STAN - SOME KIND OF A MAN

I know parents who tell their kids about metaphors and meaning way before those concepts are useful. Maybe they’re hoping it'll prepare them for the exams they fear, which often amount to preparation in turn for a job they’ll come to hate. I was lucky - my mum and dad told me stories instead. Mum’s adventures in Italy working as a nanny for a Jewish family who came to Britain to flee the Nazis. Dad’s escapades dispensing rail warrants during national service, one reason I came to love the Bilko show - resentment of the army made up for by the opportunities it presented to the nimble of thought. It taught me that school, and systems like it, could be gamed.

The books of legends I devoured gave me a feel for the epic, the magical, of right and wrong and the ways they can be thwarted. Comics had crossed my path, but at that point I’d enjoyed them - humour stories mostly - without them making a real impact. And then I encountered superhero comics. All of the stuff about justice, and honour, that moved great heroes like Thor and Lancelot to do greater things to make the world right - it was there in the glorious stories of costumed adventurers living in a world more or less like our own. There was even a superhero version of Thor, and a kid who called out Shazam - the initials of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury - to transform into a champion.

The first superhero comics I came across were from DC. I was ill, at my gran’s place in Devon, and to occupy me she opened up a trunk of comics collected by one of my uncles. Whatever delirium I was experiencing was heightened by those four-colour beauties, even more when the first I read turned out to be a parallel world story with two versions of each character. The effect was kaleidoscopic, but it was Marvel I turned to when I started buying comics of my own. Something about the characters registered more. Like me, they were flawed.

It wasn’t just the heroes, and what they got up to, brilliant though it often was. John Buscema’s art on The Avengers had a vital urgency that felt indefinably right; Jack Kirby’s depiction of the noble and stoic Black Bolt was Shakespearean - a mute king and his court; the intense emotions and cosmic scope of Jim Starlin’s hero Adam Warlock were dwarfed only by the ideas underpinning his story; Jean Grey’s tragic transition from her early role as Marvel Girl before becoming first Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic run on X-Men. I was buying many of my comics second hand, imports from the last decade I hoovered up at random, piecing together my particular version of the Marvel universe. And I got to know the names of their creators thanks to the Bullpen Bulletins that would appear in every issue. They were put together by the man at the heart of it all, Stan Lee.

Those promotional pieces were brilliant. They presented creators like Rascally Roy Thomas and Ring-A-Ding Romita hanging out in a clubhouse for grown-ups. The truth was probably more Made Men from what I gather, but I was 12 and excited by hints about forthcoming stories that would shake the foundations of this or that character. Sometimes there’d be word of new heroes to come, like The Human Fly (a rare disappointment from the House of Ideas). And it was all written in the breathless carnival barker tone that James Ellroy does so well at public events.

Stan Lee was a huckster, a shill, a hustler with a heart of gold and a tendency not to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. But he loved his characters, and Marvel, and knew how to connect with kids through stories that looked tacky to some but often featured a wider vocabulary than the newspapers read by those who looked down on them. Stan’s Soapbox was the centrepiece of the Bullpen Bulletins. Here’s a chunk from one he wrote in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was shot:

"Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal the insidious evil they really are."

Stan was talking about the legacy of World War Two and the history of his family. Like many who shaped the evolution of American comics - Will Eisner, Max Gaines, Bob Kane, Julius Schwarz among them - Stan Lee was Jewish. His experience growing up in an immigrant family shaped the publications that went out with his name on, never mind how much work he put into them. That’s stuff for another day, and Stan was like us all of his time. The morality that came across in the comics he had a big hand in creating is pretty straightforward, and it’s notable that very few of the characters created since Marvel’s 60s and 70s heyday have taken off with the public.

The Marvel films we watch feature heroes from that earlier era. Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and others are characters whose very simplicity - the core of each can be captured in a handful of words - allows them to be vehicles for some great stories. Their designs, thanks to Kirby, and others including Steve Ditko and Dave Cockrum, have more or less stood the test of time. Interesting that the characters which have taken off more recently are anti-heroes like Wolverine, Punisher, and Deadpool.

Stan’s fictional world was a simpler one than ours, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of simplicity in creating stories for the young. Complexity will find them in time. Allow at least the possibility of being influenced by the values that led Spider-Man to look after Aunt May after his actions caused the death of Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed. And if your own family is too confusing, be inspired by the Fantastic Four, who argue and fall out, but are always there for each other when the chips are down and Mole Man is threatening to collapse their Baxter Building home with his infernal digging. Or take a tip from Black Bolt, who knows things so dread that even to open his mouth will level a city. Stan Lee seems a million miles away from the Inhuman monarch, but there’s something they have in common, expressed in Stan’s familiar sign-off…

‘Nuff said.

KNOW YOUR PLACE

Not far off one of the arterial roads that connects Nottingham to the motorway system, a dual carriageway where traffic churns pretty much 24/7, there’s a drive-in McDonalds. Opposite, there’s a turning that branches with two routes into Old Basford. One takes you over a stone bridge by a church, and towards industrial units where you can buy sheet glass or get your car fixed. The other, along a wall behind which trains rattle, past a boarded-off site that’s never been repurposed in any of the ways local rumour has suggested, to a place of terraced houses.

Locally, rather than take unwanted items to a tip people tend to leave them outside their homes for passers-by to choose whether they want a wooden CD holder with a missing shelf, a wonky spice rack, a stray toaster. Before now I’ve come home with things that I can use, or that I know a neighbour might appreciate for the kids she looks after in our back gardens.

A couple of minutes away Vernon Park welcomes Sunday league footballers, dogwalkers, families tossing a frisbee. Half an hour ago a guy in his 20s leaning back on a bike watched his 3 kids play, agreeing with their mother that they’ll have McMuffins for breakfast in a while.

I’ve been enjoying the park on a daily basis for a few weeks now. Sometimes I’ll use the exercise equipment that’s been there since 2012 courtesy of the Queen. The roads were packed when she came, on a blazing hot day. I still don’t understand what she had to do with putting gym gear there, planted in concrete to deter anyone who might want to uproot a rowing machine for their garden, but I’m appreciative of the fact.

Getting to know Vernon Park better has helped me understand the concept of parks more generally. They’re interesting spaces. If I’m not making use of the exercise machines, then I’ll take a wander around the whole area. I could use any route across the grass, through the trees, by the pond - but what I actually do, more or less, is follow a tarmac path. The whole space has been designed with that in mind, allowing you to take in a variety of scenes as you do.

Coming through gates painted municipal green there’s a low building with a 1980s feel. There are changing rooms for footballers and those who use the tennis court, toilets for anyone, and rooms available for hire. I’ve been to a Slimmer’s World class there, and voted in the exact same space on several occasions.

Just after that building is the first of the 20-odd bins dotted around the park. Dog owners are requested to deposit bagged droppings there. I use them to put in the litter I sometimes collect, which I started to do when after a few days of visiting I started to feel like one of the custodians of this shared space.

That notion of communal territory is interesting. I don’t feel obliged to pick up litter on streets, so how come I do when there’s grass around me? Partly it’s about the visibility of that litter against the green, but there’s more to it. A park feels different in all kinds of ways, and the space shapes our behaviour. You’re more likely to engage with people in a park. In an open space, where there are trees, and animals run more or less free, we change in ways that are good for us. The greetings we exchange, the little conversations that crop up, are a reflection of that. Something social is happening for which we are grateful.

The outdoorness of it all is critical. And connected to that, a park is somewhere for everyone. Unlike so many other places we spend time, a park is not branded except in the most basic ways. It has a name, and that’s pretty much it. Compare to the urban experience, where logos shriek at you from every building, insisting on the right of the corporations they denote to impinge on your consciousness. Instead, give me birdsong, lime trees, and a chance of spotting the heron who’s become an occasional resident.

There are more subtle aspects I’m still pondering. Walking by the pond, approaching a path that leads to one of the entrances, you go under a stone arch. It changes the way I feel as I do, and that’s about more than stepping through brickwork. Something about the surface above flickers constraint along with shadow as I step beneath. For an instant, the feeling of being inside strobes within, like a switch has been flicked.

We need spaces like this, and I am blessed to have one on my doorstep. And I have some sense of how others experience it. The retired chap with a dodgy hip who circumnavigates the park five times before going home, where he will have lunch with his grandkids a couple of times a week, and in the evening sit in the garden with a bottle of wine as he does his crossword. The veiled women who laugh as they picnic on a huge blanket. The geezer with swept-back hair and a cigarette who takes his aged mum for a walk. The Turkish man with three rods lined up hoping for fish he can catch to eat and sell. The middle-aged guy perched on a rock at the back of the library using its wi-fi so he can send job applications from his laptop.

I think about other places I’ve known. The woods in Disley where I spent my 50th birthday, bathing my feet in a chill stream under a canopy of trees. A beach in Anglesey, the sea lapping against a pebbled beach as it has for millennia. A mountain in Bavaria I climbed with my father, looking at the tapestry of landscape unable to discern signs of human presence. A walk around Uluru, radiating something primal and mythic with a visceral intensity that punches through the frenetic surface of the branded world’s greedy hold on mind. Companies pay millions to create brands hoping they will establish a foothold in the consciousness of consumers, but the presence of something so powerful demanding nothing while offering so much makes it clear how pale, how needy, how empty that clamour for attention is.

