UNSEE THE FUTURE, part 20 – Art

The sun had not quite slipped below the rugged stoneline behind me, dipping the rough, honey-coloured history into silhouette. In those last few moments of the ordinary day, the dazzling low rays of our star still pumped heat into the dusty humid air cloying us together as the old city rooftops, encircling us, turned pink. But we no longer felt weary. Weary from the ordinary day, even an ordinary day in another country. What we began to feel, was a strangely calm sense of excitement. Just waiting there, in those last few moments before we knew the ordinary day was over.

 

 

 

LISTEN TO THE UNSEE THE FUTURE SPECIAL, EP20: ART >

 

The well of the arena opening below us was a yawning crater, like a fearsome unfolded iris to the underworld, exposing who knows what legends, creatures and heros to the first couple of stars blinking out of the prehistoric indigoing sky. And it was filling up with very nice middle class people on red carpets in the expensive seats on the arena floor, where the bloodbaths used to happen in the Roman games, watched by the proles in the cheap seats high above. We’d climbed to the very top and back of Verona’s vast and ancient theatre.

I’d never seen opera before. The lovely first lady of Momo and I had often pondered taking the cultural plunge at last, but I’d vowed it would be something delightfully playful, like Mozart. In the end, it was something fearsomly grander, and the spontanious idea of a couple of other family members, on the end of a little road trip across Europe this summer that found my favourite wife and I in different countries for the last leg. As I said to her afterwards: “Sure, it was kinda mind blowing. But it was looooong and there was only one good tune. And, like, no dancing.” She shrugged.

Ballet, we’ve jollied off to enjoy a good few times together over the years, because they apparently let in people like us now. As a lover of dance and human body expression, more often of the club music variety, Mrs Peach has also delighted in many of the famous tales told through clasical movement, as the odd highbrow-feeling grown-up night out can be a nice bit of theatre in every sense; everyone needs a touch of culture swank occasionally, to feel like you’re somehow clever after all. And, sure it’s not the Beatles, but most of the classic ballets have at least a few good tunes in ’em we can all half remember in the bath afterwards. Grand opera, however, for my favourite wife, might be akin to a modernist jazz recital or an intimate evening of Morrisey acapella; something I could picture her starting a saloon bar punch up in the middle of to help find the ‘proper culture’ a little more engaging.

This production, though, just seemed like too grand a classical bit of culture to miss, on my one night in Shakespeare’s invoked city of doomed love, away from my gratefully so far working out love. For this tale too, like Romeo and Juliette, was of just that – a tragic starcrossing of lovers, brought to bitter end by politics. Guiseppe Verdi’s Aida.

I’ve never really loved ol’ Joe Green’s work, epic as it reveredly is. Couldn’t get past the wasted opportunity another number of his is, The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, being as un-middle eastern or evocatively anciently Jewish sounding as it’s rather boring possible to be, to my ears – but everyone loves Aida, as was obvious from the fascinating range of show posters lining the perimeter of the Verona Arena from more than a century of putting grand cultural works into a craggy Roman entertainment space, some 2,000 years old. A genius combination, somehow, and a bit of a cue to the civilising effect of modern culture, no doubt.

As the sun dropped out of direct sight, the stage lights warmed up slowly. And I could tell this was going to be something, well, grand. A hundred-foot rotating pyramid sat in the middle of the stage, for one thing. And when the orchestra struck up and the principles emerged resplendent in exquisite costume of ancient Egyptian courtly life, the tradition of performing all without sound reinforcement was impressive. The glimmering light design and light-catching fabrics, placed across a vast stage space under the ever deepening inky, stars-speckled heavens, unfolded a scene of something… magical. What other-worldly other word is there? An atmosphere all at once antidiluvially ancient, civilsationally old and much more recently historic. It just… drew us in. Suspended in epic temporary belief in something extraordinary.

Franco Zeferelli himself, legendary film maker, had so commandingly staged this whole production that he had even choreographed a lunar eclipse to rise and unfold from blood moon to shining silver disk amid the constellations precisely behind the stage end of the arena, across precisely the three hours of the sweltering Italian night. Is there nothing the grand master wizards of storytelling, our traditional high priests of culture whom we so revere, cannot do?

It was three hours of supreme art, is what it was. And it obviously felt a bit sorta fusty.

It was, unequivocally, Old School Art, you might say. Across Verdi’s rich and beautiful but oddly unaffecting score, at least for me, opened out and filed through a series of massive tableaus. A cast of a few hundred, possibly. Impressive. But, essentially, an exhibition of costume theatre design, moving around carefully.

Three hours of showing off needlework and woodwork and fingerwork, essentially.

And it was utterly amazing. An absolute spectacle of skill. And a massive slab of yer actual culture… that I couldn’t very deeply connect with. Cheers anyway, Frank and team. I mean, you’d have to be dead from the pulmonary valves down to not feel something at the climax, and it’s a story that deliberately scales from impersonally stately formality to messy human heartbreak as it glides through its libretto, with the skill of musicianship and voice across cast and players that was world-class human talent. From the narrative to the spectacle, this was art that absolutely had a right to light up the shadows of millennia of history, because in so many component ways it spoke across time. Pressing anciently sensitive human buttons.

So I still clapped my hands off at the end, obviously because, really. Wow. In the end it simply felt like a privilege to be there.

But it did make me wonder: What is the purpose of such grand, ‘high’ art like this today? And indeed, what is the purpose of any art, when there are some fearsome practical challenges to deal with in the real world? Why should art feel like something for the privileged? Is it because only the privileged can afford to be so self indulgent.

If so, then – jeepers! – this episode of Unsee The Future will qualify me more than any other as either an unconsciously biased part of the hierarchical problem or an insufferably progressive Social Justice Warrior. Whoever comes through the seige barrier first, I’m reasonably certain they will be pretty joylessly unimpressed with me, and who can blame them. This essentially special episode of my researching podcast project is all about the most self-indulgent thing you could spend your time doing – and I’ve apparently put it at the very heart of the whole endeavour.

If you weren’t so unfathomably niche, Peach, you might one day be dangerous. Mostly to yourself.

Because… art? It’s all very well, of course. But art is a little bit of a pompous luxury when the world’s on fire, no? Productions like this are more like signals of decadence as the ship goes down, surely. So what relevance has art got to the real problems of our times? Who is it really helping?

The fact that you are already thinking of a few examples and also suggesting that it depends a bit on what kind of art we’re talking about is a rather hopeful signal of our age, I might quietly think upfront. Don’t blame me if you’re already accidentally more of an insufferable progressive than you righteously realise. And as distant, highbrow or old school as Aida in a Roman arena in Verona may absolutely sound, there was no escaping that night that an experience so evocative makes it easy to forget the world outside, with all its muck and blood and ruddy disappointment. Caught up in there, thinking of other past and mythical worlds, suspending your feelings about your own troubles for a bit. More than ten thousand people a night there seemed to think so, certainly, today in 21st century.

Because, y’know. It’s all rather nice, isn’t it? Especially when the troubles of the real world outside that ancient arena – and all the arenas of our imaginations – are as potentially terrifying as we all wonder about at the moment.

But if that’s the main aim of art, is escapism really the best use of our time, right now? Isn’t sticking our heads in the popcorn bucket rather the whole problem of our age?

 

WHITEBOARDING.

As Unsee The Future has explored already, there seems to be an unprecidented converging of global problems out there. One that can’t stay locked out of the opera stadium or the movie theatre. The very world we’ve known seems under threat. Perhaps as surely as by any vast ancient army seeking war over a lost princess, or any Independence Day alien invasion.  Except it’s chillingly more like Invasion of the body snatchers, I think. Which is just the sort of McCarthyesque paranoia plenty of people would like you to feel at the moment, I’m sure, such seem our times.

My own contention, laying out the foundation of this podcast through the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainability in series one, is that the great catastrophe that seems to be unfolding on multiple terrible story arcs at once all around us, like Game of Thrones fractalled, may also be the greatest window of opportunity we’ve ever had to address a bunch of fundamental problems. And perhaps, put us on a path to redemption. The hero’s journey for us all.

Film maker Duncan Jones – son of cultural icon David Bowie and creator of sublime science fiction mind-tickler Moonsaid this on Twitter:

“My desire to use renewables comes with a twist… I am not looking to minimize my life style. Im not a granola eating crunchy looking to be invisible to the planet. I don’t WANT to save energy. I want to generate SO MUCH renewable, clean energy, I can afford to waste it!”

This is, essentially, the obvious implication to me of all things sustainable. A word. One I have avoided researching deliberately and will do so here for now too – abundance. I know among some of the wealthiest changey-hopers this is a capitalised ambition, but I’ve dodged looking at it at all as a ‘movement’ to see if my own research ends up anywhere near it. And in broad principle, I can see how possible it is for humankind to have an abundant future – and energy might be the way in. As Jones lists out some headlines of how clean energy thinking can add up, he says:

“I do believe there is an amazing coincidence going on that as we reach a point of terrible self-inflicted destruction on our planet, we are ironically so close to having the knowledge and skills to repair all the damage we’ve done, and live on in a clean and sustainable way.” And he adds: “There is a race going on between civilization’s collapse, and a conversion to a sustainable future, and bizarrely there are people rushing in both directions.”

I’m not so sure of the realities of just how much we can repair all the damage done; I wonder if it will take the scars of such terrible damage, on our minds as much as the planet’s surface, to help us truly move on. Such massive trauma to life on Earth may be stripes very hard-won in our growing up. But the opposite directional rushing Zowie points out there is the central weirdness to our Now. We suddenly live in polarised times like none before them across the west. And it does seem like an ideological struggle between looking backwards and looking forwards. Splitting families and nations with rhetoric-spitting preach. And if it shows anything, to me it shows what we will need in order to unlock the potential of now, which is as great as the threats.

New outlooks. On everything. On what it means to be human, currently just on Earth.

Researching the UN’s Goals to save us has shown me two things I currently feel strongly, as a result. The real usefulness of the Goals to ordinary farty twerpy you and me, at ground level, is not the individual strategies of each separate Goal. They’re educational, vitally perhaps, but those individual Goal pages still don’t give real calls to action at the bottom of them to ordinary farty twerpy you and me. Because I don’t think they’ve quite worked out how to, still. Which rather dangles the hopey-changey thing just out of reach above us.

What I think the Goals are essential for is something that could actually unlock our thinking in the most vital way. Ordinary farty twerpy you and me (OFTYAM). They can help us put it all together in our minds.

 

Dwelling on all the goals can flick a quiet switch in your head. At first it can all seem either academic or overwhelming; the massive troubles in the world you’d rather not be thinking about because you’ve got enough at ground level you’d rather not be thinking about. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the single most significant problem of the modern world could be its mindset of disconnection. Spending time with all the problems of the world at once, calmly over herbal tea, can begin to form the idea in your mind that these are not at all disconnected challenges – they are, in fact, potentially all symptoms of one global outlook. One Earth-wide human culture. The one that transformed the world in astonishing speed. Rational, industrially-engineered merchant commerce. Capitalism.

A culture that adds up by boxing up. Everything. Into countable, disconnected, shippable, sellable units.

Is our fearsome Now a time of all the little boxes beginning to open?

The boxes of our minds. We are used to living without a thought of where our food comes from and what we are putting into our bodies, or our minds. We are used to living without a thought of who made everything we clothe our bodies with, and out of what, and what they were paid to do it, or what it was like as an experience, working to make our clothes. Or anything we own at all. We are used to living without a thought of where all the waste goes. Or just how much of it there is. We are used to living in a world of many differently-flagged countries, thinking of the people living under those fluttering abstract symbols and within the artifically constructued cultural boundaries of nation states as ‘foreigners’. And such cultural borders shape our own identities, our languages, our accents speaking them and our beliefs about things we’ve never seen as the words come out of our mouths.

Something that dawned on me at Why Digital’s hosting of Do It Day Bournemouth, earlier this year, was a simple realisation. Our age seems to be manifesting something in more and more of us across the board, across cultures and ages that may be a key one to take note of and it is of course mental unwellness. Something about exponentially modern life is twisting us inside. So it’s interesting that many of the practically more sustainable responses to the logistical challenges of our time have a knock-on effect of helping mental health. Someone in our group found themselves writing the phrase: Environmental health equals mental health. Like the polar opposite mindsets of permaculture and industrial farming economics produce the opposite mental symptoms.

Something about the way we’re doing all things together at the moment certainly seems to be producing some tension inside us. Some conflict.

For one thing, modern life seem on the surface seems to have completely forgotten some basic facts of life. We are all made of soil from this one planet. And we all depend on its matrix of life. Any economics that doesn’t value that is, you might say, some stunted maths.

Which, put like that, means some very stunted maths engineered the foundations of the world we live in.

How much can we keep going with all this, do you think? Before you even mention burn-it-once, toxic-waste-producing energy that has fueled the whole endeavour, this already sounds unsustainable to me. You can walk me round the junkyards and oil refinaries and gang economies of the real world whenever you like, but the staggering poverties and shifting degrading environments of the same real world do beg the philosophical question. Because it’s fast becoming a pragmatically existential question.

Any system that helps us begin to see all the problems of now as components of one big problem – of one outlook – has got to be lifesaving in its potential, I think. Because it’s the sheer numbers of us lot working within the same outlook that are amplifying the problem – we’re all in it. But an outlook that begins with something like the Global Goals, connecting all the converging symptoms in your imagination might well massage your mind to begin to see, in your ordinary comings and goings, useages and purchases, savings and wastes, that everything you do is part of the same thing. The same outlook. ..The same story. One so strongly impressed in our imaginations we don’t see it consciously. Yet consciousness is really what we’re talking about here. Waking up.

And yeah. As you know, that’s how I became a hippy, apparently. And probably a Marxist. And lost to all common sense, right? Probably. I have previous.

But I think the Goals can slowly form this realisation in anyone’s mind. That it’s all connected. And that is potentially indeed awakening for us. OFTYAM.

However. Researching them also showed me something else. Or at least, I chose to see it this way. Because listing out the whole world of problems onto a grand plan whiteboard does remind you – this is emotionally way over our heads at best, and overwhelming if we really feel able to dwell on any of it. It’s depressing. It’s fearful. It’s simply way too much to engage with. And it dawned on me: The Goals are missing a Goal. One I think is crucial. One that tackles the very thing we’ll need to actually implement all the others, and so light up the whole plan and the ruddy future.

Art.

It is the business of creating new ways of seeing.

And the UN’s plan, as it stands, mentions not a thing of how we change people’s minds. Of just how we will do the only thing that will truly unlock what it will take to light up you and me. Inspire – how do we plan to inspire ourselves? The UN’s plan, as it stands, doesn’t roadmap how we can work up a new, more inspiring story of us.

And what do we need more than this now?

 

SEEING.

So, I guess I’ll speak personally for a moment here, for context. The first series of Unsee The Future has been, y’know, a bit of a journey for me, man. Researching it has mapped out a circle of foundation for my own thinking about the world I find myself in today. To discover that there is a coherant working plan somewhere at high level to address all the fearsome global challenges in one connected mindset I have found heartening – the UN’s Global Goals for sustainability are devised to be both practical and hopeful, written in plain English and attempting to put everything of our Now together into one determined outlook. Plus, it’s kind of geeky; it appeals to just the sort of slightly high-minded strategic pencil straightening in me as a designer and writer. It sums things up. And it makes you feel like we can tackle the impossible-seeming. Which means it could easily turn out to be as nicely branded and fancifully useless as me.

But, the truth is that it isn’t the worthy unqualified journalism of producing a factual podcast that has diverted my own outlook so consciously. What Unsee has done for me is amplify the understanding and begin to boost the new direction I’d already turned my mind towards. And that turn was inspired by something wholy creative – a simple idea for my next piece of work as an artist.

The desire to take my amigos into space with the third Momo:tempo LP was obvious and single-minded – a no-brainer. Celebrate my life-long love of science fiction in a few theatrical little tunes? Obviously. It was only when I began to consider how I’d structure the writing of this that I laid a trap for myself; a self-imposed snare lurking like a trojan algorithm in a hidden shunt in my brain. One that, when triggered, would quietly turn all my instinctive mucking about into my mission.

The Shape of Things To Hum might have begun life as a bit of musical fun for me and amigos who all love the many worlds of imaginative storytelling that scifi has inspired over a hundred years, but the more I looked at the many themes of the genre, the more I felt them begin to juxtapose into a vibration. A question, shimmering into focus like Blake, Jenna and Avon rematerialising in the teleport: Of all the apparent predictions of science fiction, which future is the most likely?

Scifi is not actually in the business of prediction. It is always the alegory of What If. But all those visions of the future, most of them resolutely dystopian, do blur into your imagination with enough ingestion of them and become cultural expectations. Which focussed a sudden thought as I began sketching out music: What if science fiction has effectively been teaching humanity the future? And, if so, as it’s exploded from geek specs to multiplex in its fanbase, could this mean that we might even learn from it and… one day be okay? Might we even survive the now of fearsome realities? Because of scifi.

While you are obviously rolling your eyes at this latest convoluted leap, I got on immediately with making the idea the core thesis of the project – and the jumping off point for trying to devise a whole performance experience around this idea: How has science fiction been teaching us the future? And what have we had to learn?

At some point there is no escaping the implications of this. Namely, looking squarely at the Now scifi or any creative thinking is trying to save us from. What is wrong, and why? And what are the trends of how we’re really living?

I’d already written my starting point thesis and turned it into a comfortingly physical old-fashioned bit of print to wang on people’s desks and begin the task of asking clever people if I was an idiot for devising such a creative ambition when I then heard about the Global Goals. And suddenly, I had a structure to interrogate Now with. But, should I take the leap down the rabit hole? By now, I wasn’t even asking such questions, I was too inspired.

[ SHOUTY INTERUPTY WEB-AD-MODEL POP-UP ALERT: Amigos on the mailing list can hear the whole proposition to The Shape of Things To Hum with the audiobook of its founding little thesis – you can download it and hear all about it if you fancy signing up to the regular Memos. ]

It has been a fearsome exploration, for sure. But my point here is that it was artistic impulse that inspired me to dare to look at things I’d been blind to. Which made me wonder whether the only thing that might really save us is, indeed, art. Because what else can tempt us, frighten us, entertain us, trick us, coax us… encourage us to look anew at the world around us we thought we knew? Us, fundamentally imaginative creatures of inner life driving our outer mark making on the world.

This is all beginning to sound a bit abstract but bear with me. This won’t be a comprehensive thesis on the psychology or history of art; I may spend the rest of my life pondering such things. Were I to cave in and go back to university for a history of art degree, so cementing my retirement years penury, I’m sure I would still be refining how I put all this. But this is my starting point for us to ponder, as we consider how to encourage anything more hopeful about the future.

The basic idea I have thrown up to test is this: Art is all about new ways of seeing. And there is nothing we need more than new ways of seeing. Everything. Ourselves in the planet.

It is time to write new stories of us. And perhaps it is Science Fiction that has been doing the most to help us think about human life in the grandest contexts, the most fundamental modes, and crucially human consequences. Looking forward.

 

War and Peace may be a touch of genius in writing, as well as steroids-demanding endurance, because Tolstoy painted such a vast canvas of history and allowed the details of an unlikely character to very slowly catch the light of your attention. If you weep at the end, it is likely mostly to be with relief of having made it, but also I still hope at the true heroism of Pierre, in his morally flawed, unsociety manner humanity. But War and Peace only captures a moment. Makes you look at something that’s happened a different way. Science Fiction shows you reality anew by reinventing reality.

We’re story creatures. You’ve heard it before. Probably a lot, lately. But what authors today don’t picture the film of their novel and the A-listers playing their characters as they write it? Surely some still, I hope.

 

STORYTELLING.

“Art is born out of as well as encapsulates the continuing battle between order and chaos. It seeks order or form, even when portraying anarchy. It’s a tension visible in Greek statuary and the colourfield paintings of Rothko and Newman, stopping off at every conceivable artistic movement in between. It’s a tension that arises from our natural urge to reconcile opposites.”

So says John Yorke in his recent book Into the woods.

Everyone seems to be talking about storytelling these days. I’m even doing it. I like the idea of “telling little musical stories” and of “helping others tell their stories” but isn’t this all quickly sort of hipster babytalk? Well, probably. But it’s also helping us realise something in the cluttered modern world about how our primal human brains work. Because we positively live inside stories, as a way of staying alive.

A screenwriter who’s worked on all manner of things off of the telly that you’ll have heard of, Yorke says that stories are basically the way that humans constantly manage to sort order from chaos.

I’d say it feels to loads of us around the world that there is a great deal of chaos unfolding globally today. And that feeling seems like more than just information overload, now that the number of devices tying us to news and stories from around the world has exploded like a food blizzard in Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Everything we hear much more about that’s apparently actually happening seems uncertain, right down to the fundamentals of life on Earth, when we dare think about it. Makes our grandparents’ fears about nuclear armageddon sound rather quaint now. Ironic that we’re mostly not bothering to worry about that particular existential threat at the moment, when the precarious combined potential for a nuclear explosion around the world has never been greater. Yuh.

Well, parking that carefully over there for a moment, I mean, no one seems in charge properly any more and everything is noisy. So how will we, Generation Now, find a new sense of order? People have tried to build whole new orderings of the world before – it is the multiple storyarc of the twentieth century more than any other, and it mostly ended in misery, one way or another. Which is partly why the apparently unscripted bright idea of making fun new things and selling them and playing with cars and refrigerators and advertising campaigns seemed like such a relief to so many westerners at least, after the last world war. Such a bright idea that while pop music flowered as a whole new artform out of the new consumer times and teenagers were invented to buy it, in countries like Poland, behind the iron curtain, they made knock-off copycat pop of their own to try and furtively echo such good vibrations across their resolutely austere, anti-capitalist culture for at least a glimmer of reflected joy. To those on the more hopeful side of the wall, it all seemed so much more fun than all the brave new worlds that had been murdering everyone and eviscerating all the farmland, and it all seemed so born of such confidences, which seemed to create a sense of such possibilities. Kind of for everyone. A flowering of culture across laboratories, libraries and television screens. Awkwardly in that shadow of the sudden new possibility of nuclear anhiliation, sure, but every protagonist needs his and her grit, right?

Stories, of course, can give us glimpses into our own workings. It’s why we tell’em. And it’s not simply because books hold cold knowledge, though they very essentially do.

“Books are the way that the dead communicate with us. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us. The way that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be re-learned over and over.” says Neil Gaiman, possibly quoting Douglas Adams. Which is all brilliant. But there’s more to it, he says. Somehow, it’s not the non-fiction section in which many more of us find something coming alive in us.

“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth”

Because what else speaks quite so effectively to us but the parable? Like an in-joke, when we laugh the hardest because we get it, the parable can wake us up in the night with a sudden sense of realisation, because we’ve had to put it together in our minds. A shouty preach, by comparison, can just put us to sleep. Or even ruin our rest with more paralysing fear.

But it’s more even than parable. I think we actually think a bit like we’re characters in a story, day to day. It’s hardly surprising – absolutely everything of the world around is just a neurological construct in our own grey matter, after all. We make character choices about who we think we should be, according to the story we think we’re in. So understanding how story structure works a bit, from a writer’s point of view, might help us unravel our own musings in a new way.

One aspect, as John Yorke explains, is that characters on the page and us characters shuffling to the post office have facades. They are ways of dealing with the tensions between our expectations and perceived reality – be it internal, between parent and id, as Freud would put it, or higher aims and baser desires in other words, or external, between cultural demands or promises and personal experiences. In the journey of their stories, characters will have to face their fears to resolve their tensions – perhaps embrace their weaknesses to find their strength. If they are to really get anywhere, and so make an interesting story, the projection, the facade, will have to drop.

I’m not so sure a facade is merely cladding. And frankly even if it holds no structural integrity to the building, a facade will likely look much better than a gaping hole; the character I play through my personality is part of the truth of me, I feel fairly certain. It’s a bit less of an act than it probably looks. But a mask is a mask – a decision to hide the real face. And that is unresolved truth. And boy, but unresolved truth just seems to eat away at us. How long did it take you to come out, for example?

Some ruddy annoying thing in the human brain wants to resolve conflict. So the challenge remains for all of us: How do we manage the tensions in our lives to find practical balances and so progress towards our goal over the precaious tightrope? Because you bet, like characters, we all have goals – and they always seem to be placed on the other side of precarious tightrope walks. Like we’re in some humdrum version of The Hunger Games after all.

Yet, without the pain, how would we gain? What, as knowledge-seeking but empathic creatures, would we ever know if we could never feel the value of anything?

