Ready to jump

This article was commissioned by Haydn Shaughnessy and published on the Hack & Craft News site on 2 November 2016. The challenge was to explore what happens when people take advantage of opportunities. My thanks to Haydn for permission to reproduce it here. The article forms part of my ongoing research into #pelotonformations. This is a metaphor for responsive, adaptive organisations characterised by fluid leadership, agility and personal autonomy in service of the collective.

Treating an uncertain world as if it is predictable is for charlatans. Long-term planning is just a waste of resources and brain power. The surest route to castrophic failure is not to act and not to take any risks.
— James Watt, Business for Punks

Distributed doesn’t simply mean decentralized; it’s not the principle through which alternative power centers emerge on the periphery of a system. Rather, when power is distributed, it is available thought the network. It is everywhere at once.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom.
— E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…

Peloton formations
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.

The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.

Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.

Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.

Serial masters
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.

Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.

At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.

As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.

Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.

As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.

Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?

In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.

In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.

Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.

The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.

On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be a short but explosive stage. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly transformed into a race-transforming opportunity.

Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.

Peloton lessons
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.

Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?

Pelotons are able to operate in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.

Further Reading

Goldin, Ian, and Chris Kutarna. Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 2016).

Jarche, Harold. Working in Perpetual Beta (Tantramar Interactive, 2016).

Martin, Richard. ‘Peloton Formations: The Responsive, Adaptive Organisation’, in Jon Husband, et al, Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work (Wirearchy Commons, 2015).

Mikkelsen, Kenneth, and Richard Martin. The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are (LID, 2016).

Millar, David. The Racer: Life on the Road as a Pro Cyclist (Yellow Jersey Press, 2015).

A year in books

All stories are really fragments of one story.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

We often ignore the importance of language: it’s ability to uplift us, or to shape the way we see and therefore act in the world.
— Alan Moore, Do Design

The closing weeks of a year are often filled with review pieces. Despite myself, I am always drawn to the literary reviews, partly in the hope of discovering something new, partly out of curiosity. What are other people reading? What has attracted them? What have they taken away from the experience?

Reading other people’s recommendations prompts my own reflections. What have I read this year? Why did I read it? Was it because of a steer from a friend, something that I had long anticipated or a serendipitous discovery? Did I delve into the footnotes or bibliography of another book to discover this new work? Did I heed the prompt of a newspaper journalist or a blogger or someone I follow on Twitter?

The following are a few of the books that moved me, delighted me or inspired me in one way or another this year. I have confined myself to books published this year or, in a few cases, books published in 2015 that only wormed their way into my consciousness this year. Excluded from consideration are any books I have worked on myself either as author or editor.

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The second collection of images are of books awaiting my attention. These I fully expect to move, delight and inspire to the same degree as those already read. It always feels good to have something to look forward to, to be surrounded by potential and anticipation. What Umberto Eco referred to as an anti-library; what Marcelo Gleiser might identify as fish to be caught from the waters that surround the island of knowledge.

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What have been your own reading pleasures and discoveries this year?

All writers are puzzle makers. As models of our experience, stories and novels aim not to reduce that experience, or to simplify it, but to reflect its pleasures and sorrows, and to bring its mysteries into sharp focus.
— Peter Turchi, A Muse and A Maze

Writers and storytellers had been nesting their narratives for centuries, of course, in an effort to approximate the networks of story that ramify and complicate our experience of everyday life.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

The poem defines

This week (7-13 November 2016), it is International Working Out Loud Week. Simon Terry kindly invited Kenneth Mikkelsen and I to be interviewed about neo-generalism and working out loud. As a companion piece to that interview, the following post retrospectively shares ideas that went into one aspect of our book.

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest—
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

He will be more than the sum of his parts.
— Kate Tempest, Tiresias

Tiresias who sees what only a child could see
— Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament

At the centre of The Neo-Generalist can be found the chapter ‘Shoring Fragments’. In it Kenneth and I observe, ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’

In speaking for ourselves, in telling our own stories in the book, we discovered that we were simultaneously telling those of other people too. In recounting fragments of their stories, or highlighting examples from popular culture, we found again that we were telling our own stories.

Our ever evolving selves, our sense of identity, are made up of these shored fragments. On a personal level, there are certain cultural artefacts that anchor me. These are my touchstones. The art through which I make meaning, and with which I gauge and assess other art and the broader world around me.

From poetry, there is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which shoring fragments alludes. From fiction, there is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which gave us another chapter title. From film, there is Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, the screenwriter’s masterful script darkened and enriched by the director’s cinematic vision. From television, there is Northern Exposure, the subject of my last blog post and another cultural reference to find its way into our book. In painting, there is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

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[Picture credit: The sources of our chapter titles]

The touchstone of touchstones for me, as I have previously described in An artist by any other name, is The Waste Land. I can build a case for how each of the other works cited borrows from and is influenced by it. So too other novels, films and visual art. This goes far beyond shared motifs and a thematic interest in all things Modernist.

The Waste Land has long tentacles. In 2018, its legacy will be the subject of an art exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery. It also lingers below the surface of the work of contemporary poets, as witness Sean Bonney’s searing Letters Against the Firmament and Kate Tempest’s brilliant Let Them Eat Chaos.

