Time is Sliding

Mary Clear, death doula and kindness propaganda gardener

September 25, 2021 Rob Baylis Season 1 Episode 3
Time is Sliding
Mary Clear, death doula and kindness propaganda gardener
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

This episode is a natural progression from the previous two because it starts on the theme of death and dying. It then moves on to cover the community growing phenomenon known as Incredible Edible Todmorden. This has garnered a great deal of attention from across the world and is sometimes described as propaganda gardening. The common thread that connects these two themes is kindness. You’ll hear about all of this from Mary Clear, the chairperson of Incredible Edible Todmorden. She’s a great speaker and a fun interviewee.

Mary received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2011 for her work in the community. Whilst this was awarded under the British honours system, she’s certainly not an establishment figure. Her Twitter profile (@thelonggoodby) gives a much better indication of who she is. This is what it says: “Dreamer - activist - Death Doula, a woman on the edge of adventure. I sleep like a baby. I am afraid and brave. I believe in change and kindness.”

A few years ago, Mary along with Hannah Merriman and Sue Robinson established the award-winning week-long Pushing up Daisies festival of death and dying in Todmorden. This ran for a few years and you’ll learn more about it from Mary including the reasons why it hasn’t continued. Here's a link to video recording of highlights of the Pushing Up Daisies festival in 2017. It was made by the Lien Foundation, a Singaporean philanthropic organisation that seeks to inspire social change in Singapore.

During this episode, Mary explains what a Death Doula is and talks with passion, compassion and wisdom about the work she’s involved in to support the dying. This includes helping people to have open conversations about the many aspects of death and the processes of getting there.  Mary mentions that she trained as a death doula in Lewes in East Sussex, England. Membership of End of Life Doula UK can only be gained after a death doula has completed a training course or is a current trainee.

On Incredible Edible, you’ll hear about its aims, what it does and its guiding principles. One of the most important of those principles is kindness. ‘Vegetable tourism’, little libraries, doing rather than talking about doing, paralysis by fear, how to bring about change around you, and in yourself, litter-picking, breaking rules and taboos about eating eggs all enter the conversation.

Before the interview, I found the following quotes from Mary:
“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted".
“If you don’t want to do anything, just follow the rules.” (TedX talk 2012). This is elaborated on in this episode.

There are some great one-liners that come up during the interview too. Here’s some:
"Every day above ground is a blessing."
“Kindness is contagious. When money doesn’t step in the door, another piece of magic happens.”
“If you talk too much, you will be paralysed. Fear paralyses people.”

Mary’s activism is rooted in Todmorden, a Yorkshire market town that’s very close to Lancashire physically as well as in its collective mind. It’s nestled in the Calder Valley that runs through the South Pennine hills of England. Todmorden has a population of around 15,000, around 10,000 fewer than when it was a bustling cotton mill town during the industrial revolution.

The interview with Mary was recorded in her own home because our plan for a covered but open-air setting was too windy on the day. During the same week in August 2021, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its scary assessment of what is in store for humanity if it doesn’t change its ways

See https://timeissliding.earth for more information.

Intro 0:00
Rob
Hello time sliders. You're about to listen… to Time is Sliding. And I'm Rob Baylis, podcasting about change. Now let's slide on.

Welcome to episode 3 of Time is Sliding. Each month I’m exploring aspects of the world that are changing over the precious time that’s slippery-sliding away. I interview ordinary and extraordinary people about changes in themselves, society and the environment on which we all depend. I hope you’re really going to enjoy this episode as it features someone who has amazing ways of looking at the world and making change happen. 

Mary Clear is the chairperson of Incredible Edible Todmorden.  Incredible Edible is a phenomenon that’s been emulated around the world and it’s sometimes described as propaganda gardening.  Mary herself will elaborate on that description.

Before we discuss Incredible Edible, Mary talks with passion, compassion and wisdom about the work she’s involved in to support the dying. This includes helping people to have open conversations about the many aspects of death and the processes of getting there.

When we move on to the subject of Incredible Edible, you’ll hear about its aims, what it does and its guiding principles.  One of the most important of those principles is kindness.  ‘Vegetable tourism’, little libraries, doing rather than talking about doing, paralysis by fear, how to bring about change around you, and in yourself, litter-picking, breaking rules and taboos about eating eggs all enter the conversation. 

In case you’ve never heard of Todmorden, it’s a Yorkshire market town that’s very close to Lancashire physically as well as in its collective mind. It’s nestled in the Calder Valley that runs through the South Pennine hills of England and has a population of around 15,000.  That’s around 10,000 fewer than when it was a bustling cotton mill town during the industrial revolution. 

Now let’s slide on to the conversation with Mary. 

Rob 03:47
I’m delighted to be having a conversation with Mary Clear, an activist who likes the saying “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Here’s another one from her: “If you don’t want to do anything, just follow the rules.”

Mary…I was going to say, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts & Manufacturing, but I think there’s a little story behind that. She certainly was. And she was awarded the MBE in 2011.  That MBE, a British honour, for those who don’t already know it, was for her work in the community.

Mary
And she didn’t buy it!

Rob
And she didn’t buy it?

Mary
And I didn’t buy it.

Rob
And she didn’t buy it!  Right. That’s important.

Mary
Yes.

Rob
And she’s got a big cheesy grin on her face about that one.

Mary’s someone who is always inspiring to listen to. Perhaps one of the main reasons is that she talks a load of sense, peppered with lots of humour. 

Mary
And swearing.

Rob
Well. I’ve seen a few videos of you recently and I didn’t hear any swearing.