So what do our facades or masks say about our fears in the Now of fearsome realities? Feeling all this uncertainty. Looking at all those impossible balances, and far off goals? What truths do you think we have been hiding about the ways we see the future? Because I rather think we’re seeing some of them start to come out, all over message boards and into ballot boxes. And are many of those truths really the unresolved tensions of unfaced fears?

Are we only just starting to face them? And will we have to much more to do any future building business? The drama is usually higher when the stakes are.

I wonder if a good question to ask in the middle of this is: What characters are we playing in the current modern story of us that are going to have to journey towards a resolution of truth in order to embrace the futures we most hope for, when we dare hope at all? How might any new story of us change us?

 

SHADOWING.

Jungian theory is being referenced a lot again these days, thanks especially to various man groups helping gents find new languages for their inner lives. But whilst ol’ Karl’s shadow is a nice bit of poetic imagery, for example, his work follows initially in the footsteps of his teacher Freud and is in train with many psychological storytellers over the last century, who’ve between them helped us all live with the gnawing periferal sense at least that humans do tend to carry around a conscious duality within them.

Our higher, better, boil-wash-white-robed hopes of us, and our skidmark gusset admissions of us. Still, dress for the part you want, I always say.

Tom & Jerry could put an angel Jerry next to a devil Jerry and kids in the 30s would laugh at the essential truth of such inner conflict – we get it. More entertainingly than when the apostle Paul says it in the newer end of the Bible. But John Yorke suggests it’s this fundamental psychological firmware in the human brain, of so often not doing the things we feel we ought or want to do, that makes story structure resonnate with us so instinctively.

All the big hitting psychoanalysts, he says: “suggest that humans live in a neurotic state in which primal desires are at war with socially acceptible behaviour” and further that they: “tacitly accept that these neuroses need to be integrated and overcome in order for ‘happiness’ to be achieved.”

I have simply lost count of how many times I have sagely quoted James T himself on this: “I need my pain.” I kinda do, mate. And while centuries of religious teaching inspired many to attempt to overcome their baser, more animal brain wiring for their image of God hopes, it was more modern thinkers that dared to suggest we should probably hold our dark side close on the transporter pad as Spock attempts to reintegrate our two halves for a healthier emotional strength. (A James T quote, incidentally, that I have lost count of sagely quoting that is from what I suddenly now realise, with an icy shock of horror, is not the classic episode The enemy within but the single worst Star Trek movie in history, The Final Frontier. But if that isn’t embracing your pain, I don’t know what is.)

Yorke’s point is that all storytelling is really about paradox – truths in conflict. And that, we all instinctively feel.

“All archetypal stories are journeys towards completion – voyages from darkness to light – and involve the reconcilliation of opposites… a flawed, conflicted hero goes on a journey to become whole, integrating the lessons he has learned from others on the way. Successful happy endings, both in fiction and psychology, involve the individual resolving conflicts and learning to integrate and balance opposing forces.

“Just as all stories seek to resolve order from chaos, humans seek to still the raging conflict within.”

And he quotes F Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

That series of impossible balances.

F Scott F’s greatest character was surely attempting to blaze his own mighty trail of redemption, but in the end it is Jay Gatsby’s youthful inability to face and deal with his shadows that catches up with him. And, reading the book finally this summer, it’s obvious almost a century later that The Great Gatsby was himself the embodiment of his age – its chronic inability to deal with grown-up emotional truth, ploughing on chasing illusions of power and glory, trying to make images of angels love us. A time in history that surely stands as the golden age of Americanism and all that it peaked our economic hopes to be. That world falling apart around us today, one might suggest calmly.

“Blest are those,” says Hamlet of Horatio, “who’s blood and judgement are so commingled that they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.”

Shakespeare kinda totally got this too, see.

Which brings me to Marvel. Obviously.

A movie franchise that must surely be an economic cocaine habit for the big studios that I doubt they will ever know how to quit, short of an actual nuclear war to give everyone a bit of a break from all the endless punch-ups and explosions and render-bending CG, the Marvel universe has none the less thrived right in the massive mainstream because it is both rich in lore and intelligently written. It’s kind of impossible not to at least half like, and sqillions of us seem to just love it, built as it is on such a creative heritage of unencumbered comicbook storytelling; a medium that grew up weirdly and beautifully into something as pleasingly cerebral as graphic.

And if there is someone amid the family of loveable, supposedly flawed, heroes who has really been on a journey, it’s actually the guy we should most resent – billionnaire philanthropist genius playboy, Tony Stark.

As Alex McLevey says in the AV Club, it’s Stark everyone loves, despite being the Hollywood archetype to end them all. And while it’s Robert Downey Jr’s effortless-looking witty charisma pulling off and undoubtedly influencing those lines, Stark is a character who’s travelled the furthest. Which means we really want to cheer on the rich guy who has it all.

“The notion of a powerful man laid low by hubris, forced to humble himself and re-learn how to be moral and good, is a common origin story, but it held particular resonance for Tony Stark, a man who could already claim to have done amazing things for the world. The other heroes aren’t forced into quite such dramatic changes during their respective first films. Thor’s debut involved him learning humility in order to appreciate the powers he previously had, so as to regain them. Captain America was almost the inverse, an already noble spirit being imbued with the strength and ability to act as the hero he was. Bruce Banner’s Hulk was a man rejecting the curse of an uncontrollable power placed upon him; it didn’t change his character so much as require him to learn to live with the change. (The closest point of comparison subsequently would be Doctor Strange: a brilliant and vainglorious guy at the top of his field forced by circumstance to start anew, though a car accident doesn’t have quite the same metaphorical power as being taken hostage by terrorists using the very weapons you produced.)”

Humanity cuts through in our empathy. Which is as much about our wish to ultimately be vindicated with a massively clever series of inventions we made ourselves before the next cocktail party as it is about seeing ourselves in the challenges. The losses.

But. Much as I enjoy the endless little moments of nicely scripted banter between greatly cast characters all over the Marvel universe, and much as the individual films have some gorgeous moments of humanity intelligently all over this pleasingly pre-planned story of intersecting stories, catching up recently with the latest, biggest installment of the hero franchise of this heroes franchise Avengers: Infinity War, I did think out loud at last… what really do the Avengers have to say to us?

Should such films have anything to say to us? It’s a deftly written film in a sense, because every scene gives good time to a ridiculous ensemble of characters from different sub-franchises of the universe and it’s full of those good moments, of course. But at the end… who cares?

I mean, y’know. Really, who cares that [ SPOILERS! ] half the world disappears in a dusty puff of Thanos logic? And half the cast? I just kinda didn’t. I should have done, surely? Otherwise, where is the drama after all those on-screen struggles?

All stories speak to us. Because it’s the very implication of telling a story at all – we sit down with them precisely because we expect them to connect with us. But I think you could say, if you feel similarly meh about our beloved Avengers, our constant need for superheroes in our centrally shared stories at the moment has robbed us of the very agency such tales are meant to inspire in us. With every threat, came a bigger feat of miraculous response. From, like, every character. The bigger the squashing machine appearing suddenly, the bigger the magic squashing-machine-moving ray someone produced out of their ass to deal with it. Everyone looks sweaty and concerned during all this, but it just feels like there is no true threat to any of these flawed but still godlike heroes we hope to be ourselves, in the end. They all laudibly feel the presence of their shadows, their conflicts, so no Marvel characters are cartoons any more. But in their great quests and noble defenses, the dead come back to life easily, it seems. Leaving a whole collection of bearded hunky white lead men suddenly in the same film to work out how to subtly differentiate themselves from each other and the world’s most boring archetype. They all manage a few good wise cracks in the face of the end of the universe, of course, which is what we’d all aspire to do, I’m sure.

It’s a quality big budget film production that’s a lot more emotionally boring as a story than I think it should be. Right at the noisy centre of our culture. Like a sign we have nothing left to say. For many Marvel and comic fans, the point of these stories is not the threats their characters face but the journeys of these titans, yet their leap from page to screen where more people will enjoy them does seem to rob such legendary characters of some of their more three-dimensional life, sometimes.

Another massive box-office production, Spielberg’s film version of Ready Player One, suffered from this sort of soup of CG and architype too, yet somehow made me a bit actually angry about it, because it felt like a sort of awful millennial manifesto by the end: “All we want is to wallow in nostalgia, hiding in our games. Don’t take our games away, man – the end of the world we gave up on.”

Put joylessly like that it all sounds like the fall of the Roman empire to me… decadently overdone. Everything.

Which… um. ..Oh.

So where does that leave us in such story craving times? Are we all feeling indegestion from all that cartoonish fable? Even such post-modern wisecracking takes on it? It’s a skillful rehash of an old world view of everything, isn’t it? And it ultimately has no answers. Because it never set out to give them to us. It’s superhero stuff, man. It’s cape as comfort blanket. Except it’s not simply that, is it.

 

SENSITISING.

Diving into stories, binging on stories, losing ourselves in stories is not just how we cuddle away from the world around us, it’s how we make sense of the world around us. Resonnating with the truth of the world within us.

 

But today more than ever, there are blizzards of stories around us vying for our empathetic attention.

And when we give something attention, it works both ways. As a story we hear, read, watch, chimes within us, it’s echo back to us shapes our inner story. Like the retelling of memories – they change with the telling. And we can begin to re-enforce our character to fit the story we rather like. Or feel is inevitable.

I won’t attempt too much more analyses in Cod Philosophy Corner here, but I do think there’s something intriguing in the idea that the story we assume we are in, or adopt to be in, shapes the character we behave as – even though most of us wouldn’t explain it like that. It’s not as simple as turning into Luke Skywalker and being heroic. It’s rather more insidious than that. Partly because who can be bothered with all that Jedi training and actual putting of one’s self down the Death Star trench to risk actual death by lucky blaster cannon strike when we can get on with the real business of feeling justified, privately identifying as the hidden hero of some much grander fable than the farty nothing life of tending Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru’s crummy desert farm after all.

The insidious bit is that such private justification can have the opposite effect to running away to join the Rebel Alliance, but rather have you settle down as a nobody to await fate’s justifying call. To just hang around in your status quo hoping for the magic McGuffin that finally gets you off your arse at the computer to go and meet old Ben in the real world.

Black kids are much less likely to escape poverty and will end up in gangs. Women are much less likely to reach the board room. Gay boys are disappointments. Trans girls are unnatural. Geeks don’t play sport. Real men don’t cry. Public toilets must only be gendered. The president will change things for the better. Immigrants will overwhelm us. To be Russian is to drink vodka. To be English is to drink tea. The EU is a tyranny. The EU is a hopeful ideal. Endless unregulated free market growth is the only economic system that works. The future is on fire. You can do nothing to change it. To be creative is for arty farties.

The story you think you are in can trap you.

As The Do Lectures put it in a simple tweet: “I couldn’t never write a book. I could never do a talk in front of lots of people. I could never run a business. I could never surf big waves. The story you tell yourself in the end will become the one that either limits you or sets you free.”

It’s a bit inspirational memey, but hell you apparently need them all the time. And this one’s making a ruddy pertinent point. You decide what story you are in.

But art is very likely to have helped you find and tell the story. Shown you a world you want to be part of, given you the lexicon of the characters, or shown you your daily world from such a clear new perspective you suddenly feel you know how to tell it. How to live it.

Art, of course, helped overturn all manner of establishment ways of seeing the world, giving graphic illustration and voice to the growing socialist issues among new industrialised workers, for example. Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous painting, The Fourth Estate is a striking moment in artistic time that shows this, combining a very 20th century technique in the actual painting with a very 20th century subject matter – ordinary working people. Joe may have taken great care to construct the colour on the canvas with a chromoluminarist technique, building colour a bit more like print with separated dots of pigment juxtaposing in the viewer’s eye to compose the vibrancy of the pallette in-brain, all very delightfully sciency seeming in its colour theory, and the end result may be a striking bit of semi-realism striding out of the vaguely impressionist heritage lingering about it, but all you are thinking about when standing in front of it at the Museo del Novecento in Milan is: wow, these are ordinary people who won’t lie down for their bosses any more. They are ordinary people using the right of a strike to walk together out of the shadows into the bright light of midday. A significant illustration of change in the old order of things. So significant, apparently, that after years of making the thing, Joe couldn’t sell it; the rich bosses of culture thought it rather too striking.

Art here was definitely no longer just about the higher things. The Godly or aspirational things. In some ways it pushed both extremes out further, creating entirely new aspirational gods while also shining that light right down to the floor. It had journeyed right down from the heavens to the Earth. The mud. It had moved from the beatific decorative God-Christ in Byzantine churches through seemly portraits of some rich patrons of the renaissance to sinew-twisted sculptures of very earthly tactile humanity into graphic depictions of social change. Humans were using their creative storytelling instincts to try to make new order out of whole new levels of chaos and art became about ordinary people, showing them the power of themselves in whole new worlds. Sensitising more people to the potential of humanity.

Or so art appeared to claim.

Because, really, even art loves everyone to know their place.

 

HIERARCHING.

The thing is, arguably as a natural fallout of our economically driven culture of hierarchy, boosted into orbit by such a bonkersly conceptual time in creativity as the 20th century – of sweeping ideas and grand new principles – art has been hierarchical for centuries. Managing to convince critics that anything made by proles pronging hay bales or riveting liners wasn’t really art. Or just perhaps, it could be a kind of art curiosity if the word ‘folk’ was put in front of whatever it was. Because, like a good fractal story structure, art’s hierarchy doesn’t just exist in the snobby strata of society, it has its own within itself. With priests and intercessors guiding us into the truth and quietly only letting in the qualified. People like Jazz teachers.

Current head of Momo’s horn department, multi-functioning world class talent and wonderful mate, Patrick Hayes, felt, I think, in his years at music college the need for a quiet determination about something. To fight for the need for good grooves. And good tunes.

We’re different generations but bond lovingly around Chaka Khan records as much as anything, and his natural sense of groove is only fed by his richly practiced technical understanding as a professional musician and arranger. Your fingers have got to be able to keep up with the charts, but if the charts don’t serve something infectious and inclusive and fun, what really is the point? A point still feeling a little awkward in the hallowed halls of music college, apparently. It’s always follow-through composing that feels more intellectually justifiable there, I suspect – qualifyingly clever. Because it is a music making structure that’s very Not Pop. Not folksy. Not easy to tune into. Because perhaps jazz isn’t meant to be enjoyed with your body any more – not for half a century – it’s meant to be intellectually understood – or you clearly aren’t fit for the club.

Yet, for all the people my age and older still seemingly infecting this joyless snobbery into their teaching of the ineffible wonders of music, there is a generation of graduates who just don’t need to see the world this way. As every session musician I ever met has always put it: “It’s all music, man.” It might be vital to be able to step up with your practiced chops, and to understand how music’s magic is at work in any piece. But I also privately take pride in the idea that so many great young band members have stepped into nights playing Momo:tempo’s homemade, unqualified music because it’s just so confidently fun. Which may be the one bit of qualification I dare claim, as these chaps always humble me with their generous skills.

Is good art only made by the ‘qualified’? Is that why you don’t make it? Well, I do think ‘good’ art appears so to wider audiences when it is just somehow patently confident and rich. Learned, in its own way. So there’s no escaping the need to educate and evolve in your artistic journey – and frankly, art college, music college, drama college can all be vital ways to frame your journey and speed up the vital process of bumping ideas off other humans. But no one goes to college to really get a bit of paper. And sometimes the qualifcation of your work can be that you are an outsider. A maverick. What you practice and get really good at is what will speak clearest for you, but sometimes the things you haven’t smoothed out with 10,000 hours of finger work and book reading give your voice the singular character around its confidence. Rather like, er, any human in any social situation – it’s who you singularly are that grabs others’ imaginations, not what you emptily remember. It’s what you do with what you’ve learned, and how it comes out of you.

As warm and fuzzy as this might make me feel, as broadly human as I’m blatantly preaching art to be here, the truth is. Art, man. Truly arty art… It’s not really for everyone, right? Don’t kid yourself it’s not elitism, Peach. And that you’re not fawning to get in, mate.

Well, I mean Art with a capital A really is very much a culture of its own, surely; its hierarchy is still a tower shrouded in mystery to most of us. A closed system, as remote and silly seeming as fashion – only without the high-street trickled-downs of influence. As Grayson Perry says, especially in past decades the art world didn’t really need the public – between curator, promoter, artist and buyer there was a sort of comfortable closed loop of business. Why let the proles in to bleat about how they could have drawn better and they failed their art O’level?

Is this sense of exclusivity, though, nothing to do with art? This expectation of the art world’s own culture? Isn’t this really just about humans loving to be in the top levels of things, the inside clubs, the exclusive memberships? Fine art is just another one. If so, given our times, I wonder if it isn’t therefore subject to the same slo-mo collapse of hierarchy as all the arts well ahead of it in this respect – music, film making, TV production, writing. Anyone can have a go. It’s just that, as we saw in Unsee‘s Education episodes, we are systematically across the world taught to whither and ignore our creative thinking, with twitch trigger words blocking our curiosity perhaps – the negative space of a transversal verbal inertia, if you will. So rollneck-smoothed gallery haunters holding chins at the the impenitrable pompous waffle of International Art English pomposterising the meaning of works in white cubes the world over hardly helps you feel at home in one, I guess.

Weird then that Tate Modern has been the British capital’s most visited attraction, of the century. Seems there is more of a hunger for understanding creativity, or at least in trying to get in some culture, than sniffy art mags and scoffing newspapers and stiffly academic school curriculums alike might have worn you down to believe.

And do millions of otherwise apparently normal, unpretentious people suffer a recurring disconscious kineto-parapraxis because in our uniquitous toxic pseudo-binary narratives, art still manages to look like fun?

 

PLAYING.

Why did we allow in the sly implication that art is just cerebral, academic? Because it obviously isn’t if it’s dance. Not if it’s acting. Not if it’s singing. That’s all lungs and muscles stuff, pumping blood round the brain. Is performance really art, though? Well, is it an instinctive exploration of the meaning of your life? And is it creating something? Yes, and yes? Then that too is something of art, no?

Hierarchy is so engrained in us in modern times we’ve made it part of our bodies. We managed to disconnect ourselves into component parts that have different levels of importance. Like it’s not one complete system.

One of the single most significant things trying to happen around us in modernist culture is the reconnection of our heads to our bodies. Marcus John Henry Brown, writer and creative director makes the point of one his film The Secret a profound one… go for a walk. Over and over he says: “Go for a walk.”

“Get out of the office, it’s a trap. Get out of the conference room because that’s where ideas go to die… discover the serendipity of where you are.”

“Your feet are steroids for your brain.”

As another showbiz creative chum, Dave Birss, said on Front Row recently, exercise is the single best thing you can do to help your brain find new creativity. It’s a sciency boost to your divergent thinking.

This is partly just practical neuroscience. It seems it can be when we daydream that our mind slips out of gear cleverly enough to run some useful processing in the background, as a good few studies on boredom have found. You shouldn’t be tying up your processor with front-end tasks all day – you’ll essentially end up wearing down your wellbeing and getting very little done. Especially anything you really care about. As I’ve learned over years mucking about for a living while sometimes being hired to help solve creative problems with people, there certainly is always something constructive or productive you can do with a working day, but it isn’t always the thing you feel the most pressure about. The magic core idea to hang an expensive campaign off, for example, will need time to sublimate through your noggin, in between the conscious layout pad workouts and teasings-out. Sleeps. And daydreams. I’m learning to trust this idea and go with the flow of my brain, not force it, but in fact try to plan around it.

What this really means is that all this is actively boosted – mental rest, cognitive improvement, problem solving, even active emotional wellness, all of it together – by play.

Unselfconscious, physical, play.

I can’t help thinking that all grown-ups should be made to play wide games in break, every morning. If we could combine such running around, hiding and seeking, with some great cosplay storytelling we might never go back to the office and might never have been simply happier. How can we economise this?

Is it any wonder gaming and cosplay and film making and fantasy writing and all manner of creative private life stuff are a huge part of our lives outside the boring office with the beige photocopier? Nice as Tina is.

I think our inbuilt story engine running our minds actually carries within it a singular implication in line with this. And it’s bigger than recreation. Something which Neil Gaiman asserts like this:

“We all have an obligation to daydream.  We have an obligation to imagine.”

You. And me. An obligation.

Because all this kind of wonderful mucking about helps develop a rounded sense of confidence in who you are as a person. Body confidence encourages a whole confidence. And sometimes it is an instinct to jump into the physical arts that leads you on a path to develop such a healthy, if demanding, relationship with your body. And if art’s job in human life is as much about simply illustrating wider human truths as anything else, then the process of finding that essential confidence in creative mark making, as an artist, can show all of us something vital to our lives as humans.

Because I can’t help picturing this inevitably helping you connect better with those around you. To get a bit more sexily conscious, man. Because you’re more connected with yourself, baby.

I’m always talking about confidence in art. Confident mark making. Not just hesitantly sketching a vague pig shape, but making bold marks with your charc’ that feel like a physical pig presence, as one much-retold lesson from an illustration tutor one lacklustre life drawing class put it.

And if you are to really get in there and feel it, commit, shape the pig, there is one bit of boot camp like no other that helps turn an art student into an artist. Or an isolated player into a confident encourager. And you’re not going to like it. Because it seems to go againt every instinct in your nice private journey with your creativity.

The tyranny of The Crit.

It could save the world.

 

CRITICISING.

Going to art college teaches you how to fail, says Grayson Perry. Which reminds me what Caroline has always said: “It’s the crit. Having to go through the trauma of the crit – putting your work on the wall in front of the whole class – is a vital learning experience that art students get to go through that few others do in their training.”

Art is a test bed. And it refines the person, not just the idea. The crit prepares you emotionally to cope with failure and move beyond it. “I half wish I’d had to go through that” she’s said.

Think simply of the process of making art. It’s hands-on, physical, kinetic, practical, hand-eye, improvisory, innovative – it’s the synthesis of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s whole human stuff, not simply essoterric tosspottery, and most artists I know are oddly down to earth as a result. They get things done. Made. Crafted. Practiced. They just probably don’t regularly get it sold. They’re too engaged in the inspiration of making their art, and too uninterested in the process of selling.

All this, when you see it in action, is testimony to the real mystery of a true artist: Her or his confidence. Confidence in mark making. Even if they’re plumbing their insecurities. Some of it might be gift, but mostly that magic shee will be forged. In the crucible of trying and failing, holding up work and getting it knocked down… without staying down.

But. If the enemy of creativity is self consciousness, how does any young creative survive the art college crit?

If we think it healthy to foster unselfconscious play in children so strongly it becomes reflex in adulthood, how would it pass through the essential creative maturing process of any kind of art collegesque crits? In children’s training for life growing up, learning how to drive themselves, how might the freedom to play and to suggest ideas stay somehow intact, if we’re to help them grow beyond critical immaturity? Y’know, so they don’t keep telling you everything they fart is a gift to the world. It’s a grim creative journey the human has to travel between Teletubby land and Morrisseyville. But somehow, we must survive it.

Can, in fact, these two apparently opposite experiences wrap around each other on our artistic journey?

I guess it’s about confidence developing with consciousness. The curse of the adult world is forced awareness. Becoming adult is about embracing it and turning that painful forced awareness to your advantage. Education can help you understand better what’s happening to you and around you and so foster… curiosity.

What a powerful word. One singularly under threat in populist times. Which is rather the point. Fears of the unknown, ironically making us stronger and less fearful when we choose to bravely explore the unknown. Like Captian Kirk. Ironic how many populist spokespeople love that guy.

Curiosity founded in the true confidence of real consciousness would potentially make for not just a bold artist but a true human leader. An exemplar of human emotional exploration at least. Surely a type of person humanity seems desperately short of; people equipped to lead others through the minefield of doubt and fear and loss towards self possession. Surely the artist is the person for this?

Wow.

Interesting that the part of human endeavour charged with the logistics of running the world – government – is, virtually by definition, the opposite of what good art college training encourages the artist to be: Agile.

And, y’know. Artists. They don’t tend to want to lead. Perhaps their empathy renders many of them too thin skinned for political combat, perhaps they’ve just thought too much about things. And their work puts them in the field of storytelling – trying to help the rest of us make sense of things by thinking more about things. Seeing things differently. In and of itself, this doesn’t get a spreadsheet of engineering works filled out. Or a political campaign organised.

“Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?” says Lauren Oyler in the NYT, implying that you could always stop mucking about and get straight to the point, if you want to really make a difference to this world, right? But that’s rather the point of artists’ work – it’s belief in action that rulebooks don’t inspire much.

Art doesn’t want to tell, it wants to show. Because it’s much better practice of the art of connection. It doesn’t want to preach, it wants to testify.

 

So, okay. Let’s strip this all back. Let’s ask a really dumb question. What is an artist?

 

INSPIRING.

