Underland – a deep time journey

Our relationship with time, and our planet are as much the theme for Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, “Underland” (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2019), as is the more literal exploration of underground spaces in a variety of places around the globe.

Reading the book could not have come at a more opportune moment for me. I’m finding ‘time’ an extremely confusing concept, with things that happened over 40 years ago feeling more ingrained on my memory than events which happened five years ago, and routines in my life which took place over 25 years ago having greater clarity than things which took place daily just ten years ago!

As William Dalrymple notes, the journeys in Macfarlane’s book – including chemical mines in Yorkshire; catacombs below Paris; nuclear waste burial tombs in Finland; and worlds underground from Somerset and Epping Forest, to Italy, Slovenia, Greenland and Norway – are “a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between [hu]man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create.” (Guardian, 11/05/2019).

As Macfarlane identifies, such fears are embedded deep in language, where “height is celebrated, but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being depressed, or ‘pulled down’.”

I was lucky enough to visit the Beer Quarry Caves, deep below ground in Devon, June 2018. Not a patch on anywhere Macfarlane visits, but it gave me a glimpse of his ‘Underland’.

As Barbara King writes, the book “connects us to dazzling worlds beneath our feet” (npr, 3/06/2019), but in doing so, Macfarlane also introduces readers to many deeper ideas about our relationship to the planet, which I was ashamed to say I had yet to unearth for myself.

One of those is the Anthropocene – the idea, still under debate, that we have entered an entirely new geological epoch superseding the ‘Holocene’ (which was ushered around 11,700 years ago, immediately after the last ice age), and ‘welcomed’ in a new one, defined entirely by the human race’s capacity to have completely changed the planet, particularly through the scale of resource depletion, atmosphere pollution, and the rate of plant and animal species extinction. Proponents of the Anthropocene estimate it is most likely to have started in earnest in the mid 1900s, and is certainly felt and seen keenly underground.

Another idea is that of ‘Solastalgia‘ – a term Macfarlane notes was coined by Glenn Albrecht to mean a form of ‘psychic or mental distress caused by environmental change.’ It is a specific term, related to the unhappiness of people whose landscapes are being transformed about them by forces way beyond their control. And Albrecht proposed this specific term to describe a very particular kind of homesickness. Whereas the pain of nostalgia comes from moving away, the pain of solstalgia comes from staying put. And where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by returning, the pain of solstalgia tends to be irreversible. I regularly hear that howl.

Track: from album ‘Solstalgia’, Rafael Anton Irisarri: “Coastal Trapped Disturbance”

Like a lot of the book, this suggests much more about relationships with the planet, and between each other – and how any harmony is being disrupted. It looks at how language is used to express much about these relationships. I love how Macfarlane yearns for a language which better recognises and advances the animacy of our world – and he cites the example of  ‘Potawatomi’ – a Native American language of the Great Plains, where the ratio of verbs to nouns is 70% to 30%, Almost everything is animate – whether a boulder, or a bay, for example, suggesting more of a symbiotic relationship with humans. Very different from mainstream society today, particularly in the UK.

One of the points which stuck most keenly for me, for example is that about how trees are able to communicate with, and support each other, underground, using fungi – but much of what we are doing is even helping to put a stop to that too.

Macfarlane elaborates on how, deep underground, ‘the same three tasks recur across cultures and epoches: to shelter what is precious [memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives], to yield what is valuable [information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions], and to dispose of what is harmful [waste, trauma, poison, secrets]…. Into the underland, we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.’

But the thread which is most enduring throughout the book is about deep time. When quoting Sven – an old friend of Bjornar, his host in Norway, I was reminded of two of the fairy characters of Charles KingsleyMrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – in The Water-Babies.

‘I always make sure to cut the throats of the lumpfish before I take the roe out,’ says Sven modestly, as if confessing a substantial charitable donation.

‘Some “environmentalists” say we shouldn’t kill the lumpfish for its roe,’ he continues. ‘But the rest of the fish is not for eating. Just two patches of meat on its cheeks – so we take the roe, cut out the cheeks, and return the rest of the fish to the system of the sea. It feeds that system. They don’t understand that the sea needs feeding, just like us.’

Bjornar grunts, ‘I expect to be returned – how do you say, in my next life – as a lumpfish. So I always cut their throats before I take their roe, just as I would like to have my own throat cut before I have my roe taken.’

‘Do as you would be done by,’ I say. ‘The golden rule of reincarnation.’

On so many levels, deep down, and across time, what Macfarlane reveals and documents so beautifully is that much in our relationship with the planet is out of sync, but he finds refuge, and illumination by going underground. I certainly did, in reading this book at a time when I was feeling like this too, and was most certainly taking cover from human-kind, and how it was expressing itself particularly on social media. The book has helped a great deal indeed.


Perfidious Albion

I’ve just emerged from another Sunday morning appointment with the politicians on the TV, accompanied by my only real constant each week, a plate of the kippers that do get my vote (and maintain consistently his satisfaction levels). This week, we really are in the thick of it with the Tory leadership contest, the revelations from Michael Gove about past cocaine use, and trying to come to terms with the very real possibility that Boris Johnson could be our next Prime Minister.