Mary
No

Rob
There was some close to it, but perhaps not.

As a Death Doula and one of the organisers of a series of festivals called Pushing Up Daisies, she doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. In fact, I think she relishes them. To me, it’s so logical to be chatting with her for Time is Sliding immediately after the first two episodes in which my brother, Phil, viewed change from cancer’s helter skelter.

As a dreamer, a schemer and a grandmother, Mary not only worries about the state we’ll leave the planet in for the next generation, she’s also an effective activist who brings about change for the better. So it feels absolutely right to me to be talking with her in the week when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its scary assessment of what’s in store for humanity if it doesn’t change its ways.

So Mary, anything you’d like to pick up in that introduction?

Mary
No. Crack on. Crack on.

Rob
OK. 

Pushing up Daisies 6:15
Rob
Well, let's start with Pushing up Daisies. Can you tell the listeners what Pushing up Daisies was? Because sadly, it's not anymore, is it?

Mary
Yes, yes. Well, it was just an idea when I was training in Lewes to be a death doula and end of life doula. People had to go away and do something and a lot of people's idea was go and volunteer for a hospice. And I thought, oh, I don't fancy going to volunteer for a hospice, and I don't think hospices are actually asking for loads of people to come and volunteer. So I thought we could do something creative, something that would create a conversation. And that's all we set out to do. Create conversations about death and dying, about the process, about the grieving, about the experience of different people. And we thought, wow, I tell you what, there's a national dying matters week. We could do an event in dying matters. And as usual, got carried away. And we thought, let's take a whole week. Let’s do a seven day week, all day and something in the evenings. So that's what we decided to do. So essentially, we had one output, which we made for ourselves, which was create conversations, and try to imagine how many people we infected, so to speak, with a conversation. And the other really important principle was to do the whole thing on kindness. So we had no budget whatsoever.

Rob
That’s a common theme in what you do isn’t it?

Mary
Yes, it is a common theme to make things more sustainable. So we would only use the artists, performers, poets, writers, craftspeople that came forward, who shared our value of “let's talk about this, because it's healing, uplifting and good for people, but do it with kindness.” So luckily, every successful story has got a very anal person behind it. And we were lucky to have Hannah, who actually was really particular about language, about brochures, about spreadsheets, about timing. That's really good because I'm rubbish at all of that. I’m more of a “let's crack on and do something and take the risk.” So I mean, everybody laughed at us: “you’re gonna have a festival of death and dying, mm?  Let's see how that goes. Oh, you have no money? Oh, it would be really interesting to see how that goes.” But I've got to say, it’s one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, to see how receptive people were.

I remember the last year we did it. My friend, who is an actress in Emmerdale, had been doing a dying scene. And she said to me “Mary, you know, the bed I was dying in? It’s a real hospital bed.” The Emmerdale studios buy in a company with all this medical gear. I said, “you couldn't get me a hospital bed, could you? Just for a week?” So she got the company the film set use, and they delivered a bed to the town hall. And I just put on it “try before you die,” because I thought, you know, a lot of us want to die at home, but the majority of us die in a hospital bed. So I got in it with Fred and I was amazed it fitted two and that was my biggest fear. If I was in a hospital bed, would he be able to get in next to me? Well, I proved that can happen. And what was brilliant, there was a guy at the end of his life, who came in and said “well, I've not got long actually, and I'll give it a go.” And it was just brilliant.

Rob
That wasn't a person I know, was it?

Mary
I don't think so.

Rob
Steve?

Mary
No, it wasn't Steve. But Steve did try it too.

Rob
I bet he did.

Mary
Then a man came in.  On the edge of the bed, there’s a code number and he read it out like a nerd trainspotter. He said “I know every model.” Apparently they're manufactured somewhere in Yorkshire and they're all known, by the insiders, by their model numbers. Yeh, it was fascinating.

Rob
Well, if you do end up in a hospital bed, it could be here actually because my brother died in a hospital bed, at home,

Mary
Yes, yes, yes, they do deliver them at home. And in fact, I've got a person now who's been in her hospital bed at home, because she didn't die, partly because I fed her up a lot. And she's pimped it. It's fantastic. It's like a chaise longue. She's made fitted covers for the two end pieces and the back. And she's got kind of, it’s like an ottoman queens. And she's transformed it, which is really brilliant because there's nothing uglier than a hospital bed in your front room. But you can pimp them up lovely. I've great experience of hospital beds. And there's a movement to say, Why do they send the hospital bed home? They send the hospital bed home for the nurses’ health and safety, for their backs. Whereas…

Rob
Well there was another reason for my brother’s, I think.

Mary
What was it? Air mattress?

Rob
Exactly.

Mary
You can get an air mattress for any bed. And a lot of people are saying, well, you know yourself, when you go to a hotel or a friend's house, you're dreading that uncomfortable bed, a different bed. And when you get home you go “Oh I'm back to my own bed.” So, straightaway, you're deprived of that, your own bed. So there’s people challenging, saying, you know, just because a person's nursed at home, they should have the dignity of their own bed.

Rob
Makes a lot of sense. You said that Pushing up Daisies was initiated to get these conversations going. That presupposes that you felt that the conversations weren't happening?