“Art is why we exist, as self aware avatars of the universe, we are here to witness, enjoy, experience and learn.. Art helps with the exploration and the keeps the madness at bay… everything else is just the politics of living.” So says my mate Chris. Rather summing it up beautifully in a sudden tweet to me. Before he then added, in an immediate follow up: “Oh and it can be a load of bo!locks as well sometimes…”

If I’m going to hold court on the subject like I’m anybody and shoot my damnfool mouth off about it, well why don’t I come clean: How do I define an artist? Stop dancing around it, if you even can, Peach.

Actually, I’ve long been reasonably comfortable with how I understand the definition of the artist. I’m used to thinking that an artist is someone who instinctively processes life – makes sense of being alive – by creating stuff. Art is a by-product of someone trying to process how they feel. Because sentient, empathetic creatures apparently have to. So, if your instinct is to write, or draw, or compose little tunes, you’re being an artist. Doesn’t make you automatically a ‘good’ artist, but you are getting on with being one. Pat yourself on the back. That’s you.

Now, whether your work will indeed go on to be considered any ‘good’ or not will partly come down to how much you bother to practice doing it, but rather alongside how strong the talent is that you were dumbly born with in the first place. As with most things in the swirling eddies of life’s eternal madness, you don’t get a say over much at all, really, just a bit of influence over how you react to it all – but it’s a bit that can make all the difference to you and the poor saps who find themselves in your life when you announce your new dedication to conceptual theatre.

It might be helpful to consider that while art is honest personal self-expression, craft is learning how to do it well. Success? Well, that is deciding where you are aiming for on this scale.

Creativity, though. Isn’t that the crucial word? Can you be creative and not artistic? Well, that’s a fine slide rule of a differentiation, maybe. I’d certainly say you can be creative and not an artist because, well, you won’t feel the need to define yourself as one, for one thing. For another, uh, all humans are creative. Problem-solving is creative. Getting dressed in the morning is creative. Any damn-fool thing you decide to do out of thin air is creative. You are creative. You may simply not be used to thinking of yourself that way, and so don’t consciously practice creative thinking. Which… is culturally criminal, isn’t it? You’ve been robbed of the mindset that makes you the most conscious part of all creation. You doofus.

But I’ve come firmly to the belief that the role of art in our lives, and the reason we do it evolutionarily so much, is to help us find new perspectives on ourselves. New ways of seeing. We might be recalcitrant conservative buggers who will usually do what’s easy, not what’s culturally considered worthy, and we may like to nest in and comfort ourselves, and God knows one of the most chilling and pressing problems of our species is our terrifying gift to ignore horror… but we also have the weirdly recurring itch to know more. And between us it can keep overturning the comfortable status quo annoyingly.

If this thing we sometimes call ‘art’ is a bit fundamental to us lot as animals after all, then, is it time we retooled our understanding of it, so that more of us reacted to the whole idea of it rather less fearfully? Less mysteriously? There might be a fair number of people calling themselves artists whose smile might flicker a moment at this potential de-deifying of their role, but I think it might be long overdue.

The slurry of content washing us all overboard with the plastic waste and churning us helplessly around the world may seem like a loss of quality in art, thanks to the ubiquity of the tools to make it these days – everyone is a DJ, music producer, curator, blogger, vlogger, podcaster, photographer, filmmaker, actor, writer, presenter these days, right? And the results are mostly awful, right? Where are the true greats, you wail, from far out at contentual sea.

But this collapse of hierarchy and democratisation of the making of creative work does sound fairer, no? And it means there is nowhere to hide now – it is the power of your ideas that must speak, and of your determination, resourcefulness, open-handedness. Not power of your priviledge. ..Which sounds jolly right on but remember it’s mostly all down to dumb luck again, anyway – the point is… even you can have a go. And who knows? You might find you have something inspiring to say.

Which has lead me to ask a question: Is it high time we we subtly change our use of the word ‘artist’?

Would it be better to say: “I have an artistic impulse towards this, to do this”? God knows this sound like splitting idiomatic hairs, but as any copy writer will tell you, the power of fine-tuning words is giant in the human imagination. Just don’t also ask them about splitting infinitives, they may go off on one about something that’s JUST A LINGUISTIC CONVENTION FROM ANOTHER TIME.

Language is as mysteriously powerful over the human mind as music; we’re just used to thinking of language as a supremely logical, engineered, bolted together thing. Especially if we speak German. It’s just a code of sounds, matched to a code of marks, that helps us build iPhones so we can take selfies and make porn. But language quietly shapes our world view. So fine-tuning our words can make enormous difference. It helps if your body language isn’t especially dickish of course, as that’s mostly how you’re communicating. But the right words can change a whole outlook, by helping someone make a new connection.

I think getting used to saying: “I have an artistic impulse towards writing”, or whatever medium, would change the vibration of it in the ear of someone listening who’s not used to thinking of themselves as creative. Because it sort of levels the human talents playing field, I think.

I personally may have an artistic impulse to make up funny little tunes, to explore life through musical storytelling – it just oddly inspires me to get out of bed often. And practicing this may be emotionally cathartic, helping me work through my emotions sometimes, as well as generating excitement and motivationally stoking inspiration. The musical work I produce may even these days be okay in the general music production craft, after mucking about with it for thirty years. So in three ways you can say fairly that I do produce ‘art’ of a kind, whether many people are in the wood when the tree falls or not. It’s still an original noise.

For me, if I think of my ‘art’, music, I would do well in honest internal emotional management to depressure my expectations upon the word by remembering that my art is honest but small. The guilt of not being a ‘proper’ musician in the craft sense of specialism will linger in me forever. It’s kind of a musician’s hang-up – which is how I know I am one, ironically. It’s akin to not being a ‘proper’ anatomically competent drawer as a visual artist – there’s a craft duty, it feels, to be able to speak the core language fluently in order to be ‘qualified’ to go on and subvert all those rules. All the founding grand masters were like this, right? And there’s no hiding from how much this garners respect. But artistic reputation will still come down, in the end, to the quality of your thinking, not your fingering. Not unless your fingering is freakishly accomplished, and then you will have to be comfortable with being the highbrow equivalent of a circus performer. It all depends where you find success between being able to pay your bills and do something of your thing.

But if I, if you, think of our craft in the round of our whole human life, then there is more of an interesting story, I suspect. Because you don’t have to be a grand master to be an interesting human. How does my practiced work combine business with music making, copywriting with showing off, gallery-poking with jokes-cracking. Wife-loving with sci-fi enjoying. It’s all your life, no? Or mine. It’s all your experience. Your practice. It’s all, together, what makes your voice unique. Original. All of it together is how you are really speaking with your life. It may or may not leave interesting residue in something you can hang on a wall. And even that will never be much of the real residue of you.

My whole life makes a rather stronger story of experience, shaping outlook and values and intent, than any one bit on its own.

To resist both the temptation and the burden, the pressure, of thinking of myself and declaring myself ‘an artist’ is more helpfully inclusive for both me and those I meet, perhaps. To subtly re-word it to “having an artistic impulse to make music” reminds both me and you as I say it that I am first and fore a human being, not a pretentious arse, and not some mythical font of ideas – because implied in this way of putting it is the idea that any human idiot could follow an artistic impulse. There’s no fantastical qualification needed. This seems powerful to me.

It reminds me too that my artistic impulse, consciously embraced and explored as it is by me, is an impulse in a personal mix of impulses – alongside a slight degree of nerdy engineering, as a designer, and one of encouragement, as a bit of a joker, and of avoiding looking at bank statements, as an idiot. It’s all part of the typical spectrum of being a person. All of it together.

We all have different balances of instincts, different confidences in the exploration of them, but it’s not just creativity generally that is naturally human in universal principle – it’s art itself.

Art is everyone’s. Yours. You straight-talking non-ponse. Cliques are not everyone’s – and this is fine. You don’t have to be in every clique, but art lives in the human imagination – the human outlook – and not in any one fartistic group of smock-soiling fanatics. You are free to explore everything as you. Indeed, you must.

Art – the evidence of such explorations – that is hailed as ‘good’ after you’ve produced it and coyly hung it on a wall somewhere and had some private viewing leaflets made up which you’ve forced into the hands of your mates and your mum and dad, forced in return to accept three of your mates’ latest self-released cassettes… if it really does turn out to be thought of as ‘any good’ it is likely to be clever in some way, let’s face it. But it will surely also be truthful – true to itself. Honest, basically. Even in its fakery, if that’s its point. When a publically-sharing artist looks like they’re fooling themselves… that’s when the art is bad, probably. That might be the litmus. Too much copying someone else and not enough of anything to say on its own terms – something rather more important than craft, these days. Similar to having not enough understanding of context.

The greatest singers started life miming into their hairbrushes in the bedroom, and how wonderful. But searching for truth may be the actual artistic quest, in the end, not merely healthy creative play – and some commit their lives to it. Some use it merely as an occasional private comfort blanket, working out the emotional rub of something. It’s all good, it’s all us. Bankably good is about markets, and that’s a whole different set of expectations.

But the pursuit of exploring – of encouraging – new ways of seeing? That is perhaps the beginning of how art is actually ‘useful’ to us.

Surely art, you might say sniffily, is its own reward? Art for art’s sake. And yes – it doesn’t need justifying. Any more than the art of science for science’s sake. But just as science makes progress through a tension between pure exploration as an intellectual end in itself and hefty commissions to solve specific practical problems, the same is true of art. We aspire to beautiful, noble, pure things in our finer moments – we also want to keep food from going off. And make a call to our kids without having to master coding first.

There is a spectrum of reasons why all human creativity is ‘useful’ to us – between design and emotional expression it solves specific problems pleasingly and it helps us get our heads straight.

And if one of the biggest problems with modern life is the divorse of head or mind from body, then we really do need to find ways to remind ourselves we have to get our heads straight. Or we’ll have very serious problems indeed. We need to manage our heads to survive even normal-seeming days alive in the universe in contexts we’ve mapped enough to know comfortably. Even on a boring Tuesday in the office, our heads need managing – feeding. So in unusual times, in shifting contexts, we need the impulses of art to lead us into new ways of seeing. To make the best of opporunity.

In times of true crisis, surely the well-practiced at creative exploration should be in the mix of those trying to lead our way out of it, no? Helping us write new stories of us. In order to survive.

 

AGING.

It’s not like this is new.

Different style of art have evolved the ages and speak especially strongly to different periods in cultural time. So much so that Aborigine art from thousands of years ago doesn’t really fit with contemporary ideas of art because it wasn’t made to be self consciously ‘art’ like ‘art’ is today. It’s something Grayson Perry highlights. But, of course, those who made the ancient pieces weren’t intending for their work to be placed in the analytical glare of a gallery and critiqued. Those artists’ work didn’t effectively say: “Look! I’m making a point!” But it surely is art – the creative product of the instinct to make emotional, storytelling, cosmic sense of their makers’ place in the universe, signalling values, identity and experience. They were surely intended to arrest attention – to speak to the viewer, maybe even inspire – and they were, as works, also crafted. Art.

And these people from an age many ages before the ages of recorded history felt compelled to give valuable time to doing this when there was, presumably, much Staying Alive to be organised – hunting, cooking, soft leaves for the bottom finding. Yet some members of the community, however it worked, prioritised art.

Today, I think it’s simply that by comparison with our early Earth ancestors we are a much more self-consciously modern society, inventing the gallery to invite in analysis and testing and burning and fusing and cursing and whithering of our self expressions – a cultural laboratory.

Banksy, of course, may be more akin in his work to those ancient artists, you might say sagely. But he has self-consciously turned the modern natural environment into a gallery. Bloody post-modernists. Always knowing what they’re doing.

The point is that all of the above is art. We simply get to choose what is also decoration. Because, angst and poetry aside, we all like to decorate the world around us. Aesthetic speaks to us.

Art is everyone’s, man.

Well, okay. Kind of. But, in reality, after this sweeping declaration of the human as artist, art still feels like something you can’t admit you don’t get. Right?

Oh, you. You’re so zeitgeisty, man.

It is, suggests Grayson Perry, the very preserve of modernism to be self conscious, and it’s a two-edged sword of knowing confidence and doubt, wounding maker and fan alike all the time. The 100 years leading up to the 1970s, he says, was a time: “When artists were questioning and worrying about what it was that they were doing; they weren’t just being swept along by tradition or belief. Self-consciousness, though, is crippling for an artist.” And this has overflowed into all our artistic tastes, consuming it or making it. “When we talk about the culture we consume,” he says, “it is often a dance around how we wish to be seen: What we enjoy reflects on who we are.”

Which means it will always be a bit elitist, won’t it? Some trends, works, artists will always be the preserve of those in the know because we all love to be in the know, and hesitate to trepidatiously declare honest love for something not pre-delineated as cool. Lord knows I’ve had enough musical reviews of Momo:tempo perenthesesed with: “I know I shouldn’t like this, but…”

And the massive intricately decorated elephant in the room is that if art in our modern times is all at once so jadedly knowing and fretsomely self conscious it can’t help but strata into elitism, then it’s never going to change the world like you’re hoping it will, right?

I can’t argue with the elitism if it’s the artworld’s prices you’re talking about. Mind boggling what an artist can suddenly be worth, and you can wonder why when dropped into their world from cold. But this isn’t about art, it’s about human economics – how we value things, and how we decide things are valuable at all. It’s fashionably crazy.

But humans are such contradictory buggers. There is no meaningful summing up of a whole century of art, or any movement. There are general cultural directions and there are noteable divergencies. Individuals. And individuality is rather the modus of inspiration behind any art – how do I make sense of me. The cliques following it all are another thing entirely.

 

Think of all those practical down to Earth artists we know. Just getting on with it first and foremost. Whatever the fashions of the Art World, the principle of making sense of the real world by making things and expressing feelings, of giving voice, shape, colour to our inner lives – this is core human stuff. Essential person wellbeing work. And it’s everyone’s domain, potentially. Who cares what critics would make of it? That’s never the point of responding to the artistic impulse.

The point is, you live inside you. Your innner life is the whole world, from your perspective. And if you don’t find ways to make sense of that, to manage that, the dials can go crazy. It’s nature’s dicotomous curse of making you as much a little god as a farting fluid bag of hormones. You are more than any one aspect of you. Even your art.

“Life is much more interesting than art,” said Allan Kaprow. In The artist as a man of the world, 1964, he essentially posited the then radical (to the art world) idea that artists didn’t really want to be revolutionaries after all, but rather have a nice middle class comfy life. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any illusions about this – I’ve not had much directly to be rebellious about, so never considered myself one. I’m sensible. And I grew up with doting dotty parents from the theatre. I was born very slightly outside the norm and so could afford to aspire to a midcentury home that I could keep tidy. Being angry at Thatcher didn’t feel like rebellion, more an obvious duty.

But the implications of Kaprow’s assertions here are significant, really. As Grayson Perry puts it, Kaprow: “Thought the profession of artist was not that different from any other specialized job.”

Certainly my dad broadly thought this. “It’s a proper job, it’s hard work. Don’t put it down” he’d say if I ever made a quip about drawing boxes for a living as a designer, or making goofy little tunes as a music producer. He knew the graft and skill of theatre, something that looks like dressing up in silly costumes and gaudy makeup and singing about whimsical things like fairies when you’re a chorus member in the D’Oyle Carte. And he was a working class wartime kid from north Bournemouth.

But this democratisation of art is really the thing here. It shouldn’t need it, of course, but the Art World has so annexed it, we need culturally comprehensively de-programming on it.

Yet, for all that, art has still infected us all. Distant as it may seem, it’s gotten out into the bloodstream of our culture.

Perry says that Virginia Nicholson, neice of actual bohemian Virginia Wolf, said: “We’re all bohemians now”. “And if you think about it,” he goes on, “all the things that were once seen as subversive and dangerous like tattoos and piercings and drugs and interracial sex and festishism, all these things that artists made use of to show their freedom and otherness – they crop up on X Factor now on a Saturday night, for family viewing.”

How free we all are now, apparently. How other. And individual.

I’m not, obviously.

 

SEEING THE HOPEY CHANGEY BIT.

My mate Chris has long collected fountain pens. Didn’t use one to write his jolly clever tweet about art, but just loves the look and feel of them. They say something to him. And, actually, help him say some things better.

“I’m a little dyslexic,” he said to me, during our latest intellectual salon time in the local coffee house, “and I often find that when I bang out a report or piece of writing on the keyboard, I look up and it’s a blizzard of red underlinings. Yet, when I write – handwrite, with a beautiful fountain pen – I make far fewer mistakes. It’s not just slowing things down to take care, my pattern recognition improves somehow. Physically drawing the shapes of the words with a beautiful tool helps me spell.”

Hand-eye stuff helps cognitive stuff – brain connecting to body. And the cleverness of a little daily slowness. And daily imagination.

Chris’ lovely pen collection is a tiny vignette of practical wisdom in a noisy world, I’d say poetically. Evidently still in pompous intellectual salon mode.

Which is all very well. But while we’re whimsically shaping cursive bowls and descenders like we’re Jane Austen, isn’t art supposed to be lighting the ruddy fires of revolution?

I think it does all the time. Some you see and some you don’t. And this is my basis for hope.

The New Exhibitions Museum in New York opened its 2018 Triennial with Songs For Sabotage, an expo of works asking: “how individuals and collectives around the world might effectively address the connection of images and culture to the forces that structure our society.”

Annie Godfrey-Larmon asks, in a BBC article Can art change the world?: “How can it participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance.” You have the teeshirt, go on. “Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something.” And REtweet… “Art and power have always been begrudging bedfellows. After all, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto from the comfort of La Maison du Cygne, a gilded restaurant in Brussels.

Of course they did. That’s where I’d do it.

As she says: “Propaganda, allegories, and calls to action are not themselves action, and art that represents change or resistance does not necessarily affect change or resistance.” And much disruptive art seems to have been pointed at the art world itself, rather self referencially. How post modern. And removed from ordinary life it seems.

But art is often what keeps ordinary life going, when everything is under strain, and it’s interesting that artists are often the ones persecuted in places where real disruption is needed. Music does this a lot, of course, with sound rebel legends like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, or the hugely revered Somali music scene, or the Ethiopian stars who dared to keep a cultural thread of sanity going under the Derg regime, or the Rai artists of Algeria. Or the sounds of hiphop growing out of the repressed misery of 70s New York, or the contentious contemporary funk of the favellas, upsetting all the asphaltos in Brazil today. Sounds of playful life thumbing a nose at dictatorship and convention.

So surely, any hopey-changey bit about art should simply list out tons of examples of life change by art, no?

I agree.

But where to even start? I think you could mention many yourself and we’d be here for the rest of the decade listing them. There are I think, though, various kinds of ways art oils the wheels of our problems besides holding onto our dreams and identities when oppressed.

You could look to the example of some social projects, using collective creativity to reinvent everyone’s sense of local identity. Like Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó, an installation in the London Design Bienalle highlighting a project that’s using art heritage to reinvigorate a little Guatemalan village on lake Atitlán. A plan to paint the whole town, some 800 houses, in vibrant patterns inspired by local ancestral textiles, involving all the people who live there. In idea the designers and locals believe is: “transforming its economy and instilling hope for its future… by essentially turning it into a monumental artwork.”

Then there’s the way creative business can influence us. Fashion is as creative and unenvironmentally friendly as any industry could be at once, but brands like People Tree have been championing much more ethical ways of making and selling clothes for years, perhaps helping to inspire fashion start-ups like Aday. “As entrepreneurs designing for the future, we have to think about what kind of world we want to live in,” co-founder Nina Faulhaber tells FastCo. “At our core, we believe that it needs to be the healthiest planet possible, and a sustainable future where we can all live in sync with nature.”

All of which encourages fashionistas like you to curate a more ethical personal brand. Try to deny it.

Design is, in many ways, the applied end of art that will ultimately save us, trying to synthesise form and function around truly human living, as it does. And this is a whole episode to come, in a way – or just an aspect of every episode of Unsee to come. But graphic designers in particular have a beautiful potential to arrest thinking in a heartbeat. Stephan Bohle’s stunning coffeetable paw Cause and effect: Visualising sustainability is an application of graphic directness that is as backlit with purpose as any of the founding fathers of commercial art during the war, such as Abram Games. Showcasing a rich collection of campaigns, posters, infographics and installations that try to arrest the social possibilities and challenges interconnected around the human planet today, its editor says: “It’s high time for visual narratives to provide answers to questions concerning people today: What is going awry, and why? What will my future look like? What solutions are there – and what can I do?”

Then there is the simple place of art as therapy.

Finding themselves living on a symbolic front line of the economic conflicts currently pulling Europe in different directions, the Greek island of Lesvos, Eric and Phillippa Kempson have had to turn their pleasant artistic retreat into a kind of base camp for responding to the refugee crisis. And where they are, in a nexus of econo-social ley lines from across the world, it’s been a hell of a trial, I think. But amid their political battles and practical energies, one of the things they’ve felt compelled to keep going to combat the misery of the island’s camp, Moria, as they continue to pull people and bodies out of the sea, is art therapy classes for those caught there. As Eric told Newsday on the BBC World service this week: “It’s something, to try and help children and families cope with what they’ve been through.”

How many artists do I know who have used music and mark-making to help others deal with their disabilities, anxieties and mental health.

Perhaps, though, when you pull out from the true personal scale of art, its real effectiveness globally is viral. Things we are used to thinking of as separate can come together into something new through the natural discourse and curiosity of culture – and when more so than the exponentially unfathomable digital age we are now in? Name your meme, theme, movement of choice here, I dunno. I rather like the idea of Afro EDM. Very European dance music sensibilities finally being re-rooted into African soil. Who knew a sort of township Gary Newman was even possible, yet Ibibio Sound Machine annexed half the BBC’s playlists with it last year and it’s brilliant.

Then there are the moments of creative example. Where artists bring hope simply by making it far enough to turn up at all. Someone like Arthur Mitchell, who died this week, was the first African American to dance with the New York City Ballet and one of the first black ballet dancers in America. Or probably anywhere. As The Guardian shares, following his death, the dancer Misty Copeland wrote: “You gave me so much, through our conversations, your dancing and by simply existing as a brown body in ballet. But you were so much more than a brown body. You’re an icon and hero”. Hearing him talk from just earlier this year in his late eighties, he sounded as lively and lovely as a creative at the height of his powers no older than someone my age.

Or someone like Octavia Butler, African American female science fiction writer. At college during the Black Power movement years, she went on to articulate fantastical stories from a wholy different perspective to the mainstay of scifi writing up until then.

How much has science fiction especially been able to tackle such things? Just on screen, in the mainstream. Captain Jack Harkness, as regular Doctor Who and Torchwood character, is seen by many as a significant turning point for gay culture in American TV – after him, everyone wanted dynamic omnisexual aliens in their shows. Who wouldn’t? What did that do for gay people watching, wanting to to tell stories of the world from their perspective, still so often struggling to resolve into openness.

What will happen in a couple of weeks from writing this, when the first female Doctor steps into the franchise? How many supposed fans of the show will continue to feel it’s been “vandalised”, and how many new young minds will be engaged with wonder in just the same spirit of exploration and inspiration to think about the universe as Doctor Who has always so wonderfully created?

Or think of the other quiet bombshell of Rey, in Star Wars. “At last,” as I think a generation of young scifi girls cheered, “at last there is someone I can relate to in this wonderful space fantasy fable.”

And what about the movies. Because I think the single biggest centre-culture bombshell this year has been Black Panther. When Marvel suddenly took the world to school. Because for the first time, I dunno, ever, what we saw in that mainstream multiplex feature was not just a view of the world today from a genuinely Afro-centric perspective – with all it’s implications – but a vision of what Africa could have looked like without colonialism. An effortless mixing of sexual, technical and cultural equality. A utopian dream I haven’t been as excited by in… I can’t remember. Right there, in the dark heart of Hollywood.

Art, science and identity. Together, successfully aligned, they could empower us like we’ve never known, whatever our heritage.

One of the titans of cognitive ability, so sympathetic to the rhythms of art and social justice, was the daddy of all brilliant scientists, Einstein. And as he said: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

Unless he didn’t say that. Might have been Fake Internet Meme Einstein, but it’s still good.

There’s something lovely about the idea that to help a crucial part of the development of its forthcoming Starshade Space Probe NASA commissioned young artist Robert Salazar. A designer of origami “for an interdependent world”, he first took inspiration from the story of Sadako Sasaki who turned to the ancient paper art in hospital after the bombing of Hiroshima, as both therapy and symbolism for a much better balanced future for humankind. For Robert this lit the blue touch paper of a life exploring the delicate creative practice with a strong sense of social vision – “I recognize origami design as being analogous to living sustainably”, he says, with projects highlighting ecological social issues around the world. Now he’s helped a space agency design a giant folding shade to be launched into distant orbit so we can take much better photographs of planets orbiting other stars, in our search to resolve the question of life in the universe.

