I’ve been moved to comment on yesterday’s “Change: How?” “unConference”, run by leftwing think tank Compass, as a result of a review by another attendee. I really enjoyed the day, but in the spirit of the session on learning from our past failures, I do have some comments to make, some of which I hope could be useful in future.
Photo courtesy of Compass – the Open Space session in progress
Unsurprisingly, as a Londoner, I loved the location. I liked that it was in London but I also liked that it wasn’t a horrible corporate conference centre. Tick there.
I loved the way they played with formats, but in order to do so successfully they really need more forthright organisation. The first session started a good half-hour late so naturally the end was madly over time. I suspect this sounds trivial or bean-countery of me to single out as the downfall of the day, but it meant that some of the most interesting innovations — specifically the innovations of format which meant that the day was not a succession of passive panel discussions — were completely hamstrung by inadequate management. For instance, a chunk of the timetable was given over to an item called “Open Space”. The idea was that attendees set the agenda, with forty regular Joes stepping up to ask a question which would kick-start a conversation; other attendees could migrate to the conversations of most interest to them. I got one going on how to engage and mobilise young people politically. It was fascinating and I got to meet some really interesting people, but I felt we’d barely got started before we had to go, because we started late and had to try and make up some of the time, and they needed to set up the room for something else. The other reviewer above was so taken with the format that he suggested that conferences should be all Open Space in future without big names. While I wouldn’t go that far — I was drawn to this event by names like Zoe Williams, John Harris and Helen Lewis, and I’m happy to give a speaker as eloquent as Matthew Taylor a literal and metaphorical platform any time — I did think that it merited much greater time, especially given the numbers of people they were trying to wrangle. It also fed into my frustration of the day: what is the action that I am going to take from this day? So many conversations in the sessions were about how to define what we’re after, the alternative we’re seeking, to take better-informed action. I kept feeling that there was no time to get to a definition of anything, while there was also bloody loads of hanging around waiting for things to set up. (And queues for loos and queues for food, but maybe that’s just life.)
Maybe a bit more communication ahead of time to everyone if you are going with format innovations: a number of sessions had substantial amounts of time eaten up by convoluted instructions, and poor John Harris looked really quite uncomfortable in the session discussing failure, as it seemed he’d had this format foisted on him about five minutes beforehand. Brief your MC ahead of time!
I was surprised by the demographic. Something about the website and how I’d heard about it made me assume that it would skew towards my age, whereas in fact it felt that there were many more over-40s or over-50s than under-35s. (That’s not a judgement, just an observation!) Perhaps unfairly I associate mouthiness with older people, as I find they’re more likely to have realised that they no longer give a fuck — fine when you’re having collaborative sessions, but not fine when people feel entitled to heckle when it’s a less crowd-based session. The ne plus ultra of this came very early on, when Richard Wilson was giving a talk on definitions of leadership: many older voices felt entitled, and became increasingly irate, in asking for the lights to be turned off — which, to me, came off as very rude to Wilson as the speaker (the speech is surely more than the PowerPoint, no?). They were utterly silenced by someone in a tabard announcing that the super-duper eco lights took ten minutes to turn off and heat up again, so they wouldn’t be turning off the lights for the sake of the slides. I found this face-off hilarious, but it did derail Wilson’s train completely, which felt particularly unfair given that he’d chosen to come and speak in spite of the fact that his son had been born only the day before.
I’d love some follow-up from Compass in the next week. I’d like to see them sending evaluation forms todelegates, as, given the demographic, I suspect they won’t get a huge amount of feedback without something of the kind. I also want to see the mapping exercise carried through, as suggested by one lady from the audience in the closing session. I always feel pumped and buzzy after such events and then things inevitably peter out once you get home and no longer have that community of like minds to feed off: I think that map, which people could use to continue such conversations, would be quite a game-changer. A man in the closing session said that we need to have more conversations across the political spectrum, conducted with respect, and I endorse that view. But those of us on the left also need to have these sorts of conversations with people of broadly like minds in tandem. We need to come to our own definitions of things and know what we prioritise and where we stand, before we can head into more confrontational arenas. We need more of these discussions, whether it’s through events like yesterday’s or smaller, far more frequent local gatherings. I suspect the latter is key, hence why I think the map is such an excellent idea.
