in medias res #3

An occasional diary piece. Recent places: Lisbon & London.

I’ve always rather liked the fact that the academic year gives you the opportunity to start afresh twice; once in September, and again in January. Although this is my fourth September out of education, I still find that the first cool breezes of autumn send a primal message to take stock of my life and hunker down for the winter. For the last few years I’ve been in Wales for a week or two during this shoulder period, but this time I spent a long weekend (is six days a long weekend?) in Lisbon with my partner Daisy, enjoying the ambience of faded grandeur, and seeking out just about every bookshop in the city.

Despite my misgivings about certain notions of personal productivity in the last piece I wrote here, it’s actually something I’ve spent quite a bit of time working over the last year. I started with Tiago Forte’s Praxis blog, but realised that it depended to a great extent on knowledge of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a bestseller in the field. Most of the material in the book is not very complicated, for instance the now well-known ‘two minute rule’ – if you find something that needs doing and it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. Another useful idea is to turn everything that you need to do (unless it’s a one-off errand) into a project, with its own space for gathering ideas and materials. I happen to manage my projects on Notion, but it could very easily be designed on paper or one of many digital apps (I started on Evernote). As a subscriber to Tasshin Fogleman’s newsletter I also ended up getting early access to the Digital Productivity Coach, a Notion workspace he put together with James Stuber, which is now generally available (for free if you want!). If you’re looking for a place to get started in personal productivity, I can’t recommend it more. Inspired by Tasshin again, I embarked on my first ‘twelve week year’ at the beginning of October. As laid out in Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington’s book, the concept is simple: rather than making yearly goals and plans, you shorten the time horizon to twelve weeks, meaning you have to choose a few key things to work on, with measurable lead and lag indicators. I’ll likely do a full write-up at the end of the process, but for now I’ve found that it’s (counter-intuitively) been a really valuable way to keep a broader view on what I’m focusing on at any given time, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day to-dos (which I found can be a side-effect of the GTD ethos).

One of my twelve-week goals is to put out a blog or mix every week, last week producing this mix, which began life as a vague idea to do something for the fifteenth anniversary of Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album, Boy in da Corner. Obviously that date passed me by, but I was determined not to let the idea go to waste, and ended up with something I’m rather proud of, starting out with the more standard ‘grime tempo’ tracks that I like from the album, then moving into a jungle and hardcore inflected rinse out for the second half. The inspiration to get the mix finished came from reading Dan Hancox’s brilliant Inner City Pressure, a brief history of grime with a wonderful sense of storytelling and socio-political heft to it (perhaps not surprising given that his first published book was a history of Marinaleda, a utopian Communist village in Andalusia). Hancox makes a convincing case for grime as the ‘most innovative, thrilling and controversial music of the 21st century’, taking in its origins in New Labour Britain and the pressure placed on it by government and police, and its role as part of an informal London culture which has come under increasing threat in recent years from surveillance and gentrification. Boy in da Corner itself is emblematic of how grime didn’t fit in the first time it made a break for the mainstream, with Dizzee Rascal ‘doing pop-cultural modernism entirely the wrong way’, on his own terms, without attempting to pander to the established cultural gatekeepers. The mid-noughties hysteria about hoodies and happy-slapping seems almost comical now, but Hancox brings that era to life, and points out the continuities in inequality, as starkly evidenced by the ongoing disaster of youth crime in London, and the tragedy of Grenfell in 2017. As Dizzee put it in ‘2 Far’: “Queen Elizabeth don’t know me, so/How can she control me, when/I live street and she lives neat?”.


Recent reading and listening:

Riding the general wave of the Great Weirding, I read the second volume of Robert Anton Wilsons’ Cosmic Trigger, a scattergun collection of short pieces personal, political, and somehow very pertinent to the way the world is at the moment.