It’s something that I’m sure Carl Sagan would approve of heartily. It echoes back something of the spirit of the Voyager Gold Disks, perhaps one of the most creatively audacious works of art meeting science in history. By which I mean The.

But the story of the moment in this regard is Yusaku Maezawa. A Japanese billionnaire, founder of fashion brand Zozo – an obviously visionary name there –  who has been revealed this week as the first Space X lunar tourist. Yep. Elon Musk is now planning a magic bus ride around the dark side. A keen collector, Maezawa famously paid $110m for an untitled piece by the late Hatian-Puerto Rican American artist Jean Michele Basquiat. I can’t seem to quite focus through the wincing to see what he’s apparently just paid to be on the first Big Falcon Rocket that will follow Apollo 8’s perspective-bending voyage away from Earth. It’s likely to be double the price tag on the art. But the real news in this story for me, is what he wants to do with the experience.

Basquiat was an artist whose energetic looking work: “focused on “suggestive dichotomies”, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience”. Maezawa, prepared to pay so much for just one of his canvases, apparently said: “What if Basquiat had gone into space?” For this is a billionaire with an eye for new perspectives. And an extensive international collection of art works has lead him to announce, with his own seat on the BFR a project called Dear Moon.

Yusaku Maezawa wants to take eight artists into space.

A painter, a musician, a film director, a fashion designer… “Some of Earth’s greatest takents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they have never been before” his production says. An intro film that itself balances a quietly weird tension between almost moving and Black Mirror.

How could such an idea not appeal to the current king of tech storychangers, Elon Musk?

It’s all at once one of the most extravagantly Luhrmanesque acts of gauche fashionista folly – to almost Zoolander proportions – and just ruddy exciting things I’ve heard this century. Talk about wanting to invest in new ways of seeing. No pressure on the expo when home again, everyone…

I am, of course, biting my knuckle with great art mate Andy Robinson at the idea that someone has stolen a march on the centrepiece to our own work in The Shape of Things To Hum – his film, The Martian Artist. Before we’ve found any funding to even finish making it, the idea’s been stolen in the real world.

But, when it comes to the future, truth is certainly stranger than fiction. It’s no wonder our heads keep getting pulled in different directions at once when we think about it.

With all our longings for some hopeful new vision around the planet today, if environmental health really does equal mental health it’s no real surprise, if the interconnected challenges converging on us today are, indeed, all symptoms of one dominating human outlook – the practiced global habit of disconnected thinking. I often don’t know how anyone is really supposed to look up from our lives and find any emotional connection to such massive challenges, but I do know that our lives are shaped dramatically by those challenges, and we’re feeling the pain of them every day. So much of our human world makes us unwell, with such promise of really empowering us. And, I think deeply, we are in flux between these outlooks. It’s happening all around us – that’s what’s going on, in a sense.

What’s needed for us, I do think, is a regular hit of inspiration – regular stories of encouragement in our hopes. Which means one of the single greatest creative roles we will play in our own lives is editor. The role that makes or breaks the success of any piece of work, or in this case our wellness. Choosing what we listen to, see, spend time with, and how much of it, will shape our mental health enormously. We can switch off. Find plenty more quiet.

But whilst we will depend on each other for inspiration, like lighting regular sparklers or the occasional awesome spectacle, that mind and body connection stuff is really worked into success by something else. Practice. Physical habits.

“First forget inspiration,” says Octavia Butler, ruthlessly. “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

The future will be sparked by exciting dreams, but built with a lot more perspiration. We’re going to need those Global Goals to help us plan the engineering works of our new habits, if we really want that more hopeful future.

Maybe art’s biggest truth to us is this: You create your own world. What you articulate, helps make you; shapes your outlook. The more you speak it out, walk it through with your body and mind, the more real it is to you. And so, in many ways, to those around you. Who knows if Real Einstein or Fake Internet Meme Einstein said we need to ask if the universe is “friendly”, but you get to choose whether you are.

It’s something that seems to echo through Yoga – aligning body, mind and spirit, you create the world you want to live in. In a way, art coupling with science and knowledgeable practice, and really coexisting in our cultural mind together, might be how we help straighten out the antenna of our spirituality – the beyondness of us that keeps calling through the noise, it seems. Art has long been how we’ve tried to tune in to such mysterious inner longings calling to the outer limits.

It’s interesting that in trying to make solid sense of our internal emotional wiring, psychoanalysis has intertwingled with studies of language. Whether you’re analysing behaviours from a gloriously nerdy-voodo Neuro-Linguistic Programming point of view, for example, or imagining a biological root to linguistics, as championed by Noam Chompsky especially in the 60s, and pondering a sort of universal geneto-grammatic firmware in the human brain (a phrase I do hope linguists adopt, obviously) – however we follow the instinct to turn ideas into speech and form syntax between us, words just make things real to us. Speech becomes belief. I hear it even sometimes becomes action.

All through the Vietnam War, as Chomsky in activist mode has famously said, the American news media constantly described the US forces as “defending” not “attacking”. Simple propaganda, radiated into our ears enough, forms our very certain view of who we are and why we are doing anything. And for thousands of service personnel, coming home to that story from the one they’d lived through was a reality wrench that wrecked their lives.

Even just as mantra, speaking out what you want somehow helps you see it. I admit I personally have to externalise constantly in order to shape my ideas and, well, just my creative schedule. I could never work in an office again now, I fear. But in a general, slightly poetic sense, what you say becomes a part of what’s real in your model of the world. So stop telling yourself you’re a doofus, doofus.

In some theoretical physics clubs there is even baffling talk around the possibility that, in some timey-wimey sub-atomic way,  life’s later actions might actually kind of echo back to life’s earlier actions. Somewhere between something Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” – which is exemplary science nomenclature in anyone’s book – and the famously weird possibilities of quantum entaglement, there is canteen chatter over the salad bar about sub-atomic particle retrocausality. And who knows how any real evidence for this might imply effects on the human mind. It’s deliciously bonkers and vague, but I think it will take more playful leaps of imagination to draw up better tilts at the theory of everything. And how ape conciousness might fit into it.

I have no idea. But while the physicists are trying to pull up the floorboards of the final frontier, I can’t help feeling it’s very akin to the exploration of art.

And in the practical world swirling around our studios and laboratories, I do believe this: Art will help us change the world not simply through inspiring us to suspend disbeliefs, or to crack open whole new perspectives, but by teaching us how to practice a more creatively healthy life. Breaking out of boxes, looking after the mind by engaging the body, encouraging playful wellbeing to encourage real personal flow. Real personal understanding. The daily practices of accepting and working with one’s self. Accepting one’s weaknesses; facing them and turning them, daily, to one’s advantage. Enabling one’s self to better connect with all the ideas and people and challenges and opportunities richly around them. Understanding the practical balance between telling new stories and showing them. If environmental health equals mental health, art can unlock it.

Writer Neil Gaiman’s point about us having an obligation to daydream. It’s actually more hefty than simple productivity, isn’t it. It’s about purpose. And it strikes to the heart of Unsee The Future, as far as I’m concerned, when he says:

“It is easy to pretend that no-one can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

 

That is always where it starts. You, and an idea. And having the courage to explore it. To live it.

Watching a moment in history described on the telly again recently, I found myself thinking that a towering figure of progress from the 20th century like Gandhi was hardly born to be a legend. And his success in ultimately prying India out of the grip of British occupation, so cracking open the demise of the often-sited greatest empire in the recorded human story, was not entirely down to his guile and vision, but also to how much he understood the spirit of his age – his context.

When he walked his 240mile Salt March from his then base near Ahmedabad across India’s western state of Gujarat to the coastal village of Dandi, somehow as just one skinny peasant-looking bloke he amassed thousands to fall into his gently strident pace. Because he was beautifully tapping into a huge truth shared across his country – it was time for political self rule. That he became the lightning rod for this movement, the historic turning point character, is – yes – significantly because he knew how to tell a great story, invoke imagery that would resonnate with potentially millions of Indians at just that point in time. And British – I doubt anyone in London missed his clear nod to the Boston Tea Party in his siezing on salt economics for leverage; how tax can topple foreign rule. He did train as an English barrister, after all. He supposedly even put a pointed drop of that salt he’d walked to Dandi to scoop off the beach into his first offical cup of tea with the Viceroy after he’d finally been released from prison and they began the dialogue that would send Britain packing.

He was a legend in the end, became the fable as much as the freedom for India, but he wasn’t drumming up a desire for a new product that no body knew they wanted. His almost prophet-like living out of story came at just the right time, articulated pertinently enought to… grab the imagination. Connected as it is to the heart.

Like many ancient prophets and more modern radicals alike, he paid a price for such a revolution in vision. His compassionate openness eventually saw him murdered publically by a man seemingly panicking at the errosion of some old certainties. And that assasin himself represented another spirit of the time in India, with none of the vision and wit of Gandhi, only flashing fear it seems, but one still not evaporated completely today, I think – fear of losing old architypes. All around the world today we are clinging to them like idols. Living a new vision, though, can cost you everything. But is living without one really living, I think some of these heroes might say soberly.

All I know is, Ghandi’s powerful vision of peaceful protest has left a legacy on the whole human planet. His philosophy of Satyagraha, combining truth with peaceful insistence, inspired some fearfully faithful resistance to British brutality, so shaming the Empire around the world. Gandhi even became Time magazine’s man of the year in 1930, while still in prison for salt abuse. It is said, he affected the civil rights movement in America with this attitude. Today, the most lasting effect may simply be a big country working out its own democratic future. Pluralism in India may have been delt a hard blow by partition at the inception of Pakistan, but it is a future that now includes gay people, no longer criminalised for being who they are in love, thanks to a longed-for landmark ruling by India’s high court recently.

As Neil Gaiman puts it: “In the war of ideas, art always wins in the end.”

The sweep of history isn’t much to do with the noble imagery of figures like Mohandes K or and the poetric grandeur of countries like India. Those Polish knock-offs of Beatles songs from behind the iron curtain – even they have become something oddly moving, as well as still a bit ridiculous, in the history of a country that’s been through a lot to find a bold creative future for itself. They are cultural markers, little tattoos of meaning, in the memory of the people who speak Polish, remaining long after the living memories have gone. Speaking truth from the dead.

A collective embracing of shadows.

Many people, of course, embrace their own shadows with ink. Literally and figuratively take the bodily scars of their stories and embelish them, tattooing those hard-won stripes into something beautiful. Even decorative. Creating a whole new way of seeing what’s shaped them.

As we dare to look forward, of course the truth is, there is no single new story of us to be created. The future will be a rich plurality of futures, of human stories winding us together. But I wonder, if we find ourselves around the campfire together, seeking a little comfort, a little distraction, a little hope… what story will you want to share?

That ancient arena in Verona was once a place of bodily bloodshed, drama, death and politics. And now… well, thanks to art, even seats of ancient global power can be politely been gentrified into stony seats of contemplation and more lofty entertainment. I wonder, what will satisfy human audiences in the millennia to come?

When it’s you down there on the red splashed floor of the arena, with everyone watching and no one watching, spotlights or lion gates rising, your very life at steak as you face fate, you may feel like you’ve not been thrown into all this with much. And you haven’t, when you boil it down to simplify your fearsome reality. All you’ve got is the whole world in your head and your life in your hands.

Your job is to make something of it.

 

 

Post Script:

Everyone copies stuff.

Here’s a nice quote from the near-futures artist Simon Stålenhag: “My personal belief is that borrowing, referencing and modifying other artists work is a very important part of art. Without it, I don’t think art would exist. If it’s done well or if it’s done badly should be irrelevant – I think it’s vital that it is allowed. Furthermore I don’t even think it should be necessary to declare your influences – most of the time they’re so many it would be impossible to do any creative work if you had to remember and give credit to every little influence that have crept into your work.”

A Shape Odyssey – a guest blog by Andy Robinson

“Timo Peach’s idea nearly incinerated my Sunday roast.

As will later become apparent, this is in fact the highest compliment – and perhaps the
benchmark by which I will judge all ideas presented to me in future: is it a roast-killer?
The bar has been set very high by his latest project…

A Sunday afternoon Skype conversation on Feb 14th 2016, would mark the start of my
official involvement on this mission. By this stage I had been blessed to collaborate
with Timo on 2 short film projects. We’d been introduced 18 months earlier by
Illustrator & mutual friend, Simon Brett, who was contributing to a charity anthology of
stories called Seasons of War. It’s editor, Declan May, had come up with the idea of
exploring the character of the War Doctor – the forgotten incarnation of Doctor Who, so
brilliantly played by the late John Hurt in the BBC’s 50th Anniversary story. As we were
only to see him the once, the War Doctor’s presence in the canon only created more
questions than he answered – something that Declan wanted to explore. He assembled
a brilliant selection of writers – some with close connections to the TV series – to
contribute.

Simon contacted me as he had an idea to help promote the book by commissioning an
online promo video. He’d seen one of my short films, which had a strong SF-vein, and
I’d inflicted a rough cut of my Twilight Zone-inspired feature film on him, so Simon
very kindly thought of me for the Seasons of War project.

He’d originally pitched it to me as something that would be 30 seconds long – perhaps
a tracking shot past objects associated with the Doctor. I’m not sure how long I
entertained that idea, but I was already carried away with something much more
ambitious by the time I replied to his original message…

What Seasons of War the promo film became was effectively a 5-min Doctor Who
episode, which the notoriously difficult-to-please fans of the show seemed to have
really embraced. Made for around £350, and the incredible goodwill of the people
involved in Declan’s project, one of its biggest strengths is Timo’s score: Bold,
propulsive, with a fitting other-worldly quality to it. But most importantly, it nailed the
sad emotional core at the heart of this mini-story – of connections made and broken. Of
expectations met then dashed. It did all the things a film on its own can never quite do.

This was the start of what has become for me an incredibly fertile creative partnership.
Sometimes you just click with someone – creatively, or socially – in this case, both – and
it has been truly invigorating. When you ‘get’ what their work is about, and vice versa,
that can be such a sustaining thing – because so many on this journey will not get what
you’re doing. Cherish those relationships, and encourage all those you believe in.

Needless to say, I asked Timo if he would compose music for my next short film.
Based on fellow filmmaker Wend Baker’s brilliant idea, Two Feet Tall, conveys in Groundhog Day-like structure the everyday trials and triumphs of an office worker – told
entirely from the level of her feet. This was in effect pure cinema, where visuals drove
the narrative, and harked back to the silent era in terms of performance. But silent
films were never really silent – they had music – and Timo’s delightfully surprising,
idiosyncratic score perfectly complemented this unusual tale, and again, gave it heart
where it was needed. Part of the score is now the ringtone on my phone – guaranteed
to make me smile when someone calls.

It was towards the end of the scoring process with Two Feet Tall that Timo let me in on
his latest project – that fateful Sunday, while my roast was cooking. Something, it
seemed, had been cooking in Timo’s head too. And over a Skype call he began to
outline his basic thesis: Science Fiction – that wonderfully enjoyable genre that no one
treated seriously, or thought particularly worthy – had in fact been quietly preparing us
for the future challenges now on our doorstep. Timo wanted to explore this in his
unique, playful musical way – not only as the basis for his third studio album under his
music moniker, Momotempo – but as part of a live music event that was also part
caberet, part art installation. He asked me to help create an on-stage short film that
would be interspersed throughout the show.

The name of this album/event? – The Shape of Things to Hum. The wordplay on a
classic SF title was pure Momo, and instantly put a big grin on my face. Of course, he
had me at ‘Science Fiction’, as we and almost all our friends share an abiding love for
the genre – but then Timo delivered the deal-closer. He outlined the subject matter for
the on-stage film – pitched in the form of a simple question:

“Why would NASA send an artist on the first manned mission to Mars..?”

At this point, were I a fish, not only would I have been hooked, but reeled in, landed,
and pan-fried with a little butter. A great idea comes with its own rocket fuel to propel
it into the wider world – and enough in the reserve tanks to light a fire under your
imagination. Mine was certainly ignited.

InstantIy, I thought of how artists were central to scientific explorations in centuries
past: the voyages of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin (which then were the equivalent of
a journey to Mars), needed illustrators to create an accurate record of their
discoveries. The British Antarctic Survey has a rich archive from the artists who have
accompanied them on their expeditions.

But in the age of the camera, the artist’s role shifted away from just recording what
they saw. Early on in the space program, there was an acknowledgment that highly
trained individuals such as Astronauts, could only give the world a fairly narrow
viewpoint of their experiences. I came across a quote from Buzz Aldrin: “We need to
have people up there who can communicate what it feels like – not just pilots and
enginners”. What better reason to send an artist to Mars?

In Timo’s head his Astronaut/Artist was a woman – which just felt right for this
particular story. In fact, by the end of our chat, I had the perfect surname for our main
character: Bonnestell, after Chesley Bonestell – the US artist who helped popularise the
concept of space travel in the 1950s with his beautiful illustrations of Rocketships
and Space Stations, published in Colliers Magazine.

Only one thought, buried at the back of my mind, was nagging me – my roast dinner in
the kitchen was probably burning. I could have asked for a pause in the conversation –
hell, the Skype call was taking place on A MOBILE DEVICE – but I couldn’t bring myself
to break the flow in any way. I was captivated.

And I have been ever since.

Thankfully the call soon came to a natural end, and dinner was saved, but my mind
was blown – or perhaps more accurately, expanded. I could certainly feel it had been
stretched – and, in a strange way, reawakened – because the strands of my life had
been gently guiding me to this moment for decades: without my conscious knowledge,
I’d been training for this mission to another world. Timo’s thesis was playing out in my
own life. But it wasn’t only science fiction, but science and art that had been working
its background magic.

I had forgotten just how much of a geek I was as a kid, and also how much science,
but in particular Space Exploration, meant to me. My first memory along this path was
collecting PG Tips picture cards buried in a box of tea bags. I’m not sure if the
company still do these, but as a kid growing up in the 1970s, this was almost a second
strand of education for me. The cards, once collected, could be glued into little albums
that you could send off for. And eventually you would have your own illustrated book.

Over the years there were lots of albums they produced – titles like Transport through
the Ages, and The Sea – Our other World. But the one that captured my imagination
was The Race into Space – 50 moments that charted our progress into the high
frontier. Collecting for this was a frustratingly slow process, because sometimes you
would get duplicate cards, and things weren’t helped by the fact that I didn’t drink tea
as a kid. But eventually I got my album completed. One of the final cards inside was a
glimpse of a proposed Apollo-style Mars mission (for the early 1980’s!!!). Maybe a
seed was planted back then…

I found my mind journeying back to other moments that now seem formative. Libraries
and Television were my Internet, with information gleaned from TV science
programmes – never to be seen again (as this was pre-video recorders). As well as the
required viewing of Tomorrow’s World, and Horizon, there were more
thought-provoking programmes from presenters like James Burke who gave us
Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. I think I can honestly trace the
development of my enquiring, analytical mind back to absorbing those series.

But my sense of wonder about the exploration of our universe came from another man:
Carl Sagan, and his sublime Cosmos series. The poet laureate of science invited me to
leave my living room, and climb onboard his dandelion-like spaceship of the
imagination. He showed me around the inside of the long-destroyed Library of
Alexandria, then demonstrated the ridiculous length of the googleplex number. And he
gave me perspective on just how brief human civilisation has existed in the great
scheme of things – the last 10 seconds of the last minute of the cosmic year. Perhaps
most importantly – though I didn’t truly appreciate it then – Carl Sagan outlined the
crossroads that we as a species found ourselves at:

“We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice – we can
enhance life, and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15
billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second
of the next cosmic year depends on what we do.”

I was just 13 years old. I didn’t know it, but my die had been cast.

Time jump to the 49 year-old me (this essay is beginning to resemble a Christopher
Nolan film). It was Saturday 8th July 2017, and I was camping in a field near
Manchester, with Timo, his wife Caroline, and our good friend Lee Rawlings. The
shadow of Carl Sagan still loomed large in my life because we were at a festival named
in honour of one of his most influential pieces of writing: Blue Dot.

It was a double shadow really, but this second one was literal: we were camped within
a stone’s throw of the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank – a huge 250-foot
steerable dish designed to explore the universe in spectrums invisible to our eyes.
Why have a festival here? Well, Blue Dot is no ordinary fest – it is the perfect fusion of
art & science, and the Lovell Telescope is a beautiful constant reminder. For every
packed out music act on the main stage or within one of the massive tents, there were
equally well-attended science-based talks, discussions & demonstrations elsewhere. It
seemed like someone had had a rummage around in my head, taken all my passions,
and strung them together in the form of a 3-day celebration. The biggest surprise was
that several thousand other people’s heads must have been filled with the same
things.

Timo and Caroline had made it possible for me to attend – an early 50th birthday present,
and I will be forever grateful, because on this particular Saturday, the gears of my own
personal universe meshed with the wider cosmos, and all the aforementioned strands
of my life – and perhaps those of my friends with me – seemed to converge on a hot
afternoon at Jodrell Bank across 2 seemingly disconnected talks.

The first talk, by Physicist and Blue Dot Curator Tim O’Brien, was called Hello Out There
and was about the Voyager spacecraft – launched in 1977 to conduct a flyby
exploration of the outer Solar System. Attached to each probe was a gold plated
record, which contained a compilation of music, sounds and greetings from across the
planet, as well as images that were encoded into the grooves of the disc. The idea was
that as the 2 Voyager craft would have gained enough velocity to escape the solar
system and head into interstellar space, they may eventually be encountered by other
specefaring species. With instructions on how to play the record, and our location
etched onto the aluminium ‘album cover’, the recipients would glean a small window
onto who we are. Think of it as the ultimate mixtape for aliens. The record was curated
by a small team of artists & scientists, headed by – who else – Carl Sagan, and it was
the record that was the subject of Tim’s talk.

Now the Voyager story holds a very special place in my heart, and its one that I am
passionate about telling on film some day. I was a child of Apollo – born 18 months
before Neil Armstrong’s small step took place – but was clearly too young to have any
real appreciation of its magnitude. As I grew up, the talk was of one thing as far as
manned spaceflight was concerned – the Shuttle, and I was genuinely excited to see
this reusable spaceplane turn the greatest feat of exploration into a routine event like
air travel (sadly, that never really happened).

We’d had Skylab, and the Viking landers had successfully touched down on the surface
of Mars – all incredible feats – but in the end it was Voyager that made a shy 13
year-old from East London with few friends put pen to paper & write to NASA. Just as
with Timo’s project, I was captivated.

I wish I had a copy of that letter – perhaps in a dusty filing cabinet of a NASA basement
the original still exists. I don’t recal exactly its contents, but I think I imagined Voyager
2 hurtling towards its encounter with Saturn – next stop Uranus in around 5 years – and
expressed my desire to know more about the mission. I’m not even sure how I found
the address to write to, but clearly it was the right one, because a little later, I got a
reply – and if it had been from aliens replying to the Golden Record, I doubt I could
have been more excited.

A fat orange-brown envelope dropped through our postbox from what to me is still the
coolest sounding address: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of
Technology – Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California.

JPL was the division of NASA tasked with designing and delivering all of the agency’s
deep space robotic missions. This group have explored every planet in the Solar
System from Mercury to Pluto (yes, Pluto – I’ll be having words with you one day,
International Astronomical Union…)

Inside the envelope, they had sent me glossy full colour photos of the Voyager
encounters so far – Jupiter and the recent flyby of Saturn by Voyager 1. I saw the
swirling clouds of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot up close, and fine detail in the structure of
Saturn’s rings. Things that no one on Earth had seen – until we went there.
Also enclosed were ‘Voyager Bulletins’ – mission status reports that gave a little more
of the science gleaned. They even packed in some images taken by the Viking landers
on Mars. This all came from their education and community relations division, and
boy, was I being educated. NASA has a remit to share scientific discovery with the
world – and they were living up to it. I wondered were there other kids around the world
who were receiving the same gifts as me through their letterbox?

For the next decade – in the years before the internet, I would receive regular updates
and photos from the mission. Like those directly involved with Voyager, my life was
bounded by the moments & milestones in its Grand Tour. It mapped not only the Solar
System – but my entire formative journey to becoming a filmmaker.

I started secondary school not long after Voyager’s Jupiter encounter. Already I had a
love of drawing and making things. From constructing crude electric motors in primary
school science club, to building balsa wood gliders at increasing levels of complexity
(aircraft were a parallel obsession – but that’s a another story…).