HOW I LEARNED BAD CORPORATE ART IS A GOOD WARNING SIGN, EVEN IF THE ALIENS AREN'T REALLY INVOLVED

Woven into much of the material written on and around personal development, and implicit in what goes on in many coaching sessions and workshops, is that humans are more or less rational. Goal setting is the epitome of that worldview - get yourself an ambition, break it down into manageable steps, and launch yourself at it. The intensity of your commitment will see you through. 

I'm not so sure. People are multi-faceted. There are aspects of us we don't know very well, and would prefer didn't exist. Getting all whooped up and motivated about achieving a dream doesn't stop that being the case, though for a while it might be you can kid yourself that what matters is the loudest voice in your head rather than the soft chorus at the back.

I had a couple of stays in mental hospitals, in 2004 and 2006. The experiences were vile beyond belief, and I'm incredibly grateful for what ultimately came out of them in subsequent years. There were particular themes running through my psychoses which for a long time I couldn't make sense of. I identified with King Arthur at one point, and had a sense of Britishness that was surprising, and seemed to connect with deep historical currents. And in that Arthurian mode, I was concerned with how my country was under alien influence, easily identified by the kind of banal corporate abstract art that's bought by the metre and hangs in lobbies. 

The pinnacle of this fantasy involved me wandering through a hotel in central London. I was in the belly of the beast, and strode my way from floor to floor looking for the extra-terrestrials who had infiltrated Albion. Instead, I found the roof of the building, and pissed on it as I looked across the skyline to express my contempt for the interlopers. Heading back down to ground level I was wrestled to the ground by about half a dozen members of staff and bundled into the back of a police van. 

Prior to all this I'd been immersed in projects that I'd set outcomes for, broken down into achievable chunks, and I was making good progress. I'd written my first script for a BBC show, impressed the most powerful producer in British film with my work, and was picking up a reasonable amount of freelance copywriting jobs. 

Why I crashed and burned was for a tangle of reasons that hadn't been touched on in my personal development journey. Fast tracking myself through a range of NLP trainings had been an amazing experience that catalysed my ability to get things done, but there was deeper and stranger stuff lurking within. In the mash-up, it was me that got mashed. And it's taken years to make sense of that, during which I've become a fundamentally happier and more fulfilled person.

A good percentage of that NLP experience remains something of real value to me, not that percentages is an adequate way of thinking about it. And those learnings now exist within a wider context. All of that stomping about a hotel with shitty art on the walls looking for bad guy ETs turns out to have been a metaphor complete with minibar facilities, and a supporting cast of cops and waiters. It was about me understanding in some fundamental way who I am, and what I'm not. The King Arthur bit is admittedly grandiose, but the idea of a man standing up for values older than the era he lives in registers. And that's where the crappy corporate art is perfect, symbolising the kind of crass culture I have no desire to work in or contribute to. 

There's more too, about my growing sense of connection with nature, and how spending time in unspoilt places reinforces what's important in my life, and helps me make better choices about what I do, and who I do it with. I've also benefitted immeasurably from bodywork, counselling, and meditation, all of which have helped thread together unconnected strands of the person I'm becoming. Making stuff happen matters, sure. I'm doing more of that, about things that matter more. Intuition and heart guide me increasingly, and they lead me to forest walks and poetry, beach days collecting stones and watching waves, and happy times with friends and lovers. Psychotic episodes were an extreme form of escapology to help me get out of a life heading in the wrong direction, even though it was what I thought I wanted and had set goals to achieve. 

In turn, that growing sense of what I'm about has affected my approach to coaching. If you're after someone who'll get you hurtling towards whatever you think success is, odds are I'm not the person you need to speak to. If instead you've experienced some of that success and discovered that life hasn't somehow become fantastic as a result, or that something you can't account for seems to keep success at bay despite doing what the books and videos say, then you know where to find me.

 

 

WHAT'S IN YOUR ESCAPE KIT?

I had an insight yesterday, a new way of looking at what it is I do. From the inside, I've always known that my activities as a writer who does work as a coach and trainer are connected. Part of that, I knew, was to do with creativity and language. Now though I see the potential those domains have as providing tools for liberation. Another way to say that is to acknowledge, whatever it is we're doing, we're constrained by what we believe our situation to be. As much freedom as our current condition gives us, sooner or later its limitations will become apparent, and at that point an escape kit is needed. And, there are a lot of occasions when life will get better quicker if you consult someone like me, with a knack for the kind of lock-picking needed to escape what Blake called our 'mind forg'd manacles'.

I worked with an artist once. She usually painted with whatever colours interested her. But for a while she'd just been painting in shades of blue. The work she was producing was great, but she wanted restored access to the full rainbow. As she talked about her experience, she touched her left arm, and that led me to ask how she saw her painting process work. She envisaged a pot of blue paint towards her elbow, which travelled through tubes into her hand to guide what she did with a brush. It made sense to her, and that's what matters. We all have interesting ways of coding our experience, and that was one of hers. I suggested that further up her arm, towards her shoulder, was a dial connected to a pipe that fed paint to her pot. And the dial could be set to whatever colour she wanted. Next day, she was painting with the whole spectrum as she had been before.

To help someone escape, you have to respect how they're boxed in. Telling the artist that she needed to just toughen up and splash other paints about wouldn't have acknowledged whatever internal conditions had led where she was at this point. I didn't need to know what those conditions were, but it made sense that if something in her came up with that solution, it would be wise to honour the wisdom of that choice.

There are ways to learn about how you function and using their logic is helpful if only because whatever within you came up with that logic clearly likes it, which makes it an elegant way to game the system. Naturally, I am my own guinea pig for these explorations. One time I saw someone I recognised but didn't know where from. I realised in attempting to figure that out I wanted to associate him with a place, so mentally inserted him in a variety of settings where I might know him based on how he was dressed. In each case I got a 'no' feeling in my gut.  Then I figured that 'how he was dressed' was itself a constraint. He was in a pretty snappy outfit at that point, so I imagined him in another outfit - straight away my mind produced an image of him in a white lab coat. Of course - it's the dude who works in the pharmacy I go to!

Those are two small examples of escapology - the artist from her blue period, me from my inability to recognise someone. I have bigger and more dramatic examples of this kind of approach. But it'd be easier then to be impressed by the content of the story and not pay attention to the details of how - as in these instances - a person's means of conceiving who they are and how they do what they do necessarily provides the clues needed to escape whatever limitations that model has built in.

Much of what I do in coaching and training is support people to consider the way they function in a new light. With that insight it's possible to transform those defaults we have into ones that offer us more scope to be who we'd like to be. That's where it overlaps with my writing - stories are often about how people go through a process of transformation of whatever sort and scale. In time, that new way of being will itself reveal limitations, and so on, and that's fine - there's always another Russian doll waiting to incorporate a bigger sense of our capabilities and possibilities.

 

 

 

 

THE PROBLEM WITH LIVING YOUR DREAM IS YOU'D BE SLEEPWALKING

I realised something was up for sure the second time I managed to upset a friend with some misplaced snark. Same had happened with someone else who matters in my life the previous day. Drive-by shootings like that aren't my usual style.

Unsettled, I continued the day paying more attention to how I was feeling and what was going on with my internal chatter. In the evening, I passed a homeless guy. He was in my field of view, and got caught up in whatever churning ugliness was happening with me at that moment.  And I realised that wasn't good enough. 

There wasn't even a quid in the coins I handed him, but they were all I had. And I gave him half of the cookies I'd just bought to snack on. It wasn't about him being homeless, particularly. More that it wasn't fair I'd caught him up in whatever nonsense was going on within me. Something enabled me to see that happening as it happened. And that meant an opportunity to do something else. Immediately I felt lighter, and realised I was happy again - or at any rate content, and not spraying those I came across with the day's detritus.

The intent, by the way, isn't to approach the world in a stupor of positivity. But at least give it a fair chance, rather than draping it with the day's cognitive gunge courtesy of the latest political upsets, social media chatter, and reheated moods.

There's no shortage of ways to deal with this kind of stuff. I've explored plenty, got results from time to time with quite a few. Careful though - some people call such interventions brainhacking, and that doesn't bring to mind images I'm happy with. Besides, any method to reset yourself that can be described in three cheery steps or a 2 minute YouTube video probably doesn't offer much of real value.

I've been fortunate to have some extraordinary mentors over the years. As I wrote the last paragraph I was reminded of a nugget from one of them: knowledge is self. Which is to say, all you can ever really know is you. You are the lens through which you experience the whole caboodle. Family. Love. Work. Health. Money. All of it.

Anyway, even if one of those three step processes or videos is helpful, it won't be for long. We are more complex than the means by which we seek to be what we'd like to be. And that means we need to be wily. Hence the words of another much loved mentor: 

It is recommended to break habits, any of them, from the silliest to the most serious, and to try and do things that you don't normally do - breaking up routines and habits and not making a routine or habit out of breaking routines and habits is a Zen koan which you can puzzle your way through. It will reward you richly with moments of incredible insight, intuition and all of those magical things that light up life so beautifully.

(Thank you, K.G.)

All of this, by the way, will also serve to give you a feel for how I approach the work I do with coaching clients. I'm not interested in magic bullet solutions because I've yet to meet anyone with a magic gun. I like working with individuals keen to embrace their uniqueness, not people who want to experience someone else's idea of success because they're uncomfortable with who they are. Whether you're looking to build a business, open a restaurant, or sing to an audience of thousands, I want you to do that your way and not someone else's. Other people are there to learn from, sure enough. But when you wake up in the morning, it's a warts and all person who's doing that - bedhair and bad breath included - and that's the one I want to work with.

