The View From the Kitchen Table

Issue 19 of my Crossed Lines newsletter was a report on the first year of this school called HOME.

When it got to the end of the year, we took two weeks offline, to rest and be with family and take long walks, and to talk over the beginnings of this thing we call a school. Often, when you make time to reflect like this, there’ll be a moment, a particular memory that surfaces, a story with something to tell you. This time around, it wasn’t anything from the week in June when we held our first course, but a conversation a month or so earlier. And if I’m going to tell you where we’ve got to, what we’ve come to see about the work that lies ahead, then — like Janus, the old god of the threshold — I need to start off looking back as well as forward.

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The first Saturday in May, seven in the evening and the door to the back garden is still open. A month earlier we had snow on the ground; this weekend will turn out to be the prelude to a strange hot summer, a season of droughts and wildfires. For now, though, we are here, seven of us around the table, serving each other from a huge dish of spaghetti. There’s red wine and a lit candle. Some of us only met this afternoon, but we are in the company of friends.

It’s Karim who turns the conversation to our plans for HOME. He’s caught an echo of his own project, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences: a pocket-sized community of scholarship and conviviality, born in the shadow of a failed revolution, dedicated to ‘reassembling the social’ on a human scale. Anna used to live in Egypt, running a children’s literature project, and it doesn’t take long to find mutual connections, but Karim is here in Sweden as the guest of another of the friends around the table. This is Isak, deputy director of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala, a student-led centre inside the otherwise conventional structures of Sweden’s oldest university. He’s also organising Climate Existence, the conference where Karim and I are to hold a session in a few days’ time. Besides Alfie — who’s nearly three and up past his bedtime — the final members of the company are Shelagh and Peter, old friends from London; they both have long histories working on the boundaries of arts, education and policymaking, and they are two of the kindest and most generous people I met in the years when I moved in those borderlands.

‘So I want to hear about this school you’re starting!’ Karim says. ‘What is it going to be like?’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope it will be like this, only a little bigger. An extension of the conversations that come together around this table.’

It’s this answer that hooks me back, at the end of the year — after the intensity of that first course; after the fairground mirror weirdness of reading about ourselves in a glossy magazine; after the decision to slow down, to go deeper into why we’re doing this, to wait for a while — and its simplicity brings the sense of direction we’ve been waiting for.

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Anna was ahead of me, as usual. It’s there in the name — and the name was her idea, something she said years ago, when we started to talk about creating a hospitable place for bringing together these conversations: ‘It’s not a centre. We’re not starting a community. It’s our home, and everything else is going to start from there.’

If HOME is a school that starts from the conversations that happen around our kitchen table, then it doesn’t just exist on those weeks when we hold a public course: it happens the rest of the time, as well, in all the work that goes on in between, all the people who pass through this household, all the living and learning together. This is obvious, but it’s not the way we’ve been telling the story — and the way we tell stories has consequences.

For a start, if I look at things this way, it gives a different picture of the work we did in 2018. Those five days in June become part of a patchwork of activity that wasn’t all building up to or coming down from the course itself.

Among the other pieces in the patchwork, there are shared meals, like that evening in early May — and guests like Shelagh and Peter who come to stay for a while, to take a step back from the busy-ness of their work, to talk and think together, to make connections which go forward into what they do next.

There’s the theatre-maker Luca Rutherford who came in August, funded by the Arts Council, to spend a week with us working on the script for her show about escaping from political paralysis.

There’s Vanessa Andreotti, Professor of Race, Inequalities and Global Change at UBC, who I met at Climate Existence in May, whose ideas became a touchstone for the June course — and who came to stay with us in December and do some writing together.

Here’s what I see now: this network of kitchen table conversations and collaborations is the heart of what we are up to at HOME. And recognising this, we get to go about it more deliberately.

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So what does this mean for those weeks when we open up and make a public invitation to this school? Here’s where we’ve got to: the invitation we can make isn’t to a one-off course, it isn’t to a retreat that we are leading, and — despite what you may have read — we’re not in the business of offering group therapy.

What we can offer is a chance to come and spend time around the ongoing work of the school; to hear from and talk with some of the artists, thinkers and doers who are part of this network; and to take part in the everyday home-making, the practice of hospitality and conviviality, without which the wild ideas we sometimes throw around would have no hope of coming to life.

What worked best last June were the parts of the week that had this quality: the space that Anna and I can hold when we work together, the fellowship of the friends who were there to help us. Meanwhile, the places where things didn’t work, or where it got needlessly difficult, were the ones where we came adrift from this way of being.

I think of the pressure it puts on a group of people who have only just met, to tell them: ‘By coming here, you’ve made this school a reality.’ I think of the pressure it puts on a friend and fellow teacher who finds himself playing the role of a workshop leader, trying to summon an experience intense enough to live up to the powerful language with which we’ve called this group together. I think of some wise words from Anthony McCann, years ago: the greater the emotional intensity of a situation, the wider the gap will tend to be between the experiences that the people present are having.