It’s about power – and today, an unsightly race to the top.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, this particular broadcaster served up interviews with Esther McVey and Barry Gardiner, and seriously expected viewers to swallow the proposition that Gove taking cocaine in his 30s could somehow be explained away by him as a ‘mistake’?  The words he was using were somehow expecting us to accept the ‘line’ that it happened when he was ‘very young’ – and that that it was a ‘mistake’ (surely, using it in error when he thought it was salt would have been a ‘mistake’?). Surely his cocaine use was a deliberate choice of a mature man, not a mistake?

I am in total agreement with the position Gove is asking to take – for second chances. I am a big supporter of drugs reform.  But he is expecting us to swallow this, when at the exact same time as he was partaking, he was advocating opposite positions. Politics is nothing if it is not personal not virtual, and watching the dreadful circus performance that is politics today, served up by the likes of McVey, Gardiner and Gove, it is no wonder we have the rise of the likes of the Brexit Party. I support ‘Remain’ to my core. To watch these pantomime moves makes my insides groan, and I see how populism is being fuelled.

We’ve arrived at an extremely opportune moment for me to post a few words about a book I read earlier this year.

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered “Perfidious Albion” by Sam Byers (2018), [London: Faber & Faber] was on the shelves of my local Hampshire Library in Yateley, and took it as a sign that there is a fellow traveller somewhere on the ‘inside’.  This book, while a work of fiction, is one of the most effective bits of help I’ve discovered  in our common struggle to resist – to help make some kind of understanding of what the hell is going on in the world right now!

Where does “real power” lie?

As Anthony Cummins argues in his Guardian review, it is a book which turns on the question of where “real power” lies.  As we find ourselves forever mired in the pebble-dashing of politics by Brexit, Trump, and syrup-of-figs social media pours on the experience, the book leaves no stone unturned, whether media; politics; ‘place’; class; technology; generational divides – what it means to be ‘human’ – and around every corner provides shuddering parallels with those circus headlines in the news each day.

Indeed, while I was reading the book, one sorry Conservative MP mis-used the title of the book in an EU-bashing speech he was giving, piling grotesqueness upon absurdity.

The book was published well before the BBC’s ‘Years and Years‘ series, and after ‘Black Mirror‘, and essentially deals with similar themes, but offers more penetrating insights, together with a great storyline.  With what happens with every twist of the real news agenda – whether it’s the number of MPs running for the Conservative Party leadership, and admissions of cocaine-taking apparently counting in their favour; or former Loaded magazine journalists winning election to the European Parliament; or world statesmen lying on-the-record, and then lying about those lies – this book helps provide some solidarity in the struggle to understand.  In that respect, it is the best companion I have found, alongside Marina Hyde‘s weekly column’s in the Guardian, and Cold War Steve‘s photo collages.

As Justine Jordan puts in in her Guardian review, it is about the “power of global corporations and the rise of the right”, scrutinising current anxieties. It is “both a rollicking farce of political exhaustion and social collapse, and a subtle investigation into the slippery, ever-evolving relationship between words and deeds”.

In my own town, I’m seeing the closure of the the last high street bank, and there’s rumours of a threat to the Post Office too. As well as our political parties being hollowed out, and the denigration of local services, just look at every other kind of institution, and our ability, whether as consumers or citizens to have any real relationship with them. From our favourite football clubs, to our utility companies. And all the while, public discourse is reduced to something ridiculously binary or banal.

“This is the level at which Brexit infects the book: as a nebulous anxiety about the approaching future, “so rapid in its occurrence and uncertain in its shape”.  Byers dedicates a great deal of time to pricking the self-regarding pretensions of the commentariat, still babbling away when, as Jess puts it, “all the while, outside, in the world they claimed both to consider and depict, events were occurring that shrunk their fears to irrelevance”. They are an easy target, but perhaps that’s the point.”

Seeking a path through it all is not as simple as here – or identifying the source of the power – and they keep trying to force ‘lines to take’ on us!

Perfidious Albion‘ felt too real too me. I’ve pulled back from being embroiled on Twitter, and have certainly recoiled from what Facebook appears to be doing to public discourse.  I’m trying to spend more time out and about where I live with real people, and trying to understand what it means to be human, and about how power works.  Our political parties appear to have given up trying to do that some time ago, with democracy instead being seen as the equivalent to ‘Bandersnatch‘ for politics.

If you haven’t read it yet, you must read ‘Perfidious Albion‘. Much more fruitful than being sucked into the fringe festival on social media to that political circus main event.

Necropolis Railway took me to a dramatic ultimate destination!

A curious railway company, running ‘funeral trains‘ between its own terminus just off London Waterloo, and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey provides the backdrop to a fantastically atmospheric detective story [“The Necropolis Railway“, Andrew Martin (2005), London, Faber & Faber]. Brookwood was the largest cemetery in the world when it opened, and remains the largest in the UK today.