 

 

 

 

YOU'RE NOT ON A HERO'S JOURNEY. DEAL WITH IT.

There's a myth going round that we're heroes, or at any rate can be. It's a myth that started with Jung, infected Hollywood, and is now rippling through the personal development and marketing communities like avocados on Instagram. And it's a myth about a myth. One known as The Hero's Journey.

Joseph Campbell was a student of Jung. Influenced by his mentor's fascination with archetypes and an interest in stories, he discovered that stories have an archetypal structure. Just the one, hence he called it the monomyth. The fact that he boiled down thousands of stories from hundreds of cultures and concluded there was actually just the one story should raise an eyebrow. It's reminiscent of the bit in Hitchhiker's Guide where the entry in the Guide for Earth reads 'Mostly harmless' - and that's the longer revised version.

For sure, Campbell discovered something when he distilled all those myths and legends and folklore into one handy dandy template. George Lucas consulted Campbell when he made the first Star Wars film. Thanks to Chris Vogler, who wrote a memo about it when he worked at Disney that shaped films including The Lion King, Campbell's monomyth has become the default shape of Hollywood films for a couple of decades now. You know the one. The hero is called to do something that disrupts their life and ultimately answers a fundamental question for them, in the process changing them for ever more thanks to an experience of rebirth. Neo in The Matrix, getting the cheat codes for reality. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, redeeming himself from a meaningless life through love. Any film where an unlikely mentor supports our plucky hero in their hour of need, eg Splinter - the giant rat who teaches ninjutsu to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And who could forget Legally Blonde?

Boil a story down to the essence it has in common with thousands of others, and by definition you lose what makes it unique. And there's something too conveniently Hollywood-friendly about Vogler's condensed take on Campbell. The success of Marvel's superhero movies suggests that filmgoers are tiring of the tried and tested. That might seem counterintuitive given how self-evidently heroic Marvel heroes are, and yes - they have their own kind of saminess. True, but it's only part of the story. Part of what audiences are loving in Marvel films is the way characters recur. And it's in those multiple appearances we see them in a new light. Captain America, hero in his own film, is the butt of jokes in other Marvel movies. Black Panther was clearly the star of his own movie, but in Infinity War he's got a supporting role. Iron Man has a major but not lead role in Infinity War, and if anyone's the protagonist it's Thanos - and he's the villain, in a film which also cheats audience expectations powerfully with its ending and yet is still doing huge box office.

Research demonstrates that when Japanese people respond to a painting, they are concerned with its setting, taking the whole in. Americans focus instead on the dominant image, particularly if it's of a person. And there's something about that which connects with the American Dream, the notion that anyone can go from log cabin to Whitehouse. That's the story of the entrepreneur too, a strong-willed individual who is driven by their dream to change the world and profit from it. Not much sense of the context and supporting cast in that picture - the market which might simply be ready for someone's idea and wasn't a year before when someone else tried the same idea, a handy beta for their successor. Then there are employees, whose talent and hard work created the detail of the founder's dream without which it would be vaporware. And what about suppliers and customers?

The point isn't to be picky, but to present a different picture. It's something that can be seen in Japanese work culture. In the day, working together as a team, colleagues collaborate to achieve outcomes. It's at night when they socialise together that it's acceptable to criticise bosses when alcohol is a means of expressing truths that would be less tolerable in the office. There's a sense of communal endeavour, and setpiece boardroom chestbeating and people standing their ground don't figure in it in the same way.

These differences of perspective matter. Not least at a time when strong-willed individuals in the form of billionaire oligarchs and the politicians they bankroll are carving up the world for their advantage and willing to sacrifice others in pursuit of their greed. Back in the day, a strong-willed individual like James Stewart would stand up for what was right in the films of the day. Today's political titans are more likely to speak on behalf of an oil lobby-funded belief that climate change is a myth, wilfully oblivious to the bigger picture we're all part of. 

Do we need people willing to take risks and make sacrifices? Sure. And we need them to do so in alliance with others rather than through their pig-headedness. Another of the central tenets of the Marvel movies is that superheroes were once like you and me before being granted their powers. It's as a team and with shared goals that they get to put the world to rights - and that doesn't mean in their own image, because as Peter Parker learned tragically when he became Spider-Man, 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

Countless websites detail coaches and trainers who reckon they fit the role of mentor in your Hero's Journey. Can you really imagine Frida Kahlo or Martin Luther King attending a seminar on manifesting their hero within? Even as a typology, the Hero's Journey is just one of those available. Vladimir Propp checked out Russian folklore and mythology a decade or two before Campbell and came up with something equally valid. Propp's schema is not as glamourous, noting as it does the likelihood of the hero being scarred along the way, and doing a lot of their work without even being recognised. That's not going to go down well on a weekend workshop, which as much as anything are about inflating the participants' sense of who they are and what they can achieve. 

Take a note from the Japanese. When you're being sold someone's big heroic story, ask questions which will give you details about who else was involved, and the environment which supported their success. And do it over a beer. It's great that we have ideas and do things to make them come true - but the Hero's Journey fuels the story that change happens without a social and economic context to make it possible, and that's a myth we can do without.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHATEVER IT TAKES

It wasn't long after I got my first job as a copywriter that I heard about how a rival agency won a pitch. Asked to present concepts for what promised to be a substantial account, not only did they make a good show of the work they did, they went above and beyond. Making a bit of razzle dazzle out of it, they led the client out to the front of the building. A new car was sitting there. To indicate their excitement and commitment about working together, they gave the keys to the client. She took them. And the agency won the account. It was unclear whether the story was being told out of disgust, or grudging admiration.

The next agency I work for, a big London one, I got to see how things sometimes worked when one of the directors showed me some previous work they'd done. I was looking at a leaflet campaign for a premium retail store seeking staff, and asked why they used that approach and not run an ad in a newspaper. Turned out they'd done that, but too many of the candidates who applied were off-brand. Which is to say, they were black, or at any rate not white. So the leaflets targeted a suburb where well brought-up young white women were to be found, which is who the department store  wanted to be selling to their customers.

A few years later, in Nottingham, I was developing scripts and meeting people who were getting short films made and occasionally worked in radio and television. Two guys hatched a sitcom, and got some funds to make a pilot episode. They came along to a shindig for the regional screen agency, and thanked the chief exec for support received to an audience of people hoping for similar backing. Only, the screen agency had nothing to do with the money that the sitcom got. The chief exec was pals with the chaps who'd made it though, who sang his praises in return for the prospect of future collaboration.

I mention all of this in the light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. They made dark use of data harvested illegally from Facebook, and using a combination of digitally-assisted psychological profiling and good old-fashioned skulduggery delivered election results that some pretty unpleasant clients paid handsomely for.

The thing being, none of this is surprising.

Cambridge Analytica are only different in the scale that they operate on. The targeting the department store colluded in with the London ad agency was no different in principle, or lack of it. There are people in businesses worldwide who would behave in exactly the same ways, and clients everywhere more than happy to pay for results.

The guys behind the sitcom caper are classic cases in point. They'd think of themselves as decent sorts, just doing whatever it takes to get by in a cut-throat industry. So they cut throats. One in particular would justify his actions by frequent use of the term 'realpolitik'. Being prepared to do anything to get your result is ok if there's a German word for it.

As you go about your business today, what ethical choices will you be faced with? And how will you deal with them?

 

MORE THAN A FAILING

I trust the third mind more than I trust my own.

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, or both of them, coined the phrase when they worked together in a period that resulted in the cut-up technique David Bowie later picked up and played with as a tool in his songwriting. With cut-up, reassembling a text or combining it with another is a way of forging or exposing new connections through randomness. That's one example of what can be thought of as another mind at work. When two minds come together in ways that spark, they occupy a space that can effectively be considered a third. There comes a point in collaboration when the notion of who came up with a particular idea is redundant. When it flows, the process generates solutions as they're needed, and laying claim to them is an exercise that usually starts with ego and ends in bitterness. 

I've seen it in action plenty of times. It's one of the reasons I love working with others, rather than being resolute in believing that squeezing my brain juices over a project is inevitably the best solution. My brain juices are fine - and cocktails are even better. 

On the recently created Projects page of this site, there's a newly completed audio version of my play Breaking In. Thanks to a lack of foresight, we did the recording session with the actors in a way that didn't lend itself to a naturalistic production with sound effects creating the ambience of different locations. Oops. Only, why let that limit us? A lot of the most interesting art in the last century parted company with naturalism a long time ago. 

Brian Eno nailed it with his Oblique Strategy card, 'Turn a seeming disadvantage to your advantage'. Which is itself another take on 'Necessity is the mother of invention'. In this instance, I turned to Darren Bourne for a solution, confident that the man who comes up with the music of halF unusuaL would have a trick up his sleeve. Turns out he did. In playing with the voices of the two actors - a cut-up of sorts - Darren hit upon a shimmering glow of a soundscape, that in its numinous quality nails the emotional core of the story, about a couple whose efforts to find love on a weekend break remain seemingly out of reach, though each yearns for that experience. That musical theme is threaded through the play at appropriate moments, and marks out the scenes in a far more interesting way than doors slamming, the crunch of footsteps on gravel, and the ambience of a hotel bar, which is what might have happened otherwise.

Treasure mistakes. Eno again: 'Honor thy error as a hidden intention.'

Sometimes the third mind pops up after a first connection in another seemingly unrelated context. I spent a day on a new project with a client in London last week. We hit on a very distinctive visual metaphor that we are developing as an actual image. A few days later, the very same image came up in the context of a Tarot reading someone did for me, and in talking about it the reader hit on the core of the work that had been done a few days previously, work she was unaware of. 

