Are We There Yet?

As I write this my country is held by a pandemic imposed lockdown that legally prevents me from making any non-essential journeys. The world is in the grip of the COVID-19 virus so no one is going anywhere. Instead we have to satisfy our travel lust vicariously by streaming old series of Michael Palin traversing the globe or Michael Portillo striding colourfully through a(nother) train station. Fortunately, I am not actually referring to an actual physical journey in this essay, I want to discuss a metaphorical one. Coincidentally most of us will experience this vicariously as we watch celebrities of varied note and notoriety ‘find themselves’ through the mediums of dance, deprivation or delectation. We are all surely familiar with the breathless, sequinned ex-regional-weather-girl gushing forth on how they owe ‘everything’ now to the tango or the foxtrot. Who can forget witnessing an ageing ‘angry man’ of rock blubbing his way through the meagre helping of beans and rice and explaining how he just wants to be loved for who he really is? Bless.

The thing is though that these experiences, these ‘journeys’ as they are often described, are life changing for those fortunate enough to enjoy, or sometimes endure, them. This is because they invariably take to the participant to a place they have never been and offer them an intensity of experience they will not have felt before. The bad news for most of you reading this is that you are probably not minor celebrities and are therefore not likely to be asked onto the next series of Strictly or I’m a Celebrity, the good news is that you don’t have to be, we can all find spaces in which we can find, or more specifically, create ourselves – we just need to know where to look. Fortunately for you I know where they are so read on and let me take you on a journey….

I famously never went to university. I say famously but that would only be the case if you lived with me for any period of time over the past 40 years. (There is, of course, a distinct chance that every person reading this does indeed fall into that category). I mention this because I think that attending university, if this entails moving away from home for the period of your education, probably falls into the ‘experience of a lifetime’ we are exploring here. I don’t know that though because I didn’t go. Instead on going onto an institution dedicated to the pursuit of higher education I chose to attend the University of Life (Faculty of Hard Knocks). I left high school on Friday after my final exam and started work for British Gas on the Monday. I was, for the next few years, the most inept stationery clerk the world has ever seen. I would deliberately let stocks of essential stationery items dwindle to dangerously low levels in order to build some jeopardy and excitement into my otherwise dull and tedious day. In the way that supermarkets operate a ‘just-in-time’ approach to stocking their warehouses, I pioneered the ‘just-too-late’ system. It wasn’t particularly popular with my colleagues and, though I haven’t bothered to check, failed to be taken up as a viable alternative by any of the major (or minor) supermarket chains. Consequently whenever there was a chance to get me out of the office for a sufficiently long period to permit the restocking of the shelves, it was seized upon by my supervisor. This meant that I was sent on a number of residential training courses, no doubt many more than most of my peers and certainly more than I was entitled to. There were two such courses that had a major impact on my young life. The first was an outward bound course in the Lake District National Park in Cumbria. I was 16 years old and the minimum age was apparently 18 (the desperation to shift me off my stationery throne started early in my career) though this really only became apparent when we all trooped off to the pub in the evening. I was quite tall for my age and country pubs were a lot easier to drink under age in so it didn’t matter too much that I did not fully meet this particular criteria. Though my physical stature belied my tender age I was quite emotionally immature and it was my inability to engage that affected me most. Admittedly, I was a very shy boy but I don’t think this was the central issue here. Fundamentally, I didn’t think I should have been there – I didn’t belong – and that is what prevented me from engaging sufficiently with the course and with the other people on it.

The second significant course that I attended was some years later. It started on a Sunday afternoon, which was a little unusual, and I managed to turn up late, which wasn’t. By the time I arrived the course had ‘started’. I use the term somewhat guardedly because from the outset and throughout the whole week we were never quite sure what was going on. The exercise everyone was engaged in when I arrived was a standard ice-breaker which entailed us all providing our names along with an alliterative adjective that described something about us. Owing to my tardy appearance and the fact that this did not delay proceedings I was, of course, ’Superfluous Steve’. Over the following days what emerged was a method of delivering the course by which we all got to contribute, not only to the content and subject matter, but also in such details as when breaks would be taken and how long they would last. Disagreements were worked through by close examination of how emotionally affected we were by them. The subject itself was ‘Consultation Skills’ and we worked through a book of the same name (that I obviously hadn’t read as requested to before arrival). Basically there were five modes of intervention that you can adopt according to the context of the situation in which you find yourself in consultation. We got to role play scenarios that were based, where possible, on real-life situations and the immersion into one another personal lives was as challenging and it was revealing. Emotions were brought forth and dealt with, a process that would not have worked as effectively had we not been forced to examine and express our feelings over more trivial matters earlier in the week. I have never been on any training course that could remotely compare to this one and the impact it had on me was both profound and lasting. Thirty tears later I can vividly recall conversations and exercises I took part in as if they were yesterday. This style wasn’t for everyone and a colleague who was subsequently sent on the same course gave up and left after a day or two complaining that they couldn’t see the point in all this emotional expression with a bunch of strangers in what was essentially a work situation. I have some sympathy with this person, the first few days were disconcerting and quite frustrating at times but they were essential for two reasons. The first is the one I mentioned earlier, if we were unable to speak emotionally about the small stuff then there is no way we were going to open up when it came to more significant topics. The second reason is that we had to bond as a group so that we could trust one another with our emotions. We had to all feel equally uncomfortable with the early stages of the course, if any of us, including the facilitators, had taken control or demonstrated ownership of the space the rest of us would all have reverted to type and acted accordingly.

In the first example I used I felt excluded, I thought that I didn’t belong there and, more importantly, everyone else did. Whereas on the Consultation Skills course none of us felt we belonged so we had to take the time to work out our relationship with each other and with the space. In the end we all belonged not because of a cultural heritage, not because of a routine familiarity but specifically due to the total absence of either. We had to get to know our fellow participants and in the absence of any formal rules of engagement we had to define the space through those relationships.

This is what happens on shows like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity or Bake Off. These are exceptional moments in time, place and environment (the ‘space’) in which you are not necessarily defined by anything that you have done before. You get the chance to recreate yourself, to become something different. That is the ‘journey’ that participants of these shows describe and that is what I experienced all those years ago when I turned up late to a British Gas training centre in Burcot, Oxfordshire.

It wasn’t the last time I felt like this though and there are ways in which we can all have our own little excursions into lives of different possibilities. The most obvious and possibly the most popular is to attend a festival. I have previously described how festivals are Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ). The term TAZ was coined by the anarchist Hakim Bey in his 1991 collection of essays of the same name. According to Wikipedia, Bey’s ‘…book describes the socio-political tactic of creating temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control’ and goes on to describe ‘that the best way to create a non-hierarchical system of social relationships is to concentrate on the present and on releasing one’s own mind from the controlling mechanisms that have been imposed on it’. A festival can be a truly anarchic experience, not because there are no rules just that the experience is governed more by the way the people attending interact than in any formal definition of the way in which should happen. Festivals again are spaces in which no one belongs more than any other and as such any sense of commitment is developed through the relationships between the people, the place and the moment.

If festivals are not your thing then there are certainly other ways to do this. The important things to consider are that the space in which the event takes place is neutral – if it is a book club, for example, then it should take place in the pub or coffee shop. There should be a collective approach to leadership with the choice of subject or the role of facilitator being shared equally throughout the group.

There are many examples throughout the essays in this section of the book, you need to be imaginative and pick something that will work for you.

You really should try Glastonbury though at least once in you life, I promise you won’t regret it.