By the time of the Saturn encounter, and when I wrote to NASA, Art and later CDT
(Craft Design & Technology), became the school subjects I loved best – both fuelled by
passionate, encouraging teachers. I also discovered a love of Photography, learned to
process film & print in a darkroom – and went to my first photographic exhibitions,
which really opened me up to the power of the medium.

A fork in the road occurred for me around 1986 – and Voyager’s Uranus flyby. My
A-levels nearly took me down a more product design pathway, but my maths wasn’t up
to the job of pursuing it further. So I ended up on a BTEC Art and Design course, and
this is where I really connected with photography, and decided to study it at
degree-level – in the city that has now become my home – Exeter. What I also got the
chance to do was go to the cinema. A lot. A lifelong fan of Steven Spielberg’s work, I
recall one occasion where I saw his then latest Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade,
3 times in a week. I always loved films but this was where the notion of becoming a
filmmaker was planted – in 1989 – when Voyager made its final planetary encounter
with Neptune – before plunging into the perpetual darkness of interstellar space. It’s
cameras, though, had one last task to perform.

Carl Sagan asked that they be turned back to take a ‘Family portrait’ of the Solar
System. This had no real scientific value, and Sagan had a battle to persuade the
project managers to do so, but the result of this was that the Earth was photographed
at a resolution of less than a pixel. Barely discernible, this image became the iconic
Pale Blue Dot, where Sagan poetically described the Earth’s fragile beauty in the
cosmos, and how our petty selfish concerns threaten this oasis of life. The image that
inspired the festival I found myself at that fateful Saturday.

During the talk Timo and I looked at each other like excited kids, because there was
another layer of personal synchronicity with regards Voyager for both of us. Our
birthdays are only a month apart, and unbeknownst to one another, our wives –
Caroline & Lucy – had on order the same very special birthday present: a repressing of
the Voyager Golden Record in vinyl: the result of a highly successful Kickstarter
campaign. In fact my previous birthday present had been a record player – in
anticipation of this. The creation of the Voyager Golden Record is a story that cries out
to be dramatised – the perfect fusion of Art & Science – and perhaps the most hopeful
thing we have ever done as a species.

I then dashed off to catch the start of the second talk – entitled Stone Age Cinema,
given by New Scientist Writer Catherine Brahic – which on the surface would seem far
removed from the technical wonders of the Voyager mission, but again this was of
deep significance to Timo & myself. Since our initial Shape of Things to Hum
conversation, I had written 3 drafts of what became known as The Martian Artist, and
a key theme was that our hero, Nina Bonnestell, as the first artist on Mars, felt a strong
connection with the first artists on Earth: cave painters. So this was a must-see talk.
Catherine began the talk with a piece string – spooled out and held by an audience
member. She wanted to give a visual reference of how far back in time we were
journeying – a little like Sagan’s cosmic 12 month calendar. Recent human industrial
activity would only occupy a tiny section of the string, but to go back to the time when
the first artistic marks were made, Catherine played out the string until it stretched the
entire width of the lecture room we were in: 40,000 years. Before recorded history – and
yet these cave-dweller paintings found in Spain & France were just that – records of
their world and what was important to them. But there was another dimension to them
that we were only just discovering.

Brahic informed us that palaeontologists now believe that what looked like preparatory
drawings of an animal like a horse in different positions layered on top of one another
were in fact the attempts to record the animal’s movement in stages.
In other words, animation.

Photographed as separate images and played back in a loop, the cave drawing of a horse
in different positions becomes a film of it nodding its head. A bison drawn with too
many legs becomes a galloping bison. It also seems that cave artists would also make
use of the flickering nature of a cave firelight (or stone lamp filled with animal fat),
combined with the curvature of a cave wall, to create images that not only moved, but
had a 3D appearance.

Here I was – a filmmaker realising that the medium I expressed myself in was not 125
years old, but 40 millienia. Cave artists wanted to represent their universe just as I did.
Like our Martian Artist, Bonnestell, I too felt a kinship and a visceral connection with
these fellow storytellers.

Epiphanies are things that happen to other people, not me. But as I emerged from that
second talk with my friends I truly believe that’s what I experienced, and I think they
could see it on my face.

In a field in Jodrell Bank, I found myself at the the exact mid point between the first
artistic marks made 40,000 years ago, and a time when Voyager, with its precious
cargo of art & science gets within appreciable distance of our nearest stars – 40,000
years hence. To be planning films about both of these things with my friends who were
also present made me reel from the heady collision of ideas that intersected me. Yes, I
was at a science & music festival, but also in a prehistoric cave, on a mid 21st century
mission to Mars – and experiencing the cultural offerings from a long-dormant
spacecraft. Somehow all my childhood passions for space exploration, science, and
my artistic training had become the means to link these distant points of human
experience. For me to tell this story. So forget London 2012 – THIS was my Super
Saturday.

Or perhaps it was mild heat stroke.

Blue Dot was, I believe, a turning point for Timo as well – or at the very least it
deepened interests that were already there. We both attended a sobering talk given by
Erik van Sebille called: Our Plastic Oceans. By now, there can be few who are not
aware of this problem, but to hear a first-hand account of someone who has tracked &
mapped exactly where this material ends up, and how it gets into the oceans in the
first place brought it home. And still (in response to Timo’s question), he felt that the
greatest threat to all of us was human-induced climate change.

After Blue Dot, I could see just from Timo’s tweets, that this was a more galvanised
person, who was drilling deeper into the issues that he wanted The Shape of Things to
Hum to explore. He became an accidental futurist, as I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his
aim when he started this project.

Timo had already put together in beautifully-presented book form, the working thesis
that he had given to me over the phone so many months before – and this had been
such a useful tool in many of his early discussions with people trying to convey the
scope of the project. But now he embarked on something much more challenging – to
actively start the conversation we all need to have about dealing with the here & now –
so we and our children can have the future we aspire to. The medium he chose to
deliver this in was the podcast – making the most of one of his greatest assets: his
wonderfully expressive voice.

Titled Unsee the Future: How to Encourage the more Hopeful, Human Tomorrow – this
is a 19-part odyssey that uses the United Nations Global Goals as a framework to
explore a variety of subjects – such as Health, Energy, Education, Sexuality, Justice &
Poverty.

Now you might be thinking that the above sounds dryer than a lawn that hasn’t seen
rain in 2 months (which as I write this, perfectly describes mine), but Timo manages to
bring his unique sense of irreverence and play to the proceedings. I like to think that had
Douglas Adams tackled these same issues, he may have had an approach that would
have shared the same DNA.

But the great thing about Unsee is that it also knows when it needs to be serious, or
impassioned, as Timo increasingly is towards the end of the series. There are no
simple solutions to the “Now of fearsome realities” as he puts it, and the podcast
doesn’t try to tie everything up in a neat bow at the end of each episode, but it does
attempt to furnish us with potential strategies – brilliantly referred to in the podcast as
“Seeing the hopey-changey bit”.

Ultimately, Unsee the Future is one man trying to get their head around the issues
affecting us now, but it’s intention is to make you think about your own life, and the
incremental adjustments that on a global scale might make a huge difference. As a
result of the podcast, I eat less meat, and I consciously look for the alternative to
plastic packaging when shopping. We have also got an electric/gas smart meter
installed. I’ve seen how the podcast has altered friends trajectories in positive ways.
So 2 years on from Timo’s phone call, where are we? What of the event that is The
Shape of Things to Hum? Well, like any major project, it requires a large amount of the
folding stuff which we don’t currently have. And the incredible enthusiasm of everyone
who has been involved, will only take you so far. But only so far, was just far enough to
create a pocket-sized version of the final product…

At the beginning of 2018, Timo conceived a scaled down test-bed production, that
would give a taste of what we wanted to achieve – called Five Songs to help us Unsee the
Future. He constructed a pure audio introduction of just the first few minutes of the
show to share with collaborators. Listening to this on headphones with eyes closed,
the combination of his spoken voice intro, sound effects and music – including the
opening number (the theme tune to the Unsee podcast), gave an incredibly vivid sense
of atmosphere, so it became a brilliant tool to set the tone of the event. We had a
deadline: to present this during Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe at the end of April
2018 – and Timo still wanted some aspect of the Martian Artist film included.

Oh.

There is a unwritten rule in low-budget filmmaking that you should really only build a
film around what resources you have or can get. Well, in depicting a mid-2030s’
International mission to Mars, I think it can be safely said we have trampled over that
one. Budget-wise we were flying on fumes – but that’s where I’ve made all of my films
to date. It’s almost a comfort zone.

So for this teaser film within a teaser show, I came up with a more oblique solution,
that didn’t involve filming the story exactly, but instead expanded the backstory of our
artist, Nina Bonnestell. We simply presented what her last day on Earth would be like,
as she says goodbye to all the sensory experiences that would be denied her on a 3
year mission to another planet: the taste of fresh food, air that hasn’t been recycled a
thousand times, the sensation of running water over your hands.

The actor bringing the character of Bonnestell to life is Veronica Jean Trickett –
someone who I met several years earlier in a filmmaking context, because Vee is also
an accomplished writer/director. And it was one of her short films that she also
starred in, which made me think of her for the role. Right from the get-go, when she
submitted a self-tape audition piece from a monologue that I’d written, both Timo & I
felt she projected both the strength and vulnerability that our Artist Astronaut needed.
We spent a very packed, but enjoyable day filming with Vee in Brighton, and got
inventive with our location – a house belonging to friends of Timo’s – that became not
only Bonnestell’s home, but parts of a Martian habitat – aided by a little sprinkling of
old-school camera trickery.

Together with some Mars surface shots created in my back garden of all places, a few
weeks later, we had a film – not the whole thing, but enough to give a flavour.
Meanwhile, Timo had the unenviable task of putting together an entire show which
was to take place in Talbot Heath Girls School, that for one night only would play host
to a neon caberet for the end of the world. He pulled in both regulars to the world of
Momo live performance, and new collaborators to help fashion this event out of sticks
& string, imagination and passion. Key onstage collaborator was Hazel Evans, an artist,
performer and spiritual explorer, who has worked with Timo many times. She would be
embodying the persona of ‘The Muse’ – playing opposite Timo’s ‘Ghost of Future
Shock’. Together they would be our guides through the evening – narrating, performing,
and facilitating the transition from live moment to my filmed content.

Post-production on the film literally took me up to the wire – only completing the day
before the event. We didn’t have the luxury (actually necessity!) of a rehearsal the day
before – having no access to the space until about 6 hours before the event – and
everything we needed to do had to take place in that timespan. I saw the pulling
together of a little creative community, literally conjuring a show from thin air inside a
school hall.

And what we pulled off on the evening of 29th April 2018 was a little piece of magic.
Words here won’t really do it justice – it has to be experienced – participated in. I was
helping to film the event on the evening, but that will still be a poor substitute for being
there. The combination of atmosphere, music, visuals, performance and message was
mesmerising. Everyone on the stage was in the zone – particularly Timo & Hazel, and
for me, it became greater than the sum of the parts that I had witnessed in the brief
rehearsal just before the actual event. I don’t think anyone present will forget that
evening in a hurry.

As I said to Timo, if The Shape of Things to Hum is Apollo 11 – full lunar landing,
stepping on the Moon – then 5 Songs was Apollo 8 – leaving the safety of Earth for the
first time to circle the Moon – a necessary trailblazer to learn from & prepare for what
was to follow. In that respect, she was a good ship, and I was so proud to be part of
the crew.

To be honest, it has been an odd feeling to find myself the other side of the event –
albeit a prototype – after more than two years of thinking about not much else. Like
Voyager, there was a long period of build up as the goal got imperceptibly closer each
day – then the sudden mad flyby of activity for the event itself – followed by empty
interplanetary space again until the next encounter.

Hopefully that next encounter will be The Shape of Things to Hum proper – with the
full-blown version of The Martian Artist. And we head towards that armed with some
pretty significant knowledge – the most important of which is that we’ve proved to
ourselves that Art is indeed the delivery system by which change can be effected. At
its essence, Art is communicating the story of what it is to be human. We (being
human, of course) respond to that story, so the end result of that process is change –
sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.

We have been hard-wired for story from those first marks made on a cave wall. And
ancient myth was storytelling that shaped society. It is a cornerstone belief that both
Timo & I subscribe to – that ultimately everything boils down to “what is its story?” So
if we want to change things, we need new myths. We need to tell different stories. And
I include myself in this. When it comes to personal change, storytelling begins at
home.

50 truly is the age of reassessment in one’s life, and this project has reaffirmed that
visual storytelling is where my talents lie. As Spock said in The Wrath of Khan, my
“first, best destiny”. To anyone who knows me, that might seem like an obvious
observation, but family life & work (the kind that pays bills) created a frame that often
made me perceive filmmaking as indulgent hobby, getting in the way of ‘proper’ life
stuff. A frame that has most consistently been applied by myself, and compounded by
my frankly lousy ability to juggle the demands of all these elements. The end result is
guilt, and feeling conflicted about my aspirations – to the point where normally if I
introduce myself in a social situation, and am asked about what I do, I would never
volunteer ‘Filmmaker’, when that is clearly who I am at my core.

I feel there is almost a ‘Coming out’ process that I need to undergo. My work screams
who I am, and displays me at my most authentic, but the person I still have to come
clean with and admit to being, is me.

So my challenge is to find a way to rewrite my own personal story and acknowledge &
accomodate all the aspects that are truly important to me: Family and Filmmaking.
And when I use the term family, I include not only my wife Lucy & and daughter India,
but all the incredible friendships we have forged that have been energising and
life-sustaining over the last few years of this journey through life. It is creativity and
friendship, love & family that has given meaning and purpose to me – all need to be
honoured and celebrated. And the linking thread that has bound us together has been art,
or creativity of one form or another – whether that be films, local radio shows, writing,
painting or music. We have used it to explore the story of ourselves – even if we didn’t
realise it. To explore, learn, develop and grow. And it nourishes not only us but the
wider community.

We are already changing the shape of things – and for the better.”

Andy Robinson
Exeter, July 2018

Fully Charged Live – EVs shift the power at Silverstone

If you haven’t heard of Fully Charged, then that’s because you’re not currently the right sort of geek. But dropping into the first ever event by the online TV show this weekend showed me just how un-geeky the world of electric vehicles and clean energy for the home is already becoming. Because wandering around its packed halls in the pavilion buildings surrounded by the famous British race track, I saw only open-minded enthusiasts everywhere, brought together by a middle aged mechanoid with a bit of vision.

 

Robert Llewelin’s regular interviews with car designers and clean energy developers, home charging champs and innovative future thinkers have inspired and informed me over much of the time I’ve been developing Unsee The Future – enough to convince me that EVs are already viable for most car journeys right now, but with a staggering revolution about to burst across our highways. And as I’ve said in a couple of the episodes, most notably EP9: Energy, the reason EVs should excite you if you’re concerned about the environment isn’t simply that they are helpfully emmission-free at point of use. It’s because the mindset they bend your brain into when you use them is the beginnings of the mindset it will take between us all to save the goddam planet.

Here, I give you a glimpse in a little vlog that was a typical one-take wander with no editorial planning, including inspiring punchline. But it was an inspiring day – one we found hugely encouraging to some hopes, I’d go so far as to say. See what you make of it.

 

Unsee The Future – episode 18: Poverty

Don’t say it. Don’t say Africa.

It is a name that seems always in the shadow of the word poverty, haunting the imaginations of certainly western minds whenever issues of inequality are aired. But for what might be the world’s richest continent in natural, human and historic resources, the irony of this reflexive cultural assocation is so gross it may illustrate the real truth of poverty – it is the flipside of justice. The very embodiment of injustice.

Those comparisons that drive us mad trying to keep up with each other, reducing us with burdens of supposed failures, have us look down at those of us at the bottom of the ladder and say: “Thank God, that’s not me”. But is this basic lack of recognition a sign of the real problem?

Well, while the tracks of poverty may well lead from some psychologies at the heart of our cultural problems on 21st century Earth, they surely lead us to the nub of human suffering: The ultimate indignities of complete disempowerment. And the numbers of us living at this end of those tracks is still a yoke around all our hopes for enlightenment. Our progress seems like a bitter disallusionment in the face of still so many human stories of the very basic misery and dehumanisation of poverty.

As we conclude our look at the UN’s Global Goals for sustainability, it’s grand SDGs, is the physical ruin of rural communites as the poorest families suffer, far away from the stupendously unequal wealths of other communites around the world, while billionaires build space buses for the least environmentally sensitive tourism imagineable… is it arguably all just a symptom of what’s really wrong – our whole system of valuation. Our culture of want, in every sense. Because it appears to be killing us.

 

But, y’know, cheer up a bit, mate – this is the podcast about the more hopeful human tomorrow, and there’s been some progress in all this hasn’t there? And if this is the case, could we yet bring the numbers in extreme poverty down further, after years of comparative improvement? Even eradicate truly extreme poverty by 2030 as the UN hopes?

Or will achieving fairer outcomes for more of us mean striking to the heart of what got us to where we are, as globalisation cracks under its own weight of demand? Will we have to finally address what must be vying for the statistically greatest injustice of history – the wealth of Europe and America, the root of globalisation itself, built on the backs of slaves from Africa?

What might that cost, to really address? And if you think that is a price no one in power will ever entertain spending, especially in populist climates where more honest colonial histories are badged as revisionist, you may well be right. But the inescapeable question coming into focus behind it, none the less, is: How high is the cost of having never addressed it so far – and what will it concievably be for us all in the looming future of what look increasingly like inevitable consequences? Of everything.

With the largest proportion of world poor living south of the Sahara, what are the hopes for 21st century Africa – and how might this shine a light on the future of the whole global usual business of trade, wealth and growth?

Will we have to face the truth that our real human poverty is much farther reaching than economic droughts, actual famines and hopeless academic numbers – but something holding our very minds hostage, in a shared cultural custody impoverishing the wellbeing, the potential, the very hope of human life on Earth?

If our modern lifestyle illnesses, our struggling minds and bodies, our oceans clogged with disposeable consumer waste, our entire climate shifting from the chemical, biological assault of our lifestyles, if these are all different symptoms of the same story maintaining old fashioned poverties – alongside a seemingly growing dependency on charity across cultures – is it time we all began to count the cost of sparing more than a little change?

 

LISTEN TO THE UNSEE THE FUTURE DOUBLE EPISODES 18 & 19>

 

Marius Liutkevicius - Red Wasteland

 

 

 

DOLLAR A DAY.

The United Nations makes it its number one Global Goal: No Poverty. And they simply byline it like this: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

It is the biggest human experience umbrella problem facing humanity in the 21st century, and it is arguably the bellweather for how well everything else we’re doing is going. Which means we aren’t doing very well at all, if their longer statement on the matter is true.

“Eradicating poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice and the key to unlocking an enormous human potential. Still, nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, and lack of food and clean water is killing thousands every single day of the year. Together, we can feed the hungry, wipe out disease and give everyone in the world a chance to prosper and live a productive and rich life.”

If we “can” then, ah: “why aren’t we?”.

Save The Children have issued a report that spells out the work still to do like this: “More than half the world’s children – 1.2 billion – live in countries affected by widespread poverty, conflict and discrimination against girls”. Half the world’s children.

14.1 million kids in the US alone “grow up in poverty” they say. In America. Which chimes with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report at the end of last year which said that a very similar number of adults and children are living in poverty in the UK today, with the decline in reducing poverty reversing for the first time in two decades.

So it doesn’t matter where you live, it’s easy to get poor – and easily impossible to get out of poverty. Developed countries, developing nations, democracies and dictatorships – the global economic system as it currently works appears to be a long way from working well. We seem to have come far enough to see the potential of really transforming human life on Earth for the healthier, but jeepers, what’s stopping us pushing it over the line?

Essentially, I’ve all but summed up this final Global Goals episode at the beginning of it – I think there’s a mindset, a habitualised shared culture, that’s effectively driving us towards destroying all kinds of human progresses, even as we’re working so hard to improve our lot and still have a squinting eye on the possibilities of the future. And the outcome of this mindset in the end is always poverty – for someone.

You can quote the Universal Charter for Human Rights all you want, but in the end we don’t universally perceive intrinsic value in anything – or anyone. Because there’s no irrefuteable higher power that can lay down the law on this. We’re left to work it out between us. Like hopeless hipsters starving on The Island. The brutal truth is that at the very bottom line of our current economic system, humans are just so much meat to each other – when they don’t know them. When they do, the emotional bollocks of market value goes out the window, mate.

But before both our Marxism Redflags toot warnings again, I think we can agree there’s work to do. And the Global Goals don’t aim low, as we know.

The UN’s bold goal is to: “eradicate extreme poverty” for: “all people everywhere” by 2030. And their measure of that is people living on less than $1.25 a day. If you want to know how many people are actually attempting to live their lives on less than one hundred and twenty five cents a day, it is, as NGO Nuru explains, some 1.6 billion people on the planet today, not just in measureable poverty but an extreme experience of it. They suggest that 85% of people having to live through this live in rural locations, and not so far short of a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

But, whatever the pie chart of the pie-less, you and I likely have no real feeling for what extreme poverty really means. It’s a total kind of poverty. It is a profound powerlessness. It’s not simply debilitating hunger, or the indignity of having nothing of anything materially. It is a fundamental lack of options. Of choices to improve matters. It is, I hopelessly try to imagine, a prison of degredation.

Gisela Bernardes Solymos is General Manager of the not-for-profit CREN, Centre of Nutritional Recovery and Education in Brazil, and as she says to the World Economic Forum: “Our experience has shown that being poor means to be exposed to a range of adverse conditions that go against, limit, or put obstacles to the fulfillment of the person, to their “coming-to-be” themselves. People in poverty suffer from pain. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally, eating away at one’s dignity and driving one into total despair.”

She describes the symptoms of poverty to include: “physical pain that comes with too little food and long hours of work; emotional pain stemming from the daily humiliations of dependency and lack of power; moral pain from being forced to make choices such as whether to pay to save the life of an ill family member or use the money to feed their children.”

And she gets to the human truth of it further when she adds: “While poverty is material in its origins, it has psychological effects such as distress at being unable to feed one’s children, insecurity from not knowing when the next meal will come, and shame at having to go without. All these situations have strong symbolic value. People in poverty are also more likely to develop non-specific psychopathological manifestations and become mentally ill.”

Wherever you’re dealing with it, poverty makes you dependent on others, and therefore on a sense of powerlessness. Sharing in Overcoming Poverty, twenty-eight year old Shay in New Orleans says she started with childhood ambitions: “When I was a little girl I dreamt of becoming either a police officer, a lawyer or a hair dresser. I wanted to be an independent woman and to sacrifice my life for my kids and not to depend on others. Very soon I realized that these are not going to happen, school was tough… I was in 11th grade when Katrina hit. I was displaced and separated from my family. I could not find my mother, my brothers and sisters. I missed school and ended up getting pregnant with my first born.”

She adds this: “I think I am left behind because now I live on food stamps for my kids. If I get a full time job they will cut my food stamps and I will continue struggling to raise my kids. I hope for a better place for me and other mothers to help others in need. This world is not just for all of us because everything is a struggle for us.”

Poverty is a life draining of inspiration. The spark that is the magic firelighter of confidence.

To put it academically, it is a multidimensional problem. As the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative puts it: “Multidimensional poverty is made up of several factors that constitute poor people’s experience of deprivation – such as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standard, lack of income, disempowerment, poor quality of work and threat from violence.”

The UN, in it’s Goal, wants to: “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”

And they want to: “Build resilience to environmental, economic and social disasters”, “implement social protection systems” and try to get policy frameworks into place to be more pro-poor and gender-sensitive. However that’s going to really work on the ground.

The collected point being that to simply consider poverty from the economic point of view, chime as that bell immediately does when we say the word “poverty”, is to miss a lot. As the OPHI says in simple example: “Economic growth has been strong in India in recent years. In contrast, the prevalence of child malnutrition has remained at nearly 50 per cent, which is among the highest rates worldwide”.

Extreme poverty is to barely exist. But to do so knowing that others are living full lives right over the road.

And the truth is, that $1.25 line is based on the old purchasing power parity exchange rate – the PPP – of a few years ago, upgraded itself from the old dollar a day measure concocted for stats in the early 90s. Today that sensible measure of the value of what people can afford is, according to the World Bank compiling the figures, actually $1.90. Almost two dollars a day. From which graph-inducing technicalities it is enough to glean that the cost of everything has gone up, making the extremely poor even worse off. Though, once you can’t eat or work or find any way to run your own life it’s all bitterly academic, I’m sure.

Now, the numbers of us in poverty at all has come down across the last century, even as populations have in some cases ballooned. But it’s hardly fast enough is it. Not when you consider the wealth in the world today.

Nuru suggests that: “The cost of eradicating poverty is only 1% of global income.”