Question your instincts. When I wrote the short film White Lily, the male and female roles were scripted intentionally in a way that hopefully cut against gender stereotypes. Later, in rehearsals, the first couple of times we did it as written. Siddhii Lagrutta wanted to swap the roles though, or at any rate find out what happened when we did. That's what we ran with - there was an extra energy and dynamic to the resulting relationship between her and David McCaffrey that director Tristan Ofield and I recognised and responded to. I'd accidentally written the parts the wrong way round.

Earlier tonight, a filmmaker sent me a rough cut of a piece we're developing. We'd come up with ideas of how we wanted to work together, but as interesting as they were, he couldn't follow them through with conviction. Where he's ended up instead is somewhere neither of us had anticipated, and all the more interesting as a result. Any endeavour has a life of its own. Go with that, rather than be limited by your initial conceptions of it.

There's a time and place for following the map you've created between you. But all too often the treasure hasn't been marked on that map, and only shows up after the fact. Ideas flow when you're onto something. Learn to go with that, and you'll leave safe harbours behind and discover brave new worlds. We'll find tomorrow there, not by turning over the bones of yesterday's concepts and mistaking the women and men who came up with them for the power of the ideas they came across when they plugged into the third mind.

 

 

 

 

 

WOLF MOON

In some traditions the first full moon of the year is called a wolf moon. We had one last night, and there'll be another this evening. You don't have to buy into everything to do with that metaphor to accept the romance of it. Oh, and New Year? That's a metaphor too. Our world is rotating as it always has. Any notions of there being something new about that come from the science, the history, the stories we drape over raw elemental reality to make it bearable to us. With a bunch of words in place, we can tell ourselves we know what's going on, as long as we stop where those words indicate and don't peer beyond. We don't want to fall off the edge.

Where stories come in useful is when they provide pointers. What becomes apparent with the notion of a wolf moon is a connection to our primal state. Wolves are thought of as solitary creatures, but in truth are pack animals whose sensory skills attune them beautifully to their environment. That's something we can learn on, and if the idea that the year is new is a prompt to contemplate our lives in relation to wolves, where does that take us?

"No wolf drags a long bag of yesterdays behind them today." Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. 

I removed a whole bunch of stuff that didn't belong in my bathroom and chucked it out - a big bag of yesterdays. And the reason they were there, in part, is because of another yesterday that I realise I drag with me: the one that says I shouldn't throw stuff away, because it might be useful. That one was given to me by parents who grew up during World War Two, particularly a mother who was an evacuee with powerful emotions attached to those few things she took to Devon when she was sent there from London as a child.

Odds are you'll have had some success on your journey to date, maybe achieved some of what's important to you in life, and yet - the world continues to frustrate either your progress or your understanding. Whichever it is, it's a phenomenon that results from the stuff we cart around with us, even if it's the belief that we don't. One pernicious aspect of some contemporary thinking is that our past can be overwritten just so. Another is that we are able to have whatever we want, with no obligation to the web of social structures that allow us to be granted our desires. In different ways, both are expressions of the myth of the lone wolf.

Wolves look after each other pretty well, it turns out. It takes fucked-up thinking to mess yourself and others up, the legacy in part of language. We can believe impossible things before breakfast, and do the same for other meals too. Some of those thoughts become works of surpassing beauty and power - a design for a house made from recycled materials, an effective cancer treatment, an opera, a business plan that creates jobs in an impoverished community. Others are harmful, to ourselves or others - an obsession with an ex, a belief that money is a bad thing, hatred for a neighbour, addiction to alcohol. They all start as ideas, woven into our thinking and bodies, and then shaping what we do and the way we do it.

I say this as someone who is both an award-winning screenwriter, and an expert self-saboteur. Just now it took me 45 minutes, speaking to 4 people at a bank, to untangle a problem it turns out was my fault. I dealt with it promptly, and stayed calm throughout - two things which wouldn't have happened in the past. Plus I have dealt with the issue in question, sorting it promptly and without anguish. Change doesn't just take insight, it requires commitment.

How's your 2018 looking? What excites you? What's holding you back? In either case, do you know for sure that you can accomplish what you'd like? Especially if you've been down this road before, and have explored counselling, coaching, therapy, to help you get more of what matters to you, and less of what doesn't, you'll know that the start of the year is a time for anxiety as well as excitement. That's fine - and you're still faced with the potential to be more of the person you are at your best, today as any other day.

With an ally to support you, things don't get any easier. The value is in having an ongoing conversation where you're called on to be real, and accountable. To examine what you're still carrying from the past and do something special with it, whether that means sorting out what you don't need and is no longer true, or building something magnificent to showcase what you're capable of - a business goal, a life dream, a creative ambition. I've supported people as they've made all of those things happen. For some, that's plenty. For others, there's that extra thing that needs working on - especially if you've succeeded in making good stuff happen but sense there's still something missing. 

I don't do much formal paid 1:1 work with people in part because my primary focus is on creative projects. And my approach is not for everyone. I ask questions you won't find in the books and workshops that coaches have typically learned from - because I'm interested in getting to grips with what's going on with you, not applying someone else's models. My role is not to be your cheerleader, though I'll applaud if you really are doing what you want, and together find ways to make doing what you want and need more straightforward and more effective. Big shows of dynamic performance don't impress me - I'm about making it the most natural thing in the world to do more of what you sincerely want to do, not putting energy where it's wasted. If you're up for your ideas and sense of who you are being challenged in the name of experiencing more of what matters for you, we can talk. An initial conversation, in person or on Skype, will cost nothing and give us a sense of whether we want to work together. You can also check out these audio pieces I've done giving examples of what it is I do. 

You'll have gathered I'm not a lone wolf. I'm a proud member of several packs. And there are times I call, to see who will respond.

 

 

SIGN OF THE TIMES

The tram bulges with people wanting release. A few days ago there was a hint of seasonal cheer getting about town, but the other side of Christmas suspicion is once again the default mode, goodwill depleted on unwelcome relatives and the stench of unfulfilled desires - to love and be loved, or at any rate get some decent presents. Step away from home's tensions, maybe snap up a bargain if you're lucky. 

I get off the tram to catch a Medilink bus over to Nottingham's biggest hospital. The service used to be free, now costs £1.20. No complaint about that, the fee an acknowledgement of the era we live in. It's 2017 - the NHS is headed by Jeremy Hunt, a habitual liar who co-wrote a book arguing for its privatisation, and the organisation's money is being pissed away on serial offender Richard Branson, who took the NHS to court protesting not only should he have won a contract to deliver children's health services in Surrey, but is entitled to compensation having lost.

Thankfully the hospital is just a convenient stopping off point, a stroll away from a walk in the grounds of Wollaton Hall with a friend. I spot her red coat, and we make our way to the utilitarian entrance, through to the other side. Only a wall separates us from a busy A road, but that's all you need when on the other side are deer, trees, and centuries-old paths. I was last here on Halloween, an impromptu decision to embrace older traditions that declared it a year-end, somewhere to reflect and refresh. Now another new year is close, and I'm Branson-greedy for a second bite of the cherry, this time with a berry-coated companion.

There's a tree stump we come on at just the right moment, discovered on my last visit. The centre is eaten away, but it's alive with mulch, mildew, and beetles. We sit and compare notes on the year, then make our way up an incline to a courtyard where a cafe can be found, and continue our conversation with coffees in hand. For both of us, there's a sense of moving forward with what matters to us, and too of being snared by the inevitable consequences of being social animals. We learn. We love. We get hurt. We carry on. Knowing people we can share our latest findings with makes the passage easier.

And then we're out of the park, arcing back towards where we started. We hug, the contact an affirmation as much as our words, and I branch off down Triumph Road. The name hints at the architecture of the university buildings dotted along it, eco-friendly optimistic designs demonstrating a faith in the future that works in its own right, but seems like a science fiction dream just a few streets away.

Austerity feels like hungry dogs wandering a neighbourhood that didn't seem so unsettling last time I passed through a few weeks ago. I could be mistaken for a bulked-up Travis Bickle from a distance, say behind the blanked-out windows of passing cars. Around here, I used to know people who ran projects for the community. There are children, but the parents with them walk fast and don't make eye contact - and why would they, if I look like Bickle? A teenager runs across the road and I can't tell if she's 14 or 34 by the time she gets nearer, in a white top with black Mickey Mouse faces, black skirt with white circles the same size as the rodent skulls, furry slippers with pom-poms.

The gun shop has crossbows and samurai swords in the window, too, and the only bigger stores are owned by adjacent bookmakers. Malevolent electricity trickles into the atmosphere throughout, a feel that anything could happen and possibly already is just a street away. Even some of the familiar names don't gel here - a pub converted into a supermarket that won't be showcased in the chain's annual report and may not last until the next is put together. It sits next to a car wash with the chill edge of a Mexican police operation. Stark white light frames an area set back from the road where men wield squeegees and buckets like they're anticipating conflict. 

Past threadbare Caribbean takeaways, minimalist barbers where all that's needed is a chair and a razor, a former corner pub now a Middle Eastern grill with a sign in the window promoting Bar Juice, and I stop at Asda. As well as picking up a few reduced items, I use the toilet. The swastika on the inside of the door that had been bleached off is inked in again.

 

 

 

 

 

LOOKING IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

Someone comes along, sees a friend under a streetlamp, looking for something.

'What have you lost?'

'My keys.'