I’ve spent a lot of time in and around the area where the main character – Jim Stringer – moves to South London from the North-East, to make his way in the world, and within the railway industry. But the ‘Lower Marsh‘ where he lodges, and the ‘Westminster Bridge Road‘ where the ‘Necropolis Railway‘ has its HQ appear to find themselves mired in a darkness through a combination of fog, smog, coal dust, soot, steam and twisted, unfathomable motives which make it unrecognisable from the places I had the pleasure of knowing.

All that remains of the Necropolis Railway branch line, at Brookwood Station, Surrey.

The book inspired me to want to find out more about Brookwood Cemetery, where the railway also had its own dedicated branch line.  I lost myself on the massive site one afternoon, tracing the disused track lines, and seeking quiet corners now as good as ‘wildness’. Living less than 15 miles away from Brookwood, I discovered I was entitled to be ‘laid to rest’ there (it’s not overly far from where I live, over the border in Hampshire, and even closer to where my Dad worked in Surrey, but is in the opposite direction to our centre of gravity, which is why I’d never really visited before).

The visit actually helped change my plans for my own ultimate destination!  Not many books can lay claim to that!

What were the Westminster Bridge Road offices of the real London Necropolis Railway – and its terminus, near Waterloo. Credit: Davidmpye-commonswiki (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of those books that I read a few months ago, but that somehow, I’ve managed to let a log-jam build up for posting a review – although a log-jam not quite as large as the ‘to-read’ pile growing by the side of my bed.

Brookwood Cemetery – distinctly less cluttered when compared to other cemeteries, with areas of relative ‘wildness’. Credit: Faeden1 (Public Domain)

A book which combines an Edwardian period mystery with rich railway insights for a very specific kind of line (possibly too insightful for some), and shines a light on the ‘business of burial’ makes for a particularly dark tale.  And it helped transport me to a dramatic venue, not only while I was reading it, but for when I really get to ‘The End‘ of my own personal life story!

The Grade II listed monument to Lord Edward Clinton at Brookwood. Credit: Jack1956 (CC1.0)

“Alongside some broad strokes of historical detail…” notes Alex Clark in her Guardian review, “… Martin also displays a real depth of interest in his subject matter. You might not think that 4-4-0 tender engines and K10s will absorb you, but by the end, you’ll be at least semi-fascinated. It’s in no small part down to our sullied interest in today’s rail industry; one of the novel’s most gripping scenes comes as Jim frantically botches his passage through a signal, utterly unaware of whether he “he has the road” or not. Broken rails and self seeking board members also feature.”

If you commute out of Waterloo on South Western Railways towards Woking and beyond, you’ll see the route in a whole new light!



As with the main dynamic of this book, when reviews of Lanny” by Max Porter first started appearing, it was as if I could hear this book talking to me, and I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed at all.

Bluebell Wood at Eversley, Hampshire.

A number of themes spoke to me.  The first and over-riding one was that of the voice of the land, and the spirit of the generations through time speaking to us through nature, through our landmarks and customs, particularly in rural communities – those kinds of things often referred to as ‘the Particular‘, or celebrated by the likes of Robert MacFarlane.

Having returned to the semi-rural area where I grew up, I have been embraced by the bosom of the common-lands which surround my village, and am never happier than when on a long walk with my dog, and each finding myself travelling through time, imagining myself talking to people who may have previously trodden those same paths, whether ancestors through the generations, or air-crew who served on the old RAF base which are now disused runways, being encroached upon by gorse.

Disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, eith encroaching gorse.

“The village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago.  It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present.”

The second was the character who lends his name to the book – ‘Lanny’ – a child who who is a bit of a loner, never happier than when playing amongst those rural surrounds, talking to nature – or more accurately, singing to himself.

Little Paul in 1974, most likely to be seen singing/swinging on the garden gate.

One of the first images which was conjured up for me when I returned to the area in 2015 was of me swinging on our front gate, a loner, happy and singing to my heart’s content.  One of our neighbours said it is was her abiding memory of me as a small child.  I had no real memory of this.  Much of the way ‘Lanny’ is described reminds me of how my neighbour described me.  I remember getting an ‘ear’ for stories, listening to my Nan’s conversations with neighbours, as I hid under her kitchen table.

The third is how it deals with more of the darker side of modern discourse – a harshness, a rush to judgement, a binary nature, and the sheer volume of gossip, thanks to social media, particularly thanks to Twitter, and Facebook community groups, but more usually, just simple word-of-mouth.

The book was a sheer joy to read – I just could not put it down.  Some of the devices it deployed gave it a particular excitement.  As a lover of the vernacular, and of picking up on and borrowing snatches of everyday conversations, I was enthralled by how it was able to serve up the nature of village life.  And as a relatively recent subscriber to the embrace of the land, and celebrant of the ways of what are called ‘the particular’, the development of the character ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ to cast this shadow or articulate its voice was genius. (see also Sarah Ditum, “Max Porter’s Lanny is a story of our fraught relationship to the countryside”, New Statesman, 10/04/19).

I wasn’t expecting the central storyline – I could very easily have still have devoured the book without it – but I suppose we would not have been able to explore many of the aspects without it.