With The Neo-Generalist, Eliot’s poem proved to be a gift that kept on giving. Beyond the title of and opening to chapter 7, it gave us an organising principle (shoring the narrative fragments) and an architecture too. Some of this was addressed overtly, some of it happened unconsciously, influenced by constant reference to the poem while we were researching and writing.

For example, in the book we deliberately draw attention to the fact that both The Waste Land and The Crying of Lot 49 highlight their own artifice in the way they close. In the poem, Eliot concludes with his carefully crafted notes ending with the word word; in the novella, Pynchon closes with the book’s title. We opted to follow the latter in The Neo-Generalist. It was an in-joke, much like some of the images that adorn the book’s cover.

At the centre of The Waste Land can be found the mythological figure of Tiresias. Tiresias experiences life as both a man and a woman, is blinded by a goddess and given the gift of foresight by a god. In Tiresias, as I have previously outlined in the The Eye of I, polarities between masculinity and femininity collapse, while time and place become one. Tiresias embodies the continuum of our infinite loop. In Eliot’s poem, then, Tiresias becomes the vortex around which other characters and voices spin kaleidoscopically. Everything converges and collapses into the singularity of this man–woman.

It is a notion, consciously or not, that we borrow in telling the stories of our interviewees. One story bleeds into another. Boundaries are blurred. Delineation fades. Because our argument is that anyone can be a neo-generalist. No matter what you are doing now, no matter your educational background, no matter where you currently find yourself. We all carry the potential to both specialise and generalise. So the stories we tell, in the end, are our stories and your stories too. The names are just labels for ease of understanding.

People are always beginning, always learning, always adapting. Their inner voice telling them that where you go is who you are.

Metamorphosis is generally more creative than that, not echoing but erasing forms and inventing other ones from the material, a kaleidoscope of atoms and molecules tumbling into new formations over and over.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I was on the lookout for residue, for texture, for accidents and encounters and unexpected openings.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

In every piece we write, we contemplate a world; and as that world would not otherwise exist, we create it even as we discover it.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

Northern Exposure

A shorter, tighter version of this post appeared in chapter 8 of The Neo-Generalist. There it serves to illustrate the importance of empathy and reframing from the perspective of other people. The post pre-dates the book. I have opted to re-publish it here as a form of working out loud. In the late 1990s, I delivered a presentation on Northern Exposure when applying for an academic post. I have been returning to the television series as a source of inspiration ever since. Polishing, adding to, tweaking my writing about it. The framing quotes are new additions for this publication.

The days go past like pictures on a screen.
Sometimes I feel like my life
is someone else’s dream.
— Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos

No, they were
the scenery of the play now closing,
lengthy run it had.
— Sharon Olds, Object Loss

Broadcast over six seasons by CBS between 1990 and 1995, Northern Exposure follows the lives and communal interactions of a small group of people living in Cicely, Alaska; the North American equivalent of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is neo-modern television with Northern Exposure exploring issues relating to the breakdown of human interaction, the fragmentation of identity in the modern world, the debasement of love, and the beguiling power of wealth. The series indulges in extended philosophical musings through the mouthpieces of the ex-con DJ Chris Stevens (John Corbett) and his brother Bernard (Richard Cummings, Jr.), also offering a critique of capitalist ideology through the characterisation of former astronaut Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin).

Northern Exposure constantly plays with audience expectations. It hybridises genres, borrowing from both comic and dramatic traditions, variously combining elements of romantic comedy and soap opera with aspects of the western and period drama. The series explores, undermines and collapses the distinctions between East and West, frontier and civilisation, science and mysticism, male and female, past and present. Like Macondo, Cicely becomes a mythical space; a repository of all human experiences, philosophies and civilisations.

This is a place where different cultures, religions, ideologies, even psychic spaces become shared. Cicely is where temporal, spatial and personal divisions can be elided. Various episodes concern the town’s founding as a haven of social and sexual freedom by two lesbians in the 1890s (‘Cicely’, third season, final episode), Joel Fleischman’s (Rob Morrow) dream of New York high society (‘Dinner at Seven-Thirty’, sixth season, first episode) and Marilyn Whirlwind’s (Elaine Miles) story of the visit of a Russian princess to the town (‘Zarya’, sixth season, sixth episode). In Cicely, the eternal present reigns, and the discovery of Napoleonic warriors and mammoths, visitations from ghosts and Green Men, or characters sharing or exchanging dreams are treated as commonplace.

The manner in which Northern Exposure subtly and overtly challenges our preconceptions is strengthened by the way in which it promotes its own status as a cultural artefact. It frequently draws attention to communication technology, artistic creativity and cultural consumption through Chris’s learned radio show and his avant-garde sculptures, Ed Chigliak’s (Darren E. Burrows) cinemania and the visitations to Cicely by a variety of artists, filmmakers and performers. The dialogue is also packed with knowing references to famous historical figures, writers, filmmakers, philosophers and scientists.

The episode titles, too, are richly allusive, as witness ‘Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes’ (first season, sixth episode), ‘War and Peace’ (second season, sixth episode), ‘Jules et Joel’ (third season, fifth episode), ‘Crime and Punishment’ (fourth season, tenth episode), and ‘A River Doesn’t Run Through It’ (fifth season, fifth episode). At times, as in the opening to ‘Up River’, broadcast in the sixth and final season, Northern Exposure also parodies famous literary passages and film scenes. In this case, the protagonist’s river voyage of both Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of it, the film Apocalypse Now.