'Where were they when you last saw them?'

'Over there.'

'So why are you looking here?'

'I need the streetlamp to see.'

Last night I went to the final evening of Nottingham's First Tuesday networking event, at least in the form it took under the fabulous and irrepressible Debbie Doodah. She's moving on, and leaving the event in the highly capable hands of her ThinkInNG allies. 

I remember a particular First Tuesday, a year or more back. One of the speakers was a guy who'd gone out of his way to tell Debbie about how she really needed to book him. Which is fair enough - you've got to be your own ambassador after all. And he came, and talked. He knew exactly what he was going to say,  and he said it, which is how people often do these things.

He told us about a book he'd read. In that book, the author left his job, inspired to train with some Hong Kong martial artists. Doing so helped him in all kinds of ways. Having read the book, the guy doing the talk decided - that he'd do the same thing himself. He went to Hong Kong. And had the same experience he'd read about, with the same martial artists.

How often is someone else's dream identical to yours? How likely is it that someone else has already hit on the very thing you need to make your heart sing, in the course of fulfilling their own dreams? 

The abiding sense I got from hearing this ostensibly successful man talk about how he'd replicated someone else's dream, was that he wasn't in touch with himself. That he knew what inspiration looked like...because he'd read about someone else's. And the best thing about that is - it's OK. There are times we all fail to challenge ourselves enough. That we take a peek outside our comfort zones and decide that someone else's success is what we want. Safer that, than risk finding out what it really is that gives your life purpose - and fail to bring it about.

Of course, I realised that having so often done the same. Not in quite so blatant a way as to arrange to pay strangers to beat me up in Hong Kong. But there've been times when I've wanted to have achieved what some of my creative idols have achieved. Grant Morrison say. Or Kate Tempest. Only, they got to do their thing and have it work by - doing their thing. And they in turn will have had role models and mentors who in time play less of a role in their own sense of self as they create more work that feels like who they truly are.

It's OK to want someone else's success. And a lot of the time, that's what coaching offers. Strategies that helped someone else achieve what was important to them. And that's great. But how often do borrowed clothes really fit?

I experience that old clothes stink when I hear the majority of coaches and trainers talk. Can hear in their words the books they've read, sometimes see the mannerisms of those who've trained them. And that makes me sad. Telling other people how to achieve whatever, as the local budget version of someone your clients would get more from if you had the guts to tell them to go to the source of whatever skills and knowledge you've gleaned. It's not for me, and if training with some of the people I learned from is going to be a better solution than working with me, I'll tell you that.

If I'm different, it's because my mentors are different. You'll notice the irony. And also, my life isn't defined by coaching and training. I'm an award-winning scriptwriter, who wrote and helped make a short film that recently played at a festival in Hollywood where it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with films made with much larger budgets and name actors. I've written a speech for a world champion boxer; successfully pitched to a team who masterminded some of the world's biggest film's franchises; been headhunted by a leading London ad agency; written TV drama for the BBC without having an agent to get the work for me. 

Those are things I mention because they're achievements. And, by the way, I've also been through the hell of being sectioned twice. Of recovering from that and being suicidal at times for most of a year. So when I talk about getting up and starting again, of looking at what you've got and thinking about it in another way, of finding ways to make the unlikely happen, I'm talking at first hand.

Let the stories of others be an inspiration. Let them surge through your veins, inform your choices, shape your dreams. But do not mistake them for what you're about. It's not what others have achieved that matters. The ways they accomplished it are largely irrelevant. What's important is that a spark was lit in you, or that seeing something outside allowed you to become aware of your spark inside. And it's the spark that counts. 

It's the spark that ignites the pilot light. Great name, huh? Pilot light. A light that guides you. And that's what matters more than anything. Yes, strategy matters. Resources count. Contacts are crucial. But above all nurture that spark. And if it grows when you're around a particular coach or trainer, then that's a good indication they're good for you. If not...then walk away - even if you have to make your way back from Hong Kong, because you realise that was the wrong direction and your feet ache because you're wearing someone else's shoes.

If that light is dimming in you, I can be a good person to talk with. If you want to discover what lies beyond your mentors and models, we can do that. If you've discovered you're living someone else's dream - a parent's, a role model's, whoever it may be - that's something we can talk about. And if you're getting the sense that whoever you've been getting coaching from is going through the motions, there's plenty we can discuss. You know where to find me. Now how about finding you?

 

TRIGGER HAPPY

Steely Dan plays in a Camden Market cafe as a toddler chirrups like a squeaky hinge. This carrot cake is the best, and my deep black coffee is smooth, frictionless. Rewind 12 hours and Steve Cowie and I are in conversation with Dotty, an amateur Egyptologist who has been on a glorious adventure since parting with his wife there and is now living in a hostel for trans people in London. Three hours before that she was an audience member who responded to the call for goddesses. We're at The Cockpit theatre in Marylebone and just two days before I was reading Alan Moore's introduction to a collection of Michael Moorcock stories - he speculates that Prince Elric of his fantasy stories lived in the area. Melnibone was wiped from our memories but peeks through Marylebone in its street markets and an open-fronted eaterie where walnut-skinned men serve us freshly cooked flatbreads with savouries of your choice. There is no menu, instead we point and when we leave are asked for just £10. By this time we've seen spirits invoked by a sage couple who administer non-denominational funerals. Death makes you hungry. John Higgs riffed with lyrical power about identity rooted not in nation but in geography. Salena Godden's poems again spoke of death and the urgency of fucking and feasting your all as it motors towards you. And Daisy Campbell shared hope and magic and thoughts of community. This is a community I'm proud to be part of, and Daisy's at the hub. We all are potentially - Charles Fort reminds us that we measure a circle beginning anywhere. And if we extend that community through time as well as space Fort is there too, inspiring Robert Anton Wilson to look more at those things that don't fit. His polio was cured using a technique developed by a nurse who not only failed the era's credibility test by failing to be a doctor, but to make matters worse Sister Kenny was a woman. Wilson's freewheeling sense of inquiry takes him to work at Playboy where he gets to meet Tim Leary, William Burroughs, and Alan Watts among others. Those experiences transmute into the Illuminatus trilogy which Daisy's dad Ken stages in a legendary theatrical incarnation in Liverpool, just by the crossroads that might be the very one that featured in a dream Jung believed to be the most powerful of his life. And all of that and more went into Cosmic Trigger, the autobiographical text Wilson went on to write, and which Daisy has made more theatrical magic from in a four hour spectacle of epic questing, zesty jesting, mind-refreshing beauty and chaos. Out of that concoction the actor playing Wilson, experiencing a psychedelic transcensexual serial (episode isn't big enough) hands me a random Tarot card. Time and the fourth wall are broken and I am accelerated through my own Wilsonian adventures. Lovesexdeath all activated by and activating intelligence. I find myself. I find myself staring. I find myself staring at the card in my hand. The 6 of Disks. Success.

THE DISTINCTIVE ODOUR OF BULLSHIT

There are phrases that cause you to pause, and wonder exactly what was just said. A pivotal one for me was when an account director at an ad agency I worked at in the 90s showed me some leaflets promoting jobs at a department store. I asked why they'd chosen to do that rather than go the more conventional route of a newspaper ad. "We tried that," he said, "but the ethnic response was too high."

I knew something significant had happened, but it took me a while to untangle the knotty meaning from the apparently straightforward packaging in which it was presented. The speaker had been so comfortable in what he was saying that its full ugliness wasn't immediately apparent. What he meant was, too many black people had applied for the jobs. The idea of 'too many' is an interesting one, and seems to suggest that a threshold had been breached. In this case, it came down to a nice middle class department store not wanting to dismay its customers with non-white faces. Only, in the meeting where the decision to create the leaflet was cooked up, I'm confident neither account handler nor the store's HR person would have used words like race or discrimination - they just wanted the store's staffing to be on-brand. Hence, put flyers through doors in leafy suburbs where reassuringly pale people could be found, who would remind shoppers of their nephews, nieces, grandchildren.

If there'd been a smoking gun document about that meeting and the thinking involved, I'd have passed it on to The Guardian or Private Eye. But the nature of such discussions is they happen in person - more often than not, man to man. For me it guaranteed that, sooner or later, I'd be gone from that agency. Having grown up among my father's students, who came from Malaysia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Uganda and elsewhere, I knew where I stood - had since I was about 7, when one of dad's Nigerian students told us that a tailor he'd asked to make him a jacket asked if he should leave room for sir's tail.

Bigots have no joy, no humour about them. Anything like that in you shrivels up when you choose to look at the world through the bone-framed lenses of the fearful and greedy. You need them, to give you distance, and witness a world that's going to the dogs (and not the way dad did when he took his students to Hall Green greyhound track to show them a bit of British culture). Loneliness makes you paranoid say mental health researchers, and one of the easiest ways to be lonely in a world as big as ours is by deliberately making other people 'them' and contrasting that group with an ever-dwindling 'us'.

We all warp reality in our own special ways, and make language do awkward things to fit what we want to get across, but there's a particular variety of it done by people with power that's instructive to watch. It was the odious Tory Grant Shapps who introduced me to the curious expression 'misspoke', when he used that word to express some lies he'd been caught in. Using 'misspoke' has some tentative implication that actually, Shapps had every intention of being a straight-up guy, but just as he was about to drop some truth some bollocks came out instead.

And now Labour's Diane Abbott has used the phrase. She had all the right numbers lined up in her head to explain how the party will pay for 10,000 cops, but rubbish fell out of her mouth. Like when you're eating, and crumbs bail out. Hillary Clinton said she misspoke too, when describing how she dodged bullets in Bosnia - which didn't happen. 

