Legacy thinking

All that remains is legacy.
— Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors
— Jonas Salk quoted in Liam Fahey & Robert M. Randall, Learning from the Future

This cycle is now a cardinal component of my existence. It makes me part of an ancient tradition and gives me a role in the landscape.
— Robert Penn, The Man who Made Things Out of Trees

When Kenneth Mikkelsen and I first discussed a book project, we were drawn to the notion of polymathic generalism. This we contrasted with the prevalence of deep specialism. Our breakthrough came when we realised that distinction was a distraction.

The neo-generalist lives in-between. They deny easy labelling and classification. Theirs is a world of both/and rather than either/or. They are both specialist and generalist. Multidisciplinarians who adapt to context, deriving interdisciplinary benefits through their willingness, their need, to bridge, elide and blur.

What they know depends on accumulation, remixing and mash-up. They fit in no specific box, belonging to all things and no thing. They are simultaneously of the bridge and of the node, serial masters caught in the detail, curious explorers drawn to the big picture.

In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth and I represented the movement and restlessness of this figure with a continuum. We visualised this as an infinite loop or Möbius strip. Our contention was that such an approach helped break down arguments founded on polarities, establishing nuanced connections that embraced both similarities and difference.

Often the apparent poles were found to be striking in their resemblance. In our thesis, for example, polymathy could be said to be the serialisation of hyperspecialism, the polymath being a specialist multiple times over. On the political spectrum, it could be argued that the extremes of Fascist and Communist dictatorships also shared many similarities. The richness, the variety lay in the in-between of these continuums.

We approached the topic of neo-generalism from a variety of different angles. One of these considered leadership, and helped us to gain further understanding of another continuum relating to time.

Legacy Thinking

Legacy thinking is about respecting the past, acting in the present and serving the future. It is about being a good ancestor, taking into account future generations, the environment and sustainability in the decisions you make and the actions you take. But it is also about being a good descendant too, learning from and building on what went before, avoiding the repetition of mistakes, enhancing the advances and innovations, preserving the stories and adding new pages to them. The legacy thinker is historian, playmaker, futurist.

The neo-generalist leader, exercising legacy thinking, is required to be a time traveller. They must look forwards and backwards at the same time. Like the cathedral builders of old, they are stewards of a future that they may never experience themselves, servants to the generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren that will follow them.

this legacy, eager to be given, yet no one wanting to carry its burden
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past.
— Oodgeroo Noonuccal, The Past

We are strung between the point of ending and
the point of having started.
— Jack Underwood, The Anatomy of the Hammock

Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?
— Seamus Heaney, A Herbal

In chapter 10 of The Neo-Generalist, we include stories from a range of people in sport, business, activism, science, the military and politics who have adopted a legacy thinking approach to leadership. These include Al Smith, Charles Handy, John Michel, Robin Chase, Anand Mahindra and Geoffrey West.

Memory’s assembly

Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline

All remembrance of things past is fiction.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

A clear December morning. With a new road bike awaiting in the shed, it was all too easy to convince myself that the conditions were perfect for a morning ride. As I left the last houses of our small coastal town behind me, the white fields that lay ahead, heavy with frost, made me silently question why I was on the road at such an early hour. It would be some time before the sun effected any change on this wintry landscape. Meanwhile, the chill worked its way to my bones.

The only sound as I climbed up the slope into a neighbouring hamlet was my own laboured breathing. Its smoky plumes offset by the blueness of the sky and the ice particles twinkling on trees and rooftops. The road gradually shifted from incline to false flat, and all of a sudden I was sliding along it, separated from bicycle, both of us on our sides atop the asphalt.

Of course, as James Sallis contends, our memories are more poets than reporters. Much of what I have just related happened on a frozen morning in December 2008, but it is not a real memory. The details have been filled in, revisited, rewritten with the passage of time. That particular cycling route is one I have ridden often since then, gathering more information about landscape, road layout, housing.

