Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Trip of Two Cities: London and Amsterdam

The 'G8 of Philosophy' gang, Amsterdam. Clockwise from top left:
John Gray, some dude, Benjamin Barber, Markus Gabriel, Peter Sloterdijk,
Aziz al-Azmeh, Sophie Oluwole, Zygmunt Bauman
This month my book Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies appeared in the United Kingdom, along with its handsome Dutch edition: Filosoferen in de Tuin

How to Think About Exercise also came out England and the continent a few months ago. 

So I followed them.

Russell Square, Bloomsbury. The robin is there, honest.
After a day-long flight best left undescribed -- one of my row-mates was fermenting -- I arrived to London in spring. There were robins in Russell Square -- keen Emily Dickinson readers:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops — at all –
Fenton House
My first gig was a Saturday class at Fenton House and the Hamstead pergola for The School of Life: 'Philosophy in the Garden'

We strolled about the historical lawns, orchard and herbaceous borders, chatted, and did writing exercises. (I welcomed impressions and insights from much better gardeners than I.)

The next day I was back in Hampstead for another School of Life class: 'How to be Fit and Clever', based on my exercise book. We strolled in silence, sprinted, did karate blocks and punches, and sat in meditation. After each exercise was a written task, then conversation. It was a long but enjoyable five hours, and the class had some novel ideas about physicality.

An idler at the Idler Academy. (With hulk.)
Not long after, I spoke at the very chilled Idler Academy, discussing Cicero, Stoicism and the philosophy of gardens. There were gin and tonics with cucumber, and some excellent questions.

My free days in London were spent at the British Library, British Museum, National Gallery (the Veronese show), Tates Britain and Modern (Matisse) and the Natural History Museum. Some highlights:

Philosopher and fool, The British Museum
Morpho peleides butterfly, Natural History Museum
Paolo Veronese, 'Allegory of Love (Scorn)' (c.1575), The National Gallery
Barbara Hepworth, 'Pelagos (1946), Tate Britain
Eduardo Paolozzi, 'Newton' (after Blake) (1995), British Library

Mark Rothko, 'Red on Maroon' (1950), Tate Modern
Henri Matisse, 'Zulma' (1950), Tate Modern/National Gallery of Denmark
I also dropped into a few London bookshops, including the enormous Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe's largest bookshop. 

I signed a stack of Voltaire's Vine, and bought myself a copy of Julian Barnes' Levels of Life (which I bloody-well left on a train to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam).

After a week in London I took a tiny Cityjet flight to Amsterdam. My publisher at Ten Have patiently took me, at my agent's suggestion, to the Keukenhof, where I enjoyed the kitsch delight of tulips in spring.

Tourists interrupting one another's photos -- accompanied by tulips,
at the Keukenhof
bookshop, the Hague
My first gig was actually in the Hague, south of the capital. I spoke at the very slick Paagman bookshop, in discussion with writer and editor Pieter van den Blink. 

Peter had read Filosoferen in de Tuin very carefully, and we had a fine, lively chat. (He also drove my publisher and me back to Amsterdam in his beautiful 1996 Mercedes. But this is another story.)

The next day I spent at the hotel being interviewed by magazines and newspapers: Happinez, Flow and De Truow. Then, after a run around the canals and Vondelpark, I strolled off to the so-called 'G8 of Filosofie', at the impressive Beurs van Berlage.

"I once caught ennui THIS BIG..."
First was a televised lecture on 'meaning' and freedom, loosely based on Distraction (which will be published in the Netherlands in their winter), but also incorporating ideas from the exercise and garden books. You can watch the talk here.

After that I was on a panel with medical doctor and philosopher Marli Huijer, moderated by Lisa Doeland. Zygmunt Bauman was scheduled to join us, but by that hour he was too knackered to continue. 

We had an excellent conversation about employment, the market and technology, drawing on Bauman's ideas and our own research. Marli's work on discipline and rhythm is fascinating.

Still talking at midnight -
about capitalism and
My last event of the evening was my lecture, 'The Woolf in the Garden', on modern work and the garden: how its unity of humanity and nature can encourage critical reflection. 

(A short version will be published in the May edition of New Philosopher magazine.)

With a few hours to spare on the next day, I had a brisk walk around Amsterdam, which involved: getting lost, eating cake at Pompadour, smiling idiotically at the millions of bicycles (so civilised), then more of the same. 

Amsterdam is a city I'd like to know better: human sized, foot-powered, chockers with antiquarian books, and full of ideas and food.

Fiets op brug (bike on bridge), Amsterdam.
I also dropped into the Athanaeum bookshop in the famous Spui square, signed some copies of Filosoferen in de Tuin, and browsed their fantastic Engels sections. (Speaking of which, they have How to Think About Exercise on sale.)

Then I was off to Zwolle, north-east of Amsterdam. After an hour or so of very cosmopolitan freeway (that is, you'd find it anywhere), we arrived at the amazing Waanders in de Broeren bookshop, housed in a fifteenth century church (seriously, check the photos on their website).

Damon and Renske at
I gave my 'G8' talk, and had a great conversation with my host, history teacher, philosophy student and medieval enthusiast Renske ter Avest

There were some thoughtful questions about gardens, the nature of philosophy, and the dangers of preaching to the choir in philosophy.

Not long after, I was back in London, and being interviewed by journalist and critic, Anita Sethi, whom I originally met in Melbourne.

Hard-hitting literary interview
As the topic was exercise and gardens, we went for a quick run in Green Park, then sat on deck chairs and chatted for forty minutes.

(Not a bad gig, really.)

Not long after I was back on a plane to Hong Kong (eating a sixteen-dollar Snickers and tea), then Melbourne, and checking my pockets for the day I lost.

(The glamour of writing. It's a thing.)

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