Getting things wrong is fine. It's what human beings do. What 'misspoken' does is position the speaker as some kind of superhuman, whose heart is pure but whose mind became mush and let tumblewords fall from the hole in heir face, perhaps due to the Kryptonite of an astute question or awkward observation.

Politicians believing they're more than human is just as unhelpful as bigots believing some people are subhuman. It's the same crap, which draws a distinction between the speaker and the world at large. I'm pretty sure I'll fall for it myself again soon, maybe even later today. But at least I know what to watch out for.

 

 

 

THE PATTERNS WE MAKE AS WE DECORATE TIME

Let me tell you about my brother. I don't speak about Nigel much. Partly it's to do with that thing about someone being dead - there's a moment where it seems relevant to mention it in conversation which leads the other party to say they're sorry when actually it happened so long ago that such a nicety seems redundant. Also, I pretty much wrote him off before his death. He was stealing from and violent to our mother, who was running a launderette in the Erdington area of Birmingham, where the kindest people around were her criminal neighbours.

B23 was an interesting area. Those criminal neighbours? They described another local as looking like a solicitor, because the only time they came across a woman dressed like that was in court. The clothes didn't make her family above the law - her younger brother had been trained as a toddler by his mum to crawl through a narrow opening at a Spanish hotel that gave him access to valuables kept safe for guests. For his mother he brought back jewellery, and she praised him for that, and years later in Birmingham those birds were coming home to roost. His suited sister worked at a car rental place, not as a solicitor.

My parents had divorced, and Nigel lived with mum at a couple of places before getting somewhere of his own. And he came back, as described, which is why there was a court order barring him from being near mum at the point he was killed. It happened when Nigel was over in Lichfield where dad lived, probably to celebrate dad's birthday, since that was the date he and some pals stole a car. Nigel was driving when it smashed, and dad was asked to identify remains, only there wasn't much of him left to recognise, so they had to use dental records.

I got a garbled version of what had happened in a call at the ad agency I was working in Holborn. Mum seemed to think Nigel was alive and in hospital, but a friend and neighbour took the phone and said "He's dead Adrian. He's dead." I went to the top of the stairs to take this in, an area people used to smoke. I think I may have asked someone there for a cigarette. Whether I did that or not, I told him what I'd just heard and he said as he went back in to the office "No use crying over spilt milk." 

The funeral procession set off from my mums's flat above the launderette. She was trying to sell the business at the time - had planned to anyway, and Nigel's death accelerated the process. There was a call that morning from someone who'd viewed the place a couple of times and was making interested noises. They knew the funeral was happening so I passed the phone on to mum, assuming they were going to say something kind and awkward. Instead, the caller - making the most of experience of doorstepping grieving parents acquired as a cop - wanted mum to knock a few grand off the price if she agreed to a quick sale. These are things that happen.

There isn't a place on your map for some experiences. That was one. Another transpired when the funeral procession moved off. Without any planning, the route chosen took us past all the places we'd lived as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. Nigel's life became a journey more or less up and off the A34, passing from Shaw Drive in Acocks Green to Peveril Drive in Hall Green and ending up travelling down School Lane in Hockley Heath, where he was buried about a mile away from where we'd lived for something like 7 years. Tracing that path made it a lot harder to hold Nigel in my mind as someone who treated mum badly.

If you saw that journey in a film you'd think it was contrived. But geography is etched with history in ways it's hard to fathom. And your history and mine and all of ours is there in the streets we walk, the paths we take and choose not to, the woods we enter and ones we wouldn't. It's not that films are contrived, more that it takes something like a death to see the shape of your life, which is what cinema can explore. We're so immersed in the living of it, the idea that in doing so we're creating layers and lines, shading and shapes, passes us by. 

Tonight I did something new. It's Good Friday, and a friend performed in a choir doing Faure's Requiem in an old church in Bottesford. Exactly the sort of thing I don't do, and even better for doing it. The music itself, in that space, was beautiful - I've lately been listening to hiphop, electronica, and heavy metal, and choral music is a whole other thing.

What made it magical was the choir hadn't all met before today. They gathered with some knowledge of the forty minute piece, and a conductor to guide them, someone to play the organ, and a couple of soloists for the showcase bits. And after rehearsing, they sang - and shimmered, and shone, and shadows dissolved. I reckon that's pretty punk - a group of strangers getting together for a single performance, then going their separate ways. No record contracts, no tour bus, no reviews.

That gathering happens every year in the same place at the same time with a different choral piece and a choir that has different people whenever they assemble, including some who are there consistently. Every one of those who come to sing or listen has been affected by death somewhere along the line, and all participated in a ritual to connect those present with the intentional death of a man we're told died for us all.

Christianity is not my belief system of choice, but for tonight at least I felt its power, and understood some of why it connects people over centuries. Something about that experience was magical, and it's in the ability to be lost in something bigger - because, in the nicest possible way, whatever 'it' is, it really isn't about you or me. It's about the pattern that connects, as Gregory Bateson put it, whether in the form of a choir that coalesces once a year, or a funeral procession that charts a family's years together.

 

 

 

DEFYING HOMOGENOPOLIS

The picture heading this piece up is one of several I took of a guy dancing to the music a talented saxophonist was playing, as he busked outside a store that had closed in the centre of Nottingham. A new shop has replaced the failed one, with peristaltic inevitability. Just don't ask me what it is. All I can tell you is it's one or other of the branded stores that you can find anywhere round the world, for the convenience of consumers who believe that a familiar logo will present them with peace of mind in whatever transaction they want to make.

A brand is a promise and a promise is a lie, more often than not. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to whoever made them in your area. There might only be one provider, and hopefully they'd know what they were doing. Maybe there was more than one, each offering something the other couldn't. Now, it's a different story - and remember that word story. There are many shoe shops in town, differentiated by arcane marketing methods according to the demographics of the area. Somewhere down the line, data has been crunched and a customer profile concocted, and lo and behold - you're no longer a fully fledged human being. Instead you're a consumer, noteworthy only for how you spend your money, and funneled by the full panoply of advertising and marketing techniques to the right shoe shop for members of your tribe. You could be in Brussels or Los Angeles, and much the same would apply.

This process of homogenisation is predicated on a lie, remember?  Brands promise consistency - of service, of outcome - when neither are possible in the world we inhabit. We want to believe that, and to do so we get involved in creating distortions, using additives to ensure our company's sauce has the same colour and flavour throughout the year even though the provenance and quality of the ingredients changes. I read recently about some customers of an American food chain called Chipotle complaining about leaves in the food they ordered. Which there were. Bayleaves. To create a particular flavour. I wonder if Chipotle will acquiesce and remove the bayleaves or use a powdered form in future, so customers aren't troubled by reality. The customers themselves are blameless - it's not typical in the experience of eating at a takeaway you're presented with bayleaves. Bit by bit they've disappeared from popular consciousness, like the rosemary bush that grew outside the McDonalds near where I live and then wasn't there one day.

I don't know what store has replaced the one in the photo. I do know I'll remember the saxophonist and the dancer for a long time. They made me smile. They were a beautiful interruption to my day. A spark of humanity and humour, something unprogrammed and all the more delightful for that. Sure, the busker was asking for money - but he wasn't promising or implying that my earnings would increase as a result, that my cholesterol would decrease, that relationships within my family would improve. That's the branding lie, the one we hear countless times every day here in Homogenopolis.

There's a book. Spirits of Place, edited by John Reppion. And it explores a whole variety of places, from Rajagiriya in Colombo, and the various places in Iceland where elves are discussed with more seriousness than they tend to be elsewhere, to the sea forts of Southend and the streets of Mexico City. It's a rich and rewarding collection of essays from a variety of contributors, the most celebrated being Alan Moore. Thanks to this book I'm now eager to explore more of the work of Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Damien Williams and others. In very different ways, they all succeed in excavating the intertwined histories and mythologies of areas they have a connection with, and how those intricate stories affect the way people do what they do, irrespective of the ravenous ticktock of the branded world.

You are who you are in large part because of where and when you are. Pay attention to the pulse of what's happening around you. We've been deceived, told that what is presented on screens by some or other organisation that you matter to only as a consumer is more important than what's unfolding at the end of your road. And it's simply not true. Not far from the end of my road is Rachel, who in the course of running a charity to support women and children refugees vulnerable to sexual exploitation has made media appearances. On a tv show she spoke on Rachel was asked not to say words like terrorist and ISIS, which limited what she could speak about and made her message more generic, less likely to scare advertisers or bring truth into someone's midday viewing. 

It might seem that Starbucks has existed forever, but it's just another coffee shop among many. Go there by all means, but ask yourself why you've chosen that place to have your morning pick-me-up and not the cafe nearby run by a local family. The fact that Starbucks occupies a lot of your cognitive real estate doesn't actually make the coffee there any better. Maybe the local cafe will write your name on the cup, if that really matters to you. And sometimes locals will find a way to adapt the branded world to the way they like to do things. Cigarette papers are used just for that by everyone I know. But for some griots in Africa, putting a cigarette paper in the neck of their instrument gives kora strings a touch of distortion that's effective in some songs the wandering storytellers play

Interesting that one aspect of service Starbucks hit on was that - personal attention is something people will pay for, even if the truth of the matter is more complex. There are a couple of cafes in town which trip all the switches that say handcrafted and unique, but are owned by a conglomerate that's realised the value of not having a brand. And that McDonalds, which used to have the rosemary bush outside? Walking somewhere helps to stir my thinking, and sometimes it's to the McDonalds. I've spoken to a few people there, and heard their stories, like the woman who was planning her brother-in-law's funeral and turned 60 the same week.