Consciously, I recall being upright and then suddenly sprawled in the middle of the road. The fall itself is blacked-out, redacted. I then remember checking for damage to myself and machine, briefly talking to someone at the roadside, remounting and coming off the bike twice more as I gingerly made my way home. Whenever I think about this particular ride, I always experience regret. Regret for having headed out on a road bike in such icy conditions. Regret for endeavouring to complete a circuit when the safer thing to do would have been to turn around and head home the same way I had come.

What remains missing from my recollection of that day is the initial fall itself. That moment of hitting black ice, losing control of the bike, falling, becoming unclipped from the pedals. Yet my body retains a trace of it, my unconscious too, even if my conscious mind does not. This takes the form not just of road rash on my right knee but of physical sensations too.

It is normal, after a long bike ride, as I rest on the sofa or sit at my desk, that I feel my leg muscles twitching, almost as if they are still in action, turning pedals, climbing hills, struggling against the wind. On the days immediately following the crash, however, a combination of unconscious images and muscle memory pulled me from sleep on several occasions. With each recurrence, I awakened suddenly, sensing that I was falling again. My body and unconscious mind were bridging the gap in memory, filling it with vivid snippets, sensations and imagination.

The story of my crash, then, is a mixture of fact and fiction. Whatever I perceived as reality was laid down in my memory, the brain serving as computer. But those dream effects have blended with it over time, the computer serving as a mixing table. The story has become more finely crafted with each telling, diverging ever more from what was experienced in the moment.

But is that not always the case? Our memories accumulate not only what our eyes see, but signals from other sensations and emotions as well. These fragments become associated with images, books, phrases or locations – time capsules, if you will – the accessing of which can serve to unlock the stored but ever-fluid memories. The sharing of the stories changes our memories too as friends and family add their own perspectives, their own accounts, in Rashomon-like retellings of the same event. The boundaries between my memories and their stories blur.

I am reminded of an observation in The Neo-Generalist: ‘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.’ Our pasts travel with us, constantly reinserted into the present, experienced again, in new ways, adapted as we too undergo change.

What I read, hear, see, imagine, dream, discuss becomes me. Where I go is who I am. But that identity is always changing, affected by the journey itself. Our memories are contrails gradually dissolving, and what we carry with us are comfortable fictions.

Time’s whispers are suspect, memory forever as much poet as reporter, and perhaps this is only the way that, retrospectively, imaginatively, I make sense for now.
— James Sallis, Moth

Accumulated experience always alters perception of the past.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Remembering is an act of creative reconstruction rather than simple replaying. Every time a memory is recalled it is re-formed, and in the process it becomes mingled with the stories of others and shaped by our own anxieties, desires and imaginings.
— Ian Leslie, Born Liars

Memory, as it happens, is a fairly unreliable search engine. It’s fuzzy and utopian, honoring an imagined past over a real one.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Memory, which dives into our sunken libraries and rescues from the long-lost pages only a few seemingly random paragraphs, chooses better than we know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival‘s lead character, Louise Banks, starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fill designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World‘s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

Out of Time

All of which cultural musing stirs up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory under the #timeplease tag.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Time capsule

All songs involve time, because music depends on time. Time’s a song against the clock.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The mind tends to find congruencies and links where none previously existed—not just in music, but in everything.
— David Byrne, How Music Works

We can also appreciate why pop music is time-bound and an occasion for nostalgia … Hearing a pop tune can take you back to a summer, or an evening, or an emotional state … Pop music, even the best and most enduring, dates itself, not just in the sense that you can read off its date, but in the sense that pop music directly engages sounds, looks, attitudes that are specific to a time and place.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

In the 1980s of my mid-to-late teens, there was a surge of interest in the music of my infancy spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. This extended well beyond the Motown revival fuelled by Levi’s advertisements. My friends and I were discovering the music of The Doors and The Velvet Underground, albums like Hunky Dory and Sgt. Pepper’s, songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

This is all music I still listen to on occasion, but to do so is not only to experience pleasure in the moment but also a double form of time travel. On the one hand, I am transported back to a period I can recall in only the most fragmentary of ways, the snippets of toddlerdom, which in the living I failed to entwine with music. On the other, to hear a particular song can carry with it a rich assembly of schoolboy era information about time, place and people: the context in which I first heard the song, the people who I enjoyed it with, films seen, gigs attended, appreciative discussions.

