Low-flying Heroes

Low-flying Heroes


Jonathan Robinson,

Resurgence Magazine

January/February 2004



Barbara Jones is a pioneer of strawbale architecture. ‘My work has evolved from my own women’s roofing business into facilitating a participatory building process -because we can all be part of building our own low-impact homes. Our approach is one of integration and wholeness and to move away from the limiting stereotypes of the twentieth-century building site. A building site doesn’t have to be intimidating, or competitive and macho. Our teaching values other skills such as the ability to organise, communicate, and share feelings, perceptions and ideas -all necessary on a building site. I often teach groups of up to twenty people on site, covering straw bale building and natural plasters as well as more conventional subjects like foundations and roofing. My approach is very much from the grass roots, keeping things simple, straightforward and accessible. My work and my lifestyle have to be integrated. The I values I hold, not least humility in the face of this awe-inspiring world we inhabit, are not ones that can be put aside in the pursuit of money or success. I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do almost anything imaginable, and this has brought me a lot of fun, richness of experience, travel, some very tough times, and a sense of fulfilment and purpose.’ www.strawbalefutures.org.uk



Boo Armstrong became passionate about the provision of a new kind of healthcare while running Women and Health, a charity in North London that provides complementary therapies for people who cannot afford them privately. Women and Health reaches a community as diverse as asylum seekers, women with learning difficulties and the Bangladeshi residents of Camden. ‘I see health in its broadest sense,’ enthuses Boo, ‘incorporating our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health and the health of our community and our environment:’


The Women and Health Centre is London’s only eco-friendly, disabled-accessible health centre, boasting insulation made from recycled newspapers, non-toxic paint, lots of natural light and rainwater harvesting for flushing toilets. Boo’s new company, Get Well UK, aims to integrate many of the UK’s 55,000 complementary practitioners into the NHS. Boo is a pioneer of innovative community services and is determined that before too long the majority of those seeking complementary medicine can receive it on the NHS. Boo illustrates the nature of her service with the example of a ‘Turkish-speaking woman with arthritic hips who can be referred to an acupuncturist who speaks Turkish, has experience and knowledge of arthritis and works in an accessible practice room:’ www.women-and-health.org and www.getwelluk.com


Geetie & Esther are childhood friends who run three values-driven organic London pubs. Their suppliers are small independent businesses and they have staff who never want to move on. Esther explains that they ‘reuse and recycle everything possible, seek out small local sup-pliers and use fair-trade where products are sourced internationally’. Within a few months of opening they won Time Out pub of the year and had persuaded small breweries to produce organic ales. But it has not all been plain sailing. A week into the renovation work on their first pub, NatWest ‘lost the plot’ and pulled out the start-up money it had pledged. Esther explains that she ‘was designing the kitchen when the call from NatWest came through. I had to pretend that I was having a perfectly normal conversation: the chef had just left her job to work for us and building work was well under way.’ They had seven days to find the money,’ so we just went out and manically asked everyone we could find whether they would invest.’ By the end of the week they’d raised the money. www.singhbouiton.co.uk 


Will Pouget responded to the aggressive deluge of multinational coffee chains in Oxford by starting his own Alpha Bar. ‘The mission has been to occupy the smallest possible ecological footprint but also to remain profitable enough to repay loans and to pay everyone involved! We have a policy of ‘making it ourselves’ rather than ‘buying it in’ which involves lots of people innovating to create our extensive repertoire of snacks, lunch boxes and drinks. Our globalised commodity trading system is an exotic mix of unsettling interactions, where ‘real’ costs are unloaded on to people and the environment. I run a sort of ecological ‘tax’ of increased margins on products that have big ecological impacts like chocolate brownies and non-seasonal vegetables. The tax makes it possible to subsidise and increase the accessibility of food that is sourced locally and in season. A similar principle applies to our outside catering activities which are being expanded to serve upmarket business clients at a healthy profit while allowing us to furnish student and community events with a more wholesome service provided at virtually cost price. I have also achieved the virtual elimination of waste, something the catering industry is infamous for.’ will@alphabar.co.uk


Christine Armstrong grew up on a sheep farm in the Eden Valley where she began to imagine a different use for wool. Christine invented Thermafleece, a revolutionary roof insulation made from the coarse, coloured wools unwanted by the textile industry. The Thermafleece manufacturing process expends only 14% of the embodied energy used to make glass fibre insulation and aids a building’s summer cooling, winter warming and condensation control. ‘It isn’t just about throwing a bit of wool in a loft!’ Research conducted in association with Leeds University took two years. And the result is an insulation product that harnesses wool s natural properties while offering struggling hill- Thermafleece farmers a new source of revenue and purpose. ‘Building up relationships with customers that just love hearing about and talking about Thermafleece has taught me to be focused on my feelings and not to be swayed by people in suits,’ www.secondnatureuk.com


Craig Cohan was a young supremo in the management of Coca-Cola until he became transfixed by the need to rethink capitalism. ‘Global urban poverty requires systemic change that no government, company, charity or academic institution can achieve alone.’ Craig has launched Globalegacy, an alliance of these diverse institutions in order to equip community entrepreneurs in impoverished urban communities with a powerful infusion of money, people and ideas. It is an alliance as diverse as the New Economics Foundation, The Corporation of London and women’s groups in London’s East End. This alliance is about reversing ‘negative relationships and money flows between impoverished communities, their metropolitan markets and global economic actors’. Reclaiming shipping containers at the end of their life of travelling the world’s seas and converting them into ecologically sound and novel low-cost housing and studios is their latest venture. www.globalegacy.com


Nina Simpson is in a band, but ask what instrument she plays and… ‘this is when the blank stares of disbelief set in as I outline the complexities of tuning ten-foot lengths of gas pipes, bashing shopping trolleys for the optimum high-hat resonance and bending double-drainer kitchen sinks for maximum on-stage stability. I am a percussionist using instruments made from waste. We just got messing around with rubbish off the streets of Plymouth that have now been used in over 3,000 festivals from Paris to Glastonbury, Tel Aviv to Cannes. We run participatory workshops too. Sales managers dance for the first time in years, children learn to make their own instruments then make as much noise as they can, while teenagers forget trying to be cool and find new skills Nina Simpson through collaborative performance. The rhythm unites them all.’ Weapons of Sound www.weaponsofsound.com


At the age of 26 Safia Minney turned her love for fashion, along with every corner of her house, into a fair-trade enterprise called People Tree, selling stylish clothes and jewellery by mail order. Safia is making waves in fashion by sourcing organic cotton, hemp and natural dyes. In a challenge to the notorious overseas textile industry, Safia pays thirty per cent above the market price to her producers. People Tree works with 250 fair-trade groups in twenty countries supporting economically marginalised women, often single heads of households, to escape poverty. People Tree grew to take over Safia’s home, leaving her and her husband and their two children living in one room while seventeen staff operated out of the others. Safia’s sense of purpose was inspired after visiting fields surrounding the textile-dyeing factories of Titipur, the T-shirt capital of India. ‘Most crops started to die fifteen years ago because of the effluent from dyes. Ironically, impoverished farmers, their livelihoods destroyed, have no choice now but to knock on the doors of these very dye factories for a job. It’s enough to make you want to wear unbleached clothing for the rest of your life.’ www.ptree.co.uk 


With thanks to the team at Imago, Lucy Storrs and Carmel McConnell. Careers Unltd is published by Pearson. Jonathan Robinson is an Associate Editor of Resurgence. www.jonathanrobinson.net