About this blog
My aspiration in this blog is to identify principles, approaches and tools that may help to improve the quality of discussion and policy making in the UK and beyond, and to swap notes with others who share this interest. The context is compelling. The environmental crisis requires our government to take rapid, thoughtful, strategic action, in partnership with other nations across the globe. The emergency will call for wisdom, rigourous thinking, courage and self-knowledge from our elected representatives. They, in turn, will only be able to do what is necessary if they have a mandate from an informed electorate, willing to transcend the primitive tribalism which may otherwise lead to our downfall. Far more attention needs to be paid to process and psychology and those of us who are up for building a sustainable society will need to draw on the best tools out there in the fields of critical thinking, negotiation, conflict resolution, planning, project management, etc.
The poor design of the EU referendum and the dire quality of the ensuing arguments in Parliament, in the media and on the ground point to serious problems within our political system, problems that arguably are being replicated across the globe and leading to disillusion with democracy. It is my contention that the answer to the enormous challenges we face is not to turn to dictatorship – the dream of the strong but tyrannical father – but to deepen deliberative democracy through better education and more thoughtful processes for citizen engagement in policy-making. Leaders at all levels of society are going to have to show more wisdom, to demonstrate more self-knowledge and to rise above the fray to analyse developments at a meta level, and then seek strategies which motivate citizens of all political persuasions to support action for sustainability. In my view, this can only be achieved if the citizenry genuinely believes that “we are all in this together.”
With my background as a facilitator, trainer, manager, teacher and drama worker, I am confident that we have the appropriate tools. But now we need to pick them up and work collaboratively to construct policies and practices to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and at the same time make life better for all. I propose that both rationality and emotional intelligence are going to be essential elements of this endeavour.
One of the principles that I hold to, when considering the concept of constructive debate, is transparency about one’s origins, influences and values. Here then are two sketches of who I am, what I have done and what I think my significant influences have been – the first more concise, the second more detailed.
The short version (455 words)
I have worked in the theatre as a performer, director and choreographer, in the voluntary sector as an advice worker, manager and trainer, and in the education sector as a teacher and senior manager. The thread running through these disparate experiences I see as the desire to promote creative, collaborative and critical thinking about what constitutes a good society. I am a member of the Green Party but currently focus my campaigning energies on non-party-political climate change communications.
Two notable influences on my philosophy share the initials ‘RC’. The first is the Roman Catholic Church. My grandfather was a stained-glass artist and I grew up in a milieu in which religion, family and politics were intertwined with the arts. The second RC was a politically-oriented, therapeutic community called Re-evaluation Counselling, to which I belonged in the 1980s. This ‘RC’ sought to analyse the links between personal, social and political psychology. At its heart was a practice of emotional investigation, the theory being that only through experiencing our emotions can we come to identify the restrictions they impose on our rationality.
I am interested in individual and social psychology and have a left wing bent, whilst being suspicious of tribalism right across the political spectrum. I have strong feelings about class, going back to the Catholic morality of the inherent dignity of all human beings. I have been involved with promoting ‘creative learning’ in schools and I am keen on the idea of deliberative democracy – society-wide engagement in decision-making, not on the basis of unfounded battles of opinion, but rather of critical, creative and collaborative thinking. I have been influenced by Matthew Lipman who created the pedagogical movement known as Philosophy for Children, and in a different way, by a range of theatre practitioners who have used the arts to engage audiences in reflecting on society.
Being gay has been another significant factor in my life and thought; my adult character and political beliefs were, for better or worse, forged through the experience of outsiderdom and the need to challenge prejudice for my own psychic survival.
I believe that human beings have a common nature, filtered through culture and subculture, always influenced by the historical, economic and political context and by our evolved traits. But I don’t accept that we are condemned to be perpetually at war with each other and to destroy the planet upon which we all depend, quite possibly in the near future.
In this blog, I aim to share, and swap notes on, ideas, methods and practices which look promising for building a sustainable society. I hope to exemplify a morality based in truth seeking, respect for other human beings and the natural world, and the aspiration to be genuinely open to learning.
The longer version for hardier readers (1917 words)
My haphazard career
I’ve had a varied career, characterised by shifts between the arts, education and the voluntary sector, drawn one way by my love of creative experiences and another way by my intellectual and social interests. I have worked in the theatre as a performer, director and choreographer, in the voluntary sector as an advice worker, manager and trainer, and in the education sector as a teacher and senior manager. The thread that runs through these disparate experiences I see as the desire to promote creative, collaborative and critical thinking about what constitutes the good society.