One of the reviews I read said that “It’s not as political commentary or state-of-the-nation study that Lanny speaks most forcefully.  It’s the formal inventiveness that will stay in the mind, the shapes and pairings, the sudden eruptions of imagery.  It’s the idea of Lanny’s DNA as a magic trail shimmering through back gardens and playrooms, or his mother’s dream of herself as a Renaissance painted Madonna.  Porter’s writing is poetically concentrated while also deploying a wonderfully common-or-garden kind of language, loved and used, rolling off the tongue.” (Alexandra Harris, “A joyously stirred cauldron of words” – The Guardian 08/03/19)

While I agree wholeheartedly, I don’t want to lose sight of that wider commentary of taking of the temperature.  I’ve been reading the book with the backdrop of the Local and European Election campaigns of 2019, and the stasis around the downward spiral of the Leave versus Remain circus show.

On a personal level, I’ve never identified more with my four year old self, singing and swinging on that gate than I do today.  I can feel myself retreating from the hot-air and bustle of Twitter (where contributions rarely seem to add anything to a debate, and merely serve to enable the contributor to be seen to be throwing their tuppence into the pool for the benefit of a crowd), and swerving away from, for the main-part, the binary nature of loud, ill-informed postings on community Facebooks.

Castle Bottom, Hampshire – a great place to sit, reflect, & possibly listen out for Dead Papa Toothwort.

Reading ‘Lanny’ has helped me reflect on many of these issues.  I’d ended up working in PR, not just because I wanted to help people amplify their messages, but also to help them understand the benefits of being quiet or silent sometimes when it helps benefit a reputation, or a message to be understood.  All those years ago, when I first started working in such a role, the PR would have more of a ‘gatekeeper’ role, in which ‘listening’ was as crucial a part as the communicating.

Now, with everyone having a myriad of social platforms (and being on them 24/7), that is less so.  Yes – that is great from a democratising perspective.  And yes – there still remains a role for good counsel/advice from the best practitioners in the business.  But for the most part, I can only reflect that it has also meant a huge pressure for those on these platforms (that’s beyond PR) to be saying SOMETHING and generating CONTENT, regardless of the quality – and unbelievably, listening less (even though the platforms could enable them to do this more).  There is more noise than ever out there, and the incentive for it be binary, to be aggressive, and not to adhere to many of those aspects of quality practice built over years of experience – whether journalism, or PR – and some of these themes chimed for me on the central storyline in ‘Lanny’ too.

In the just the last couple of days, two example illustrated this perfectly.  The first was one of the only major ‘televised’ debates of the European Election campaign, broadcast via The Daily Telegraph Twitter page.  While I know Nigel Farage has been showered with milkshake, the level of ‘filth’ in terms of ageist comments that I witnessed about Vince Cable truly shocked me.  Comment, after comment (a torrent) about his physical appearance, his sanitary habits, possible disabilities, the likely onset of dementia – if this is what social media has made possible, or encouraged for our politics, it hurts.  Secondly, we had a police helicopter hover over our street for an hour or so in the middle of the night, which, it transpires, enabled officers to successfully conclude an operation.  All that a local Facebook community group site encouraged local people do was to pile in with hundreds of ill-informed comments, and criticism for the noise the Police made, and how it kept them awake.  I really began to question whether I was living in the same world as some of these people. What was the point?

As Callum McAllister notes in the review of ‘Lanny‘ on ‘The Millions’, writing about the nature of childhood and humanity pointed to in the book, “At one point, Jolie [Lanny’s mother] sees this ‘and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.’  It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being.  That your children exist when you are not there.  That they have a life beyond you.  That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute centre of their own existence.”

“Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way.  He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwort’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as ‘A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

“By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter shows us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one another.  The existence of characters – such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort – who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there may be a way out.  Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centeredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition – maybe something learned rather than innate.  Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: ‘Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from whenever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

“Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices.  It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project.  But its representation isn’t always positive.  People are human.  They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative.  They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism.  They can be judgemental neighbours or maybe self aggrandising, polluters or gardeners.  But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them.  Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners.  In doing so, we give them space to speak.  We can’t live each other’s experience.  But we can start by listening to them.” (Callum McAllister , “The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s Lanny Wants You To Listen” – The Millions, 25/03/19)

Listen – the sequoia tree at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire.

We have forgotten what it means to be human.  It does not mean rejecting technology, but it does mean using it in a more savvy fashion – and using it in tandem with the physical and human infrastructure around us – people and places.  Not only will it improve the nature and effectiveness of our everyday discourse, it might also ensure we save ourselves from systems failure.  It certainly means we start listening to each other much more, rather than shouting at each other, or talking about each other in an ill-informed fashion for no particular reason other than to show-off or to entertain.

As Harris notes in her review, “Porter is telling stories that link the immediate crises of individual lives with ancient, ageless currents of feeling and experience.”  As I was focusing, reading the book, this was certainly something I was feeling.

And as Harris concludes, “The novel, though short, is optimistically intent on evoking forms of growth that capaciously accommodate all manner of personal trials and English emergencies, cumulatively making a kind of peace.”