My friend Jess on the Both/And Podcast with Jason and Jared, chatting lucidly about meta-rationality and sexuality!

on not saving the world

On a warm day in early April I headed down Salter’s Hill, as I do every week, to walk the beautiful Frank (pictured). I often listen to a podcast as I go, which on this occasion was Emerge with Daniel Thorson, interviewing the sustainability scientist Dr. Jem Bendell, on “The Meaning and Joy of Inevitable Social Collapse”. The title begs the question: how could one possibly find meaning and joy in (inevitable) social collapse?

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In their conversation, Daniel and Jem discuss the latter’s Deep Adaptation paper, a move to reframe discussions on climate change from corporate sustainability towards ‘resilience, relinquishment and restoration’. I can only recommend the podcast and/or paper for those in a reasonably stable frame of mind. However, I can say that for my part, the discussions in this podcast have not plunged me into depression, but have begun to resonate productively with much else that I’ve encountered in the last few months.

From seeing the Extinction Rebellion protests to reading Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, I’ve been developing a general sense that Global Weirding is coming home to roost, both climactically and culturally. There may be an element of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon to this, but at least in the UK it seems that Greta Thunberg, the school walkouts and the Extinction Rebellion protests have pushed ‘climate crisis’ to the top of everyone’s minds.

There are many threads to pull on here; it’s easy to get caught up in the drama of eschatological thinking, becoming either a zealot for some kind of solution, or instead falling into hopelessness and despair. I think these are reasonable responses. But following Jem Bendell, might there be another way through the mire? Similarly to Haraway, he speaks of mourning the loss of certain things, species and ways of life, but also cultivating new modes of kinship and meaning-making.

Part of the work of living on a damaged planet is to recognise that it’s not about you. As Venkatesh Rao put it in this Twitter thread, there is a common misapprehension that the world’s problems rest on you personally, and furthermore that they can be coalesced into one enormous problem. Instead, ‘The world is not yours to save. You have an obligation to NOT try to save it.’ This is not to dismiss the work of climate activists and others striving to make things better – merely a suggestion that on a personal level, one should find a small piece of problem, and join some like-minded folk in working on that problem.

Counter-intuitively, a calling to ‘not save the world’ could be enfolded into the Bodhisattva ideal, with its vow to liberate all sentient beings. On one level of course, the Bodhisattva vow is about saving the world, but it places an emphasis on positive action in the right place at the right time. To borrow from David Chapman, this is not a calling to be special, or ordinary (since neither are really possible), but instead to cultivate nobility:

Mere goodness is not nobility. Often we use goodness as a way of trying to be ordinary or special. Being “morally correct” in an ordinary, unimaginative, conformist way may be an excuse for avoiding the scary possibility of extraordinary goodness, or greatness. Doing good in a showy way can be a strategy for convincing ourselves, or others, that we are special.


Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others. Nobility is using whatever abilities we have in service of others. Nobility is seeking to fulfill our in-born human potential, and to develop all our in-born human qualities.

One organisation that seems to embody this ideal for me is The Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth, which I also heard about through the Emerge podcast. Although I’m only looking from afar, it seems to be both grounded in reality and aspirational, with an intention to help cultivate the conditions for human flourishing. The explicit incorporation of skills from education and business is a particularly interesting component, as detailed in the fascinating blog of Tasshin, a full-time monastic at the Academy.

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to bring this to any sort of conclusion. In the face of everything, I know so little. For now, I’ll just affirm that it is possible to de-escalate the drama of the end times, and cultivate some meaning and joy (and sing baby shark!) along the way.


Recent reading has taken a turn for the weird, including Robert Anton Wilson’s fabulous, baroque, and inexplicable Illuminatus trilogy and the first volume of his Cosmic Trigger. I’m currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which touches on many of the themes discussed here and has a gripping story to boot.


Recent listening: Rin’dzin Pamo (aka Charlie El Awbery on Twitter) on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, eloquently discussing Vajrayana meditation with Michael Taft.