Mary
The conversations definitely don't happen. I've spent two hours with someone this morning before you, talking in every detail about her condition. Because, as humans, we've learned to shy away from anything that pains us. And another person's pain pains us. And society now is: we want it, we want it now and we don't want any shit. We just want sugar. And I'm afraid that's how culturally, especially culturally for us, and the loss of religion… In religious terms, when religion dominated, people did talk about death and dying. They talked about salvation. They talked about forgiveness. They talked about pearly gates. They talked about seeing Auntie Lynn and Uncle Ted up in heaven. We've lost that. Virtually the whole country’s lost that. The church has lost its grip. Heaven has lost its grip. So now what do we do? Well, we won't mention it at all. So that's what I believe. You cannot talk too much.

Rob
That's interesting. When I was talking to my brother about his cancer and discussing things with him for this podcast, I struggled with the conversation when it was getting a bit too close to comfort. And I, I kind of said I'm sorry… I can't remember the exact words… but along the lines of “I hope I didn't upset you by bringing up this subject.” And then we had a bit of a joke, you know, he said “Well, I won't talk about it then.” And I said “I don't want you to hide your feelings about it” and he said “Oh, well, I will talk about it”. And then, you know, it got a bit convoluted because we weren't sure whether we could talk about it together… this is a brother I've known for a long time obviously…or not. But it was a good conversation I think, but it exposed probably my deficiencies in being able to talk about it.

Mary
But as a society, we've created the most oppressive language about fighting. If you've got rheumatoid arthritis, no one says… and that's such a painful wicked condition, life altering condition. Nobody says, “oh, they're fighting, or they've lost the fight.” But we've made a pecking order of illnesses and glamour. We’ve glamorised medicine, glamorised doctors. And it's in a huge mess now, a huge mess in terms of battles and winning and being a hero or not a hero. Are you a loser then if your cancer comes back five years later? You know, people should stop and think about the language they’re using.

Rob
Well I like to use… I think I probably picked it up from Steve really…if he didn't actually say it, Steve certainly inspired me with it … which is… it's a relationship with cancer rather than a battle, or whatever else. Because I think that's more the case. I mean it particularly with him over an eight year period. You know, it was like it actually …he was grateful for that cancer, bizarrely, because he had a relationship with it.

What’s a death doula? 16:46
Rob
Can I take you back to …you mentioned death doula?

Mary
Yes.

Rob
Many people won't know what a death doula is.

Mary
I'll give it to you short. Doula’s Greek for the word companion. So we have a birth doula. Well. When I say we, those with money and the inclination will have a birth doula who's not their mum, mum-in-law or partner. It’s someone hired. There's normally a monetary exchange to do that job. And for dying, we have the End of Life Doulas UK, which is a national, fully insured, regulated organisation. So you can actually acquire a doula to be a companion. And that role is a non medical role. That role is about… it's not about booking tickets to Switzerland, you know, someone else will have to book your tickets if you want to go there… It is about all of the things, it's a person centred role. It might be walking the dog, it might be managing all the visitors it might be working out the funeral or what you would like to happen and being an absolute advocate for the person. I trained with that organisation: End of Life Doulas UK, which is fabulous.

Rob
I'll put a reference to that in the episode notes.

Mary
Yes, yes…it’s really, really fantastic. But I chose… because that's the way I was born… I chose to be a different…I’m more interested in love and community. So the idea of monetising a person's pain and distress, to me, just doesn't sit well.

Rob
I was thinking that in my mind, you know. I wonder whether Mary gets paid for it? It doesn't seem like Mary to me.

Mary
So I don't want to insult my colleagues, that's their choice, it’s their personal choice. It's not a choice I could make. And I believe … what I'm doing, which is making myself open to anyone in this community, and some of the people can be quite obnoxious. I don't have to like them or love them. All I have to do is be what they need in that moment. So I'm from the school of a radical community death doula. And also, when the monetised doula steps in, it's often right at the end. Well, guess what? You can never tell when the end is. I'm with people now three, four, years as a constant when they were meant to die, and didn't die. And for some people, they're close to death very often. They can be close to death from enormous seizures that leave them in hospital for days on end. They could be okay for six months.

You know, there's people (who) have a lot of needs, and the fear of death is to me. I'm happy to spend hours and hours and hours with someone who fears death. Because if you fear death, you can't live. You're not living. So I will say every day above ground is a blessing. We're all on the same path, and we could be a lot more helpful to each other on that path because we're going the same way, every single one of us.

Mary featured in the London Science Museum Medicine Galleries 20:33
Mary
Oh, did you know I'm in the Science Museum, in London?

Rob
I didn’t know, no.

Mary
For 20 years. So they have opened a new wing. It cost millions and millions of millions. It’s called… I think it's called the Medicine Wing of the Science Museum. And there’s… they took our portraits and voices and it's … you sit on a bench and there's a telephone and you can look up each person on the telephone, and there's me talking about being a community death doula. But the weird thing was, you had to sign because new exhibits have to last for 20 or 25 years. I thought, isn't that fantastic? I might be dead! And my kids will be able to go and listen to Mum, rattling on, in the Science Museum! Yes.

Rob
Well, they'll be able to listen to this. I mean, there's so many videos and recordings of you anyhow so, yes, it'll be great in the Science Museum, but you’re not a person who’s not recorded.

Mary
It’s really lovely that they’ve featured the death, our organisation they’ve featured, and featured someone dying on the same year. You could listen to someone dying. It's great. It's great. They really… it was fantastic.

The kindness goes on after Pushing up Daisies 21:52
Rob
What you did with Pushing up Daisies was brilliant. Why did it stop?

Mary
Because the other two people, who are really into the planning side of it I think, Hannah's had two babies since… and I don't know, they're just not up for it. Because there is a huge amount of work.

Rob
Oh, I know, yes.

