Alain de Botton
The crisp tail-end of Autumn
London is unhappy. It’s never been a city for smiling, but the clouds that have settled over its sprawl in late 2011 don’t look like leaving any time soon. Spilling out of the same tube station I did fifteen years ago, back when London was the center of the universe, I see no signs of Cool Brittania. Damien Hirst at the Royal Academy. The Heavenly Social. The ground outside our flat torn up for the extension of the Jubilee line, running to the Millennium Dome. That rubble is gone. The record store where I worked, now an off-brand clothing outlet. My markers, dust.
Earlier this year, this city tore itself apart at its neglected seams in an explosion of tension and rage. At St Paul’s, the police and the people and the priesthood are now warily staring each other down as the City pushes for the ejection of the Occupy protestors. The canon chancellor has resigned. St Paul was a tentmaker, he reminds them. Any kind of messiah that might be born now, he ventures, could well be born in one of these tents. Glimmers of the simple, of the self, of the brave.
My search for a smile takes me to a shop front in Bloomsbury. The School of Life, the sign says. Ideas to live by, it says. Now, whenever I hear the words ‘self help’, I reach for my politely-but-quickly-backing-out-of-the room-and-breaking-into-a-sprint manœuvre. But this place is something else. Under headings like ‘work’ and ‘happiness’, works by the great thinkers are stacked alongside modern lit. The day before, Miranda July had encouraged an audience to auction the contents of their handbags.
Its teaching space, all crumpled velvet curtains and dim light, is the sort of place I could imagine hatching Situationist plots to subvert a city. The School is a place of play and whimsy and big talk. It is accessible, it is warm, it is stylish, and it is serious. Kind of like the man behind it.
Later, in the North of London, near Primrose Hill, I’m walking tranquil backstreets towards Alain de Botton’s office. Next door to his home, a work of modern architectural beauty, he sits at the window of a small block of flats, in a surprisingly humble work space. He is one of the most generous and kindhearted interview subjects ever to have hosted me. The audio of this interview is littered with ilttle interruptions as he stands to refill my water, while I pepper him with questions on faith and fatherhood.
Alain knows that living is hard. That the world is a place of urgent protest, and war, and famine, and disease. But against that backdrop, questions of the self are critical. What is a functioning society, after all, without happiness? Without dignity? And, for that matter, without love?
If the millions who buy his books (amongst them, Essays in Love, The Consolations of Philosophy, Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work), watch him on TV, listen to his radio shows and stay in his holiday homes are an indicator, these are questions that still matter.
Four days into 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and Arab Spring to American Fall, or whatever it might be, it has been a year of profound change in the world; profound possibility, uncertainty, and tension. You’re a philosopher of the self, by and large—what is the role of such philosophy in a year like this one?
I think that changes always happen because someone has sketched a vision of how an alternative might look. People get inspired by those alternatives, so any revolution that you care to think of, and it could be quite a significant political revolution, but it could be more a social revolution, economic revolution, there’s always been somebody who’s sketched a vision of how these things should go. You can call that person a philosopher, we can call them a thinker or a person of ideas or whatever it is, and I’m quite loose about the job title, because I think ‘philosopher’ carries quite a lot of baggage.
These people are always required because I think any change requires a practical and a theoretical drive. In many ways it’s the theoretical drive that’s the hardest. Let’s conceive of a free society, let’s conceive of a society where there might be free speech, or let’s conceive of a less unequal society, or whatever it happens to be. You need someone to make a clear case for that, and then other people can know where to head.
It’s probably the role of that person of ideas to step outside of the immediate context, and to see the broader picture of ideas and how that works.
Yes, and I think skills are slightly unevenly distributed among the population. Generally, people who know how to act don’t really know how to think deeply, and people who know how to think deeply don’t know how to act. This has been the great problem of our culture, that some people have had fantastic ideas but have no idea how to bring them about. Other people are deeply practical, wonderful at making things happen, but their ideas are not so great. When change comes about, it’s often because you’ve got the marriage of the two. You’ve got the theory and the practice.
This is what we were talking about on the way here to meet you—change takes being right and being certain, but often the people that enact that change are more certain than they are right.
Yes, that’s right. Passionate convictions without that flexibility of mind. When people talk about entrepreneurs they sometimes say that they’re on the verge of being pathological, but they’re on the right verge. You need a sense that your vision is correct and you want to drive it through, but obviously you need enough flexibility… that you’re still sane.