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[Picture: Title card from the credit sequence of Northern Exposure]

Through its six-season run, Northern Exposure frequently tackles the topic of mythology. This is achieved through characters referencing theoretical studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman. It is also done through narrative structure. Campbell’s hero adventure, for example, serves as the model for one of the key episodes of the sixth season, ‘The Quest’. In this episode Joel and Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) seek out the Jewelled City of the North, culminating with Joel’s return to New York City, his personal grail ever since he was first posted to the remote Alaskan outpost of Cicely in the series’ pilot episode.

Beyond this fantasy, myth, and dreamworlds permeate all 110 episodes of Northern Exposure, serving to create a magical-realist universe in which the fantastic and the commonplace are treated equally. Joel, Maggie, Chris, Ruth-Anne Miller (Peg Phillips), and Holling Vincoeur’s (John Cullum) daily activities catering to their community as doctor, pilot, DJ, general store owner and bar proprietor respectively, are juxtaposed with explorations of magic, myth, ritual, shamanism and dreamworlds.

In many episodes, the Native American characters become associated with these more magical and mythical elements. The differences between their worldview and that of city characters like Joel is eloquently suggested, for example, in their alternative approaches to medicine. Episodes such as ‘Brains, Know How and Native Intelligence’ (first season, second episode), ‘Russian Flu’ (first season, fifth episode), ‘Wake Up Call’ (third season, nineteenth episode) and ‘Three Doctors’ (fifth season, first episode) juxtapose, often to comic effect, Joel’s scientific approach to medicine with the magic of his Native American counterparts. It is the industrial world and its practices butting up against traditions drawn from the nomadic and agricultural eras.

The fantastic, however, is not the exclusive domain of the Native Americans. Chris, for one, actively seeks out fantastic experiences, and they also become part of the Cicely lifestyle for many of the other characters. Ed, for example, is hounded by a dwarf-like demon known as the Green Man (Phil Fondacaro) whenever he experiences self-doubt. Many of the town’s inhabitants are constantly dreaming, blurring fantasy and reality, and, at times, even experiencing one another’s dreamworlds, as in ‘Aurora Borealis’ (first season, eighth episode) and ‘Mr. Sandman’ (fifth season, twelfth episode).

Joel, on two occasions, in ‘Fish Story’ (fifth season, eighteenth episode) and ‘Shofar, So Good’ (sixth season, third episode), is visited by the ghost of Rabbi Schulman (Jerry Adler), who, in the latter episode is accompanied by the ghosts of Yom Kippur past, present, and future. Fantastic communal events, also occur with some regularity. In ‘Horns’ (sixth season, thirteenth episode), for example, bottled Cicely water has the effect of reversing gender behaviour in the community.

As with so much art, Northern Exposure captures the zeitgeist of its time. Its revisiting of themes that obsessed the Modernists of the pre-WWII era is not coincidental. History has a tendency to both progress and echo. Artists are often part of the advance party, gauging the temperature, spotting trends. A couple of decades on from Northern Exposure and we have witnessed a period of financial boom and bust, the revival of extremist political ideologies, unpleasant rhetoric about nationalism and migration, land grabs and military muscle-flexing, dramatic and accelerated advancement in our communication technology, as well as in our governments’ monitoring of it.

During this period, we have also seen an increasing number of people challenge the status quo, questioning our leadership models, our social structures, our approaches to education and work, our rampant disregard for the environment, our very purpose on this planet. Surely there is a better way, they ask. Surely we can make a difference together rather pursuing the path of increased fragmentation, of separation by borders and walls, of differentiation through race, belief, gender and age.

One of the most fascinating things about Northern Exposure is its portrait of community. Cicely is a small town that celebrates diversity, that welcomes in, adapts to and absorbs outsiders – with key characters like Joel, Chris, Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary) and Mike Monroe (Anthony Edwards) among them. It is a community that functions both as macrocosm and microcosm in the shape of smaller groupings centred around the bar, grocery store, radio studio and medical practice. This is a collaborative, cooperative community, made up of interactive cells of people, with several individuals flowing freely between them, sharing ideas, inspiring others to action.

We have to keep reminding ourselves of the stories we told ourselves in the past. Our myths, fables, poems, histories, novels, films, paintings, sculptures, music, television series and games. All this culture is not purely for the sake of entertainment. It is a source of inspiration and learning too. It helps build understanding of both ourselves and our communities. It reminds us how we dealt with the problems of the past, and provides the scaffolding for how we will address the future too.

It would be a scrapbook, a collage, a graphic novel, a dissolving of the boundaries between forms because Crow is a trickster, he is ancient and post-modern, illustrator, editor, vandal.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Cat People

Something of the abysmal darkness of the world has broken in on us, poisoning the very air we breathe and befouling the pure water with the stale, nauseating taste of blood.
— C. G. Jung, Essays on Contemporary Events

In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair.
— Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief

Cat People (1942) was a landmark film in the history of American horror cinema. It was the first in a series of low-budget feature films to be produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO with the aim of competing with the horror productions from other big studios such as Universal. While borrowing favoured archetypes from the Universal films of the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular that of the shapeshifting protagonist, Cat People was notable for its mise-en-scène, inventive use of sound, and its stylistic visual effects.