Mary
And, I don't know but, luckily for me, I've got so many people at the moment with death related issues, or great poorly-ness, that when I'm not making potions for them, or cough mixture, or finding the right food. So. In a way, it's great, because I'm really busy. But I tell you what has happened as well. The beautiful thing for me is, I don't have to care alone for people. I've got a whole network of people who were in Pushing up Daisies that I can say, “I can't meet x, y and z, and take them food this week. Could you do it?” or “I can't get them to their first round of chemo.” And so we've got a whole network of people who say, “just say the word, and I'll help.” That love and kindness, kindness is contagious. And when money doesn't step in the door, another piece of magic happens. And people say, “Well, how do you know her?” We say “we don't know her, but she said she'd do it.” So magic happens then because people have to think about themselves and what would they do for a stranger. So I think, to have a radical attitude is also to recognise it's powerful.

Rob
I mean you've promoted kindness round Todmorden very well, haven't you? There's signs about kindness in various places. It looks like Hollywood in a way but with ‘Kindness’ signs doesn’t it?

Mary
It is the Hollywood font, actually. Yes, downloadable free.

Rob
There’s one on the main road into Todmorden isn’t there? Halifax Road.

Mary
And one on the way out. Yes.

Rob
Yes, and one at…is that the one you're thinking of at the supermarket that we won't give a plug to?

Mary
Yes, yes, and then we've got Bacup Road, a huge mill with ‘Kindness’ on it.

Rob
Right. I remember that. Yes.

Mary
And then I do laugh, because every now and again in my Facebook feed, there's about an organisation who’ve monetised kindness. You know “come on a kindness course.” And you know, oh a writer about kindness. “Well, my new book’s all about kindness.” And I do have a little secret laugh to myself about that.

Rob
Kindness comes out in a book that a friend of mine, who lives quite close, gave me recently, called Humankind, by Rutger Bregman. Have you come across it?

Mary
No.

Rob
It's an interesting read because it's sort of arguing against the received belief that everyone's basically naughty.

Mary
Oh no, I…No, no, no, no, yes.

Rob
It's arguing against that and saying basically, humankind is actually very kind.

Mary
Yes.

Rob
If given the opportunity.

Mary
We’re hardwired for kindness, and hospitality, and generosity, and mercy. We're not hardwired to kill people, bomb people and be mean. Something goes wrong along the way.

Incredible Edible Todmorden 25:33
Rob
We got this far without talking about probably one of your most famous achievements, haven't we? You know what I'm talking about?

Mary
Incredible Edible?

Rob
Incredible Edible, and I meant to mention that in the … in fact I said the epicentre of Incredible Edible but I didn't say what it was. What is Incredible Edible?

Mary
Loosely, well, I can only say what it is for me in this town as I'm the chairperson. And the chairperson’s role is to lead from the front, your group. And for us, it's about growing food in public places. Sharing that food is about kindness. It's about attention to the birds, the bees, the bugs, the soil, which is, you know, our greatest resource on the planet that's being ruined every day. And it's about kindness and people.

Often, people think it’s about horticulture. Well the truth is, we couldn't give a tinker's cuss about horticulture. None of us are horticulturalists. We're about the other. We're about silence. We're about education. We're about eating good food. So our Sunday, which is this Sunday, our gardening Sunday, we’ll have people, because we're particularly interested in recovery. And when we use the word recovery, that's alcohol, drugs, or anything that people are recovering from. So we've got a lot of people on the wobbly side of life who will come. We've got people who's got no language ability at all. And we've got people who live in supported living. And then we've got teachers, ex-BBC executives. We've got a complete mix because that is what makes community. That's why people come. So that, when they move often, when people come here… I've had a phone call today from a woman from Norfolk: “my daughter's moving to your town, can we come on Sunday?” and she'll get to meet people. So it's about a mix of people being together. And at the same time, we'll pick up dogshit, we clean the town, we don’t, we don't say “oh, we're Incredible Edible. If we're not picking raspberries, we can't pick up muck off the floor.” So we, we clean the town, if there's a bench or something needs fixing, we'll fix it. So it's about saying “be the change.” If you don't like the way something looks…so recently, we didn't like the way a bridge was looking. There were some panels missing. So we found an artist, measured up the bridge, got the wood, sent it to the artist, she painted the most incredible paintings, and we just screwed it into the bridge.

Rob
Oh great.

Mary
Everyone says it's lovely. Has anyone noticed? Have we gone to prison or been arrested for interfering with bridges? I don't think so. I don't think that's going to happen. So we do good things. At the moment, we're just in week one of a four-week refugee play-scheme. So we've survived this week, which is really good. That's just feeding people, entertaining the families and providing the things those refugees need.

So we're continually looking at where can we be helpful. That idea of kindness, doing not talking, doing not reading books, writing reams of stuff, and just cracking on, action based radicalism, has inspired people all over the world. So people come here, and they look at what we're doing. And we say, just because we have made a decision not to take public grants or public money, that doesn't mean to say you have to do what we do. We don't make a judgement on how other people run their areas. We just believe to be we are completely financially self sufficient. And we believe, by being self sufficient, we can last longer. And my gosh, look, we're 13 years old.

Rob
Thirteen.

Mary
This year, yes. We've got plenty of money. We earn money from vegetable tourism. Obviously, not during COVID but we have been blessed.

Rob
For those who don't know, what is vegetable tourism?

