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!

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Resist!

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.

Questioning what makes a good life

Drabble, M. (2016) “The Dark Flood Rises“, Edinburgh:  Canongate Books

It’s not often I’m compelled to buy a book directly from what the blurb has to to say for itself on the sleeve, but with this book by Margaret Drabble, I was sold when I originally bought the book back in 2017.  It spoke to me, and despite it being fiction, it seemed to speak to the stage of life I find myself in, and the mood I found myself in while I was looking to spend money in the bookshop at the time last year.

The offending paragraphs inside the cover of The Dark Flood Rises read as follows:

“Fran may be old but she’s not going without a fight. So she dyes her hair, enjoys every glass of red wine, drives around the country for her job with a housing charity and lives in an insalubrious tower block that her loved ones disapprove of. And as each of them – her pampered ex Claude, old friend Jo, flamboyant son Christopher and earnest daughter Poppet – seeks happiness in their own way, what will the last reckoning be? Will they be waving or drowning when the end comes?

“By turns joyous and profound, darkly sardonic and moving, The Dark Flood Rises questions what makes a good life, and a good death. This triumphant, bravura novel takes in love, death, sun-drenched islands, poetry, Maria Callas, tidal waves, surprise endings – and new beginnings.”

Morbid I know, but it seemed to have many resonating themes for me with my, what can often feel stalling, middle age life.  As I approach the age of 48 years old, I recently had to retire early due to a neurological condition which can play many wonderful tricks on my body and mind.  Not only that, two years ago, I downsized from my fast-paced life in London, to return to the house I grew up in in a much slower part of Hampshire, and seem to hang out with many more people aged over 70 than I do with people of my own age, so many of the issues the book says it was going to address are live for me, and the people I see regularly.

That’s what I thought it was – the highs, lows and frustrations of growing old, and the challenges of modern life.  There was some of that, but in fact, it was much darker than that.  Bigger themes lying beneath the surface of what adds up to a ‘good life’ and how to see it out at the end – something facing us all as we apparently live longer, but better lives?  And not just us, but our families and friends too.  A lot of dying.

Because of my own situation, it did give much pause for reflection at times, and made me think a lot about people I know, places I pass on the bus, or charities I have considered partnering with on projects in the past.  In the work I have been doing on community podcasting at Sound Vault, for example, we have been thinking about doing projects on the role music can play in making memories, and have seen the difference simple conversations about music can have in people’s lives.

At times, I found the book a little too incredible – too many coincidental character links for example – only for a coincidental link to ‘pop-out’ at the very same moment I was reading about it, to match with a detail in my own life, so perhaps I was too quick to judge.  Too many of the characters in the book seemed to know each other by some twist of fate, but maybe that happens in particular professional sectors, even if they are separated by hundreds of miles at a particular stage in their life.

The book is powerful in that it creates a dark ‘oil’ which feels like it envelopes the reader.  It doesn’t judge, or prescribe.  It is not depressive (I finally got round to reading it during January 2018, when I am at my most optimistic, most proactive, most organised), but can help us all reflect a little more clearly, yet thoughtfully about the door marked ‘Exit’.  I don’t like to alarm anyone, but it’s approaching.  For many of my nearest and dearest, and others in my networks, it has already come.  And the public policy issues associated with it are growing.

 

 

Previous Reading (6):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Sixth up:-

“The Faraway Nearby”, Solnit, R. (2014) London: Granta Books

farawaynearby

A beautifully written book which manages to succeed in helping to make faraway locations seem nearby, and to take the nearby/everyday or commonplace to different or faraway contexts, helping to bring fresh perspective on them in the process.

Solnit’s book is an elegant piece of memoir, almost of therapy.  It takes what at times can appear to be a random stream of deep reflections, and weaves them amongst strands which take us deep into the territory of the craft of storytelling.  Rather than just trying to unpick what makes a ‘good’ story, it uses these insights to heighten the experiences it introduces us to, making those feelings personal, and intense, and provoking us to reflect on our own story.  It is difficult to not start looking for and making connections in your own life, just as she has in hers.

The book is as good an example of psychogeography as you will find on the shelves, without ever trying to formalise such a definition for itself, or explore the concept – but place is important.

Marina Warner, writing a review for The Guardian (June 2013) said;

“Dominating Solnit’s rich repertoire are two main thoughts: that imagination activated through reading and art, can help overcome the feeling of being a stranger in the world, lost among strangers, and second, that characters and places can build another home, and provide alternative stories to the dismal and constrictive plots of our own lives!”

“We are all the heroes of our own stories,” she writes, “and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you and to see your power, to make your life, to make others or break them, to tell stories, rather than be told by them.”

I’ll end, by sharing the beginning of Solnit’s book, so you can decide for yourself if it’s a journey you want to pick up, and begin for yourself.  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s an engrossing book – at times, I was so effected by it, I forgot I was reading a book.  And their is a delightful device running throughout the book of a pile of slowly rotting apricots from a tree in her mother’s garden, how she has to deal with them, what they mean to her, and what their legacy becomes.  Beautiful, for a reader who has become obsessed with the sourdough revolution, and other baking for neighbours.

“What’s your story?  It’s all in the telling.  Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.”

“Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.  What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the persons you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed.”

This book helps you find it, and feel it.

Previous Reading (5)

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Fifth up:-

“Hope in the Dark”, Solnit, R. (2016) Canongate Books

hope-in-the-dark

Solnit’s book was originally published in 2005, but has been updated to reflect what seems like ever increasing reasons for social and political gloom – particularly for those on the left – which is what drew me to the book.  I consider myself a thwarted optimist, rather than an out-and-out pessimist, and was attracted to a book that promised to help define, and find grounds for ‘hope’ for those looking for progressive change on a range of social, political and environmental causes, when the forces lined up against such change seem overwhelming.