Following my degree in English Literature from Cambridge University, I trained in musical theatre and went on to work in the theatre industry, initially as a choreographer, and later as a director and teacher. My own performances were few but my credits include a solo show, ‘Bestiary’, written by Jim Burke, performed at festivals in Yorkshire, and ‘Fiction’, a comic dance piece with Victoria Marks Performance Company, performed in London and the USA. For seven years I ran a youth theatre based in Sheffield Theatres, one of the U.K.’s biggest theatre complexes. It proved to be a wonderful opportunity for me to bring my varied skills and interests to bear within a single specific community.
I widened my scope when I became Director of Creative Partnerships, an innovative education programme, in that same city. The programme was funded by the New Labour government to investigate and promote creative approaches to teaching and learning in schools. We worked closely with teachers, artists and young people to set up and evaluate collaborative projects which advanced both knowledge and skills. When the programme was cut by the incoming coalition government in 2010, I spent some time at the grassroots as a primary school teacher, and then moved on to work as a freelance facilitator and trainer.
The bulk of my work as a trainer has focused on developing the arts in schools but I have also offered support for participatory planning methods by community groups, drawing on a method known as the Technology of Participation, and on a group learning model called Action Learning Sets. Through my association with the theatre company Dead Earnest I have continued to practice drama-based methods, especially Forum Theatre. Over the years, I have delivered training and facilitation for Citizens’ Advice workers, social work and health professionals, housing co-operatives, political groups, theatre companies, artists, teachers, head teachers and prisoners.
Little by little, my worry and anger about the inadequacy of our political system for grappling effectively with the ever worsening environmental crisis has claimed my focus. I have been a somewhat detached member of the Green Party for many years. Diagnosed in late 2018 with cancer, I’m now mostly retired from paid work, but giving my energy as much as I can to promoting critical thinking and constructive communications about climate change within the city where I live. I spent some time studying for a PhD assessing the value of using theatre methods to communicate about climate change but in late 2019 decided to withdraw, because of my health, putting my thoughts instead into this blog.
Key influences on my attitudes, values and beliefs
Each of us has our own complex trajectory of attitude, value and belief development. In my story there have been two notable influences, both referred to as ‘RC’. The first is the Roman Catholic Church. I was brought up in a solidly Catholic family, although with a particular complexion because my grandparents on my mother’s side were both converts from the Church of Scotland. For them, Catholicism represented a liberation from the more “dour” characteristics of Scottish Protestantism. On my father’s side, the Catholic tradition went back generations, and was perhaps taken more for granted. My paternal grandfather was a stained-glass artist whose work consisted of designing and making windows for churches, depicting religious figures. I thus grew up in a milieu in which religion, family and social concern were completely intertwined with the arts. My grandfather was strongly influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and his studio in Buckinghamshire was just down the road from an eccentric and sometimes problematic arts community led by the sculptor and calligrapher, Eric Gill. My father took these influences into his own career as an architectural historian, broadcaster and Vice Chancellor; I cannot gainsay his huge influence on my own thinking.
Although my grandfather was from a working-class background and, as a craftsman, had a very erratic income, my father was a brilliant pupil who got a scholarship to a public school and went on to have a high profile career; I was thus brought up in a privileged middle-class environment in some ways, but I also had working class roots and I imbibed values rooted in Catholic ideas of equality. I was sent to the local, predominantly working-class, primary school and then to the local grammar school; only at 16 did I go to an independent boarding school to study A Levels.
It is significant that my national heritage is multifaceted. I am a white man, a mixture of Scottish, Irish, German and English nationalities, brought up first in Scotland and then in Yorkshire, with frequent forays to the Home Counties, and all the time with a received pronunciation English accent. The result is that I identify as British – even English – but also as an immigrant. And I’m a Francophile who speaks good conversational French.
The second ‘RC’ was a US-based, politically-oriented, therapeutic community called Re-evaluation Counselling. The main factor that drew me into this association in my mid-twenties were the complex feelings I had about being gay. That is a whole story in itself, but suffice to say that my teenage years were filled with anxiety and secrecy about this discovery within myself, and in fact I did not ‘come out’ until the year after I had finished my degree. By that point, I had left the Catholic Church and embraced an alternative lifestyle, living in a Lesbian and Gay housing cooperative in North London during the 1980s. Only recently have I come to appreciate that I was participating in a historically significant social movement, at a febrile time when ‘liberation’ issues were being hotly debated.