Mary
So people … it has to match our values. So we were showing people around who were exhausted. People come from all over the world. “Oh, can we come and look at your garden?” So we thought, ah let’s make a map and a route, and make that route near shops. So that £2.60, kerching! Someone's a little business, a cup of coffee, oh a loaf of bread at the baker’s, another two pound x. So we would help the local economy and also demonstrate some of our lovely artworks or, or whatever we're growing. So we made… we said, ”Look, let's try and make money out of this.” So our application form says, I think it’s six pounds for a tour. “You could either book a tour and pay us six pounds, but if you don't want to pay us you can book the tour anyway.” And 90% of people pay us, which is really lovely.

So that’s what vegetable tourism is, and then we gave… I think we were seen as the oddbods of the town for many, many years.

Rob
I think you still are by some people.

Mary
Oh, I'm sure but when I go past the tourist information, and I see ‘kindness’ in the window carved in wood at an incredible cost, and I see our map in there, I just think, to me, I've made it in life.

Rob
Well you have. You’ve put Todmorden on the map in many ways, haven't you? I mean, you've had people from Japan and China haven’t you?

Mary
Yes. Yes.

Rob
Actually. Was it China or other parts of Asia? I know, Japan definitely.

Mary
Japan, and Singapore, and Malaysia. But I decided not to travel sometime ago. The others have been travelling so I don't get to notice where they go. So people can ask, they pay the travel, and they pay, I don't know, 100 quid, 200 quid and someone will go abroad. Gig, who is a local Thai…

Rob
Oh someone from Incredible Edible will go abroad?

Mary
Yes. Yes.

Rob
Oh. I though these people came here?

Mary
Oh, they do but also we earn money by going to Japan.

Rob
Oh right.

Mary
Travelling abroad. In fact…

Rob
Sorry, what where you going to say about Gig? And explain who she is.

Mary
So Gig is a very beautiful, incredible, crazy person, the landlady of our most famous pub, but she's also on our board of directors. And she went to do a talk in a country, which I think was maybe Malaysia, or Singapore maybe. And it was hilarious. People said, “Mary, we don't understand what she's saying a lot of the time, they won't understand.” I said, “Yeah, but we won't be there. So we won't know.” And you can convey, I really believe this, you can convey what's in your heart with two things, with pictures, and just your being.

You know, I did a Skype with Russia this year, and the Russian Embassy paid 100 pounds actually. And I thought it was … not a Skype a Zoom… it was just the people on the screen. 12 people. It was three and a half thousand people!

Rob
Oh right.

Mary
And I just thought, who would think that a) they’d understand me rabbiting on; or b) they’d be interested. But apparently we have a huge fan club in Russia.

Rob
That’s excellent.

Mary
So when they said they very much want to build some programme of sending people from Russia to Todmorden, I think it's like romantic … Russia, to Todmorden. So we'll see.

Rob
One of the things that you've said in the past is that you're gardening is not guerrilla gardening…

Mary
Yes

Rob
…it’s propaganda gardening.

Mary
Yes.

Rob
I love that phrase. Well, I love the concept. It's not a phrase, but I love what you’ve said there.

Mary
Yes. Yes, because guerrilla gardening’s so macho isn’t it? It’s war. I don't think ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ with a marigold. I think of the word guerrilla, balaclava, secretive, we're absolutely open about what we do. And it is propaganda because we don't produce any leaflets, we’re obsessive about waste, and frugal with our resources. So we don't produce any of those things. What you see outside there, in our gardens, is us. So if they’re fruiting a lot, which they are at the moment, means it's been a good year for us. If they're scraggly, it means you know, maybe we need some more volunteers who know about horticulture.

Rob
Mm. I think what we haven't talked about is actually what you do. You said that food is not the main thing that you're doing. It's about spreading this kindness. But actually, it's important to know, for people listening to this, that actually what you're doing is finding patches of land in the town that are not being used,

Mary
Mm

Rob
regardless of who owns them.

Mary
Mm

Rob
Am I right there so far?

Mary
You are unless its…yes.

Rob
regardless of who owns them and you start planting things in there,

Mary
Mm

Rob
edible things

Mary
Mm

Rob
that people can then take…

Mary
Mm

Rob
…and I was saying to my mother this morning, I said, “I'm going to talk to someone about Incredible Edible” and I gave a brief explanation as to what you do. And she said “doesn't anyone stop them taking the food?” You know and I said, “No, no, it's it's free to take. People take as much as they want or need.” Am I getting this right?

Mary
Absolutely. Absolutely. and that, honestly, I can't tell you how much my heart sings when I go out and I see someone picking gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, or …I saw a lovely Asian lady the other day, standing… because we don't like to stand on the soil…she was standing right in the middle of the bed. And my first instinct was to say, “oi, don't stand on the soil!” But she was just harvesting onions and I thought… because the worst thing that could happen would (be) that people wouldn't pick the vegetables. And that was in the, you know, 10 years ago. We’re a  “Keep off my land” country. That's the culture of the British people. “Our home is our castle,” “don't walk on the grass.” And we're saying the opposite: “Help yourself.”

Rob
Yeah.

Mary
It's like the little libraries, you know, first people snuck up to a little library…

Rob
I'm sorry, I'm gonna stop you there Mary.

Mary
Yes.

Rob
Explain what the little libraries are before you talk about that.

Mary
Okay. The little libraries. During lockdown, we had a lot more men… hadn't got anything to do. And books… the library was closed and we thought we'll make a little wooden library. And we made the first one and then a guy made a hugely ornate one, copying some stained glass window design. Then a guy made a monument that opened up. And before we knew it, I think we’ve most probably got more little libraries per head than anywhere in the whole world. We've got them on the estates, we've got them for children. Every school in Todmorden has got bespokes of their little wooden cabinets, painted by artists. Oh my god, some of them are so beautiful.