The latter was principally the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, putting into effect the desire of Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to play with shadows, engaging the imagination of the movie-going public by means of suggestion. The lighting, which at times recalled Musuraca’s earlier work on the atmospheric Stranger on the Third Floor, was to influence the evolution of film noir as much as it was the 1940s horror film.

Cat People was also innovative as an example of the latter genre in locating the bulk of its narrative in a recognisably contemporary US setting, focusing on a story populated largely by everyman US citizens who are threatened by the duality and otherness of the Serbian immigrant to New York City, female protagonist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon).

The film opens in the Central Park Zoo with Irena, a fashion artist by trade, sketching in front of the panther cage. A chance encounter with ‘good old Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), following Irena’s clumsy attempt to dispose of her first drawing, soon leads to friendship and romantic interest. Irena reveals her loneliness and sense of isolation to Oliver, while also disclosing an obsession with a mysterious cultural heritage evidenced by the many images of cats in her apartment and a statue of the Serbian King John with a cat-like figure impaled on his sword.

It becomes evident that Irena believes that she is descended from a line of devil-worshipping, lycanthropic witches who have the power to transform themselves into large predatory cats when aroused to sexual passion, jealousy or rage. She tells Oliver that she has ‘fled from the past, from things that you could never know or understand – evil things.’

An encounter with a feline-looking woman in a Serbian restaurant on the night of Irena’s and Oliver’s wedding, who addresses Irena in their native tongue as ‘my sister’, fills Irena with terror. As a result, she refuses to consummate her marriage. Oliver, despite his apparent understanding, is dismissive of Irena’s beliefs and, as his frustration mounts at the unfulfilled relationship, he increasingly seeks solace in the companionship of his work colleague and fellow draftsman Alice Moore (Jane Randolph).

Addressing their failing marriage, Irena and Oliver decide that it would be best if she undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. Irena is not convinced by the Freudian approach adopted by the predatory Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Under hypnosis, however, she does reveal to him the history of the Serbian cat women and the fact that she appears to suffer from intermittent amnesia. Her unwillingness to revisit Judd causes further tension between Oliver and herself, and fuels Irena’s suspicions about the burgeoning relationship between him and Alice.

In two celebrated sequences, Irena in panther form (although this is not seen on screen) terrorises Alice, first as she travels home through Central Park, then at the swimming pool in her YWCA building. When Oliver finally professes his love for Alice to Irena, and offers her a divorce, Irena again assumes panther form (this time explicitly shown on screen). She is on the point of attacking the couple at their workplace when Oliver, using an architect’s T-square as an improvised crucifix, beseeches her to leave them alone.

Returning home, Irena finds Judd waiting for her. While Oliver now believes all that Irena has told him regarding her shapeshifting capabilities, Judd remains entirely dismissive of her story. His interest in Irena is wholly sexual rather than pastoral. Irena willingly submits to a kiss in the knowledge that this will trigger another transformation. In the ensuing struggle, although Judd is killed, he wounds Irena with his sword-cane, a weapon that aligns him with the statue of King John and all that that symbolises.

Irena makes her way again to the site of frequent visits – the panther’s cage at the zoo. Using the key that she has stolen from the zookeeper earlier in the film, she opens the cage in a suicidal gesture, allowing the panther to attack and kill her before it is itself run over by a police car. The film ends with all-American couple, Oliver and Alice, walking away from the Serbian cat woman’s corpse. Normality and the patriarchal order are apparently restored.

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[Picture credit: Poster from the 1942 film Cat People]

For a 70-minute B film, Cat People is an incredibly rich cinematic experience. The film has lent itself to interpretation under a variety of critical methodologies. Genre theorists, for example, have made a case for Cat People as a horror film, a film noir, and a hybrid of the two. Auteurists have argued both in favour of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The film has also been subjected to psycholoanalytical interrogation drawing variously on the theories of Freud, Jung and Fromm; to feminist, queer and race analysis; and to interpretation in terms of the mythical and the fantastic.

Popular with film audiences of the forties, it subsequently was held in high esteem by a generation of film-school-educated critics, academics and filmmakers in Europe and the USA. This resulted in a remake by Paul Schrader in 1982, as well as extensive references in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Its commercial and critical success, its enduring legacy, is suggestive of an ongoing cultural fascination with the notion of shapeshifting.

This is a tradition that includes figures like Dracula, the werewolf, Kafka’s Gregory Samsa and several characters in the Harry Potter series. In this sense, Cat People is both timeless and very much of its time, tapping into WWII-period anxieties about otherness, dislocation, exile and the rise of Fascism in Europe (panther as panzer), the self-sufficiency of women in the workforce during male absence in overseas conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity. All themes that we encounter still bubbling below the surface in 2016.