ICYMI: I wrote a kind of short story to accompany a mix/playlist (or the other way round), Tunes To Terraform To.

in medias res #2

Recent locations: Tywyn, mid-Wales (doing something like this); London, England & Kirkby Malham, People’s Republic of North Yorkshire.

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A bit of prehistoric forest what got left behind on the beach

My favourite kind of reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, is the sort which feels a bit like your brain is being re-wired. While I was in Tywyn recently, volunteering as a guard on the Talyllyn Railway, the world’s first preserved railway and an all-round lovely thing, I was doing some diving back into old Ribbonfarms and came across this rather long post. I hadn’t watched the linked Donna Haraway Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Chthulhucene video the first time I read it, but this time I was moved to – and I’m glad I did. In fact, I found the talk so compelling that I decided to read the related book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which was published in 2016.

Staying with the Trouble is my first time reading Haraway, and I’ve found some very productive cross-pollination with other recent reading/listening around both environmental issues and community building. The book is bristling with ideas, drawing on Haraway’s philosophy and collaboration with other academics and artists, as well as a multitude of other intriguing voices, both human and non-. A major theme is disavowal of the term ‘Anthropocene’, and its failure to adequately describe the current geological epoch of human-influenced extinctions and climate change. Haraway also rejects the environmentalist’s alternative, ‘Capitalocene‘, with its Marxist implications of Modernity, Progress and History (note the capitalisations!). Haraway suggests that the humanity-focused narratives engendered by the above terms have a tendency to lead either to wild optimism in the possibility of technological fixes to our various predicaments, or to a profoundly nihilistic despair:

Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude.

Her constant refrain is for us to return to the networks we can see and feel, ‘staying with the trouble’ of living on a damaged planet, and doing the best we can – in the lives we build and the stories we tell.

Haraway is particularly interested in the notion of ‘sympoiesis’, or ‘making-with’, exploring a kind of ‘tentacular thinking’ through the work of pigeons and their handlers, and going on to work through various other case studies of human involvement in networks with humans and animals which are somehow more than the sum of their parts. Throughout the book, she echoes Virginia Woolf’s call in Three Guineas – ‘Think we must’, and proposes some very useful tools for further thinking. Drawing on the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, she reminds us that ‘It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas’, and comes up with the uniquely wonderful formulation ‘It matters what worlds world worlds’. Presciently, in light of Extinction Rebellion, she also suggests that the correct response to the world as we find it is to revolt – but ‘of course, the devil is in the details – how to revolt?’.

There is so much more I could say, and to some extent I’m still digesting (or perhaps composting?) the book, and will likely find that it would be worth re-reading several times. The last chapter is a speculative fiction of sorts, imagining five generations of a human/monarch butterfly symbiont, living through a ‘great dithering’, and the eventual destruction of the species they have been made kin with, while the world changes irreversably. This touches on one of Haraway’s slogans for the times we live in, ‘Make kin, not babies!’, a suggestion deeply considered in light of the troubled history of racist and eugenicist attempts to restrict reproductive freedom, and arrived at in the hope that it can be an inspiration for dialling down humanity’s impact on the world in creative and sympoetic ways, rather than something coercive and negative. I’ll leave Haraway with the last word here:

The Children of Compost would not cease the layered, curious practice of becoming-with others for a habitable, flourishing world.

 


Related recent listening and reading:

Jared, Jason and Jess talking about Tech, Culture and Collaboration on the Both And podcast – discussing intentionally building communities of like-minded folk, among other things!

Another approach to the emerging human condition from Venkatesh Rao, taking on board some aspects of Haraway, as well as Tiago Forte’s ‘Build a Second Brain‘ work, and the Ood of Doctor Who.

Timothy Roy on Rolling your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community.

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A Good Boy

in medias res #1

An occasional diary of what I’ve been up to/reading/thinking about – from Bloomsbury to Tibet via South London, naturally!