Rob
Can you point me to one that I can take a photograph of that you think exemplifies it, that I can then put in the blog that goes with this?

Mary
Yes, absolutely. And I just want to say one quick thing about the one you're going to photograph. So these people said “there's a derelict bit of land near us with an old rusty play barge in it (sound of cuckoo clock chiming 3 o’clock) covered in prickles.”

Rob
Is that the time?

Mary
The cuckoo clock.

Rob
Ah right.

Mary
Yes. “Can we have a little library?” I said, “certainly you can.” And seeing is believing. You have to take photographs. Those two people… I've never met them in my life. They have cleaned it. There is a little library. The play barge is painted, and painted with roses, repainted. The whole area is landscaped. There's picnic benches. But this is the incredible thing. There's toys, there's bikes, there's water for dogs. There's toys everywhere, and children go down, play with the toys and then stack them all away on the boat afterwards. Completely open to the public 24/7. No vandalism whatsoever. It's amazing. It's made a community space. Some old books - boom.

Rob
Excellent. You haven't mentioned the police station yet.

Mary
The police station is lovely. Oh, we have a little library at the police station. It's got a fingerprint on the door, a bullet hole in the side and it's just crime books. And that's right in front of the police station, screwed on to our amazing vegetable beds. We've got some …and the police… in fact, they awarded us some police award because they love it. They love having vegetables outside. Because there would be a judgement when you walk on to their land. “Oh, have they come in to give their driving licence in, or are they coming to get some parsley?” You know, Now, nobody knows. “Are they ringing the doorbell of the police station because they want a watering can, or are they ringing because someone's just given them a black eye?” You know, it's mashed it all up.

Rob
That’s lovely.

Mary
It is lovely.

Rob
One of the quotes you gave is “food a Trojan horse for a kinder world.”

Mary
Well, we chose food because, let’s face it, we all do it. So our membership is - if you eat you're in. So technically, you know, people say “can we join?” “Well do you eat?” “Yes.” ‘Well you're in.” So we're all in. And also, it cuts across culture, class, age and creed. Everybody in every culture knows something special about food. We use it to celebrate the birth of a baby, we use it to mourn the passing of people -  we eat pork pies apparently. As a non meat-eater, I won't be eating a pork pie when someone dies, but apparently, that's what you should give people.

Rob
Oh really?

Mary
It's a common language and it's a common joy because we meet twice a month and garden for two hours. But let me tell you the food we eat afterwards is the glue. Food is absolutely the glue that makes the difference. Everyone eats together, a fantastic meal.

Ashamed of her generation and making amends through activism 42:26
Rob
You class yourself as an activist. What other activist activities do you do? Or have we talked about them all?

Mary
Well there you go. I think just being alive and having the ability not to go to work. I've got 13 grandchildren and it’s all I can do is work hard every single day to be the change I want to see. Because this planet has been screwed up by my generation, and I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed of people my age who sit around and talk about their cruises, talk about their holidays, talk about their flights, and I think we had it all. We had cheap international travel, we had thousands more animals, butterflies, bugs… the declining species, the decline, the global warming of the planet. You know we've so much to be sorry for: our free education, the ability to get on the housing ladder. All that has gone in our lifetime and I am deeply ashamed of that, deeply, and I want to make amends as much as I can. So in everything I do, I think about what I buy, what I eat. Every moment of the day, I'm thinking, we're so blessed, we’re so lucky. We've had it all and it's gonna be tough.

Rob
Sadly, I couldn't agree with you more.

Mary
So what happens to a lot of groups… I malign this group a lot but I'm going to do it again… the Transition movement… there's a lot of heavy talk about what's happening to the planet and if you talk too much, you will be paralysed. Fear paralyses people. I’ve a committee meeting next week. We’ll meet, we'll have lovely food, we'll be in beautiful surroundings, and we'll have an hour. Bom (claps) - that’s it. We’ll work out what we're doing and we can do it. Too much thinking and you have to stay positive you… and I think what people want is actions, to be clear on their actions.

It’s like plastic. I have to rant on about this because it drives me crackers. We were putting in a new seat for the nurses at the doctors’, and it's recycled plastic. And someone said, “Oh, you shouldn't be using that plastic.” I said “Hang on a minute, the plastic’s here. We need to use what we’ve (got). We don't strip everything out of our house and run off to John Lewis and buy bamboo fittings. It is just ridiculous. So people have got all mixed up. The messages are complex and difficult. So yeah, I think every day you've just gotta work out what's the right thing to do.

Rob
So have you got any recommendations for activists who want to bring about change?

Mary
Yes, don't think about it too much or you'll just go back to bed (Laughter). Don’t think about it. Just… yes. I would say “small is beautiful”. People say “but I've only got three people.” Three people! Three people who want to work is worth…I’ll try not to say the word … 20 people who are contracted, who don't want to work, who are looking at their watch going when “when am I going to clock off?”  The amount of work three people can do is incredible.

Rob
Yeah

Mary
So small is beautiful. And the idea… when people see me bending down in the street, picking up beer bottles or, or face masks, which is what I pick up now

Rob
Yeah, Yeah

Mary
I know that when they first see that, “woo, she's going to get a dirty mask on the street.” Then they see I'm going to a bin. I used to be embarrassed about doing it. I'm not embarrassed anymore because I think, do you know what, that person will have felt embarrassed to pick up someone else's rubbish. And I feel really proud that people will see me pick up rubbish. Because that in itself, I think is a political statement.