A blue-haired teenager works there, with bright eyes that drink the world in. She grew up in Dubai, to an Egyptian/Palestinian father and Welsh mother, going to an international - ie American - school where when she left the librarian gave her a censored copy of 1984 with all the references to pigs and pork whited out. She saw me reading Spirits of Place, and liked the cover, and she was fascinated, growing up part of several worlds as she has, and with a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology at home. I popped in a couple of days back, and she told me she expects her copy of Spirits of Place to arrive any day. The rosemary bush is gone, but not the memory of it - the herb improves memory after all - and next time I see her I'll tell that tale, and ask for one of hers. It's what people do, and when we do it just because we can, and not with an eye on profit, we recover a little bit more of our humanity outside the reach of spreadsheet entries or MRI investigation, and which might lead you too to dance outside a vacated shop one day when you hear music that makes you shine.

When the weather is good, I walk further up the road, to a Portugese cafe, and though the original owner has moved on it's still a place I treasure, and remember my father taking her by the hand and dancing with her as Frank Sinatra played. Next time I tell that story, I might instead say a rhumba was on the radio, and that's fine too. Part of the beauty of stories, is that - unlike brands - there's never even the pretence of consistency.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us (and a quotations website reminds me) "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Think about that next time you pass another shopfront promising familiar names at a newly opened store in Homogenopolis. 

 

 

THEY'RE JUSTIFIED, AND THEY'RE AWKWARD, AND THEY KNOW WHAT PRICE IS MONEY

Prince was active in controlling his music so he would be involved in determining its availability both to fans and in commercial contexts such as soundtracks - it's not just about the money. Since his death a gaggle of his relatives in association with a bank have been working to maximise the revenues of his estate and as a result you will soon be able to stream some of his music. It's what he'd have wanted. Well, actually not. But in a consumer society people have a 'right' to more stuff because...well, because, OK?

Situations like this help me understand the stance of the KLF who in metaphorically torching their back catalogue ensured that such an outcome would never happen with their hugely popular repertoire. In doing so the financial loss dwarfed the million pounds they actually torched - and they got to control their legacy in a way that fits their stance as artists. The buzz about their return in some cryptic form in their Justified Ancients of Mu Mu guise 23 years after they went out in a blaze of something more chaotic and interesting than glory wouldn't have the same magic if their music was just another commodity to be plundered for the sake of a fill-the-airtime dance music retrospective for aged DJs to chat about on Channel 4.

Think about that should you hear Purple Rain in a burger commercial in the next couple of years. And be thankful the death of idiosyncratic creators removes the obstacles to accessing their creativity for exploitation across all media channels for your benefit, and the continued prosperity of the world economy.

When decisions are made solely on the basis of commerce, more often than not bad things happen. The distinction between Jefferson Airplane and Starship - their ultimate branding after being Jefferson Starship for a while - makes that very clear. In their first incarnation, their psychedelic take on the Alice In Wonderland story resulted in a song that's intricately woven into the history of late sixties American culture, Grace Slick's vocal on White Rabbit exactly the kind of thing many record companies would have wanted to moderate so as not to upset radio audiences in the midwest. A couple of decades later, their proclamation We Built This City was a statement of corporate intent, and had the sweet mystery and erotic allure of a spreadsheet.

We Built This City is itself about the desire of Slick et al to be recognised for their part in creating the musical landscape that record companies profit from, and is the sound of musicians crushed by that industry wishing they'd made some better deals back in the day and hadn't taken every opportunity managers lined up for them. Frank Zappa noted that the musical variety of the sixties didn't happen because of the execs at record labels, but in spite of them - old hands took chances on new music, and some of it became massively popular. Things went downhill when those execs hired people who at least looked like the bands and audiences of the day, whose typical desire was to put out pretty much more of what they liked when music was just entertainment, and not what they got paid for. Not that musicians have any sense of what will sell - one of Zappa's biggest moneyspinners was a whimsically created recording of daughter Moon Unit parodying the way her friends talked over a musical backing her dad concocted. Valley Girl led to marketing deals and a proposed animation series, demonstrating once again that pop will eat itself.

PWEI famously declared that Alan Moore knows the score, and that knowledge led him to run screaming from the mainstream comics industry and concentrate on work that he could not only create, but own. He'd signed a deal that made sense at the time, meaning the rights to Watchmen would revert to him when the comic went out of print. Only, it never has. And now it never will. Collecting it in graphic novel form wasn't enough for DC - more recently they've put out hardback editions of each of the 12 comics of the original series. Giving up on making amends with Moore, DC are now reinventing their superhero mythos once again, and this time embedding Watchmen into the core of that fetid lore.  It's the comics equivalent of Donald Trump's preference for being photographed in front of gold drapes at the Oval Office, heritage and status a frame signifying class supposedly shared by the subject of those images - the Vatican's been using that shtik for centuries.

With humungous corporations controlling the rights to more and more of the work creators have generated for decades, and digital media contracts typically set up to ensure the same continues to happen in new forms, the opportunity for artists to put out and control work they've cooked up diminishes, at least if they intend to make money from it. The question then becomes about goals and strategies, and pop having not only eaten itself but served itself up as next day's leftovers, weird mutations are happening. 

At some point, money ceased to be a measure of worth, and instead became something that could be gamed by elites to create more money. When people are getting rich on the basis of the possible future value of a hypothetical commodity, something strange is happening. You could argue it's decadent, only there's a lot of baggage around terms like that. Apply the same mentality to intellectual property, and you end up with Lego Batman - a digitally animated version of a plastic construction toy, used to tell a story about a billionaire who victimises mentally ill criminals concocted as pulp entertainment a few generations back. 

It's hard enough supporting yourself being creative. Stories about Van Gogh being valued only after his death get wheeled out at this point. Quite what he'd made of Sunflowers being available as a fridge magnet we can only guess. And why wouldn't it be? I saw a booth at a creative industries trade fair licensing images of Che Guevara after all, which helps explain why he's such a perennial icon, the Batman of revolutionaries. And Lego Batman? Against all the odds, it's a hilarious and sweet tale taking full advantage of the madness of that proposition. Inevitably, the soundtrack features a remix of We Built This City. It's a sign of the times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAKE NEWS, REAL BULLSHIT, AND THE IMPORTANCE OF AGNOSTICISM

I got talking to someone earlier, a woman called Rachel. We'd kind of run into one another before, but not properly engaged. Rachel works in a charity shop near me, called Mesopotamia. And what the charity does is rescue refugee children and women from unimaginable situations in Greece, in Iraq, and elsewhere. What I hadn't realised until today, as I passed her cash for a couple of books and a CD, is that it's Rachel who goes out to these countries, risking her life to save others. 

We talked about that. And she told me about the situations she goes into, which has been part of her life since she married a Muslim Turkish man and discovered what was happening in his country and others where words like 'refugee' have a richer and fuller meaning than they tend to in the UK.

Rachel has been featured in the media a few times, with a Panorama documentary and other television coverage. She appeared on a daytime show at some point, but it was virtually impossible to say anything either useful or true. She was asked not to mention ISIS or Islam, and not being able to talk about them makes it really difficult for Rachel to communicate just what she's doing, and who it benefits.

The people with the biggest reason to be scared of ISIS are Muslims. And that's something it would be good to be informed properly about. Instead, newspapers shriek hatred towards brown people and lump them all together. Noam Chomsky talks about the difficulty of expressing views within the media that don't fit in the framework of stories already put out there. If you've only got two minutes before the next guest comes on to talk about the latest diet, getting into the necessary intricacies of varied interpretations of Islam and just what jihad means isn't going to happen.

In turn, that means a good percentage of what we come across in the media is bogus. If informed conversation about what's going on in Syria is impossible, and debates about what can be done about it are framed largely in terms of coverage which omits much of the salient information, then the solutions proposed necessarily lack credibility.

The mainstream media is telling us to beware of fake news. It's hard not to raise an eyebrow at that point, in a week when the Daily Express has run an entirely bogus story about German leader Angela Merkel's plans for an EU army, not long after an equally bullshit front cover claiming a 'polar vortex' would plunge Britain into subzero temperatures and make it the worst winter for a century.

To generalise, significant elements of the media are encouraging us to be scared, and angry, and hateful, about people we haven't met. And we're told that those people have been radicalised to hate us, and destroy us in a holy war. Which doesn't make for a great conversation starter if you're convinced the family next door are tooled up for jihad and planning for you to be their first victims.

I met a Syrian refugee recently. Ahmed was cutting hair in Damascus at 13, then moved on to Dubai, and is now based in Birmingham. He's recently dissolved his first entrepreneurial venture, a very successful enterprise which saw him collaborate with manufacturers in China, where he said he learned a lot from the people he dealt with. Now, he has bigger plans with a social agenda - not least to be a good role model for other refugees. I believe he's capable of achieving that vision.

Right now, I could be getting caught up in the Tweet-tsunami of people exchanging vitriol about Donald Trump as he's sworn in. I choose not to engage. The guy plays social media in a quite brilliant way, and has skilfully turned the phrase 'fake news' against some of the media channels that disapprove of him, and done a great job of bringing out all the people who object to him in the open, where they will be even more vulnerable to state surveillance now that Obama has increased government powers for Trump to play with . 