So my hunch is that an invitation which doesn’t place the weight of being the school on those who turn up will give us all more breathing space, the chance to make some fresh mistakes, to take ourselves more lightly and take care of each other.

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We could have scheduled six courses in 2019 and filled them — given the amount of interest in that first course, given the number of those who came who tell us they are keen to come back, and given the flow of enquiries we are getting.

Instead, right now, we’re not sure whether there will be any public courses at HOME this year. It depends on practical considerations — which I’ll come to — but it’s also a question of the order in which to do things.

If we’re going to make a public invitation to spend time around the ongoing work of the school, then we need to ground that work: to make more time and space for it, to share more of what’s going on, to tell the story of what we are doing here and why.

In that spirit, here’s an outline of what we see ahead of us in 2019 — assuming we are spared that long…

  1. Focusing on the heart of what we do and doing it more deliberately. This means convening conversations and collaborations around the kitchen table where I’m sitting as I write this: bringing together particular combinations of people for a few days, gathered around a theme, often with the intention of publishing something together afterwards. It will include strengthening our immediate network of close collaborators, as well as making new connections — and developing a rhythm for this way of working, leisurely and fruitful. And some of this work will need to be fundable, without us going off-track in pursuit of funding.
  2. Framing the conversations we intend to bring together and the themes we are working on. Since the autumn, we’ve arrived at a new clarity and urgency about a kind of work that is called for around climate change. In the next few posts, I’ll set out what we’re seeing, the implications as we understand them, and the role that a kitchen-table operation like this might play. (This is also a chance to be clear about the difference between the work I’ve done over the past decade as co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and the work that Anna and I are setting out on here.)
  3. Publishing and co-publishing to share the work we’re doing. Ideas arrive in conversation: glimmers of possibility, new ways of seeing a familiar landscape. Where it’s useful, we want to get these written up and out there swiftly — on our school blog and through other routes. I won’t always be the one doing the writing, but writing is a thing I do, and just now most of what I write is an expression of the themes around which this next phase of HOME is taking shape. This includes writing together with others around our network — I’m currently working on texts with Vanessa AndreottiDavid Abram and Duncan McLaren — as well as finding new places to publish. And publishing won’t always mean writing: in November, I had a go at making a HOME video, talking about Extinction Rebellion, and there will be more of these.
  4. Experimenting with ways to connect over distance. One reason we were hesitant about running six courses this year is the distances from which people want to come to connect with this work — and the implications this has for who gets to be involved, as well as the resulting carbon footprint. There’s a conviviality that requires being around the table together, breathing the same air, sharing the season and the hour of the day. But we need ways of connecting up the many tables around which people gather, without hopping on and off planes as if there’s no tomorrow. So we’ve been kicking around some ideas with friends: slow travel networks, corresponding societies, a monthly online Assembly that would offer another way of connecting with this school. Watch out for news about these experiments as 2019 goes on.
  5. Going on tour. Between now and April, we’ll be at home in Västerås, moving on into some of the above — and then we’re taking this on the road for three months, or rather on the rails. Anna, Alfie and I will be making the trip to the UK, with some stops along the way. It will be the longest visit I’ve made since I left England in 2012 — and along with a couple of gatherings to mark the end of my ten years at Dark Mountain, we’re planning various events at which we open out the work we’re doing at HOME. So far, it looks like we’ll be coming to Brussels, The Hague, London, Glasgow, South Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall — and we’ll put together a detailed announcement soon — but if you’re interested in doing something with us, please get in touch. (Also, while we don’t have any public courses at HOME scheduled right now, I will be teaching one final Dark Mountain course at Schumacher College in early May, together with Charlotte Du Cann.)
  6. Finding a place to call HOME. Yesterday we sold our house, the place that has been home to us for the past three years in Västerås. We’d known all along that it was home for the time being, not home for good — and the first decision we took in 2019 was to put it on the market. Where we’ll end up next, we don’t know yet, although our assumption is that it will be on this side of Sweden. We’re looking for a place that we can call HOME, that’s got a little bit of land and enough space to host smaller and larger gatherings.

How soon we find the right place and how long it takes to make it ready will determine when we’re in a position to host further public courses — though, as you’ve gathered, we’ve plenty to be getting on with in the meantime.

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For that first course, we hired a hostel in a village that’s 45 minutes from here by train — and this turned out to be the hardest part of what we’d taken on, to recreate something of our home in a set of borrowed buildings. Those buildings looked idyllic in photographs, but it was a while since anyone had shown them any love. (When my fellow teacher Andrew arrived on the Sunday, his first task was to help me do a deep clean of the hostel fridge.)