Rob
It is.

Mary
It’s saying, “this is our street so let's clean it up. Let's not be victims of cuts, or COVID. Let's be our own agent of change.”

Rob
Yeah. The litter issue always seems a bit trivial in some respects but, on the other hand, I feel it’s quite a symptom of a wider malaise. I struggle with the amount of litter that I see round here actually, and it’s just extraordinary what people do.

Mary
It is extraordinary, but it’s also extraordinary what great fun it is getting those litter pickers.

Rob
Yeah, yeah. I bought some of those.

Mary
You know, and you feel great. And there’s so many litter-picking groups in this town now, it’s almost a bit competitive. (laughter) It’s really great. Yes.

Complying with rules 47:51
Rob to listener
At this point in the conversation, my recording equipment started making some strange noises so I had to revert to a less sophisticated method of capturing Mary’s words. You’re about to hear how the sound quality and acoustics changed, and not for the better. I’ve still included it because Mary gives us her refreshing perspectives on complying with some rules and not others.

Rob to Mary
I love your philosophy about not complying with the rules.

Mary
Well some of the rules.

Rob
Right. Yeah. Because your philosophy is about bypassing the rules where they hold back…

Mary
Yes.

Rob
…postive things.

Mary
Yes

Rob
But I’d love to hear what you’ve got to think about complying with rules that are there to safeguard the environment, say.

Mary
Well. Some people…and we’ve been lobbied many times to support various schools of thought: organic, permaculture, versus doctor who-ha…you know, various schools of thoughts about growing. So, what we chose to do is to support none of them but we ourselves don’t use any chemicals, any peat.

We know what’s right for the planet but we choose not to talk about that because we want to encourage everybody to grow food themselves. So we think, if we don’t bang the drum about something, they’ll find their own way. You know, a man who can’t read and write can scratch the soil in a hot arid country and grow something.  You know, he doesn’t need anyone to preach what to do. So I think we’re very good like that, that we don’t take a stand. And we don’t run around and say we’re environmentalists…

We even have a procurement policy: how we spend money.  So although on the surface it would look like ‘oh these are very laid back characters’, well actually, because we’re frugal, we try to buy food that’s out of date to save landfill. We’ve got an out-of-date food scheme running in the town. We like local procurement. We had to have a row once with somebody who wanted to order on-line and we said, well, you can get it in town. He said it costs more. Well we don’t care it costs more. We’ll have it locally. So we’ve got our own set of rules and the rules that we’re not interested in are really… I’m sorry to say as an ex council officer… the local authorities’ unspoken rule of decay…so there is no money so nothing can be fixed.  And we say, “money is never a problem.”

So, for instance, the outside of the town hall had the most beautiful planters, unplanted, rotting…and I said “get a lorry, put them on the lorry, bring them to our yard,” and we repaired them all, and gave them back.  But if the council … that was done slightly, you know, wink, wink … if the council were to do that they would have to have had an assessment, three prices, a budget. You know, those rules have blocked progress…instead of saying to partners, “could you fix this stuff for us?”  We are not the group that would say “hey we’re tax-payers, we’re not gonna fix the environment for you.”  We’d say “yes, we’d love to.”

Rob
Right. So it’s not about skirting all rules. 

Mary
Absolutely

Rob
You think some rules are important.

Mary
Yes.

Rob
but when they’re petty rules …

Mary
Yes. Yes.

Rob
shall we say?

Mary
Yes. Yes.

Rob
They’re the ones that we should er…

Mary
Yes.

Rob
and we shouldn’t use rules as a shelter for not doing something.

Mary
Absolutely. Absolutely. Or health and safety for that matter. You know…

Rob
I mean health and safety is important though isn’t it?

Mary
Health and safety is important but it’s gone…it goes too far. You know, people say “I don’t know how you can be growing stuff so close to the road. A dog might piss on it.” Well. In a field, there might be a dog, a badger, a farmer doesn’t have a toilet when he visits a field, a crow, a goat, a cow. You know, you should do with food by the roadside, as food in the supermarket: wash it.  You know, the whole…we’ve lost touch to that degree that we don’t believe it’s going to be urinated on in a field.

And then you get cars. And I’m not a driver but I do know about catalytic converters. So say, oh lead poisoning.  Oh really? What do you see on either side of the motorway? It’s normally where our crops are grown. Field after field of rape and crops across this whole country.  It’s normally got a motorway in the middle. Do we ever say “oo ah. I can’t eat (brand name of breakfast cereal boomed-out for legal reasons), their wheat’s too near the M6 or something?” We don’t do we?

Rob
No

Mary
It’s just silly. We’ve gone too far.

Rob
Do you know? This is why I wanted to interview you. Because you have such a unique way of looking at things.

Mary
Unscientific (laughs).

Rob
It may be unscientific Mary but you think in a way that is challenging, and so right. I love it.

Mary
Oh good.

Rob
Yeah. I love it, I really do.

Mary
I do actually think once you say sensible things about motorways and wheat, whatever, most people go “yeah, you’re right.”

Rob
You are.

Mary
It’s just that we’re disconnected.

Rob
Yeah.