Re-hearing later music is more fixed in the personal timeline that takes shape in my mind. A song may draw to it an accumulation of subsequent memories, orbiting around it like electrons circling a nucleus. But there tends to be a primal association too. To hear Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is to return to my pre-teen self pulling those first vinyl purchases from their sleeves. To hear New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is to find myself circumnavigating a sports hall wearing roller boots, whereas U2’s ‘Bad’ is a passport back to Live Aid and a post-examination summer.


It was novelist Michael Chabon who prompted these reflections. At a Guardian Live event earlier this month, Chabon spoke of the importance of both popular music and the senses to him, on a personal level and in the fictional worlds he creates. This is overt in the record-store setting of his 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue, but equally relevant to books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Moonglow, his latest publication. Chabon described his favourite songs as a form of time capsule, the music and lyrics contributing but a part of the overall experience.

In Time Travel, James Gleick dedicates a chapter to the popular practice of burying time capsules. The interment of vessels containing contemporary items, artefacts and knowledge are intended for future discovery. It is considered a method for transmitting culture and historical traces into the future, a form of time travel that enables great expanses of time to be bridged.

This is Chabon’s contention for the song and other art forms. We bury packages in the recesses of our minds, comprised not only of impressions caused by sound, images and words but emotions and environment too. Hearing a song again, rediscovering a long-forgotten photograph, returning decades later to a favourite novel, all can have the effect of digging up those time capsules. They open up a treasure chest of memories. A starburst of sensations and recall.

The memories themselves are impressionistic, of course, a fusion of fact and fiction. They are samples rewritten, remixed to fit the story of our ever-evolving selves, our edited and polished personal narratives.

This can happen too with new encounters with cultural artefacts. For example, when I first read David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, I was immediately transported back to the period of my early teens. I was born in the same year as Mitchell, and his description of a thirteen-year-old’s life in 1982-83 felt close to the bone. Not because of the main narrative, but because of the background detail concerning Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands War and, above all, the soundtrack.

Mitchell’s fiction is filled with temporal motifs and characters who time travel, hopping from one novel to another, from one era to another. In terms of generic hybridisation and formal play, Black Swan Green appears the least experimental of Mitchell’s novels. Yet, for this reader at least, it still has the ability to open up pathways to other time zones entirely. The novelist as DJ, let loose in the archive of the reader’s memories.

When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Addendum: David Mitchell is himself a participant in a literary time capsule project. He has buried an unpublished manuscript in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest. It will not be retrieved until 2114.

Time, please

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near
— Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning?
— Ali Smith, Artful

Multifaceted as my academic and work experiences have been, a constant throughout has been a fascination with concepts relating to time and memory. This was ignited, in particular, when studying the modernists. The early artists, authors, composers and filmmakers of the twentieth-century wove the scientific discoveries of their age into their own work. Theoretical studies of time, space and the mind were filtered and found expression in abstract art and formally challenging poetry and novels.

An appreciation of time and form was essential to my own study of film noir, which preoccupied me in the mid-1990s. Noir is a genre of editing. Time is fragmented and mixed up, the sequence of events varied and, on occasion, reimagined. Voiceover narrations and flashbacks proliferate. Dream sequences, blackouts, and alcohol- or drug-induced hallucinations are not uncommon. Amnesia is a recurrent theme.

Time, in fact, was a dominant motif in much of the ‘literary’ and genre fiction and film that I found most appealing. Those that were inclined, in neo-generalist style, to transcend and blur neat categorical boundaries often served up the most intriguing works. Towards the end of the 1990s, I wrote an article on the fiction of James Sallis, titled ‘Memories of Things Past and Yet to Come’, barely scratching the surface regarding an ongoing interest in temporal themes and my appreciation of his assorted literary output.

I have long harboured an ambition to return to both. In the interim, I discovered new voices whose work demands closer examination in relation to the topic: notably, David Mitchell and Ali Smith in literature, and Richard Linklater in film. I began to pay more attention to time in relation to sport too, not just in a quantitative sense (How fast was the distance covered? How long until the final whistle?), but in the way sport is televised and experienced: slowed-down, repeated, recalled through anecdote, mythologised.