Despite all the darkness and noise out there, and the twists and turns of the book, reading “Lanny” gave me a sense of hope.



Till the Cows Come Home

There hasn’t been a review of a book appear round these parts in quite a while.  It’s not been for the want of investing energy in attacking the pile of ‘must read‘ books by the side of my bed – hopefully I will get around to reviewing them soon.  But as soon as I had devoured Sara Cox’s memoir of childhood on and around a Lancashire farm – “Till the Cows Come Home” (2019, London: Coronet, Hodder Books), I felt compelled to put that right.

Her book is a warm, intimate journey through her formative years, and family foundations, and I just loved it.  Hankering down over a few evenings to read it with my terrier Poppy was a sheer joy, and provided us with some quality time too.  The book had particular resonance for me – not just because I had the privilege of working with Sara when I worked at in the PR team at BBC Radio 1 over twenty years ago now, but because her book took me back to many similar component parts of my formative years.

Settled down with my terrier Poppy to read Sara’s book over a few evenings.

Yes, it was the same era providing the backdrop, through the 70s, 80s and into the early 90s, but it was also many elements of the story itself.  Much of the book plays out on the farm of her Dad, Len.  My Grandad spent much of his life working with livestock and on the farm, and for much of my early childhood was driving cattle, horses and pigs.  And, like her Mum, Jackie, running things behind the bar, particularly at the club, my Dad was a steward too.  So many of the glimpses of life Sara provides in the book were particularly evocative – I was taken right back to the smell of stale beer behind the bar with my Dad, Tony (he was always obsessed with cleaning the pipes), or the smell of the cattle lorries with my Grandad, ‘Dutch’, so ‘Thank you’!

My Dad, Tony in his natty steward’s uniform, ready to go and serve behind the bar.  We lived upstairs in the steward’s quarters for a bit.

Sara’s style of writing is as lucid and as easy as her delivery on the radio – these days on drivetime on BBC Radio 2.  It came as no surprise to me that as soon as I said I had bought her book, my Mum, my Sister, and my Auntie Eileen were forming an orderly queue to read it after me!  That never happens with the books I usually buy!

And it demonstrates why, at a recent conference I attended, organised by the Rural Services Network, looking at the need for Government to develop a rural strategy, Sara’s name kept coming up as a popular name from the audience as someone who could help rural voices be better heard, rather than the stereotypes which routinely dominate.   Sara is one of those names held with real affection across generations in the UK, and garners real respect because of her wit, warmth and intelligence – and she says it ‘as it is’.

My Gramps (centre) worked on farms much of his life, and drove cattle, horses and pigs.

I don’t often buy celebrity biography type books – I’d made an exception in this case because it was about someone in radio, and by someone I’d had the privilege to work with, and feel a great affection for.  But in any case, it isn’t that kind of book.  There is much about the fragilities of facing growing up, about the nature of friendship, and above all, about ‘home’.

The trucks from ‘B.N. Gray’ which we most associated my Gramps with, transporting horses, cattle and pigs.

Sara demonstrates her talent for making people laugh.  It ends with the story of how she successfully auditioned for what was to be her big break into TV (and ultimately radio) with Channel 4’s The Girlie Show, turning her natural skills to her advantage after a period of modelling which took in time in New York, Japan, South Korea – and on the front of packets of tights in Boots wherever you might find them.

But the book ultimately isn’t about that.  It is about navigating childhood, particularly on a farm (and at times, on horseback).  It is warm, funny and hugely reflective – and the chapter headings are just so well deployed – whether that involves jubblys or perms.  Thoroughly recommend you read this book!

Psychogeography is killer!

Psychogeography has been emerging as a dimension in my life for a good few years – a way of navigating and making sense of my own personal space, and a paradigm worthy of use interrogating professional, social and cultural evidence and ideas in research. I make these claims (I’d previously even started to try to integrate it into the curriculum while I was still teaching public relations at university) yet, beyond actually walking, sensing, and reflecting, I had yet to invest much energy in reading around the subject. Luckily, Coverley’s paperback on the topic has come to my rescue, and is the ‘all points’ introductory text that many have rightly come to recommend. [“Psychogeography”, Merlin Coverley, (2018) Harpenden: Oldcastle Books]

The book takes a good wander around the terrain which the subject inhabits, highlighting the various strands which bring their own shades to this particularly vague of topics, and collecting useful contributions. from them all.

“Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti. the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” [Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, Times Literary Supplement, 07/10/05, 3-4, pg.3.]

Stumbled on, but strangely drawn to as if I was in the film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, this concrete lump is the remnant of an age when gravel was extracted from an area in Hampshire that is now part development, part nature reserve – true ‘borderlands’.

I’d always understood that psycogeography was about exploring how a place makes us feel and behave, so getting beyond simple physical, and human geographical subject labels.  It’s a lot more than that. The book asserts that psychogeography is neither a political creed (which has mainly been embraced by the Situationalists), nor a literary movement, an ecological fashion, nor a set of ‘New Age’ ideas, or avant-garde practices, but instead, it charts an ever-moving definition which draws on all for sources of inspiration.