IMG_0280The Easter season takes a heavy toll on the church organist, but I’m glad to report that I made it out the other side with all faculties intact, and may even have enjoyed it a bit. The unseasonably warm weather also made for a very pleasant bank holiday Monday trip to Knole house in Sevenoaks, Kent with my parents. I hadn’t been back to Knole since my first visit in 2016, when several of its rooms were undergoing refurbishment. The main showrooms are now available in all their glory, but I was particularly delighted to find that that Edward Sackville-West’s rooms in the gatehouse are now open to the public, with a specially curated exhibition about his life and works. Last year I happened to come across a biography of Eddy by Michael De-la-Noy at the bookshop where I work, having been intrigued by him ever since I discovered a few of his bookplates knocking around the shop (see below). A cousin of the much better known Vita Sackville-West, Bloomsbury-ite and lover of Virginia Woolf, Eddy was a highly regarded music critic and novelist, writing, along with Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Record Guide (1951), a comprehensive guide to all classical music recorded at that point. When he lived at Knole he was part of the constellation of ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s, decorating his rooms in the gatehouse in a curious combination of 1890s decadence and 20s modernism, albeit with a Bloomsbury slant, incorporating a beautiful fire screen by Duncan Grant. Here he welcomed such luminaries as Ethyl Smyth and E.M. Forster, and embarked on a string of doomed love affairs whilst writing some fairly well-received novels, unfortunately all out of print today. Knowing nothing about the gatehouse rooms in advance, it was an unexpected joy to find so much Eddy ephemera in one place.

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A side effect of spending much of my time on social media and blogs is that I often forget exactly where I first heard about something. So it is with Donald Lopez’ Prisoners of Shangri-La – my Amazon history tells me that I ordered the book on 2 June 2014, but I can’t remember where it was recommended and I didn’t make any note of it at the time. Prompted by Lopez’ recent guest appearance on the Imperfect Buddha podcast, and the prospect of an Easter Sunday afternoon on a sun lounger, I started re-reading to see what it would offer a second time around.

The book’s essential premise is that Tibetan Buddhism is a magnet (and I don’t use the metaphor lightly) for various kinds of mystification and mythologising, by Tibetologists, Tibetophiles, and Tibetans alike. This sort of argument will be familiar to those who have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, but Lopez doesn’t engage in the sort of binarising discourse that soIMG_0301.png often follows in Said’s wake, instead giving a nuanced history of the interactions between Tibet, its neighbours and the wider world, particularly as they pertain to Buddhism. The writing is academic without being overly formal, and Lopez tends to wear his theory lightly, covering Tibetan Buddhism’s misreading as a degenerate kind of ‘Lamaism’; the links made between its priestly hierarchy and Roman Catholicism; the various uses and misuses of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ (mostly a twentieth century invention); the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’; and the curious popularity of Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye, a book written by an English man who had never visited Tibet, but claimed that he had at some point taken on the consciousness of a very well-travelled Lama. Beyond being a fascinating and sometimes amusing read, Lopez’ approach in prisoners is to pick apart our received notions about Tibetan Buddhism. In doing so he discovers that the hall of mirrors is unending – Tibetan Buddhism has come loose from its homeland in the mind of the rest of the world, a process which has only accelerated since the exile of its political hierarchy after 1959. The religion has stepped into a role it originally served to medieval China, as priest to patron, but this time to the whole world, becoming a symbol of universal love and compassion, especially in the form of the Dalai Lama, while hopes of genuine political change begin to fade. Along with David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, and David Chapman’s various blog series over at VividnessPrisoners of Shangri-La was pivotal in changing the way I understood what modern Buddhism was, so I was glad to go back for a second time and rediscover its wealth of insights.