You work hard to bring discussion of philosophical ideas into a popular, mass space. Can philosophy live comfortably in this space?
I care about a mass audience because I somehow believe that the mass is right. I believe in a democratic sense that if you’re not reaching a broad number of people with your ideas, that there’s probably something wrong with your ideas. It might not be everything that’s wrong with them, but something presentational or structural. We live in very open societies, where if your message is a good one it should be able to get out there.
So when the typical academic says ‘Well, you know, I don’t want to be open to popular scrutiny’ or ‘I’m not interesting in discussing my material with just anyone’, my response is, ‘Well, why?’ What is it about your field of study that makes it inevitably beyond a broader public acceptance or recognition or discussion?
Particularly when you come to the humanities, my area broadly, there’s very often no good reason. Why should there be this division between popular writers and academic writers? Everyone should be aiming to communicate with everyone else. Most genuine dilemmas should be able to be expressed in clear language, and that by definition opens up the topic to a broad audience.
When were you fully aware of this being the space that you were going to inhabit? ‘This is my voice and this is how I’m going to speak with it.’
I went to a so-called good university, Cambridge, and studied history and ticked all the boxes. Already, then, I was feeling uncomfortable. I thought that, at one level, this is very privileged and very nice, but on the other hand why are we studying this? Why is the knowledge being delivered like this? I was very unhappy with the academic system. I was excited by learning and knowledge and culture, but I couldn’t get on with the academic way in which that kind of learning took place. And so right from the beginning of my adult life, I was faced with this problem: what do I do with myself—given what I’m interested in and given my problems—with what I’m supposed to do when you’re interested in this stuff, which is to become a professor.
I didn’t know what to do, and my career is just an attempt to try to work that out and find some solutions. I started off with books. In the last ten years or so I’ve become more interested in institutions, and how the things I’m interested in could be collaborative and how I could get together with other people.
I reached a point of thinking that the lone author is quite a vulnerable creature, and their voice is quite a small one in a busy world. Since then I have continued to meet people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was interested in, and so naturally moved my interest towards a more collaborative way of doing what I do.
And that’s what’s manifesting in the School of Life now?
For example. I first started off making television programs, my first attempt to be collaborative. I did that for a number of years, and then moved onto the School of Life, which is precisely about trying to unite a number of people who are interested in a certain vision of knowledge and culture.
You wrote Essays In Love at, what, twenty-three or something?
What does a twenty-three-year-old know about love?
It’s probably the first thing you know about, more than about economics or astrophysics. It’s a topic that strikes you young and probably quite hard. When you’re fourteen or fifteen, people have the first pangs of love and desire.
I didn’t really ask myself that question otherwise I would have stopped doing it. I think, like many things that one does, it’s just best not to say, “Why me?” Why not?
As I look back on my first book, I think that it’s very much about a certain kind of love. It’s about romantic love. It’s not about married love; it’s not about long-term love. It’s about sexual, romantic love, which has a real place in human experience. It’s not the only kind of love, but it’s one kind of love. And I stand by many things I said there, even though it’s not my last word on love.
You probably didn’t expect it to be at the time either. Or maybe you did?
… No, no, I didn’t, exactly, I didn’t. Although I’m now going to write a new book on love I think.
That’s what I was wondering. As your ideas of love broaden, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate those feelings of the twenty-three-year-old.
Exactly, and I think that those feelings of the twenty-three-year-old, you might feel them again as a fifty-five-year-old in a particular kind of context. The area that I’m interested in looking at now is married, or long-term, love, which is a whole other kettle of fish. Also, love of children is very interesting to me, in a way that I had no clue of at twenty-three.
How has having a young family changed you?
With many people nowadays who are my age and below, we’re all deeply aware that what happens in childhood really determines your life. If you’re doing well or doing badly, thoughts about your childhood, and what happens in your childhood, are incredibly important.
So when you come to be a parent, you’re really aware that you’re taking on something very big. Not just something practically big but emotionally big. Like all previous generations you’ve got some practical tasks—feed the child, look after it, et cetera—but you’ve also got to do this other thing, which is try not to screw them up.
You may not mean to, but you do.
I’ve taken the job of parenting really seriously. I think about it a lot, I’m fascinated by it, I’m intellectually stimulated by it and, luckily, I really love my children. Which I thought I might not. I thought, ‘What happens if I don’t like them?’