One of the most literal definitions to which the book repeatedly returns is that ‘point where psychology and geography intersect‘, and the practice of walking, through which to experience it is central too, although more recent writers have expanded this to included other forms of transportation, such as train, bus, car and plane.

Perfect for an aimless walk, this disused runway on Yateley Common was originally an RAF base in WWII, and in the 1970s, played host to a Bob Dylan concert with a crowd of over 200,000 people.

I suppose an aspect which has always appealed to me is that where there is also a preoccupation with drawing on the past, and what it has to tell us through the lived topology of place. For some people, this goes as far as to include the occult, and the New Age too.  I have always been interested in how two very similar, but neighbouring places can have very different personalities, and how such effects can endure over time. A friend of mine more aptly call’s this a place’s ‘soul’. The book starts to introduce how this is indeed an aspect of psychogeography.

A walk when on holiday in the ‘picturesque’ East Sussex town of Rye does not mean heading for the usual destinations for me. You never know what you might find – the history (and hue) of this ‘Private Members Club’ looked interesting.

While I wanted to get straight onto the contemporary and existential aspects of the practice, I found the historical and literary chapters really helpful, not only in charting its development, but helping to unravel particular characteristics of the practice, and what they can achieve.  The book takes us through Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and a reimaging of the streets of London; William Blake and his visionary, transformative topography of London; Thomas de Quincey’s dream-like wanders, and metaphorical quests, such as for a ‘North West passage’; Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic trawls of gruesome, yet entrancing streets of Victorian times; Arthur  Machen’s art of wandering, particularly provoked by constantly looking for the unknown; and, Alfred Watkins and the near occult, hypothetical alignment of places or features with a wider geographic, spiritual or religious significance.

Turned a corner, and another part of Rye which made me feel, well, it spoke to me on a deeper level.

As well as in London, the book spends time in Paris, looking at the idea of the flaneur – and flags up one the huge issues, until recently, with the whole tradition – it’s near exclusion of a female perspective. While here, it touches on the debate over whether the idea is about being an observer, or a participant; spectator or agitator? Loner, or alone in a crowd? Can it be practiced sitting down, from a chair, as mental travel? Solitude is a concept which is something to which I will return. And when it moves on to examine the calls on it by the more avant-garde and the Surrealists, we touch on on the role space, and performance play in its discharge, and in doing so, I for one am invigorated by how it might wake us up to what our current political, economic and environment balance sheets are doing to our daily inter-actions with the places we inhabit, often in more of a sleep-walk, than anything than a real relationship of any kind with our surrounds.

Stationery for a long time in Rye!

Undirected ambling.?Dreamlike wandering? Detached observation? Committed and involved practice? Drifting purposefully? Purposeful gait? Pedestrianised stalking? Deep typology (as coined by Nick Papadimitrou)? Eavesdropping? The book provides so many ways of looking at the the practice.

“I’ve taken to long distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples humans from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for pleasure – that would be merely frivolous or even for exercise, which would be tedious.” [Will Self, ‘Psychogeography #1, A walk though time and space,’ The Independent, 03/10/03]

Self is one of a number of contemporary authors who have embraced psychogeography in their writing, both fiction, and non-fiction. Iain Sinclair has done much to re-examine the practice, for examine, using the idea of the fugueur (who is fleeing, escaping) to chart things, as well as the flaneur. He has also discussed the obsessive charting, documenting, and journaling/storying which can accompany all of this.  Some can practice it in a very progressive, reclaiming, power challenging fashion; others can interpret it as an extremely conservative, affirming, identity expressive form. There is a wide spectrum, as with everything.

It does what it says on the tin. I love walking somewhere new as often as I can, being provoked by something I shouldn’t have found.

This is the perfect introductory book. As most reviews have said, “it does what it says on the tin”, with plenty of accurate references underpinning it.

I am fascinated by psychogeography on a personal level.  It really speaks to me, and helps me unravel the relationship I have with my town, and county, knowing I have been able to chart stories for generations of my family back past the year 1000, and in my town to the early 1600s.  I’m fascinated about the levels of relationship with place, what makes a town different from its neighbour, and how landmarks and developments shape the soul of a place, and intrigued by just what goes on in ‘borderlands‘. Should we be worried by a privatisation and sanitisation of public space making any prospect of free movement by modern day flaneurs nigh on impossible?

Feeling #1, in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, in central Farnham.

Feeling #2, nearby in the grounds of Farnham Library in Surrey. A different feeling – more of a centrifugal force, as though the ground was twisting us. Not the calm that I thought the peaceful park would bring.

And on a professional level, from an industry that has always been a bit of a ‘jackdaw’, I’m fascinated about what psychogeography can do to help create new practice, or understanding in public relations and communications. If we can unleash more of allowing people to think more about how a place makes them feel, rather than more literal measurements, untangling human and physical geography  so that the pedestrian is born again, maybe we will open up a new flank of possibilities? Or maybe I’m clutching at straws. Thankfully, I’ve retired, and I’m free to ponder these things on long walks, rather than having to pitch them as new strategies in boardrooms!


Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!