In his The Myth of the Eternal Return, philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade counterpoints archaic humans, who build their understanding of the world through magic and mythology, with modern people, who experience their lives as a linear sequence of events through historical time. In Eliade’s view, one of the contributory factors to humankind’s anxiety and existential angst is this acceptance of linearity, the abandonment of mythical thought and the resulting ‘terror of history’. Yet our popular culture ensures that myth, fable and a very different conception of time is never far away. Our archaic roots are entwined with our modern sensibilities, tapped with regularity by culture makers.

Little wonder, then, as we continue to develop understanding of the world we inhabit, that people remain so dependent on myth and fable to accommodate and assimilate the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncertain. The resurgence in popularity of the vampire film as we first learned of and came to terms with HIV/AIDS, for example, was far from coincidental. In Cat People, the cat women of a magical past become incorporated into the tapestry of the most modern of modern cities. In Dracula, the vampire of a mythical landscape has the effect of a deadly virus in the industrialised communities he visits.

With stories – horror stories, love stories, detective stories, adventure stories, fantasy stories – we unlock our understanding of the human condition. Stories, whether in oral, theatrical, written, cinematic or televisual form, provide both lessons and escape. Stories like that of Cat People evidence something ancient, primal and enduring.

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing … If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Suppose you see yourself as a citizen of the world, and you have a grip on the vastness, the diversity of the human experience, as well as the problems, the horrors, the sheer scale of such things as poverty, global warming, terrorism, war and hunger. If you see yourself as a citizen of the world and recognise that the world’s problems are your problems too, what can you be but paralyzed by that realisation? What can a citizen of the world do about the world’s troubles?
— James Garvey & Martha Nussbaum, The End of the Humanities?

Wherever I Go

I looked and looked and changed
unknowingly by looking
— David Whyte, The Thicket

Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

I asked for a story and you gave me my story.
— Henrik Nordbrandt, Near Lefkas

Wherever I go, there I am. It is the subjectivity conundrum. We can never disengage ourselves entirely from where we find ourselves or what we see. Just as the mapmakers of yesteryear invested their own preferences, prejudices and ideologies into what they drew, so we too carry our own baggage with us. We recognise the necessity of empathic practices but experience also their limitations.

Consider this minor thought experiment. A group of people sit at a circular table. At its centre is a vase of flowers, varied in shape, height and hue. The occupants of each chair have a different perspective of the vase and its contents in comparison with the other people at the table. If requested to do so, each person can describe vocally, in writing or images what they see for the benefit of the others. Every ten minutes, they also stand up and move, in a clockwise direction, to the next chair before resuming their contemplation of the floral display. This continues until everyone has returned to their original chair.

In some respects, each person is reframing, assimilating the descriptions provided by the others, as well as what their own eyes tell them. To change chairs is to move, however temporarily, into a new point of view. To look at and assess things differently. To broaden personal horizons, accumulating new knowledge and data. But is this genuinely a case of looking with the eyes of another, of filling someone else’s shoes? Again, we bump up against the conundrum of subjectivity.

wall-with-green-door
[Picture credit: Wall with Green Door, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953]

While exposure to a diversity of perspectives is essential to any attempt to understand how other people see and interpret the world around them, it is impossible to divest ourselves of all our own accumulated knowledge, experience, culture and filters. To assess someone else’s description or to sit in another’s chair, does not alter the fact that we are still using our own eyes, not theirs. That only happens in films like Being John Malkovich.

In that case, men and women enter a portal into John Malkovich’s mind, retaining their own subjectivity, but using his eyes and body as vehicles with which they interact with the world. In my own reality, I can respond viscerally to the poetry of, say, Claudia Rankine or Sarah Kay. But as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, British male I can make no pretence to see the world with their eyes. My interpretation of the words they have written might diverge in significant ways from the meaning they conveyed in the writing of them.

This is one of the wonders of our cultural artefacts: meaning is co-created by the artist and the reader, viewer or listener. There is an empathic connection, for sure, but in the sense that two worldviews have mingled rather than one has entirely overridden another. We do not step into the artist’s shoes. But, when open-minded, we do allow their ideas to infect our own thinking, to challenge and expand it.

In engaging with a novel, a film, a painting or a song, we enable a complicit entanglement. In participating in a conversation, in person or online, we exchange ideas continuously, and in so doing experience mental movement and flux. In travelling ourselves, or opening our borders to others, we willingly expose ourselves to a cultural kaleidoscope. We watch, listen and absorb, filtering and assimilating, sharing and receiving.

Through curiosity, we maintain an interest in the diversity of people, their mindsets, perspectives and ideas. It is essential, though, to recognise the limitations of our own subjectivity and the dangers of imposing our vision upon others.

To simply project our own ‘expertise’ is myopic in the extreme. Worse still, to close ourselves off, to build walls, to declare the undesirability of the other, is to proclaim the beginning of the end. If you are the only person sat at the table, never leaving your chair and with no others to supply alternative points of view, how do you attain the big picture? How do you broaden your knowledge horizons? Meanwhile, the flowers wilt.