If anyone yesterday would like to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you — it’s my first name dot my surname [at sign] gmail dot com.
During September I holidayed in Croatia. Wandering around Split, and feeling by mid-afternoon that I’d exhausted most of its attractions, I decided to head a little out of the tourist-friendly centre to find the statue to Orson Welles that was featured on my Rough Guide map. (Welles’s partner in later life was Croatian, and he made Croatia into his second home, hence the statue.)
I didn’t quite get on with Croatian street signs during my time there; I am sure there is a system, but I never did manage to work it out. Thus what ought to have taken about ten to fifteen minutes took me well over half an hour before I found the shopping centre which, according to my map, was beside the statue. I did a lap or two of the place: no statue anywhere. I gamely approached a young woman saying, “Orson Welles?” (my Croatian, as you can tell, is advanced) and she looked perplexed. I did a bit more baffled wandering around. Where was the damn thing? I looked again at my map, and the front of the shopping centre, with the little café in front … when I saw it.
I finally made it to see Keats House last week.
I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Keats, but he does fall within my general ninteenth-century interests, so a visit to the house has long been on my to-do list. Finding myself in Hampstead to see friends last week, I decided to dip in. I’m glad I did, especially as I was lucky enough to coincide with a guided tour. I learnt at my father’s knee to view tours with suspicion, but this was a good one, precisely because I’m not so strong on Keats background knowledge.
I don’t often give too much thought to the fact that most of the people in history or substantial literary figures with dedicated museums tend to be moneyed types; it’s simply the way it is and to rail against it would be pointless. Yet going around the building did bring home to me forcefully what an anomaly Keats is in this respect. If I were to be struck down with a terrible illness that forced me to seek good weather, like Keats I would not be able to stump up the funds immediately (and I live in the age of budget airlines!). In this respect at least we are united in our lack of resemblance to the vast majority of the literary greats. The house itself bears witness to this. From the outside it’s a very respectably sized detached residence. In reality, at the time Keats lived there it was a semi-d, and each of the two separate homes was a pretty compact two-up two-down. And indeed, Keats was only a lodger when he lived here, not even a full tenant.
I was surprised by how powerfully I was affected by the tour’s final moment, talking about Fanny Brawne’s devotion to Keats’s memory, in spite of the fact that she ultimately married and had children (albeit twelve years after Keats’s death). The guide told us that she never destroyed his letters (what kind of monster could bring themselves to do that?) and that she always afterwards wore his ring — and then pointed at the ring in the cabinet. It sounds banal in the retelling, yet to see this pretty, small ring in the cabinet nearly brought me to tears. Poor girl.
I recently finished Stefan Collini’s worthwhile What Are Universities For?. I was pretty wrapped up in its argument, particularly when he stuck it to both economistic attacks and defences of higher education:
In the face of this [economistic paradigm], one has to make, over and over again, the obvious point that a society does not educate the next generation in order for them to contribute to its economy. It educates them in order that they should extend and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world, acquiring, in the course of this form of growing up, kinds of knowledge and skill which will be useful in their eventual employment, but which will no more be the sum of their education than that employment will be the sum of their lives … From wholly laudable motives, we constantly fall into the trap of justifying an activity – one initially (and perhaps long thereafter) undertaken because of its intrinsic interest and worth – as something which we do because it yields incidental benefits which are popular with those not in a position to appreciate the activity’s intrinsic interest and worth. If we find ourselves saying that what is valuable about learning to play the violin well is that it helps us develop the manual dexterity that will be useful for typing, then we are stuck in a traffic jam of carts in front of horses.
But while it was worthwhile, I suspect I only decided I really liked after it got a proper belly laugh: he features a “don’s diary” piece for an alumni mag that he’d written around the time of the publication of his book on intellectuals in Britain:
To Broadcasting House to take part in brief discussion of my book for Radio 3. ‘So, Stefan Collini, what is an intellectual …?’ ‘So what you’re really saying is …’ ‘Well, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for …’ Aaarrrggghh.
Grace at Design*Sponge has put up the first in a series of posts on the subject of living online, a subject on which she may be one of the best placed people I know.
Her post has really chimed with me, especially in the relation to this blog. The blog has changed considerably in its five years, not least in terms of post quantity. Partly this is due to an increased wariness on what I put online. I’ve always tried to be intentional with my blog, and as a result I have never put up anything overly personal or latterly embarrassing; nevertheless there is the creeping realisation of all that I have put out into the world, and the fact that whatever is released can never be taken back.