I always imagined myself as the father of girls, and then I ended up having two boys. Generally I have a problem with many men; I prefer women. That’s always the case, but I often prefer the company of women, and I’m not so keen on certain kinds of male culture, so I thought, ‘Ooh, this is going to be really tricky’, but, so far, so good. It’s brought out plenty of new sides of me, and it’s generally a delightful experience. Although parenthood is also, on a bad day, like having your best friends come over to stay with you but refusing to leave. You really like them—no sooner have you gone to bed, you think, ‘Oh they’re so sweet, I wish we could wake them up again’—but it’s the full-on-ness that most parents talk about, that relentlessness. As a thinker, I need an awful lot of time just to think, without interruption. That’s really under threat with children. [laughter]
People, children especially, don’t tend to see that you are working when you’re thinking.
So my time has become horribly squeezed, and I do feel that and am aware of the sacrifice, big sacrifice.
You grew up surrounded by incredible wealth, and the trappings of great art and ideas, and all of that stuff clearly fuels you, but I’ve read you saying you don’t really regard that entirely as a childhood of privilege.
I should perhaps correct your sense of my childhood. I grew up in Switzerland, which is a strictly egalitarian and austere kind of society, although very wealthy. Like many Swiss families, we were privileged but never led to think that we were. I think that’s the Swiss, very Protestant way of doing things. It’s also a hard-working society, where the feeling is that everyone has to work terrifically hard. This was added to by my family, as my father was an immigrant, as part of the Jewish community from Egypt. He’d come over to Switzerland as a penniless immigrant, and had to struggle very, very hard in his early years. In my childhood there was a weird sense that, on one level, we were living in this tremendously prosperous country and we lacked for nothing in our house, but at the same time there was a sense of the traumas that were buzzing around the psyche of the family. That’s something I’ve dealt with as an adult, and struggled to put things into place. Often as a child you don’t know why you’re experiencing what you’re experiencing.
Anyway, I grew up in this mixture of financial security but emotional insecurity. My parents had many qualities but they were not particularly good parents, not particularly skilled parents, not that interested in parenting, which fuelled my own desire to once again do better than them and be ambitious in that regard.
I think a really privileged upbringing for a child is to feel deeply loved, respected, to feel that they have a voice, and to feel that they have capacity to act upon the world. I think whatever your material level, that is a privileged childhood. Anything that isn’t that is not a privileged childhood.
That left me a legacy of trying to interpret the position of economic success within a good life. Both my own personal background and my own country, Switzerland, led me to be perhaps more skeptical than some people about where wealth comes in the hierarchy of things we need to be content.
Switzerland is a country where most of the problems that bedevil the UK, say, or most other countries, don’t exist or have been resolved. There are no housing problems. There are no health problems. And yet it’s a society that has a whole range of troubles as well, so that interests me.
Australia is an interesting example, Australia has, again, solved many of the problems of most other countries and yet it still continues to have lots of issues. I am a writer who is focused on the problems of the prosperous world. That’s just what interests me, that’s the lens through which I look at things.
Some people say to me, ‘You’ve never written anything about drought’ or ‘You’ve never written anything about third-world politics.’ On these topics I’m a spectator. And maybe one day I will be a writer, but I’m a spectator now because you write about what you know. So my books are the problems of a prosperous world, which doesn’t mean that it’s a world without problems, but it’s a world without the more extreme material problems.
Britain at the moment is certainly not a place without problems.
Well it’s a mixture. You’ve got 60 per cent of the population who are absolutely fine, doing really well. Then you’ve got 20 per cent who are not doing so well, and then you’ve got another 20 per cent who are really struggling. So it’s divided, it’s unequal.
It’s offensive to anyone with an egalitarian spirit to see some of the marked differences in opportunities that different sections of the population get. It’s striking and it’s depressing. I think this country is closer to the United States in many ways in its tolerance of inequality, and not like continental Europe. Or perhaps like Australia, which in this sense I think is more European.
In that sense, yes. Have the events of the last few years caused you to revisit your ideas of the nature of work, as the society of work collapses around you?
Yes and no. I think unemployment is a fascinating, deeply troubling, and troubled topic. The basic fact is that, at the moment, most major economies have too many people in them chasing too few jobs, and part of the reason for that is productivity. Economists are always hailing advances in productivity, but really what productivity means is less people are doing more work. We only know how to call the result of that unemployment, and to see that as a real problem.
A Marxist would say, well, this is pointing the way to the fact that we ought to live in a leisure society. We don’t need that many people to be actively engaged in the workforce. So what we need is a redistribution of wealth through more than just unemployment cheques.
