Four Conversations

I’m speaking this Sunday afternoon in London at Conway Hall, ‘Four Conversations: A United Kingdom?’, at the Bloomsbury Festival. The theme is nationalism and identity, explored from four different perspectives within the UK. I’ll be joined by Ewen Cameron, Jennifer Thomson, Daryl Leeworthy, and the audience. It’s free, and has been brought together with the intention of avoiding cliche and generating reflective, critical and open-hearted discussion. Read more here.

Conversation is an interesting thing to note in passing. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in words, picked from the printed page and chewed over. Then, for about a year, that changed, and I threw myself out into the world, and hardly wrote or read. But towards the end of the summer, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I decided to step back from that.

I came across something by Simone Weil recently that verbalised something I’d had in mind: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. I’d stopped being able to focus without distraction. I wanted to step back, disappear underground, start to tune into and observe what was around me, without worrying about my own place within that. Switching off social media, the news, alcohol, no longer being constantly connected, and inhabiting myself, has brought about peace. But it seems against my collectivist ideals, and I wonder what to do about that.

In its space, another kind of wonder creeps in. I am lecturing around twelve-fifteen hours a week, most of it on courses I am designing (at lightning speed), and more work than I can remember. But it’s good work, the sort that doesn’t feel like work at all, a dangerously pleasurable work. In a week of constant conversation and communication, the spaces between classes and lectures and emails are pleasant. I find myself often wondering about the different worlds and futures of all these bright people I meet, who I have the pleasure of talking about ideas or events with, and of watching the sophistication of their thinking develop and grow over a short period of time. It’s hard to put it concisely, but I often wonder and daydream about the futures of people I meet. What will life do to them, or what will they do with life? It inspires much more than it saddens.

The book I hope to write, which hasn’t been written for a while – there has not been enough time, there is never enough time – will explore some side of this, politically, I suppose. But writing and classifying an idea is also a way of processing it to expurge it, get it out of your system. And I’ve enjoyed not writing, not finishing. And, instead, imagining and reflecting on the many mental worlds actually around me. I’ve come to think that finished words or polished concepts are not the final story of our minds, but a continual flux of emotions, memories and half-worked ideas. Maybe that is what makes conversation most illuminating of human thinking, concerned not with full stops but ellipses…, with stumbles, mumbles, disagreements and misunderstandings, where words might be shared but rarely do we have precisely the same things in mind.

But my word, I miss reading all the blogs and short essays of friends who no longer write! So many indeed, I wonder if it is over-work or fatigue or just having interesting lives or something else entirely which has taken the words away, like it has mine, or made us escape their confinement.

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Spinoza in London

spinoza

From next Monday I’m teaching a 12-week course on the philosophy of Spinoza that’s open to the public. It will explore Spinoza’s Ethics in depth, as well as the Theological-Political Treatise and its contributions to the Enlightenment and modern political ideas. We’ll be thinking with Spinoza about nature, knowledge, freedom, contentment, and democracy. While some basic familiarity with philosophy or history with help, all are welcome. Classes take place at the Mary Ward Centre, Holborn, on Monday afternoons, with more details here.

I’m also teaching another year of my Introduction to Philosophy course at Mary Ward on Wednesday afternoons – all are welcome. Lots of rich, ranging discussions on life, death, responsibility, and the many meanings of life. And also two courses on London’s literature and London’s social history at Goldsmiths that I’ve put together, plus seminar teaching there too.

But, Spinoza!

K Blundell Award

Some wonderful news: I have received one of the K Blundell Trust’s awards to help complete my next book.

The Trust gives grants to British authors aged below 40 whose works aim to increase social awareness, and are awarded twice a year. Crucially, these are awards for works in progress. If one has neither a large publisher’s advance or steady tsunamis of royalty payments, grants like this one are crucial for making it possible to pay for time to write, travel and think.

I recommend fellow writers look into this scheme and other similar grants by the Society of Authors here. (My thanks to Bob, a student in my Hegel class, for lending me a copy of the LRB which contained an advert for the scheme).

So what is the award for? Titled Where Are We Going?, the next book takes the form of eleven narratives about a specific place and the people I meet, through which I document the effects of forces shaping British politics, from health and social care to deindustrialisation, the ‘gig economy’, farming and rural poverty, to immigration, class, identity and housing. I’ve begun preparing the book this year, and with the grant I’ll be able to reduce my work hours and finish the main research (by which I mean cycle, visit, question, listen and observe) in early 2018.