Re-evaluation Counselling helped me to navigate my emotional turmoil and also gave me an informal grounding in Marxist social and economic theory. It was, and is, a remarkable project which sought to analyse the links between personal, social and political psychology, through grassroots practice. At its heart was a commitment to emotional investigation, the theory being that only through experiencing our emotions deeply can we come to identify and limit the restrictions they impose on our rationality. There is much more I could say about this. I acknowledge it briefly here because its influence on me has been huge, even though I distanced myself from it 25 years ago. I was very active within the community for the formative years between 25 and 35, becoming an experienced counsellor and group facilitator, but eventually I decided to leave it because of cultish traits I saw in it, especially the refusal to allow critical open debate. Since then, I have made forays into investigating other approaches to personal and political development, and these experiences, with their different takes on what makes humans tick, may well filter into my blogs on widely different topics.
Topics I am interested in
I am interested in the relationship between the individual and society, psychology and politics. I have strong feelings about snobbishness and class and am passionate about promoting mutual understanding across social divides. In my heart, I am a teacher, sometimes prone to didacticism, but mostly an enthusiast for the ideal of empowerment.
I love the arts and still engage, when my cancer allows me the energy, in small theatre projects, as well as attending dance classes and maintaining a personal visual arts practice.
The value of the arts in society is a central theme in my thinking. In my time with Creative Partnerships I was closely involved with thinking about, and promoting, creativity both within and beyond formal education – what is sometimes called ‘creative learning’. The processes we used to explore point, for me, towards a need for deeper deliberative democracy, characterised by society-wide engagement in decision-making, not on the basis of unfounded battles of opinion, but rather of critical, creative and collaborative thinking.
For a theoretical base, I go back not only to the critical and historical study I was trained in during my degree in English Literature, and to the Marxist framework I adopted from Re-evaluation Counselling, but also to the work of Matthew Lipman who created a movement in schools and communities known as Philosophy for Children, which I have practised and promoted in schools in my home city.
I have also been strongly influenced by a number of pioneering theatre practitioners and choreographers who have used story and the sensory impact of the arts to engage audiences in reflecting on society, recognising that the intellect is by no means all of who we are, nor does it guide all of what we do. For me, the rational cannot exist in perfect separation from the emotional; theory and practice are consequently intertwined.
My political credo
In all of my associations, even where they have been long-term such as the Green Party, I have retained a degree of outsider scepticism which has held me back from wholehearted commitment on many occasions – perhaps to my own detriment – but which has allowed me to seek cross-boundary perspectives and to transcend unthinking tribal loyalties. I think human beings have a common nature, filtered through culture and subculture, always influenced if not determined by the historical, economic and political context and by our evolved traits.
But I don’t accept that we are condemned to be perpetually at war with each other and to destroy the planet upon which we all depend, quite possibly in the near future. I believe that we can think constructively about the challenges we face and that we have much wisdom available to us. The world’s libraries are bulging with books on all these matters, many going back centuries, and more are being produced every year. Practical thinkers out in the field are coming up with new ideas and new technologies all of the time and news of them now spreads across the globe in minutes. Scientific thinking and research values are taken for granted by an increasing share of the world’s population, even though they currently seem to be under question. Through the wonderful medium of podcasts, one can listen to fresh conversations and debates every week, many of which exhibit an intellectual rigour and a historical knowledge far, far superior to what we typically see and hear in the Houses of Parliament, here in the UK, and in other legislatures across the world. One question that bothers me therefore is why there is such a disconnect between the worlds of academia, education, philosophy, etc. and that of politics. The answer has no doubt something to do with political systems, something to do with the media and its tendencies and its biases, but may also have something to do with class, to which I constantly return to as a fundamental – the notion that some human beings are better than others and deserve better than others, and that some activities within society have greater value than others, not least those which give access to fame and fortune.
The purpose of this blog
So with my multifarious interests, and my consequent rather shallow grasp of many of them, I do not put myself forward as a highly original thinker. Rather, I aim to share, and swap notes on, ideas, methods and practices which others more clever than me have developed, and which look promising for building a sustainable society. In the process, I hope to exemplify a morality based in truth seeking, respect for other human beings and the natural world, and the aspiration to be genuinely open to learning.