These ideas are stimulating. The standard model of capitalism has come to me to seem more urgently in need of questioning. Perhaps some vast questions about how we should arrange society are very live, for me and for a lot of other people. As I say, unemployment is a key thing. The environmental crisis has placed a real question mark around consumerism and consumption and its connection with status. Obviously there are real problems there for modern society and how we continuously evaluate ourselves through objects, yet the manufacture of these objects is constrained by the world’s resources.
… and can be incredibly damaging in and of itself. When you’re looking at these questions yourself, are you turning to any particular ideas or philosophers as touchstones of understanding?
One of the thinkers I’m really interested in is John Ruskin, a 19th century thinker. He defies easy categorisation. He’s both very left-wing and very right-wing. He’s both very advanced and very conservative. He’s both very Christian and very atheistic. He’s a very extreme thinker, and a very interesting thinker. He wrote an awful lot, and started off by being interested in aesthetics and how the world should look, and extended from that to how the world should be organised and started looking up money, and in middle age he became very fascinated by what he called political economy. I think what interests me in him is precisely that mixture of kind of modernity and conservatism.
Many ideas that interest me at the moment are conservative ideas, not politically conservative and not right-wing in any kind of traditional sense but for example the whole question of morality, and where morality should be in the public space. The traditional view, the libertarian view, is there should be no discussion of how to live and how to lead a good life within society, because that is limiting people’s freedom. Telling people how to live, that’s limiting their room for manœuvre. And yet, that really interests me; I see, like many people see, the limits of freedom. The generation above mine, and three generations above mine, were all concerned with how we create more freedom in a society. Now that we’ve created all this freedom, the question is how it has helped us in our personal search for fulfilment, and also how it is compatible with a more crowded planet.
In that context, it’s interesting to look at the American societal model of almost pure freedom in that sense. That is not manifesting in a happy country, in any sense, right now.
I think what’s happened to the United States is so fundamental. So many of our ideas we can trace back, with a little bit of hindsight, to the founding ideas of the United States. We also see that they are quite troubling, and they don’t necessarily work very well, both tor the United States and for other countries. The kind of hedonistic individualism and a work-centred culture very narrowly focused around profit, as administered through large corporations, stock markets, et cetera–-this is not necessarily the best way to go about things. It may not make us happy, and it may not even work, even more starkly.
Do you look at other political and economic models around the world, as models for what things could be like? I’m thinking Scandinavia or third-way political systems that… there are various conversations about how progressive they are or whether they’re retrograde. Do you have thoughts around that?
My overall feeling with many sectors that I’ve been involved with and looked at, the difference between good and bad hinges on around five per cent profit margin. If we had five percent more we could do something great, if we have five percent less it’s terrible. Be it the architecture, or journalism, or whatever. In other words, we’re kind of ruining the world for five per cent. There’s enough wealth in the world to be able to take that hit. I’m interested in ways in which people can forgo extremes of profit for the sake of a critical difference in improving things.
Is that individually as well as from a company level?
Normally a company level, because individuals have got tighter budgets. It’s true that there are economies that place less emphasis on immediate returns, and have a different way of evaluating financial success or success more generally. So we’ve been operating with some very narrow parameters of economic success. And there are examples all over the world of people who have tweaked that model in one way or another. I don’t think one country has got it right particularly, but you could look at sectors – how the Dutch build houses. The Dutch have found a way to involve the private sector in development of large tracts of the Netherlands, in a way that is compatible with seriously dignified and progressive kinds of architecture and communal organisation. Then there are other models of that happening in the press, or in television, or in food manufacture or whatever it is, or education. Lots and lots of sectors, that’s what excites me.
Taking it from the macro and back to the self, the individual and happiness. These are big driving forces in your work. We’re not programmed to talk about them in our society in open ways. When we do talk about them, and when texts talk about them, when we talk about them in culture it’s often in this framework of ‘self-help’ and that being a cringey thing. Do you find that people are responsive to talking about these ideas when they are reached out to? Do they have to be told how to talk about them?