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My other read for the week was an offshoot of the Deserter blog, Today South London,Tomorrow South London, written by Andrew Grumbridge and Vincent Raison, or their alter egos Raider and Dirty South. Essentially a cobbled together series of pub crawl blogposts, the book is nevertheless a fun read and occasionally approaches the sublime, with a surprisingly moving ending. The name is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as the book definitely skews more South-East, but if you’re looking for an actually readable pub guide and your postcode is SE, the authors have certainly shared a well-researched wealth of knowledge here!


I’ve started tracking my reading on GoodReads, and set myself a goal of 100 books read for 2019, which should be visible here. I’ve yet to add a few from earlier in the year, so hopefully the goal isn’t as wildly ambitious as it looks at the moment.


Recent listening: an absurdist leftist take on Brexit from trashfuture podcast, the Donald Lopez episode mentioned above, and the soundtrack to most of my tube journeys in the form of this brilliant darkside hardcore mix by Pearsall.

War in the Sunshine

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art to see the exhibition ‘War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-1918’. It was my first visit to the museum, a little-known collection of Italian, mostly Futurist, art in a quiet spot in Islington. The current exhibition has been widely advertised, and coincides with the re-opening of the museum following a substantial refurbishment.

‘War in the Sunshine’ comprises paintings and drawings by the British artist Sydney Carline (1888-1929), as well as photographs by Ernest Brooks (1878-1941) and William Joseph Brunell (1878-1960). I was initially spurred to visit by the Estorick’s own blurb, repeated by various reviewers, that the exhibition ‘highlights a forgotten aspect of Britain’s involvement in the conflict [WWI]’. And it’s true – our collective knowledge about the First World War is almost exclusively focused on France and Belgium.

But the exhibition does more than this. On viewing the aerial paintings of Sydney Carline (first sketched as he flew a Sopwith Camel with his knees, and later on commissioned by the RAF), one’s preconceptions of the First World War are profoundly challenged. Rather than hellish depictions of trench warfare, we see dogfights above beautiful Alpine vistas rendered in oils, and subtle depictions of British officers riding through town. Carline was a well-respected artist in post-war Britain, but the exhibition suggests that perhaps he regretted his wartime activity on later reflection. He sadly died of pneumonia at the age of just 41, cutting short a promising artistic career.

Moving on to the second room of the exhibition we see the photos of Brooks and Brunell, soldier and civilian respectively, taking surprisingly different approaches to documenting the campaign. Brooks focuses on portraits of the British soldiers doing soldierly things, whereas Brunell has an eye for interaction between soldier and native, with some particularly effective portraits of Italian women. All in all the photographs help to reveal the importance of this oft-forgotten front, whose tying up of Austro-Hungarian troops may have helped to swing the war’s balance in favour of the Entente powers in 1918.

A final touch added to the exhibition was a series of new works by the artist Keith Roberts, of which I was most impressed by Distant Voices, or Caporetto, pictured at the bottom of the page. The title refers to the battle of Caporetto, in which ten thousand Italian soldiers were killed over the course of a month in late 1917. The cracked and broken bells (they seem to be a favourite subject of the artist) are compared to the sound of ‘an individual voice that has now fallen silent’, and they create a poignant tribute to the wasted Italian youth of a battle whose name is to this day an Italian metaphor for a complete disastebeeellsr.

Although I don’t know whether the artist is aware of this link, the bells are also highly reminiscent of a similar war memorial in the cathedral of the city of Lübeck in north Germany. During a British air raid in March 1942 the cathedral and its contents were completely destroyed by fire, including an organ played by Dietrich Buxtehude and possibly J.S. Bach. During the church’s restoration it was decided to keep two of the broken bells which crashed to the floor of the south tower during the air raid as a memorial. I was particularly moved by this sight on a visit to the cathedral a few years ago, and it instantly came to mind when I saw Keith Roberts’ work. It seemed a suitable counterpoint to an exhibition which to some extent humanises war and reconnects it to the everyday – a reminder of war’s ultimate price. The exhibition is open until March 19th, and it’s well worth a visit if you have the chance.

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