Then there are the technologically-fuelled societal and workplace approaches to time. The primacy of now, of present shock. The ‘post-’ meme, suggestive that something has stopped, that a new age has begun. The hollow ‘future of work’ concept, which always leaves me wondering When does the future actually begin? On whose clock? Who decides and why? Which frequently leads me to abandon the business gurus and TV talking heads in exasperation, turning again to the poets, musicians and filmmakers. Art is about human understanding, about grappling with big themes. It has depth. It is difficult. It requires your involvement, not simple, passive receptivity.


So I find myself, at the start of a new year, contemplating an intermittent series of posts on literature and film, exploring time and memory. It is not a new idea, but one that holds me in its thrall, one I cannot let go. Recently, Eddie Harran asked me to make a short contribution to his #humantime project. This is what I wrote:

Time stretches into the distance, measured linearly by the athlete’s progress along the track; reflected too by the metamorphosis and decline of our own bodies from cradle to grave.

Time circles around the clock, advancing and repeating with the seasons, the ripening of crops, tidal surges and changes of the moon.

Time experienced in flow or memory can be unquantifiable, linked to the senses, elided or expanded, sped up or slowed down.

Time fragmented is the thing of art and poetry, captured on canvas, celluloid and page. It is constantly revisited in an eternal present. To quote, to recall, is to collapse the artificial markers between past, present and future.

These are ideas I wish to mine further throughout the year, the literary and cinematic analysis amplified by reference to sport, music art, television and anecdote. The cultural emphasis does not negate the relevance to the domains of politics, society or the workplace. It is just that our art makers tend to be a few steps ahead, trendsetters and zeitgeist surfers, telling us today what the business gurus will discover years hence. Paying attention to the artists just feels like a more pleasurable, fulfilling experience and use of time.

I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.
— Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
— Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

We meld memories from the past to imagine the future. This memory remix allows us extensive imagination, but it causes us to base our ideas of the future on the past without any evidence that it will be the same.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel


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


Whether his little brain be quick or slow,
Man everywhere quakes at the mystery,
And looks up only with a trembling eye.
— Charles Baudelaire, The Pot Lid

When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.
— Milan Kundera, Slowness

We have all been too quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments.
— Jamie Holmes, Nonsense

A few years ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding, I went for a bike ride in the wine country to the south of Dijon. Returning back to the city on a circuitous route, I had one of those rare moments when I experienced flow. It is a memory I return to often, a raft of stillness highlighted in the frenetic maelstrom of modern life. I visualise a gentle incline curving through an agricultural landscape, climbing towards a small village atop a hill. Everywhere I look is yellow and green. Rich perfume wafts from the crops that surround me. At my back is both the sun and a light breeze, inducing pleasurable early summer sensations on my bare legs and arms. The act of pedalling feels effortless. Man, nature and machine are at one.

When I first rediscovered a love of the bike as I approached my forties, there was too much focus on the paraphernalia of cycling, the right kit, the measurement of distance, climbs and, above all, speed. Meandering through my forties, those obsessions have fallen away. I am content with the single bicycle I own now, that sees me through all twelve months of the year. I am more interested in the journey than the destination, and anything that measures has been discarded or hidden away. If I need to know the time, then I have to fish my smartphone out of my back pocket. That device is referred to more often for navigation as I venture down the path less taken, or note-taking as the mechanics of the body free up the mind to craft the phrases and paragraphs that end up in my writing.

Of course, all journeys ultimately have a destination, often a deadline too. These can add a little creative constraint and are often helpful. But the path of obliquity, while moving towards that destination, is often far more interesting than that of directness and speed. The journey can be physical, actually moving through space and time, or it can be mental, venturing into the mindscapes of imagination, reflection and memory. The path tends, therefore, to eventually bend back on itself, leading to home, or to the self. Astride my bike, heading out from Whitstable, I can visit the coast, climb up into the Downs, head for the woods or find my way to the nearby city of Canterbury. Walking along the beach, I can plug in earbuds and listen to music or interviews. Either option opens up the possibility of physical wandering and mental flâneurie. Both have the effect of slowing and expanding time.