The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

My desire to sniff out ‘the particular’ drew me towards reading “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” by Richard Mabey (2011) [London: Profile Books].  It had long been on my ‘books to read’ list after I had discovered one of his previous books, ‘Dreams of the Good Life’ about Flora Thompson – the author behind ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, who served briefly as village postmistress in my home town, Yateley.

As the jacket puts it succinctly, he ‘attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with the meticulousness of the scientist.  By Romanticism, he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers are inextricably part.  And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it.’  Wow!

Poetry and science are, in effect, comfortable bed-fellows in a book which is equally respectful to traditional country ways, as it is to the rules of the laboratory.

Six elegantly short chapters, illustrated by linocuts, take us through a tour of what the senses might inspire us with on a long walk in the countryside.  Early on, Mabey makes the point that while technological advances in devices like cameras on our phones are supposed to enhance our understanding of nature, they can often end up obscuring it by separating us from it in the moment so we don’t full experience it or reflect on it, or forget to see it within a larger frame, so we miss other relationships which it may be a part of, or a wider live experience in that moment which may have involved all of our senses (see #InstaHorror later).

I particularly identified with common experiences documented, like how he described his Dad (and himself) collecting anything that might ‘come in useful one day’ – just like my Grandad’s garage – and learning the lesson from when it did.

He returns to example of what now manifest themselves as what we might call #Instahorror making the point that we so often now seem to be looking for the perfect shot for our mantelpiece or social media account that it’s never actually from the perspective that you would see it in-situ in nature itself – and that many people are losing all sense of perspective for their own safety.

Not a Stinkhorn, but a Fly Agaric mushroom, which, you’ve guessed it, I’ve seen popping up all over my Instagram feed. Public Domain.

There are some perfect descriptions of ‘particular’ items on his journeys – like samphire  – and activities like foraging, and about how the quality of ‘gatheredness’ can make wild food actually taste different.

He dwells on taste, and in particular, smell, and their role in fixing our memory in place, moment, feeling, time – indeed, essence. And he goes on to document the quality of ‘petrichor’ (the smell after rain) which I’ve seen documented a fair deal elsewhere of late after a moist end to a particularly dry, hot summer.

Gorse on Yateley Common, Hampshire, alongside the disused runways of Blackbushe Airport.

I was particularly excited when he chose to write about a plant – gorse – very familiar to the common land heaths around the area I grew up in Hampshire, and I remembered a hearing Mabey present a short documentary about its characteristics on BBC Radio 4 in recent years too.  Closely associated with ‘courting’ because of the location of the plant on areas of heathland around London such as Richmond Common, and the fact they flower most of the year (hence the famous saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season“), its distinctive smell of coconut (which it as good as sprays intermittently, as a wonder of nature), and it’s “just right pricklyness” which made it perfect for gypsies over time to hang out washing on to dry (without having to worry about the thorns ripping the material).

The final chapter on maps was a dream for me – about our sixth sense (if we have such a thing) – that of ‘direction’, and dwelling on a sense of ‘place’.  As someone who loves revelling in old Ordnance Survey maps (but doesn’t quite know why), and thinks they inherited their grandfather lorry driver’s sense of direction (pre-Sat Nav), I loved reading this chapter. The whole book bears testimony to that same relationship I have with the area in Hampshire I live in, which my Mum also grew up in, and her Mum and Dad before her – and generations before them too. The soggy borderlands which Hampshire and Berkshire straddle along the Blackwater River; the flats of heath between Yateley and Elvetham, and the greener pastures towards Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham.

A book of delights which makes the point that scientific insight and technological enhancement only powerfully assist our senses when they are guided by our imagination, and crucially, transformed by a special gift we bring to this mix as human beings – that of language.  As such, on this last measure, this book certainly delivers.  This is one of those books that I am the most glad ever that a friend (in this case, Elisabeth-Madalena) has bought for me as a gift.  Not a single strand of disappointment – a huge ‘thank you’, both for this gift, and nature’s gifts too!

Radio Mabey: – listen to some of Richard Mabey’s ‘Mabey in the Wild‘ shows on BBC Radio 4 here.

Richard Mabey on NPR on ‘Weeds’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey on Radio NZ on ‘The Cabaret of Plants’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey at the Hay Festival, 1997 – listen here.

Audiobook of this title, originally broadcast on BBC Radio, and known as “The Scientist and the Romantic”click here.

River of Consciousness

An obituary in the New York Times said that neurological conditions, and his patients’ experiences of them, were for Oliver Sacks, occasions “for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.”

As someone with a rare neurological condition (Chiari Malformation, since you ask), I have long had a love affair with Sacks’ interest in the field, and his beautiful way of synthesising material from his professional interest in them, and other material collected along the path of a voraciously curious life lived.  His death in 2015 moved me to tears, and I miss him intensely, in the same way there is a hole in my life without the likes of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Oliver Postgate and Robin Williams.

