– The first of many physical spaces to house the kind of ideas and books I share through this newsletter. The Library is located on Gillett Square in Dalston – a place some of you will know as the home of one of London’s greatest cultural exports, NTS Radio, as well as a community that has been disrupted and displaced by ongoing private development work.
This little library is home to a regularly-changing curation of books from my personal collection. The current offering is themed around NEW VISIONS and focuses on titles (old and new) that imagine radical possibilities for our rapidly-changing world. I have a lot of ideas for this space and others, as well as visions of my own for new ways to use an ageless medium.
The theme is an ode to bell hooks and her paradigm-shifting book, All About Love: New Visions. Of course, I had no idea hooks would pass on a few days later. Her loss feels especially acute at a time when we are so in need of thinkers and teachers who might guide us through the endless disorientation of this moment. Thankfully, we still have her words (some of her writings are compiled here - source - and there are further recommendations below).
As I write, London is being ravaged by Omicron and the Library is closed until the new year. As I reluctantly press pause on this project - and on public life in general, once again - I’m thinking about how many physical spaces, gatherings, events have closed or will never come to fruition because of the pandemic. I understand that there are people who are mostly happy to retreat from public life forever but, as I’ve written before, I’m not one of them. I believe in the alchemy that occurs through real-life gatherings. Of course, it’s less risky - financially and logistically - to plan digital-only endeavours in the current era, but I’ve come to see the creation and patronage of these spaces as an act of resistance to the Matrixification of civic culture.
Just over a week ago, just before Omicron made going out in London feel inadvisable at best, I had my first-ever meal at River Cafe, the iconic London restaurant founded by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers in 1987. I went with a good friend who was visiting London from New York, and it was memorable in the way that a digital experience could never be: A surly and hilarious waitress, simple but exquisite food, and a dining room dressed in punchy primary colours that felt like a backdrop ripped from a ‘90s rom-com (in a good way). A few days after that lunch, Ruth’s husband - the famed architect Richard Rogers (responsible for the design of the River Cafe, as well as the Millennium Dome and the Pompidou Centre, among many other iconic buildings) - passed away at 88. The curator Hans Ulrich Obrist posted this in memoriam:
‘I promise to leave this city better than I entered it.’ - Richard Rogers via @hansulrichobrist
As I get older and think more about ways that I might hope to leave spaces (digital, personal, professional) better than I entered them, my thoughts often turn to the city. My love of cities is well-charted – a good friend once told me I fall in love with cities the same way other people fall in love with people. I increasingly need and crave nature and stillness, but it’s true that my identity and worldview have been primarily shaped by the cities where I’ve spent my life so far, and the people I’ve met within them.
It depresses me that so many of the spaces where I’ve experienced city life - from nightclubs, to cafes, to bookshops - have been lost to the pandemic, or simply to rising rents. When I was 19, I spent a summer working at a small sneaker boutique just off Carnaby Street that had a bench outside where people were welcome to sit and hang, whether they were buying shoes or not. The record store next door also had an adjacent bench, and an entire social scene grew up around these tiny slices of public space. The lesson I took from this was: Sometimes, all it takes is a bench.
To me, libraries are the ultimate of such offerings. They provide free entertainment, open seating, and - crucially - there’s no obligation to spend any money. What other examples of civic life still fit these criteria? Once COVID permits, I look forward to reopening my own tiny offering of public space. In the meantime, below are some favourite reads to keep you entertained if you’re stuck at home with COVID, or just trying to swerve it.
Wishing you a healthy and happy end to 2021.
Recommended Reading (And Viewing)
As recommendations go, bell hooks’ body of work is a given. But I also loved this brief account of a meeting between hooks and Laverne Cox as part of the aforementioned New School series, which shows that, as well as being a brilliant theorist and thinker, hooks was a shitload of fun: “There was an hour to go before the event, and hooks pronounced herself hungry: she suggested getting a curry. Cox said that she’d just have a PaleoBar. “That is so fucking disgusting,” hooks said. “I had a hot-fudge sundae at the Noho Star for breakfast.”
Now that we’re #backinside it feels apropos to flip through the new issue of Apartamento (one of my favourite magazines) and read its oral history via SSENSE. Sidebar: An Apartamento Membership would be a great last-minute gift for someone.
Brian Eno on NFTs. Sample quote: “NFTs seem to me just a way for artists to get a little piece of the action from global capitalism, our own cute little version of financialisation. How sweet – now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well.” God, I hope we aren’t seeing the last generation of artists and thinkers with interesting and unapologetic opinions.
Currently on my bedside table:
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, an autobiography from the Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, which explores “the relationship between capitalist destruction and collaborative survival within multispecies landscapes.” Mushrooms have the answers; mushrooms are the answer!
Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz, who also sadly passed away last week. I read this many years ago but I’m revisiting it. Eve also loved the city, specifically Los Angeles, and she wrote about it like no-one else. Great for some glamorous escapism from our bleak status quo.