[Photo credit: Pace of Life, Richard Martin, April 2015]

While writing The Neo-Generalist, I found that I spent almost as much time walking as I did sitting at my desk, chained to a keyboard. Walks along the seafront presented me with the opportunity to listen to and absorb the recordings of interviews conducted by my writing partner Kenneth Mikkelsen. They helped me shape ideas, discovering ways of expressing what I had been grappling with while looking at that blinking cursor on the screen. They were also periods of reflection, allowing for the creative mash-up of the different books, articles and blog posts I had been reading; the fusion of fiction, poetry, art, science, business and sport. The ability to go slow, to wander and ponder, enabled the discovery of intriguing synergies and connections. I doubt that stasis and experiencing the tangible pressure of having to write quickly would have had the same effect.

Extended moments of slow motion and fluid thinking were then punctuated by short bursts of rapid writing, followed by further reflection and intermittent editing. It had a rhythm of sorts, a destination and deadline too. Prevarication was balanced by discipline. Daniel Kahneman’s system 2 (slow) thinking by his system 1 (fast) thinking. Changes of pace were made to match contextual shifts. But always there was a tendency to gravitate back to the slow pace, reading a book or two, allowing ideas and memories to assemble themselves into some kind of meaningful order, frequently corralled by the act of wandering. It was the nourishment of a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of friends and family rather than the quick fix of a snatch-and-grab snack.

Having recently finished writing The Neo-Generalist, these experiences are still fresh in my mind. A beautiful post by Julie Drybrough today on Coaching, Walking, Thinking, Changing cast them in a new light. I see much that I write, whether blog posts, articles or books, as being in conversation with other ideas, other publications, other people. Leisurely discussion is opened up when we choose to click on that publish button. I have already much enjoyed the conversation that has followed Julie’s musings, and now throw this post into the mix as a personal contribution.

If we make the speed of light the constant, then time slows down the faster we move, lengths contract, and masses increase. We enter the world of special relativity.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
— Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

To be a randonneur, then, is to be a wanderer. Someone on a journey, but in a somewhat random way. The wanderer does not know his course, but discovers it. The path discovers him, as much as he it.
— Matt Seaton, The Wanderer

Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, Trying to Surface


We have done this before,
and should know how. Still,
one must learn again and again
— James Sallis, Love, Again, at Forty

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others, cast as players upon our own inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.
— E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Take the challenge, Steve Wheeler exhorted on Twitter. I decided to pick up the gauntlet that lay at my feet. #blimage has built momentum over the past week, with many people prompted to blog using one or more images selected by others as a source of inspiration. Learning is the common theme that ties the #blimage room together.

I am looking at the image of a weathered wall. Cement rendering has come away in chunks revealing patches of brickwork. What remains of the darker covering shows signs of age, an industrial past and more recent graffiti. Past and present blur together with a hint of future utility. A word bubbles to the surface of my mind: palimpsest.


Strictly speaking, a palimpsest is a manuscript from which earlier writing has been scraped away or effaced and more recent writing has been added in its place. It is a form of authorised vandalism. This is a notion that I have co-opted before, applying it to my interpretation of other art forms and my understanding of our broader culture. The palimpsest as metaphor.

I can look at the work of the Coen Brothers, for example, and see in their films a form of cinematic palimpsest. Watch Miller’s Crossing, and lurking beneath the surface is the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Coppola’s The Godfather and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista. Watch their The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s fiction is shouting for attention as filtered through Altman’s interpretation of The Long Goodbye. James M. Cain nudges and winks at the viewer from the depths of The Man Who Wasn’t There, distilled through decades of film noir tradition.

Wander the streets of London or Paris, on the other hand, and you will encounter palimpsests in bricks and mortar. Ancient and modern edifices and structures jostle for attention. In some cases the old is either incorporated into the new, or takes on a more modern role in both our physical and psychic geographies. They are revitalised, repurposed. Power stations and rail terminals are transformed into exhibition spaces for art, factories become people’s homes, wharves and warehouses are converted into restaurants.