But a large part of it has to do with time, a subject I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought recently, thanks largely to the work of Laura Vanderkam. Vanderkam’s ideas on time are not particularly earth-shattering, and indeed can be boiled down to the fact that we all of us, no matter what we earn, have only 168 hours in the week. (If I were superstitious I’d be getting the feeling that the universe wants me to think about this, seeing as the latest Radio 4 Documentary of the Week is about time use surveys in Britain and around the world.) But sometimes the pointing out of the bleeding obvious is salutary, necessary even. For instance, Vanderkam says that we should get out of the habit of saying that we don’t have time for a given activity, that it would be more accurate to say that it’s not a priority. While, like the commenters on her Happiness Project interview, I think this might be a gauche thing to say socially, I suspect that as internal monologues go it’s a healthier one to cultivate; it’s not that there isn’t time enough, but that with the time you have got, you choose to do other things.
And so it is with blogging for me; I still enjoy it, and still greatly enjoy reading the blogs of others. But, given my now more limited leisure time, I want to prioritise the experiencing of life over the documenting of it. As such Grace’s fifth point, about living for the moment, resonates profoundly with me. I go to gigs and am saddened by the sea of smartphones that I now see as a matter of course (even as I use one myself, when I took a photo of Paul McCartney’s unexpected appearance in Covent Garden Piazza last week). Who, by and large, looks at these photos or these videos a month after they’ve been taken? Why don’t people experience and enjoy the moment without feeling the need to document every second of it? I felt something similar when I spent time in New York, where smartphones seemed to be far more slavishly adhered to than in the British Isles; when a restaurant was being considered, no one took a punt on it — it had to be Yelped first. The tyranny of technology?
I am really looking forward to seeing how the rest of this series pans out with the rest of the D*S team and in the comments, as it’s a deeply worthwhile conversation to have.
Though well informed on most of the big shows happening at any given time in London, I hadn’t heard a peep about Victoriana at the Guildhall Art Gallery until a friend, a doctoral student of that period, mentioned it. I was lucky she did, as it is an unalloyed delight. Compared to other exhibitions I’ve visited over the summer, such as the V&A’s David Bowie Is, the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition or the L. S. Lowry show at Tate Britain, this was a cakewalk: I could walk in at a time I chose, rather than book the tickets months in advance; I could get as close as I liked to the exhibits without waiting for 20 other people to mill past first; after an hour I had engaged fully with each piece, and left refreshed by the experience — by no means guaranteed with those other shows.
Beyond her recommendation I did little research, and so I was surprised as I started to go round the rooms that these were not Victorian artefacts but modern pieces inspired by the nineteenth century. Fear not, gentle heart: it wasn’t all steampunk, though that was represented here and there.
The show brings together pieces in a variety of media by modern artists riffing on Victorian themes and aesthetics. For all the diversity — representing photography, painting, fashion, “armchair destructivism”, prints, preliminary sketches from graphic novels by Bryan Talbot and Kevin O’Neill — the pieces are united by an irreverence that I found winning.
I was charmed by a display of irregularly shaped gears by Paul St George (included because this was a technology all but lost since the last days of the nineteenth century); in order to maintain a connection as they rotate, must accommodate each other, varying their relative speeds. I was also particularly taken by the photographic element of the show: Phil Sayers’ Shalott (2008), a brash take-off of Waterhouse, and Grayson Perry’s self-portrait as a touched Lincolnshire wife both drew me in. Easily the standout, though, was Yinka Shonibare’s series of photographs inspired by the 1948 adaptation of Dorian Gray, in which the Nigerian-British artist himself stands in for the antihero. It’s a simple idea realised with panache: lovingly shot and framed compositions, sumptuously costumed, the final photographs themselves beautifully produced — the whole thing stopped me in my tracks. (Which was an acceptable thing to do in the Guildhall, even on a Saturday afternoon.) I highly recommend the show, and may even go back for one of their curatorial talks — which, skinflint that I am, is praise indeed.
