animals because they wanted people to know that humans were not the only thing in the world. I’m just coming to a junction here balancing a bit on one hand. 

But I knew that we’d need somewhere to gather at the end so that we could not only see all these fabulous carnival creations, but that also we could sit on a sunny summer’s day and share our picnics, and the time that we were having together, and to greet each other and to feel together as a community, because I had noticed that there was this very large green area, really just a minute away from the high road called Fishponds Playing Fields. And this is it. I’m just coming in, just cycling in now through the main gates, which are pretty hidden from the main, from the road. And I’m just coming into the fields now where there’s quite a bit of football playing going on. And I’ve subsequently learned that this, this is about nine acres of green space, and I thought, well, this is perfect. So after various investigations and talking to Wandsworth Council, we did indeed get permission to come off the high road with our great big carnival and to gather here. 

And one of the big characters that had merged from our stories building up towards the carnival about how we imagine a future was a bird, the Sankofa bird from West African legend. And the bird is a mythical creature, which can, it carries the seed of the future beneath its wing, and it look backwards and forwards in a single glance. And in looking backwards, it says it’s never too late to go back and fetch that, something that we might have forgotten. It might be a story, it might be skills, it might be an ancestor, it might be knowledge, and to fetch it and bring it back and carry it with us into the future. And on the morning of the carnival, July 2010, I came here to the fields very early because we were setting up lots of flags and getting it all ready. And I stood right where, exactly where I’m standing at the moment, right in the middle of the fields, the sky is huge over my head right now, and I stood in the middle of the fields and I said out up to the sky, the words that we had come up with on our banners for the carnival, and particularly of the Sankofa bird, “On Fishponds, I shall find my flock and fly in formation and nest on our rock”. And as I said these words, very early in the morning, a huge gust of wind just blew in my face. And all up from the lime trees, a whole clatter of birds flew out. And with this gust of wind in my face, I felt it was a blessing from the Earth itself. 

And although that was over 12 years ago, I hold onto that moment so hard in my heart, because it has given me so much courage and knowledge that the universe comes to meet us when we step up, when we make a move, when we come to meet it with connection, with collaboration, with community. And I then went back to the gathering, folk in the playground getting ready, and our carnival was a huge success and it led on to all kinds of other doors opening. And Sadiq Khan, who was our MP at the time, came with his own children who were in the carnival. And he, at the end when we gathered here on Fishponds having our sharing picnic, he said, congratulations. He said to us, you’ve not only brought the community of Tooting together, you have brought the communities of Tooting together. And uh, yeah, that was a big day for Tooting, because it gave us a sense of possibility. If we can do this, if we can do this, what else can we do?

I’m prepared til my last breath on this Earth to evolve a continuing creative practice that allows me personally, Lucy, to explore every single possibility there is. And it is a practice that holds my grief, but transforms it into something that is onward and regenerative, I hope.