Sometimes it is the history associated with the edifice that serves as the palimpsest. To gaze upon the Notre Dame Cathedral is to behold both the technical mastery and artistic capability of medieval masons and craftsman. But it is also an opportunity to look upon one of the centrepieces of the Age of Reason; a building that was claimed for liberty, equality and fraternity, secularised and given over to the post-Enlightenment populace. However temporarily, this ceased to be a cathedral of Catholic worship and was transformed into a Temple of Reason. The streets that surround the cathedral still bear testament to the actions of the crowd during this period.

Increasingly, we are seeing other symbols of the past peeking through. Construction in our major cities is unearthing archaeological wonders that reveal much about our ancestors, their culture, work activities and feeding preferences. Technology has given us insight into what the area around Stonehenge may have once looked like and where its ancient visitors came from. Regeneration has peeled away layers of paint and whitewash accumulated over the years to reveal the shops signs and advertisements of yesteryear. Artwork hidden behind masterpieces painted by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh have been detected and analysed. Telescopes launched into deep space are allowing us literally to look back in time.

But what of us? People living in the here and now? What hidden wonders hide behind our carapaces? To what extent have we allowed years of habit, narrowly focused attention and repetitive practice to cover us in layer upon layer of grimy rendering? How far have we allowed expertise and specialism to overshadow our innate polymathic tendencies? Have our inner workings, our capacity for continuous learning, our impetus to curiosity, become silted up? Could we too benefit from a sandblasting? A descaling? Something that would expose our interior scaffolding?

We are all walking palimpsests. Memories of things past are held within. Sometimes our most beneficial lessons come from revisiting what came before. We need to find ways to give full licence to our curiosity again. To look once more at the world with the wonder of a child. To experience the joy of flow.

Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

The memory is littered with bits and pieces of images, like a rubbish dump.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

There are clues in my past that may make sense only when I’ve seen them more than once.
— Scott Berkun, The Ghost of My Father

The future of now

In fact we can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works. Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that’s what Time truly is; or that it even exists for that matter. So let’s posit a possible description of true Time. Basically, imagine a vantage point with respect to Time whereby you can see all events at once. When you observe it from this vantage point, Time is not linear. Instead, from this view, you see that events that exist in spacetime do not really precede or follow each other and therefore probably cannot be said to cause each other either. They exist all at once so to speak.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He also knew why. From the depths of my future, throughout all this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just as unreal as the ones that lay ahead.
— Albert Camus, The Outsider

Life is always in between. Life was what happened while you were waiting around for other things to happen. Life was what sprang up in the places you never thought to look. In between.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes

When does the past stop and the future begin? What about that void, that in-between, we know as the present? Author James Sallis observes that every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays. Past lessons and memories carry us across the in-between. How to blend them with the occasional glance futurewards? How to marry what we know with the potential and opportunities offered by social change and technological advancement? I have to confess that, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I find the phrase the future of work highly problematic. If we are truly building cathedrals of change, then we either need to be laying foundations or constructing on top of existing ones. Action needs to be taking place in the Now, continuing tomorrow and persisting into a vague, hazy and distant future too.

There is a danger that the future of work has already become a vacuous term, in the same way that social business and Enterprise 2.0 have. It is a momentary hit, like fast food, delivered by clever and manipulative marketeers chasing a dollar and an ego massage. There is a need either to reclaim the phrase and properly define what it means or move on. That said, it was interesting for me to be invited this week to speak about the concept at a couple of local creative workspaces in Kent. What does the future of work mean to me, on a personal level, right now? It was an ideal opportunity to both reflect back and look forwards. Ideally timed too, as I find myself in an in-between state, working out the last few days as an employee of a traditionally structured organisation and in the throes of setting up as a solo worker again. From January, I cycle back to the freelance life after fifteen years in corporate hierarchies.