This book (“The River of Consciousness”, by Oliver Sacks, 2017, London: Picador) gives us a chance to spend ‘extra time’ with him following his death – allowing Sacks to spend time dwelling on interests stretching across marine biology; botany; the history of science; quantum physics; philosophy; and of course, neurology. It manages to knit together a collection of what appear at first glance to be unrelated contributions with his trademark hand-holding, and storyteller’s aplomb, to a point where you feel you are at the brink of making a new discovery yourself, by reflecting on all of the areas he has opened up, step-by-step – whether that be issues to do with ‘speed’; or ‘near death experiences’; or ‘plagiarism’; or ‘creativity’; ‘memory’, ‘consciousness’ or the way in which certain discoveries are filed away and forgotten, only to be celebrated again, many years later. He makes it all feel so easy. As Gavin Francis described it in a Guardian review, the book is able to showcase Sacks’s “agility of enthusiasms”.

A book that could all too easily be seen as an after-thought, or a publisher’s exercise to collect together Sacks material that happened to be lying around after his death, and package it up as an excuse to make more money, I found this, like all Sacks’ earlier work, a delight to read, and illuminating.

As a complete coincidence, I had only just picked up the book at the same time as I had been introduced to the work of philosopher/scientist/theologian/mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and discovering too that he had written about neuro-anatomy (effectively discovering CSF – cerebrospinal fluid), and covered a similarly diverse terrain, making connections across it in much the same way, it further provoked my own reflective river of consciousness.  Where Sacks brought ferns, Mexico, sexuality, headaches and neurology to my table (all personal obsessions of sorts), Swedenborg is beginning to do the same with hovercraft, spinal fluid, the pituitary gland, charity, tremors, and the concept of an after-life and near-death experiences too – very similar territory at times to Sacks.  This posthumous set of writing has only served to fuel my love of Sacks, and his embrace of ‘the particular’ – a belief that the little, taken-for-granted human observations are just as important in helping to develop explanations for why things are as they are, as are the ‘big’ debates.

I will leave one final quote to Nicole Krauss, writing in the New York Times, who remarks on one of the most powerful insights I took away from one of the pieces in the book.

“This is an extraordinary insight, one that helped to establish our understanding of the self as flexible rather than static, and our sense of the past as an imaginative reconstruction, ever evolving, both of which make therapy possible. As a neurologist, Sacks deepened our understanding of the dynamic, creative abilities of the brain by uncovering, again and again, the unusual ways the impaired brain may deal with its handicaps, compensating in ingenious ways, or by creating plausible explanations for the nonsensical, thus preserving a form of coherence, however subjective. Taken together, his case studies illustrated how just as homeostasis, the maintenance of constant internal environment, is crucial to all organisms, so is a stable, cogent narrative of reality crucial to the mind and its construction of the self, such that even severely disordered brains will find ways of creating order.”

“The River of Consciousness” is now available in paperback.  I don’t know why I took so long to read the hardback that I had left by the side of my bed!

How human creativity remakes the world

One of the questions I was most often asked as a lecturer was, “Can you recommend a good book about creativity?”  I usually struggled, and more often than not, felt that the idea was a contradiction anyway.  Then, last year, I heard a feature on a mid-morning show on BBC Radio 4 about this book during 2017, and it stopped me in my tracks.

“The Runaway Species” clearly and elegantly creates a way of explaining how creativity flourishes, and how we can apply to our own lives, as individuals and organisations (such as schools, and companies) to foster creativity and innovation.

The crux of the book is deciphering three key processes be which we transform existing ideas, and find or encourage creativity or innovation with them.  These are:-

Bending: modifying or twisting the original out of shape to create something new;

Breaking: the whole is taken apart, or smashed to pieces, to re-fashion it, or to find something new.

Blending: two or more sources are merged, to create something new.

Although I have had to retire due to Chiari, I still take part in my CIPR CPD, and as the deadline loomed large recently, it was clear that this book had to come ‘off’ the pile of books I had recently bought which are waiting to be read, because it had much to pass on.  I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the great things about the book  is that it uses many practical example from the worlds of art and science to demonstrate its formula, rather than leaving than leaving it as an abstract, impenetrable theory – and there are lots of pictures for a weighty book such as this!  My only disappointment is that I no longer have a course/curriculum into which to integrate this book as a lecturer.  I am genuinely impressed, and would have had a lot of excitement with students applying it.  It may have something to do with the book being written by Brandt (a composer) and Eagleman (a neuroscientist), with them both drawing on their respective passions for inspiration.

Forget the ‘eureka’ moments – we are talking more about ‘evolving sessions’.  This books demonstrates how our brains have been working, more like ‘jackdaws’, constantly fashioning a new nest, from the things they have collected.  It explains why human behaviour has these needs (such as the tension between predictability and surprise), and what we do to express them best – and how that can be harnessed to best effect.  And it looks at the issue of why some ideas take off – and others stay firmly in the sand-pit.

Bending; Breaking and Blending give us a kind of cognitive software –  an on-going way in which our brains are approaching the world, and coming up with new ideas, answers to problems, and creative flourish.  The more opportunity we give ourselves to do engage in this behaviour, the better.

Thoroughly recommend – much food for reflection: Brand, A. and Eagleman, D. (2017) “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World”, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books.