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it.

Especially when one of the four big audit corporations, KPMG, announced that 2017 was a record-breaker for global venture capital investment, at some $155B.

And especially especially when you consider that the six richest people in the world – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Elon Musk respectively, or Mr Microsoft, Mr Amazon, Mr bits of everything, Mr Facebook, Mr Alibaba and Mr magic future – are together alone worth supposedly way more than double that. Six people. And it’s not like they’re alone.

But, y’know. Before we get into wondering what they’re doing with all that cash (Elon Musk’s singlehanded retooling of the known universe aside), it might be interesting to ask a really dumb question first.

What does this world currently amount to?

How big is the hill of beans?

 

COUNTING BEANS

How much money is there in the world? Ever wondered? If we’re talking poverty, it might be interesting to throw it into the context of global wealth a little, no? And the way we do that always starts with stoopid numbers. Complicated sounding stoopid big numbers. Because we find them comfortingly bafflingly rational-sounding.

Go on. How’s your portfolio looking? Derivatives? Property? I’m sure you have it nicely in hand and the future is sewn up for you one way or another, speculating and hedging with shrewd exposures to risk. My portfolio career, on the other hand, may end me up at the other end of the economic ladder but with an excellent spread of stories on my website.

Money is funny business. What even is it these days? Jeff Desjardins may sound like a stage name but he’s obviously a bloke with an interest in numbers, and how to make sense of them, because his money markets comparision at visualcapitalist.com illustrates just what we’re currently talking about when we talk about what we value financially.

As Sue Chang puts it, going through the chart for Market Watch, the definition of money can mean a few things, so there are different ways of counting how much there is.

“For purists, who believe “money” refers only to physical “narrow money” (bank notes, coins, and money deposited in savings or checking accounts),” she says, “the total is somewhere around $36.8trillion. If you’re looking at “broad money,” which isn’t just physical money and includes any money held in easily accessible accounts, the number is about $90.4 trillion.”

Actually, those notes and coins in your pocket – actual money cash moola, physically passing between grubby mits and sometimes through washing machines – add up to just seven and a half or so trillion dollars. Just about the same as the total value of the world’s above-ground gold – some 187,200 tons of it, apparently. A lotta coin, but not really. Not compared to the assets locked up in not just bank databases but bricks and mortar and bits of paper promising this and that if such and such goes up or down in agreed value.

Jeff’s big chart puts the market capitalisation of all the world’s stock markets at $73trillion, 38% of which is just North America, with Europe following at 11%, China just behind on 10%, Japan alone at 7% and the UK the fifth largest player on 5% of the markets action.

Just to compare, real estate values are estimated at $217trillion. Which shows you were all the savings really are. And cracking towards half of that is in the US and Europe, where nowhere near half the world lives. Still, the Caff at Sandbanks still does an agreeably-priced breakfast for us non-oligarcs, surprisingly.

But the biggest number in world money is so big, no one quite knows what it is, apparently. Various boffiny methods arrive at two ends of a possible scale with the sort of clarity of method and result that really warms your worries about ever facing a financial crash again like a fluffy-covered hot water bottle. Because the derivatives market – contracts of payment agreements surfing the value of underlying assets which could be absolutely anything – is thought to be worth $544trillion. ..At the low end. At the high end guess it’s possibly $1.2quadrillion. Which is a made-up number you’d use in the playground.

Which also makes Jeffrey Sachs’ figure from his infamous book The End of Poverty sound rather slooshably loose as change goes: $195billion a year. How much it would concievably cost the world to eradicate poverty by 2030. A number that’s been kicking around the debates in handy headline simplicity since he worked it out in 2005, buoyed by years researching a high-minded belief in the power of aid. And back then, that cost worked out at just 0.7% of the world’s combined GDP – broadly where Nuru and others get the idea of how comparatively little it could cost us to sort out the problem.

Interesting to remember, however, that alongside global GDP there is global debt – and while I can tell you it’s spectacularly high, at 325% – $215trillion – two hundred and fifteen trillion dollars suddenly sounds like birdseed compared to the one-point-two quadzillionsquillionflappybirdhandsinthesky number you’ve just heard before it.

And when you consider that swapping debts and betting on secret handshakes values of abstract things was what all but collapsed the markets in 2008, and there isn’t even a practically useful way of even saying the possible value of such not-wholesale-different financial agreements today, ten years on… hey, let’s not even go on. Let’s not even spell out what disaster might be wrapped up in all that unmentionable derivatives market value the world is literally banking on more than anything. Because it would be a foolhardily meaningless thing to say when everything seems to be fine, right? Derivatives give us borrowing which gives us liquidity which gives us choices which gives us growth which gives us way too much boredom and confusion to give a damn about who’s doing or getting what.

But all this also gave us something else too, of course. Consequences. The sacrifice zones that have often had typical geographies, like many nations in Africa, but which increasingly appear today across the entire international economic world, patchworking daily life for cultures across all our territories. Including the very heartland of industrialism itself – its birthplace, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Because one of the consequences of the financial markets crash was a bit of a political strategy so directly linked to the worsening of modern poverty and the quickening of separation between rich and poor, it was all but coming clean about the way our globalised financialised capitalist system really works.

Austerity.

‘Nother skyscraper, anyone?

 

POUND IN YOUR POCKET.

Reading Peter S Goodman’s article for the New York Times, In Britain, Austerity is changing everything, is like reading about a far-away place. A thoughtful little portrait of human life in a foreign land; an emotional curio, perhaps touching you to feel momentarily wedded to the story of those captured in its frame as if you’re an old travel writer, sincerely curious, recognising humanity, ultimately catching a comfy steamer back to the leafy home counties and your typewriter. Bit like catching a segment of Radio 4’s From our own correspondent. The apparently dispassionate perspective of an outsider, meticulously noticing the details dot-to-dotting the landscape of the picture, marking out the boundaries of people’s actual lives. Only, this particular snapshot isn’t a whistful pastoral of old England. It is a very slow dolly zoom on the places that didn’t so much see the tide of our modern economics go out, as watch the lagoon of society being drained.

It is a tale that starts in Prescott, in the North-West, and is of a list of dour closures and endings, of diminishing public amenities and of a council so increasingly strapped for cash it is turning to the sell-off of more public space, like the apparently much enjoyed Browns Field park. The potential march of developers’ private profits eradicating more shared free experiences of daily wellbeing. It is the easy to picture image of Austerity Britain, a thing as familiar to me as a Brit today as it is alien.

Conservative party leader, and eventually UK PM, David Cameron’s sort of sickeningly luke warm turn of phrase based on no actual idea, The Big Society, was originally I think just a way to try to make Conservatism sound compassionate in an age of New Labour. Maybe trying to steal their middle class conshy crown after Tony Blair sort of went mad bombing people. But it became the initial fig leaf to a grim badge for governement cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after Labour lost the following election to our first coalition government this century. In suitably Conservative vein, dominating the coaltion with the Liberal Democrats as the party obviously did, the story they told of these cuts was intended, I think, to appeal to the fairness and adult responsibility that is the hook to all good Conservative voters – few of whom I think believe it’s quite that simple really, when they’re twiddling the pencil at the ballot box, but are none the less often motivated by a genuine belief in trying to run a fair system, not an unsustainably expensive one for bloody scroungers lacking imagination. I imagine. While also doing their best to block the sudden wave of marauding Marxism apparently at the gates again. I dunno. Whatever, it purported to bring us together by tightening our belts. Like a community gastric band. Sort of round the throat.

Oh, I am a cheeky old liberal, I know, but whatever the ideologies and comparative virtues of deficit spending or of dealing with national debt, and whatever the truth of the numbers and claims thrown around by everyone during Cameron and Osborne’s helming of this economic strategy, it’s hard to deny the effect it’s had on people at the poor end of the trickle-down ladder. It’s kind of… well, I think you get the picture of what being under the golden showers of anything trickling down probably feels like. It’s also made the bottom rung slippery again. It’s been undignified for lots of people, to say the least.

The stresses on people trying to sit through the consolidation of different benefits into Universal Credit, compounded by technical tangles and delays and the simply stomach-pit dropping Kafkaism of Fit To Work disability allowance checks deeming lots of almost comically ridiculous cases of people suddenly lustily ‘fit for work’ – after years of having no legs or an entirely glass chest cavity or something – have been so bad, there have been horrifying figures emerging of not simply deaths but of suicide, linked to people’s fears of how they will survive in Austerity Britain.

Paraphrasing a BMJ Open report, The Independent simply quotes an academic but chilling number: 120,000 deaths due to Austerity under the Conservatives, since 2009. Despite the report stopping short of saying they were truly avoidable deaths, says the writer Alex Mathews-King, the report says essentially that mortality sharply began to rise on the other side of social care Austerity measures, where it had been falling in the UK, and the article quotes one author of the report who goes as far as accusing the government of “economic murder.”

In another article, the paper unearths deeper specifics. And it shows that the sector is already dealing with vulnerable people, of course, so people feeling even less able to deal with such, well, existential uncertainties.

“Data from NHS Digital’s Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007, which surveyed around 7,000 adults in Britain, shows 21 per cent of IB claimants had tried to take their own lives, compared with 6 per cent of the general adult population. The same survey seven years later reveals that 43 per cent of ESA claimants – and as high as 47 per cent of female ESA claimants – had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, compared with 7 per cent of the general population.”

In response to the figures, they quote Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who told them: “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population. If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority. The UN has condemmed the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.”

What this feels like, the article illustrates with testimony from a typical claimant, Sarah Louise Thompson, 31, who suffers from Fibromyalgia syndrome as well as depression. “I’ve suffered with mental health for many years and have felt it more when I have to go for another assessment every two years” she said.

“I’m currently awaiting to hear back from another form I’ve had to fill out about an update of my health and how it’s still affects me. I’m terrified of what might happen as I know they are taking it away from people. Right now my anxiety and depression are really being affected. They make us feel like we are criminals. I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve tried to end my life.”

In the face of such stories, such evidence, The Spectator‘s righteous row with Goodman’s NYT article and its exact facts about the North West’s suffering sheds little light on the validity of Austerity’s intentions. As Patrick McGuire says in New Statesman, the point is the people themselves, up close. Not the punditry of political opportunists. Including me.

And we’ve not even talked about the state of the emergency services, the NHS, the fundamental lack of reliable, affordable structure to wider social care, or the crumbling state of UK prisons, the chief inspector of which, Peter Clarke, has been professionally candid about the rising state of self harm, suicides and struggling management in the whole system, markedly rising since Austerity. He stopped short of telling Jon Snow on Channel 4 News that they were “inhuman” but looked sorely tempted not to. And this in a somehow very British culture of locking people up for sooner than investing in helping people find productive ways forward. All while police numbers are cut and cut and fire crews have seen fire related deaths go up as their own teams have been diminished.

I know, this is all sounding a little dramatic and perhaps you feel one-sided. Not sure you’ll find me especially penitent here, as the inclusive future won’t be built on being blind to injustice, but gracious. If I am coming to the conclusion that the only viably sustainable future is one that acounts for all of us – includes everyone – I can’t say I believe an old Conservative philosophy is easily consistent with this. And that’s putting it graciously. Austerity in particular was bad strategy at best, and arguably disingenuous, many feel founded on myths of good husbandry in times of crisis to attempt to hollow out the wellfare state, with nothing to replace it. Like regime change. As Paul Krugman quotes John Maynard Keynes in The Guardian, who apparently wrote in 1937: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

If we are facing a wellfare bill only going up, leadership has to look at why. Because, yes, this isn’t a trend caused by Austerity or even the banking crisis itself – so what are the underlying economic rhythms that have been pointing us this way since the Thatcher and Regan years? Whatever your hunch, conviction, firm beliefs or resounding resignations to our econo-political story, even in my home country managing the globally fifth largest economy, if we are a generation of people heavily relying on benefits between us, we’re obviously going to need help invested in us to get viably off benefits. Escape unhealthy dependencies. Because we’re people. Worried and feeling stuck, or just not inspired with an alternative in the world we see around us.

As a Brit, I’ll admit I can, yes, in moments where I extinguish the hopey-changey lamp for a chilly moment, feel the pinprickles of hopelessness in the air. Even down here by the seaside, friends with many can-do creative people. We can all feel the frankly fractious despondency, hanging like frozen shards all around us since the B-word dropped its result like a quiet bomb, exposing all the papered-over fissures stretching back through the Austerity years to something way before that, perhaps. Symptoms of a country currently wheezing under a crippling lack of cultural leadership, shutting down any comprehension of meaningful engagement with the challenges, with the people, of now. A leadership unfit for work. Lost in its own family gossip, barely leaving the house, let alone getting out into its community to make a difference.

And, um, this is how people across many nations seem to be feeling at the moment, in their local ways.

As Paul Krugman puts it in his article trying to contextualise the idea of Austerity: “I often encounter people on both the left and the right who imagine that austerity policies were what the textbook said you should do – that those of us who protested against the turn to austerity were staking out some kind of heterodox, radical position. But the truth is that mainstream, textbook economics not only justified the initial round of post-crisis stimulus, but said that this stimulus should continue until economies had recovered. What we got instead, however, was a hard right turn in elite opinion, away from concerns about unemployment and toward a focus on slashing deficits, mainly with spending cuts.”

What played well with people in their fears at the time, he suggests, is a basic household sense of propriety with the purse strings. Which is common sense – and doesn’t equate at all with the concept of deficit spending for a national economy.

“Conservatives like to use the alleged dangers of debt and deficits as clubs with which to beat the welfare state and justify cuts in benefits; suggestions that higher spending might actually be beneficial are definitely not welcome. Meanwhile, centrist politicians and pundits often try to demonstrate how serious and statesmanlike they are by calling for hard choices and sacrifice (by other people).”

Standard policy would likely have been more Keynsian in the face of a slump. Spend to stimulate. If you cut in an economic slump when you also have no room to let things breathe because your interest rates are already basically at an unprecidented zero percent, you’ll worsen the slump. But, suggests Krugman, those eager to perhaps more ideologically pursue austerity found a poster child of fear in Greece and some economic theory that clained the opposite of normal macroeconomic thinking.

“The doctrine of “expansionary austerity” is largely associated with work by Alberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard” he says, who claimed his research had found that: “spending cuts create confidence, and the positive effects of this increase in confidence trump the direct negative effects of reduced spending.”

There was, however, one tiny flaw in the plan. It was bollocks.

The truth of various charts is that Britain’s economy only started properly recovering in 2011, after the then coalition government had quietly relaxed its Austerity measures. Its ideological aim to shrink government and welfare state alike kept the notion of Austerity alive until, well, now. And this seems a supremely British kind of conservatism. One that would rather suck up to big business than help people. Even if helping people makes better actual business sense.

“Business leaders love the idea that the health of the economy depends on confidence, which in turn – or so they argue – requires making them happy” Krugman says. “The message was clear: don’t criticise big business, or the economy will suffer. But this kind of argument loses its force if one acknowledges that job creation can be achieved through deliberate policy, that deficit spending, not buttering up business leaders, is the way to revive a depressed economy. So business interests are strongly inclined to reject standard macroeconomics and insist that boosting confidence – which is to say, keeping them happy – is the only way to go.”

How much does all this enormously consequential stuff turn on who everyone’s mates are? The influence of personalities, ambitions and associations of people in the room.

Whatever the well intentioned or badly misguided or downright nefarious intentions of national leadership in the Britain that’s helped to inspire something as desperate sounding as a podcast called Unsee The Future, it’s practices have lead to local government being gradually emasculated. Crises can be a two-edged sword, of course, with some efficiencies to be found in dramatic shake-ups – but if any ideologues think cutting benefits will make the demand for them go away, they are fresh crisis-inducingly deluded, I would suggest. The fact that over 80% of my council tax goes now towards social care – looking after the elderly, the young and the sick – is a trend. A symptom. Making the elderly, the young and the sick suffer debilitating social trauma and humiliation will do nothing to even look at the causes. They will only make the whole climate of confidence, optimism, energy – productivity – even weaker.

Duh.

Of course, charity is a problematic entity in the middle of our poverties. And, as we’ve touched on elsewhere, dishing out aid is no great solution. Even just in principle, never mind in corrupted and oversighted practice.

Jeffrey Sachs’ ambitious plan to eradicate poverty was met with scepticism even when published, thirteen-odd years ago. Because it still relied on a bit of an older world view of benign globalising states deining to help poorer ones. Not at all the tone that Sachs brought to this, but the effective one his ideas met other ears with. Because it hardly helps the globalising family if the biggest engines of such economic growth are driven with corporate influence and interests that are at direct odds with their local economies.

As John Vidal reviewed it at the time: “What he believes could change the world in 20 years, and eradicate all extreme poverty at a cost that everyone could bear, is simple: far more aid, far more debt forgiveness, far better trade terms and far more access to good technology. Sounds familiar? All this is now economic orthodoxy – what everyone from the anti-globalisers, to the very poor of Brazil, charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, and even politicians from Gordon Brown to the Tory party have been arguing for some time.”

But he sites the Africa Commission reporting back at about the same time and agreeing, yes, they wanted those aims met, but: “they recognise that other major problems such as conflict, the rape of resources, environmental degradation, privatisation, multinational companies, population increases and urban slums must be considered too.”

It is not really about money. Poverty. As Rob Weir says on an interesting thread on Quora: “How many aspirins does it take to cure brain cancer?

“The error to avoid is thinking that poverty is about lack of money rather than lack of productivity.  Productivity is a complex thing, involving education, infrastructure, regulations, culture, rule of law, and many other things.  There may be cases where investment is needed.  But in other cases outside investment is actually harmful, to the extent it “crowds-out” local investment.”

And he sites the Haiti hurricane disaster as an example: “Western aid flowed in, funneled through friends of the Clintons, whose companies made a tidy profit.  Ditto for the elites in Haiti.  The wealthy made out very well.  But this dumping of goods and services destroyed the ability of small local businessmen to grow their business, businesses that would have created jobs.”

Whatever the factchecked details there, the principle makes sense and, ah… money. See? It seems to cause more problems than it helps. It may be true in our current state of affairs that “money is good because it gives you options”, as a dear and qualified friend of mine puts it, but he puts it in a personal context that has perspective on what’s really humanly valuable. And the context of all our human values right now is a current state of affairs looking precarious for everyone. A context needing the seeds of dramatic evolutionary change sewing fast, in all our imaginations.

Imagination. We find the whole world in there. The whole world of who we are. And sitting right along side each other on the bus, in a traffic jam, passing each other on the high street, there are between us billions of different views of the world. Different stories of who we are. And one of the key aspects of telling a story is something that can change the whole outlook of it. Or of us.

Editing.

Which bits of us do we tell, and which bits would we rather not?

 

 

BLACK SALES.

Founder of Nuru, Jake Harriman spoke at a TEDx meeting a few years back. In his talk, he explained the motivation for him wanting to found a humanitarian organisation when he left the military – one with the headline goal of eradicating extreme poverty.

He descibed a scene from his memory, serving in Iraq with the US Marine Corps, that left him feeling deeply frustrated. A local farmer, coerced into fighting the coalition, was making a break for it to enemy lines with his family. Desperate for help, it seemed he wanted to escape his whole country’s desperation under a dictatorship now at war, and was waving his arms for help after pulling up at Harriman’s lines and running from his car towards them. Not yet having any idea what was happening as this lone vehicle had sped nearer, Harriman said he knew he would have to make a decision any second as this solitary figure had flung open his door and made a break straight for them. He shouted for the man to stand down. The man kept running forward, shouting. Harriman ordered his men to hold ready.

Behind the running man, a military truck from the Iraqi forces pulled up and soldiers jumped out. They ran towards the man’s car and simply opened fire into it. The man stopped in his tracks, turned and raced back towards the bullets.

“In a second,” says Harriman, “that man lost everything he had.”

The man’s wife, baby and young daughter were suddenly dead, there where he’d left them, moments before, in his car. And his desperate bid for escape, for help, had failed in the worse way anyone might have feared. Harriman said he felt lost for a moment, as he approached the scene, Iraqi soldiers themselves now dead around the vehicles with the man’s family, after exchanges of fire. Then, he found himself holding his rifle limply at his side and weeping with the distraught man.

Then he said, it hit him. He felt angry.

“It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that the GPS co-ordinates of this man’s birthplace dicated what choices he had in this world.”

In the middle of politics, sometimes defended with armed force, there are ordinary people just wanting to protect their families. And the injustices of conflict only compound everyone’s poverty, it seems. And, yes, in the most meaningful, pertinent sense of all our crisis-defining human poverty today, when I say this, I include those made privately financially wealthy by war.

If flashpoints in history, of conflict, are always unfair to those involved, either serving or just caught in the crossfire, then how much deeper do the roots of injustice go when our economics are founded on the long-term suffering of many? How stable a foundation is this from which to defend the more hopeful human future?

If we can’t have peace without justice, and we can’t build a sustainably just future without accounting for everyone on Earth, and if all our wars are, in the end, about defending economic identities, what would reparations to African nations be if we added up the money Britain and Europe made from slaves?

 

If you’ve never thought of the idea of actual reparational payments to black Americans, Europeans, Carribeans for their history of exploitation by their historically European nations, I’m going to take a punt and say that’s quite possibly because you’re white. Might not have ever have entered your head. Nor mine. Not even heard of it before a few years ago. When you’re growing up, even the decade before you were born seems like irrelevant palaeontology – stone-dead fossil stuff. Flares gave me the creeps by the time I was eleven and I even have pictures of me wearing them aged five or something. So don’t ask me about William Wilberforce, he may as well have been mates with Jesus. And don’t ask me why flares came back in the 90s, either. I was old enough to just about eschew them at college.

But, the older one gets, the more one realises how stupidly fast time flies and how many mini epochs modern lives can have covered, in such rapidly redecorating cultural times as the 20th century. Martin Luther King and Malcom X were rallying for the very basics of legal dignity for black lives in America mere moments before I was born. Which means the gramps and granmas of plenty of white folk still alive in the US today could have been immediate family members condoning lynching in the deep south. Don’t wince, it’s just maths. This stuff is fresh, not ancient history.

But the nature of our history is something quietly speaking to all this, if any of us notice it. Because if I mentioned Ottobah Cugoano and The Sons of Africa, you may well assume I’m referencing some incalcuably hip 70s Afrobeat group you’re know knucklebiting wishing you knew. That this was an African abolitionist group of educated black former slaves championing the stories of those suffering under British economic rule to the newspapers and society groups of 18th century London may be as much news to you as it was to me before I Googled it. Because who of us got taught that in school, here in the UK? No one when I was there, in resolutely tight drainpipe jeans.

As Doctor Alan Rice says in his useful outline of the slave trade’s economic history, mark-up on Africans bought from slavers on one side of the Atlantic could be six hundred percent on the other side of it, when the idea began to boom in the late 17th century – and all Europeans were piling in, having all piled into the Americas with plenty of plundered land now to put to good use and nowhere near enough hands to use it. By the time we get to the time of great British hero Horatio Nelson, such individual profits were down, but the trade was massive – and driven by such a modern sounding problem: Consumer tastes. Namely of that intoxicating demon still holding us all hostage, sugar.

“Although average profits on successful slave voyages from Britain in the late eighteenth century were less – at around 10% – this was still a big profit. The love of sugar that developed in Britain and other European populations meant the demand for sugar could only be met by the expansion of the slave trade to keep the plantations busy.”

But… it tastes so delicious. And, I’m getting weirdly shaky again.

Interesting that today, nearly two centuries after Britain finally abolished slavery across all its colonies (if you don’t count the a little place called India for a while after that) in the 1807 Slave Trade Act, it turns out we still find it so difficult in my country to freely talk about the real historic effects of the British Empire. Its clever achievements, and its costs. Why are we not taught, for example, that Admiral Nelson’s column-inducing job was not simply defending the financial interests of Britain at a time when perhaps 80% of the country’s blooming economy just was the triangle of the African labour trade, but that he heatedly opposed Wilberforce’s momentum to outlaw slavery? Where is that in the national curriculum?

And why do plenty of UK folk today get pretty heated themselves when it’s brought up? Afua Hirsh’s Channel 4 doc, The battle for Britain’s heroes, was essentially undramatic in its looking at Nelson and Churhill and Rhodes, laying out with simple good point that there are bits of their characters that are a bit racisty and it’s funny how such things are still not much talked about in classrooms or pubs. But it didn’t stop her getting a boringly predictable blizzard of abuse on Twitter, and of almost bored indifference to the actual racism from the nice academics she interviewed.