I’m sympathetic to people’s desire not to talk about stuff. The human animal is a fragile creature, and we’ve got a lot on our plate, all of us. The capacity to talk honestly and with perspective and calm about very personal stuff is not going to be in everyone’s remit. There are some amazing people I know who you just couldn’t go near with these kinds of topics. They’re not going to talk to you about their love life, and they’re not going to speculate on the meaning of life, and maybe that doesn’t matter. There are lots of ways to live that don’t involve introspection or even high degrees of self-knowledge. However there’s no doubt that, generally, there’s an improvement in people’s level of satisfaction and fulfilment if they are able to do that very difficult work of taking stock of their lives, their family upbringing, the forces that shape them, the drives that make them do what they do. The more people are able to get a handle on some of these things, the better able they are to control their lives.
But it’s not for nothing that we’ve got this very strong impulse to repress, to deny, to block thought, to head for the television, to head for alcohol, to take drugs, to immerse ourselves in distraction. A lot of this stuff is too difficult to think about, so I’m sympathetic to that. Personally, my life is about trying to raise the level of knowledge and self-introspection. That’s what I like to do in my life, and like to do with people in my social circle.
Does that bug the people in your social circle?
I now know not to drive them crazy, I know that I used to, because I would try it on with too many people when they weren’t necessarily ready. At university I was known as someone who would immediately start to interview everyone.
Shut up, Socrates…
[Laughs]. So I now know that some people, sure they want to talk about the weather. Sure, we can talk about many things via the weather. This is a country where we talk a lot about the weather.
So, what was your question? I repressed your question…
We’ll get it out. I think you’ve gone some way towards answering it. I was asking how people respond to those ideas beyond just cringing away from self-help, and how it might be more valuable as a way of raising questions as opposed to prescribing ways of living.
Look, in our culture we’ve had very bad associations surround the words ”self-help”, and anyone who aspires to be part of the intellectual élite, has been serious and gone to university, you ask them if they read self-help books and they’ll go ”oh no, that’s a terrible thing.” Nonetheless, the sales of self-help books suggest that people do go off and read these things, so that interests me. Why is it that something that should be absolutely fundamental to the way we approach ourselves–to try and know ourselves, to know our emotions, to help ourselves–has such a bad name?
It’s really just a historical accident that people who operate the bastions of high culture have, for a variety of reasons, taken against guidance and didacticism. If you’re a serious person, you’re not looking for relevance in works of art. You’re not looking for teaching in literature. You are looking for paradox, you’re looking to ask questions and you’re deeply suspicious of anyone who has got an answer, even if that answer is tentative. It’s always struck me that you can go a long way by trying to put forward tentative suggestions.
In my books I don’t have set answers to problems, but I like to open up perspectives. I like to say, ‘This is one approach, this is another, let’s play around with these things.’ I like to get ideas in circulation. I think that self-help has frightened people with its certainties and with its dogma, but I am still attracted to the therapeutic ambitions of culture. I still think that culture could and should guide us, and do that in a way that isn’t dogmatic. It could be playful and it could be helpful, without being prescriptive.
So tell me a little bit about how the School of Life came up around those ideas.
Well for years I thought that my ultimate ambition was to create the University of Life. I imagined it as a little bit like the School of Life is now, an organisation which would teach and be a global corporation dedicated to the soul, the inner self, and would able to deliver that kind of thing. As time went by, I kept delivering this as late-night aspiration, and then one late night, I was talking to somebody who said, ‘You’re joking about this, but that’s just because you’re embarrassed about it. Why don’t you just try and get serious, because I know you are serious.’ This really hit me like a bolt from the blue. I thought, ‘It’s true, I am serious but I’m pretending I’m joking about it because it’s kind of weird and embarrassing.’ But death is on the horizon, we’re not going to live forever, so let’s go for it.
So I swung into gear and thought I would try to make this happen. I got a group of people together, backers and associates and friends, and once you start to ask people, you see that there are networks latent. So I solidified a network around this idea. The basic thought was, let’s try to start an association that uses culture to address the problems of everyday life. That’s the mission of the School of Life. We wanted to be democratic, we wanted to be in the middle of life, so we thought we needed a shop in the middle of a high street. We needed to be right in the middle of the action, and we needed to deliver our offerings in a way that was appealing and alive to fashion, and not academic whilst still being academically ambitious.
We’ve been open two-and-a-half years. It still looks the same but behind the scenes, in the engine room, we’ve been tweaking and thinking and adjusting. It’s been a huge learning curve for me helping to run an organisation. It’s been really just the amount it takes, the amount of boring stuff that the customer never sees and should never see. It’s just mind boggling and yet, at the same time, it’s fantastic to get something off the ground that is touching people everyday in a certain kind of way. It’s been a real enrichment to my life and a real step forward.