The only power we have is to project.
— Ian McEwan, Nutshell

She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels.
— Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear

This is what I did in any new environment. I tried to inject meaning, make the place coherent or at least locate myself within the place, to confirm an uneasy presence.
— Don DeLillo, Zero K

Fade out

Lacking “a critical dimension” of potentialities to transcend their existing state, everything has its place. Here even choices (of which there are seemingly many), are predefined. Forgotten is the wonder of what might be, in its place a single chorus… This is how it is.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

Distracted states are states in which a new open mind is possible.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

We encourage you to create the space for stillness, inquiry and reflection; to further build your capacity to become more present in the uncertainties and doubts that face you in your life and work; to build your tolerance to the uncomfortable feelings that arise at the edge of your competence; to create a new way, your way, of positively engaging with Not Knowing.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

In 1995, deep into the research for my PhD thesis, I found myself at an impasse. It stemmed in part from my own curiosity, following new leads, new areas of interest. At some point the subject of exploration and analysis – the evolution of American film noir in the context of industrial, sociopolitical and cultural change – had developed too many tributaries.

I had lost my way, following the lure of too many loosely connected interests. This made it difficult to shape a coherent argument. I needed to take a step back. Fortuitously, a September vacation allowed me to pause for a couple of weeks, to turn away from academic preoccupations. It was time to lose myself in the beauty of the Californian landscape, and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Which is not to say that I stopped thinking about the project. Rather the thinking was happening subconsciously, shunted to a slower more reflective part of my self. Sense-making never really stops. Towards the end of our Californian sojourn, we went to see the newly released The Usual Suspects. The combination of this film, which was so pertinent to the case I was trying to make about noir in the modern age, and the much needed pause in work were catalytic.

Returning to the UK, all the puzzle pieces I had been grappling with suddenly fell into place. There was now a clear path through the once-confusing landscape. I knew which tributaries to navigate and which to ignore. By the start of December, I had submitted a completed thesis, including as close an analysis as I could muster of The Usual Suspects based on that singular viewing. Everything that had been percolating in my head had suddenly been brought into sharp focus. The time taken to pause and reflect had been crucial.

That thesis eventually became my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls. Now, 19 years after its initial publication, I have just published my second: The Neo-Generalist, co-authored with Kenneth Mikkelsen. As with the first, a deliberate decision has been taken to offer no definitive conclusion. The reader has to do some of the lifting, address many of the questions the book raises.

One of the points Kenneth and I make is that we see a book as an invitation to converse. It does not mark an ending but a beginning or even a continuation of existing discussions. One book bridges and connects to many others. Books converse. One book synthesises and introduces ideas from other people, opening the door for yet more to join in. But a single book can only offer a snapshot in time. It is a collection of thoughts and ideas that may evolve, possibly be expanded upon, and almost certainly be usurped with the passage of time and the acquisition of new knowledge.

Julie Drybrough sagely advised me earlier this year that once the ideas are ‘out there’ they are no longer yours. You cannot control the conversation. You join in and learn from other people’s points of view. I could not agree more. It has been wonderful to read initial responses to The Neo-Generalist from the likes of Harold Jarche, Tanmay Vora and Mark Storm; to witness the conversational flames fanned by others, prompting further exchanges on social media.

Mark helpfully challenges our use of ‘Fade Out’ as the title for our last chapter. Does it fit with our notion of continuing the conversation, of raising awareness and asking questions? The words are one of several cinematic allusions that frame the book, including the use of a cast list and a visual reliance on the work of Saul Bass. In the cinema, when the screen fades out, the film then cuts to the closing credits. It lists those to whom its very creation is indebted. In our book, we fade out and cut to a lengthy bibliography. Our work stands on the shoulders of giants.

With a good film, though, something else happens as the fictional or documentary images fade out and the credits roll. The viewer takes over. The synapses are crackling. They are reflecting, establishing connections, making their own meaning. They participate in the creation, prolonging the film’s effects long after they have walked away from the theatre. They may talk about it with others, prompting interest, opening up conversations.

It is aspirational on our part, but we can but hope that this is what happens when people close the covers of our book. Long may the conversations continue. With and without us.

The very word “patience” originally implied a kind of suffering or forbearance, implying the time it would take to do something. Implied too was the idea of fortitude and endurance, a nod to an implicit kind of stamina, personal strength, and capacity to self-regulate. At the core of this essential human practice, quite simply, lay the act of waiting.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Meaning is created through a craft approach to life.
— Alan Moore, Do Design

Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Traces

Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tyres press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.
— Thom Gunn, On the Move

Funest philosophers and ponderers,
Their evocations are the speech of clouds.
— Wallace Stevens, On the Manner of Addressing Clouds

The clouds travel like white handkerchiefs of goodbye,
the wind, travelling, waving them in its hands.
— Pablo Neruda, The Morning is Full

Long car journeys are always an opportunity for reflection. A lone tree in a field, a historic building, clouds in the sky, reflected sunlight, traffic signals and road furniture are all catalysts to random thoughts as they are viewed by the passing traveller. The roads we traverse have stories imprinted on them or instead serve as portals to narratives of our own creation.

Making my way back from a family holiday in southwestern France, I was struck by the tyre markings on the road. Rubberised memories of past events. One particularly dark pair that gently curved towards a ditch running parallel to the autoroute, for example, were imbued with traces of recent catastrophe and were a powerful reminder of potential danger.