I wasn’t altogether convinced by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a book, but then a) I’m not the demographic, having already read most of the research she cherry-picked in more interesting books,* and b) I’m the sort of woolly-hearted liberal who’s happy to have someone, anyone, provide a jolt in the arm of mainstream feminist discussion. But the blog around it is coming up with some good stuff; easily the best has been this entertaining video. (Warning to my brother: you won’t like this.)
*The one thing that rang out to me in the whole book was her (personal, anecdotal) advice to look for places that are growing rather than places that are already big, as in the former situation you can grab all sorts of interesting projects because there’s too much to do and not enough hands to do it. That was it, in a whole book! The rest was a rehash of old research that, to me at least, was a collection of hoary old chestnuts: the study where the same CV was provided to hiring managers with the single difference of a male or female name, and the female name routinely fared worse than the male with the exact same qualifications, etc etc.
Looking up Bob Dylan ukulele chords (I dabble) and was pleased to find this on a page for Blood on the Tracks: “Others may tell you that Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited or even Desire is his best album, but they’re wrong, and when pressed (up against the wall, and in the presence of a .44, if necessary), they will eventually agree.” Amen, brother!
I heard John Mullan once make an observation about the rafts of Austen books out there — there may well be material on Jane Austen and the navy, he said, but is there a book in it? Must any and every subject result in a monograph? Would that research not be equally well, or better, served by a lengthy article? (I do think there’s a book in that particular subject, but that’s another story.) Ever since he said this, I have seen nothing but “article” books in the areas of popular psychology/neuroscience/behavioural economics/happiness studies that I favour — books with useful messages which are diluted by padding out in order to meet the average book’s size.
This came to mind while reading Atul Gawande’s slim book: he takes one clear and valuable area of research, does it thoroughly but without padding, and so despatches the book in 200 readable pages. ”Readable”, indeed, is a disservice: it’s a page-turner, both in terms of style and in the enormity of the implications of its findings. Gawande’s subject is the humble checklist. In a setting such as surgery, where even everyday activities are now vastly more complicated and multifarious than they ever used to be, the checklist provides a reminder, a safety net, a means of keeping people honest. It’s also a measure that people routinely overlook or resist — perhaps because of its residual whiff of box-ticking bureaucracy — despite its incredible benefits. Gawande charts the inception and development of a checklist of his own, one he developed with a team to further the Safe Surgery WHO initiative. When they ran trials of their checklist in countries both rich and poor, they found that with the addition of the WHO checklist major complications fell by 36%, deaths by 47%. ”If someone discovered a new drug,” Gawande observes, “that could cut down surgical complications with anything remotely like the effectiveness of the checklist, we would have television ads with minor celebrities extolling its virtues” (158). It’s a deeply thought-provoking read, suggesting that the checklist demonstrates that even our very ideals of what heroism looks like are now outmoded: the Errol Flynn type, a seat-of-the-pants swashbuckler, is nice, sure, but he’s a liability in high-stakes and highly complex situations such as surgery, where an entire surgical team need to work in sync with each other in order to succeed — a synchronicity greatly helped by, even thoroughly dependent on, simple measures of accountability like the checklist.
It should perhaps be noted that this is not a book for the faint-hearted; I dove in expecting tips on helping me with my own to-do lists (I don’t question how you get your kicks, people, so don’t question mine) and was brought up short with graphic descriptions of some very full-on surgical situations — a chest is sawn into, that kind of thing. The imagery always serves a purpose, but be prepared for the fact that it may not be the fodder of most of the books you’ll find recommended on productivity blogs.
I’ve been horsing through Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, a show in which Herring interviews famous comedians (for the most part) in front of a live audience in a relaxed but informative manner. I have persevered not for Herring himself — he’s a good guy, but he spreads himself a bit thin these days — but because of the calibre of the people involved: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton; Mark Thomas; Adam Buxton; Stephen Fry; unexpectedly, Mary Beard. I think my favourite has to be John Lloyd (comedy producer extraordinaire, responsible for things like Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and QI). This surprised me, as I thought Lloyd came off as unbelievably pleased with himself on his episode of Desert Island Discs, but faced with Herring he was far more likeable — admittedly, I liked him best when he annihilated Herring’s glib atheism. Lloyd pulled the rug from under Herring’s feet with a considered defence for polite agnosticism, observing that Herring doesn’t even know how many chemicals there are in a carrot, so how on earth could he make the call on the Almighty? Hurray!