Where I work and with whom I work have become increasingly important to me. I need diversity. Diversity of projects, diversity of location, diversity of perspectives. I am a neo-generalist, I am curious, I need to learn. Working for a single organisation, in a single office, on a single subject, just does not make sense to me. I feel like I am ossifying. My saving grace has been the advent of social media, learning to navigate and connect in the digital, networked world. The people with whom I have interacted the most over the past year, with whom I have exchanged ideas, argued and debated, given and received validation, and, increasingly, collaborated and cooperated, have not tended to be on the same payroll as me. Often they are not in the same industry. Invariably not in the same country. These are friendships and partnerships that have been formed online and, wherever possible, been cemented by in-person meetings.

[Picture credit: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931]

My most productive days while an employee have occurred when I have worked offsite, either at home, in a café or at a gallery. The most qualitative of learning experiences during this same period have resulted from conversation either online, face-to-face over coffee, or in motion, walking and talking. These learning experiences have resulted from networked connections and communities, never from prescriptive corporate training programmes. This is not to suggest that I have neglected my duties as an employee. Rather, that I have combined my varied interests to add value to the work I am responsible for. As an outsider on the inside, with an internal consultancy mandate, I have sought to bridge out to other organisations, other disciplines, other practitioners, serving as a conduit to other ideas, alternative working practices, different business models.

I have no background or particular interest in the industry I am about to exit. My focus has instead been on people, how they organise themselves, how they acquire and share knowledge, and how they adapt to change. It has also been on the value of neo-generalism in a hyperspecialised industrial context. The need for pattern recognition, curiosity, cross-pollination of ideas, storytelling, horizon scanning and a strategic outlook are all important facets. From the perspective of my in-between state, I have come to realise how important these are for future working practices too. Also how I want to help multiple organisations, rather than a single one, acknowledge the need for such skills. As Peter Morville has recognised, the ideal state for the future is an intertwingled one. Where science and art and business and technology all have value, connect, combine and intermingle. It seemed pertinent somehow this week to be talking about such things in Kent’s creative spaces, discussing lessons drawn from business experience with people making a new start as artists.

In my personal journey, I have advanced to repeat. I started my career as a freelancer, ill-equipped for it, fresh from many years in the ivory towers of academia and naive about business and work. I hope I return to it more knowledgable, better able to add value and assist others. But there is also a sense of simultaneously looping back and progressing in terms of the working practices now available to me and others. The advancement of technology, social structures and workplace expectations has enabled us to revisit and improve upon old traditions. Transportation, telecommunications and mobile computing make a nomadic lifestyle attractive again. The hyperlink erodes spatial and temporal divisions. Asynchronous collaboration across countries and continents is a regular undertaking. Crafts and manual skills also are becoming highly valued again. Workers, previously tied to the industrial conveyor belt, a particular place and time of work, are being freed by automation and algorithms. For some this is a threat, for many others an opportunity.

Long-established notions about time, which have governed working life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, have become fractured. Different conceptions of time co-exist. There is the linearity of past, present and future, the ticking of the clock, the flicking of calendar dates, the sound of the church bells and the punching of the timecard. There are the natural cyclical rhythms of the seasons, Winter forever giving way to Spring, birth to death, drought to flood. There is also the helical, spiral-like sense of forward movement and repetition, echoes and mirrors of the past intruding on the present, time matching the structure of our DNA and the movement of our planet through space. Then there is a Now that may be long if you are running a 10,000-year clock, somewhat shorter if you are operating on 10-15 year cycles, and minuscule if you are focusing on the movement of the second hand. So just as the location of where we work is becoming less and less fixed, so too is when we work. In a digital, networked world we can be forever on, or we can learn to revisit the patterns of our forebears who worked the fields and find other rhythms more suited to our bodies and personal preferences.

For me, the future of work is one of fragmentation, small pieces loosely joined, diverse locations, networked connections, time both speeded up and slowed down, time chunked and repeated. It is possibly one where the neo-generalist becomes the counterpoint, the counterbalance to the highly specialised machine. It both thrills and terrifies me.

It started yesterday.

The world is infinitely complex, and any attempt to simplify, which means the elimination of contradictory elements, will fail to capture that complexity. One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We want to welcome the future as a good friend that we wish to meet, not as an enemy that we hope to avoid.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for inviting me to work alongside Brian Condon and himself, talking about the future of work at #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and the POP Creative Space in Chatham on 11 December 2014.