I wonder if how a person sees creativity has some kind, however imperfect, of inverse relation to the degree of despair they feel as they encounter the world around them.
The mid 1990s were about half way through my creative life so far. Creativity was something I enjoyed immensely, and I was beginning to think of it as a thing in itself, a pursuit that was actually called “creative thinking.” A large part of this was Bill Hartston’s wonderful weekly column in the Independent, to which I was a regular contributor. And in 1997, Hartston would organise the first Creative Thinking World Championship. It was part of the first ever Mind Sports Olympiad at the Royal Festival Hall, and I went along to see what it might all be about. The answer turned out to be “a lot of fun.” That year I came away with a bronze medal and a sense I felt somewhat at home in among those delightful, oddball puzzles where my strange humour had an outlet.
If that all sounds rather, well, nice, that’s because it was. Yet when I think back to my childhood, and forward to now, my relationship with creativity feels very different.
As a child in the late 70s and early 80s, I didn’t really use the word “creativity.” But I knew there was a direction I felt my life moving, something I HAD to do, a path I had to take. It was a path that involved storytelling and science, passion and what I would now think of as polymath. The way I tend to put it is that I wanted to be Carl Sagan. I wanted to explain things, to make people fall in love with exploring the universe the way Sagan and Feynman had done for me (I was, as I have said before, an odd little 8 year old). I knew this was something urgent, something important, and something I was somehow equipped to do.
Looking back from a perspective where what I feel is much more like my childhood self than the more frivolous me of graduate student days, it becomes clear what caused that change. Growing up at that time was, quite simply, terrifying. It was an existential fear. Looking into the future, it could often feel as though, far from trying to catch the road one’s life would take to some far horizon, there simply was no horizon. The favourite playground game was “what will you do when the 4 minute warning sounds?” That was the longest horizon I could really be certain of. 4 minutes.
And when the cloud from the fear of annihilation receded a little, all it revealed was desolation. I remember the three day week, blackouts, and short baths. The winter of discontent. And clearest of all an episode of my favourite programme before Cosmos, James Burke’s Connections, which explored what happened when the power went out – the answer, if you were in hospital (which at the time I had very recently been, with a still unexplained bone infection in my leg) you died.
And even then, environmental catastrophe was not around the corner but present. There were television events that traumatised children my age. Most famous, of course, was threads, but there was also When the Wind Blows and, slightly later, Whale Nation. And it was the mass slaughter of animals that made the biggest impact on my young brain, 10 years before Heathcote Williams’ masterpiece hit our screens. Night after night Newsround showed images of slaughtered seal pups. Save the whale and stop the seal cull were campaigns etched into my heart. The world was, I learned very early, a place of savagery, viciousness, and sadness. Sorting through a box of childhood diaries and notebooks recently, I found a badge I had made (my junior school had a badge making machine) when I must have been about 7. It was in the same box as my “save the seal” badge. In the middle is a green and blue globe. Around the edge is a string of people holding hands, clearly meant to be a mix of adults and children. Between the two is the text, “For their sake. Before it’s too late.” This was 1979.
It’s clear that the link between looming catastrophe and the use of creativity as a desperate effort to stave it off had been forged. But it had only been forged because I grew up believing that catastrophe was imminent.
By the 90s, whatever history may say to the contrary, the phenomenology of life was different. In my first term at University, I watched the Berlin Wall come down. For the next decade, I genuinely felt as though I was living through Fukuyama’s “end of history”. It was the decade that gave us Douglas Coupland and Consumer Postmodernism. Where existential fear had been replaced as the primary societal anxiety by shopping.
Which isn’t to say that life was easy. It wasn’t, and for many, the pressing hardships of poverty had never eased their grip. But the threats as they existed felt as though they were to people, maybe to groups of people. They were not existential. As a result our choices and our skills became directed more and more towards the frivolous, maybe even the ultimately futile. It was a decade that collapsed into Cool Britannia and Charles Saatchi’s warehouse, where creativity like the lines of coke backstage at the Brits, was simply something that livened up the party.
It’s hard to say when the transitions occurred. In large part because so much of the past decade and a half has been lost to poor mental health. But if I had to say what creativity means to me in a single paragraph, I would probably sound very much like my 40 year younger self. Creativity is hope. Hope for me, personally, yes – the hope of escaping a life laid low by illness, the hope of rising out of a life lived in fear of my surroundings, where every imagined shadow is the voice of another bully. But more than that, creativity is our only hope of avoiding impending catastrophe. Our only hope of one day looking up and seeing a horizon in front of us.