Displace

‘How do we even begin to have a conversation about the gargantuan problems of finite resources, personal ethics and social change in a framework that renders an individual life seemingly powerless?’

Laura Sillars raises this question in her foreword to A Sick Logic, a collection of writings, photos and field guides that raise questions and possibilities about self-sufficiency in modern life.

The book has been brought together by Anna Chrystal Stephens and Glen Stoker to accompany their exhibition of the same name in Sheffield last summer. I had the pleasure of collaborating in a site tour with them, and have written an essay for the collection called Displace. You can read that here if you like, but there’s much more of interest in the book itself, a thoughtful and inspiring gathering of thoughts about place, escape and immersion.

Thinking is most often a conversation along a journey, often without the certainty of reaching a judgement or change in ideas. Often a journey ends here, where you are now, and might be picked up again another time. Recently I’ve gone back to these questions of how the social and ecological overlap. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the collective and communal can also be understood within one’s own inner space, and how creating and cultivating an inner mental space, an unseeable side of internal wonder, experimentation and reflection, might be of some good in resisting the boredom and anxiety of a continuously connected, distracted life.

Displace touches on some of that, but still wears an air of certainty too easily, which is not the mark of a traveller, who listens, observes, never judges, and may be somewhere else entirely.

Audio essay

royaume-uni

“A tale of two countries” is the title of an audio essay I’ve put together for an exhibition opening today Up North in an abandoned boozer. It’s a rough attempt to try to put across some feelings and ideas about the political and social mood at the moment.

The exhibition, “Will the last person to leave the 20th century please turn out the lights?”, is a journey into the West Yorkshire eerie, bringing together drawings, installations and audio. If you happen to be bowling by Baildon, between Bradford and Otley, it opens today. More info here.

If not, have a listen here.

Thanks goes to John Ledger for inviting me to produce something and for bringing it together.

State of the nation

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks.

There are signs that the interregnum may soon be over. An election result few of us dared hope for, a new collective desire not simply hoping but demanding an end to austerity.

Young, not so young and old are coming together, across regions, suburbs and inner-cities, saying enough is enough. No more lies, no more futile elections, no more strong and stable. We don’t want much. An end to debt, an end to uncertainty at work, jobs we want to do, an affordable place to live, teachers for our schools, nurses and carers for when we’re ill, libraries, children’s centres, pubs and local halls re-opened where our communities can come together, a world to pass on to future generations. No more people homeless when luxury apartments go empty, no more food banks, bedroom taxes, benefits sanctions, young minds going to seed in dead-end jobs, no children growing up hungry. A new social contract.

I’ve never been in the practice of fortune-telling, but I’m inspired by these new energies.

I’m speaking at two events this Friday in London, both open to the public, where I’ll explore this new terrain. There’s a great line-up at both and it would be wonderful to be joined by friends.

State of the Nation at Waterstones Piccadilly, 7pm-8.30pm: an evening of readings with novelists and poets including Amanda Craig, Jason Donald, John McCullough and Sarah Moss. £5 entry but includes wine.

Post-Capitalist Desire at the George, Commercial Road, E1 0LA, 9pm-3am (flyer above): a night of interventions, projections, K-punk mixtapes, DJ sets and yuppiedrome occupations (!) brought together by the Savage Messiah collective.

This night looks special, the first in hopefully a series to explore what the late, dearly-missed Mark Fisher touched on in his later writings, ‘acid communism – the spectre of a world that could be free’.

Wish me well for the Owell Prize announcement this Thursday, and looking forward to the conversations and events of the long summer ahead.

 

 

OECD Forum 2017

This week I spoke at the OECD Forum 2017 in Paris about the geographies of discontent, and about my book Island Story.

It was such an unexpected honour to be invited, and the conversations I had over those two days were inspiring, difficult, revelatory and valuable. Find out more about the event and the other speakers here.

Much of it was recorded. Here’s an interview where I discuss Britain’s many island stories, and the next book project…

And a longer panel discussion where I discuss pride, collectivity, distinguishing between cultural and economic factors behind Brexit, and the fascinating case of Cornwall. The other panellists were brilliant, and if you have a moment take a listen to the discussion about trade unions in the US, retraining workers in Denmark, and the valuable work we can all do within our communities:

It was excellent! There’s more photos here and here, and you can join in the conversation after by signing up here.