Chicken eggs, Napoleon and the Irishman 53:44
Mary
An Irishman… this is twelve years ago… he read about Incredible Edible in Northern Ireland and he wanted to set up a project. And he came and knocked on the door - two of them, out of the blue - and they’d nowhere to stay. I said “oh you’ll have to sleep here.” And the next morning…it was when I had my chickens and my lovely cockerel, Napoleon, before I was a vegetarian. And I made them some eggs and he said to me “did I hear a cockerel outside?” I said “Yes, that’s Napoleon. Did he disturb you?” He said “No, but we can’t eat those eggs.” I said “why not?” He said, “if there’s been a cockerel, you cannot eat the eggs.” And I thought, wow! So I thought maybe I’d grown up all wrong. But it was just some fanciful, incredible, idea that a chicken’s egg couldn’t be eaten when they were laid when a cockerel might have perchanced on that chicken. I thought that was amazing. I was really shocked by people’s naivety.

Rob
Do you know, I think I’m being a bit naive here. I mean, I know that people who eat eggs, and I’m not one of them…will…well in the past, I don’t know about in the present because I think everything comes out of a box from the supermarket these days…but, in the past, they used to be concerned about having an egg that was fertilised. Now I presume that’s what you’re talking about with the cock.

Mary
Yes, Yes but if you…

Rob
But what’s the…

Mary
In your own garden, they can…you know they could have been laid that day.

Rob
They could well be fertilised.

Mary
Yes. They most probably are. But there’s no visible symptom. There’s no sign of that.

Rob
Ah. I’m now beginning to get it. Was it because they were Irish and Catholic?

Mary
Yes. Yes.

Rob
And it was about the right for life,

Mary
Yes

Rob
and abortion

Mary
Yes. Yes

Rob
and all that kind of argument.

Mary
Yes. Yes. It was all tied up in all of that.

Rob
Ah, right.

Mary
It was really incredible.

Rob
Sorry. I’m slow sometimes.

Mary
No. I was thinking…and then another time…

Rob
So who was being naive then? You or them?

Mary
Well, me, to their cultural upbringing.

Rob
Right. ‘cause I was thinking you were saying they were naive.

Mary
Well, well in a way I was just completely and I didn’t know how to address it. 
And then another time someone said to me about a chicken, someone said “Ooh is it chicken egg? Where does the egg come from?” And they said “Oh, it comes out of the egg hole.” (laughter). I said “No! The pooh and the egg. You know it’s all coming out of the same …” They were horrified (laughter), absolutely horrified. 


Thanks to Mary 57:55
Well Mary. Thank you ever so much indeed.

Mary
A pleasure.

Rob
You have been, as always, exciting, illuminating, and fun to be with.

Mary
And not boring.

Rob
And certainly not boring.

Mary
Great, great.

Rob
You’re never boring.

Mary
Good. ‘Cos life’s too short to be boring.

Rob
Yeh.

Mary
That’s great.

Rob
So thank you ever so much Mary.

Mary
Pleasure.
   
Mary’s lost recommendations 58:35
I hope you agree that it was worth keeping that section of the discussion. I did have to edit out a more unlistenable section of talk, jumbled up with weird sounds before I spotted the problem. I’d asked Mary to recommend some actions that listeners to Time is Sliding could take in their own lives.  I don’t want you to miss out on what she said so you’ll have to put up with me reading what she said. Here goes:

“Acknowledge that every day above ground is a blessing, and be joyous. The very fact that you’ve woken up, out of bed and you’re free - we should recognise how lucky we are. We should stop being victims of the state, of global warming; although we are victims of it. We should turn around that anger, that crossness and that confusion. Turn it into something positive. Go and plant flowers for the bees. Clean up a bus stop. Pick a bit of litter up. Do those small things and, next time you’re with friends, plan something crazy. Just say ‘shall we go out and repaint that bench?’ because the prisons are full in the whole country, and the rest of the world. No-one’s going to go to prison for making something beautiful. They really won’t.  So we should be the change, and then it’ll catch on.”

Outro 1:00:23
Rob
That’s almost it for the third episode of the Time is Sliding podcast featuring a discussion about change with Mary Clear, activist, dreamer, schemer, grandmother, Death Doula and Chairperson of Incredible Edible Todmorden. Thanks to you for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I also hope that you’ve gained unique insights into attitudes and communications about death and dying, about making change happen and about how food can be used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to inject kindness into your world.

Of course, an extra special thanks to Mary. It has been both enlightening and fun. Thank you so much for taking a break from the wonderful things you do Mary. 

As usual, I’ve put some further information and links in the episode notes and blog on the Time is Sliding web site. That’s timeissliding.earth.  If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast or follow it via your podcast platform of choice. That way, you’ll receive future episodes automatically. Please also give it a good rating and/or review if you like it. That will help other people discover Time is Sliding. 

I’ll end with just one short quote. It’s the powerful voice of youth directed at everyone but especially those whose actions do not match their words when it comes to climate change:  “Change is coming whether you like it or not”.  That was said by Greta Thunberg when speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Action Summit in 2019.  She was aged just 16 at the time.

I’m Rob Baylis, host of Time is Sliding. For better or worse, all production work has been by me. I hope you’ll join me again for more episodes. Until then, au revoir, zai jian, namaste, arrivederci, sayōnara, adios, do svidaniya, da.  Now let’s all try and bring some more kindness into what we do and say. 

Intro
Pushing up Daisies
What’s a death doula?
Mary featured in the London Science Museum Medicine Galleries
The kindness goes on after Pushing up Daisies
Incredible Edible Todmorden
Ashamed of her generation and making amends through activism
Complying with rules
Chicken eggs, Napoleon and the Irishman
Thanks to Mary
Mary’s lost recommendations
Outro