As she wrote in her piece promoting the book’s publication in the Guardian, “We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future.  Now is not the time to despair, but to act.”

For President Bush, and the Iraq War when the book was published in 2005, read Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump, and the disarray in the state of the UK opposition parties in 2016.

Rebecca Solnit writes compellingly.  She asserts, “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities.  It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty first century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.”  She is big on identifying, remembering, and celebrating past campaigns, and successes – which are many and varied.

She synthesises a range of other writers to help build her case for real hope.  “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete,” the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked.”

The key case for hope is laid out in the foreword to the 2015 edition:

“The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights, but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality, and the idea of the good life – of the past half century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation.  And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.”

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.  When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.  Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both the optimists and the pessimists.  Optimists think it will be fine without our involvement;  pessimists take the opposite position;  both excuse themselves from acting.  It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, and and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.  We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

So, that told me!  And it certainly answered a lot of the painful doubts I’d been having – and I know many of my friends have been having of late, on the topic of having hope.

By exploring past successes, particularly of the last fifty or so years, Rebecca Solnit gives us good reason to have hope – and plenty of source material from which to learn lessons as to how to build it.

“Mushroomed: after a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere.  Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown.  What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus.  uprisings and revolutions are considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organising and groundwork – or underground work – often laid the foundation.  Changes in ideas and values often result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media.  It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”

“Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed.  How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of the centre stage.  Our hope, and often our power.”

The book is a reference guide for a number of liberation struggles throughout the world which have made for success.  As Solnit says, “Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift”.

One final lesson worth noting from what is a fabulously uplifting book – and one that is incredibly pertinent for those on the left of politics who, like me, have concerns about whether the vehicles we are operating in quite get the magnitude of the problems we face.

“It’s an argument for tiny and temporary victories, and for the possibility of partial victories in the absence or even the impossibility of total victories.  Total victory has always seemed like a secular equivalent of paradise: a place where all the problems are solved and there’s nothing to do, a fairly boring place.  The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come.  It is, in fact, more than possible.  It is something that has arrived in innumerable ways, small and large and often incremental, but not in that way that was described and expected.  So victories slip by unheralded.  Failures are more readily detected.”

Rebecca Solnit provides us with grounds for hope!

Previous Reading (4):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Fourth up:-

“Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World”, Grant, A. (2016) WH Allen

Originals_AdamGrant

This was the book I have been seeking for a long time.  Not only does it seek to distill the essence of creativity, it tries to discern what marks out those people who take creative ideas that one step further, and make them happen – ‘the originals’.  Using a series of true stories to which he returns throughout the book, Grant aims to chart what we can all do to make it more likely that we can move mountains – and he discovers that there are a number of often counter intuitive fixes that can increase the likelihood of fostering an environment where originals will blossom – and these are helpfully summarised in the final chapter.  For example, always questioning the ‘default’ setting in an organisation (it might be there for a reason – at least you will discover ‘why’ if it is); or, making your ideas more familiar (so those around you are more comfortable with your ideas, and so are more likely to adopt them); through to some tips for bringing through originality in children.  ‘Originals’ are not born special, but train themselves through experience, learning and common-sense is, I believe, his central argument.  We can all do it (well, maybe some more than others!)

Easy to read, and practical in approach, its strategies for encouraging adoption of new ideas have uses far beyond innovation in its narrowest sense.  I thoroughly recommend this book.  The video above gives a snapshot of Grant’s book from the man himself.

Previous Reading (3):

I’m in the process of tidying up up my blog. so I’m just posting a few book reviews I had posted elsewhere, but I wanted to make sure they were codified in the main body of the blog.  Third up:-

“Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future”, Gould, G. (2015) Little, Brown Book Group

Wasted

Although rooted in politics, this was a fascinating read with much to inform public services, private corporations and all our our human relationships with young people – or as the former might call them, a primary core audience!  It was upfront in articulating how much intelligence young people can bring to campaigns and decision-makers, and how much this is often overlooked and paid lip-service to.  One of the fascinating discussions came over the role (or potential lack of it) for corporate social responsibility, in a world where entrepreneurs put mutuality and cause at the heart of their business models, rather than as a ‘bolt-on’.  There are so many lessons from the book, it is difficult to know where to start.  One is the importance of not just involving young people, or inviting them in, but actually putting them ‘in the driving seat’ of organisations – not making their involvement a special event.  In order for young people to make the most of their involvement, whether that be in the workplace, or in constructing campaigns, we need to increase the capacity for them to contribute – and that has implications for how the PR profession (not just politicians) engages with schools, and the National Citizens Service, so it can play a part in helping young people find their voice.  This is even more vital after the EU referendum vote, when many young people (and many others!) may feel that the political system does not speak for them.  There is also a lot of stress on ensuring conversations across generational groups, and across social groups – and PR can have part to play in this.  The bottom line for all of this is that it is not just in the interests of young people – but it ensures that the communication and messages the profession is seeking to engage with actually work with with the future generations of this country, and the profession can then be seen to have a positive reputation amongst potential recruits across a more diverse range of faces and voices.

Most importantly, the book is about making society function more effectively again, by involving young people properly.  Much of what it has to say about decision-makers embracing more creativity, and unleashing more autonomy is probably something we would all say ‘amen’ to – not just young people.  Thoroughly recommend this book for its showcasing of a range on quality example case studies from around the country, and rich voices captured through in-depth qualitative interviews.

Other reviews and links here from the Guardian and The RSA.