Once talk turns to state surveillance it's easy to get disheartened. It happened to Rachel, who came to the attention of Special Branch because of her frequent visits to Muslim countries and activities in refugee camps. They found her phone number by dognapping her pooch, who has it written on his collar. Rachel reckoned it was like something out of Dad's Army. Which is a much more comforting thought than some of the apocalyptic scenarios conjured up by believers of all persuasions right now. A reminder once again that, as Robert Anton Wilson said, 'Convictions cause convicts'. 

 

IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, OVERWRITE IT

Often, when I'm meeting someone for the first time, I'll say that I took early retirement at 25. It's a harmless and supposedly amusing way to avoid talking about something bigger that happened half a life ago, when I and about a third of the staff at an ad agency were made redundant.

I suspect I was the only one who left something like happily and willingly. And that's down to something that had happened a few months earlier.

This night wounds time. The expression has haunted me since I encountered it on the cover of Starless And Bible Black, a King Crimson album. It was there thanks to Tom Phillips, an artist most known for his work A Humument, where he took a Victorian book - A Human Document by W.H. Mallock - and created his own text from it by highlighting and connecting some words and phrases, and painting over the remainder.

Now, nobody much talks about Mallock's book. But what Phillips did with it lives on as a significant alteration of something that was already there. I wish the same could be said for the town centres I see across Britain, and sometimes elsewhere when I have been abroad. Centuries of urban development and complex local histories and understandings have been overwritten by the same few shops that can be seen again and again as you travel about, square footage consumed by voracious multinational businesses that populate their space with goods aimed at whatever demographic they've opted to feed on. Their logos are seared into our consciousness, because isn't that what brands do?

As space is corrupted, so is time. Retailers are seeking to co-opt the calendar with events like Black Friday, and National Pastie Week, but corporations haven't yet succeeded in redefining the way we structure time with the success that the Gregorian calendar had when it replaced the Julian one. Besides, raw human experience can still overpower prepackaged options. 

February 28th was my dad's birthday.

But the year I was made redundant it was overwritten by my brother Nigel's death.

He was at the wheel of a car he and some friends had stolen.

Dad had to identify his charred corpse.

 

This night wounds time.

 

And wounds can heal.

 

When we buried my brother, the route taken by the hearse took us past the homes we shared with Nigel as a family, in the order we'd lived in them. That wasn't planned by either of my parents. It happened to be the route that made most sense given where the journey started, and where it ended, chosen by the driver of the hearse. But that particular shape, recapitulating the years we lived and grew and changed together, inevitably felt significant. Well, it was significant - just unplanned. There's a reason Jung called synchronicity meaningful coincidence.

That journey was a condensed version of our lives with Nigel, much of the time spent travelling down roads we'd played, fought, laughed, argued. It's how they'd do it in a film, so is it any wonder I ended up writing scripts when life itself seemed to be overdoing the job on this and so many occasions?

And now it's a New Year, according to the calendar I favour. A blank page. And one which we don't have to write on at all, let alone with resolutions. But have a think, about the extent to which your choices are shaped by organisations that are only interested in you as a source of revenue. If there are people who treat you similarly, then pay them some attention too. Thing being, it doesn't have to be like that. You get to choose a lot more about your life than you might imagine, and it's worth doing if the result is trading a way of living primarily experienced through your economic value to others for one where you get to determine what's significant, and how you allocate your time as a consequence.

This needn't involved giving up a job and becoming a hermit or self-employed. There are plenty of people I know who find their jobs rewarding and worthwhile. And there are more I know who trade hours put into organisations that mean nothing to them for cash allowing them to enjoy their time outside of it. If that's a transaction that works, then good luck. It's best to be in charge of making the big choices in your life, than be forced into a major reassessment of how you live because of the death of someone you love.

After my brother's death, I moved to Nottingham. Yesterday, I took a walk through Beeston, the area I first lived when I came here. And part of what made that experience good is the choices I've made since have overwritten whatever I may have formerly felt about the place, let alone what created those feelings. Wandering through the place ('a seaside town without the sea', a much-missed friend put it once) and beyond, I walked through the university grounds, and spent time at a couple of arts centres there. You could say that a university is a brand, but even if that's the case I'm much happier with brands that decorate their space with opportunities to occupy time in nature, and with paintings, and the company of people out for a show or a walk with their children, than I am in a city where I could be anywhere judging by the familiarity of the names on the shopfronts.

Capitalism has imprinted its offerings on us in part through using what makes art work, and it's easy to mistake its products for our desires. Given that I'm writing this in a house full of books, DVDs, comics, CDs, and other paraphernalia of consumer society, that may be hypocritical to some extent. So be it. And I know that much of what I enjoy and pay money for goes on to shape my own creativity, and the stories I offer the world, and the forms in which I offer those stories. Maybe stories isn't your thing, but we've all got something to offer that you can't get by wandering around town and finding it for the best price. Whatever that something is, do more of it this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WELCOME TO THE MONKEYHOUSE

If I asked you how you'd be hospitable to someone, you'd have lots of suggestions I'm sure. You could listen as they describe their day, share soup, maybe even run them a bath. There are all kinds of things we can do, and they start small and simple. Eye contact. Smiling. It really is that basic.

Conversely, people can be made to feel unwelcome. We've had that experience, whether personally or when we've seen it happen to someone else. Only, something has happened around that indisputable phenomenon. It's become politicised, thanks to the use of the term microaggression to describe those behaviours which can make people feel that they're not wanted.

And already, people will be making assumptions about me for making that statement. You should. If you're convinced that microaggression is a fantasy, a delusion suffered by social justice warriors who need safe spaces then it's possible that you've allowed yourselves to be lulled by the siren of the alt right, or alt reich as I call them to remind myself what they're about. And it's easy for that to happen. I know, because I've succumbed from time to time, having come across some tiresome examples of people wanting to shut down free speech and insist that their preferences matter more than anyone else's opinions. And yet -

A friend of mine was lucky enough to get to do postgraduate studies at a university. She'd never expected to do so, and wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Doing her degree had been an amazing experience, but pretty soon it became clear as she started her Masters that things weren't the same. And she couldn't be sure why. What she knew was she felt bad, but couldn't locate the source of her unease.

Bit by bit she started to understand what was happening to her, and its subtlety. She's a working class single mum, and most of the people she was meeting in the space for postgrads were younger, and middle class. Most importantly, they were fluent in a language that was new to my friend, and pervasive within middle class and academic circles...passive-aggression. People would say one thing, mean another. And the disconnect left her feeling bad.

Not just my friend in fact - she realised low-grade paranoia was pervasive within the area set aside for the postgrads. A small group of people helped create the atmosphere for all. They might not have intended to make somewhere so unfriendly, but that's exactly what they'd done. And the biggest evidence was in the dwindling numbers of overseas students using what was supposed to be a resource for all. My friend, who has always spoken with pretty much anyone and treated them as an equal and someone she can learn from, found out that lots of the overseas students weren't using the space because they felt unwelcome.

This stuff is subtle, but it happens. And in heartbreaking ways. One of the Chinese students, convinced that there was bad energy in the room - whatever that might mean - had taken to putting a mirror on his computer to deflect the negative vibes. Sounds daft, but it was a culturally-grounded response to a situation that he couldn't process and respond to in a rational way. You don't have to believe in feng shui to know there are places that feel bad.

Somewhere I've read about an experiment where a neighbourhood with a bad reputation and high crime experienced a transformation when researchers paid people to smile and make eye contact with others walking through the area. I can't find the book with that study unfortunately, but I can recall something comparable in my own experience...

In 2009 I spent a few weeks in Australia. And I found it to be an extraordinarily hospitable place. Now, I know like any society there's plenty of racism too - I'm no pollyanna. But generally, I experienced an incredible degree of welcome from people, and not just ones I had some connection with. I stayed at a little seaside town, Ballina, for a few days. And one wet and windy Monday night, wanted to get some food. Only, between bad weather and it being the start of the week, hardly anywhere was open. I found somewhere that seemed to be, but they were about to close. A couple there for a birthday meal said I was welcome to have the remains of the pizza they had shared - an incredibly touching kindness. And I found similar examples pretty much wherever I went, giving me a huge affection for Australia that will stay with me.

My friend challenged the unwelcoming culture at her university, and the space for postgrads became one that was used by all. And it's possibly the case that the exclusionary tactics used by the core group weren't intentionally divisive, but a reflection of their discomfort with difference. And that's something we all suffer from at some point, to a greater or lesser degree.

It's incredibly easy to make another social or cultural group other in some way. Othering is a valuable tool for elites to maintain their power by getting people to focus on differences as a bad thing, rather than celebrating them as something to treasure. Which is pretty banal - only right now it isn't. 

One of the first things that I was aware of as a response to Trump's electoral victory was an American transwoman I work with ensuring that her passport and other documentation is in order should the President-elect see through homophobic legislation that is possibly on the way. The response from the trans community and their allies is to organise, and ensure people have what they need, with funds being put together to ensure that's possible. There's talk of registering Muslims, and for many that understandably has an echo of the first steps of Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany, which is why some American Jews are saying they're going to register as Muslims and are encouraging others to do so.

The magic word in all this is empathy. It's an innate human quality, and one that politicians of various sorts would section off to function only within groups they define, with anyone not belonging to the group depicted as alien. But they're not, any more than anyone is. As humans, we are 99% plus genetically identical to chimpanzees. Remember - whatever you make of Muslims, gays, left-handers, and Christians, you're even closer to them then you are the other primates.