Running a business is a very different way of living than being a thinker.
Totally. Totally different. It’s only really exciting to me as a business because it’s in line with things that I like to think about. Many of my friends are in business, and for them it’s just the profit, and the process of business. Whether they’re selling lumber, making screws or pellets or whatever it is, they don’t really care. It’s just the financial operation that interests them. For me the financial operation is only interesting because the idea is interesting behind it. Nevertheless I really respect it. Someone said to me the other day, “Money is a great organising principle”. Money sets goals, it sets disciplines, and it’s very easy as an outsider and a writer to say that money is just evil and it always compromises. It does sometimes compromise, but it does organise and focus things. I’m more aware than I was of the good sides of trying to put something on a commercial footing.
Do the punters on the street get it straight away? Does it take some education?
They got it straight away. There was no problem. The press was almost unanimously positive. People just got it, so from that side of things we’ve had really plain sailing. The difficulty has been how to properly expand and where to focus our energies. We have eight million ideas a day. We try to do everything, but we’ve since had to scrap a lot of things and come back and do them properly.
Are you the person with the eight million ideas?
Yep. I’ve forcibly been put in a cage and got people to lock me up. I’ll just go for long periods where I’m going to throw any new ideas out, because we’re just trying to get the ones we’ve got to work absolutely properly before we move on to the next thing. That’s just because of my background, where I can think up an idea in a paragraph and off I go. What that means from a legal point of view and financial point of view is just incredibly complicated. It’s been a learning curve [laughs].
Tell me a little bit about Living Architecture. That’s a fascinating project.
That’s the second practical project I’ve been involved in. Really, aside from books, the last years have been taken up with just these two projects. To put it very pretentiously, these two projects are guided by my two main interests, which are beauty and wisdom. I’m very interested in the way the world looks, I’m a very aesthetic person. I’m interested in driving forward change to improve the look of the world. And then I’m very interested in wisdom, which is to increase the level of ideas about how to live a good life in society. So you could say that’s what I’ve been doing in my books one way of another, but in terms of projects, School of Life is about wisdom, and Living Architecture is about beauty.
It’s building what you could call show homes which test all sorts of new things–-new arrangements of space, new construction techniques, new funding models. What we’re trying to do with each house is show the industry that you can do things differently, and show the general public that there could be demand for this, and this could be exciting.
On one level it’s a theoretical organisation, and on another level it’s a holiday rental company. You can rent all these houses, you can go and stay there. You might just choose to go there and pay no attention to the architecture at all, just like the kitchen and be in a nice place. But if you look at it in another way, these are houses where each one is trying to push the envelope on something and explore something. We’ve got five houses on the go, three are open, one’s opening in a few weeks, then we’ve got another two next year. So we’re progressing. The idea is to open one new house a year, if we can keep it going. We’ve had now a lot of support from the construction industry in the UK. We’re slowly but surely making a modest but real impact in people’s ambitions of what housing could be like here.
In terms of ”people” you mean architects or buyers and builders of houses?
Construction companies, buyers less so because there’s always been a demand, I think it’s just not been met. More construction, and trying to invigorate architects to not be too depressed with what they’re up to..
So you find that the construction companies when shown these possibilities actually do respond and say ”we could be doing that”?
Yeah, and that’s what we’ve tried to do. The houses are on different budgetary levels, but some of them are extremely cheap–what we’re trying to show is that just because the budget’s tight, it doesn’t have to be terrible at all. Some of the time, we’ve stuck with this square foot price that an ordinary construction company would use. We’ve just said look, we could do a hundred-million times better, and this is just one example. It’s a different way of doing it. I sat down and thought if you’re interested in architecture and you’re trying to improve it, what can you do, and this is a pilot project if you like. It’s just one way of trying to change the world. You can try and do it on a mass scale, or you can try and do it on a pilot project, trying to build out from that. Trying to have an impact.
Lead by example.
Lead by example, yeah. This is something I’m always wrestling with in my mind. How does change come about? How do you effect change? No-one has unlimited time or energy or resources so how do you try and get a big hit with something? This was my go with architecture.
Are there any of these projects you have tried that just haven’t worked?
No, I mean these two things have worked. It’s more the pace of them. They’re successful, but they’ve been incredibly slow and full of reversal. On the surface, everything looks fine and it is fine, but it’s been a long hard road. I’ve learnt a lot of skills as a human being. I used to be very shy about asking anyone for anything, I would just never want to ask. I’ve been doing nothing but asking strangers for a huge array of things in the last five years. And it’s changed my personality, probably for the better. I’m more outgoing and better able to win people round to some things that they might not have thought they’d be interested in.