If you’ve read the GARAGE article, you might guess that there are parts of it we’d quarrel with — but life’s too short and there’s enough vanity in the world already, right?

There was one bit that properly pissed me off, though — and that’s when their reporter writes about Anna being ‘relegated’ to the kitchen and how we ‘glamorized… a gendered division of labour’. He did three months of interviews for that piece — before, during and after the course — and he knew that Anna was a full partner in the school, but he never spoke to her. Unless you count the one time he directed a question to her over email — he wanted to know how the two of us met and what her first impression of me had been.

Now, let me fess up: when it comes to gender, there was stuff we did that week that deserved calling out. In fact, Anna and I talked about this with the group on the final morning. Partly, it came down to having a course that was fronted by two guys — and partly, having a set of buildings where the kitchen was shut off, behind a door and up a set of stairs from the room where the eating took place.

On the other hand, if the GARAGE guy had actually talked to Anna, he might have learned that her CV includes professional kitchen experience, cooking for everyone from anorexic women to kindergarten classes to weddings — so if she takes the lead in the kitchen when there are thirty people to feed, it’s because she has the skills and the experience for the task. (He might also have learned that she was about to take on the role of gender equality strategist for Sweden’s fifth largest city — and that she’d had a hellish year in the job she was just leaving, which is why she’d opted for a backstage role that week.)

This seems worth saying, because I’ll often be the more visible half of this partnership — for the time being, because Anna is holding down a full-time job, while I work day-to-day on developing HOME — and probably beyond that, since I’m the one who has spent twenty years talking into microphones and in front of audiences, writing essays and manifestoes, and generally wrangling words in public.

As a straight-ish white dude, I’m not wholly oblivious to the structural reasons why people-who-resemble-me are disproportionately represented among the public wranglers of words. I’m still on a path of wising up to my personal blind-spots and the habits acquired from growing up in a world that’s structured this way — and when it comes to me and Anna, you can bet that this shit trips me up, more often that I want to tell you, in the everyday undertaking of making a life together.

But anyone who spends time around us is going to see Anna’s strength and single-mindedness, the deep mutuality of this partnership, and the way we come together to shoulder the work that needs to be done.

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What got me about the layout of that hostel last June is that it was so totally the antithesis of the way of being together that I’ve learned from living with Anna — and to wrap up these kitchen table reflections, I want to tell you one last story about that.

Two weeks before we met, Anna had bought a flat. Forty square metres on the south side of Stockholm — one room, a bathroom and a kitchen — it wasn’t a whole lot of space, especially when I gave up my rented room in London and moved in with her. It was the first place she’d ever owned and her first move was to knock through the kitchen wall, so that the space where the food was made opened onto the space where we ate and lived and slept. That also meant that you could get twelve people round the table for dinner, no small thing in a flat that size.

Four years on, we’d moved to Västerås with Anna’s new job, I was commuting back to Stockholm three days a week to work at the national theatre — and we bought our first house, a suburban row-house built in 1957. The old guy we bought it from had lived there since it was built and to say it needed work would be an understatement.

Well, I don’t look at a physical space and see how it could be remade — that’s not how my mind works — but Anna has the gift of seeing such things. Once again, her first decision was about the kitchen: when the house was built, they’d stuck it in a room at the front, shut off from the living quarters, but with a view out over the street, presumably so the housewife could see her husband coming home from work and get his coffee on. That became Alfie’s bedroom and the kitchen moved to the back of the house, opening straight onto the living room and sharing the view out over our neighbours’ gardens, where the sunlight streams in over the treetops for a few hours, even in the darkest days of winter.

I don’t mean to go all House & Garden on you — believe me, I don’t take this middle class idyll of home ownership for granted. It’s not what I grew up with and not something I just assumed would happen in my life. I’m wearing this privilege, sharing these renovation stories, because the only reason Anna or I have for living in anything larger than a cell is to have a place that we can share, a place where we can welcome people. (Though if we did live in cells, hers would definitely be more stylish than mine.)

Before I met Anna, I held hospitality and conviviality high among the things worth living for — but in making a life with her, I’ve learned vastly more about how to embody this, how to ground it in practical decisions and in how you use the privileges life throws your way.

When we got back from the estate agents last night, I could feel the house gently slipping away from being our home, readying itself to welcome the excited young couple with whom we’d just been signing papers. On the last day of April, we’ll hand over the keys, then leave to catch the night train south.

Whatever is coming after that, whichever kitchen this table lands in next, the experience of these past seven years allows me to trust in our ability to make a home together that’s capable of being HOME.

Meanwhile, the January work is done, the new and the old are joined, the threshold of the year is safely crossed — and that will do for tonight.

To find out about our current activities, visit the HOME website. You can sign up for future issues of Crossed Lines here.