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The Diary: Ekow Eshun

Financial Times, August 14 2010

I’ve noticed a steady contraction in my weekend leisure options since becoming a father for the first time three years ago. Where once I’d spend Saturdays shopping, browsing East End galleries or just having a drink on the roof of Shoreditch House, now I’m limited to the parks and open spaces of north London. On clement days, a hike across Hampstead Heath or a stroll through Highgate Wood beckons, my three-year-old son beside me teetering along fallen trees and searching the undergrowth for badgers. Often, though, we just settle for the proximity of the local playgrounds at Highbury Fields or Clissold Park.

As a consequence of these outings, rather than any deliberate effort on my part, I have become a member of what I’ve taken to calling the Clissold Park Fathers’ Club. We are an informal – and occasionally reluctant – network of dads, thrust from our homes on weekend mornings by the twin imperatives of spending more time with our children and giving our partners a lie-in. Entry requirements are not stringent. Just turn up with a kid of your own and you’re in. Dress code is informal. Hair is worn tousled. Clothes rumpled. Chins bestubbled. You will find similar gatherings at parks all over London.

Our group’s only distinction is the unusually high representation within the group of members from the arts and media, perhaps no surprise given the park is bordered by hardcore liberal enclaves such as Islington, Stoke Newington and Hackney. On any given weekend, I can be confident of meeting a TV documentary maker, a producer for Newsnight, the head of a large London arts institution, a cultural adviser to the mayor of London, an editor at Wallpaper magazine, an aspiring conceptual artist and a comedian with his own TV show.

I’m aware that I’m doing little here to dispel clichés of north London as more mannered and less manly than some other parts of the country. If that’s so, I fear it may not be long before the club is cited in the Middle Class Handbook (www.middleclasshandbook.co.uk), a website that describes itself as “a field guide to the changing behaviour and tastes of Britain’s new middle class tribes”. It is made up of short posts contributed by readers that mercilessly dissect the obsessions and dilemmas of bourgeois life, from the relative merits of rival muesli brands to how much you should tip the pizza delivery guy. I discovered it recently via Twitter and am now a devoted reader. It’s a lot like Stuff White People Like (stuffwhitepeoplelike.com), a popular American site that has now spawned a best-selling book of the same now in the US. The latter is social typology by race rather than class but the result is the same. Both pull off the difficult task of avoiding cliché and stereotype in favour of acute social observation. Ultimately the Handbook wins out because it also displays a neat line in self-deprecation. Here, in full, is a post by “Suburbanbuddha” titled, “Is This the Most Middle-Class Accident Ever?”: “I was a bit frazzled last night but, as my wife had taken the kids to her mums, I thought I’d chill out, watch a film and have a little drink. Deliverance brought the sushi, I had a vodka and cranberry on the go, dim lights, aromatherapy candle, flicking through the Guardian before watching Swedish arthouse vampire flick Let The Right One In. Put the paper down, knelt down to slot the DVD in and smelt burning. I’d put the Guardian down in the aromatherapy candle. The only thing I had to hand to douse the flame was a carton of Tropicana cranberry juice … I am middle class, hear me roar!”

Last week I hosted a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) by Boris Groys, a Russian philosopher and expert on late Soviet culture. Groys is a warm and erudite speaker and he talked persuasively about the failures of free market liberalism – banking crises, global warming, the yawning gap between rich and poor – and the necessity, therefore, to embrace communism as a viable economic alternative. Not far into his talk I found myself nodding in agreement and thinking that, “Yes, it really is time to repeat the disastrous experiment of state ownership pioneered by the Soviet Union and still maintained by North Korea. Only now, we’ll get it right!”

Even if revolution is unlikely any time soon, I was very taken by Groys’ eloquence. We stage talks with contemporary philosophers on a regular basis at the ICA. Figures such as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Zizek are hardly household names but they always sell out when they come to speak and I’ve been intrigued to note how their ideas, which are a mix of radical politics, extreme erudition and fascination with pop culture, are inching their way towards the mainstream. Zizek, in particular, is an increasingly influential figure, the star of the brilliant documentary film, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and a recent guest on Newsnight.

At the ICA I see in the faces of the audience an eagerness that matches my own. I think philosophy’s growing popularity is testament to a hunger for rich, complex original thinking that will only grow as we struggle to get our bearings in these straitened economic conditions. Communism may not be the answer. But asking original and insightful questions about who we are and how we live certainly is.

Most days of the week, walking to or from the ICA, I pass through Trafalgar Square. I always pause for a couple of minutes to look up at the work of art installed on the fourth plinth. Last summer, there was the carnival-like procession of volunteers, one an hour for a hundred days, that made up Antony Gormley’s commission “One & Another”. Currently, it’s Yinka Shonibare’s fantastically resonant “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle”, a scale model of the Trafalgar, Nelson’s flagship, that manages with deceptive ease to tell all sorts of stories about empire, identity and multiculturalism.

As chairman of the commissioning group that chooses the works, I oversaw the last selection round when we argued down a shortlist of six to the final two winners. And now the process is about to start again. A new set of six artists has been announced, an eclectic group, including Puerto Rico-based duo Allora & Calzadilla, who mix sculpture, sound, video and performance, Katharina Fritsch, who has represented Germany at the Venice Biennale, and Briton Brian Griffiths, best known for giant sculptures including ships and chariots made from second-hand furniture. An exhibition featuring maquettes of their proposals goes on display on Thursday in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields. So far, even the commissioning group has only seen their ideas on paper. Now we will have a chance to assess who has most successfully grappled with the challenges of scale and proportion involved. It will be tough coming to a final decision but it’ll certainly give me something to talk about the next time I’m in Clissold Park

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