I wonder about that. When the philosopher arrives at the biscuit factory and meets the worker, and you have to build that relationship with somebody who doesn’t really get what the hell you’re doing there, that must require a certain outgoing nature.
Every project I do, I’m only interested in it if it’s going to be risking disaster. If it’s kind of familiar and I know how to do it, I won’t do it. So that book on work was tremendously risky and uncomfortable. It was an uncomfortable project because it basically meant that I kept having to go into new organisations and talk to strangers and watch them, often for quite considerable lengths of time, doing what they did, and often slightly lie to them about who I was and what I was doing, because some of these organisations wouldn’t have let me in otherwise.
I am now very used to being the only person in a room who is a complete outsider while thirty people are talking in advanced ways about accountancy regulations. It’s journalism in a way, but it’s the kind of journalism that most journalists don’t do any more because there’s no budget for it and no time for it. To spend a couple of weeks in an environment and follow up a story, this used to be what non-fiction journalists or reportage would be about, but it doesn’t happen very often.
It must have been fascinating trying to do that in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, to attempt to step outside and observe tens of thousands of people.
Definitely. I heard that Heathrow Airport wanted to put a writer in their terminal and immediately I got very excited about it, because I’ve always loved airports and describing the processes and the atmosphere of the modern world.
I thought this would be great fun so I really fought to get that gig. It was very pressured, it was an attempt to write an instant book, and some people have written to me and said, ”oh, I was a bit disappointed by that book, it was really short. Why didn’t you make it longer? It looks like you wrote it in a hurry.” The problem is that it was written in three weeks, and mostly in public.
It was as much a piece of performance art as anything else. It was a really interesting experiment, and I think what really interests me is how can a writer be witness to bits of the modern world that normally don’t get described. One thing that really pains me in the world of literature is that most writers just sit at home all day, because it’s easier and you don’t need to ask anyone. Then their experience becomes very introspective and they tend to write about domestic life or their childhoods, and that’s what’s on offer. Most literary works are not about the broader world. That seems to me a pity. Polemically I’m interested in getting writers out there.
You talk about insecurity and awkwardness, but you’ve gone through your career without showing much doubt in how you operate. Is that something you don’t suffer?
No, I have unbelievable doubt all the time. Lately, I haven’t had catastrophic doubt for a few weeks. Generally I do. Most days I am questioning my entire life, because I’m interested in impact and changing stuff. I’m constantly thinking—am I leading the right sort of life, have I done the right sort of thing? Is the School of Life actually the right thing, or is it not? Is Living Architecture okay, or maybe not? Are the books I’m writing alright, or should I do something else? I’m often thinking I should retrain and do something else, or focus my energies in a new way. So I’m very, very restless and impatient with existing categories. I’m impatient with the literary world in many ways. I find the assumption of what a writer is… I feel (indiscernible) the writer box is deeply constraining, frustrating, offensive in many ways. At the same time, I’m aware of my limitations as a financial business operator. I know now, better than five years ago, that I’m very bad at doing some things. I’m bad at financial forecasting, I’ve often got the wrong impulses. I’m modest but restless and full of doubt. But that’s just my personality.
If you were to retrain, have you thought about what you would do?
I think architecture is the thing. If I could have my life over again, I would love to train as an architect, because I’m really aware of skills I’m lacking there that I would love to have now. I would really want a financial background, if I go back to being eighteen. I would have loved to have studied economics, precisely because I’m not at all suited to it and I wish I understood it better. Sometimes I think I should have trained to become a management consultant for a few years, done something utterly, utterly counter to my natural inclinations and strengths. I should have really played to my weaknesses, rather than my strengths. When you’re younger you do always play to your strengths because it’s most natural, it’s the easiest thing. Then you explore your strengths and that gets boring, then you realise that the only way forward is to look at some of those weak areas and try to strengthen them.
Are there great architects working currently that inspire you?
Sure, there are lots of them. Most of them we’ve tried to snap up for Living Architecture, but there are lots of others too. Many in Australia, all over the world. There are many talented architects, most don’t get a chance to build enough, and the standard of architecture really doesn’t reflect the wealth of talent that’s out there. There’s this desperate situation where buildings are mediocre, yet there’s some really great architects sitting around twiddling their thumbs, so it’s pretty heartbreaking.