As Matt Baylis put it in Daily Express, it doesn’t matter that the programme was simply asking us why we don’t talk about this stuff: “Rather than pulling down statues and rewriting textbooks, Afua was arguing for a balanced view. Let’s make sure our heroes, Nelson, Churchill, whoever, are presented warts and all. You couldn’t really argue with it, except to say that’s not really what having heroes, national or otherwise, is all about.”

I had a polite discussion with a chap on Twitter after it. And he didn’t get in any way abusive but did swiftly tell me this was all part of a Lefty revisionist plan to undermine the whole fabric of society.

Is this an age in which we can’t talk about history – can’t understand any complexity in people, cultures, consequences? Can’t challenge anything?

As a Guardian Secret Teacher article puts it, the bits of race history that are taught in school tend to be fragmented, not joined up. Leaving black Britons today still feeling awkward about how to express their feelings on it. The usual sins of ommission speak volumes when you essentially relate to those being omitted.

“There are schools that choose to talk about Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican businesswoman who helped British soldiers in the Crimean war. But students should also learn about Una Marson, a black feminist fighting racism in Britain in the 1940s. There’s Cherry Groce, who was shot and paralysed by police in the Brixton riots in 1985. There’s William Cuffay, who fought for universal suffrage until he was deported to Tasmania by Queen Victoria. And there’s Olive Morris, a key figure of Brixton’s Black Panther movement and prominent civil rights activist.”

And the article’s author says the point is this: “It’s not enough to discuss these issues in Black History Month in October and ignore the reality of racism that minorities have to endure all year round.”

Edifice of British identity, Nelson was a genius commander, and his efforts changed the fortunes of Britain, not least of which in successfully repulsing the vast threat of France’s (not actually so) diminutive Emperor Napoleon. In ultimately defeating the Corsican Fiend, Hardy’s daddy crush is owed all the Empire’s ultimate wealths from sea to shining sea by our great institutions, him and the august confidences of the Royal Navy and England’s very establishment hierarchy of the time which saw Nelson, in his own words: “bred in the good old school”. But how are you supposed to feel about this history if you’re British and black, or even consider yourself a smooth caramel blend of rich British love? Part of the modern state of the UK as much as anyone – because this apparently still needs saying in some conversations – but part of your identity arriving in the North Atlantic via the West Indies from West Africa.

If, as a white boy from Bournemouth, I am technically half Welsh and half English with a name dating back to Norman times, then I partly arrived here via invading French Viking, partly by migrant German hired thug, partly by galant defending Briton and partly by conquering Italian technocrat. At no point was any of my biological heritage transported here via slave cargo hold. How differently do you and I feel about what it means to be British? Because there’s no escaping the reality of both those personal perceptions. They’re both real parts of our shared country today. The story of how we all got here and ended up in each other’s lives.

For many black lives wondering how much they still matter in 2018, reparations represent the reset button everything needs. The whole sorry mess.

 

What, really? Actual… payback to everyone descended from the slave trade? What, ah, what would that cost? And how would that work? And ah, don’t be so what now?

Yes, it is a considered thing. And whilst you might scoffingly say that the flat Earth is also an apparently truly considered thing making the news persistently these days, as another little bellweather of the galloping lunacy of our times perhaps, this other bit of supposed “craziness” doesn’t tend to make the news. But if you hadn’t heard of it before, you should find it interesting to know that reparations for slavery exist in concept as a serious attempt to heal many world divisions.

There are a few bodies exploring it, like Caricom, based in the Caribbean. And they see this role as, of course, an uphill task – but an obligation to justice. A peacemaking responsibility.

“The CRC is committed to the process of national international reconciliation. Victims and their descendants have a duty to call for reparatory justice. Their call for justice is the basis of the closure they seek to the terrible tragedies that engulfed humanity during modernity. The CRC comes into being some two generations after the national independence process, and finds European colonial rule as a persistent part of Caribbean life.”

You might be unsurprised to hear that they claim to have “persistent objection from European governments” to its, as they see it, mandate. But they see it as “a necessary path to progress.” The echoes of the past are not quaint period drama stories but, for millions of people, a resonance through their Now. And speaking especially for the people of the Caribbean, the CRC says it: “sees the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide as the root cause of their suffering today.”

But what is the plan for this? How would any governments deliver such a grand scheme?

Well, here’s the interesting first point. The CRC lay out a ten-point plan to deliver suitable reparations, as they see it, and their number one step would cost nothing to any tax payers directly: Full formal apology. It would be an obvious start, right?

“The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires as a precondition the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe.” Their point being that the statements of “regret” some governments have offered in the past have deliberately sidestepped culpability. Much like then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s impassioned statement ahead of the bicentenary of abolition twelve years ago.

As The Telegraph reported at the time: “Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was — how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition” he said, “but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.”

It was dismissed by many different groups as worthless words, because it was backed up with no justice. No action. The point many black lives would make there being: Better times? Um, doesn’t feel as different as you think, Tone’. Which is a perspective that will undoubtedly seem as ridiculous to some as it does bloody obvious to others; perspectives possibly influenced a leeetle by your skin colour, I’m going to guess coyly.

All ridiculously simply put by me here, but fundamentally out there in our wrangling around geopolitics and the justice of our economics. Development, aid, corruptions, influences, interests, hopes – all the things swirling around the honeypots of resources across the globe on all sides, it’s a chapter in history that so shapes the modern world, nothing of today’s wealth and opportunity is isolated from its implications. Britain’s industrialisation itself, the world leader in modernisation, drew massive funding from the economy of its day. An economy banking on human cargo. How do you think some of the great traditional edifices of the UK – such as the Bank of England building, first built in Threadneedle Street in the late 18th century where it still stands, or even the Palace of Westminster, the seat of sovereign parliamentary democracy, mate, rebuilt at a time when last slaves were still not free from loaded tax-paying landowners – were essentially afforded by this particular wealthy business nation?

If you’re possibly smarting imperceptibly at the idea of anything from $5–$15trillion in payback being a conceptual possibility for the collected nations of Europe and America to find, as the price-tag for supposed justice, you might like to know. Reparations funds were found before. Reparations paid to disenfranchised slave traders at the time of the emancipation act, to pay them off and make it work. The British government allocated the equivalent of billions in today’s money all on its own, a giant wallop of its GDP at the time, to compensate the rich so heavily involved in the business. At about the same time they were throwing up the new houses of parliament, so it’s obvious the sun was still only rising on Victoria’s global economy.

Reparations to slave traders? Not… slaves? Yeah. And here’s the extra rub: According to the Treasury, the last of it was only actually paid off in 2015.

Think about that.

As The Independent reported in 2013 when a study of the reparations documentational history was published by UCL, a list of prominent people in today’s Britain were revealed as descended from families who benefited from the pay-offs. Including former Conservative PM David Cameron. A rather smaller society than advertised, you might say. Naming names of people with dodgy-sounding family is sort-of pointless dog-whistle stuff, of course, because name me anyone without dodgy ancestors in there – who are we to hold each other accountable to them? But the relevance of these revelations is simply this – look at who is related to who and still in postitions of influence over Britain today. Today. People and institutions, like banks. How far away is history to us?

It wasn’t Abolition that triggered this reparations plan. It was another act of parliament, more than a quarter of a century after it, that not only finally forced the emancipation of people already enslaved – far too late for thousands of them – but also triggered the huge pay-outs for their suddenly former owners. Legislation that, as  Sanchez Manning’s article puts it: “made provision for the staggering levels of compensation for slave-owners, but gave the former slaves not a penny in reparation.”

Manning quotes Dr Nick Draper, who headed up the study, as saying: “There was a feeding frenzy around the compensation.”

A large proportion of the Victorian elite were entitled to pay-outs and many had the equivalent of millions given to them. And yet freedom still didn’t come for thousands of slaves even at this point, with the concept of “apprenticeship” demanding “former” slaves work out an unpaid contract with their same masters, while they were trained, as it were, to be able to cope on their own. What this turned into was sometimes worse conditions than before, with special magistrates dispatched to Caribbean plantations to help the recently hansomely compensated plantation owners enforce justice from any unwilling supposedly former bondsmen.

And there’s an interesting detail that will also resonnate from this precise period of economic history. The treadmill. Ever felt you’re on it in your dead-end job? You should know, it doesn’t mean a boring running machine. It means a punishment device. And not your normal self-inflicted one. A splintery drum of boards that used prisoner power to turn mills or pumps but which were, under Apprenticeship, used as an even more deliberate torture.

As Kris Manjapra explains: “Apprentices accused of laziness – what slave owners called the “negro disease” – were hung by their hands from a plank and forced to “dance” the treadmill barefoot, often for hours. If they fell or lost their step, they would be battered on their chest, feet and shins by the wooden planks. The punishment was often combined with whippings.

And you couldn’t even nip out behind the bins for a forlorn fag in the car park.

How far away is all this from us today? As we stand next to each other with British passports, that are about to turn resolutely supposedly traditional blue again, and have very different feelings and personal connections to our shared British identity. This quintessential modern, digital, nation.

If we can name names of people still in the establishment, if black British citizens had their taxes still paying off some body or other benefitting from slave trade pay-offs until the middle of this decade, and if the cultural habit of our day is still such that our history doesn’t teach us all this joined up – you knew all this and I didn’t – then is this history at all, in a sense? Is it in fact, still part of our business as usual?

So much, in fact, that the full circle of our look at the Global Goals brings us back to where we started: Climate. Because Britain lead the industrial revolution. It’s culture of innovation, confidence, audacity, intelligence, science, even storytelling, transformed the world. Funded vastly, fundamentally, by the slave trade. And the biggest single result in the end is the crisis of an entire planet’s shifting relationship with humankind. The climate crisis. The thing that every other crisis is happening within.

On the surface, the world is vastly different for us. Wealth like the world has never known. An explosion simply of colour – in every concievable way. And of sound, music, story. Of possibilities for ordinary people. We have lassood the very moon, and billions of ordinary schmos like me and you live like little Greek gods, even bored and neurotic in our wealth, the like of which ancient world leaders couldn’t sufficiently dream of. And amidst it all, we can be friends. We can cross divides that were unthinkable mere seconds ago in history. So many daily interactions and opportunities are a multi-cultural melt of wonderful possibilities, compared with what looks like another age entirely now, when the slave trade finally foundered, perhaps especially in modern Britain. Itself a country I’m used to thinking of as full of creative possibilities, triumphant in daily acts of humour, charity, generosity, creativity. So many glimpses of a future that’s… so cheerily human. I owe the land of my birth so much of me.

But under the surface, many argue it is essentially the same system is still working. For all the dramatic changes in psychological economic software now running the modern world, since the financialisation of it, the attitudal hardware is still the foundations of the same world machine other-age men built. And millions of us know it, and millions of us don’t.

As Kehinde Andrews tells D And C: “We must understand that slavery and colonialism are what western prosperity and the current world were built on. Slavery brutalised all societies involved. Atrocious racism survives; both in severe structural inequality and in blatant racial prejudice.”

But, is the lid unscrewing slowly off the world machine? In our Now of fearsome realities? And is it so fearsome because, yes, if this is turning out to be like Wells’ Martian capsules blasting through the gently twerpling evening summer trees of cosy Horsell Common in Sussex, with that ominous giant clang of the lids falling right off precipitating unspeakable monsters of alien form rising up to enslave us with giant stalking genocide machines, then… no wonder we’re all psychologically running for the ships.

Is the possibility of facing what’s inside too awful to contemplate? So much so that we never will, adequately? Not least because we all have things we’d rather not discover in there.

In looking at the long-awated publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, Afua Hirsch shares some bitter facts woven into this story written in the 1930s by the legendary Harlem Renaissance writer. Because, in the book itself, as Neale-Hurston interviews in detail “the last survivor of the last known slave ship to sail from the African continent to America with a human cargo”, spending fascinating time with this man then in his late 80s, she admits to feeling torn about the reality of his story. That he wasn’t kidnapped by white traders, he was sold by fellow Africans.

Cudjo Lewis; a man born Oluale Kossola in the Yoruba kingdom of Takkoi, was living history to Zora Neale Hurston, but today she is more legendary than he is, among black scholars, as a kind of civil rights anthropologist. And picturing the two of them together, there in a vivid intimate scene in imagination, somewhere around the time of the great depression, Afua Hirsch today implies Zora’s nuance in storytelling is missing in much of today’s.

“Hurston herself remarked that in writing Kossola’s harrowing account of how the king of Dahomey profited from raiding and selling members of neighbouring kingdoms, she was deeply affected by the question of African complicity in the slave trade,” says Hirsch. “The inescapable fact that stuck in my craw,” Hurston wrote, “was my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard ship and sailed away.”

And yet, says Hirsch, this lost book, Barracoon, that couldn’t find a publisher until almost sixty years after its author’s death, also helps deepen the understanding of the context in which slavery took place. She quotes Deborah Plant, a Hurston scholar who edited the book: “This idea of ‘African complicity’ is more myth than a reality. Because at that point in history, there was no such thing as an ‘African’. People on the African continent did not self identify as Africans; instead there was a self identity in relation to specific ethnic groups and specific kingdoms, religions or language. So many of us don’t know, because we don’t have these nuances about our history.”

All our identities are a construct of imagination, aren’t they? Are we in a time of multiple indentities feeling like they are cracking, leaving us lost? There are, in the modern world it seems, so many ways to feel lost. Yet, it feels like the lid is coming off this collective time capsual, full of ghosts and terrors and heartbreaks, whether we like it or not. It seems to be unscrewing itself, as it might inevitably always have done, you might say sanguinely.

But, if anybody’s quaint Horsell Common of tradition is to be overturned with invading drama, remember: That war of the worlds wasn’t the end of the story. Because something saved us from the death rays and red weed. The tiny truth of the nature of life on Earth. The bacterial reality that makes us, and binds us together.

Can the value of the freedom and the choices and the funded education that I was just handed ever be paid back to sides of your family still combating habitual ticks of prejudice in our culture? No. Is the obvious answer. Not by me. I will forever owe. And even across the ten steps Caricom lays out for African reparations – the debt cancellation, the psychological rehabilitations, the cultural reinstitutionalising, the health crises investments, the repatriations, the investments, the raw humility diplomatically demanded – even then, its known there’s no making straight handouts to individuals, or even to indiginous governments, so often effectively encouraged by corporate interests to be complicit in their people’s suffering. It will take whole new trust organisations to administer the paybacks and invest them well. And we don’t have a great track record of that happening yet.

Debt is owed in multiple ways by everyone, at all levels. Many families down at ordinary us level have been drowning in it, trying to stay afloat. As the cost of doing everything has gone up, driven as much by our system’s addiction to private property values as anything, ordinary people’s ability to afford a healthy place in public life is diminishing all the time in many places, right in the heartland of the traditional wealth centres of the world. And as this begins to affect infrastructure investment for ordinary people by public bodies and the governments they supposedly voted in, it leads in turn to a growing infrastructure deficit in the whole public realm. And infrastructure deficit leads directly to social deficit. A threadbaring of the fabrics supposedly richly woven for the good of the nation, to bind it together, from the old cotton mills. Supplied by the old cotton fields of Alabama.

In the mean time, there is you and me. Trying to patch up our cheaply-made jeans. Trying to get on. And, yknow. What can we do?

From the world’s current stooping shuffle, I think there’s one thing we can do. I think we can look up.

 

SEEING THE HOPEY-CHANGEY BIT.

Do you dream of being rich? Of what it might be like to be a billionaire? I find myself wondering this again, as I wrap up the cost of doing daft hopey-changey art and start going looking for the next thing I can actually bill someone for. But if we dream occasionally of being them, what do they dream of? Once you supposedly have it all, what comes next?

Interesting that all of the top six richest world individuals we mentioned earlier are described in their Wikipedia profiles as ‘philanthropists’ alongside their day jobs. What audience are they playing to there, I wonder? Once you’re a billionaire, who do you care sees you publically as a human being as much as a businessperson?

And what does it say about them that so many of them are investing in conspicuously futurey things? Are they finally losing the plot in planning to leave the planet, or is something so far removed from the pressures of poverty it seems the epitome of gauchely wealthy disconnection, actually something that might hold a symbolic key to our ambitions to make the human race truly wealthy?

In trying to invest in getting more of us out of the gutter, should we even be spending a single penny on trying to get more of us into the stars?

Or does the penny finally drop when the penny floats?

The Designer of SpaceShip One, Burt Rutan, the aerospace engineer who’s team won the SpaceX prize with the craft, was philosophical as Dr Brian Cox interview him for a BBC documentary, The 21st century race for space. He said: “Why do we as the human race want to fly into space, push and push and push”: “I think it goes back to why we’re different from the animals. The animals live to survive. Humans live to explore. To find out what’s over that mountain.”

On December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Brian Binnie was at the controls for the first powered test flight of SpaceShip One, taking the craft to a top speed of Mach 1.2 – and he went on to break the record for the highest winged flight in it. And he too, formal naval pilot and practical Princeton graduate, was philosophical as Cox interviewed him about the human experience of flying into space. In fact, he was dreamily thoughtful, as he spoke about the memory of what happened after the incredible adrenalin rush of the rocket motor firing, propelling the craft to its 112kmm altitude from its parentship launch, and the motor was then shut down. It was, he said, for all the excitement that got him to that moment, by far the best part.

“It’s as though you step across the line into an entirely new dimension, and this instant karma of weightlessness,” he said. “And it happens just like that, and you realise…” he continues with a slightly lost for words pause, “you’re in space. And it’s as though somebody’s pulled back a stage curtain for the benefit of your eyes only. And you look up and there it is – this black void that is space.”

And he pauses again, thoughtfully. “It’s mystery. And menace. But you can also sense its majesty.”

It is, I can picture being for anyone, a humbling, profound, indescribable moment. A moment of such perspective. The first time you see Earth from space, and see space as it really is. So black. So vast.

Carl Sagan’s masterful highjacking of the Voyager camera, against sensible orders from the mission command who wanted only science gathered from their delicately precarious impossibly distant seeming craft’s instruments, is an image that changed the world – the pale blue dot. Something that took the image of Apollo 8’s iconic Earthrise photo and raised the frightening perspective of our one home planet to the ultimate truth: All we know of us isn’t just hideable with a thumb, it can look like a spec of dust to be wiped off a photograph.

These are the science- and engineering- and yes, politics-driven moments that mark humanity’s very very first steps into getting true perspective on itself. And tell me, what price that?

It’s no wonder many of our billionaires think there’s a lot of cash to be unlocked in space tourism.

Or in building an escape plan to Mars.

We can’t afford to lift all humans out of poverty, or global justice-redefining reparations, but we can afford to go to Mars? Rich people can burn rocket fuel into the atmosphere to have a briefly stratospherically expensive poetic moment? What planet are we living on?

On the face of it, you’re right. And the drivers of the space race were blatantly politico-economic – a race to flex the idea of supremacy between the US and the USSR. But, regardless of what the disconnected rich splurge cash on instead of human equity, it brings me to the experience we collectively have of progress – it doesn’t happen uniformly, does it. And I think there is a very basic principle we have to bear in mind if any fight for justice or struggle to build in sustainable new systems of wealth are going to work. We are not dealing with economic units. We’re not trying to find news ways of accounting for human life like counting beans. That’s the good old school’s kind of engineering. We’re dealing with people. And if people are born to do anything, they are born to explore.

Take away inspiration, and we take away progress’s ability to ever take. And, like it or not, our inspiration is outgrowing this one planet’s horizon. The nacent story of humans taking to space, spreading their cosmic wings for the first time, inspires millions to look beyond the Now. It’s the resurgence in the scientific understanding of our celestial neighbourhood afforded by space technology that is giving many people hope. It simply has to be some small but noticeable part of the story of us right now – because it just speaks to us. To our instincts to grow way beyond the treadmills of globalisation. And here’s the truth, like all travel, the more we get out there, the more we learn about home.

Like a personal anxiety coping technique, being able to pause the business of building our Now and pull out mentally to low Earth orbit and see our context? It is as amazing to us, as calming, as inspiring, as hope-filling as any image of progress can be. It shows us just how tied our bloodlines are. Seeing the Earth from space is when hardened test pilots and engineers – the frontier heroes of our modern times – really first get it. A kind of reverence for life.

As Colonel Bob Springer, astronaut who flew with the space shuttle Discovery twice, said to me once: “Everyone who goes into space comes back an environmentalist. Everyone.”

I think simply, such perspective might give us some practical help down here, right down at ground level. Some psychological tools to take forward.

Firstly the fruit of such reverence might be a little attitude change, deploying a very humble word into our thinking. Because I think a first definitely possible way forward we can any of us engage, as we work out what must be done, is I believe a key aspect of the whole shared future – helping to develop a story of grace.

I don’t simply mean picturing William Wilberforce singing Amazing Grace flintily as the eventual posterchap for abolition, though it’s easy to imagine him doing so. I mean the grim idea that after everything, the historically marginalised and oppressed nations of Africa, the Americas, the people of India… I wonder if a keystone to helping us build bridges between identities may be to include a conscious degree of grace in expressing all our heritage into future identities – forgiving the past.

But what will truly build the future is more and more of us becoming conscious that we need grace. And so need to give it. Grace is at its most potent in partnership. That’s when we can get truly productive.

Secondly, it’s the Goals. They are high-minded, and they don’t mention reparations. But they do one vital thing that I’ve come to realise as I’ve spent so much time with them – they help ordinary schmos like me and you put it all together. The great circle of everything we have to do. The complete story of us – the full picture of the consequences of how we’ve been living, lost in the world machine. Putting it together in our lowly minds is… empowering. Sobering, very weightilly sobering. But oddly inspiring. Giving us a much higher level of that vital mental component we’re collectively missing: awareness.

When we understand more of our context, nothing we do is in a vacuum any more. And gazing into space can give you that.

Which means, you might find yourself acting differently. Seeing differently. Knowing what you are doing is part of a bigger story. And while this will rob you of some hope to begin with, if you’re really facing the facts for the first time together, it is likely to oddly percolate. Bubble through your mind and filter your thinking. Suddenly, all you do in your daily life will have new resonnance. You may begin to feel that your life is oddly less lost in the machine. Because your living, your very life, will begin to feel like it’s part of that bigger story. And this might get you off your bloody arse at last.

You think you can’t do anything? As Chris Manjapra points out in a grimly frank history of the slave trade: “Over the past few decades, scholars have stressed the ways in which the antislavery movement depended on expanding democratic participation in civic debate, with British women and the working classes playing a crucial role in the abolitionist ranks. British parliamentarians were inundated with thousands of petitions from ordinary people pressing them to pass laws that eventually brought slavery to an end.”

So much of 18th century Britain is unnervingly like today’s. The hierarchy, the gossip, the papers, the society trends, the consumer fancies, the bawdy entertainments, the worthy hopes, the blind ignorances, the sincere intentions, the arrogant abuses of power, the satirical wits, the inequalites, the prejudices lurking. But while it looks like the shame machine under the different lace cosies, look closer and you’ll see something has changed. The machine is infected with nanites.

It was the enslaved themselves who rattled the cages. Forced uprisings that destablised the system. Sang the songs. Built the cultures. Held on to their identity and pushed it up through the earth into the sunlight, evolving and growing, knowing they were every bit as civilised as their savagely dehumanising oppressors. They knew. And they didn’t ever become the under-species they were forced to be. And in the end they got noticed by other humans prepared to surrender a little to empathy.

Today, we are so swamped with channels of information it has overloaded our attentions. How can we ever muster sufficient focuses of public attention we can skew the system and force change? Yet, connected like this, our collective empathy has not so much been empowered as fundamentally upgraded. For the digital networked human, you and me now, is a whole new level of us. You are the ghost in the machine, connecting a living new machine in the lungs of the old one. And every new connection you make reshapes it.

What shape do you want it to be today?

The truth is, when you pull out, this enormous theme running under our modern economics – slavery – goes beyond Africans or native nations of any kind being bought, sold and abused by old empires. It’s no conshy student poetry to say there is a kind of slavery net ensnaring all of us. An entrapment of thinking in how we live that, I would say keeps us docile. Kind of asleep. Asleep to the human potential. And to the things we can collectively do to address injustices.

The question many are asking is this: Is the Now of fearsome realities beginning to wake up more of us?

Umair Haque, writing for Medium, says he thinks we’re simply in the age of collapse. That our culture’s inability to question the fundamentals has perpetuated it way beyond its ability to stand up. That the kind of ‘super-people’ that corporations effectively are, omipresent and multi-connected to more than human powers, makes them the overlords of our time. But the reality of any hope to defeat these killer automatons stalking the Earth subjugating us, is in the fact that the world machine they’re part of is a system beginning to fail simply too many people in what people are. Human.