Someone else’s misfortunes prompted me to reflect on the notion of the traces we leave behind as I slowly made my way northwards through stop–start holiday traffic. It is a concept always bubbling away at the back of my mind. Something linked to the ephemerality and reshaping of memory. An idea often brought into focus by the image of contrails that aircraft write on the sky, which then gradually disperse and vanish not long after the vehicle’s passage through the heavens.

One of my favourite authors, James Sallis, has frequently observed in his fiction and poetry how memory is more poet than reporter. My response to the tyre marks on the road reminded me of this. So too the recall and crafting of my own story in The Neo-Generalist. The stories we tell are always heavily edited, elliptical in their nature, with small fragments illuminated and expanded at the expense of the mundane or the too-personal-to-share.

As Mark Pagel observes in Wired for Culture, language is a great way to implant our thoughts and ideas in the minds of others. This can be language verbalised, written or rendered in the form of images. There is, however, a constant filtering process going on. You select certain things to share and a recipient chooses only a portion of them to internalise and make their own. Already, we are embarked on the path from solid to liquid to vapour. From a fragment of ourselves to a trace.

Even after death, though, we persist, however temporarily, in the memories of others. A little of what I have done and said throughout my life will be recalled, retold, reshaped by friends and family. My grandchildren may hear certain things about me from my own children, they may even benefit from a small number of my actions, enjoying some sort of familial legacy. Generally, however, the traces we leave behind disperse like the contrails in the sky.

It is reflections like these that have taken me back, albeit circuitously, to the long form of writing. My friend Doug Shaw encourages people to draw for the bin, as they hone their artistic skills, remove inhibitions and practise their craft. I have adopted a similar approach with social media. A tweet, even a blog post, tends to have a short life span in my view. I delete and unpublish often, having tested out and refined ideas that will find their way into longer pieces of writing. In some cases, I erase myself as completely as I can from a given platform, choosing to focus my attentions elsewhere.

My approach to the publication of a physical book, however, is very different. This I see as having a longer life span, a greater opportunity to convey ideas beyond my own lifetime. The book stands in conversation with many others: those that have influenced its contents, and whose traces are visible in its own pages, and those that it in turn will influence in the future. The book becomes a repository for ideas but also a space for curation. Undoubtedly, I am giving expression to my preference for the analogue form of literature over the digital one. The tangibility of print on paper wins me over, whereas the digital form leaves me cold.

I have expressed elsewhere my desire to read poetry on paper rather than on a screen, and my post-commuter shift away from the digital book back to the physical volume. One poem, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, exerted a massive influence on me during my years as a university student. It continues to do so today. In ‘shoring fragments’ it gave Kenneth Mikkelsen and I not only a chapter title but an organising principle for The Neo-Generalist. As with Eliot’s poem, we were able to synthesise what we had read, the experiences we had enjoyed, the conversations we had been involved in, the people we had met, in a fragmentary soup that told a broader story. It contains both memories of things past and traces of things to come.

But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza – one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

If memory were to fade uniformly with time it should be less clear. Instead novelty stands out.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Our young have been sundered from tradition and the entire creative heritage of their race; they live in an endless present, without illusion, without history, with only a series of images that flash across their lives and quickly fade. They are like pools of still water left behind on the beach when the tide goes out.
— James Sallis, Living Without History

Expertise

Superforecasting demands thinking that is open-minded, careful, curious, and—above all—self-critical. It also demands focus.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

The curse of knowledge means that the more you know, the harder it is to think and talk about your area of expertise in a simple way.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

I was recently asked why being an expert no longer guarantees success. I am not sure I understand the question. Or, rather, I have no desire to address it in the way it is framed. Expertise is important. One of our arguments in The Neo-Generalist, though, is that it is possible to be an expert in more than one discipline. That serial mastery at a personal level, or the ability to facilitate the partnership of multiple masters from different subjects, is where creativity and innovation happen.

If you want to fix an economic crisis, do not just turn to experts in banking. If you want to address issues relating to global warming, seek to bring together experts from a diversity of different fields, not just one area of scientific research. If you want to tackle healthcare in an ageing population, look beyond medical practitioners and social welfare experts. There are lessons to be learned from multiple disciplines. Bringing them together is where the magic happens.

Bashing experts has become a new sport in the wake of the last UK general election and the Brexit vote, when pundits got things so wrong. But it is a sport often carried out by people who probably consider themselves experts too. I do have a significant problem with these self-titled gurus whose loudly proclaimed and shallow ‘expertise’ is all geared towards putting money in their bank accounts. They are full of sound and fury but, on closer inspection, what they say signifies nothing.

I am reminded of a passage from the Tao Te Ching:

Those who put on a show are not enlightened.
Those who are self-righteous are not respected.
Those who boast achieve nothing.
Those who brag will not endure.

We have to be careful of constraining our world, of living in an echo chamber. Experts who look beyond their own domain of knowledge and experience are to be valued. Lao Tsu goes on to acknowledge this in the Tao when he states: ‘Knowing others is wisdom; / Knowing the self is enlightenment.’ We have to be aware of our own limitations, and of the power of connection. Knowledge lives in the network, and true expertise comes from synthesis and combination. From an acceptance of not knowing at a personal level.

Curiosity about the unknown, exposure to the ideas and discoveries of others, its fusion with or replacement of the already known… This is what pulls us forward.