Do you have an approach of ‚‘I have one book and I’m working on it’, or are you more ‘I have ten half-formed books and I’m working on all of them’?
What I tend to do is I’m working on one book, and I have a few other books circling around. I’ll have a file open on my computer, that I’ll add stuff to them to so they’re incubating but not active. But there’ll be one that’s active.
I’ve recently been devoting myself to this book on religion that’s coming out in February, and that’s been the project that I’ve been focused on in the last few years.
What sort of perspective are you taking on religion?
It’s a book called Religion For Atheists. It’s a look at religion from the view of a committed atheist, which I am, really asking, ‘What can we learn from these guys?’ What can we steal from them? Chiefly at the level of organisation, not at the level of doctrine. I’m uninterested in what religions have to tell us about how to live, but I’m really interested in structure, experiences, education, time, rituals, all of these things really interest me. You know how people say things like “I can’t bear religion but I’m really interested in Christmas, Hanukah, pilgrimages, and religious architecture,” and that’s my starting point. Somebody who’s not interested in the doctrine, but looks at cathedrals and thinks ”wow, something interesting is going on”, or looks at prayer books that make sure that everyday you’re going to read a certain passage and think ”wow, that’s really interesting.” Religions are the most accomplished disseminators of ideas in the world… these are educational machines, and they’re really successful. There’s a lot to learn about how ideas can be made effective in the world, because religious ideas are supremely effective. I don’t think they’re the right ideas, but they’re really effective. So the underlying question in the book is how can we get good secular ideas as effective as bad religious ideas.
I was in Israel earlier in the year, and in Palestine as well, but I had this profound moment standing at the Western Wall, as somebody who doesn’t believe in a God, but can’t deny the idea of faith. When you put your hand on that wall, and you can feel the power of the thousands of people who have also put the hand on that wall, and their wishes on that wall, and their messages in that wall, it’s profoundly moving—there’s something there that you can’t deny. That faith drives those ideas and the dissemination of them. Is there a secular equivalent to that?
The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall as it’s known, is a fascinating thing. What is it? It’s a public space in which people’s lamentations and sorrows are given an airing. Very weird idea. In my book I try to imagine; what would a secular equivalent of that be? What would it be like if our sorrows were written on the walls of our cities? (indiscernible) used to say without God the whole thing doesn’t work. My answer to that is that is we don’t have a solution to the wailing, but we still have a public expression of the wailing, and that seems really important. It’s a place where grief can be made communal.
I look at many religious rituals and traditions and think there is something we can use here. If you look at pilgrimages, that’s a way of using a journey with a set ambition to reform your life. People could go; ‘Yeah, but there are not saints that could change your life anymore’. Still that ambition to use a journey in a certain way is a legitimate one, an ongoing one. We could rehabilitate that, give it a form. In Orthodox Judaism, you’re supposed to have bath every week to cleanse yourself of your sins and stuff you’ve done wrong, and come out of it purified. I’m fascinated by the way religions will use physical events like a bath, or a certain kind of food, or a journey–-something involving the body–-and will anchor to it a psychological or spiritual lesson. We don’t tend to do that in the modern secular world. We very much split apart the mind and the body. We don’t involve the body in the mind’s attempts to change itself, but I think we should.
Again, that’s something we’ve been toying around with at the School of Life. How can you create experiences around ideas? So we’re looking at food and we’re looking at journeys, that sort of stuff, a lot of which has been informed by religious techniques really.
Have these explorations of these ideas of faith and of religion had an effect on you? Not in terms of finding faith…
I suppose it’s led me to see the gaps in the secular world. It’s led me to see that the secular world is really good at doing some things, but really quite bad at delivering solutions in other areas. I’m definitely not one of these people who is spiritual or who is looking for something else, and doesn’t believe in organised religion but is mesmerised by stars, it’s really not that. For me it’s much more practical, and it is about looking for lessons we can apply to secular life that can take some of the best and most nourishing bits out of religion, without importing what for me are the more dubious doctrinal thoughts.
At the end of life, what is it that you want people to say you’ve brought to the world?
I think I would want to be someone who’s remembered as having made a few stabs at trying to bring élite culture into circulation, into the wider society so that it can be made effective. So it’s both an attempt to spread culture and ideas, and also it’s about trying to make those ideas effective. Have an impact. We’re not short of good ideas in the world, the problem is that most good ideas are slumbering somewhere.