“This global system is not benefitting the average person in any real way — financially, socially, culturally, relationally, politically, economically. It might give him cheaper TVs and drugs to numb the pain with — but soothing the pain away isn’t happiness”. And while you might say this really is getting a bit student conshy poetry club, it’s hard to deny the sense of disallusionment driving populist times. So much a consequence I’d say again of our expectations not matching reality. Which means now is the time to help change those expectations – of the very things we consider of value to us.

“If your life was stagnating, and I asked you — “free trade, or a decent life?”, you’d laugh at me, wouldn’t you? Are people human beings — or are they just mindless workers, insatiable consumers, and heartless competitors?” Says Haque. And he makes the link all the way from the slave trade in America to kids working out their disalusionment in infamy-chasing classroom carnage.

But even in this failing system, he says, there are examples of not being so enslaved to it, suggesting it’s the good old Nordic nations that show better how it’s done.

“They are not protectionist nations. They trade away happily. But they also do something that the rest of the world does not so much — they reinvest the gains from trade in robust, universals, strong social contracts. Things like parental leave, healthcare, protection, insurance, incomes, are all guaranteed. So there is not the tension there — so much — at least of trade versus livability.”

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek showbiz economist, suggests we won’t make any practical difference to the crises of now by looking backwards to the achievements of our system. Even if they’re as world-shaping as the collective epochs of capitalism have been.

He recalls: “Back in 1991, a left-wing friend expressed his frustration that “really existing socialism” was crumbling, with exaltations of how it had propelled the Soviet Union from the plough to Sputnik in a decade. I remember replying, under his pained and disapproving gaze: “So, what? No unsustainable system can be, ultimately, sustained.” Now that globalization is also proving unsustainable, and is in retreat, its liberal cheerleaders resemble my friend when they proffer similarly correct, yet irrelevant, exaltations of how it lifted billions from poverty.”

He makes the point that we have a lot of money kicking around, but we’re not investing it where it’s actually needed.

“Humanity’s accumulated savings per capita are at the highest level in history. However, our investment levels (especially in the things humanity needs, such as green energy) are particularly low.”

He describes the real story of us globalising as going right back to the first migrants – all of us.

“Humanity has been globalizing since our ancestors left Africa, the earliest economic migrants on record. Moreover, capitalism has been operating for two centuries like “heavy artillery,” in Marx and Engels’ words, using the “cheap prices of commodities” to batter “down all Chinese walls,” “constantly expanding market for its products” and replacing “the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency” with “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.”

“It wasn’t until the 1990s, when we noticed the unleashing of momentous forces, that we required a new term to describe the emancipation of capital from all fetters, which led to a global economy whose growth and equilibrium relied on increasingly unbalanced trade and money movements. It is this relatively recent phenomenon – globalization, we called it – that is now in crisis and in retreat.”

So then, what does this mean for us? Left here at ground level to deal with it every day, psychologically, practically.

What is history and what is heritage? How do we define the difference in our minds? Because, let’s face it, it was none of us us, that did those specific historic things – we were none of us alive in that context. It is, in so many ways, history. But we all of us get to choose our conscious identity today, or preception of heritage, piecing together the fragments of ourselves into the collage we believe in. And if we can feel empathy with the bloodlines we learn to be connected with in our imaginations, as we experience what others percieve this to mean in the way they treat us, can we yet delve deeper into our minds and feel a glimmer of empathy for the blood running through everyone’s veins? It’s as hopey-changey hippy peace song as it gets, but it’s also the bottom bloody line of all our economics.

Influenced as enormously as we are by our education, our family, our cultural atmosphere, it is possible that those things themselves can change when we resolve to influence them back. And in new partnerships, who knows what realities we can make?

Howard Zinn, activist and historian, describes it to perfection, in a quote reminded to me by the lovely first lady of Momo while reading Noam Chomsky’s Occupy. Presumably while furthering her bid to overtun her gift to be a naturally profoundly balanced person to become loony barking Marxist, presumably.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”

 

It could be the quote on the inside sleave of Unsee The Future, the coffee table edition.

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives” he says. Hear that? Do you hear that?  “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives is the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending theis spinning top of a world in a different direction.

What’s emerging really is a truly globalising world. One where we can no longer hide our sacrifice zones. Because they have phones.

The business as usual of this chapter of human life on Earth seems the most likely and possible one, doesn’t it? Glimmers of hope, but the reality of overwhelming selfishness baked into the systems of the world machine, just grinding on. But, whatever the pain you and I might be labouring under today, defining our ability to think about anything, the statistical, pragmatic truth surrounding all our contexts is that the consequences of collective human living are converging to overwhelm everything. Our selfish business as usual is not sustainable. So things will never go back to the way they were when things suited you better than now, if they did. Or to some pre-injustice age. Or to Eden. Our job is to help see what life is like after we’ve tattooed the indelible scars on us and the planet. How to live with the semi colon.

Farhad Mirza, a human rights activist I met once during a travel glitch that had us spend an unexpected rainy night talking the world in a bar in Berlin, posted this on Twitter: “No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now, I don’t know what I’ve become. #Home – by Warsan Shire.”

We are all the migrants. The immigrant lost. We can continue to try to just shut eachother out, push each other away, but we are only storing up bigger and bigger problems for us and our children. For the planet we all have to live on. Can we reach a tipping point moment where our work to face the crises – educate and empower and enfranchise the refugees, emancipate the enslaved homeless looking for refuge in a storm – starts to shape a new Earth? Even new ideas of heavens possible in it?

I think it won’t be super-saviours that rescue us. It won’t be leaders alone, in the old fashioned sheepling sense of them, that will or can light up the complete Global Goals into a significant measure of success. The revolution won’t be lead. The evolution will be encouraged.

 

The symptoms of our living tell us what’s wrong. Injustice presents everywhere, as the daughters and sons of former slaves struggle to live lives as ordinary as and equal to the sons and daughters of former slave owners. So many daily blindsides from friends and co-citizens. A system built by dominating men, leaving men and women across all cultures struggling to know how to relate as equals. And mental health the world over imprisoning us in habits of comfort and desperation for purpose that is squandering the incredible medical advances prolonging the lives we have to feel broken and lost in. All while the complete song of nature is ringing in our ears a low building hum, a chorus of animal voices calling us to do one thing: Wake up. Wake up to who we really are. For we are part of the great circle of the Earth, and it is our purpose to sing for her. For all life.

The world machine is broken. The plan for fixing it is imperfect. But we ourselves are the wonky componentry – every one. Vulnerable, fat-headed, ignorant of some things, understanding the value of others. Impoverished in so many ways we are too poor to even see. Struggling to know ourselves. Lost and disempowered. Humiliated and degraded.

But we ourselves are the answer. We ourselves are the hopey changey bit.

Exploring the multiverse of examples of this happening all around us now, this will be Unsee The Future‘s ongoing mission, I think.

From rebel banks printing money to buy back household debts in England, to communities coming together to regreen the drylands of Ethiopia’s desperate Tigray region, to the rise of veganism across the West, linking better health with less damage to our resources… with a more humane psychology of consumption. From the explosion of projects building an economy of sharing, wanting to work for good instead of paycheques alone, wanting more time with loved ones and a much stronger sense of open community. The increasing seriousness of the universal basic income. The volunteering principle emerging naturally, not just around BS 9–5s, but in the way we value business projects themselves. To the flowering of truth budding in our sexual cultures – the admission that we are not stiff cut-outs of identity, but wobbly shaped individuals linked by our collective need of each other. And our collective suffering. Desires. Hopes.

It is our role now, surely, to put everything together in our minds and actively work against the fullest sense of human poverty – our disconnection from life on Earth. To recognise ourselves in the whole beautiful, rare, astonishing, diminishing web of it, as we learn to change the way we see it. And it will not be something we can fix with a switch flick.

We are in transition. Generation Now. From slaves to freefolk. From stereotypes to people. From separate consumers to flocking, reforming, sharing, shaping, encouraging global community. Is it any wonder more of us are being heard in our experiences of embodying the personal experience of transition? And do the trans of us have a profoundly simple testimony to us all in their hard-won identities, explored a whole generation ago in Ursula LeGuin’s prophetic, ice-cracking The left hand of darkness – we won’t lose our humanity in leaving the freezer-mould forms of us; in daring to realise who we are, we’ll find it.

It is us, in our outlook, that will encourage the more hopeful human tomorrow. By letting our vision of it percolate everything we say and do. By letting it charge a greater, zoomed-out sense of purpose. Like other worlders with perspective suddenly on what is truly wonderously preciously valuable about life on Earth. Without having to stump up millions taking a rocket trip.

As Howard Zinn put it, with words I could never better as we conclude this chapter of Unsee The Future:

“And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human being should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

And there we conclude our first series of Unsee The Future. We’ve mapped the whole plan for the human planet tomorrow… and where next?

I’ll be back with a new series after a bit of a break, pulling together so much of the creative ideas and… what? Oh. You mean the whole saving the planet thing. Because, this isn’t really the end, is it. This unrealistically triumphant Hopey Changey conclusion.

Hmm.

Well, if you’re asking how we bring it all alive, after this much time dialing around the UN’s Global Goals, I think I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that I think the UN is missing one. A Goal. And, in fact, they are missing the most important one. The one that is the only way to make the whole plan actually work.

Oh.

The good news is I think I know what it is.

UNSEE THE FUTURE WILL RETURN LATER IN THE SUMMER WITH A ONE-OFF SPECIAL.


DISCOVER THE UN’s No1 GLOBAL GOAL >

Their primary aim is ending poverty

 

The rebel bank, printing its own notes and buying back people’s debts >

Read The Guardian story of where art meets direct action in Walthamstow

 

Why do we value things? >

Everything Voluntary’s Skyler Collins considers what the word can mean.

 

We absolutely could give reparations to black people. Here’s how >

Read Julia Craven’s view on the idea for the Huffington Post.

 

The west’s wealth is based on slavery. Reparations should be paid >

Read Kehinde Andrews’ view on turning the world ‘radically fairer’

 

Caricom’s ten-point action plan for reparations >

Discover the Caribbean organisation’s aims

 

Countries back ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ reform of UN development system >

Discover the UN’s new plans to encourage more sustainable development

 

The Austerity Delusion >

Paul Krugman dissects the economic strategy Britain has wedded itself to

 

In Britian, Austerity is changing everything >

Peter S Goodman analyses the foreign landscape of the modern UK

 

Attempted suicides by disability benefit claimants more than double after introduction of fit-to-work assessment >

Read May Bulman reporting for The Independent

 

All of the world’s money and markets in one visualisation >

Peruse Jeff Desjardins’ infographic

Five Songs and counting

It’s now been three weeks. And, so… this is what life is like on the other side, is it? Is this how big things end?

 

Five Songs to help us Unsee The Future is, yes, complete and essentially a success on its intended terms. I think we survived it. And modest as those intended terms were, it feels significant to me. Because, more personally here in a blogged reflection of it, I can say that this little show represented a turning point for me, quietly unlike any other I’ve taken. All roads lead to that evening, it seemed, and I more or less ran Momo flat on all fronts getting over the line of it. That’s conviction for you, I guess. All or nothing. Who knew I could be that guy.

I should feel a lot more depressed than I do.

Weeeehhll, you know what big highs are like, right? Always followed by big lows, they say. But oddly I kept equillibrium through Five Songs, even as the final weeks ticked by towards it and I didn’t see the end of the To Do list zooming up as quickly as the date. And this was certainly much to do with conviction – the personal belief that I should be doing this, bolstered into credibility by the lovely first lady of Momo’s agreement on the idea. She, I listen to. She wise. But any whiff of credibility, or at least enough integrity somewhere knit together in the experience of it, was hugely too to do with those around me on the night. How the hell did I talk into it whom I did?

In the official Promo article of it I’ve name-checked most of the amazing team that put their trust in me and the idea. But it goes back further to the folk who gave time to listening to a daft bloke with a book turn up and bang on about a crazy idea. I spent 2016 drafting the thesis for the idea, around writing the first music and generally keeping the other creative plates of Momo spinning. And thesis I felt early on that it would have to be, because it was obvious from the beginning that my hopes to simply take amigos into space with the third studio LP would barely cover the idea. So, as that idea took shape, I decided to work first towards codifying it into a physical tome I could thump on people’s desks and say: “This. I wanna make this. ..Am I cray-cray?”

As I explained briefly to Mark Masters on the night and a little as his guest on the You Are The Media podcast, my idea to use each different tune from the album to explore a different ‘prediction’ of scifi got me first thinking about what those regular themes really were in scifi, and then to thinking: Which of these supposed futures is the most likely for us?

And that got me looking at the current state of affairs the world is in. Turns out… um, not great.

I’d wanted to explore science fiction musically because it’s just always been the general filter through which I’ve seen the world. Thanks, as I have said often, to my wonderful mother. She I have to thank for getting me hooked on Blake’s 7 when young and for radiating the assumption that the great SF writers were proper writers indeed – expanding the human outlook, not hiding in a clique of amateur fanderbation. Which is a word I didn’t realise I had apparently in my brain ready to instantly make up by typing it before I’d even thought about it. Hmm. My, er, mind.

Beloved Asimov, or Clarke, or any of the big hitters that are legends of their creative kind today adorned my book-devouring Ma’s shelves and lay around the house throughout my childhood, all with gloriously fantastical 70s edition covers. All perhaps setting up my imagination to receive my own new generation of Star Trek when TNG beamed into TV at the end of  my teens and blew me away with its integrity of in-world thinking. And our-world thinking.

So a trip round the cosmos with my playful musical sound would be a no-brainer, right? Especially with the wonderful family of amigos who’ve grown to encourage me so incredibly much these Momo:tempo years – they take me to school on storytelling and imaginative knowledge, as well as creative musical understanding. I wonder what I’ve been doing with my mind and time all these years talking with so many people in my timeline.

But, as I began to wonder more about where we currently are today, in this broad chapter of Now, the big social and political bombs dropped that just changed the climate around me somehow – the B-word result here in the UK and the terrifying satire of Forty-Five’s actual election in the US. As people I love and respect were suddenly taking forceful stands against ome values I’d not thought about dividing us before, I could sense a new kind of reality unfolding in the air between us. Division like the UK seemed to be leaving behind, if the bubble of love I felt lifted into by the 2012 Olympics was anything to go by. It wasn’t, it turns out. Or at least, it wasn’t the whole reality. Which plenty of folk I love and respect might have told me, from numerous different perspectives I’d never felt for myself.

This Now of fearsome realities, as I came to christen it, put my daft playful ideas of music into a new imperative context culturally. It wasn’t that I awoke on the morning after the referendum result and said: “Now I am on a mission. I will redeem my country with electro-beat tomfoolery.” It sort of all happened naturally, concurrently, dawningly. And so I wrote down the things I was beginning to discover.

The result is the thesis of The Shape of Things To Hum. I had a couple of sacred copies of the short-run book out on display at Five Songs. Was expecting them to get nicked, because I know I’d want to. And in their pages, I found not simply the delineation of a five-part production take shape, most especially as I shared the bare bones of the idea with Andy Robinson early on and reading a whole new heart-filling dimension to the project in his first script for The Martian Artist. But also in the way those scif topics combined to imply a story as well. A story that consolidated, by mere juxtaposition, into a little opening essay. A starting point belief from first research that perhaps in fact, scifi was always trying to teach us the future. And that that might even give us some hope.

If we can turn Things To Hum into a full production, I shall undoubtedly find the budget to release a version of the thesis in print, hopefully bringing some of the graphics up to date with work we’ll produce especially for the project and already have a little. For now, I’ve turned it into an audiobook – the complete thing – as a sort of precursor, it turned out, to the podcast, Unsee The Future.

A thing you can now download and listen to if you are a Momo amigo subscribed out of wonderful actual interest on the mailing list.

As 2017 started, however, I had nothing else but the book and the outline of many of the tunes. Enough to feel inspired, and helpfully prepped in my mind to talk very definitely with first consultants. Because what could I do next? I had to get it outside my head and simply ask some first trusted advisors if my mad idea was pure folly. And planning to do this timed with something else interesting for Momo.

A few big things kind of cleared out of my way all at once, quietly. In creative work terms, two big clients I’d been working with alongside dear mate Julian Clarke-Jervoise came to the end of their projects with us, and a personal chapter closed for me and the lovely first lady of Momo. Some richly interesting but schedule-filling events were delivered and surived and billed by Jules and I, wrapping up a chapter of a few good crazy adventures around the world just quietly. And for Caroline and I, our long years of quietly trying for children came to an end. A sad one, but a weirldly peaceful one, as the book finally gently shut.

A story for anther time. But this turning point came to us during a year of celebrating a significant milestone in our marriage and felt like, well, at least closure. It was time to pack up our blessings and move on from the uncertainty. A mystery over us – yet one we came to finally accept, grateful for still being in a team together facing it. Who can explain any of the mysteries of loss and gain?

Which meant I found myself at the start of 2017 with a big book of an idea, some interesting tunes, a bit of pocket money in the Momo vault and a clear diary. So I filled it. With a year of trying to work out how the hell to make The Shape of Things To Hum a reality. Me. Bloke alone in a shed. With zero track record of making much beyond a jolly nice time of it happen around some good tunes.

I planned a schedule and wrestled with a gant chart, to make it seem real. I think the original gant chart I in no way used afterwards was February. I worked on a companion document to the thesis, an internal brief, to map out the many layers of development a whole concept production would require – the music, the stage, the graphics, the film and the digial elements, yes, but quietly huge challenges like the PR – finding an audience. Defining the brand. Working out how we’d fund anything, attract anyone to want to. And stages of development to start testing things.

What this year of development didn’t do was stick to first timings and get a show made. I should print out the original gant chart as a quaint poster memento. Sell it in the Mercato page as a curio.

What it did was kind of change my life.

Getting out to a number of folk in the first few months and share the vision for this great thing was empowering. Because no-one thought I was cray-cray. Well, no-one thought the idea was cray-cray. They thought it was infectiously inspiring, they all differently said. All. Exciting. So I began to belive in actual possibilities, at least. And in the idea of having a mission of sorts. One that felt somehow more than the energising ones I’d always felt before of each album adventure. As the brand developed sufficient to flip Momo:tempo into a new, more futurismy chapter, I began to explore how to build an audience. Something I’d not scienced the shee out of before, but I began to remind myself of the principle of regularity. Posting things as a regular voice of something. But also finding the ears to listen who already wanted to – finding your micro niche.

I discovered that, musically speaking, I don’t have one. That is, I’m it. So as I’d always known instinctively so I discovered with some research that year – I have no home, creatively. No neat pocket of fandom exists waiting for me to join it. The sound of Momo:tempo combines things from a few certain niches, but the combination of them has me seem to stand alone. So, I wouldn’t quickly win over the electro-pop musical crowd alone. My story was going to be the truly interesting and perhaps connecting bit. The why of Things To Hum. What came along at the same time changed up my life’s outlook again.

A friend introduced me to Ross Thornley. A creative consultant with an eye on the future. And he simply said to me: “Have you heard of the UN’s Global Goals?”

“No,” I said flatly. “What they?”

“They are a framework for talking around the human challenge as we’re facing it,” he replied. “A language used by higher-level people, who are more likely to respond to you framing your thesis around it’s analysis of everything.”

I didn’t make Unsee The Future immediately. But you know where I ended up. After reading around the topics I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this grand project before – and how the hell I was supposed to interact with them at Nobody Ground Level, where I live.

That summer, we had a first production meeting with Treehouse Digital. Because they too were something a little life-changing that came to me in my research. Frankly, like a small world of people, as I knocked on doors for enthusiastic chats. I didn’t find any cold hard cash, but I found some love for the project, at least in principle. And I found new friends. Treehouse met kindly and enthuiastically with me and Andy and with our Bonnestell – our Martian artist – Veronica Jean Trickett, whom Andy found from a networking event somewhere and to whose picture I simply said: “But that’s Nina. It’s just her, isn’t it?”

We had a sketch of a plan to make the film and the graphics. The next stage was to make a first music film to test the production and that summer, across a couple of mighty sweatsome days in Treehouse’s loft in Boscombe, we made the simply beautifully shot Behave New World, Hazel Evans brought in to be the face of the whole future, in an idea Pete, Natalie and Tom pitched to me for the piece. With a little creative help from projection artist Martin Coyne, we had a first bit of visual language and indeed music to share out there.

By the end of the year, you might have been forgiven for wondering what I’d been doing for twelve months. But it felt like I’d quietly changed worlds. Researching more of the state of the world as I squared up to becoming a podcaster, I realised this project was indeed my mission now  – and that if I was to make anything of it real, I would need to begin to stoke that idea of a regular audience. Strangely not built primarily around the music, but the idea. So, stoked by You Are The Media‘s regular wise counsel in Mark’s regular weekly bulletins, I finally launched the opening episode of Unsee The Future just before Christmas. And found I loved making preachy radio.

Hardly a surprise on any front, right?

I laid out the episodes along a timeline that I hoped would lead to… something, in the spring. But as I woke up on January first this year, I realised I had no idea what I was going to do with a single moment of this new empty calendar, so preoccupied had I been with working the old one.

WHAT was I going to, er, lead towards with Unsee?

The point was to create a something that revealed The Shape of Things To Hum at long last. But… how? I knew that BEAF was back, and in April and early May, so surely I had to put some kind of something into that, right?

Then on a walk in the woods in the first days of the new year, a phrase fell out of a conversation with the lovely first lady of Momo. “Five songs to help us unsee the future.” And something quietly went twang.

In the first weeks I worked up an introduction. Just like a radio play. And realised we had a format that could work. An old-fashioned bit of budget theatre – turning out all the lights and focussing on voice. The words: “Are we all asleep?”. Then I realised we needed eye masks. It felt like the start of something.

I picked five tunes from the LP and worked out a narrative around them – could I work up a cogent thesis of how we might get to the more hopeful human tomorrow, from the themes explored by these tracks, celebrating their particular themes of science fiction? I found myself in Rob Amey’s studio space in Boscombe humming and hahing and he simply said to me with a grin: “Just put the application into BEAF. Just put something in. Then you’ve got to do it.”

Well, in the end I had to do it. And perhaps I will go into this as fully as the experience justifies it one day, but here it is enough to say that from nothing at Christmas, the journey to producing our first actual, gosh-darned real world production, Five Songs, had some remarkable turns of fortune lining me up for the runway. Coincidences that might raise the hair on my neck if I dwell on them, but which essentially just did what I most needed… encourage me. To not give up.

When I found myself sharing the opening and the plan with Mike and Michele from Octopus Farm, they stared back at me and just said words to the effect of: “Shuttup and take our help. This is awesome.” I did, and they were. They treated the whole project as real from the beginning and valued it as not only credible but purposeful. If the Octonauts were my first official sponsor in a wonderful line of souls encouraging me in other ways, I couldn’t have found more validating, excitment-amplifying ones.

This side of actually doing it, I have not had a big emotional crash. Perhaps because I avoided a huge high going into it. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Five Songs was a waypoint. A quietly massive one, but just that. Now we at least know, it could work. And we got our ‘quorum’ of mood in the room, which was in the end my only aim. People felt it, even though this test-bed first ever production was always going to be literally made of stick and string.

As I walked into Talbot Heath hall that afternoon and saw everyone in there, separately tinkering in the big empty space, together for the first time, I knew we had it all to do, but that it wasn’t really in any one person’s hands – even mine. All I had to do was gently ensure everyone’s plate was spinning up to speed as I moved around the groups and we finally struck up some actual musical sounds.

Y’know, the real space is never the space in your head. Hazel and I and Andy and I and Pat Hayes and I and Becky Cutts and I and Becky Willis and I may have felt increasingly excited each time we met to talk performance, film, music, set and show, but eventually you are on set and having to dance through all you planned in a whole new alien reality, trusting your prep. Somehow, with a scraggle of things looking apart from each other until tea time, we could have in the end pressed the button to let folk in from 7.00pm on the nose, right on schedule. I stood there, clad in my new Po-Zus, wondering where faith would take me as I stepped forward into it in this latest little bit, the actual perforamance.

I guess, the revelation of the reality was simply that it worked. There was love in the room. Tunes I’ve had in my head for years carried themselves, I think, including a conclusion that I was still wrestling with finishing just days before. Could I really just end the show by standing at an actual lectern in a preacher’s white suit and actually just preach?

Turns out, when you resiliently have no normal Cool, like me, you are free to try anything with enough conviction.

Especially when there is love in the room willing you on. I was hugged by such a line of people I admire and appreciate it was fortifying. People who had traveled from towns away, or just from a Sunday afternoon, to let me blindfold them and put strangers’ hands in theirs and sing the end of the world to them.

Except, because of the trust everyone showed me and each other that night, I have never felt more strongly, this is very far from the end. It’s just the beginning.

xxx.