If our accumulated knowledge of the world makes up an island, the island grows as we learn more. (It may also occasionally shrink, as we discard an erroneous theory or explanation.) As with every island, this one is also surrounded by an ocean, in this case the ocean of the unknown. However—and here is the twist—as the island grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundary between the known and the unknown. In other words, new knowledge generates new unknowns.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

Unlearning is like the storm’s disturbing and agitating characteristics. It disturbs our sense of what we know. We are agitated when we discover we don’t know, and that compels us to go forward in search of knowing.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

Mastery refrain

all modes seemed exhausted, and he had left nothing
Of any importance for them to do,
While what had escaped him eluded them also.
— W. S. Merwin, The Master

The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
— T. S. Eliot, Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

Brains reel,
Master charts of old ideas erased.
— Maya Angelou, Junkie Monkey Reel

Book in hand, I wandered around the garden that encircled the house, seeking out a bench and a little respite from the familial hubbub. The perfect spot overlooked an enclosure on the fells behind the house, demarcated by stone walls. It was located next to a vertiginous beck that must have been something to behold during the heavy rains late last year. Its occupants, a flock of Herdwick sheep, with several young among their number, had kept me awake much of the night with their bleating.

As I approached my destination, I noticed that a trailer had been reversed into the gateway at the bottom of the field. The gate and some additional railings were being secured by a shepherd who had driven past our rental home a few minutes previously. It looked like he was about to decant the flock from this enclosure to another. I scanned the fell for his sheepdog, eventually coming to the conclusion that it was still inside his Land Rover.

Only a couple of weeks before travelling to the Lake District, I had raced through James Rebanks’s account of a very specific way of life in the region. There was much in The Shepherd’s Life that had surprised me because of its many overlaps with what Kenneth Mikkelsen and I had only recently explored in The Neo-Generalist: education on our own terms, legacy, belonging, identity, and that fascinating contextual fusion of specialism and generalism.

Rebanks hails from a long line of sheep farmers, and is deeply immersed in their traditions. But he has found himself living in multiple worlds, stewarding his farming heritage, even as he has studied at Oxford University, written books, and taken on academic and consultancy roles with the likes of the University of Birmingham and UNESCO. This is a man who understands landscape, people and animals, who communicates eloquently about them, and who paints pictures with words.

One thread that runs through The Shepherd’s Life relates to the partnership that is established between shepherd and sheepdog, as well as the former’s reliance on finely crafted tools such as their crook. Both shepherd and dog undergo a learning journey that begins when they are very young. It is one that moves from apprenticeship to journeyman status and, ultimately, to mastery. Rebanks’s relationship with his dog, Floss, is one of mutual dependency and trust. This is about co-workers, very distant from the owner-pet interactions typical of non-agricultural regions.

With all this fresh in mind, I set my book to one side as I took my place on the garden bench and prepared to witness a masterclass from shepherd and dog. How quickly would the sheep be transferred from enclosure to trailer? How would the dog round up the more stubborn ewes and their lambs? Would the shepherd have to make use of his crook? Everything that ensued over the next hour or so enthralled but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, as man and beast put on their very own Laurel and Hardy show, I laughed so hard I popped a rib.

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[Photo credit: The Grasmere stage, Richard Martin, May 2016]

The farmer opened the Land Rover door and pulled the gate to one side to let his Border Collie, Georgie, into the field. Within seconds all the sheep had fled to the top end of the enclosure. A series of calls and whistles from the shepherd had the collie manoeuvring but the effects were not all that were intended. The sheep were in motion but rarely in the direction of the desired destination. Georgie was frequently chased off, tail between his legs, by the odd confrontational ewe who not only stood her ground but chased him from his too.

Georgie required frequent breathers, seeking out the shade of a trench or the underside of the trailer. Meanwhile the shepherd gave vent to apoplectic blasphemy aimed at dog, sheep and innocent passersby. A unique form of agricultural Tourette’s. At times, he was to be seen leaning silently over his crook, head hanging in shame and discontent, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Occasionally, the croook was brandished and swung menacingly at errant sheep. Once it was even launched as a missile, but it was hard to tell whether sheep or dog were the intended target.

After much struggle, and a considerable elapse of time, several sheep had been herded on to the back of the gaping trailer. Only for them to indulge in an ovine version of The Great Escape. This happened more than once. Such antics prompted an escalation in profanity, the humour and combination of which finally put paid to my rib. Exasperation and, you would suspect, the need to restore a degree of decorum to proceedings, prompted the shepherd to cut matters short.

He ended up making three journeys to transport his flock. Thereby demonstrating that a lack of mastery creates work and costs time. Mastery may never be attained, but the journey, its pursuit, is something we should all attempt. To stand still, is to assume that ostrich-like position of shepherd bent despairingly over mistreated crook.

In the postindustrial era, success will no longer hinge on promotion or job titles or advanced degrees. It will hinge on mastery.
— Marty Neumeier, Metaskills

The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts.
— James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life

The craftsman must combine technique and expression so that he is also able to act intuitively. This can only happen when he possesses deep or what is called implicit knowledge. Rather than acting only upon empirical information, the craftsman’s ultimate act is one of unique expression which can only be delivered through the mastery of these skills.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines